2016 American League West Preview: Can the Angels Best the Astros?

Our projections say Houston is the favorite to win the division in 2016, but can Mike Trout and the Angels overcome the odds?

Last year, the Houston Astros shocked everybody. 

No one on FanGraphs' staff picked the Astros to make the playoffs, just one of four AL teams not to get a single vote. ESPN polled 88 of their experts, none of whom had Houston in the playoffs. And before last season, I wrote that the Houston Astros would not be a winning team.

However, in my defense, I did say, "There's no doubt Houston is a team on the rise that should be a lot of fun to watch this year." Unfortunately, I followed it up with this sentence, "But it still feels like the offense is too one dimensional, the starting rotation is missing that one big ace, and the bullpen is still a huge question mark. That's why, unless they swing a deal for a big-time starting pitcher before the beginning of spring training, the odds are still long that Houston will be a winning team in '15."

So yeah, no one saw the Astros going 86-76 and finishing two games behind the Texas Rangers for first place in the AL West. And that was after a late-season slump. For most of last year, they were comfortably on top of that division.

As we enter 2016, the Astros and Rangers appear to be the favorites in that division, and our projections still see the Mariners and Angels being in the mix as well. 

The standings below are based on  our projections.

1. Houston Astros

Projected Record: 85-77

Houston was dealt a blow this spring when Lance McCullers came up lame and it was announced he will start the season on the disabled list. That's not great news for a starting rotation that is a little bit thin at the bottom.

Player GS IP ERA FIP K/9 BB/9 fWAR
Dallas Keuchel 33 232 2.48 2.91 8.38 1.98 6.1
Collin McHugh 32 203.2 3.89 3.58 7.56 2.34 3.9
Doug Fister 15 103 4.19 4.55 5.50 2.10 0.2
Scott Feldman 18 108.1 3.90 4.32 5.07 2.24 1.0
Mike Fiers 9 57.1 2.67 4.32 8.32 2.83 0.6

McCullers struck out 9.24 batters per nine innings (K/9) last year in 22 starts and had a 3.22 ERA with a 3.26 FIP, so losing him from the rotation is a blow. And it's not ideal to have Scott Feldman and Mike Fiers throw a lot of innings right off the bat, but the top end of the rotation is still very good, with Dallas Keuchel and Collin McHugh, the top-two starters. And Doug Fister, if healthy, could be a solid add.

But this team's success is primarily based on their offense and should be greatly aided by a full season of baseball's next great superstar, Carlos Correa. While Mike Trout is still the undisputed best player in the division (and all of baseball), Correa has a chance to be just as special in his own right. In just 99 games last year, he hit .279/.345/.512 with 22 homers and a weighted runs created (wRC+) of 133. He was worth 3.3 fWAR in slightly more than half a season as a 20-year-old rookie.

And with Correa hitting third in a lineup that features terrific lead-off man  Jose Altuve, an outstanding outfield of Colby Rasmus, Carlos Gomez and George Springer, the capable Luis Valbuena and a slugging hulk in designated hitter Evan Gattis, there are few easy outs. Yes, first base is a bit of a problem (Jon Singleton will be given the chance to win the job but has struggled during his time in the Majors), and the team strikes out a ton.

But armed with a solid bullpen, newly anchored by young closer Ken Giles, Houston is the favorite to win this division. We project a 37.1% chance they'll do so.

2. Seattle Mariners

Projection: 83-79

In the ESPN predictions piece referenced above, 54 of 88 experts picked the M's to win the AL West last year. Instead they went 76-86 and were one of the most disappointing teams in all of baseball, thanks mainly to less-than-stellar seasons by two of their superstars.

Robinson Cano had his worst season since 2008, slashing .287/.334/.446 with 21 homers and a wRC+ of 116 that was his lowest since an 86 in that horrific '08 season. He walked in just 6.4% of his plate appearances, his lowest total since 2011, and struck out in 15.9% of them, the highest of his career. And his fWAR of 2.1 was his lowest since putting up a 0.0 in 2008.

2009 .320 .352 .520 25 4.5 9.3 3.6
2010 .319 .381 .534 29 8.2 11.1 6.3
2011 .302 .349 .533 28 5.6 14.1 5.1
2012 .313 .379 .550 33 8.8 13.8 7.6
2013 .314 .383 .516 27 9.5 12.5 5.8
2014 .314 .382 .454 14 9.2 10.2 5.2
2015 .287 .334 .446 21 6.4 15.9 2.1

And Felix Hernandez had a down season, posting the highest ERA of his career, the third-highet FIP, and the worst fWAR (2.8) since his rookie season when he only pitched in 12 games (2.3).

Season ERA FIP K/9 BB/9 HR/9
2015 3.53 3.72 8.52 2.59 1.03
Career Avg 3.11 3.20 8.52 2.51 0.73

But there's reason to believe both will be better this year.  Ben Bruno recently noted Cano did hit .331/.387/.540 with 15 of his 21 homers in the second half.  And ESPN's Tristan Cockroft noted that Cano hit the most line drives that were rated by their pitch tracking service as "hard-hit," with 69. 

And as for Hernandez, while his fastball doesn't have the speed it once did, his strikeout rate was still at it's career norms, and he's still doing this on a regular basis.

The offense could be a bit better this year, too. Adam Lind is a capable first baseman who provides some pop, Norichika Aoki will help the team's woeful on-base percentage, and Kyle Seager is a quality third baseman. And perhaps the most important player on this team not named King Felix or Cano is second-year starter Taijuan Walker, who has the potential to be the future ace of the staff.

I'm not sure these guys are better than the Rangers, but our projections give them a 24.4% chance of winning the AL West.

