2015 American League West Preview: Angels Poised to Repeat?
The American League West might be baseballâ€™s strongest division.
Last seasonâ€™s division champion Angels return most of their roster, while Seattle has only gotten better. Oakland has rebuilt, but did they reload as well? Is the state of Texas destined for the cellar for the second straight year?
Here's what numberFireâ€™s analytics had to say.
1. Los Angeles Angels
nERD: 0.48 | Projected W-L: 87-75 | Division Odds: 39.8% | Playoffs Odds: 62.9%
The Angels had a dream season in 2014, finishing with the best-record in the AL at 98-64 before falling in three games to the Kansas City Royals in the ALDS.
This offseason, the team beefed up its starting pitching depth but traded valuable assets to do so. Garrett Richards will likely miss the first few weeks of the season as he finishes his rehab, and fellow youngster Tyler Skaggs is out for the year after undergoing Tommy John Surgery. Veterans Jered Weaver and CJ Wilson appear to be regressing, but they both return for another year in Mike Sciosciaâ€™s rotation.
Matt Shoemaker stepped up whenever an Angel starter got injured in 2014, in place of Wilson, Skaggs, and Richards, and he will be a full-time member of the rotation this year. Hector Santiago returns to the rotation (at least until Richards is healthy) after an up-and-down 2014. Lefty Andrew Heaney, acquired from the Dodgers via Miami in exchange for Howie Kendrick, rates as the number 25 prospect in the MLB after striking out 143 in 137 innings split between AA and AAA last season.
Righty Nick Tropeano, acquired from the division rival Astros for back-up catcher Hank Conger, struck out in 120 AAA innings in 2014. Mid-season acquisition Huston Street returns as the teamâ€™s closer, while durable Joe Smith returns in a set-up role.
Offensively, the teamâ€™s trade for Matt Joyce looks like a stroke of brilliance given Josh Hamiltonâ€™s pending suspension. Joyce and Hamilton are both lefty-hitting left-fielders, and both recorded a .325 wOBA and a 113 wRC+ last season.
The Angelsâ€™ more pressing concern is finding a replacement for Kendrickâ€™s .328 wOBA and 115 wRC+ at second base. Josh Rutledge comes over from the Rockies and gets the first crack at the job, but prospect Grant Green is waiting in the wings. Youngster C.J. Cron will get most of the at-bats at designated hitter, at least until Hamilton returns.
2. Seattle Mariners
nERD: 0.37 | Projected W-L: 86-76 | Division Odds: 32.4% | Playoffs Odds: 55.6%
Seattle made significant improvements to an 87-win team this offseason, mostly by adding Nelson Cruz. The Dominican slugger probably wonâ€™t come near his .370 wOBA and 137 wRC+ from last season, but heâ€™ll still be a huge improvement over last yearâ€™s designated hitter (a combination of Justin Smoak and the corpse of Kendrys Morales).
The Seth Smith-Justin Ruggiano platoon in right field should be an offensive improvement over James Jones, and Kyle Seager and Mike Zunino really stepped up their offensive games last season. (Seager posted a career-high .346 wOBA and 126 OPS+, while Zunino improved his wOBA and OPS+ by 10 points each.)
Led by Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma, Seattleâ€™s staff led the American League with a 3.17 team ERA and a .230 team batting average against. The team needs James Paxton and Taijuan Walker to stay healthy, however. Last year, Paxton posted a 3.28 FIP and 1.20 WHIP in 79 big-league innings, while the highly regarded Walker seeks to improve upon his 3.68 FIP and 1.29 WHIP in his first full big-league season. Innings-eater JA Happ comes over from Toronto to round out the rotation.
With a powerful one-two rotation punch and a monstrous middle of the lineup (Cruz, Seager, and Robinson Cano), Seattle should improve on last seasonâ€™s 87 wins. One other fun storyline to watch in the Emerald City: Rickie Weeks, who signed on the cheap late in the offseason, is seeking to rejuvenate his big league career as part of a left field platoon.
3. Oakland Athletics
nERD: 0.31 | Projected W-L: 84-78 | Division Odds: 23.9% | Playoffs Odds: 46.6%
Fresh off an 88-win season, Oakland did what any playoff-contending team would do: tear the roster down and start over. Gone are Derek Norris, Brandon Moss, Jed Lowrie, Josh Donaldson, Jon Lester, Jason Hammel, and Jeff Samardzija. How can the Aâ€™s possibly play into October?
If anyone can pull this one off, itâ€™s Billy Beane.
Oakland pins their offensive hopes on some new low-cost youngsters who could be due for breakout years and Billy Butler. Ike Davis, 27, moves from the Pittsburgh bench to first base after posting a solid .324 wOBA and 108 wRC+ in 2014. Marcus Semien, 24, takes over at shortstop with 85 games of big league experience, and oft-injured Brett Lawrie starts at third (heâ€™s played 177 games in the last two years, after playing in 125 his rookie year).
