Now things get much more difficult...
To the American League West we go, yeehaw!
1. From Rotten To Bad
2011: 56-106 (796)
2012: 55-107 (794)
2013: 51-111 (848)
2014: 70-92 (723)
The Astros offense has been remarkably consistent over the past four seasons, scoring anywhere between 583 and 629 runs per year in that span. The big improvement from 2013 to 2014 is clearly the decrease in runs allowed, which the 2014 squad cut by 125. A big part of this was eliminating the 290 awful innings of Jordan Lyles and Lucas Harrell, replacing them with 320 quite good ones of Scott Feldman and Colin McHugh. Another positive step was the development of Dallas Keuchel (let's face it, a guy with a name like that has to pitch in Texas), who went from a 6-10, 5.15 ERA to a 12-9, 2.93 ERA while his WHIP dropped from 1.536 to 1.175. He allowed 15 fewer earned runs in fifty more innings and even won a Gold Glove for his trouble. The Astros are seeking to improve further in 2015, bringing in Luke Gregerson and Pat Neshek to spliff up the pen, while adding Colby Rasmus and Evan Gattis to add some punch to the lineup, while continuing the pitching gains made in 2014.
2. Get A Whiff Of This
The Astros led the American League in batter strikeouts last season, trailing only the Chicago Cubs in all of the majors. So naturally they went out and got Colby Rasmus, whose issues making contact drove Toronto fans insane the moment he arrived. Between Rasmus, Chris Carter, Jason Castro, Matt Dominguez (if he plays) and a full season of George Springer, this team is going to K a lot. Springer for instance is a very interesting player, but he struck out 114 times in 345 plate appearances. To compare, last season Juan Francisco struck out 117 times in 320 plate appearances, which granted is a higher rate than Springer (36.5% versus 33%) but anytime you're in a hitting-for-contact conversation with Juan Francisco, you've got problems.
3. Big Boppers And The Mini-Mighty Man
Much of Houston's 2014 offense was surprisingly centered around the long ball. In that category, the Astros were 4th in all of baseball, trailing only Baltimore, Colorado and Toronto. Despite this fortunate flirtation with the big flies, Houston was in the bottom third in MLB in runs scored. This is because hitting home runs was the only thing their offense was good at. Their team batting average (.242), on base percentage (.309) and OPS (.692) were all noticeably below the MLB average. They were tied for second worst in doubles (240) and triples (19). So to repeat a previous point, these guys need to make contact more! Because this is a very strange team when you consider they were the third best team in baseball at stealing bases, because what's the point of that? Your speedy lead-off or numba two hitter steals second base, so your big slugger can either strike out or hit a home run, which scores a baserunner no matter which base they occupy. A mix of power and speed is a great combination for any lineup, but if that power is limited to dinger power then the speed aspect becomes rather ineffectual.
Since we're doing a preview of the Astros, I'd be foolish not to mention Jose Altuve. He's young (25), was a good player before his fabulous 2014 season, and figures to be a big part of any soon-future Houston contender. Two things to watch for Altuve: whether 2014 is a minor fluke (possible) and if he can keep smacking line drives on pitches over his head. Because that is pretty darn cool.
Overview: They're getting better, but there are still problems. Considering how gawd awful they were for a while (three straight 105+ loss seasons!) there doesn't seem to be a farm system just bursting with potential stars. Appel and Correa are nice for now, but former hotshots like Springer and Jon Singleton have had a fatal flaw already exposed: making contact! I think there are the makings for a decent/somewhat good pitching staff here, but this is just a far too one-dimensional offense. They're probably better than the Rangers.
LOS ANGELES ANGELS
1. Duct Tape And Twine
The Angels once again look like a very good team, though there are some concerns. First is an issue Blue Jays fans remember from that horrible week in 2012: sudden injuries to starting pitchers. Both Tyler Skaggs and Garrett Richards went down with long term maladies during 2014, while rotation hopeful Cory Rasmus will already miss significant time this year. The depth is still there (Weaver, Shoemaker, Wilson, Santiago) but another unfortunate summer like that will seriously jeopardize any championship hope the Angels have. Not that you can predict freak injuries, like covering first on a double play or fielding a harmless grounder in PITCHERS FREAKING FIELDING PRACTICE! GERRRRR AGGGGGGGHHHH!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!1
2. You Can Vet On It
Okay I'm good. I gotta say, my first thought when researching the Halos was: goodness, everyone on this team is older than me! Which sure, isn't really saying much. If I were a big league hitter I'd be right in that mystical age period where everything just comes together! Well, I'm still waiting. But it's been a few years since many star players were becoming younger than me and I'd gotten used to it, so I found it odd that the Angels had such few players. A few are around my age (Kole Calhoun was born a month after I was) but most of the important players on this team are 30 or over. Wilson, Pujols, Aybar, both catchers (Iannetta/Butera), Weaver, Joyce and whenever Hamilton comes back. What does this mean? Nothing really, except if you want to explore a storyline about a limited window of contention with this group. Which, might be somewhat accurate, to think of it.
