The AL Central includes the Angels, who finished with baseball's best record last season; the Athletics, who's "Moneyball" strategy never seems to keep them out of the playoffs; the Mariners, who are much improved and could really make a run this season; the Astros, who are still a few years away from contending; and the Rangers, who battled a lot of injuries last season and was the worst team in the American League.
The Mariners may be my favorite to win the American League this season, after an offseason that netted them Nelson Cruz, whom they attempted to pursue last offseason, and Seth Smith, who was coming off a strong season with the San Diego Padres. The Mariners may have been the biggest snub out of the 2014 playoffs, but this season they are going to punch their ticket to October soundly, winning the American League West with ease. The Mariners are the most well-rounded team in this division; they have youth, experience, pitching, hitting, and defense. Every other team lacks at least one of those qualities.
Last season, the Mariners saw themselves rest heavily on the play of new addition Robinson Cano, and he delivered. Even though he saw his power numbers dip ever so slightly, hitting only 14 home runs, Cano hit for an .836 OPS, and led the team with a .314 batting average. Cano is joined by Nelson Cruz in the 2015 lineup. Cruz led the American League in home runs with 40 taters. It is possible he benefitted from the bandbox in Camden Yards he played in for 82 games. Even still, he will add an immediate boost to the Mariners as the season begins.
The Mariners rotation, led by Felix Hernandez, may not be the best outside of Hernandez, but includes some very good arms in Hisashi Iwakuma, James Paxton, new addition J.A. Happ, and Taijuan Walker. The five starters makes the Mariners rotation a force to be reckoned with. They posted the second-best ERA in the Major Leagues last season and there is absolutely no reason as to why they shouldn't be able to repeat their successes this year. Mariners fans will have a lot to be cheering for in 2015.
Part of me believes that the Angels will finish back right where they left off the prior year, but the other part of me feels as if they are due to take a step back. The Angels have the best player in baseball in outfielder Mike Trout and one of the more underrated rotations with Matt Shoemaker and Garrett Richards emerging into studs last season. They also got top pitching prospect Andrew Heaney from the Marlins by way of the Dodgers to pitch in their rotation, losing second baseman Howie Kendrick in the process. A lot could go right for the Angels this season.
At the same time, this Angels team includes Josh Hamilton, who will be out awhile with his latest drug relapse; Albert Pujols, who is getting up there in age and may not be able to produce the same numbers he did last year; and Josh Rutledge, a 26-year-old light-hitting infielder who may not be able to produce at second base the way Kendrick did. This makes me question the validity of the 2014 Angels. They won a lot of games, yes, but they did that with good play from aging veterans like Pujols, and the emergence of young stars like Richards and Shoemaker. If everything repeats itself, the Angels will win 95 or more games, but if the young guns take a step back and the veterans begin to fall apart, it looks iffy they will win 90. My prediction of 90-72 is right in the middle, expecting a little bit of both.
The 2015 Angels' fate truly rests in the hands of their rotation, which was so good last season. Jered Weaver won 18 games, Garrett Richards pitched to a 2.61 ERA, and Matt Shoemaker had a 124/24 strikeout to walk ratio. The Angels can expect production from Trout, Pujols (to an extent), and new addition Matt Joyce, who has a career .783 OPS. It is the wild cards that will make or break this team.
I don't know how Billy Beane does it, but he's a fantastic general manager. This Athletics team really looks like it could contend; they have a good, young rotation, while retooling their lineup by removing some veterans and bringing in some younger guys. The Athletics look like a science experiment, using analytics so effectively that they have been able to go to the playoffs each of the past three seasons and eight times since 2000. Can they go back to the playoffs again in 2015? It's quite possible.
The Athletics really benefitted from the great play from third baseman and cornerstone Josh Donaldson last season, as he hit .255/.342/.456 with an OPS+ of 126. This offseason, Beane dealt Donaldson to the Blue Jays. The Athletics also benefitted from good play out of Brandon Moss, who hit 25 home runs in 580 plate appearances (4.31 HR%). This offseason, Beane dealt Moss to the Indians. Derek Norris also produced well last year, hitting for a 118 OPS+ in 442 plate appearances, as he and John Jaso made a nice catching platoon. This offseason, Beane dealt Norris to the Padres. See a theme?
