Yesterday, we checked out the National League Central, and today we wrap up the American League by putting the West under the microscope.
In 2015, the American League West was full of surprises and letdowns. The Texas Rangers recovered from most of their 2014 injuries to claim the division title, while the Houston Astros took a giant leap forward in their rebuilding to win an AL Wild Card berth. The Los Angeles Angels kept it a three-team party ending up just three games back of the Rangers, while the Seattle Mariners and Oakland Athletics both flopped.
This year promises to showcase the Lone Star State again, as the Rangers added some rotation beef last summer with a trade for Cole Hamels and will get their ace Yu Darvish back from Tommy John surgery sometime in May. Houston should get even better production from their young studs, like Rookie of the Year Carlos Correa, and hang in the race all year.
As always, teams are listed in predicted 2016 order of finish.
Texas Rangers (2015 record: 88-74, 1st in AL West)
Manager: Jeff Bannister
Projected Opening Day Lineup:
LF Ian Desmond
2B Rougned Odor
SS Elvis Andrus
CL: Shawn Tolleson
The defending American League West champions look ready to challenge for the postseason yet again after taking the favored Blue Jays down to the wire in last fall’s ALDS. While the Rangers made very few moves this offseason, they expect to contend based on a trade they pulled off last summer and the return of an ace.
Last July, Texas shipped five prospects to Philadelphia for Cole Hamels, who went 7-1 with a 3.66 ERA in 12 starts for the Rangers. The 32-year-old “Hollywood” brings a reputation as a solid second ace to the staff, but he’ll start the year as the Rangers’ No. 1. That is, until Yu Darvish reclaims the title after his return from Tommy John surgery last year. The 27-year-old is slated to come back sometime in early June and pairing him with Hamels atop the Texas rotation makes the team an easy contender out west.
Also starting for the Rangers this year will be Derek Holland — provided he can stay healthy, junkballer Colby Lewis, 25-year-old Martin Perez, and then some combination of Nick Martinez, Chi Chi Gonzalez and former Oakland A’s hurler A.J. Griffin.
While it doesn’t possess the name recognition of Kansas City’s heralded bullpen, the Texas relief corps is a clear strength of the residents of Globe Life Park. Led by closer Shawn Tolleson (76 Ks in 72 ⅓ innings, 35 saves), the bullpen also boasts hard-throwing 22-year-old Keone Kela (2.39 ERA, 178 ERA+ in 68 games), former Seattle closer Tom Wilhelmsen, setup in Sam Dyson (1.15 ERA in 31 games after coming from Miami), and lefties Sam Freeman and Jake Diekman (combined 2.70 ERA with 60 Ks in 60 innings). It’s a deep unit, although the heavy workload of Tolleson, along with the general unpredictability of relievers, are slightly concerning. Still, the pen should hold a lot of late leads for the Texas staff.
Offensively, the Rangers still possess one baseball’s best lineups, a group that finished third in the AL with 751 runs scored last year. The big new addition is left fielder Ian Desmond, late of the Washington Nationals. Desmond, 30, is coming up a below-average year as the Nats’ shortstop, but if he takes decently to left field, the offensive environs of Globe Life Park should help his bat rebound to previous levels and net him a better deal next offseason*.
*As should likely changes to the qualifying offer system, coming during the impending collective bargaining agreement talks this year.
Alongside Desmond in the outfield will be Delino DeShields, Jr. in center and Shin-Soo Choo in right. DeShields is still best-known for being Delino Sr.’s kid and posting a really nasty pic or two* after he got his jaw broken in the minor leagues. After an injury-riddled first season in Arlington, Choo rebounded to post a solid .276.3375/.463 line with a 125 OPS+. The key here is twofold, though: Desmond taking to left, and Deshields repeating his 121-game debut with 10 triples, 25 steals, and a .344 on-base percentage. The fact that Texas added a converted shortstop to man left field should tell you all you need about the team’s expectations from Josh Hamilton in 2016.
*I’m not linking it because I do have a conscience. Google at your own risk people.
