2015 AL West Preview: Prepare for Playoff Baseball in Seattle

Ben Margot/AP

It’s division preview time! Last week, we kicked things off with the parity-ridden AL East and the in-flux AL Central. Today, it’s time for the AL West. Check back on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday for your NL fix.

Another day, another division with a tight race at the top. The AL West features one franchise (Texas) that’s stuck beneath a black cloud, another (Houston) that’s about to emerge from its tanking chrysalis as a beautiful baseball team, and three (Seattle, Anaheim, and Oakland) whose close race to the finish last season figures to pick up more or less where it left off. Can the Mariners break baseball’s second-longest playoff drought? Can Billy Beane revamp his whole roster without subjecting his team to an awkward transition phase? Can Mike Trout hit high fastballs? All of these (and many other) mysteries of the universe are explored at length below.

Programming notes: Projected lineups and rotations come from RosterResource.com. Projected player stats and team records come from FanGraphs and combine ZiPS/Steamer-projected performance with playing-time estimates from the FanGraphs depth charts. Projected player improvements and declines are restricted to hitters with at least 300 plate appearances in 2014 and 2015 (projected), and pitchers who threw at least 50 innings in 2014 and 2015 (projected). Finally, injury projections for hitters and pitchers are provided by Rob Arthur and Jeff Zimmerman, respectively.1 Teams are ordered according to our personal, infallible forecasts of the final regular-season standings, so stop reading right now if you don’t want the next six months spoiled.

1. Seattle Mariners

kyle-seager-mariners-triChris Carlson/AP

Mariners Projected Starting Lineup
Order Player Bats Slash Line wRC+ PA
1 CF Austin Jackson R .251/.315/.365 96 595
2 RF Seth Smith L .247/.330/.400 110 455
3 2B Robinson Cano L .296/.361/.455 130 644
4 DH Nelson Cruz R .250/.309/.457 117 574
5 3B Kyle Seager L .262/.328/.431 118 630
6 1B Logan Morrison L .247/.318/.413 109 560
7 C Mike Zunino R .219/.276/.398 92 480
8 LF Dustin Ackley L .250/.313/.383 100 560
9 SS Brad Miller L .249/.308/.387 99 469
Mariners Projected Starting Rotation
Order Pitcher ERA FIP IP K/9 BB/9
1 RHP Felix Hernandez 2.79 2.74 217.0 9.3 1.9
2 RHP Hisashi Iwakuma 3.36 3.42 204.0 7.5 1.6
3 LHP James Paxton 3.91 3.89 170.0 7.3 3.4
4 RHP Taijuan Walker 3.97 3.97 130.0 8.0 3.3
5 LHP J.A. Happ 4.15 4.15 158.0 7.6 3.2

Biggest Projected Hitter/Pitcher Improvement: Austin Jackson, 1.2 WAR/600 PA; Tom Wilhelmsen, 0.1 WAR/200 IP

Biggest Projected Hitter/Pitcher Decline: Nelson Cruz, minus-1.9 WAR/600 PA; James Paxton, minus-1.5 WAR/200 IP

Hitter With Most Projected Days Missed: Willie Bloomquist, 43 days

Highest Projected Starting Pitcher DL Probability: J.A. Happ, 55 percent

Best Offseason Move: Kyle Seager’s extension. The Mariners didn’t make many additions to the team that finished one game out of a wild-card spot last season, banking on better health and production from the players already in place. But they did ensure that one of the best of those players would stay in Seattle for the rest of his prime, signing the 27-year-old Seager to a seven-year, $100 million extension that runs through 2021. Seager was already out of his pre-arbitration period, so this isn’t one of those early, McCutchen/Longoria-style steals that makes a player look improbably underpaid compared to his peers. Still, the Mariners have money, and locking up one of the game’s best third basemen was a sensible way to spend some.

Worst Offseason Move: Signing Nelson Cruz for four years. Mariners designated hitters produced a .190/.266/.301 slash line last season, yielding a league-worst 56 sOPS+. For them, that’s standard: In the 10 seasons since Edgar Martinez’s retirement, the Mariners have had the AL’s least-productive designated hitters six times, even after adjusting for the offense-suppressing effects of Safeco Field. Only once in that span have their DHs been above-average. Cruz will be a big upgrade this year, but between his age — he’ll turn 38 during the last year of his $57 million deal — and Safeco’s grudge against right-handed power, his stay in Seattle will get ugly before it ends. If he helps the Mariners end their 13-season playoff drought before then, it probably will have been worth it — albeit not nearly as worth it as it would’ve been had the M’s signed him a year earlier, when he wasn’t paid close to enough during his 40-homer campaign with the Orioles.

Greatest Team Strength: Their lack of weaknesses.2 Mitchel Lichtman, the coauthor of The Book, creator of Ultimate Zone Rating, and former consultant to MLB teams, generates his own team projections based on the playing-time estimates in the FanGraphs depth charts. Lichtman’s system, which sees the Mariners as an 87-win team, assigns ratings to each team’s offense, defense, and pitching staff, in projected runs above average. Here’s how the Mariners rate in each category, with AL ranks in parentheses.

Offense Defense Pitching
+22 (4th) +10 (6th) +18 (3rd)

The Mariners aren’t elite in any area, but they’re the only AL team with a positive projection in all three categories.3 There’s a terrible Trader Jack/jack-of-all-trades sentence taking shape in my mind, so I’m ending this section before it finishes forming.

