The American League should again be fascinating. While the National League is split between the haves and the have-nots, it's not difficult to imagine a path to the playoffs for all 15 AL teams. The 2015 AL had as much parity as any league ever, with 12 of the 15 teams bunched between 74 and 88 wins. The AL West in 2016 will be no different. The Rangers and Astros will likely be co-favorites, but any of the five teams could win the division -- even the A's.
2015: 88-74, plus-18 run differential, lost in Division Series
2016 projection from FanGraphs: 83-79
2015 payroll: $156.2 million
2016 projected payroll from Baseball-Reference: $144.1 million
The Rangers weren't exactly the plucky little engine that could of 2015, although it kind of felt like that. Yu Darvish, Derek Holland and Matt Harrison combined for just 13 starts, and the team went 7-14 in April. The Rangers still rallied to go 46-28 in the second half and pull out the division title.
So, the path to the playoffs? Stick with the second-half game plan, throw in a full season from Cole Hamels and hope Darvish can return in May.
It's not that easy, of course. Other than Yovani Gallardo, all the primary players are back, but the offense depends on 37-year-old Adrian Beltre, 33-year-old Shin-Soo Choo, 32-year-old Prince Fielder and maybe 35-year-old Josh Hamilton. Other than Beltre, they all hit left-handed, as do Rougned Odor and Mitch Moreland. While the Rangers had pretty even splits a year ago, you still worry about their ability to hit left-handers.
Given the age of the offensive core, the Rangers may need more from the rotation, which finished 11th in the AL in ERA in 2015. That's certainly possible with Hamels, Darvish and a healthy Holland, plus Martin Perez now further removed from Tommy John surgery. Colby Lewis also was brought back to be a veteran innings-eater.
Still, given the uncertainty of the rotation, GM Jon Daniels has stockpiled relievers. The additions of Sam Dyson and Jake Diekman at the trade deadline gave them two late-inning power arms behind closer Shawn Tolleson. Keone Kela impressed as a rookie and Tom Wilhelmsen was acquired for Leonys Martin. The closer remains uncertain -- I'd bet on Dyson eventually taking the job -- but it's the depth that's important. If the Rangers get great starting pitching and great relieving, they're going to be tough to beat. If either falters ...
2015: 86-76, plus-111 run differential, won wild-card game, lost in Division Series
2016 projection from FanGraphs: 88-74
2015 payroll: $82.4 million
2016 projected payroll from Baseball-Reference: $88.9 million
The Astros had the sixth-best bullpen ERA in the majors and the third-best strikeout rate in 2015. They were 70-5 when leading after seven innings and 73-1 when leading after eight. Then came the Game 4 collapse against the Royals in the Division Series. Enter new closer Ken Giles.
That's a trade that may have more impact in the playoffs than the regular season. So all the Astros have to do is get back there. That's a fun path to consider:
1. A full season from Carlos Correa after a .279/.345/.512 debut.
2. A full season from George Springer, who quietly posted a .826 OPS while cutting his strikeout rate 9 percent from his rookie season.
3. A full season from Carlos Gomez in center field. He didn't hit well for the Astros after the trade with the Brewers -- injuries likely were a factor -- but he's one year removed from two terrific seasons.
4. Better production at DH and first base. The Astros were 21st in wOBA at first base and jettisoned Chris Carter, and for now they're banking on Jonathan Singleton or A.J. Reed. They were ninth in the AL in wOBA at DH, although Evan Gattis returns there. Expect to see Preston Tucker getting more time there.
Add all that up and the Astros could get better production from four positions.
Oh, and they allowed the fewest runs in the AL.
2015: 85-77, minus-14 run differential
2016 projection from FanGraphs: 83-79
2015 payroll: $149.7 million
2016 projected payroll from Baseball-Reference: $166.8 million
The Angels fell from first in the AL in runs in 2014 to 12th in 2015, scoring 112 fewer. Hey, don't blame Mike Trout.
While they traded for Andrelton Simmons, that helps the run prevention more than the offense. The rotation has depth in numbers but will head into 2016 counting on C.J. Wilson (had surgery to remove bone chips in his elbow), Jered Weaver (4.64 ERA) and Matt Shoemaker (4.46 ERA). But the rotation could certainly be improved: Garrett Richards has the stuff to return to his 2014 form, Andrew Heaney had a solid rookie season and Nick Tropeano is a nice sleeper.
The key, however, is to score more runs. So far they've traded for Yunel Escobar (who replaces David Freese at third base) and gone the discount route with Geovany Soto, Daniel Nava, Craig Gentry and Cliff Pennington. What's not clear: Is owner Arte Moreno going to buy one of the free-agent corner outfielders out there? Justin Upton, Alex Gordon or Yoenis Cespedes would provide some much-needed support for the best player in baseball. Note the Angels' biggest problem: Of the team's regulars, only Trout had an OBP over .323. Albert Pujols and Kole Calhoun combined for 66 home runs but OBPs of .307 and .308.
