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Beyond the Box Score 2018 MLB previews: AL West

Can the new-look Angels take on the powerhouse Astros?

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Left to right: Jose Altuve (Shanna Lockwood-USA TODAY Sports), Mike Trout (Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports), Robinson Cano (Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports), Adrian Beltre (Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports), Matt Olson (Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports

Our long, winter nightmare is over. Baseball is back! To get ready for the 2018 MLB season, we at Beyond the Box Score are previewing all 30 teams, looking at the moves they’ve made since last year, the player (or players) who could make a big difference this year, and reflecting on their overall outlook. We’ll roll out previews for each division over the next two days (AL on Tuesday, NL on Wednesday). Enjoy, and welcome back!

Houston Astros

2017 record: 101-61, first in AL West

PECOTA 2018 projection: 99-63, first in AL West

FanGraphs DC 2018 projection: 100-62, first in AL West

BtBS writers 2018 prediction: first in AL West (18/18)

MLB: World Series-Houston Astros at Los Angeles Dodgers
The defending champs will be hard to top.
Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

Key offseason moves:

  • Traded OF Jason Martin, IF Colin Moran, RHP Michael Feliz, and RHP Joe Musgrove to the Pirates in exchange for RHP Gerrit Cole.
  • Signed RHP Héctor Rondon to a two-year, $8.5 million contract.
  • Signed 2B José Altuve to a five-year, $151 million extension.

The Astros are smart enough to know that a contender should always be looking to improve. The thing is that the team is so strong that it didn’t have a lot of reasonable options in this regard. Houston did, however, execute one of the biggest trades of the offseason, boosting its rotation with the acquisition of Cole.

He’s a mid-rotation starter with top-of-the rotation potential, and he was acquired for prospects that the Astros will not miss. He is also under team control for two more years before he hits free agency. This move arguably negated the improvements made by the Angels and Mariners, though the Astros would have been clear favorites to win the division regardless.

Rondon was signed on a cheap deal after the Cubs non-tendered him. His run average and walk rate shot up in 2017, but he still maintained a high 29 percent strikeout rate. It’s a low risk gamble that vintage Rondon might come back.

Even though he wasn’t a free agent, Altuve signed the richest contract of the offseason. The 2017 AL MVP inked a five-year, $151 million extension, keeping him in Houston through 2024. While there’s certainly risk in signing an undersized second baseman through his age-34 season, Altuve’s been one of the best players in baseball for a few years now, and he has been very durable. Clearly the Astros believe he will age well.

Position to watch: Left field

You’ll notice that in this preview series, my BtBS coworkers are highlighting certain players and/or trends to watch for. For the Astros, you could argue that the whole team is something to watch for, since they’re bringing back almost the entire 2017 squad that won the World Series.

That being said, the left field situation is worth keeping an eye on. Marwin González might have been the likely starter there, but with Yulieski Gurriel’s injury, González will be the everyday first baseman. It will be interesting to see if being the everyday left fielder will allow Derek Fisher to improve on his lackluster 2017 debut. I certainly want to see him leverage his 70 speed and run more.

If Fisher is not productive, he is more likely to lose playing time to Kyle Tucker. While he hasn’t played above Double A yet, Tucker is an exciting prospect who lit the Grapefruit League on fire this spring. You can’t really conclude anything from 42 plate appearances in spring training, but Tucker hit .410/.429/.795 with 4 homers.

A.J. Hinch might have trouble playing González everyday once Gurriel comes back. González had a breakout 2017, hitting .303/.377/.530, but he probably isn’t much better than he was a year ago. There were some real changes involved, such as his learning how to take a walk; however, his .320 xwOBA was 62 points lower than his actual wOBA. His hard-hit rate was not any higher than it was in the prior seasons. Steamer and ZiPS have him as marginally better than an average hitter.

Unless González can hit something close to what he did in 2017, he’s going to be competing for playing time with Fisher, Tucker, Gurriel, and possibly A.J. Reed. Worst case scenario should still see González as a solid utility player.