Greatest Team Weakness: Their lack of elite areas! OK, that’s kind of a cop-out. How about this: The Mariners don’t have an obvious weakness, but one could develop quickly if the wrong guy goes down. At the moment, the Mariners are among the majors’ healthiest teams, with no players expected to start the season on the disabled list. They’ll have to hope things stay that way, because they don’t have any top-20 prospects or overqualified bench bats angling for playing time. In recent seasons, the M’s have had a surplus of DH/1B bodies (if not above-average bats), and while it speaks well of their roster construction that that’s no longer the case, that lost depth could become a problem if Cruz or Logan Morrison (who hasn’t played 100 games in a season since 2011) misses time. No one (except the Angels) wants to see Rickie Weeks, the newly slim Jesus Montero, or unproven prospect D.J. Peterson at a premium offensive position for an extended stretch.

Player We Can’t Wait to Watch: As intriguing as starter Taijuan Walker’s first full season will be, the answer, by default and for the foreseeable future, is Felix. Hernandez doesn’t throw nearly as hard as he used to (although he broke a six-season declining-velocity streak last year), but the loss of speed has only made him more interesting — and, thus far, no less effective. Last season, Hernandez threw his changeup 31.4 percent of the time,4 the highest rate in the majors for anyone who pitched in more than three games. He threw more changeups than he did any other type of pitch.

It pays for Felix to throw the changeup so often, because he has the best one in baseball. Among pitchers who threw at least 300 changeups last season, Felix threw his the hardest and with the second-most sink (behind Max Scherzer’s). The latter trait enables him to defy the usual relationship between fastballs and changeups: Big speed separations mean more whiffs, while small speed separations mean more grounders. Hernandez has the smallest separation between his four-seamer and changeup (only 3.7 mph), which gives him a 73.4 percent ground ball rate on changeups put in play — 3.0 standard deviations above the mean. But he also has a 40.6 percent whiff/swing rate, which is 1.4 standard deviations above the mean. One way or another, when hitters swing at Felix’s changeup, bad things happen to them.

Hernandez will turn 29 shortly after Opening Day. I’m in no hurry for him to grow old, but I’m fascinated to see how he handles it.

Noteworthy Miscellaneous Stat: The Mariners are projected to have the easiest schedule in the majors, in terms of opponent quality. In an era of extreme parity (particularly in the AL), the differences between teams’ schedule strengths are slight, bordering on insignificant. Then again, so is the difference between the Mariners’ and Angels’ projected records, so the M’s will gladly accept any edge.

They’ll also gladly accept a significant reduction in travel time. The Mariners will travel 43,281 miles this season — the most in the majors, but the franchise’s fewest since at least 2008. Last year, the M’s traveled 51,540 miles, 4,281 more than the second-place A’s. This year, they’ll out-travel the A’s by only 2,414 miles. If there is a cost to team travel, Seattle’s bill won’t be as exorbitant as it usually is.

Off-Field Story Line: The attendance renaissance. When the Mariners were winning early last decade, they were also the envy of other teams’ ticketing departments, finishing first in the majors in average home attendance in 2001 and 2002. Some of that was the usual new-ballpark boom, but not all of it; M’s attendance was higher in ’01 and ’02 than it was in 1999 and 2000, Safeco Field’s first two seasons.5 Like any city, Seattle supports winners and loses interest in losers: The Mariners bottomed out at 26th in attendance in 2012, but they added almost 4,000 fans per game last season relative to 2013, the biggest raw increase in baseball. Even so, they ranked only 23rd, which means there’s much more room for growth now that the team is favored to win for the first time in years.

Projected Record and Over/Under: 88-74 — OVER. Robinson Cano’s 2014 arrival gave the Mariners a second superstar, and their farm system coupled with a few complementary moves has finally given them a roster that’s rich enough from top to Bloomquist to inspire deservedly high hopes. Plenty of potential problems could keep a fatalistic M’s fan up at night — Austin Jackson’s spike in strikeouts and grounders in his first, partial season in Seattle; flashbacks to Brad Miller’s and Dustin Ackley’s first-half offensive struggles; Paxton’s injury history; the long odds that the bullpen, good as it appears to be, will equal last year’s major-league-leading ERA and xFIP, which was the fourth-lowest since 2002 — but there are fewer realistic season-killing scenarios for Seattle than there are for the rest of the teams in the West. An uncharacteristically robust lineup and a strong pitching staff, paired with two stellar defensive catchers in starter Mike Zunino — who’s seventh in projected framing skill, according to Baseball Prospectus — and backup Jesus Sucre, should make the Mariners’ season exciting because it will culminate in a playoff appearance, not a near miss.

2. Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim

mike-trout-angels-triMorry Gash/AP

Angels Projected Starting Lineup
Order Player Bats Slash Line wRC+ PA
1 RF Kole Calhoun L .264/.321/.437 120 609
2 CF Mike Trout R .299/.396/.557 173 644
3 1B Albert Pujols R .271/.328/.470 126 595
4 DH C.J. Cron R .248/.285/.408 99 455
5 SS Erick Aybar S .272/.311/.381 99 630
6 LF Matt Joyce L .242/.330/.400 112 560
7 C Chris Iannetta R .225/.341/.355 107 480
8 3B David Freese R .255/.323/.381 106 560
9 2B Johnny Giavotella R .257/.308/.357 93 350
Outfielder Josh Hamilton is recovering from shoulder surgery and is also facing a suspension for violating MLB’s drug policy.
Angels Projected Starting Rotation
Order Pitcher ERA FIP IP K/9 BB/9
1 RHP Jered Weaver 3.99 4.31 204.0 6.6 2.5
2 LHP C.J. Wilson 4.13 4.08 193.0 7.7 3.9
3 RHP Matt Shoemaker 3.67 3.67 198.0 7.3 1.9
4 LHP Hector Santiago 4.02 4.29 143.0 7.5 3.6
5 LHP Andrew Heaney 3.89 3.98 55.0 7.6 2.7
Angels ace Garrett Richards is rehabbing from knee surgery but should rejoin the rotation in mid-April. It’s not yet clear who will fall out of the rotation when Richards returns.