3. Los Angeles Angels

Projection: 82-80

So, it sure does help having a 9-to-10 win player on your team like Mike Trout. However, as the Angels have shown us over the last few years, you cannot win it all with just one player.

The Angels enter the 2016 season at a crossroads. They are built to try and win this year, but there are some pretty strong headwinds. Sure, having the best player in the world is good, but with the worst farm system in baseball and a team that is heavy on a few stars and not much else, it's a dicey proposition to pick the Angels to win the AL West.

Yes, Albert Pujols is still around, and he did have a better season last year, blasting 40 homers, his most since 2010. But much of that damage was done in May and June and was not sustained throughout the season.

April 86 .208 .291 .364 .654 3
May 113 .271 .301 .533 .834 8
June 114 .303 .395 .737 1.132 13
July 104 .224 .269 .439 .708 6
August 112 .231 .277 .365 .642 4
September 132 .222 .303 .427 .730 6

And aside from Kole Calhoun and C.J. Cron, it's hard to see where the offense is going to come from.

Pitching-wise, the team has its ace in Garrett Richards, a true workhorse who comes into the season perfectly healthy with strikeout stuff. But the rest of the rotation is extremely shaky. Jered Weaver's velocity is a huge concern for the Angels, as he's only managing a fastball in the low 80s and is dealing with degeneration of his cervical spine. That sounds less than ideal. C.J. Wilson and his thick and lustrous hair are completely re-working his delivery after sustaining a shoulder injury this spring. Andrew Heaney and Matt Shoemaker fill out the rest of the rotation.

Simply put, in order for L.A. even to sniff the playoffs, everything is going to have to go right. Weaver will have to learn how to become a right-handed Jamie Moyer. Wilson's new delivery will have to keep his shoulder healthy. And some other member of the offense is going to have to step up and help out Trout, who to this point, has just three postseason games under his belt.

I'm not optimistic he's going to add to it this year, although we project the Angels having a 20.0% chance of winning the division.

4. Texas Rangers

Projection: 79-83

Last year's division winner is expected to take a big step back according to our metrics. However, I am more bullish on the Rangers and expect them to contend for the West or fight for a wild card spot.

The acquisition of Cole Hamels at the trade deadline wasn't really meant to do anything for them last year. The Rangers were around .500 at the time of the trade, and the move was really intended to be for this season and beyond. But the team went on a late-season blitz, ultimately leading to a division crown. 

Hamels was his usual terrific self and will be joined at the top of the rotation by one of the great strikeout pitchers in the game, Yu Darvish, coming off Tommy John surgery. Colby Lewis, Derek Holland and Martin Perez give Texas a rotation at least as good as Houston's, and a bit better than the Mariners' or Angels'. 

And the offense should rake once again. Prince Fielder had a bounceback season last year, second baseman Rougned Odor is on the verge of becoming a star, Adrian Beltre is still one of the best third basemen in the game, Shin-Soo Choo had another typically good season getting on base and hitting for some pop, Delino DeShields Jr. is back and healthy and newly acquired Ian Desmond will provide insurance both in left field (covering for Josh Hamilton right now) or at shortstop, if Elvis Andrus gets injured or struggles.

But perhaps the biggest reason for Texas' late-season run last year was the improvement they made in the bullpen. While Hamels earned most of the attention in their big trade with Philadelphia, left-hander Jake Diekman had a huge impact on the relief corps. Trading for Sam Dyson was a brilliant stroke, the emergence of young closer Shawn Tolleson was a godsend, Keone Kela put up a 2.39 ERA in 60 1/3 innings and they traded for the excellent Tom Wilhelmsen from Seattle this off-season. Here's a look at how the 'pen did both before and after the All-Star Game.

Splits ERA K/9 BB/9 fWAR
1st Half 4.38 7.53 3.43 0.3
2nd Half 3.79 9.05 3.83 1.5
September 2.52 8.01 3.1 0.7

It's no coincidence the Rangers went 36-20 in August and September.

While our projections give Texas just a 10.8% chance of winning the AL West, I think the rotation, bullpen and outstanding offense are all big reasons why they will be slotted above the Mariners and Angels by season's end.

5. Oakland Athletics

Projection: 78-84

Did you know the Oakland A's had the third-best ERA among starting pitchers in the American League last year (3.91)? Sonny Gray is obviously an outstanding starting pitcher, one of the best in the American League. But the A's also got decent, if unspectacular seasons, from Jesse Hahn, Kendall Graveman, and Chris Bassitt. The team lost Scott Kazmir mid-season to Houston, and Jesse Chavez is now with Toronto, replaced by Rich Hill, which will likely make the rotation a bit weaker than last year's group.

Offensively, it's not clear who is going to produce runs for this team. Josh Reddick is their best player, a 20-homer man who put up a wRC+ of 117 last year, most among players with at least 300 plate appearances. But he was the only player worth more than three wins above replacement, and it remains to be seen if the surprising seasons had by catcher Stephen Vogt and Billy Burns can be replicated. Newly-acquired Khris Davis can hit for some power, mashing 27 homers in 392 plate appearances for Milwaukee last year.

But the key for Oakland is flexibility. Chris Coghlan will play all over the place this year: all three outfield positions, second base and third. Danny Valencia, the team's cleanup hitter, hit 18 homers in just 378 plate appearances between Oakland and Toronto and appears to have shed the "platoon-only" label. He'll play both third and second base. Coco CrispSam Fuld and Eric Sogard are also in the mix for infield/outfield spots, although one or two of those guys might be released shortly before camp to make room.

It's a lot for any manager to handle, and if the A's are going to have success, manager Bob Melvin will have to hit all the right notes pretty much every night.

Our projections don't think it'll happen, giving Oakland just a 7.8% chance of winning the division.