The American League West may be baseball's most entertaining division in 2015 -- following an entertaining 2014 when the A's blew a huge midseason lead. The up-and-coming Astros and a healthier Rangers squad should both be improved, turning this division into a potential five-team mad scramble.
Here is each team's path to the playoffs ...
2014: 98-64, +143 run differential, lost in ALDS
2015 projection from FanGraphs: 84-78, +26
After leading the majors in wins, it would be easy for the Angels just to stay the course and ride Mike Trout for another playoff season.
As you can see from the projection, however, the Angels don't project as anything close to a 98-win team. General manager Jerry Dipoto understands this and has added depth to a starting rotation that may have been over its head last year, acquiring Andrew Heaney for Howie Kendrick and Nick Tropeano from the Astros, two young pitchers who will compete for a starting job.
The path to the playoffs for the Angels:
• Garrett Richards and Matt Shoemaker have to be the real deal again. They were two of the biggest surprises in baseball last year, with Richards developing into one of the best starters in the league before his August knee injury and Shoemaker going 16-4 with a 3.04 ERA as a rookie (after a 4.64 ERA in Triple-A in 2013). The Steamer projection system has Richards with a 3.64 ERA -- a run higher than 2014's 2.61 -- and Shoemaker at 4.06.
• Mike Trout, back-to-back MVP winner.
• A healthy season from Josh Hamilton. He doesn't even have to be the Josh Hamilton of his Rangers days, but something better than .263/.331/.414 and 89 games would be helpful.
• Something from second base. Trading Kendrick (5.4 WAR) is a big blow. Former Rockies infielder Josh Rutledge is the favorite for the job right now.
• More consistency from C.J. Wilson. He went 13-10 but with a 4.54 ERA as he walked 85 in 175.2 innings and averaged fewer than six innings per start.
• The bullpen that was terrific from June 15 onward (3.08 ERA) to be terrific all season.
• Another 200-inning season from Jered Weaver. After dipping below 200 innings in 2012 and 2013, Weaver was back up to 213, as he tied for the league lead with 34 starts (and tied for the lead with 18 wins). He did allow a career-high 27 home runs and his 3.59 ERA was his highest since 2009, but he's still a solid No. 2-caliber starter.
The Angels beat up on the Astros and Rangers last year, going 26-11. They also went 11-0 against the Twins and Phillies. Can they count on going 37-11 against the bottom-feeders again in 2015?
2014: 88-74, +157 run differential, lost wild-card game
2015 projection: 82-80, +11
Billy Beane has made so many moves this offseason, so let's take stock of where the club stands. The lineup would look something like this:
CF Coco Crisp
3B Brett Lawrie
1B Ike Davis/Butler
RF Josh Reddick
2B Eric Sogard
SP Sonny Gray
SP Scott Kazmir
SP Jesse Hahn
It's difficult to get a good read here. The projections see a .500-ish team, but there are so many moving parts it's a difficult team to project proper playing time. Bob Melvin will be platooning throughout the lineup and the rotation has many options, depending on whether Parker and Griffin are back from their Tommy John surgeries and which of the young guys step up.
The lineup obviously has a big hole minus Josh Donaldson, but here are the positives: They're going to catch the ball; they have some hitters with on-base skills; they have a guy who looks he's ready to be a No. 1 in Sonny Gray; they have depth in the rotation; and the bullpen should be solid.
They're going to need the pitching staff to carry the team, but it looks like a rotation that could be sneaky good, with Pomeranz and Hahn, two young starters who looked good last year in limited action (Hahn came over from the Padres in the Derek Norris trade). They need Reddick to stay healthy and hit a few more home runs and Butler to hit better than he did in 2014 with the Royals and Semien to handle shortstop and display the on-base ability he showed in the minors.
Everyone's going to be counting out the A's, but in some ways this club resembles the 2012 team that came out of nowhere to win 94 games. I'm not saying they're going to win 94, but sometimes the sum of the parts add up.
2014: 87-75, +80
2015 projection: 88-74, +65
The Steamer projection system that FanGraphs uses has the Mariners as the best team in the American League. But games aren't won via projection systems!
How the Mariners can make the postseason for the first time since 2001:
1. Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma both have to stay healthy. There is little depth in the rotation, so a major injury to one of their workhorses could be catastrophic, especially considering young starters James Paxton and Taijuan Walker both had injury issues in 2014.