2018 outlook

The 101-win, 2017 World Series Champion Astros are more or less returning the same team in 2018 — only better. They’ll be enjoying a full year of Justin Verlander, and they won’t have to worry about Carlos Beltrán hitting .231/.283/.383 as their primary DH, as the future Hall of Famer announced his retirement in November.

FanGraphs projects the Astros as a 100-win team. PECOTA has them as a 99-win team. Projections tend to be conservative, so it’s striking to see these systems evaluate a club’s talent so highly. It is also important to note that George Springer, Altuve, Alex Bregman, and Carlos Correa are a historically good top of the lineup.

The Astros dominated last year, and they’re projected to dominate again this year. That sounds about right to me; I believe them to be the best team in baseball. That being said, Cleveland is still an elite club. The Yankees added Giancarlo Stanton and have a strong farm system to leverage. The Astros should easily win their division, but getting home field advantage will be substantially more difficult. It should be fun to watch!

Luis Torres

Los Angeles Angels

2017 record: 80-82, second in AL West

PECOTA 2018 projection: 79-83, third in AL West

FanGraphs DC 2018 projection: 84-78, second in AL West

BtBS writers 2018 prediction: second in AL West (16/18)

MLB: Spring Training-Milwaukee Brewers at Los Angeles Angels
Is he ready for the states?
Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports

Key offseason moves:

  • Signed RHP/1B Shohei Ohtani as an international free agent (with a $2.3 million signing bonus).
  • Traded RHP Wilkel Hernandez and OF Troy Montgomery to the Tigers in exchange for 2B Ian Kinsler.
  • Signed 3B Zack Cozart to a three-year, $38 million contract.
  • Re-signed LF Justin Upton to a five-year, $106 million contract.

The headliner here is Ohtani. In what was a bit of a surprise — because of their recent run of mediocrity — the Angels landed the most coveted free agent of the offseason. Ohtani brings with him top-of-the-rotation potential, with plus raw power in the batter’s box. Although scouts are split about his optimal side of the ball and whether he’ll be able to handle MLB pitching well enough to stay in the lineup, Ohtani’s upside is massive.

Ohtani’s low cost due to the recently imposed international free-agent signing rules made this signing a coup for the Angels, which is why almost every team threw their hat in the ring for his services. As baseball fans, we now have our first legitimate shot at a dynamic two-way player, and the Angels have the potential for another all-world talent to play alongside the best player in baseball.

In what was a maddeningly slow offseason, the Angels were the one team to jump out of the gate and shore up their deficiencies quickly. The day after the World Series ended, the team announced Upton would be coming back, and less then a week after signing Ohtani, on back-to-back days in mid December, Angels GM Billy Eppler traded for Kinsler and signed Cozart to a three-year deal.

Gone are the days of Taylor Featherston, Johnny Giavotella, and Yunel Escobar. Now, flanking otherworldly defender Andrelton Simmons, LA has what is arguably the best infield defense in baseball. Baseball Prospectus projects the team’s overall Fielding Runs Above Average to be the fourth-best in the majors.

Not only will the Angels flash exceptional leather this season, it feels like, for the first time in a long time — maybe ever? — Mike Trout is surrounded by a competent, if not outright dangerous offense.

Player to watch: Garrett Richards

Since the Angels offense looks as complete as it has in a long time, this section should probably be about their rotation as a whole. But let’s focus in on the team’s lynchpin and de facto ace, Richards.

After throwing 207 13 innings in 2015, Richards has thrown just 62 13 frames in the past two season combined, as injuries have taken their toll. The good news is that when he’s been able to take the mound, Richards has been fantastic — in those 62 13 innings, he posted a 2.31 ERA and 2.93 FIP while striking out 23.6 percent of batters he faced. If we drop the minimum innings pitched requirement to 60 innings, Richards is 13th in all of baseball in ERA- since 2016. The only starter with a better mark is Clayton Kershaw.

Of course, 60 innings is an absurd benchmark to evaluate a starting pitcher over the course of two seasons, but the point is that Richards is capable of dominance. Now, if he can just stay on the mound. In a rotation full of other young guys who also have checkered injury histories, Richards’ 2018 performance will be the key to the team’s success.