Biggest Projected Hitter/Pitcher Improvement: Josh Rutledge, 2.4 WAR/600 PA; C.J. Wilson, 0.6 WAR/200 IP

Biggest Projected Hitter/Pitcher Decline: Chris Iannetta, minus-1.4 WAR/600 PA; Huston Street, minus-2.8 WAR/200 IP

Hitter With Most Projected Days Missed: Josh Hamilton, 35 days

Highest Projected Starting Pitcher DL Probability: Jered Weaver, 47 percent

Best Offseason Move: It came at a cost — more on that in a moment — but the Angels helped patch a weak rotation and a thin farm system in one winter, acquiring 23-year-old left-handed starter Andrew Heaney from the Dodgers for Howie Kendrick after getting 24-year-old righty starter Nick Tropeano (and catcher Carlos Perez) from the Astros for backup catcher Hank Conger. After ranking at the bottom of BP’s rotation-depth rankings last spring — foreshadowing the shorthandedness that helped knock them out of October — the Angels have climbed to the top tier this year. They’ve also acquired nine of their 10 top prospects since the start of last year’s draft, although only Heaney has a high ceiling and their minor league system is still only 28th overall after prior wheeling and dealing depleted the organizational depth.

Worst Offseason Move: Not finding a solid successor to Kendrick. The Angels had no chance to fill the void the Heaney trade created with someone who would replace their former second baseman’s production, but they could have come closer than they did. Asdrubal Cabrera, who remained unsigned into January and eventually settled for a single-year salary of $7.5 million with the Rays, would have wiped out most of the savings the Angels accrued by moving Kendrick, but he also would have given them a better shot at the extra revenue that arises from a playoff appearance than will the current motley crew of Johnny Giavotella, Rutledge, Taylor Featherston, and Grant Green, all of whom are slowly sliding down the wall at which GM Jerry Dipoto threw them.

Greatest Team Strength: Offense. Last year, the Angels were baseball’s best-hitting team, with a league-leading nine players who posted OPS+ marks of 100 or better. They probably won’t be that good again: Albert Pujols, Iannetta, David Freese, and Erick Aybar are a little further from 30, C.J. Cron could regress, and even if Giavotella hits as well as long-suffering, stat-minded Royals fans always believed he could (at least compared to Chris Getz), he won’t be anything close to Kendrick. Still, any lineup featuring Mike Trout — batting in the sabermetrics-recommended second spot in the order, no less — has a chance to be the best in its division, even if the superstar is surrounded by hitters who peak at “pretty good.” Sadly, Hamilton’s 2015 fate has little bearing on the lineup’s success: At this stage of his career, he projects to be no better than Matt Joyce, although he could help the Angels as a platoon partner for Cron.

Greatest Team Weakness: Defense. According to Lichtman’s projections, which factor in catchers’ framing, throwing, and blocking abilities, the Twins will be the only team with worse fielders than the Angels. Kendrick’s departure hurts his longtime team in this area, as does the absence of Conger, whom the Astros acquired for his framing talents.6 Pujols doesn’t move as well as he once did, and even Trout’s fielding stats have slipped since his rookie season, leaving Anaheim with a few “avert your eyes” guys (Iannetta, Giavotella, Freese) and no true defensive standouts.

Player We Can’t Wait to Watch: Trout, who’s projected, believe it or not, to bounce back from his MVP year, to the tune of 1.4 WAR/600 PA. It’s enough that he’s the best player in baseball, with the highest WAR ever of any position player through age 22, but it’s also nice that every Trout season brings another revelation in a tantalizing statistical striptease. Eventually, though, dominance becomes boring, which is why every superhero needs a nemesis, some sign of vulnerability that raises the stakes. Last year, for the first time since his 2011 call-up, Trout encountered conflict in the form of increasingly common high fastballs that he couldn’t hit, compared to the low fastballs he feasts on. He has vowed this spring to correct that weakness, as well as to get more aggressive on first pitches. Of course, he said he’d be swinging early last March, and instead he took even more often, swinging at 10.6 percent of first pitches (sixth-lowest among qualified hitters), down from 12.4 percent (10th-lowest) in 2013.

We know that last season Trout struck out more often, saw his batting average sink, and rarely attempted to steal, but also hit for more power. What we don’t know is whether that was a sign of the trajectory he’ll take as his body gets bigger, stronger, and slower, or a one-year blip. Trout isn’t particularly revealing when he talks to the press: If he self-analyzes as obsessively as we analyze him, he isn’t as eager to share. If he tries to do something different, though, it won’t be long before our Trout sense starts tingling. Whether he wants to or not, Trout speaks through his stats, and we won’t miss a message.

Noteworthy Miscellaneous Stat: Angels pitchers might be the best in the game at pitching to their home park. Among AL ballparks, Angel Stadium is tied with O.co Coliseum as the hardest place to hit a home run; according to Inside Edge, pitchers in Anaheim allowed the league’s lowest HR/FB rate last season (8.4 percent). Also according to Inside Edge’s classifications, Angels pitchers allowed fly balls more often than any other staff except the Rays’ last season. That could be a coincidence, except they also threw their fastballs “up in or above the strike zone” 37.3 percent of the time (second in the majors to Tampa Bay), as if they were inviting batted balls into the air. Whether the Angels are developing their own high-fastball throwers or importing them from elsewhere, their approach seems to be part of a plan to make the most of pitchers who lack special stuff.

