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The most unpredictable division in baseball

Alex Bregman could be the difference in whether the Astros win the division. Juan DeLeon/Icon Sportswire

Go ahead, run your formulas and spit out your projections. But good luck predicting what's going to happen in the American League West.

Consider what has happened in recent seasons:

  • In 2012, the A's came out of nowhere, improving from 74 wins to 94 and catching the Rangers on the final day of the season to stunningly win the division title.

  • In 2013, the A's defied most predictions to again capture the division, winning 96 games as Josh Donaldson turned into an MVP candidate and Bartolo Colon won 18 games with a 2.65 ERA.

  • In 2014, the Angels improved from 78 to 98 wins to finish with the best record in the majors. Meanwhile, the A's had baseball's best record at the All-Star break at 59-36, only to collapse in the second half and barely hang on for a wild card.

  • In 2015, the Rangers looked terrible after a 7-15 start but turned things around, going 46-28 in the second half and winning the division. The Astros improved from 70 to 86 wins to seize a wild card -- their rebuilding plan arrived with success a year earlier than expected.

  • In 2016, the Rangers won the division again, but with one of the most improbable seasons in history thanks to the best record ever in one-run games.

It should be another unpredictable race in 2017, especially since all five teams are going for it -- outside of the AL East, no other division can make that claim (and even there, the New York Yankees have restrained themselves from spending money in free agency or making win-now trades as they re-tool with younger players).

The Astros have added veterans Brian McCann, Carlos Beltran and Josh Reddick to help an offense that ranked eighth in the AL in runs last season. The Mariners, with the busiest general manager in the game in Jerry Dipoto, tried to stockpile more depth and improve the team's defense to surround the core of Robinson Cano, Kyle Seager and Nelson Cruz. The Angels have also gone all-in on defense, bringing in Danny Espinosa to play second base and center fielders Cameron Maybin and Ben Revere to play left. Even the A's have refused to admit to a rebuild, signing Matt Joyce, Rajai Davis and Trevor Plouffe. Only the Rangers have been quiet this offseason, although many still expect them to sign Mike Napoli or one of the other first base-DH types still available.

The current FanGraphs projections do see the Astros as clear favorites, but it doesn't take much imagination to see a five-team race:

Houston Astros: 90-72

Seattle Mariners: 84-78

Los Angeles Angels: 84-78

Texas Rangers: 83-79

Oakland Athletics: 78-84

What could swing the race? Aside from obvious things like "Mike Trout can't break his leg" or "the Mariners need Cruz and Cano to have big years again," here are some players who will decide the AL West.

Astros: Alex Bregman and Lance McCullers

The Astros' offense should be improved not just because of the veterans but because they may have another superstar infielder in Bregman. FanGraphs projects a .267/.331/.448 line and 3.0 WAR, but I'll take the over. After that 1-for-32 start to his career, he hit .308/.355/.562 in 183 PAs. The college shortstop was moved to third base, with the advanced metrics backing up the visuals as he had plus-5 defensive runs saved in 40 games. Prorate that to a full season and you're looking at a potential Gold Glover. (In fact, some have suggested the Astros should move Bregman back to shortstop and play Carlos Correa at third base.)

According to the rumors, the Astros continue to pursue top-line starters such as Jose Quintana or Chris Archer, but McCullers has breakout potential -- if he can stay healthy and throw more strikes. He fanned 106 in 81 innings thanks to a wipeout curveball that limited batters to a .140 average. However, batters also hit .446 with a .579 OBP in plate appearances ending in fastballs, so until he improves his fastball command, he's still a mid-rotation starter at best.

Mariners: James Paxton and Mitch Haniger

In 2016, Paxton had the second-highest average fastball velocity (96.8 mph) among left-handers. No other lefty starter topped 95. A slight mechanical change in Triple-A resulted not only in increased velo but increased command -- over his final 11 starts, he walked just nine batters while striking out 71 in 67⅔ innings. It's possible that Paxton will be the Mariners' ace -- not Felix Hernandez or Hisashi Iwakuma.

Haniger, acquired from the Arizona Diamondbacks in the Jean Segura/Taijuan Walker trade, also underwent a mechanical change, tweaking his stance, and hit .321/.419/.581 between Double-A and Triple-A. He has the range to play center but will play an outfield corner and, in a lefty-heavy lineup, his right-handed bat will be vital to a more balanced attack.

Rangers: Tyson Ross and Andrew Cashner

The Rangers do not have some special ability to win close games; they just happened to win most of them last season. So given normal regression in that area, they'll have to get better just to win 90 games again. They have to count on young hitters Rougned Odor and Nomar Mazara getting better and Adrian Beltre holding off age regression for another season. But they've also thrown their resources into two wild cards for the rotation to back up Cole Hamels and Yu Darvish.

Ross, the 6-foot-6 right-hander, was excellent for the San Diego Padres in 2014-15, posting a 3.03 ERA/3.11 FIP over 64 starts. He walked a few too many batters, but his fastball/slider combo induced a lot of grounders as he limited home runs. He missed most of 2016 after surgery for thoracic outlet syndrome (the same surgery Matt Harvey had, in which a rib is removed to help relax muscles that constrict a nerve in the neck and shoulder area). There's a mixed history of pitchers who had the surgery, and remember that many have believed Ross' delivery is high risk separate from this surgery.

Cashner had two solid seasons with the Padres in 2013-14 but has struggled the past two seasons, posting a 5.25 ERA in 132 innings between the Padres and Marlins in 2016. Some believe he's a better bet for the bullpen at this point in his career, as he still throws hard -- 93.5 mph average fastball -- and could maybe pump that up even higher as a reliever. The Rangers, however, have more bullpen depth than rotation depth, so Cashner will get a chance to start. If they hit on one of these guys, they'll consider it a success; but given the pair's injury histories and the fact they are moving from the National League to the AL and into a hitter's park, the Rangers better keep their fingers crossed.

Angels: Danny Espinosa and Matt Shoemaker

The Angels have struggled to replace Howie Kendrick at second base and hope Espinosa will at least provide plus defense and power at the position. He was an above-average shortstop with the Washington Nationals and has played second before, so he should team with Andrelton Simmons -- along with Trout in center and new catcher Martin Maldonado -- to give the Angels perhaps the best up-the-middle defense in the AL.

The rotation was riddled with injuries in 2016. Aside from hoping for Garrett Richards' good health and a full season from Tyler Skaggs, they need Shoemaker to pitch like he did in 2014 and the second half of 2016. In between, however, Shoemaker was terrible. He doesn't throw hard, so he needs command and movement on his split/change to keep hitters off balance.

Athletics: Sonny Gray and Sean Manaea

The A's aren't going to score many runs, even if their second-tier veteran free agents produce as expected. The hope is a rotation that rises to be one of the best in the league. And the best hope for that to happen is for Gray to re-emerge as a Cy Young candidate (he finished third in the 2015 voting) and for Manaea to build on his promising rookie season and develop into a strong No. 2. Jharel Cotton, who came over from the Los Angeles Dodgers in the Josh Reddick/Rich Hill deal, looked impressive in September and is a sleeper breakout candidate as well.

I do agree with the computers here: The Astros are going to be difficult to beat, with a young core of position players in their prime and a strong bullpen. And if they can get Quintana, they're right up with the Boston Red Sox and Cleveland Indians. But as we've learned in the AL West, expect a wild ride.