This is the third and final installation of the division previews. I want to thank Mr. Boye once again for giving his time and energy to this project, which sprung out of the deepest principle I have -- "Talking about baseball with friends is fun." Part one is here, while part two is here. A reminder that these are meant to be ways of exploring the optimism and pessimism each of us has about the fortunes of these teams in 2016, rather than some sort of empirical calculation. I know that I learned a lot from the points that Paul raised, which frequently made me re-assess my first impressions. And, most of all, this made me really excited for baseball season. Feel free to let me know if this is the type of thing you'd like to see again in the future.
Nick: I was having a hard time choosing between Houston and the Rangers. Perhaps you can clarify the gap between the two. This whole division looks crazy close, to me, though.
Paul: This is a fun division! I like thinking about the AL West this year: lots of top-tier pitching, an underdog or three you can feel comfortable bandwagoning with come playoff time, Mike Trout. Tons to watch for every level of fan, and you’re right, that usually makes for a crazy close division. The West is a bit stratified, with the A’s likely not being a Wild Card factor but a troublesome spoiler team come September, and I think the Rangers and Astros comprise tier 1A with the M’s and Angels going 1B.
When picking between Texas and Houston, I think my decision ultimately comes down to liking the Texas SP corps a bit more. Houston has Dallas Keuchel and an arm like Lance McCullers to dream on, but I’ll take Yu Darvish and Cole Hamels over Keuchel and any second Houston starter. Same goes for every other team in the division, and each has an ace (except, arguably, Anaheim, depending on where you fall on the Garrett Richards spectrum). Plus, I like Texas’ offense with or without Josh Hamilton (Ian Desmond is potentially a really intriguing fallback strategy there). If they can keep Darvish on the field - severely important - I can see them edging out the ‘Stros.
Nick: I am very glad I don’t have to root for one of these teams and I can just stand back and enjoy the chaos. Like you said, there’s a lot of really entertaining stuff here - especially for fans who can stay up late enough to watch those games. And, as much as I agree with your tier system generally, ZiPs has the Astros at first with 87 wins and Oakland last with only 79!
So, as for the first two, yeah, I was checking Houston and the Rangers and trying to figure out what separates them. Hamels and Darvish are definitely a potent 1-2, but Darvish is still coming back from TJS and I am curious to see how quickly he can return to his old self. In fact, outside of Hamels, a lot of the Rangers’ rotation looks like, “Really talented but super injured all the time.” So, ironically, the Astros’ depth of mid-rotation options like McHugh, Feldman, and Fister all of a sudden makes them look a lot safer.
I’m a little concerned that Ian Desmond and Elvis Andrus are just 100% done with the bat at this point (Desmond's K% keeps spiking, and Andrus hasn't had an OPS+ over 82 since 2012). So while both teams have volatility around the diamond in terms of potential performance, I would rather bet on guys like Springer to make gains than betting on sustained health and performance of some of Texas’ older guys. I have Houston ahead, but not by a whole lot.
Both teams have demonstrated a willingness to tap into their farm systems to add at mid-season, though.
Paul: I would put myself in a bit more bearish of a spot on Oakland than 79 wins, but to your point, projection systems showing an entire division potentially being that close is just another piece of the argument in support of extending bedtimes to watch these clubs. And further, just because I have Seattle a half-step back doesn’t mean I think they’re wholly unlikely to take this division for themselves, too. Texas and Houston are good, but they’re not clear, dominant favorites. Really, I think it’s good that the West fits the pattern that other divisions are seemingly settling into, with at least two definite contenders for the title in each one. It’s better for the game if that pans out.
The late-season additions nugget is key, too. The Rangers added Hamels last year, the Astros Carlos Gomez (and Carlos Correa, differently). These teams will make moves when they identify a need, and still seem positioned to be in the mix for whatever trade block commodities will go to market in July, should those needs arise.