The Butler signing is a puzzle, since his $30 million contract might have been better served as part of an extension for a younger player, but heâ€™s only 28, and his .359 career OBP fits in perfectly on a Billy Beane team. Stephen Vogt broke out last season (.329 wOBA, 114 wRC+) and should get most of the at-bats at catcher. For the Athletics to score runs, Ben Zobrist has to perform. Zobristâ€™s .333 wOBA and 119 wRC+ are far and away the best of any of Oaklandâ€™s offseason additions, and he might be the only sure thing in the Aâ€™s lineup.
Pitching will continue to be the clubâ€™s strength, as Sonny Gray and Scott Kazmir keep dealing at the top of the rotation. As usual, Beane has dealt his maturing position players for young arms, and a few of them will need to step up to keep Oakland in contention.
Jesse Hahn, the key piece coming from San Diego in the Norris trade, impressed in his rookie season with a 1.21 WHIP and a 3.40 FIP, while Jesse Chavez gets another look in the rotation after moving to the bullpen post trade deadline. The fifth starter spot is up for grabs, and one-time Indians mega-prospect Drew Pomeranz has the upper-hand. Donâ€™t overlook the teamâ€™s acquisition of reliever Tyler Clippard, either. Heâ€™s appeared in at least 70 games out of the bullpen each of the last five years, and heâ€™s got some posh goggles.
4. Houston Astros
nERD: -0.36 | Projected W-L: 75-87 | Division Odds: 2.7% | Playoffs Odds: 6.6%
The Astros followed a promising 70-win campaign with a busy offseason that should push the club closer to .500.
Houston might boast the big leaguesâ€™ best middle infield, as Jed Lowrie returns to Texas to team with Jose Altuve, fresh off a 700 plate appearance, .363 wOBA, 135 OPS+ season. Evan Gattis also joins the club, and he and his .230 isolated power should play everyday in left field. In fact, Houston now boasts three of last seasonâ€™s top 18 isolated power hitters in baseball. Gattis joins George Springer(.237) and Chris Carter (.264) in a suddenly powerful Astro lineup.
Houston also boasts a promising young rotation, led by last yearâ€™s breakout stars Dallas Keuchel (3.21 FIP, 1.18 WHIP) and Collin McHugh (3.11 FIP, 1.02 WHIP). Brett Oberholtzerâ€™s ERA increased by nearly two runs in his second season, but his FIP dropped from 3.65 to 3.56, so he should be due for a bounce-back year. Roberto Hernandez (the artist formerly known as Fausto Carmona) provides rotation depth, and the bullpen (led by newly-signed Luke Gregerson and Pat Neshek) should be much improved.
Itâ€™s almost time for Houston to contend again. The Astros have a solid core in place, and are still waiting for prized prospects Carlos Correa and Mark Appel to reach the majors.
5. Texas Rangers
nERD: -0.40 | Projected W-L: 74-88 | Division Odds: 1.2% | Playoffs Odds: 5.1%
Texas finished 2014 with 67 wins despite being eaten alive by the injury bug. As long as everyone is healthy, the Rangers should make an improvement in 2015, but thatâ€™s not a given with this team.
Beltre has been out-of-this-world in his first five years in Arlington, with a low wOBA of .379 and a low wRC+ of 135 during that span. Fielder posted a career-low .113 isolated power in a disappointing first season with the Rangers which ended after 43 games. Chooâ€™s wOBA dropped 72 points, from .393 to .321, so he should be due for a rebound year along with Fielder.
Texas didnâ€™t really replace Alex Rios or Geovany Soto in free agency, so the rest of the lineup is sort of a sinkhole, although Rougned Odor had a decent rookie year. Watch out for Ryan Ludwick and Nate Schierholtz to steal at-bats in the outfield; both arrive in Arlington on minor-league deals.
As is usually the case with the Rangers, the teamâ€™s slim playoff hopes start and end with the rotation. Yu Darvish and newly acquired Yovani Gallardo form a dominant one-two punch (Darvish posted the lowest FIP of his big-league career in an injury-shortened campaign), but the cupboard is bare beyond them.
Derek Holland has a career FIP of 4.11, and heâ€™s being counted on after appearing six games in 2014. Colby Lewis was abysmal last season, posting the eighth-worst FIP (4.46) and second-worst ERA (5.18) among qualified starting pitchers, but heâ€™s back for another season. The fifth-starter position is wide open, drawing candidates including farmhands Nick Tepesch and Nick Martinez, as well as the suddenly-relevant-again Ross Detwiler.
When Martin Perez returns from Tommy John surgery in 2016 (and if Gallardo re-signs with his hometown team), the Rangers should have a solid rotation then. As for 2015, the teamâ€™s prospects appear bleak, although top prospect Joey Gallo (two straight 40-homer minor league seasons) is nearing the Majors.