1. Houston Astros -- 2015 Record: 86-76; Projection: 92-70
The Astros narrowly missed out on winning this very division last year, falling two games shy of the Rangers in the standings. Fans still weren't upset by any means. The team hadn't made the postseason since 2005, and they had some of the worst teams in baseball from 2011 to 2013, losing an average of 108 games during those horrid years. Last season was a huge turnaround for them, and it should only serve as the beginning of a huge window of contention for the 'Stros.
To find the heart and soul of this Houston team, look no further than the middle infield, with 21-year-old Carlos Correa and 25-year-old Jose Altuve being among the best shortstops and second basemen in the league, respectively. The Astros practically had no turnover in their lineup going into the 2016 season, with only Chris Carter leaving via free agency. Other than that, this team is ready to pick up where it left off.
Their pitching staff is deep. I had absolutely no problem with the team taking a shot at Doug Fister to help with the back end of their rotation. I, in fact, loved it. He was an awfully good starter not too long ago, and at 32, he should still be in his prime or close enough to his prime to be a valuable piece. The team upgraded their bullpen, their lone issue in 2015, this offseason with the addition of Ken Giles from Philadelphia. Giles, with his 100 mile per hour fastball and wipeout slider, is one of the best up-and-coming closers in baseball and should be able to finish off games with ease.
Overall, the Astros have the makings of a ball club that could be very dangerous in the 2016 playoffs. The laughingstock of the league no longer, many will be paying attention to Houston for many reasons. Plus, who isn't excited to see what Carlos Correa can do in a whole season?
2. Texas Rangers -- 2015 Record: 88-74; Projection: 90-72
When the Rangers acquired Cole Hamels from the Phillies at the trade deadline last season, their main intention was to have him for a possible run into the postseason in 2016. They were 50-52 at the time and seven games out of the division. Slowly but surely, the Hamels acquisition became not just a 2016 move, but a 2015 move too, as the Rangers propelled themselves towards the postseason. They went 38-22 the rest of the way, and they found themselves playing the Blue Jays in the American League Division Series, where they lost in five games.
The Rangers' lineup is solid from top to bottom. Probably the most underrated player there is Delino DeShields, who, as a Rule 5 draft pick, went out and posted a .718 OPS, stole 25 bases, and provided fine defense. DeShields could even have a bigger year in 2016, as he stole 101 bases in 2012 while in the Astros system. With more of a green light on the base paths, DeShields could be a huge headache to pitchers. Also, the Rangers added Ian Desmond to the mix this year, where he'll serve as an outfielder until Josh Hamilton can find a way to get healthy (if he does at all). On a one-year, $8 million deal, Desmond looks to be a steal and may be able to have a solid year in a hitter's park.
As for their staff, the biggest addition (or more like a re-addition) the Rangers will be getting this year is Yu Darvish, who missed all of last year with Tommy John surgery. Darvish and Hamels should give them one of the better one-two punches in the American League. As for their bullpen, the Rangers took on Tom Wilhelmsen in a trade with the Mariners this offseason, where he'll be in the back-end of the 'pen with Jake Diekman, Sam Dyson, Keone Kela, and Shawn Tolleson.
The Rangers should have a very good year in 2016, but the Astros are just a bit better in terms of depth and in the rotation. I expect Texas to have a good shot at the playoffs, though.
3. Seattle Mariners - 2015 Record: 76-86; Projection: 82-80
The Mariners did a lot this offseason. Perhaps the move I liked the most, however, was the hiring of Jerry Dipoto to be their general manager and their subsequent hiring of Scott Servais to be their manager. They needed an executive like Dipoto to come in and clean house, while building around the talent that they already have in store, with players like Felix Hernandez, Robinson Cano, and Nelson Cruz.
The Mariners brought in quite a few mid-range additions this offseason: starter Wade Miley, outfielder Nori Aoki, reliever Steve Cishek, reliever Joaquin Benoit first baseman Adam Lind, outfielder Leonys Martin, catcher Chris Iannetta and many, many others. If I spent time on every one, I'd be here all day. However, I'd like to point out that as a whole, I loved what the Mariners did this offseason. They attacked their weaknesses from 2015, like the pitching, especially out of the bullpen. Miley is a huge bounce-back candidate for their rotation; though he had a 4.46 ERA last year, his peripherals were very good (147 strikeouts and 64 walks in 193 2/3 innings) and advanced stats like FIP and xFIP suggest that his ERA should have been closer to 4.00. FIP in particular said that Miley should have had a 3.81 ERA last year with better defense behind him.