Around the infield, Texas has one of the better all-around units in the league, starting with Mitch Moreland at first base. The 30-year-old slugged 23 home runs with a 116 OPS+ while providing stability at a position that was in flux at the start of 2015. Second baseman Rougned Odor shone through as another premier young talent in a year full of them. The 22-year-old smacked 16 homers with a 107 OPS+, with 12 of those coming in the second half after a trip back down to the minors. Should Odor stink (hehehe) up the place via sophomore slump, Texas could try one-time phenom Jurickson Profar, who has missed two years with various injuries. At short, Elvis Andrus is a capable defender who, it turns out, cannot hit. He posted a team-worst (among starters) 80 OPS+ this year, making his 2012 season seem more and more like a mirage than a stepping stone. Third baseman Adrian Beltre is picking up a lot of late-career Hall-of-Fame buzz as the 36-year-old (37 in April) posted a .287/.334/.453 line last season, giving him overall numbers that rank comparatively well to other hot corner men already in Cooperstown.
At designated hitter, Prince Fielder bounced back from his 2015 neck injury to post a team-high 98 RBIs and 187 hits to go with 23 home runs and a 126 OPS+. Another benefit of Moreland’s strong season was being able to keep the less-agile Fielder confined to DH duties most of the year, keeping him healthier and improving the team’s overall defense. Catchers Robinson Chirinos and Chris Gimenez tied in the award voting for Most Anonymously Decent MLB Player last season, as the two backstops combined for 15 home runs, creating an above-average platoon for the Rangers.
If health smiles upon the Rangers in 2016, this team could make the playoffs and with Darvish and Hamels atop the rotation, that’s a scary thought. The team has a few top prospects knocking on the door as well, should injuries hit. Overall, it should be Lone Star State dogfight for the top spot in the West.
Prediction: Darvish’s return, coupled with Houston regression, gives the Rangers the top spot.
Houston Astros (2015 record: 86-76, 2nd in AL West, 2nd Wild Card)
Manager: A.J. Hinch
Projected Opening Day Lineup:
2B Jose Altuve
LF Colby Rasmus
CF Carlos Gomez
1B Tyler White
CL: Luke Gregerson
The team that made “tanking” a (ridiculous) buzzword and turned “rebuilding” into the new black, the Houston Astros enter 2016 on the verge of a nice run as a contender, thanks to good draft picks, smart spending (thus far), and, of course, a bit of luck.
Let’s start with the biggest strength of this team: the double-play combination of second baseman Jose Altuve and shortstop Carlos Correa. Altuve, coming off back-to-back 200-hit seasons, is among the best at his position both offensively and defensively despite being roughly the size of a smurf that drank a lot of milk during childhood. The 5-6 fireplug* slashed .313/.353/.459 last year with a career-best 15 homers and his first Gold Glove. He has emerged as one of the team’s most popular players and a leader on and off the diamond.
*By virtue of Eckstein’s Law (enacted 2006), all MLB personnel under 5-8 must be consistently and constantly referred to as “fireplugs”. This goes double if they a) play middle infield, b) bat in the leadoff position, and/or c) have a unit of measurement named for them.
Altuve’s up-the-middle-buddy is reigning Rookie of the Year Carlos Correa, who made a huge splash in 99 games, batting ..279 with 22 doubles, 22 home runs, and 14 steals. He’s been touted as the next Derek Jeter, but the kid’s got way more pop and sharper defensive chops than Ole Jete’s ever had. Kid’s a star already.
The infield corners for Houston are still feast-or-famine. While strikeout monster Chris Carter moved on to Milwaukee, he’s been replaced with … uh, well, someone. The spring training battle for the job between Tyler White, A.J. Reed, Jon Singleton, and Matt Duffy is ongoing and it’s likely the Astros will use the hot hand there to start the year. (Side note: Free agent Justin Morneau seems like an ideal fit, but offseason elbow surgery will keep him out until midseason. He’d still be a nice add then, plus Houston will know what it has in the other three.) At third base, the team failed to upgrade in any way — the market was pretty thin — and will retain Luis Valbuena, who did manage passable defense to go with 25 homers. At the cost of a putrid .224/.310/.438 overall line.
Behind the dish, Houston’s still pretty weak with Jason Castro hoping to rebound from his nightmare of a 2016 (77 OPS+) and backup Max Stassi out six weeks or so to kick the year off. It’s unclear if Houston will upgrade the position, but with the rest of their offense, it seems low on the ‘Stros’ list of priorities at the moment.
