Let’s wrap our 2015 preview tour of the AL with the West with the National League on deck.
Seattle ranked near the bottom of almost every offensive category in baseball during the 2014 season, with their highest finish in a major category being 15th-place in home runs (136) and stolen bases (96).
But during the offseason, the Mariners addressed those shortcomings, while a) not touching their outstanding pitching depth, b) not trading away solid minor-league depth/young talent, and c) not disrupting their very good defense.
Add it all up and you have the recipe for a World Series contender.
Last year, Seattle hung around until the final day of the regular season, finishing just one game behind the Oakland A’s for a wild card berth.
With Oakland’s roster overhaul (which we’ll get to) and the Mariners’ upgrades, it’s not too hard to see the M’s jumping past both the A’s and the Angels to the top of the division.
While Seattle does have some question marks at first base (Logan Morrison has only played over 100 games once in his career), shortstop (incumbent Brad Miller has a .302 OBP in roughly one full season of play), and center field (Austin Jackson was awful (.229/.267/.260) after his acquisition from Detroit, there’s enough firepower around them now for the M’s to shoulder those issues. Besides, none of them can be that bad if the team ended up with 87 wins, right?
Nelson Cruz, who hit a major-league best 40 homers last year, will not match that total in the power-suppressing confines of Safeco Field, but he’ll provide a nice boost nonetheless at DH. Right field, which was a black hole last year, will be filled nicely by the platoon of lefty masher Justin Ruggiano (career .704 SLG vs. LHP) and righty-killer Seth Smith (.481 vs RHP). Combining the two (.457 SLG) gives the M’s another great bat.
That’s before we even get to the pitching, led by the incomparable Felix Hernandez, who went 15-6 with 248 strikeouts and a league-best 2.14 ERA last year.
Hisashi Iwakuma backs up the King, along with youngsters Tijuan Walker, James Paxton, and J.A. Happ. While those last three don’t jump off the page as front-line starters, with Felix in the fold, they don’t need to.
That point gets underscored by Seattle’s outstanding bullpen, a collection of Fernando Rodney and a bunch of no-names that posted a best-in-baseball 2.59 ERA in 500 innings. The probably won’t do that again, but even expected regression would still have this as one the AL’s top relief corps.
Add it all up and we will hopefully finally get to see King Felix on that magical October stage.
Prediction: 90-72; first place in the AL West.
Los Angeles Angels
The Angels took advantage of Oakland’s second-half collapse to win the West last season and finish tops in the AL with 98 wins, but there are just enough question marks here to believe that the Halos will fade just enough to slip to second place.
It’s still a very strong offense, led by Mike Trout, the best player in baseball. He will patrol center for LAA, flanked by Kole Calhoun and new addition Matt Joyce. Calhoun enjoyed his best season so far in 2014, and should at least match those totals, while Joyce, picked up from Tampa Bay, provides a good lefty masher lower in the order who can play a decent corner outfield, too. It looks to be one of the league’s better all-around trios.*
*I’m not going to consider Josh Hamilton here, simply because it’s unknown how much (if?) he will play for the Angels this year. And, even if he does, the other three and he’d be the DH most of the time.
Around the infield, there’s adequate productivity, but nothing inspiring. Albert Pujols will anchor things at first base, but the 35-year-old slugger is on the decline and shouldn’t be counted on for anything better than last season’s .272/28 HR/105 RBI performance. Second base is a black hole following the trade of longtime starter Howie Kendrick, with a handful of names competing for the keystone gig. Shortstop Erick Aybar is fine, playing steady defense and banging out enough offense to be an alright two-way contributor. Third belongs to David Freese, who’s (guess what?) decent on offense and defense.
Anaheim’s infield doesn’t have a lot of sizzle, but the steak is just fine. It’s not prime rib, but still a decent cut and you get what you expect.*
*Note to self: Steak for dinner.**
** Money’s too tight for steak.
Rookie C.J. Cron figures to play some first base and get some time at DH, but he didn’t produce too much in his rookie year. Outside of 11 homers, Cron’s numbers (.256/.289/.450) were not encouraging. Catcher Chris Ianetta is not a defensive wizard, but he can hit a little, giving him the starting edge of Drew Butera, who has the opposite problem.
