Tuesday, April 8, 2014

2014 MLB Preview: AL West

Opening Day is creeping up on us fast, which is why I want to give all you baseball fans out there a giant six-part preview, with one column for each division, starting with the American League West. Thanks to Seattle's bold play for Robinson Cano over the winter, this division looks like it should be the most entertaining in baseball in 2014, with four very different teams all gunning for a division title and only the Astros looking primed to develop some young players and lose one hundred games again (speaking of which, my good friend Keith Hankins has developed some excellent proposals to limit the appeal of tanking for MLB and NBA teams). Without further ado...

Glossary of stats: .275/.350/.475 = batting average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage, HR = home runs, SB = stolen bases, wOBA = weighted on-base average, WAR = wins above replacement, IP = innings pitched, K/BB = strikeouts/walks, ERA = earned run average, FIP = fielding independent pitching.*

*All 2014 statistical projections are courtesy of Fangraphs, along with my bet whether the player in question will exceed or fall short of that projection. When WAR is mentioned in a written paragraph, it typically refers to the Baseball-Reference version.

5) Houston Astros

Lineup
CF   Dexter Fowler (age 28, .273/.373/.425, 15 HR, .352 wOBA, 4.2 WAR) - under
2B   Jose Altuve (age 24, .291/.330/.381, 6 HR, 35 SB, .313 wOBA, 2.5 WAR) - over
C     Jason Castro (age 27, .272/.347/.442, 17 HR, .345 wOBA, 4.5 WAR) - over
DH  Chris Carter (age 27, .233/.336/.469, 31 HR, .351 wOBA, 1.8 WAR) - under
RF   George Springer (age 24, .254/.340/.459, 17 HR, .349 wOBA, 3.0 WAR) - over
1B   Jesus Guzman (age 30, .231/.302/.397, 20 HR, .308 wOBA, 0.7 WAR) - under
LF   L.J. Hoes (age 24, .264/.336/.356, 5 HR, .310 wOBA, 0.8 WAR) - under
3B   Matt Dominguez (age 24, .254/.296/.419, 21 HR, .312 wOBA, 2.0 WAR) - over
SS   Jonathan Villar (age 23, .249/.325/.360, 5 HR, 37 SB, .307 wOBA, 1.6 WAR) - over

Rotation
RHP Scott Feldman (age 31, 180 IP, 130/54 K/BB, 4.15 ERA, 3.81 FIP, 2.5 WAR) - under
LHP Brett Oberholtzer (age 24, 154 IP, 115/45 K/BB, 4.56 ERA, 4.62 FIP, 0.8 WAR) - over
RHP Jarred Cosart (age 24, 139 IP, 100/70 K/BB, 4.16 ERA, 4.40 FIP, 0.8 WAR) - over
RHP Brad Peacock (age 26, 146 IP, 136/60 K/BB, 4.52 ERA, 4.68 FIP, 0.8 WAR) - under
RHP Jerome Williams (age 32, 156 IP, 107/43 K/BB, 4.27 ERA, 4.70 FIP, 0.1 WAR) - under

Bench/Bullpen
IF Marwin Gonzalez, OF Robbie Grossman, 1B Jon Singleton, C Carlos Corporan, RHP Josh Fields, RHP Chia-Jen Lo, RHP Chad Qualls, RHP Jesse Crain, LHP Raul Valdes, LHP Dallas Keuchel, RHP Matt Albers

Best Offseason Move - Whoa, the Astros actually made some moves that might possibly result in them winning more than 55 games this year! Despite playing in one of the five largest cities in the country, the Astros' payroll will be right around $48 million for the 2014 season. Just over forty percent of that total is earmarked for two players that GM Jeff Luhnow pursued via trade (Fowler) and free agency (Feldman) in order to help bridge the gap for all of the promising talent that should soon start arriving in the majors as a result of Houston's back-to-back hauls at the top of the draft (with another top overall pick coming this summer and likely in 2015 as well). Feldman will make $12 million this year to be the nominal ace in Houston, and to be the only pitcher on the staff capable of consistently stringing together three consecutive good innings, let alone starts. Fowler was a decent center fielder in the vast spaces of the Coors Field outfield for the past five seasons, and he will at least be able to hit his weight and provide speed on the bases for the bargain price of $7.35 million. Even during the midst of one of the most epic rebuilding jobs in baseball history, it's not a bad idea to have a couple veterans around who know what they're doing and can provide some guidance to the kids.

Worst Offseason Move - Fowler and Springer (one of the top prospects in the organization) will man two spots in the outfield this year, but would it have killed Luhnow to upgrade from Hoes and potentially make this a 65-win team instead of a 60-win team? Additionally, the rotation is an absolute disaster after Feldman, made up of guys who either don't miss bats, don't have a third pitch, or both. Other than Mark Appel, last year's top draft pick, none of the Astros' top minor league pitchers look like they'll be ready to join the big club at all this year, meaning that there will be a lot of football scores at Minute Maid Park.