The Houston outfield could be one of the league’s best, with Colby Rasmus, Carlos Gomez, and George Springer lined up. All three have the range to play center field and decent-to-excellent throwing arms, along with capable backups Preston Tucker and Jake Marisnick. The trick is keeping the trio healthy, as Springer missed 60 games and Gomez missed about 50% of his games after being acquired from the Brewers. Rasmus, never a durable sort either, actually led the outfield with 137 games played.
On the mound, Houston has a comfortable ace in Cy Young winner Dallas Kuechel (162 ERA+). Collin McHugh fills the next spot after a solid age 28 season (19-7, 203 ⅔ innings). While overwork is a slight concern with those two, the team has a few long-relief options and a sharp bullpen to keep overall worries low.
The No. 3 spot will likely be Lance McCullers, Jr. (129 K in 125 ⅔ innings) after he gets off the DL with shoulder soreness. There’s currently no timetable for his return, but the midseason trade last year for Mike Fiers (59 K in 62 ⅓ innings with Houston) and the offseason signing of bounceback possibility Doug Fister give the Astros nice depth to their rotation, while No. 5 starter Scott Feldman slots nicely at the back end of the rotation, or the swingman role once McCullers is back.
The bullpen was a strength of this club for most of the year, although a late-summer fade (11-16 September record, the team’s only losing month) hurt the overall numbers of the ‘pen, it was still a bright spot thanks to the 2015 signings of Luke Gregerson (3.10 ERA, 31 saves) and Pat Neshek (3.62 ERA). Lefties Tony Sipp (203 ERA+) and Will Harris (212 ERA+) both return, as does righty Josh Fields (67 K in 50 ⅔ innings).
The new addition, which came at a hefty price, is new closer Ken Giles, late of the Philadelphia Phillies. Giles, 25, has been dominant in two years for the Phils, tossing 115 ⅔ frames with 151 strikeouts during that span. He should add depth and balance to the Houston pen, taking it from one of the league’s better bullpens to one of the best in the game.
This club is poised to do great things, despite some questions on the infield corners. Thanks to the ample youth on the roster, the Astros anticipate one of the game’s lower-end Opening Day payrolls (roughly $88 million), so midseason additions shouldn’t be ruled out, even though the 2015 trades for Gomez, Fiers, and then Giles did thin the farm a bit. If everyone stays healthy, this team has the potential to get Houston back to the playoffs again and perhaps raise the first Commissioner’s Trophy in franchise history.
Prediction: Several key players fall back (or flop entirely), but there’s enough here to bring in a Wild Card berth again.
Seattle Mariners (2015 record: 76-86, 4th in AL West)
Manager: Lloyd McClendon
Projected Opening Day Lineup:
LF Nori Aoki
SS Ketel Marte
DH Nelson Cruz
3B Kyle Seager
1B Adam Lind
RF Seth Smith
CL: Steve Cishek
Last season, everyone was picking Seattle as a contender. It seemed that their 87-75, third-place finish was for real.
In reality, the Mariners were being viewed through a lot of rose-colored specs last March. Predictions were disregarding just how much went right for the 2014 M’s, and how, for them to leapfrog two teams, as well as hold off the other two in the West, even more would have to line up perfectly in 2015.
So much had to go right that we started to overlook all of the things that could (and did) go wrong.
It’s really what makes preseason predictions so much fun to do, and so utterly insane to look back on.
Late last year, Jack Zduriencik was dismissed as team general manager after seven mostly-underwhelming seasons at the helm. Actually, Jack Z came in with a lot of promise, as the team went 85-77 in 2009, his first year in charge. That bought him a lot of goodwill and promise, as people forget that it actually takes a while for any new boss’ vision to fully take shape. The new guy gets a lot of credit for all the cleaning up that the old guy just finished up. Or he takes a lot of heat if the old guy really screwed the pooch.
That’s about as political as I get, take it or leave it, but anyway, back to baseball…
The M’s failed to reach .500 again until 2014’s accomplishment, thanks to their BEST month of the season coming with a 14-13 September! That’s right, the Mariners’ best record during all six months of the season was a one-game-over-.500 final month. No wonder Jack Z got axed!
