2014 Record: 70-92
Off-Season Analysis: The Astros have the deepest farm system in baseball, and they used it to make a significant move to upgrade their line-up when they acquired OF/C Evan Gattis from the Atlanta Braves for three top prospects. Of the three prospects, only right-hander Mike Foltynewicz was expected to make an impact at the big-league level this season. Gattis will join sluggers Chris Carter and George Springer in what the Astros hope is an improved middle of the order.
Gattis is likely to get most of his starts with the Astros in left field, but he could see some time at first base against left-handed pitchers and could slide in behind the plate should either starter Jason Castro or new back-up Hank Conger suffer an injury. Castro and Conger should be the Astros’ regular back-stop tandem, however. The Astros have plenty of catching depth at the big league level and in Triple-A; so much so that they traded a solid catcher in Carlos Corporan to the Texas Rangers for prospect Akeem Bostick on Wednesday.
The Astros’ infield will have a different look in 2015. Veteran Jed Lowrie returns to Houston after two seasons with the A’s. Lowrie is slated to be the Astros’ starting shortstop, but he could move to third if the Astros find a better alternative defensively at short. Houston also added infielder Luis Valbuena from the Chicago Cubs in a deal that send centerfielder Dexter Fowler to Chicago. Valbuena hit 16 homers and had a 776 OPS for the Cubs last season. He has some experience at shortstop, but the bulk of Valbuena’s big-league playing time has come at third base. He is likely to take over for last year’s third baseman Matt Dominguez, who could move into a back-up role. Valbuena will also be able to fill-in at second base when starter Jose Altuve needs a day off.
The Houston outfield will have a different look up-the-middle. Fowler will be replaced by a combination of new free agent signing Colby Rasmus and young players Jake Marisnick and George Springer. The Astros figure to have Rasmus, Marisnick, Springer and Gattis getting the majority of their innings in the outfield in one configuration or another. Robbie Grossman could work his way back into the conversation, as well.
The Astros significantly upgraded their bullpen by adding two veteran free agent relievers: Luke Gregerson and Pat Neshek. Both Gregerson and Neshek were among the top right-handed set-up men in baseball last season. Gregerson could get an opportunity to move into the Astros’ closer role, although he hasn’t had a lot of success as a closer in limited opportunities during his career. Returning closer Chad Qualls had a good season last year when he wasn’t facing the Oakland A’s, and between Qualls, Gregerson and Neshek, the Astros should be holding onto a lot more late-inning leads than they have in the past couple of years.
Houston hasn’t done much to address their starting rotation this off-season. They added right-hander Dan Straily from Chicago, but the rest of the rotation remains from last year. The Astros may be content to wait for prospects such as Mark Appel to reach the big leagues, although they could sneak in and make a trade for a veteran like Cole Hamels or sign free agent James Shields. They should have the salary flexibility and the farm depth to add to their rotation before Opening Day, if they want to go that direction.
The Astros are still probably a year or so away from being serious contenders in the AL West, but they aren’t likely to be doormats any longer. With Carter, Gattis, Springer, Jonathan Singleton, Valbuena, Rasmus and Castro, the Astros have plenty of power potential to surround their star Altuve. The Astros also have a lot of swing-and-miss in their line-up. They will probably have a lot of boom-and-bust periods with their offense, but they should be much more entertaining offensively than they have been in years past. Their starting pitching still needs reinforcements at the big-league level, but they shouldn’t have to suffer the deflation of losing late leads nearly as often as they have in recent years.
2014 Record: 98-64
Off-Season Analysis: The Angels have had a relatively quite off-season in terms of headlines, but that doesn’t mean they haven’t been busy. The 98-win Angels didn’t have many holes going into the off-season, but they made several lower-profile moves and one high-profile trade in an attempt to make their roster a little younger and deeper.
The biggest move the Angels have made to date was trading longtime second baseman Howie Kendrick to the cross-town rival Los Angeles Dodgers. Kendrick has been a stalwart in the Angels’ line-up for nearly a decade, but he was entering his final year of his contract. With the Angels’ budget likely to shrink as the contracts for fellow veterans Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton grow, Los Angeles wasn’t likely to be able to afford Kendrick after this season. Instead, they turned one year of Kendrick’s services into six years of service time for left-handed starter Andrew Heaney.
Heaney is one of the top left-handed starting pitching prospects in baseball. A 2012 draft pick out of Oklahoma State, Heaney zoomed through the Miami Marlins’ system to reach the big leagues last year. He made six starts for Miami in 2014 and should be ready to jump into the Angels’ rotation this year. Heaney will help the Angels bridge the gap between Opening Day and when starter Garrett Richards returns from rehabbing a knee injury he sustained last season. Heaney will also give the Angels three young starters in their rotation (along with Richards and Matt Shoemaker), which will be a bonus for Los Angeles as they try to reign in their budget the next few seasons. The Angels should also get back young starter Tyler Skaggs in 2016 after he finishes rehabbing from Tommy John surgery.
The Angels also added some pitching depth with the addition of swingman Cesar Ramos from the Tampa Bay Rays. Ramos had a 3.70 ERA in 43 appearances for Tampa last season and is capable of starting and relieving. He should give the Angels some much needed depth a year after their starting rotation was devastated by injuries.
Los Angeles will bring back closer Huston Street and set-up man Joe Smith in 2015, but they will have some new faces in the bullpen with them. Gone are Kevin Jepsen, Jason Grilli, Michael Roth and Sean Burnett. Veteran Ryan Mattheus, as well as Ramos and newly acquired right-hander Nick Tropeano could factor in a revamped Angels’ bullpen. The Angels also signed minor leaguer Jeremy McBryde to a big league deal after he had a standout season in Triple-A with the A’s organization last year.
