National baseball writer Barry Svrluga previews the upcoming season with a division-by-division rundown, in predicted order of finish.
1. Houston Astros
2015 record and finish: 86-76, second, won wild-card game, lost division series to Kansas City
Significant additions: RP Ken Giles, SP Doug Fister
Significant losses: SP Mark Appel, SP Scott Kazmir, IF Jed Lowrie, 1B Chris Carter, RP Chad Qualls, RP Oliver Perez, RP Joe Thatcher
Season is a success if: The 2015 Dallas Keuchel appears again, and if Carlos Correa continues this trajectory.
There’s so much to like here that what you want to say to the Astros is, simply, “Keep doing what you’re doing.” Keuchel won the AL Cy Young award with a 2.48 ERA and 1.017 WHIP over 232 innings. That represented a major step forward from 2014, when he emerged as a potential force with a 2.93 ERA and 1.175 WHIP over 200 innings. That arc of improvement, though, couldn’t possibly continue, so Keuchel must simply wash, rinse and repeat, maintaining himself as the ace of what is now a deep rotation that includes 19-game winner Collin McHugh and 22-year-old Lance McCullers, who will start the year on the disabled list but could be prepared to break out. Correa has done no wrong. His 99-game debut led to the AL Rookie of the Year award, not to mention 22 homers and 52 runs scored in just 432 plate appearances. And the Astros added to their bullpen by adding Giles in a trade with Philadelphia, beefing up a unit that already that includes the outstanding left-right combo of Tony Sipp and Will Harris to go along with 2015 closer Luke Gregerson. There are questions: Do they strike out too much (an AL-high rate of 22.9 percent)? Will first baseman Jon Singleton ever emerge as an everyday player, much less the star he was supposed to be? But these are nitpicks for a team that seems ready to improve on its 86-win 2015.
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2. Texas Rangers
2015 record and finish: 88-74, first, lost division series to Toronto
Significant additions: OF Ian Desmond, SP A.J. Griffin, RP Tom Wilhelmsen, OF James Jones, OF Justin Ruggiano
Significant losses: SP Yovani Gallardo, 1B Mike Napoli, RP Anthony Bass, OF Leonys Martin, OF Drew Stubbs, OF Will Venable, RP Ross Ohlendorf
The season is a success if: Yu Darvish is back by June, and he pitches like Yu Darvish.
Remember that the Rangers came from behind to win the division without a single inning registered by their ace, who underwent Tommy John surgery in spring training. Their rotation ERA of 4.32 ranked 10th in the American League, and they lose from that group Gallardo, who turned in an effective season (3.42 ERA over 184-1/3 innings) but signed with Baltimore as a free agent. This season’s rotation, though, will have Cole Hamels for the full year, and it’s possible Derek Holland (just 95-2/3 innings the last two seasons after a breakout 213-inning season in 2013) could be back fully healthy. The key, though, is Darvish, whose 11.22 strikeouts per nine innings led the AL from 2012-14. The Rangers score enough runs (third in the AL behind the Blue Jays and Yankees) and might be on the verge of a breakout for 22-year-old slugger Joey Gallo. The objective, after allowing the third-most runs in the league, will be run prevention, and having a healthy Darvish would go a long way toward that.
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3. Seattle Mariners
2015 record and finish: 76-86, fourth
Significant additions: GM Jerry Dipoto, Manager Scott Servais, 1B Adam Lind, SP Wade Miley, SP Nathan Karns, OF Leonys Martin, OF Nori Aoki, RP Joaquin Benoit, RP Steve Cishek, C Chris Iannetta, C Steve Clevenger
Significant losses: GM Jack Zduriencik, Manager Lloyd McClendon, SS Brad Miller, 1B/DH Mark Trumbo, SP Roenis Elias, 1B Logan Morrison, RP Carson Smith, RP Tom Wilhelmsen, RP Joe Beimel
The season is a success if: the offense turns around.