Nick: I suppose the Rangers and Astros are kind of reflected in their Top Prospect Reinforcements of Profar and Reed -- Reed looking like a safer, high floor guy for 1B (which is a place of need) and Profar being a former global #1 prospect who is coming off of years of injury. Then again, this ignores Joey Gallo…
But yes, that’s a fair point about Seattle. And the mid-season upgrade ability could be the biggest separator between the 1A teams and the 1B teams. Seattle and the Angels have *nothing* on the farm, and I’ve seen BA and Keith Law refer to the Angels’ present system as possibly the worst in the modern era, with Seattle’s not really having much more there. Both teams are likely working with what they have at present, because they won’t have much to offer in a trade, and there aren’t any likely candidates to come up and help the roster.
I like the minor moves Seattle made -- Lind, Aoki, and Leonys Martin could all give them a boost at areas of weakness last year, and they’re committing to Ketel Marte instead of the revolving door of shortstops they’ve had the last few years. What do you think of Seattle’s rotation at this point? I can talk myself into a few different conclusions.
Paul: Talk about talented but unhealthy. Taijuan Walker and James Paxton haven’t immediately arrived as rotation bedrock, and if Felix Hernandez is indeed (finally) slowing down, somebody’s going to need to pick up some slack. Getting Hishashi Iwakuma back on a friendly deal looks like a more and more critical addition as the days pass.
I never know what to make of their bullpen from year to year, but Joaquin Benoit (balls) seems pretty ageless and Tony Zych could be a guy to watch if his 2015 cameo was any indicator. Losing Carson Smith is kind of a bummer, but getting Wade Miley back as part of that trade’s return could be a bet hedged against that very rotational slack mentioned above.
Nick: I was cautiously optimistic on Wade Miley last year and was not rewarded for it, but Seattle’s defense looks better than it has in a long time, and the Red Sox / Fenway weren’t doing him a ton of favors.
I thiiiiink I like the Angels’ rotation a bit better? Not sure…Perhaps this is the difference between front end potential versus back end safety. Because they have a volume of back end dudes to throw at the problem in the form of Wilson, Santiago, Skaggs, and Weaver, but the ceiling is pretty limited here. Both of them have Disaster potential.
Paul: I’ve long been mystified at Jered Weaver’s success with an underwhelming fastball (all the props in the world to him for achieving it), but I think last year was the start of the end for him. Wilson is a No. 3 on his good days and a No. 2 once or twice along the way. Santiago is fine, Skaggs I like. Nothing about the group really bowls me over, though, and the presumed inability of the club to be able to trade for anyone or anything midseason leaves them in a really precarious position.
Nick: Right. I just worry that if last year if the new normal for Felix, then you’re leaning really heavily on some really unproven guys in Seattle. There’s definitely more depth on offense for the Mariners than the Angels, though. Cruz-Cano-Seager is more than Trout-Dave Kingman Pujols-Question Mark…
Yeah the Angels have a TON of holes on offense. I might have to bump Seattle ahead of them.
Paul: It’s a shame that this is the current supporting cast for age-24 Mike Trout. He’ll still do a lot because he is who he is, but he’s still got a vast majority of the offensive load to bear.
Nick: Kalhoun is okay, I guess, Simmons is a glove, and Yunel looks like all bat no glove at this point? Very strange. Yeah. I’m talking myself into Seattle at this point. Their bullpen could be awful, but of Starting-Relief-Position players it’s the easiest thing to fix / best problem to have, potentially.
SO what would Oakland surprising and competing look like? We agree it’s the least likely scenario for this division?
Paul: Yeah, agreed. A full season of peak Sonny Gray would have to be a given, plus a breakout from Sean Manaea (which, for the record, I think is happening). The Khris Davis pickup from Milwaukee was savvy, but their infield is a huge smattering of question marks, so somebody from the mix of Yonder Alonso, Marcus Semien and, I don’t know, Danny Valencia(?) will need to bust out. Their relievers are a sneaky good collection, assuming John Axford’s got some stuff figured out, so I wouldn’t be surprised if they hold a lot of late-inning leads, should the offense provide them.