2015: 76-86, minus-70 run differential
2016 projection from FanGraphs: 84-78
2015 payroll: $124.4 million
2016 projected payroll from Baseball-Reference: $138.7 million
New general manager Jerry Dipoto has been the busiest man in baseball this offseason, trying to turn an aging core of Felix Hernandez, Robinson Cano and Nelson Cruz into a playoff team without the benefit of a strong minor league system to deal from or the luxury of payroll flexibility to sign a big free agent.
His first goal was to improve the defense, which ranked next-to-last in the majors in defensive runs saved. He acquired Leonys Martin to play center field; Martin didn't hit with the Rangers in 2015 but is an elite defender. Eight players appeared in center field for the Mariners in 2015, combining for an atrocious minus-25 DRS. If Martin is a plus-15 defender, that could be a 40-run swing in center field alone. Cruz and Mark Trumbo are out of right field, with Norichika Aoki in. Ketel Marte will assume shortstop duties over Brad Miller. The Mariners won't be a superior defensive team but they should be better.
The Mariners scored their most runs since 2008, thanks in large part to Cruz hitting .302 with 44 home runs. Unfortunately, they still ranked just 13th in the AL. Sure, Safeco is a bit of an offensive drain, but they have to generate more runs. Again, Dipoto has tried to make the team a little more athletic and focused on guys with OBP skills: In are Aoki and Adam Lind, out are Trumbo and Logan Morrison. Mariners catchers hit .159/.205/.259 in 2015 -- not a misprint. Mike Zunino will try to revive his game in Triple-A, with Chris Iannetta and Steve Clevenger taking over. That's not a great duo but the Mariners could easily get 20 more runs created from the catcher spot.
You get the idea. It's all about incremental improvements across the board. The rotation even has more depth after Hisashi Iwakuma ended up back in Seattle after his deal with the Dodgers was never finalized. He has to be considered an obvious health risk. The one player on the roster who could take a big leap from 2015: Taijuan Walker, who struggled early but had a 3.62 ERA in his final 20 starts.
This gets us to the bullpen -- the biggest unknown on this team, and a good bet to make or break the season. Sound familiar? The Mariners had 36 bullpen losses in 2015, second most in the majors (and just 21 wins). Steve Cishek, coming off a season when his fastball velocity dropped a bit, will get a chance at closing. Joaquin Benoit is the new setup guy. Charlie Furbush needs to stay healthy. Evan Scribner and Justin De Fratus were buy-low guys coming off bad seasons. They give up fly balls and home runs: Dipoto is counting on Safeco to help them out.
2015: 68-94, minus-35 run differential
2016 projection from FanGraphs: 80-82
2015 payroll: $84.2 million
2016 projected payroll from Baseball-Reference: $79.5 million
Everyone will pick the A's to finish last. So how do they finish first?
1. Better bullpen. The pen went 21-31 last year with a 4.63 ERA. Only the Braves and Rockies had a worse ERA. A healthy Sean Doolittle will help, but the front office also signed veterans Ryan Madson and John Axford and traded for Liam Hendriks, who had a strong year for Toronto.
2. Rich Hill is for real. Remember him? He had a decent year for the Cubs ... back in 2007. He actually has appeared in every major league season since then, although he has pitched just 182 innings. He made four late-season starts for the Red Sox, with a 1.55 ERA, 36 strikeouts and five walks in 29 innings. The A's signed him to a one-year, $6 million contract.
3. A full season from Jesse Hahn. The right-hander went down in July with a flexor tendon injury in his elbow. The A's were conservative and shut him down for the season, but he'd posted a 3.35 ERA in 16 starts. He has the stuff and ground ball rate to be a solid complement to Sonny Gray.
4. Offense in left field. A's left fielders hit .199/.268/.338 in 2015. Only the Angels had a worse OPS. It's not clear who the answer is out there. Defensive specialist Sam Fuld is still on the 40-man roster. Coco Crisp is still around after playing just 44 games in 2015. Maybe they go bargain-basement shopping for another option.
5. More offense in the infield. Brett Lawrie is out and Eric Sogard appears relegated to the bench -- Lawrie had a .299 OBP and Sogard a .294 OBP in a part-time role. In are Danny Valencia -- who hit .284/.356/.530 in 47 games with the A's -- and Jed Lowrie.
Look, it's hard to envision this being a top-five offense in the league, so it will likely come down to the run prevention. The A's have a young rotation and if they all emerge this year ... well, to quote the great Joaquin Andujar, you never know.