So, in strides white knight Jerry DiPoto, late of the Los Angeles Angels. While it’s nice that Seattle poached a division rival’s executive, the truth is that DiPoto was and had been cooked in Anaheim for quite some time.
The former reliever quickly went about reshaping the team, added some speed and defense on the field, and getting some on-base options at the plate. If you’re going to get mashers like Cano and Cruz, it makes sense to have runners on base for them, right?
So, over the last few months, the Mariners have added left fielder Aoki, first basemen Lind, center fielder Martin, catchers Ianetta and Steve Clevenger, and first base platoon hopeful in Korean export Dae Ho Lee.
Those names should provide a deeper, more balanced lineup that tries to work the count and chase opposing starters early. If Cano is over his 2015 ailments and Cruz continues to mash, along with the rise of Seager, Seattle could have a pretty dynamic offense.
However, the pitching is a growing concern. Stellar ace Hernandez still leads the rotation, but the King is 30 years old and despite his 18-9 record, he posted his highest ERA (3.53) since 2007, along with a jump in home runs (23 ties his 2006 career-high), and a dip in innings (201 ⅔) and strikeouts (191, his first time under 200 since 2008). While the King is still, well, the King, his advancing age and dipping statistics add to the need for the other arms in Seattle’s rotation to step things up.
The primary focus of “stepping up” will be Walker, a first-round draft choice who rode an up-and-down first full season to an 11-8 record. The M’s hope he can build on his final two months, where the 23-year-old went 6-3 with a 3.63 ERA and held batters to a .220/.260/.354 slash. If that holds up, Seattle may just have itself an heir to the throne.
The rest of the M’s rotation is new faces and question marks, as newcomer Miley is coming off an awful season in Boston. The hope is that a trip to the pitcher-friendly SafeCo, as well as a move from the pressure cooker of Fenway, will stabilize the lefty. Karns is the other new get, coming over in a trade with Tampa Bay. Karns, 28, had a good first full season in the Rays’ rotation, going 7-5 with 145 K in 147 innings. He’s a bit old for a second-year arm, but the M’s are looking for Karns to stabilize the bottom half of the rotation, rather than develop into an ace.
Seattle’s fifth arm is old friend Iwakuma, who lost out on a bigger deal with the Dodgers after concerns arose about his health. The 35-year-old Japanese import should provide steady innings along with Karns at the back part of Seattle’s starting five, something that was solely lacking last year.
Seattle’s bullpen has some new faces too, with new closer Cishek coming in after a 2015 that saw him get injured and then pitch for the Marlins and Cardinals. Benoit was added from San Diego to be the primary setup, while former starting prospect Montgomery will be the first lefty out of the pen for manager Lloyd McClendon.
The good news for Seattle this year is that, thanks to DiPoto’s reimagining of the roster, fewer things need to go perfectly for the M’s to contend. But perhaps the even better news is that, thanks to the emphasis on depth, fewer things will go wrong.
Prediction: The M’s are better, but not quite able to catch Houston or Texas. Third place.
Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim (2015 record: 85-77, 3rd in AL West)
Manager: Mike Scioscia
Projected Opening Day Lineup:
LF Daniel Nava
CF Mike Trout
RF Kole Calhoun
1B C.J. Cron
CL: Huston Street
The Angels are just not that good. They are proof that one player cannot make, but can certainly break, a franchise.
The Angels suck and it’s all because of Mike Trout.
Hear me out, gentle PTB Nation. Hear me out.
I’m not arguing that Trout is dead weight, or that the team should trade him, as was suggested by other pundits this offseason. What I am saying is that Trout’s status as the consensus best player in baseball is forcing the Angels to try and win with him, creating a logjam of shitty contracts given to veterans on the downswing, farm-draining trades, and a persistent lack of building anything for the future.
Trout’s greatness has the Angels panicking to win, which has them fielding a fairly weak team, particularly if you discount players not named after fish.
The lineup is sad, the pitching staff is sadder. One got its foot run over; the other, its puppy.
I am not suggesting the Angels cannot win, after all, Calhoun and Pujols are still quite capable hitters, and Simmons is a phenomenal defender at a crucial position. The rotation is fair, but outside of Richards, there are no sure bets.
The bullpen is deep, but beyond closer Huston Street and setup man Joe Smith, it’s more quantity than quality.