Anaheim’s pitching should be alright this year, possibly better than that. The team posted a middle-of-the-pack 3.58 staff ERA last season, led by breakthrough starter Garrett Richards, who was 13-4 with a 2.61 ERA in 26 starts before a nasty patella injury ended his year early. Jered Weaver is losing velocity year-to-year, but he still remains effective entering his age 32 season. The same cannot be said for 34-year-old C.J. Wilson, who had a rocky 2014, posting his worst full-season ERA as a starter (4.51) while leading the AL in walks (85). Matt Shoemaker had a very good rookie year (16-4, 3.04) and his growth will be counted on balance the expected dropoffs from Wilson and (possibly) Weaver. Fifth starter Hector Santiago (97 ERA+) was adequate last year, and should be this season too.
The bullpen, which struggled early in the season, but performed better after a July trade for closer Huston Street, should be a strength again. The setup crew, led by Joe Smith*, should be good in from of Street again, and GM Jerry DiPoto has shown he won’t be afraid to deal for relief help.
*Would you believe that, as everyday-boring as “Joe Smith” is as a name, there have only been TWO of them in MLB? The Angels have one now. Here’s the other.
Overall, last year’s Angels snuck up on us, largely because of Oakland’s outstanding first half and awful second half. It wasn’t fair to feel that way, but many fans did. This year, it doesn’t look like the Halos will be sneaky-good. They will just be good.
Prediction: 88-74; just behind Seattle, but securing an AL Wild Card berth.
Is this the year A’s GM Billy Beane finally lays an egg?
Year after year, Beane moves players without fear, flipping his roster up and down like a mad scientist, constantly searching for just the right combination of ingredients.
While Beane’s consistently kept his team in the hunt — they have made the playoffs eight times during his 16-plus years as the GM — this year could prove to be one of his most superlative, for better or worse.
Five of the nine starters in the A’s lineup are new, with free agent DH Billy Butler joining new trade acquisitions Ike Davis (1B), Marcus Semien (SS), Brett Lawrie (3B), and Ben Zobrist (OF/UT). While Zobrist seems a good, productive fit, he’s 33-years-old; Lawrie still has a bit of shine at age 25, as does Semien (24), but questions linger for both: health for Lawrie and defense for Semien. Butler, on the other hand, is a 29-year-old DH coming off the worst year of his career.
On the pitching side of things, Oakland allowed one midseason pickup (Jon Lester) to move on in free agency, while the other big arm (Jeff Samardzija) was dealt to the Chicago White Sox for Semien and others. Oakland replaced those two with trade acquisitions with less extensive pedigrees: second-year hurlers Kendall Graveman and Jesse Hahn. Oakland will also be counting on No. 1 starter Sonny Gray, followed by Scott Kazmir, to post good numbers, along with Drew Pomeranz to fill out the rotation.
The bullpen should remain strong, although closer Sean Doolittle is currently out with a shoulder issue. In his stead, newly acquired Tyler Clippard will probably get the first crack at closing. With Doolittle back, Clippard will be the lead setup man in front of a group that finished last year third in baseball with a 2.91 ERA.
The A’s will be a fascinating team to watch this season after all of Beane’s roster shuffling. Either way it will add another amazing chapter to his legacy.
Prediction: 83-79; third place in the AL West.
The five-year plan of Astros’ GM Jeff Luhnow is now in its fifth year and while the Astros are not going to contend for anything outside of one of a Participation Trophy in 2015, they are not too far away some making some serious noise.
Houston went 70-92 last season,three games ahead of the injury-riddled Texas Rangers to avoid the division cellar. It was the team’s best record since going 76-86 in 2010.
The farm system bore fruit last year with a handful of intriguing pitchers and a few possible offensive building blocks making the majors.
George Springer, a 2011 first-round pick, came up and launched 21 home runs in just 78 games. If healthy, Springer could be the best Astro hitter since Lance Berkman came through the system. His 39-114 walk-to-strikeout ratio in just 295 at-bats is worrisome, but as he’s hit at every level of the minors, there’s no reason to think he won’t be a key cog in the Astros’ continuing rise.
While Springer’s strikeouts are a concern, there are going to be plenty of K’s up and down the Houston lineup, as offseason additions Evan Gattis (97 k’s), Luis Valbuena (113) and Colby Rasmus (124) join the most hack-tastic lineup in the game. Six Houston batters surpassed 100 strikeouts last season*, as the team led the majors with 1,442 whiffs. Still nowhere close to the all-time record, set by … the Houston Astros in 2013 with 1,535.
This group could blow that out of the water.
The long-standing stigma of the strikeout being something for hitters to avoid was en vogue while this current Astros group was growing up, watching guys like George Bell, Jose Canseco, Sammy Sosa, and most recently, Adam Dunn, approach the game in a new way.
The K was no longer a black mark of shame for a batter. This group, however, doesn’t make enough solid contact to justify that approach. Look for a homer-heavy Houston attack that doesn’t get enough runners on to make the moonshots matter.
