MLB 2015 Preview: American League West
Kyle Seager and the Mariners are poised to take the division.
Time after time, Seattle makes head-scratching maneuvers, but those maneuvers have finally built a team that (in the short term) is a contender. Seattle signed DH Nelson Cruz to a 4-year, $58MM contract in the offseason. That is not an insane amount of money in today’s market, but Cruz turns 35 this year and projects to a wRC+ of 117 (both Steamer and ZIPS). For a DH, those numbers are passable but unspectacular. To top things off, Seattle traded CF Michael Saunders (a +2 WAR OF) to Toronto for SP J.A. Happ (+1.5 WAR). Although Cruz makes the team better in the short term (as Robinson Cano did last year), Seattle wastes resources. A core of 3B Kyle Seager, SP Felix Hernandez, 2B Cano, and SP Hishashi Iwakuma is fantastic, but Seattle has done a relatively inefficient job building around it. Nonetheless, this team has the fewest holes in the division and will win it by a close margin.
Here is a list of players who played for Oakland last year, but do not anymore: SP Jeff Samardzija, SP Jon Lester, OF Yoenis Céspedes, 1B/OF Brandon Moss, and 3B Josh Donaldson. That is practically an all-star cast of players, so it is amazing to think that the A’s are still contenders. How did they do it? The Josh Donaldson deal is a prime example of how to remain competitive while dealing away (or losing to FA) great players. First and foremost, 3B Brett Lawrie (received in the Donaldson trade) is more than an adequate replacement for Donaldson. Don’t get me wrong, he is not as good as Donaldson, yet he still projects to a 3.7 fWAR (as opposed to 5.6 by Donaldson). There is a reasonable, if small, chance that the A’s hardly miss Donaldson. Additionally, Oakland received three minor league players to help stock the farm system and to keep the team competitive in future years. There is no guarantee that the plan will work, but it is a solid one. Oakland will surprisingly earn a Wild Card spot.
These are not this week’s winning Powerball numbers: 35, 32, 34, 32, and 33. These are the opening day ages of 1B Albert Pujols, SP Jered Weaver, SP C.J. Wilson, 3B David Freese, and OF Josh Hamilton, respectively. Although sabermetricians have aging curves, players may not follow those aging curves smoothly. All of the aging Angels were once great, but now all of them fall on the part of the aging curve where deterioration starts to accelerate. The Angels’ reliance on high-priced aging players stands in contrast with the Athletics’ ability to remain competitive in spite of financial constraints. Thanks to young talent like OF Mike Trout and SP Garrett Richards, the Halos have not reached the cliff where they become the Phillies. Still, this will be a down year for the Angels.
If there is a team in baseball that is primed to take a leap forward, it is the Chicago Cubs. If there is a second team, it is the Houston Astros. Last year, I praised the Astros for completely blowing up the team and focusing on youth. This year, Houston moved the team from a bunch of young talented kids to contenders. They acquired C/1B/DH Evan Gattis from the Braves for three prospects (two of whom could be considered pretty good, but not blue chip). Gattis will provide a solid Major League bat and is years away from free agency. Houston also added C Hank Conger, SS Jed Lowrie, OF Colby Rasmus, relievers Luke Gregerson and Pat Neshek, IF Luis Valbuena, and SP Dan Straily. Although these additions are not all-stars, Houston spent relatively modest resources to acquire them. Big-time prospects OF George Springer and 1B Jonathan Singleton are ready now, and if they break out, Houston could significantly beat this projection.
Last year, I projected the Rangers to make the World Series but warned the deals for OF Shin-Soo Choo and 1B Prince Fielder could get ugly by the end. I was technically correct on the latter, though I did not envision them being ugly at the start. In addition to these duds, SP Derek Holland was out most of the season and SP Yu Darvish missed the end of the season with injury. To put it mildly, 2014 was a bad year in Arlington. The Rangers were smarter this offseason by not chasing bad money with good. This is a bad team that should be working diligently to sell anything not attached to the stadium. Fielder and Choo are untradeable, but 3B Adrian Beltre and CF Leonys Martin are attractive assets who should be moved. Texas is going to fail again this year, so they may as well fail spectacularly.
Photo by Keith Allison (Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 license)