Off-Field Story Line: It has to be Hamilton’s recovery, not only for the human-interest implications, but also for the financial implications beyond 2015. The 33-year-old’s salary escalates to $25.4 million this year, pending a possible suspension (which would, under unfortunate circumstances, save the Angels some cash). Regardless of how the disciplinary panel rules, Hamilton has a raise headed his way next season, so the Angels have a $64.8 million investment from 2016–17 to protect, as well as a person. Hamilton’s odds of avoiding another relapse (and ever again achieving his ambitious statistical goals) won’t be any better if he has to sit out much of the summer, so his support system will have to grow stronger in response.

Dipoto’s job security will be a secondary story line. It took until September for owner Arte Moreno to exercise Dipoto’s option for 2015, and his 2016 option — the last leg of the contract he signed before the 2012 season — remains untriggered, which isn’t the strongest endorsement of a GM whose team had the best record in baseball last year. If this season doesn’t play out as smoothly, the old squabbling between Dipoto and Mike Scioscia could resume. Scioscia, who has a longer tenure with the team and three guaranteed years remaining, would likely hold the high ground in a front office–field staff–ownership power struggle.

Projected Record and Over/Under: 87-75 — PUSH. Even with promising young lefty Tyler Skaggs out for the season as he rehabs from August 2014 Tommy John surgery, the Angels might find themselves in the unfamiliar position of having too much starting pitching once Garrett Richards — their lone ace-caliber arm — returns. They’ll also have Street, Vinnie Pestano, and other mid-2014 bullpen additions for the full season. In every other respect, they’re probably worse off than they were last year, but a drop-off from 98 wins doesn’t preclude another playoff appearance. It just means they might have to set their sights on one of the wild-card spots instead of the West crown.

3. Oakland Athletics

ben-zobrist-oakland-triNorm Hall/Getty Images

A’s Projected Starting Lineup
Order Player Bats Slash Line wRC+ PA
1 LF Coco Crisp S .252/.327/.388 106 560
2 CF Sam Fuld L .232/.306/.328 84 525
3 RF Ben Zobrist S .264/.350/.408 118 595
4 DH Billy Butler R .272/.342/.408 114 630
5 1B Ike Davis L .228/.332/.402 112 525
6 3B Brett Lawrie R .258/.317/.409 109 560
7 C Stephen Vogt L .255/.303/.398 99 384
8 SS Marcus Semien R .238/.314/.394 104 595
9 2B Eric Sogard* L .245/.307/.327 83 350
*Sogard will play second until Josh Reddick returns from an oblique injury in April, which will shift Zobrist from right field to second base.
A’s Projected Starting Rotation
Order Pitcher ERA FIP IP K/9 BB/9
1 RHP Sonny Gray 3.53 3.60 198.0 7.6 3.1
2 RHP Jesse Hahn 4.18 4.25 140.0 6.7 3.7
3 LHP Scott Kazmir 3.68 3.69 177.0 7.8 2.6
4 RHP Kendall Graveman 4.31 4.39 104.0 5.1 2.6
5 LHP Drew Pomeranz 4.01 4.22 160.0 8.1 3.9
Jarrod Parker and A.J. Griffin will attempt to rejoin the rotation once their recoveries from 2014 Tommy John surgeries are complete.

Biggest Projected Hitter/Pitcher Improvement: Billy Butler, 1.5 WAR/600 PA; Ryan Cook, 0.3 WAR/200 IP

Biggest Projected Hitter/Pitcher Decline: Sam Fuld, minus-2.9 WAR/600 PA; Sean Doolittle, minus-3.7 WAR/200 IP

Hitter With Most Projected Days Missed: Brett Lawrie, 46 days

Highest Projected Starting Pitcher DL Probability: Scott Kazmir, 43 percent

Best Offseason Move: The Ben Zobrist deal. For most of this winter, A’s GM Billy Beane was like a figure skater attempting to pull off an unprecedented quintuple salchow, spinning in a way that seemed both purposeful and possibly ill-advised. With each revolution (Josh Donaldson! Brandon Moss!), Beane cast off some vital part of his 2014 playoff team (Jeff Samardzija! Derek Norris!) and sucked some other useful piece (Billy Butler! Brett Lawrie!) into his wake (Marcus Semien! Jesse Hahn!). The acrobatics alone were impressive, but they would’ve been wasted motion without a final flourish to tie them together. The Zobrist trade was the moment when Beane stuck the landing, we all exhaled, and the judges gave him high marks. A switch-hitter who plays multiple positions well, Zobrist is built to be an A, and he’s both talented enough and close enough to free agency to make good on Beane’s stated intention to compete in 2015 while simultaneously retrenching for the future.

Worst Offseason Move: The Butler signing and the Donaldson deal had their detractors, but both transactions gave the A’s a player (or players) who’ll serve an important purpose, either on the 2015 team or as fertilizer for Beane’s never-ending trade tree. Conversely, the Moss swap gave the A’s little more than salary relief and Joe Wendle, a lefty second baseman who hit .253/.311/.414 as a 24-year-old in Double-A. As Jonah Keri noted in declaring this one a win for Cleveland, Moss might be damaged goods, but Wendle was an underwhelming return.