The Mariners' core part of their lineup is similar to what it was in 2015. In terms of wRC+, the Mariners had the seventh-best offense in the league. If they want to be better than that, they'll need Cano to play like he did in the second half. He had a .331 batting average, hit 15 home runs, and posted a 157 wRC+ in the latter half of 2015. There's reason to believe he'll be back to where he was, as he is now fully healthy after battling a long-term stomach illness. Overall though, there's reason to have hope in the Mariners' lineup in 2016.
Looking at the team as a whole, it's really hard to know where the Mariners stand in 2016. It is impossible to determine if they will mesh, if their pitching will hold up, or if they can beat out some of the better American League teams. I initially thought that the Mariners could win the AL West, but I'm still skeptical as to whether they will put it all together on the field.
4. Los Angeles Angels - 2015 Record: 85-77; Projection: 81-81
The Angels are wasting the best player in baseball. Mike Trout has only seen the postseason once (in 2014 for a mere three games). And he won't see it again this year. The Angels are coming off a season where they were oh-so-close to making the postseason, but just could not do it. I liked the addition of Andrelton Simmons to fill a whole at shortstop, but are they really going into 2016 with a platoon of Daniel Nava and Craig Gentry in the outfield? I am not a fan.
Outside of Trout and Albert Pujols, I have concerns about who will provide the offense in Anaheim. The team had five players with an OPS+ of 100 or greater in 2016. One of them is gone (David Freese), and the other two--Kole Calhoun and C.J. Cron--were just above 100 at 104 and 106, respectively. The Angels ranked 12th in the American League in runs scored in 2015. That could only be worse this year. Mike Trout can only do so much, L.A.! That's what I love about baseball; one player cannot make a team a playoff team.
The rotation is fine. I am a fan of Garrett Richards at the top there and Andrew Heaney more towards the back. Even Hector Santiago was solid last year, working to a 3.59 ERA in 33 games (32 starts). But then the Angels have Jered Weaver, who has struggled to work above 80 mph this Spring Training and looks even more hittable than last year when he worked to a 4.64 ERA. Matt Shoemaker is the wild card here, as he had a 3.04 ERA (3.26 FIP) in an excellent rookie year, but posted a 4.46 ERA (4.59 FIP) last year. What Shoemaker will we see next year?
The Angels have plenty of concerns in my eyes, but there's definitely a chance they contend, especially if their offense can pick up some of the slack. They've got a good couple of stars there, but I'm worried about the depth, or lack thereof. The Angels will keep themselves in the mix if they can win the close games and beat the teams they should beat in 2016. Because I don't think they'll be blowing anyone away.
5. Oakland Athletics - 2015 Record: 68-94; Projection: 78-84
The Athletics missed the playoffs in 2015 for the first time since 2011, and I don't see them reversing their fortunes. The front office may still have hope, though, considering Sonny Gray is still in an Oakland uniform. This is despite the fact that he was a hot name on the trade market this offseason, and the Athletics are not expected to contend next year.
The team made a few modest upgrades this offseason, bringing in relievers Ryan Madson, Liam Hendriks, John Axford and Marc "Scrabble" Rzepczynski; starter Rich Hill and Jed Lowrie, Khris Davis, and Yonder Alonso in the lineup. Each move came with a purpose, but my favorite of all of them was the trade for Davis, who is a candidate to a ton of home runs in 2016. This is something the A's lacked last year. Davis hit 27 in 440 plate appearances with the Brewers last season, posting a 122 OPS+. There's a lot to like about his upside on the field, but the A's must like him due to the fact that he's inexpensive and controllable through the 2019 season.
As for their pitching, you can't go wrong with Gray, who, at 25, was named to his first All-Star team last year. He posted a 2.73 ERA in 31 starts and 208 innings last season, striking out 169 and walking just 59. Gray is the ace of Oakland's staff, and his excellent control gives me plenty of reason to believe that he'll be the ace for years to come. Hill was the another addition for the A's this offseason, and he earns $6 million in 2016 after making just four starts last year. However, Hill's four starts were fantastic, as he posted a 1.55 ERA in 29 innings with a 36 to five strikeout-to-walk ratio with the Red Sox. Those are again reasons to believe that his success was sustainable. The A's hope he'll be just good enough to be worth the $6 million they owe him.
Overall, the Athletics are another puzzling case in the American League West. I'm not sure how big of an impact their new additions this offseason will make. However, I can say without much doubt that Oakland will be improved after a bad year last year, but the question is how much.
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