One Astro who does not strike out much (53 in 660 ABs last year) is batting champ Jose Altuve, who hit .341/.377/.453 last year. If Houston can get a couple more seasons like that out of Altuve and maybe new shortstop Jed Lowrie, the mashers will be pad their RBI totals enough to make the strikeouts. But I wouldn’t count on it.
On thing to count on is Houston having a better bullpen than last year. There’s really no way to avoid that, as the ‘Stros had a 4.80 bullpen ERA last year, the worst in the majors. So, Luhnow addressed that weakness by landing relievers Pat Neshek, Joe Thatcher, and Luke Gregerson, with the latter being named the team’s closer.
The rotation should also be respectable, with Dallas Kuechel as the clear No. 1 starter following a great 2014. Add in solid-if-unspectacular arms Scott Feldman, and Collin McHugh, and the Astros are not too far away from a competent staff.
Granted, the pitching staffs of contenders are more than “competent”. But after five years of life in the wild — including three 100-loss, seasons, competence is progress.
Prediction: 76-86; fourth place in the AL West.
In 2014, the walls caved in on the Rangers.
After an unprecedented string of success from 2009 to 2013 that saw the team win 457 games and reach the World Series twice, the Rangers were beset by injuries to virtually every key contributor and ineffectiveness from their replacements.
The bad luck has continued to bleed over in 2015, as staff ace Yu Darvish will miss the entire season due to Tommy John surgery. With their ace out, the Rangers’ staff looks even worse, with offseason pickup Yovani Gallardo assuming the title of No. 1 starter, even though he’s never thrown a pitch in Globe Life Park in Arlington.
The rest of the rotation is filled with unrealized potential (Martin Perez, Derek Holland), injury risks (Perez, Holland), unknowns (Nick Martinez), or filler (Colby Lewis, Ross Detwiler). It’s not a pretty bunch and there’s not enough offensive firepower for the Rangers to hit their way to a lot of victories.
Whatever leads the starters depart with will be subject to a leaky bullpen, one that produced a 4.02 ERA last year and allowed 495 hits, third worst in MLB. The ‘pen reads like a who’s who of journeymen: Jon Edwards, Roman Mendez, Keone Kela, Alex Claudio, Sam Freeman, and closer Neftali Feliz.
Feliz posted good numbers (1.99 ERA, 13 saves) last year, but was limited to 30 games with just 21 strikeouts and 11 walks. He’ll be on shaky ground, but with no clear replacement, he’ll get a wide berth to keep the gig.
Overall, pitching for Texas in 2014, as the staff allowed opponents a .272/.336/.428 line, well above the AL average of .253/.316/.390.
Offense in Texas may or may not be able to bail out the pitching staff, depending on health concerns.
Last season, big ticket buys Prince Fielder (neck) and Shin-Soo Choo (ankle and elbow) both missed large chunks of the season, and Adrian Beltre was left as the lone star in the lineup. He ended up leading the team with 19 home runs and 77 RBIs and should be able to match or better those numbers this year, hopefully surrounded by a healthy Fielder and Choo.
The Texas outfield could have a couple of bright spots if Choo is healthy and center fielder Leonys Martin builds on his strong 2014. After spending much of last year batting down in the order, Martin will put his speed (team-high 31 steals) on display in front of the heart of the Texas lineup.
Shortstop Elvis Andrus looks to be a failed extension as the 26-year-old batted just a career-low .263 last year, with a poor .314 on-base percentage. Hopefully, new manager Jeff Banister will slot Andrus lower in the order with Martin now hitting leadoff.
Andrus’ double-play partner this year (and last) was supposed to be super-prospect Jurickson Profar, but a double whammy of injuries have cost the youngster both 2014 and 2015, so who knows how effective he’ll be when (if?) he returns in 2016.
In the meantime, 21-year-old Rougned Odor impressed enough in 114 games at the keystone to earn the job this year. He hit .259/.297/.402, so the kid could stand to talk a walk or three, but he’s defense is alright and the pop (7 triples, 9 homers) seems legit. He probably won’t be the next Robbie Cano, but a pale imitation of former Ranger Alfonso Soriano wouldn’t be the worst thing to see.
Overall, the Rangers are hitting the skids before they expected to. Rebounds from Fielder and Choo will only go so far in rescuing the damaged, tattered, and torn pitching staff. The team is more likely to contend for the No. 1 overall draft pick next year than they are a playoff berth in 2015.
Prediction: 67-95; fifth place in the AL West.
Over the weekend, we’ll take a look at the National League divisions, as well as a quick awards and playoff rundown.