2018 outlook

FanGraphs has the Angels projected for 80 wins, and PECOTA pegs them at 79 wins. On a surface level, after an offseason in which the Angels addressed their two biggest positional deficiencies, both of those forecasts feel a little bit light. But it’s perfectly understandable that the projection systems would evaluate the Angels this way, as their rotation is both young and riddled with a history of injuries.

Jeff Sullivan’s crowdsourced projection critiques suggest most FanGraphs readers agree that 80 wins is selling the Angels a tad short. While winning the division will certainly be tough with the Astros remaining an terrifying juggernaut, the Angels should absolutely compete for a Wild Card spot. The time is now: We need to see Mike Trout in the playoffs again.

Chris Anders

Seattle Mariners

2017 record: 78-84, third in AL West

PECOTA 2018 projection: 82-80, second in AL West

FanGraphs DC 2018 projection: 80-82, third in AL West

BtBS writers 2018 prediction: third in AL West (13/18)

MLB: Boston Red Sox at Seattle Mariners
Can the King reclaim his throne?
Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

Key offseason moves:

  • Traded RHP Robert Dugger, RHP Nick Neidert, and IF Chris Torres to the Marlins in exchange for CF Dee Gordon.
  • Signed RHP Juan Nicasio to a two-year, $17 million contract.
  • Signed OF Ichiro Suzuki to a one-year, $750,000 contract.
  • Traded IF Alexander Campos and RHP Emilio Pagan to the Athletics in exchange for IF Ryon Healy.
  • Signed LHP Wade LeBlanc to a major-league contract (details pending).
  • Released RHP Yovani Gallardo.

It’s a neat idea to take a second baseman like Gordon and turn him into a center fielder. Mariners GM Jerry Dipoto, with some help from his analytics staff, believes it will work. What is unquestionable is that the Mariners will have two fast guys at the top of their lineup in Gordon and incumbent shortstop Jean Segura. With the emphasis in recent years on home runs, it’s kind of rare to find a traditional leadoff and number two hitter on the same team.

Seattle will also have some speed at the bottom of the order, as Mariners legend Suzuki was brought back to help cover right field for the injured Ben Gamel (and provide some nostalgia). Not to be outdone on encores, LeBlanc returned as well to give additional starting rotation depth. Along with Nicasio in the bullpen, the Mariners hope to be better prepared for the injuries that wrecked their 2017 rotation.

With Yonder Alonso leaving as a free agent, Dipoto also traded for Healy from Oakland to turn around the team’s performance at first base, which ranked last in the majors in 2017. Healy had offseason hand surgery, so it was uncertain if he would be ready when the season started, but he recovered faster than anticipated.

Players to watch: The veterans

The Mariners are an older team, with most of the lineup and rotation regulars in their late 20s and early 30s. King Felix Hernandez has been supplanted as ace by James Paxton, but both pitchers battled through injuries in 2018. While second baseman Robinson Cano and third baseman Kyle Seager posted capable seasons, they were downturns from their career norms. At age 26, catcher Mike Zunino finally showed the hype that caused him to be labeled the best college hitter of the 2012 draft.

While previous Mariner teams were defined by their pitching and defense, this team is more defined by its offense. Part of that is because of the uncertainty surrounding the starting staff; the other part is the home runs and speed sprinkled throughout the lineup, led once again by Nelson Cruz’s 37-year-old bat. If you assume little regression — since many of the key players sans Cruz aren’t extremely old — the Mariners should have a solid offense.

2018 outlook

On the offensive side of the ledger, the Mariners will sink or swim with what they have, which could be very good, if Cruz and Cano keep on chugging. But on the pitching side, Seattle needs Paxton and Hernandez to be healthy. When the third starter in your rotation is Mike Leake and it goes downhill from there, you don’t have much margin for error.

Then again, it’s not like the 2017 Mariners were a horrible team. You have a lot of curiosity experiments, such as Gordon in center field and Ichiro getting a handful of at-bats, but nothing that would make or break the team. Projection systems have the M’s averaging around 80 wins; I’d be bullish enough to bump them to 85 because of their offense. It just might not be enough to get them into the wild card, though, much less the divison crowns over the younger, better Houston Astros.

