Baseball

It was only April, but West wasn’t best division in AL

Things have been looking up for Nelson Cruz and the Seattle Mariners, the preseason favorites to win the AL West.
Things have been looking up for Nelson Cruz and the Seattle Mariners, the preseason favorites to win the AL West. Fort Worth Star-Telegram

Baseball’s preseason darlings, not only to win the American League West but to win the league and even the World Series, just rolled through Globe Life Park for a three-game sweep.

Yet, the Seattle Mariners finished April under .500. The reigning division champs, the Los Angeles Angels, finished April at 11-11, but, hey, they accomplished their No. 1 April goal of jettisoning Josh Hamilton.

The division leaders, by a comfortable margin, are the Houston Astros, who in the preseason were expected to fight to avoid the basement with the Texas Rangers.

The Rangers lost that fight in April, a game worse than the rebuilt Oakland A’s and 7 ½ games out of first place.

It’s probably too early to rate the West, but if the Astros are the leaders and the only team to crest above .500, things aren’t looking up in a division that was expected to be much more competitive.

Maybe they’re just beating each other up, as only eight of the April games featured non-divisional opponents.

Maybe the Astros’ all-or-nothing offense is going to keep doing just enough.

Maybe the Mariners will get better once Hisashi Iwakuma’s strained right lat muscle gets better.

Maybe the A’s will improve once Jarrod Parker (Tommy John surgery), A.J. Griffin (Tommy John), Coco Crisp (elbow surgery), Ben Zobrist (knee surgery) and Sean Doolittle (rotator cuff) return, just as the Rangers were expected to be better and healthier last season.

Neither of those things happened, of course. Now, the Rangers find themselves sucking wind, most of which has been generated by all those inept swings at the plate.

“They all have good teams,” kind-hearted Mariners slugger Nelson Cruz said. “On our side, we started kind of slow, but we’ve seen improvement the last few games, even when we’ve lost. That’s nice to see that.”

While no team has been overcome by full-blown panic, the Rangers have been actively sitting regulars to get them going. They also shipped Tanner Scheppers to Triple A to get better, and the acquisition of Josh Hamilton was a risk worth taking for the team with the lowest batting average in baseball.

The standard line across baseball, even a month into the season, is, “It’s early.” That’s 100 percent right, though that can feel like a crutch for those who are struggling. But all teams have five more months to get better — or worse.

Cruz likes the way the Mariners are trending, even though Iwakuma is dinged up. Cruz has been in the playoffs or in a play-in game five straight seasons and knows what it takes for a club to make the postseason.

“No doubt I think we have what it’s going to take,” he said. “Pitching is going to be what takes us to the next step. We pitched really good last year, and we’ve been improving since Opening Day.

“I want to win, and I thought this was the right choice. I’ve been on a winning team. You want to have the chance to go to the playoffs every year.”

The Mariners, remember, finished only a game out of the playoffs last season. They were thought to be a bat away. They signed that bat, Cruz, in the off-season to a four-year, $57 million deal, and he hasn’t disappointed.

He’s the missing piece.

“I don’t see it that way,” Cruz said. “I just go day by day. That’s the best way to describe it. To be successful on a daily basis, just go out there and what you did the day before doesn’t matter.”

What went down in April does matter.

The Astros aren’t to be taken lightly, not with that rotation and an improved bullpen. The Angels and Mariners survived their shortcomings, though the Angels should be concerned about their Jered Weaver problem and the Mariners will have to endure the ups and downs of young-but-talented starters James Paxton and Taijuan Walker.

The A’s and Rangers didn’t play defense well enough to win consistently, and neither played well at home. The A’s, though, hit and pitched well.

The Rangers didn’t hit a lick, and their .210 average was the lowest in any month in club history since the advent of the designated hitter in 1973. Their pitching wasn’t awful and would have been serviceable without three stinkers by Ross Detwiler.

Both showed in April that neither is good enough to be a contender in a division that so far isn’t as good as many thought it would be.

That leaves three others in the West, but it’s hard to believe in the Astros just yet. The Mariners and Angels survived April and are trending the right way.

Of course, it’s early. There’s still time for those struggling to get better — or worse.

Jeff Wilson, 817-390-7760

Twitter: @JeffWilson_FWST

Top five

1. Royals: Not only will they beat you, they’ll beat you.

2. Tigers: They can hit. They can pitch. Solid outfit.

3. Cardinals: Losing Adam Wainwright would devastate others.

4. Astros: Entered weekend tied for AL lead in HRs, leading in Ks.

5. Mets: As Washington, Miami sleep walk, Mets off and running.

Bottom five

1. Brewers: They’re awful.

2. Rangers: They’re not much better.

3. Indians: They still have pitching.

4. Phillies: Had been better before recent skid.

5. A’s: Should be getting healthy this weekend.

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