Greatest Team Strength: Pitching depth. The quality of Oakland’s starters drops off steeply after Sonny Gray, but the staff has an extremely long tail. The A’s can more or less fill a Triple-A staff with pitchers who wouldn’t look out of place at the back of a big league rotation or bullpen, including winter acquisitions Sean Nolin, Chris Bassitt, and Barry Zito. And that’s without accounting for Griffin and Parker, who could make it back by midseason. The A’s seemed to have a deep rotation last spring, and they still ended up needing to fill a few holes via trade. This season, though, it would take an injury epidemic of Rangers-esque proportions to keep them from having someone serviceable on hand.

Greatest Team Weakness: A lack of high-impact hitters. Zobrist is a stud, but much of his value comes from defense and versatility: His bat, while still above average, has lost a lot of its pop. But Zobrist is the best the A’s can offer on offense. He’s almost the worst best hitter in baseball: Only the Yankees (Chase Headley) and Phillies (Domonic Brown) have best hitters with lower projected wRC+ marks than Zobrist’s 118.7 Outside of center field, the A’s don’t have any hitters who are significantly below average, either, so this isn’t as bad as it seems. Still, it’s hard for a lineup to be an asset when the highlights are this low.

Player We Can’t Wait to Watch: Lawrie. In the case of a player like Lawrie, half the uncertainty is whether we’ll get to watch him at all. The 25-year-old has the skills to do everything well, but he lacks the one attribute that unlocks all the others: the ability to avoid injury. Keeping Lawrie on the field for a full season would make up for much of the present-day gap between what the A’s gave up and got back in the Donaldson trade, and if Lawrie blossoms into the player the projections think he can be, Beane will look like a genius for making a difficult decision to sell high on the older, more expensive Super Two.

Noteworthy Miscellaneous Stat: According to information from the BP database, the 2014 A’s had the lowest percentage of plate appearances plus batters faced by homegrown players8 since the 2007 Padres: 22.7 percent. Beane seems to have taken the import approach to a new level this year: Gray is likely to be the only A’s draftee on Oakland’s Opening Day roster, and the only other players who won’t have appeared in the majors with another team before playing for the A’s will be Eric Sogard, Mark Canha, and Tyler Ladendorf. Griffin and the injured Doolittle could raise the percentage at some point.

Off-Field Story Line: Will AZ Alkmaar win the Eredivisie for the first time since 2009? That’s the question running through Beane’s brain, but most A’s fans care more about seeing some resolution to the franchise’s efforts to secure a new stadium. MLB commissioner Rob Manfred recently reiterated that he considers the team’s search for a prettier, more profitable place to play one of baseball’s most pressing concerns, but Manfred has no more power to settle the matter directly than did Bud Selig’s eternally deliberating blue-ribbon panel. In the short term, fans can expect the same stonewall response that Selig gave an inquiring reporter in 2012 — “You aren’t going to get a fucking answer” — but non-update updates will continue to trickle out until the A’s break ground on a new, single-sport home.

Projected Record and Over/Under: 83-79 — OVER, but barely. Oakland’s bullpen, anchored by Tyler Clippard in Doolittle’s absence, is still strong, and while Semien might be stretched defensively at shortstop and the infield isn’t as deep as it was, there’s no spot on the roster where the A’s are hemorrhaging runs. As much value as there is in steering clear of sub-replacement positions, though, Oakland’s low-profile roster will have a hard time keeping pace with division-rival rosters that are built on the backs of titans like Trout, Cano, and Hernandez.

4. Houston Astros

george-springer-astros-triDavid Goldman/AP

Astros Projected Starting Lineup
Order Player Bats Slash Line wRC+ PA
1 2B Jose Altuve R .304/.344/.415 115 637
2 3B Luis Valbuena L .237/.323/.395 104 518
3 RF George Springer R .237/.329/.459 123 595
4 1B Chris Carter R .225/.313/.459 118 616
5 LF Colby Rasmus L .235/.301/.424 104 588
6 DH Evan Gattis R .245/.296/.462 112 587
7 C Jason Castro L .236/.306/.393 98 403
8 SS Jed Lowrie S .257/.322/.392 102 560
9 CF Jake Marisnick R .237/.281/.361 80 581
Astros Projected Starting Rotation
Order Pitcher ERA FIP IP K/9 BB/9
1 LHP Dallas Keuchel 3.78 3.66 215.0 6.7 2.5
2 RHP Scott Feldman 4.59 4.44 176.0 5.9 2.7
3 RHP Collin McHugh 3.82 3.78 192.0 8.3 2.7
4 LHP Brett Oberholtzer 4.62 4.28 162.0 6.3 2.0
5 RHP Roberto Hernandez 4.79 4.81 85.0 5.8 3.2

Biggest Projected Hitter/Pitcher Improvement: Jason Castro, 1.7 WAR/600 PA; Dan Straily, 1.7 WAR/200 IP

Biggest Projected Hitter/Pitcher Decline: Evan Gattis, minus-2.0 WAR/600 PA; Pat Neshek, minus-3.5 WAR/200 IP

Hitter With Most Projected Days Missed: Colby Rasmus, 32 days

Highest Projected Starting Pitcher DL Probability: Scott Feldman, 43 percent

Best Offseason Move: The Rasmus signing. Before last season, Blue Jays beat writer Gregor Chisholm wrote about Rasmus, “If he’s able to stay healthy and consistently perform, the contract demands are only going to increase and certainly could eclipse the six-year, $85.5 million contract that Adam Jones signed with Baltimore midway through the 2012 season.” In retrospect, that sounds silly, but at the time, it wasn’t completely far-fetched: Rasmus was coming off a five-win season, and he was about to hit free agency as a 28-year-old in a market devoid of other center fielders. Then the season started, and Rasmus’s salary expectations sank.