The Angels are a candidate to have the biggest tumble down the standing from their 2015 finish. They may slip and still contend, thanks to a couple of other questionable teams in the division, but this will get worse before it gets better.
And it’s all Mike Trout’s fault.
Prediction: The pain begins here. Fourth place.
Oakland Athletics (2015 record: 68-94, 5th in AL West)
Manager: Bob Melvin
Projected Opening Day Lineup:
CF Billy Burns
2B Jed Lowrie
RF Josh Reddick
LF Khris Davis
DH Billy Butler
CL: Sean Doolittle
For nearly two decades, baseball fans and pundits alike have worshipped at the altar of Billy Beane, praising the Brad Pitt lookalike for his fearlessness and razor-sharp ability to read the game and rediscover new inefficiencies to keep his club competitive in the face of all its shortcomings.
Beane was the GM who could do it all, and (to some) do no wrong.
Something happened last year, though. Beane was wrong. Very wrong.
Nearly every 2014 offseason move backfired. Every contract a bad one, every trade a dud. Every proverbial egg that Beane had laid was rotten.
The result was the worst A’s team since 1997, when the team still employed Mark McGwire and ended up 65-97!
The 2015 incarnation posted a 68-94 record, the worst in the American League.
So, what happened?
Well, the infield was a mess, with a collection of second-tier talent could not make any progress. No infielders that took the field for Oakland last season have “promise” or the hope of improvement. No “growing pains” really, it was just a gaggle of green and gold uniforms flailing about, hoping to turn this double play, praying to scoop this throw, hoping to make this stop. It was more of the same at the plate, as all the various combinations of youth and age failed to make a collective dent in the “Moneyball” history of this franchise.
The 2016 infield for the A’s will likely consist of Alonso at first, Lowrie at second, Semien at short, and Valencia at third. More underachievement is forthcoming. This names all once-upon-a-time dotted prospect lists and were seen as building blocks somewhere, but all their stars are burnt out. Paths are set, and none of these guys is a clear improvement over last season.
In the outfield, it’s not a lot better, although there is potential for offense, as the left-to-right alignment of Davis, Burns, and Reddick do provide a bit of everything. None of them will ever be a game-changing star, but each is serviceable in his current role. Davis, late of Milwaukee, brings some sorely-needed power potential, while Burns has speed for days in center, and Reddick hits alright and plays a solid corner. It’s the best part of this team for sure.
At DH, Butler will drag his carcass out at age 29 to see if he can improve upon last year’s dreadful .251/.323/.390 line (a 96 OPS+ from a DH is unacceptably poor!). If he can’t cut it, then last year’s rookie surprise Canha (16 homers in 124 games) could see some time.
Catcher Vogt had a nice breakthrough, hitting .261/.341/.443 in a career-best 136 games to go with 19 home runs and 71 RBIs. He’s the clear leader of this team, both on the field and off, and if healthy, should produce another solid season for the Green and Gold Express.
The A’s still have some decent pitching, with ace Gray (14-7, 2.73 ERA), but his inability to miss a lot of bats (just 7.3 K/9) is a tough sell for long-term improvement. He limits walks (2.6/9) and homers, though (0.7/9), so the righty is still a valuable commodity until he gets too costly for Oakland.
Following Gray will be a handful on interchangeable mediocrity. One of these guys could have a breakout season, but for the A’s to contend, the team needs all of Hill, Bassitt, and Graveman to do it.
In the pen, Beane went crazy and spent some money to bring in arms, either hoping to cheat off of Kansas City’s paper come test time, or to spin these arms off in midseason deals for prospects. In addition to incumbent closer Doolittle, the Oakland pen added Madson, Hendriks, Axford, and Rzepczynski. A complete overhaul of the bullpen on a lackluster team leads to the conclusion that Beane is painting the “For Sale” sign as you read this.
This team stinks and will probably challenge for the worst record in the league again, although the bullpen additions will keep the team from being an embarrassingly bad club. The A’s won’t contend, but they won’t be automatic losers either.
That’s…well, that’s something.
Prediction: Bottom feeders who compete for the league’s worst record, Beane sells of the veterans for more youth in July.
Tomorrow, we wrap up our previews with the National League West.