Richard Bergstrom

Oakland Athletics

2017 record: 75-87, fifth in AL West

PECOTA 2018 projection: 76-86, fourth in AL West

FanGraphs DC 2018 projection: 80-82, fourth in AL West

BtBS writers 2018 prediction: fifth in AL West (8/18)

MLB: Baltimore Orioles at Oakland Athletics
Oakland’s season could rest on its Matts.
Andrew Villa-USA TODAY Sports

Key offseason moves:

  • Traded IF Yairo Munoz and IF Max Schrock to the Cardinals in exchange for OF Stephen Piscotty.
  • Traded RHP Jesse Hahn to the Royals in exchange for LHP Ryan Buchter, DH Brandon Moss, and cash.
  • Signed C Jonathan Lucroy to a one-year, $6.5 million contract.
  • Signed RHP Yusmeiro Petit to a two-year, $10 million contract.
  • Signed RHP Trevor Cahill to a one-year, $1.5 million contract.

The A’s finished 2017 with their third straight fifth-place finish in the AL West, which wasn’t a surprise — they’ve struggled to find the young core to build on for a few years now. Oakland’s offseason moves have been in the vein of trying to reorganize that young core and complement it with cheap veterans. Most of the team’s significant moves were accomplished via trade, but they did make a few signings to fill out their roster.

The most significant move was reeling in Piscotty. The A’s made the swap early in the offseason as the Cardinals sought to send him closer to his ailing mother. The A’s sent a couple of solid prospects to St. Louis in Schrock and Munoz, the latter of whom has cracked the St. Louis roster. Despite a down 2017, Piscotty brings upside to the Oakland outfield. He has shown the ability to be an above average outfielder already at the MLB level with flashes of something better.

The A’s also moved on from a player who was presumed to be a core piece in Hahn. Acquired when the team moved on from Derek Norris, Hahn has struggled to find his place in the league after a successful stint in 2015. In return for the righty, the A’s brought Buchter into the fold in the bullpen and briefly reunited with Moss. Buchter, a Driveline devotee, has been a solid reliever for the Padres and Royals for the past couple of years.

Finally, Oakland added a few short term veteran options in the free agent market. The most high profile of the group is Lucroy. The three-time All-Star isn’t what he used to be; as he’s aged, his proficiency behind the plate has reached two extremes of the spectrum. For the A’s to capture some value, they need him to regain at least some of his former glory as a defender.

In addition to Lucroy, they further bolstered their pen with Petit and Cahill. Adding the two veterans to the fold in the ’pen helps take some of the pressure off their young rotation.

Player to watch: Sean Manaea

Manaea enters the season as the presumptive ace for the A’s. The 26-year-old is the most promising arm on the A’s staff and needs to take a step forward for the club to really succeed. His 2017 season was marred by shoulder and sickness issues, but he still showed the ability that makes him a very encouraging arm going forward.

Manaea’s key to success in 2018 is staying healthy. Though the left-hander made 29 starts last year, he had alluded to health issues being a significant detriment to his success, as he posted a middling 4.37 ERA and 4.10 FIP. Overall, he needs to be on the mound in good condition to take a step foward and continue his development.

On the performance side, Manaea has made incorporating his slider into his approach a priority. His changeup has been his primary offering to get outs, but he boasts a quality slider that can expand his repertoire. Adding a quality third offering could do wonders, especially as he gets through the order a couple of times.

2018 Outlook

The A’s aren’t set up to compete yet. That said, this is an important year for them. Evaluating their young position players and evaluating their fit in the long term is the goal for this season. The young players on this team are broken out into a group of some arbitration-eligible guys and some first- and second-year pros. Oakland is going to be looking for different things from the different groups.

Players like Manaea, Piscotty, Marcus Semien, and Kendall Graveman represent that veteran group. All four have been productive players over their careers, but the A’s need them to continue to develop and move forward as they enter their prime seasons. If they can’t do that, then it’s hard to see them being a part of a competitive Oakland team as they move out of the years of team control.