On offense, the Angels had to replace Kendrick at second base. The Angels acquired middle infielder Josh Rutledge from Colorado and second baseman Johnny Giavotella from the Kansas City Royals. Both are young players with some big league experience. They are expected to compete with former A’s first-round pick Grant Green for the second base job this spring. The Angels also added minor league third base prospect Kyle Kubitza from the Atlanta Braves this off-season. Kubitza is expected to start the season in Triple-A, but could factor into the Angels’ infield plans later in the year.
Behind the plate, the Angels let go back-up catcher Hank Conger in a trade with Houston. They later acquired Dodgers’ back-up backstop Drew Butera in a trade and Butera should be the second catcher behind Chris Iannetta in 2015. The Angels also acquired minor league catcher Carlos Perez for depth in Triple-A.
The biggest offensive addition the Angels made this off-season was the acquisition of outfielder/DH Matt Joyce from Tampa. Joyce had a 732 OPS with nine homers for the Rays last season. In his two previous seasons with Tampa, Joyce hit 18 and 17 homeruns, respectively. He is likely to get most of his playing time at DH, although he could see some time in the corner outfield spots, as well.
The Angels also added back-up outfielder Daniel Robertson in a trade with the Texas Rangers. Robertson will give the Angels another option in center and left should Mike Trout or Collin Cowgill suffer an injury.
The Angels may not yet be done setting their roster. They could be in the market for another reliever, as they are lacking an established late-inning reliever from the left-side at the moment. The Angels are always a threat to swoop in on a big-name free agent like James Shields, but given their budget restraints, they probably aren’t in that market. They will miss Kendrick’s presence in the line-up and on defense, but their overall roster depth is improved over where it was at the end of 2014. With the moves they have made thus far, they should enter the 2015 season in good position to defend their AL West title.
2014 Record: 87-75
Off-Season Analysis: With a starting pitching surplus, the Seattle Mariners may not yet be done, but they have already made some significant additions to a team that missed the playoffs by one game in 2014.
The biggest issue for the Mariners over the past few years has been offensive production, specifically a lack of power. The Mariners addressed that in a big way with the free agent signing of DH Nelson Cruz, who hit 40 homeruns last season for the Baltimore Orioles. Cruz will provide much needed protection for last year’s big free agent signing, Robinson Cano.
The Mariners also improved their outfield depth – at least offensively – by adding Seth Smith and Justin Ruggiano via separate trades. Smith and Ruggiano should platoon in right field for the M’s (Ruggiano may also spell Dustin Ackley in left at times, as well). That combination will be a downgrade defensively from the departed Michael Saunders, but the M’s should see a significant increase in offensive production. Seattle can turn to the speedy James Jones as a late-game defensive replacement in the outfield, as well.
Seattle didn't have much need to improve their pitching staff, which was one of the best in the American League from top-to-bottom in 2014. The Mariners let free agent Chris Young leave and acquired left-hander J.A. Happ from Toronto in exchange for Saunders. Happ should slide in behind Felix Hernandez, Hisashi Iwakuma and James Paxton. Seattle still has several candidates to choose from for their fifth starter spot, including Roenis Elias, Taijuan Walker and Erasmo Ramirez. Seattle may make another deal with their pitching surplus. The Mariners will miss promising right-hander Brandon Maurer (traded for Smith), but they have the depth to absorb that loss.
Even if the Mariners don’t make another move, they may already be the most balanced team in the AL West. Seattle has a good mix of older and younger players and has minor league depth to make additional moves if they deem them necessary. They should be one of the favorites to win the AL West going into spring training.
2014 Record: 67-95
Off-Season Analysis: If something could go wrong, it did go wrong for the Texas Rangers in 2014. There was no team harder hit by injuries last season than the Rangers. Much of the Rangers’ fortunes in 2015 will be determined by whether those players injured in 2014 can come back strong in 2015.
Until this week, the Rangers had been relatively quiet this off-season. However, Texas made a big play to improve their starting rotation by adding right-hander Yovani Gallardo via a trade with the Milwaukee Brewers. The Rangers gave up promising right-hander Corey Knebel and solid back-up infielder Luis Sardinas in the deal, but Texas should have the depth to cover both of those losses. Gallardo will give the Rangers another top-of-the-rotation starter to go along with Yu Darvish. Most importantly, Gallardo brings a track record of being healthy and throwing a lot of innings to Texas.
The Rangers also added left-hander Ross Detwiler in a deal with the Washington Nationals. Detwiler can slot into the back of the Rangers’ rotation early in the season and then could move into the bullpen once starters Matt Harrison and Derek Holland prove they are at full strength. Texas also brought back starter Colby Lewis, who will factor into the competition for the final three spots in the rotation behind Darvish and Gallardo.
Texas lost outfielder Alex Rios to the Kansas City Royals via free agency, but they expect right fielder Shin-Soo Choo to return from injuries that cost him much of his first season with Texas. The Rangers are also hopeful that first baseman Prince Fielder and middle infielder Jurickson Profar can make a full recovery from last year’s ailments. Adrian Beltre remains the team’s rock at third base.
The addition of Gallardo puts Texas in a good position to compete if all of their stars return from injury and remain healthy next year. If the injury bug returns to Texas, the Rangers should be able to get a decent return for Gallardo at the mid-season trading deadline. It’s hard to judge the Rangers’ off-season without knowing exactly how all of their stars are progressing on their rehabs. They will be the biggest x-factor team in the AL West heading into spring training.