I think what I like best about previewing every team in baseball (which isn't easy, FYI) is that it's inevitable you'll come across one of the biggest stars in the entire game. Mike Trout is a truly gifted player. The top four in his Baseball Reference Similarity Scores at his age so far are: Mickey Mantle, Frank Robinson, Hank Aaron and Ken Griffey Junior. In other words, four of the greatest hitters of all time. And he could have the career of any of those guys and it wouldn't surprise anyone. This is a player two generations from now might regard as my generation does a Ted Williams or a Lou Gehrig. We're aware of their greatness because of the numbers and the stories, but they're at such a different level you can't help but wonder if it actually happened.
I have two small concerns with Trout. First are his declining steal numbers, from 49 (2012) to 33, to 16 last season. Considering the rest of his game, that is one very small concern. The only time I've ever seen Trout play in person was his rookie year, before his Rookie Year(TM). He didn't do anything with the bat that wowed me, but I remember him hitting a routine ball to shortstop, which resulted in an easy out, except Trout was so fast he nearly beat it out. When I say routine play, I mean a sharp one hopper into the glove, and it was still close. I'd never seen somebody get down the line as fast in my life. Did you know Trout has only been caught stealing fourteen times out of one-hundred and sixteen tries?
My second concern is his position. He's a twenty-three year old centerfielder, already listed at 235 pounds (which is clear when you look at him). I can't help but think of the Vernon Wells bodytype there, who really was a phenomenal defensive outfielder for a few years there. Easy to forget, I know. Trout will probably gain a few more pounds, lose a few steps (it happens to everybody) and not be a capable centerfielder within the next five-seven years. From what we've seen so far, it won't matter too much. He's a good enough hitter to play anywhere. I'll be telling my potential grandkids about dial-up internet and watching you play baseball.
Overview: A good team. Probably a very good team. There are some potential issues, like starting pitching depth, who plays second base (Johnny Giavotella? Yikes) but with decent health they should be okay. A playoff team most likely.
1. Change Places!
Oh Billy Beane. You just had to Billy Beane Ball this whole thing, didn't you? You had this great team, filled with underrated sluggers with ability nobody recognized like Brandon Moss, Yoenis Cespedes and Josh Donaldson, and you just went off and traded them away, didn't you? Nevermind Jeff Samardzija and Derek Norris or Jon Lester, though you never could've afforded Lester anyway because, who could. So why Billy Beane, why why why... why did you make such an obvious fire sale, and yet put together a major league team that still could make some noise? How did you do that? Right, of course. That's kind of what you do. Well, carry on then.
2. I Say Monstrosity! Do You Know The Times?
I feel that unless you're a diehard A's fan, living in Oakland or one of the many wonderful towns nearby and going to half the games, there are going to be a dozen players on this team you've never heard of come June. For example, some dude named Mark Canha (a 7th round Marlins pick in 2010) hit five home runs in Spring Training. He can play first base, third base and left-field. Not to jinx the guy, but this is a classic Oakland come-out-of-nowhere-guy: he'll be hitting .340 in July or have 16 bombs and everyone else around baseball will be very confused. Also confusing is how this team got Ben Zobrist, who was born to play on the A's with his insane versatility. They'll probably turn him into a backup catcher or relief pitcher once the season is winding down.
3. Representing Red Bull...
Well, at least he won't hurt himself running into the stands anymore. As an aside, the Oakland ballpark is the worst place I have ever watched a baseball game in person. I was five rows from the first base line, but the actual first base line seemed like a hundred metres away because of all that gawd damn foul ground. Which is too bad, because that part of California is really quite magical. Not the part immediately around the stadium (oh no) but the surrounding towns up in the hills are truly wonderful to pass through. Anyway, I really suspect this is the year Brett Lawrie plays 150 games. And yeah, he'll probably hit .290 like he always does, maybe pop out 20 bombs, even 25 if he finds a road AL West park he likes. Of course there will be some insane defensive plays he makes as well, so the A's are gonna love this guy the more he is able to play. But we have Josh Donaldson. I think both sides win this one.
Overview: I really don't know. This could easily be a disaster, or it could be a continuation of the terrific Oakland teams we've seen the past few seasons. The same pitching staff is mostly intact, don't forget. One thing outside of Toronto baseball I constantly root for is that the A's can find a new stadium somewhat close enough to Oakland that it feels less like a relocation and more of a "hit refresh" on the franchise. In 2015 they miss the playoffs, barely.