The lefty, who pulled 76.6 percent of his grounders,9 faced a defensive shift in 68.5 percent of his plate appearances that were reviewable on video, according to Baseball Info Solutions. He batted .150 on grounders and short liners with the shift on, and .280 without. Between the shift’s direct effect, his counterproductive attempts to avoid it, his DL trip for a hamstring strain, his meddling dad, and the mental strain he seemed to be showing toward the end of the year, Rasmus gave teams ample reason not to blow their free-agent budgets on him. Still, barring a debilitating injury or egregious activity off the field, a player whose stock sinks so far, so fast is probably a good bet to bounce back. The Astros, who put more shifts on against Rasmus than any other non–AL East team, snagged him for one year and $8 million — a bargain, if not the miracle it would’ve seemed like last spring — and will not attempt to rebuild him.

Worst Offseason Move: The Astros had an active but inoffensive offseason, making a number of small-scale additions without committing any obvious blunders. The closest they came to a misstep — or at least an unnecessary expenditure — was signing Jed Lowrie to play shortstop, something recent history suggests he should never do. On a team whose staff includes several ground-ballers (Dallas Keuchel, Roberto Hernandez, Scott Feldman, Luke Gregerson, Chad Qualls), Lowrie’s glove will eat away at his offensive advantage over last year’s primary second-half shortstop, Marwin Gonzalez (who hit surprisingly, and probably unsustainably, well). And with top shortstop prospect/prodigy Carlos Correa likely just a year away, the Astros might have spent their money more efficiently elsewhere.

Greatest Team Strength: Young position players. Lowrie is the only member of the Astros’ lineup who’s over 30; Houston’s division rivals, by comparison, have an average of four over-30 players in their lineups. In the present, of course, youth isn’t always a positive: When I wrote about bad baseball teams for Extra Innings, I found that 100-plus-loss teams are, on average, 1.3 years younger than 100-plus win teams. Sure enough, the Astros had the game’s second-youngest hitters in 2012 and the youngest the past two seasons, and all it got them was a lousy .362 combined winning percentage. Young players don’t make much money, which makes them attractive to teams that aren’t trying to compete. But players tend to be worse the further they are from their physical primes, whether they’re over the hill or haven’t yet begun to climb it.

All else being equal, though, youth is a positive, if only because it’s associated with decreased injury risk and increased roster flexibility. And while the Astros aren’t equal to their competitors, they’re closer than they used to be. The only regulars in their lineup projected to be below average at the plate are Jason Castro (barely) and Jake Marisnick. As a team, they’re approaching a sweet spot where almost every hitter — save for Correa, who turned 20 in September — will be clustered within a few years of the typical peak. In other words, the Astros are about to be dangerous.

Greatest Team Weakness: The rotation. Keuchel and Collin McHugh were two of last season’s nicest surprises — both for the Astros and for any fantasy owners who were lucky enough to pluck them off the waiver wire — as an array of mechanical adjustments and shifts in pitch selection and location made them mid-rotation starters overnight. Other than McHugh’s low BABIP and the usual caveats about baseball being hard, there’s nothing preventing them from repeating their performance. Beyond them, though, the rotation is fourth/fifth-starter city, and it doesn’t go deep. By 2016, higher-ceiling homegrown starters like Mark Appel and Vincent Velasquez should be ready for big league roles; put those two together with last year’s breakout brothers and a top-of-the-rotation free agent, and baby, you’ve got a contending rotation going. For now, though, the rotation puts a pretty tight lid on the upper bound of the Astros’ success.

Player We Can’t Wait to Watch: George Springer. We’ve known since before he made the majors that Springer would be weird: a selective hitter who rarely makes contact. Now we know what that unique profile looks like.

Courtesy of FiveThirtyEight’s Rob Arthur, here’s a graph of Springer’s MLB zone distance in 2014 — the distance of the pitches he saw from the center of his strike zone. The red line is Springer’s moving average; the blue line is league average. This chart tells us that pitchers stayed away from Springer more than the usual hitter, probably out of respect for his power.

springer-zone-1

This second graph displays Springer’s swing distance — the distance of the pitches he swung at from the center of his strike zone. This time, we see that Springer tends to swing at pitches much closer to him than the typical batter. In other words, he doesn’t chase.

springer-zone-2

And yet, even though Springer isn’t an indiscriminate hacker, he misses more often than any other major league hitter. He simply swings through hittable pitches — except, of course, for when he hits them 465 feet.

So how will pitchers adjust to Springer, and he to them? And can he be a star despite whiffing more often than anyone else? Watch Root Sports Houston to find out! (Particularly if you’re part of a Nielsen family.)

Noteworthy Miscellaneous Stat: According to Baseball Info Solutions, the Astros shifted a league-leading 1,341 times last season (63 percent more than the second-shiftiest team) and saved 27 runs as a result (69 percent more than the second-place club). Maybe that’s why they’re willing to play seemingly bad defenders at most positions: They think they can shift well enough to minimize the damage and save themselves the expense of buying good gloves.10

Bad as they might be at getting to batted balls, though, we know the ’Stros will be mindful of catcher framing, which current Astros analyst Mike Fast helped popularize during his days as an author at Baseball Prospectus. As I noted in last week’s AL East preview, Conger, whom the Astros acquired in November, projects to save 29 runs above average from framing over a full season, tied for the best rate in baseball. Castro rates a more modest six runs above average, but he has a better bat.

