Michael R. Stevens
Baseball Review 2016, Part 2
And hence we arrive in the AL West, with a great surprise in store, perhaps the ultimate surprise that 1983 holds (or would it be "held," or "will have held"—complexities of verb tense). This year's surprise is that the Mariners are leading the pack, though Robinson Cano's sweet swing is no surprise. With Nelson Cruz, the ageless free-agent, crushing 450 foot shots behind Cano in the lineup, the Mariners have discovered how to score. They already know how to pitch, with King Felix Hernandez and Taijuan Walker leading the way. There's bad news for the Pacific Northwest, though—1983 is not your friend. In a year when your twin pitching duo of Young and Beattie finished in the top 20 in ERA but were a collective 21-30, and when your best hitter might have been Al Cowens, things look slim. The DH factor is a non-factor—it was Richie Zisk (did anyone else of my age demographic seem to get three Richie Zisk cards in every pack?!). Seattle will fade in the long summer. The Rangers, well, I already stole their '83 magic by designating Rick Honeycutt's stats for assignment elsewhere, though they can keep Charlie Hough's 15-13 record with the league's fourth best ERA at 3.18. The issue of run support obviously surfaces, a point punctuated by Danny Darwin going 8-13 and Mike Smithson 10-14 that year, though both had ERA's under 4. The bats were 'led' by Buddy Bell and Larry Parrish—I think Jim Sundberg might have batted up in the order. The DH on Opening Day was one Hostetler—lost to history! This year they have a young RF, Nomar Mazara, hitting well, and the stellar Adrian Beltre joins Elvis Andrus around .300, but where's the power (Prince Fielder, I'm calling to you!)? Top-of-the-rotation excellence from A.J. Griffin and Derek Holland should keep them around, but not quite on top. And the reason for this is the LA Angels. This is my dark horse pick out of the West, though they are seven games below .500 right now. Why, you may ask? Is it the astronomical talent of Mike Trout or the Hall of Fame punch of Albert Pujols hitting behind him? Yes and Yes. The new table-setters in Yunel Escobar and Kole Calhoun? Double yes. The gritty rotation with Garret Richards anchoring? Yes. But it's really about '83. The California Angels didn't win it all that year, but they stacked the All-Star roster with no less than six personages (few of whom I primarily identify with the Angels, by the way): Bob Boone (defense first, clearly, since he hit .256 that year), Doug DeCinces, Rod Carew (a pedestrian, for him, .339 season), Fred Lynn, Brian Downing (re-inventing the open batting stance), Bruce Kison as the Opening Day pitcher and relative ace. And the DH on this squad? Mr. October, Reggie Jackson, a tad diminished, but still vicious on balls down and in. I like the 2016 Angels to finish the task their forebears could not—hurtling into the postseason as a juggernaut. Wait, I still have to deal with Oakland and Houston, two teams on the wrong side of .500. The Athletics are in a down phase; their best pitcher is Rich Hill, a thirtysomething journeyman who's barely pitched in the last 5 seasons, and their best hitter is Jed Lowrie. A glance at '83 shows a team in pre-'Bash Brothers' mode, with Davey Lopes, Carney Lansford, and Dave 'Hindu' Henderson as the lead-dogs. DH—big bopper Jeff Burroughs. Once hit four home runs in a game. But not a factor in this calculus. The A's take a plunge this year. But why has Houston flopped so far this year, after rising from squalor to the postseason last year, the darlings of developing young talent and putting it all together the 'right way'? Well, one thing is their swing-for-the-fences mentality. No one on the team is in the top 20 in the AL in batting average, and their best young players, George Springer and Carlos Correa (both five-tool phenoms), are struggling to make contact. Plus, the pitching, a strong suit last season, has slid a bit—Dallas Keuchel is a legitimate ace, but will Doug Fister work out, or the almost but not yet Collin McHugh? But let's be frank—the real problem is found when we cross the years and the leagues and locate the 1983 Houston Astros in the NL West. At first, the journey yields great promise—Jose Cruz was third in the NL in batting, with a stellar .318/14/92 line, and two notches down, the counterintuitive presence of Ray Knight (he was the Astro's first baseman?!) hitting .304 with 36 doubles seems to swell the possibilities. Don't forget Dickie Thon, before the brutal beaning that damaged his vision, hitting .284, scoring 81 runs and stealing 34 bases. There's a lot of energy here, so why can't Astros resurge in 2016? I will attribute my angst to the switch of leagues—with no DH, no matter how obscure, to infuse energy from afar, the wheels come off. Even a saving throw of Terry Puhl, with his perennial league-leading pinch hits, can't salvage the season for Houston.