Meanwhile, the minor-league talent needs to continue to bear fruit and develop in the major leagues. Matt Olson broke out for the A’s last season, blasting 24 home runs in just over 100 games. Olson was joined by Matt Chapman, who manned the hot corner serviceably last season. Dustin Fowler and Franklin Barreto can possibly make their names known early in the season. Both are talented prospects that were acquired in trades. Their arrival to the big leagues represents a potential turning over for this beleaguered franchise.

Anthony Rescan

Texas Rangers

2017 record: 78-84, fourth in AL West

PECOTA 2018 projection: 75-87, fifth in AL West

FanGraphs DC 2018 projection: 79-83, fifth in AL West

BtBS writers 2018 prediction: fourth in AL West (9/18)

MLB: Houston Astros at Texas Rangers
Another year of getting to watch these two.
Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Key offseason moves:

  • Signed LHP Mike Minor to a three-year, $28 million contract.
  • Signed RHP Doug Fister to a one-year, $4 million contract.
  • Signed RHP Tim Lincecum to a one-year, $1 million contract.
  • Signed RHP Jesse Chavez to a one-year, $1 million contract.
  • Claimed 1B Tommy Joseph off waivers.

For a team that dropped to 78-84 after two straight AL West titles, you’d expect to see more big moves in the offseason. But despite what GM Jon Daniels would have us believe, it looks like the Rangers are heading for a rebuild, if they’re not starting one already.

Minor is the one legit blue-chipper among these acquisitions. After a few years in the wilderness, he spun his way to a dominant season out of the Royals bullpen in 2017. He’s virtually unhittable against lefties, and he’s still more than capable of retiring righties, making him a valuable late-game asset for Jeff Banister.

Fister is a little similar to Minor — he was a big-name player, struggled for a few seasons, then rebuilt his career last year. If he’s the same pitcher he was in the last two months of 2017, the Rangers could have a front-line starter; even if not, he’ll still probably be a steal.

Aside from those two, it’s pretty slim pickings. Lincecum is a has-been without much left in the tank; the same goes for Chavez (although he’s more of a never-was). Joseph is a somewhat interesting wild card, but he’s a one-dimensional hitter who was sub-replacement level last season, and the Rangers are already set in their infield. Don’t expect these players to move the needle.

Player to watch: Rougned Odor

When the Rangers signed Odor to a six-year, $49.5 million, two-horse extension last March, they did so because of his bat. During 2015 and 2016, he hit .267 with a .305 on-base percentage and .487 slugging percentage, helping Texas win back-to-back division crowns. But in his first year under the new contract, Odor’s batting line collapsed to .204/.252/.397, making him the worst qualified hitter in baseball.

Odor’s never been one to take a walk — he’s a free swinger, who ideally does a lot of damage when he connects with the ball. Last year, he swung a little too freely in two-strike counts, while making a lot more soft contact. It’s hard to be a good hitter when your BABIP is .224; when you strike out 24.9 percent of the time, it’s damn near impossible.

After chipping in 4.3 fWAR over his first two full seasons, Odor ended up costing the Rangers 1.0 fWAR in his third campaign. Adrian Beltre, Elvis Andrus, and Joey Gallo earned a combined 10.1 fWAR in 2017, and they should have the rest of the Texas infield locked down. The team will be counting on Odor to come through at the keystone.

2018 outlook

Unsurprisingly, Texas doesn’t look much like a contender. Minor and Fister are nice, but this is a pitching staff that was one of the worst in baseball last year, and one starter and one reliever won’t change things too much. FanGraphs projects the Rangers rotation will rank 24th in the majors, with the bullpen at 17th. Even with a respectable group of hitters, that’s not a recipe for success.

The Rangers do have a history of beating expectations — they fluked their way into 95 wins in 2016, thanks to some stupid good luck in one-run games. But I wouldn’t expect that to happen this year, with the Astros remaining a juggernaut and the Angels taking a huge leap forward. Texas has too much talent to be bad, barring some major injuries; another mediocre campaign seems to be the likeliest outcome.

Ryan Romano