Nick: I am probably higher on Jesse Hahn than the consensus / I should be. I was also startled to look back and see what Valencia did in 2015, but it seems more likely that they would excel on run prevention far more than run scoring as a path to success. But I think other than hedging a game or two here or there, we’re roughly on the same page with the complexion of this division. Happy to grab some popcorn and watch the battle royale unfold.
Fun facts: Paul got me to flip Seattle ahead of the Angels, and while we were having this conversation Twitter was talking about Garrett Richards (whom I really like) hitting 100 in Spring Training while Weaver topped out at 80. 80!!
Now -- To the NL!
Nick: There are a lot of fun divisions this year, and this may be the one I’m looking forward to the most, even though I think there is a huge chasm between the Top 3 and the Bottom 2 here. I was agonizing between the Dodgers and Giants but you shot Arizona ahead of LA as well.
I suppose the question here is -- why so down on LA?
Paul: I guess having the Brett Anderson injury in my pocket “helps,” but I’ve been kinda meh on the Dodgers ever since Greinke went to their division rival. Clayton Kershaw is tremendous and there are some talented hitters, but this is a good-to-very-good team to me, not a great one. The Giants have spent a lot of money; some of it was spent wisely (Johnny Cueto), some of it probably not so wisely (Jeff Samardzija), but they made themselves better. The Dodgers have been stuck in neutral. Maybe Hyun-jin Ryu comes back strong and is a viable No. 2, maybe Brandon McCarthy is fine from July on, but if the current plan is to rely on Scott Kazmir and Alex Wood to stay healthy and pitch above career norms - which, for Kazmir at least, is part of the recent track record - that’s a risky plan!
Then you start thinking about fast-tracking Julio Urias, whose destiny may ultimately be as a reliever if he can’t ever pitch more than 100 innings in a season (an admittedly early thing to call)? Even riskier. Plus, I’m kind of concerned about Joc Pederson’s four-month-long freefall last season.
Well, hey, Adrian Gonzalez, Yasiel Puig and even Corey Seager seem to make for a pretty dependable offensive core. Andre Ethier doesn’t seem to be cooked yet, either. But it’s not a megateam, and they’ll be beatable.
Nick: It’s such a weird team. Losing Greinke was really, really bizarre, and their strategy of committing to particularly brittle pitchers is already biting them as you have observed. I do think their position player situation is really good -- at every spot they either have a plus regular (Gonzalez, Seager, Puig) or they have like eight possible solutions. Kershaw-Kazmir-Wood-Maeda is certainly underwhelming, particularly given what they’re coming off of, but I think it’s a problem they can work on as the season goes along, and that their position players give them more than enough cushion.
Even if say, Pederson is a platoon only bat, they added a perfect complement in the form of Trayce Thompson (for example) who along with Van Slyke and a few other pieces forms the potential for some very effective platoons (although who knows how they manage a 25 man roster with this group).
I may like the Giants better after we finish talking, although their OF is a horror show when it comes to durability. So much of the Samardzija signing depends on how you feel about his 2014 and 2015. The narrative has been put forward that 2015 Samardzija was battling Don Cooper about mechanical adjustments (which he has evidently abandoned already) and that defense wasn’t doing Shark any favors either. I’m sure he will show better in San Francisco, although how much better remains to be seen.
I’m pretty meh on Peavy and Heston, but Front End Of Rotation + Their Infield + Giants’ ability to get the most out of seemingly everyone is a pretty compelling case. I’d be pretty shocked if they weren’t in the playoff conversation right up until the end.
But you also like the Diamondbacks more than the Dodgers.
Paul: I do, but that’s me taking a leap. I think Paul Goldschmidt/A.J. Pollock as a one-two gets overlooked a bit too much, plus supplementary players like David Peralta have been a pleasant surprise. The rest of the infield may still struggle to hit - Nick Ahmed and Jean Segura don’t inspire a ton of offensive confidence at the moment - but if the pitching performs like I think it will, that’s mitigated and then some.