1. Cruz Missile
Getting Nelson Cruz under contract was an important move for the Mariners. They plan to use him as a DH (that's good!) and occasionally in right field (that's bad.) But he comes with a free Frogurt! Even if Cruz can't replicate his 2014 pop (because 40 long ones in Safeco is approaching impossible) he should at the very least be an improvement over what Seattle was using at DH last season, mainly the corpses of Kendrys Morales and Corey Hart. The Mariners weakness is their hitting, so this should be a boost to that.
2. Young Army Of Arms
Much of the Mariners success last season (they missed the wildcard game by one game, don't forget) was thanks to the emergence of two young left-handers: James Paxton and Roenis Elias. Both are expected to be key parts of the 2015 rotation (though Elias has already been sent down in a numbers crunch) along with 21 year old super-prospect Taijuan Walker, who has put up video game numbers this spring. Also in the system is another intriguing left-hander: Danny Hultzen. A second overall pick in 2011, Hultzen was rocketing through the minors until a shoulder issue disrupted his 2013 season. He eventually needed labrum surgery and missed all of 2014, so he's just now starting to pitch in games again. If he shows little ill effect of his missed time, that gives Seattle yet another viable pitching option. Because it's not like they led the American League in ERA last season or anything.
3. The King And Kuma
There aren't too many rotations with a 1-2 like this. Felix Hernandez continues to feast on the puny, helpless bats that are tasked with facing him. He's also pitched for some really bad teams, which is a big reason why he's never won 20 games, and has only won more than 15 once. This year should be the second time that happens. As for Ace Two, this is the last season Iwakuma is under contract to the Mariners. He'll only make seven million in 2015, so he might maybe, just maybe, be in line for a raise. He's also 34 years old, so we're not talking Sabathia or Kershaw money here. Should be interesting. In the meanwhile, expect him to be his usual high-strikeout, allergic-to-walks-self. He's almost like a right-handed Cliff Lee.
Overview: I gotta say so far in these previews I've been playing it safe. Because picking the Dodgers or the Cardinals to win a division isn't exactly meteorite-exploding stuff. Picking the Nationals Superteam to win the NL East is much the same. So here's where I'm taking a chance: the Mariners are gonna win the AL West. I think they've added enough offense with Cruz, platoon extraordinaire Seth Smith and a full season of Austin Jackson, while that starting rotation has a chance to be utterly ridiculous. This will be a very fun team to watch.
1. Young Players Will Break Your Heart
Consider some of the young talent that has come up through Texas recently. Neftali Feliz, Jurickson Profar, Elvis Andrus, Justin Smoak, Derek Holland, C.J. Edwards, Roughned Odor, Matt Harrison, Mike Olt, Martin Perez, Justin Grimm. Also think that if it weren't for a Giants team of even-year destiny and David Freese activating God Mode, we might be talking about a team just coming down from a dynasty. Instead, those great Rangers teams that captured back-back pennants are one of the great "what if?" questions in sports the past couple of decades. But what has brought the Rangers down to the depths of the American League has been the inability of those young players to have an impact. Not that some of them aren't good players, like Andrus or Holland, the problem is that a lot of those guys aren't on the field for the Rangers a whole lot. Some have been traded away, while others just can't stay healthy enough to help the big league team. Jurickson Profar should be the focal point of optimism for a team that is likely going to be very bad, but instead he's going to miss significant time for a second straight year.
2. Not Yu Too!
No please, don't stop reading. I'm sorry. Losing Darvish for the season not only stinks for the Texas Rangers, it stinks for all of baseball. Here's to a speedy recovery, Yu.
3. I Wonder If Nolan Ryan Can Still Hit 90?
That rotation is, um, unproven, to be kind. A healthy Holland and having Yovani Gallardo around *might* make it decent, which would give the team a chance. Adrian Beltre and Prince Fielder ain't a bad middle of the order, and Shin Soo Choo can't be as bad/hurt as he was last year, right? Right? I don't understand, that was non-alcoholic champagne!
Overview: If everything breaks right, oops I mean, if the deities of good fortune and health are kind to them, I could see this team hanging around a wild card chase. I just don't think it's going to happen though. Misery loves company and if any more of their key players go down or aren't very good, it will not be pretty. Could be fun to see what Joey Gallo can do, though.
Division Overview: I see two legit playoff contenders, a reinvented squad probably still on the cusp of contending, a fringe team if everything breaks right and the Houston Astros. You can envision a scenario where none of these teams lose more than 85 games. Still, I think Seattle takes it. Their mix of terrific pitching and a potentially improved offense seals the deal.
SEA - 95-67
LAA - 91-71 (second wildcard)
OAK - 89-73
HOU - 76-86
TEX - 73-89
The AL Central is next. Definitely not the best division in the American League...