Off-Field Story Line: Aside from the Jeff Luhnow regime’s first real run at a winning record, the true test of the 2015 Astros will be their ability to get through the season without many off-field story lines. Last season seemed to bring an Astros scandal a week: the controversy over Springer’s extension/extortion offer; a mostly anonymously sourced story about the team’s alienating communication methods; the Ground Control hack; the Brady Aiken/Jacob Nix draft debacle;11 Appel-incited Bullpen-gate; manager Bo Porter’s firing. There was little substance to some of those flare-ups, but even so, only Orbit and Jose Altuve survived the season with their public-approval ratings intact. The Astros will be thrilled if 2015 is just about baseball.

Projected Record and Over/Under: 79-83 — PUSH. Whether out of concern for the fragile psyches of their young starters, recognition that bad bullpens make for uniquely depressing spectator experiences, or a desire to be seen spending on free agents without having to shell out for the really pricey ones, the Astros dropped the dreck from baseball’s worst bullpen and added a couple of quality setup guys. They traded for third baseman Luis Valbuena to fill what was one of baseball’s least-productive positions, and they traded for DH/LF Evan Gattis — as good a fit for Minute Maid as a player with his pull-happy, poor-fielding profile would be for any ballpark — to help plug a left-field position where their 2014 scrubs combined to bat .222/.297/.330. Bad teams have the ability to improve dramatically just by replacing nothing with something, and the Astros did so with surgical precision this winter.

Still, there’s that starting pitching, which simply doesn’t look like the foundation of a .500 staff. Strikeouts alone won’t be what keep the Astros from winning, but subpar pitching and defense will force them to wait one more year.

5. Texas Rangers

derek-holland-rangers-triLenny Ignelzi/AP

Rangers Projected Starting Lineup
Order Player Bats Slash Line wRC+ PA
1 CF Leonys Martin L .268/.321/.393 96 595
2 SS Elvis Andrus R .270/.327/.346 87 630
3 RF Shin-Soo Choo L .262/.370/.409 119 595
4 3B Adrian Beltre R .298/.352/.478 126 630
5 1B Prince Fielder L .270/.368/.454 124 595
6 DH Mitch Moreland L .246/.305/.409 95 455
7 LF Jake Smolinski R .237/.306/.364 85 56
8 2B Rougned Odor L .263/.301/.417 96 595
9 C Robinson Chirinos R .235/.294/.377 84 448
Rangers Projected Starting Rotation
Order Pitcher ERA FIP IP K/9 BB/9
1 RHP Yovani Gallardo 4.31 4.19 194.0 6.9 2.9
2 RHP Colby Lewis 4.88 4.74 159.0 6.6 2.5
3 LHP Ross Detwiler 4.60 4.52 139.0 5.6 2.9
4 LHP Derek Holland 3.94 3.89 197.0 7.8 2.6
5 RHP Nick Martinez 5.07 5.14 37.0 5.5 3.6
Martin Perez and Matt Harrison are recovering from Tommy John surgery and spinal fusion surgery, respectively, and could return at some point this season.

Biggest Projected Hitter/Pitcher Improvement: Shin-Soo Choo, 1.9 WAR/600 PA; Ross Detwiler, 2.4 WAR/200 IP

Biggest Projected Hitter/Pitcher Decline: Robinson Chirinos, minus-1.8 WAR/600 PA; Colby Lewis, minus-0.5 WAR/200 IP

Hitter With Most Projected Days Missed: Prince Fielder, 42 days12

Highest Projected Starting Pitcher DL Probability: Lewis, 56 percent

Best Offseason Move: Hiring Jeff Banister. Former Rangers manager Ron Washington wasn’t known for his familiarity with statistics, and while his motivational abilities may have made up for his tactical miscues, there’s no MLB bylaw that says teams can’t have managers who can lead and understand the value of a run expectancy table. Banister, the former Pirates bench coach, is in the Clint Hurdle mold, blending the old-school background that commands players’ respect with a willingness to pick up the phone and call a quant. Unless Banister has healing powers, winning with this Rangers roster will be beyond his abilities, but his résumé suggests he’ll be up to the task when he has more talent to work with.

Worst Offseason Move: Not replacing Alex Rios. With Rios in Kansas City, Choo slides from left to right, leaving left field to “Jake Smolinski,” a player fabricated by a bored baseball ops intern who thought it would be funny to prank the front office by inventing a backstory for a mid-twenties minor league journeyman with an obviously made-up name. The plan backfired when GM Jon Daniels swallowed the story and planned his whole offseason around starting Smolinski. The intern, who thought he’d ensured that no one would mistake Smolinski for a major leaguer when he gave him a mid-.700s OPS in almost 2,000 Double- and Triple-A plate appearances, is dreading Opening Day.

Greatest Team Strength: The heart of the order. The Rangers’ three-four-five hitters — Choo, Adrian Beltre, and Prince Fielder — have projected wRC+ figures of 119, 126, and 124, respectively. Let’s try to make the Rangers look as good as possible by setting an arbitrary endpoint: How many teams have at least three full-time hitters projected for a 119 wRC+? The answer: eight, not counting the Rangers. But those eight have a collective .530 winning percentage! So the Rangers have at least one characteristic of a winning team. We’ll ignore, for now, that Beltre might be shipped off in a trade before the end of the season, and that Choo and Fielder are coming off injury years. After all, injuries always heal perfectly and never get aggravated or impair players’ performance in subsequent seasons, right? Actually, about that …