The Athletics retooled their team greatly. Brett Lawrie, Ben Zobrist, Ike Davis, Billy Butler, and Tyler Clippard are amongst the new faces in Oakland. The Athletics did make one big free agent signing in Butler, but overall re-worked their team via trade. Zobrist is my favorite of their additions, as he will play second base in 2015. Zobrist has a .793 OPS over the past four years, including a 124 OPS+. He's one of the quietest, most consistent players in the big leagues. Lawrie, when healthy, will serve as a bit of a downgrade from Donaldson, but really isn't that much worse, showing good power and on-base abilities. Since he's off the turf in Toronto, he will likely be healthier this year. How does Beane do it?
The Rangers were riddled with injuries in 2014, which obviously caused them and their play to suffer. Finishing last in the American League West, a division that includes the usually-lowly Astros, is a big accomplishment, and one that they do not want to remember. With fewer injuries expected in 2015, the Rangers may play closer to what their talent suggests. This team is just a year removed from a 91-win season in 2013, but some key pieces of that team are no longer there or are no longer productive. The Rangers could be a surprise in 2015, but it's hard to see where exactly how their pitching staff will produce.
In their 2014 rotation, only Yu Darvish posted an ERA+ over 100. Some good news for them, however, is that the only pitcher from last season in the top-5 of their rotation depth chart this year is Colby Lewis. Derek Holland returns from an injury that held him just to 37 innings last season. Martin Perez looks to return from Tommy John surgery. The rotation is a question because it's hard to see all these guys come back from injury right to form. This offseason, the Rangers added Yovani Gallardo and Ross Detwiler to their rotation, in trades with Milwaukee and Washington, respectively. Neither of these guys will be the top starter on their team, but they represent good depth that can produce at an average to above-average level.
On a different note, other questions I have about this team are about the production levels in left field, second base, and catcher. In left, the Rangers plan to start Ryan Rua, a 24-year-old and former 17th-round pick. He has hit for a good average in the minors, but can he adjust to big league pitching and hit at a high level? At second base, the Rangers lost Jurickson Profar to an injury already, but Rougned Odor hit just for a 96 OPS+ last season. And at catcher, they plan on starting Robinson Chirinos, who is a 30-year-old with less than 162 games of big league experience. A lot of questions surround this Rangers team.
The Astros' front office and their analytic views are putting this team through many years of no success in order to be successful in two or three years. This offseason, Jeff Luhnow and his staff decided to spend some money, acquiring about $62 million in contracts, via both free agent signings and trades. The team's overall payroll is projected to be $69.7 million (via Baseball Reference) for this season. The Astros may be closer to contention and this season represents a crucial one for the development of younger players, to determine how close they are to contending.
The Astros secured a small victory last season; they lost less than 100 games for the first time since 2010, when their GM was Ed Wade. They saw Jose Altuve break on to the scene as a superstar, winning the American League batting title with a .341 batting average, while also leading the league in stolen bases with 56. Houston fans saw the debuts of top prospects George Springer and Jon Singleton, while seeing Springer smash 20 home runs in just 345 plate appearances (5.79 HR%). The development of those two players in 2015 will be key in the amount of games this team will win.
This offseason, Luhnow went out and signed Colby Rasmus, Luke Gregerson, Pat Neshek, and Jed Lowrie and acquired Evan Gattis. None of those free agents (or one trade) were particularly flashy, but they make the Astros all the more strong. With some play that exceeds expectations from their rotation in 2015, Houston may just be able to win more than 73 games, perhaps even finishing fourth or third in the AL West. With some great improvement from their younger pieces, such as Dallas Keuchel, Collin McHugh, Brett Oberholtzer, and Dan Straily, the Astros could open some eyes. One thing is for sure. That is that they are on the upward trend into the future.