2. They need Paxton and Walker to deliver on their potential.
3. Nelson Cruz has to be worth the money. He doesn't have to hit 40 home runs like he did with Baltimore, but he needs to stay on the field and produce that right-handed power in Seattle's lefty-leaning lineup.
4. Production from the leadoff spot. That probably means Austin Jackson, who was terrible after coming over from Detroit.
5. Better offense and defense from Brad Miller. He's been in trade rumors all offseason and now there's the idea that he turns into a hybrid shortstop/right fielder (platooning with Justin Ruggiano). Miller hit .221/.288/.365 last year, but Steamer projects a .252/.314/.395 line and he has more potential than that if he can hit lefties better.
7. More tightrope walking from Fernando Rodney. Seattle's bullpen had an MLB-best 2.52 ERA last season, and they are bringing back everyone except Joe Beimel. Some regression is likely. While the M's have depth behind Rodney, he's still a big key as the ninth-inning guy.
8. Mike Zunino has to improve his awful approach/OBP. Yes, he hit 22 home runs, but that came with a .199 average and .254 OBP (and that was helped because he got hit by a league-leading 17 pitches). Is he simply the new J.P. Arencibia or will he be something better?
The Mariners have core players in their prime years and excellent front-line talent in Felix, Cano, Seager and Iwakuma. I'd still like them to acquire another hitter to give them more depth, and they have a big problem in center field if Jackson doesn't hit. The strides made in 2014 appear legitimate, but can they go farther in 2015?
2014: 70-92, -94 run differential
2015 projection: 76-86, -47
The Astros have made some free-agent signings -- relievers Pat Neshek and Luke Gregerson and shortstop Jed Lowrie -- that suggest general manager Jeff Luhnow expects the Astros to make a leap into contention.
Certainly, improving the bullpen will be a huge help. The Astros had an MLB-worst 4.80 bullpen ERA last season, but that doesn't tell the whole story. The Astros were just 61-8 when leading entering the ninth inning. The MLB average is barely over three games lost when leading in the ninth, so better ninth-inning work could be worth an additional four or five wins.
The Astros also had two positions where they got basically no production: first base (they ranked last in the majors in WAR as Jon Singleton hit .168 in 95 games) and third base (they ranked 29th in majors as Matt Dominguez hit .215 with a .256 OBP). Lowrie looks like he'll stay at shortstop in 2015, holding down the position until Carlos Correa is ready, so Dominguez may get one last chance to show he can hit at the major league level. Singleton will certainly be given another chance at first base. They need much better results from both players.
They can also expect big numbers from a full season of George Springer -- I like him to exceed the 2.6 WAR projection by quite a bit. Jose Altuve became a star in 2014 and Chris Carter tied for the MLB lead with 18 home runs after the All-Star break. The Astros were next-to-last in the AL in runs scored but all indications are that total will increase.
The rotation was much improved as Dallas Keuchel (2.93 ERA) and Collin McHugh (2.73 ERA) developed into a solid 1-2 combo. While nobody expected those numbers, their peripherals were solid, indicating they weren't fluke seasons. Scott Feldman was a solid No. 3, so they just need some improvement from the back end of the rotation. New catcher Hank Conger, one of the best pitch-framers in the business, could help here.
The Astros improved by 19 wins in 2014. If they improve by 19 wins again, that's 89 ... and maybe a postseason berth.
2014: 67-95, -136 run differential
2015 projection: 77-85, -34 runs
If we start the Rangers out at 77 wins, there are three areas where there is need for improvement:
--Corner outfield. Choo may end up in left or right, but the other position is projected at less than 1.0 WAR. This is why the Rangers were rumored to be in on Justin Upton.
• DH. The Rangers are projected at 0.6 WAR. So either Mitch Moreland outperforms or they find a better solution.
• The back of the rotation behind Darvish and Holland. Those two combined for 6.4 of the 8.8 projected WAR from the rotation. At least two from the group of Ross Detwiler, Matt Harrison, Nick Tepesch and Nick Martinez must have big seasons.
Fielder and Choo are huge keys. Both are capable of on-base percentages close to .400. Get them back and producing like they did in 2013 and a lineup of Choo, Adrian Beltre and Fielder suddenly has a lot more meat to it.
Still, the Rangers probably need to make a big move or two. Maybe they go after an outfielder/DH (Seth Smith or Carlos Quentin from the Padres?). Or maybe they sign James Shields or Max Scherzer. It's an organization with depth and some interesting young players like second baseman Rougned Odor and third baseman Joey Gallo. They won 90-plus games from 2010 to 2013. They won't lose 95 again.