Greinke, Patrick Corbin and Shelby Miller is a damn fine top three in the rotation, and other intriguing arms like Randall Delgado, Archie Bradley and the rebuilt Daniel Hudson make for a collection of hurlers that I think might take some fans by surprise. The Greinke signing was a splash, but they already had an intriguing squad taking shape in Arizona before that piece of the puzzle was inlaid.
Nick: Arizona’s Top 3 basically being “added” over last year’s squad (Corbin coming off of a missed ‘15 due to injury) is an enormous boost to a team that was pretty okay last year. I am with you on the Goldschmidt / Pollock train, and I agree that Peralta is a pretty cool role player.
Yasmany Tomas is definitely an X-Factor for me. They messed with him at 3B last year, he’s still quite young, and he was going through the massive adjustment from Cuba to the Majors while still somewhat holding his own. He’s supposed to have a lot of power in there, and maybe another look at the league makes for a leap forward. The problem is, his K:BB ratio is basically Prime Cliff Lee territory and that worries me.
I suppose it’s good to have your weakest bats as plus gloves at SS and 2B, but I’m just worried there isn’t enough supporting cast here. Not sure what to make of Rubby or Ray.
Paul: Admittedly, this is me expecting some big breakout from someone other than the usual cast of characters. You’re right that Arizona needs a bit more, I’m just on a hunch they’ll get that bit more from somewhere this year.
Nick: Despite some weirdness from their front office and ownership, they have consistently churned out good outfielders in recent memory, particularly having them beat their prospect expectations. Ender Inciarte and David Peralta were considered to be filler until quite recently. They wouldn’t need much to get them over the hump, but I still like the Dodgers’ ability to find a like, 4th starter better.
If Hunter Pence / Denard Span / Angel Pagan stay anything close to healthy I may flip the Dodgers and Giants, but I still think they’re both slightly ahead of Arizona. But, 162 games is a long time and it doesn’t take much to flip any of these around when they’re this close.
Now--Padres and Rockies -- PLAYOFF CONTENDERS?
Nick: Any reason to like one more than the other? I believe the Rockies have a significantly better farm than San Diego but not sure how relevant that is to 2016.
Paul: If Jose Reyes gets put out to pasture elsewhere, it could be neat to see how an infield of Nolan Arenado, D.J. LeMahieu and Trevor Story functions. There’s also an outside shot at seeing Raimel Tapia at some point if he continues to shoot through the system and up prospect rankings. Beyond the curiosity, though, the Rockies still don’t have the pitching they desperately require, and they kind of need Jon Gray to bust out. Carlos Gonzalez also needed to be traded three months ago. The Rockies are in a bit of disarray and their offseason was weird, so they’re easy to count out this season.
I do like the Padres more, but after the failure to launch the shiny rocket ship that was supposed to be the 2015 season, they seem primed to take a step back. Andrew Cashner and James Shields and Tyson Ross are nice starters for however long they remain in San Diego, and I like Colin Rea as a sturdy rotation filler, but the offense is uninspiring and, for once, the bullpen doesn’t look like it’ll be an area of strength.
This is a .500 team at best, and likely worse if they strip away everything that isn’t bolted down come July.
Nick: It’s interesting because when you talk about the Rockies like that -- Arenado! 3 pretty good outfielders! LeMahieu is okay! Story is a guy! -- it sounds kind of promising but they are going to need a huge leap forward from a bunch of arms to get out of the bottom...I dunno 5? in all of MLB.
I think both teams wind up selling off at the deadline and so even if they are not-horrible to start, they will likely finish full out horrible. I still want Wil Myers to be good, but repeated wrist injuries and a move to 1B may have pulled his ceiling down to sub-impact level permanently.
Well, that about wraps it up. Any Wild Cards coming out of this division?
Paul: I think we get one, max, but I don’t say even that with a ton of confidence. There are three potentially playoff-caliber teams, but the NL Central is better and will be really tough to overcome in that race.
Nick: We’re never going to get a morning radio debate show if we keep agreeing with each other, Paul.
Paul: My dreams...crushed…
Follow Paul on Twitter @paul_boye and Nick @Nick_TCS.