Greatest Team Weakness: Health. (Note: This is not news to Rangers fans.) Texas’s 2014 was sabotaged by a catastrophic injury stack: The Rangers lost more than 2,000 player-days to the disabled list, the most of any team from 2002 to 2014. The positive spin on that disaster went a little like this: At least the Rangers didn’t lose 95 games because they had bad players. Once they get their guys back, they’ll be good again. Unfortunately, health problems aren’t so easily confined to the past. In baseball, injuries beget other injuries, and a DL entry in one year coupled with the effects of advancing age makes a recurrence more likely. The Rangers experienced that cruel carryover this spring, when Yu Darvish and Jurickson Profar, both of whom were among the many casualties in 2014, had season-ending surgeries. Perez and Harrison are still working their way back from last year’s surgeries, and Shawn Tolleson, the team’s best reliever last season, has forearm soreness, which is enough to scare shell-shocked Rangers fans no matter what the MRI says. Injuries brought down a Rangers team that seemed well-equipped for the future, and they’ve yet to let Texas off the mat.

Player We Can’t Wait to Watch: Joey Gallo. Last summer, I called the 39th selection in the 2012 draft “the most interesting man in the minors,” not only because of his nearly unparalleled power, but also because he seemed to have ameliorated the contact problems that had threatened to prevent that power from playing. Just before I finished the article, Gallo graduated to Double-A, where he matched his pre-promotion High-A homer total, bringing his full-season tally to 42. However, he also struck out almost 40 percent of the time against bolder, more experienced pitchers who were less afraid to face him. Despite Gallo’s strikeout recidivism, the scouts like what they see — Baseball America named him the sixth-best prospect in baseball this spring — but the range of possible outcomes still spans the gap from bust to star. Whether or not Gallo makes the majors this summer, Texas’s top prospect will remain the most interesting man in the organization.

Noteworthy Miscellaneous Stat: It’s not their biggest weakness — suddenly, they have so many to choose from! — but the Rangers’ bullpen is the only one that collectively projects to be below replacement level on FanGraphs’s depth charts, even with Tolleson slated for a full season. The projection systems are foreseeing more of the same: The Rangers’ pen had the fifth-worst strikeout rate, second-worst ground ball rate, and third-worst xFIP in 2014, and that was with positive contributions by Joakim Soria, Jason Frasor, and Neal Cotts, all of whom have moved on. The most encouraging sign is the small-sample resurgence of closer Neftali Feliz, who looked nothing like his former, flamethrowing self in his early work last season, but recovered a semblance of his former speed in September.

neftali-feliz-pitch-chart

Off-Field Story Line: Beltre’s future. The Rangers have already picked up his $16 million option for 2016, but that doesn’t guarantee they’ll be the team to sign his checks. As much as Beltre, who’ll become eligible for the Hall of Fame ballot around the time I become eligible to vote for him, likes being in Texas, he’s made it clear that he wants to win in the time he has left. And as much as Daniels likes Beltre’s leadership, he might find it difficult to pass up attractive trade offers for a second straight losing season. Eventually, Beltre’s methods of compensating for his declining physical skills will stop working so well, so if the Rangers want to maximize their return, they should blink back the tears and trade Beltre before an injury or declining production makes $16 million for a 37-year-old start to sound like less of a steal. Promoting Gallo to play Beltre’s position should ease the pain.

Projected Record and Over/Under: 74-88 — OVER. It’s rare for a team to go from model franchise to afterthought as quickly as the Rangers have, and as one would expect, their rapid descent hasn’t wiped away every trace of a competitive team. There’s the aforementioned meat of the lineup. There’s Leonys Martin, a fine center fielder. There’s a pair of pretty good starters, Yovani Gallardo and Derek Holland (assuming the latter’s brush with “normal” spring shoulder soreness doesn’t spiral, Rangers-style, into something more serious). There’s the average-at-worst middle-infield combo of Elvis Andrus and Rougned Odor. With Profar and most of a strong starting rotation either out for the season or unlikely to return at full strength, though, that’s roughly where the list of highlights at the major league level ends.

If there’s a saving grace, it’s that the Rangers still have a strong farm system featuring six top-100 prospects (risky though some of them might be) with 2015 or 2016 ETAs. If Daniels decides to hold on to what’s left of his team in preparation for a (hopefully) healthier, prospect-infused run at contention next year, Texas should have enough talent to squeak by this record projection. If he decides to do a partial sell-off, the under would be the better bet.

This piece was updated to correct the name of the regional sports network that carries Houston Astros games.

Filed Under: 2015 MLB Preview, MLB, MLB Preview, MLB Predictions, 2015 MLB Division Previews, American League, AL West, Seattle Mariners, Los Angeles Angels, Oakland Athletics, Oakland A's, Houston Astros, Texas Rangers, Felix Hernandez, Robinson Cano, Nelson Cruz, Kyle Seager, Taijuan Walker, James Paxton, Mike Zunino, Mike Trout, Mike Scioscia, Josh Hamilton, Albert Pujols, Garrett Richards, Andrew Heaney, C.J. Cron, Huston Street, Stadiums, Billy Beane, Ben Zobrist, Sonny Gray, Brett Lawrie, Billy Butler, Jose Altuve, George Springer, Colby Rasmus, Jason Castro, Evan Gattis, Hank Conger, Jed Lowrie, Dallas Keuchel, Collin McHugh, Defensive Shifts, Jeff Luhnow, Shin-Soo Choo, Adrian Beltre, Prince Fielder, Derek Holland, Jurickson Profar, Yu Darvish, MLB Injuries, MLB Stats, MLB Trades, MLB Contracts, Baseball, Ben Lindbergh

Ben Lindbergh is a staff writer at Grantland.

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