One player who needs to step up for each AL West squad in 2017

Underperforming aces highlight two teams’ biggest needs heading into the new season.

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The AL West was a very competitive division in 2016, with the Texas Rangers turning in the American League’s best record and the Houston Astros and Seattle Mariners just missing out on wildcard spots.

The division race should be tight again in 2017, but for that to happen, several key players are going to have to step up.

If the Los Angeles Angels and Oakland A’s want to take the next step toward playoff spots, they’ll also need better performances from important players.

Here are five players who have the power to shape the AL West race in 2017:

Houston Astros: Dallas Keuchel, SP

The 2015 AL Cy Young winner turned in a disappointing followup campaign in 2016, going 9-12 with a 4.55 ERA in 26 starts.

The fact that the Astros performed so well while Keuchel struggled so much is impressive and should give Houston fans hope heading into 2017.

If Keuchel can even return to near-2015 form this year, the Astros should challenge the Rangers for AL West supremacy.

Los Angeles Angels: Huston Street, RP

The Angels don’t have much room to add new talent to their roster, as they are currently weighed down by several massive contracts.

Therefore, players currently on the team need to have better performances if the Angels are going to finish with a .500 or better record in 2017.

When the Halos do have a lead, they need to make sure they capitalize on it, so closer Huston Street is going to have to step up or get out of the way and let a different reliever take over the role.

If Street can’t stay healthy or improve upon his 6.45 ERA in limited action last year, he’ll likely lose his spot in Los Angeles.

Oakland A’s: Sonny Gray, SP

The A’s were hoping Gray would lead their young rotation to another solid year in 2016, but their de-facto ace disappointed to the tune of a 5-11 record and a 5.69 ERA in 22 starts.

That came after a 2015 season in which Gray went 14-7 with a 2.73 ERA in 31 starts. A big reason for the decline can be found in the opponents’ batting average, which jumped from .217 to .286 last year.

If Gray can’t return to his winning ways in 2017, it will be another long year in Oakland.

Seattle Mariners: Mike Zunino, C

The Mariners added 38-year-old catcher Carlos Ruiz to the roster this season to serve as Zunino’s backup, but if the starter turns in another year at the plate like he did in 2016, Ruiz will end up getting the majority of the action behind the dish.

Zunino’s power can’t be questioned — he hit 12 home runs in 164 at-bats — but he hit only .207 and struck out 65 times.

Seattle doesn’t need much offensive production from its catcher, but if the Mariners want to compete for a division title, they need Zunino to be more than just an all-or-nothing power threat.

Texas Rangers: Carlos Gomez, OF

After an abysmal start to the 2016 season with the Houston Astros, Gomez actually had a decent stint with the Rangers to end the year.

However, now that Ian Desmond is gone, Gomez has some added pressure entering 2017 as the starting center fielder for a team that has legitimate World Series hopes.

If the Gomez who played for Houston the past couple of years shows up to start the season for the Rangers, Delino DeShields may get a chance to see what he can do in Gomez’s place.

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