Dipoto, the general manager who last ran the Angels, seemed to understand that the Mariners’ formula didn’t work, so he made a slew of moves to change things up. Whether that will recharge a flagging offense remains to be seen. Seattle ranked in the bottom third of the AL in runs scored, batting average and on-base percentage, and who knows where they would have been if not for a 44-homer, .936-OPS season from slugger Nelson Cruz? Second baseman Robinson Cano meandered through a terrible first half (.660 OPS) but rebounded after the all-star break (.926 OPS), and having him keep that form would help immensely. Lind, acquired in a trade with Milwaukee, should be better at first than Morrison (.225 average, .685 OPS). Will rookie Ketel Marte be an improvement over Miller, traded to Tampa in the deal that landed former Nats prospect Karns? There are questions in the rotation, too, given that Taijuan Walker and James Paxton haven’t found consistency or health, respectively. But that group is fronted by Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma, and therefore should be more stable. For the Mariners to contend, the lineup needs to step forward.
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4. Los Angeles Angels
2015 record and finish: 85-77, third
Significant additions: SS Andrelton Simmons, RP Al Alburquerque, IF Yunel Escobar, C Geovany Soto, OF/1B Daniel Nava, IF Cliff Pennington, GM Billy Eppler
Significant losses: SS Erick Aybar, 3B David Freese, OF Collin Cowgill, OF David DeJesus, C Chris Iannetta, RP Trevor Gott, IF Conor Gillaspie, OF Shane Victorino, OF David Murphy
The season will be a success if: Garrett Richards and Andrew Heaney become what C.J. Wilson and Jered Weaver once were.
The Angels could have done more to improve offensively in the offseason. (Left field, for example, will likely be manned by Nava and Craig Gentry, yet they didn’t appear in the conversations for Yoenis Cespedes or Alex Gordon?) Given their team OPS of .702 was second-worst in the AL, perhaps that should have been the focus. Yet the rotation appears where there is the potential either for a step forward – or for rampant instability. Both Weaver and Wilson are in the last years of their contracts, and though they are only 33 and 35, respectively, their careers feel as if they’re held together by duct tape. They managed just 291 innings between the two of them a year ago, and with diminishing stuff, they’d be well served to post anything under a 4.00 ERA if they can throw 180 innings apiece. Thus, there is a changing of the guard at the front of the rotation. Richards’s last two seasons, his first two as a full-time major league starter, have resulted in a 3.18 ERA and 1.149 WHIP. Can he step forward from that solid foundation? Heaney’s 18-start debut as a 24-year-old resulted in a 3.49 ERA and 1.202 WHIP, and his ceiling is considered higher than that of Richards. If that pair makes strides, the Angels could benefit from the improved defense provided by Simmons at short and become known for their starting pitching – not just their perennial MVP candidate of a center fielder.
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5. Oakland Athletics
2015 record and finish: 68-94, fifth
Significant additions: 1B Yonder Alonso, SP Rich Hill, SP Henderson Alvarez, RP Ryan Madson, RP Marc Rzepczynski, RP John Axford, RP Liam Hendricks
Significant losses: 3B Brett Lawrie, 1B Ike Davis, SP Jesse Chavez, RP Fernando Abad, RP Dan Otero, RP Pat Venditte
The season is a success if: Sonny Gray is still with Oakland in August.
Gray is not just the ace of the Athletics staff, he’s one of the best pitchers in baseball. Since he came up in 2013, only one AL pitcher – Seattle’s Hernandez – has a better ERA than his 2.88. Given that he can’t become a free agent until after the 2019 season, Gray would figure to be part of Oakland’s rebuilding efforts. But because he’s under club control, he also would bring loads of prospects that could enhance that rebuild. The tip-off: If Oakland exec Billy Beane holds onto Gray beyond this year’s trade deadline, it may mean he has seen enough from the group he has to think the A’s could contend next summer. For that to happen, it’s likely the bullpen will have to improve. After a year in which the A’s posted the AL’s worst bullpen ERA (4.63), Oakland went out and signed veterans Madson, Rzepczynski and Axford. Plus they’ll have closer Sean Doolittle back from an injury-ravaged 2015. Keep in mind: The A’s lost more games than any team in the AL a year ago, but they were only outscored by 35 runs (a mark that would normally translate to a 77-85 record). They might not have been as bad as they appeared.