By Ryan Mayer
Opening Day is right around the corner. As the calendar gets ready to turn to April, we prepare for another spring/summer full of the thrills of the diamond. With spring training games starting to wind down and teams heading back to their hometowns to get the season started, it’s time for some previews of how we project each division to play out. Follow along with us throughout the week as we go around the horn.
2015 Division Winner- Texas Rangers
Projected Order of Finish
1) Houston Astros
2) Texas Rangers
3) Seattle Mariners
4) Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
5) Oakland Athletics
Houston Astros- The Astros burst out of the rebuilding phase into the full-fledged contender phase last season as their multiple years of high draft picks ripened and blossomed into a fun, feisty team. The depth of the farm system has shone through and after pushing the champion Kansas City Royals to the brink in the ALDS, the team was aggressive in the off season to try and further solidify their status as a serious World Series contender.
Let’s start with the line-up, which features 21-year-old shortstop Carlos Correa who was a revelation last season after being called up, hitting .279/.345/.512 with 22 home runs and 68 RBI in just 99 games. He ran away with the Rookie of the Year race in the AL, and now the ‘Stros get a full year of him. Add that to Jose Altuve’s consistent production from the lead off spot, adding the speed/power combination of Carlos Gomez to the outfield along with promising youngsters Preston Tucker and Tyler White and you’ve got an exciting core. The biggest question for this team is can right fielder George Springer stay healthy? If he can, this team is going to be ridiculous.
The rotation features AL Cy Young award winner Dallas Keuchel, fresh off the best year of his career, Collin McHugh who had arguably the best year of his career last season, and three solid veteran arms to fill out the back end in Mike Fiers, Doug Fister and Scott Feldman. That’s to say nothing of Lance McCullers who is still recovering from shoulder soreness, but lit up the mound when he joined the big club.
Where the team made the biggest off season improvement is the bullpen by adding closer Ken Giles from the Phillies. Despite not getting a ton of opportunities in Philadelphia (mainly due to the previous presence of Jonathan Papelbon, but also the Phillies just being plain bad), Giles has posted a 1.56 ERA in 115.2 innings while allowing just 84 hits and striking out 151 batters. The Astros have been predicted to be as a top contender in the AL, and it’s well deserved based on the talent this team has collected.
Texas Rangers- Despite suffering injuries to seemingly every player on the roster last season, the Rangers still won the AL West. Yu Darvish missed much of last season following Tommy John surgery, Derek Holland and Martin Perez also missed big chunks of the season. Yet, the Rangers kept chugging along and added Cole Hamels to be the ace of the staff while Darvish recovers. This season, with better health, the Rangers are major players in the American League.
Let’s start right there in the rotation where Hamels, Holland, and Perez will be joined by the reliable Colby Lewis, and new addition AJ Griffin. Those five should be more than capable of holding down the fort until Darvish is able to return somewhere between May and July.
Meanwhile, the line-up brings back all of its key pieces with Adrian Beltre, Prince Fielder, Shin-Soo Choo, and Elvis Andrus. Plus, Rougned Odor looks like he’s ready for a break out year at second base, while Delino DeShields Jr. will look to build upon a solid debut season. Josh Hamilton is still rehabbing following his knee surgery and currently Ian Desmond is projected to fill his spot in left field. But, there are three young prospects not far away in Joey Gallo (who struggled mightily with strike outs last year), Nomar Mazara, and Lewis Brinson.
In the bullpen, Shawn Tolleson will reprise his closer role after nailing down 35 saves last season. He’ll be helped by last seasons mid-year acquisitions right-hander Sam Dyson and lefty Jake Diekman. Why pick the Astros ahead of the Rangers? Honestly, I flipped a coin. Expect both of these teams to be in the playoffs come October. One as the division winner, the other in a Wild Card spot.
Seattle Mariners- The Mariners largely under performed relative to the expectations set for them last season. After jumping out to 87 wins in the 2014 season, the team regressed back to 76 wins last season. That happened for a number of reasons but the main one was off years for some of the big names (Felix Hernandez and Robinson Cano) and inconsistency from young players (Taijuan Walker).
The line-up got a major shot in the arm from Nelson Cruz last season and he’ll be back in the DH role this season while left field will be taken over by the more defensively reliable Nori Aoki. In addition to Aoki, Adam Lind, Chris Iannetta and Leonys Martin were brought in to give the line-up a further boost. If Cano can return to form, this should be a fairly formidable line-up to face this season.
The rotation will once again feature Hernandez and Iwakuma at the top, with additions Wade Miley and Nate Karns joining the 23-year-old Walker in rounding out the group. Hernandez posted a career-worst ERA and FIP (3.53 and 3.72 respectively). Was that just a speed bump? Or indicative of a decline? Can Walker find more consistency this season? The answers to those questions are the difference between a repeat of 2015 and a possible run to the playoffs.
Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim- What a year it was for the Angels. A power struggle between manager Mike Scioscia and GM Jerry Dipoto led to Dipoto being ousted and replaced by Billy Eppler. Then, in the winter, owner Atre Moreno realized just how close to the luxury tax the team was and basically mandated that they not spend any more money. The end result is a team heavily laden with big contracts for aging veterans and Mike Trout.
Trout will continue to be a bright spot in the line-up and additions Yunel Escobar and Daniel Nava should help out. Albert Pujols went off last season for 40 homers and 95 RBI, but do you really expect that to continue at age 36? Likely, no. CJ Cron will take Pujols’ spot at first base, which relegates him to the DH role and that should help with giving him some rest from having to play the field. Outside of that, it’s a mostly uninspiring line-up.
The rotation doesn’t have a much better outlook. Garrett Richards is back as the ace, and his ERA jumped from 2.61 in 2014 to 3.65 in 2015. The question is, which year is more indicative of his performance as a pitcher? Jered Weaver’s had velocity issues this spring. Hector Santiago, Andrew Heaney and Matt Shoemaker are all intriguing but, particularly for Heaney and Shoemaker we’re still not sure what to expect out of them.
Could the Angels have everything break their way and win the division? Sure, but odds are more likely that they hover around .500.
Oakland Athletics- The A’s were very unlucky last year, and do offer reasons to believe that there could be a turnaround this season.
First, adding Ryan Madson, John Axford, and Marc Rzepczynski to the bullpen with a healthy Sean Doolittle back at closer should help a bullpen that was well below average last season and surely contributed to that unlucky streak in close games.
Secondly, the line-up is solid. Jed Lowrie, Josh Reddick, Khris Davis, Stephen Vogt and Billy Butler are all productive players. Young center fielder Billy Burns is expected to give the team a jump out of the lead off spot with his speed following a 26 steal season last year with a .294/.334/.392 slash line. The problem is, there aren’t really any young, exciting prospects that usually will help jump start a surprise run from a team.
The rotation has Sonny Gray and Jesse Hahn at the top who are a very good 1-2 punch if Hahn can stay healthy. Behind them, Rich Hill is expected to be in play for a job, but he’s struggled mightily so far this spring. Chris Bassitt’s win-loss record (1-8) is tempered by solid ERA and FIP numbers (3.56 and 3.76) last season and Kendall Graveman is a solid option as a fifth starter.
In the end, the A’s could very well surprise people this season, but heading into the year, each of the teams above them in the division look better on paper.
Ryan Mayer is an Associate Producer for CBS Local Sports. Ryan lives in NY but comes from Philly and life as a Philly sports fan has made him cynical. Anywhere sports are being discussed, that’s where you’ll find him.