Key Player - Springer is the first of the big-time prospects in this deep organization (currently the best in baseball) who will likely get a starting job, and his development and ability to adapt should tell us a lot about the Astros of 2016, if not the Astros of 2014. Fowler's presence will keep him in a corner for now, but Springer profiles as a strong defensive center fielder who draws a ton of walks, hits with power, runs well, and smacks a bunch of line drives. If you just thought "Jason Heyward" to yourself, you're not far off, although Springer is already almost the same age as Heyward, a four-year veteran. Still, he should get every opportunity to prove himself this season, and be one of the first new pieces of Houston's grand rebuilding plan.

Most Exciting Player - We watch sports to see very athletic men and women perform impressive feats that are quite beyond our imagination. But it's also great to have people who are more "normal-looking" playing in the same arena, if only because it allows us to dream that we could be out there ourselves. Think of Doug Flutie, for example, a 5'9" quarterback who nonetheless played in the NFL until he was 40. Or Dustin Pedroia, who might scrape his listed height of 5'9" in his cleats on a concrete floor. Altuve takes it to the extreme; he's a 5'5" sparkplug who's already made an All-Star team entering his age-24 season. He's speedy (75 steals in a little over two years), carries a good glove, and makes contact often enough to make up for a lowish walk total. There's a not insignificant chance that he'll wind up being Houston's lone representative at the All-Star festivities in Minneapolis this year as well.

Possible Breakout Star - Springer is far and away the likeliest candidate here.

Potential Achilles Heel - Let's see: talent, experience, consistent pitching...I could go on. This team will be less of a mess than in the previous three seasons, but still a mess, especially since they play in what this year might be baseball's most competitive division. They're a long way from even having the horses to climb out of the cellar, though. Check back in 2015.

Hidden Strength - Thanks to three years of outright ineptitude on the field and a sharp front office, the Astros have been stockpiling talent in the minor leagues like they're preparing for the apocalypse, and now have seven or eight of the top hundred prospects in baseball, with another seven or eight guys behind them who are easy to get excited about. And as mentioned before, thanks to their market the Astros have the financial wherewithal to start handing out large checks once the cavalry (Springer, Appel, Carlos Correa, etc.) arrives to make this franchise more competitive than it has been lately.

4) Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim

Lineup
RF   Kole Calhoun (age 26, .284/.357/.458, 18 HR, .356 wOBA, 3.5 WAR) - under
CF   Mike Trout (age 22, .310/.402/.529, 25 HR, 36 SB, .401 wOBA, 8.2 WAR) - over
1B   Albert Pujols (age 34, .286/.358/.499, 26 HR, .364 wOBA, 3.5 WAR) - over
LF   Josh Hamilton (age 33, .270/.327/.487, 26 HR, .346 wOBA, 2.7 WAR) - under
3B   David Freese (age 31, 276/.350/.414, 14 HR, .339 wOBA, 2.8 WAR) - under
2B   Howie Kendrick (age 30, .291/.329/.421, 12 HR, .327 wOBA, 3.4 WAR) - under
DH  Raul Ibanez (age 42, .240/.295/.403, 17 HR, .301 wOBA, -0.1 WAR) - over
C     Chris Iannetta (age 31, .235/.350/.371, 10 HR, .324 wOBA, 2.5 WAR) - under
SS   Erick Aybar (age 30, .278/.311/.391, 6 HR, .308 wOBA, 2.8 WAR) - under

Rotation
LHP C.J. Wilson (age 33, 205 IP, 172/79 K/BB, 3.43 ERA, 3.72 FIP, 2.7 WAR) - over
RHP Jered Weaver (age 31, 184 IP, 137/46 K/BB, 3.33 ERA, 3.66 FIP, 3.2 WAR) - under
LHP Tyler Skaggs (age 22, 128 IP, 123/49 K/BB, 4.42 ERA, 4.12 FIP, 1.2 WAR) - over
RHP Garrett Richards (age 26, 158 IP, 114/49 K/BB, 4.00 ERA, 3.78 FIP, 1.9 WAR) - over
LHP Hector Santiago (age 26, 151 IP, 156./69 K/BB, 4.05 ERA, 4.09 FIP, 1.7 WAR) - over

Bench/Bullpen
C Hank Conger, OF Collin Cowgill, IF Andrew Romine, IF Grant Green, RHP Ernesto Frieri, RHP Joe Smith, LHP Joe Blanton, RHP Kevin Jepsen, RHP Fernando Salas, LHP Nick Maronde, RHP Michael Kohn

Best Offseason Move - The Angels' rotation last year after Wilson and Weaver was an outright dumpster fire, and with little talent in their own system (the second-worst in baseball), the Angels opted to trade a proven commodity just entering arbitration (thumper Mark Trumbo, a designated hitter who would be a "three true outcomes" hitter if he ever walked) for a top-shelf pitching prospect (Skaggs, originally drafted by the Angels and traded to Arizona as part of the Dan Haren deal in 2010. The move shaves just $1.5 million off of the Angels' bloated payroll this year (after accounting for the signing of Ibanez to replace Trumbo), but adds a high-ceiling pitcher (in one of the better pitchers' parks in baseball) to a staff desperately in need, at the cost of a one-dimensional player with no true position. All in all, a brilliant move.

Worst Offseason Move - This section was going to be about the team's failure to sign Trout to a long-term extension before his sticker price became astronomical in arbitration this winter, but then they went out and got a steal of a deal ($144.5 million over six years). So there really isn't anything to harp on here. All of the Angels' moves were defensible, after consecutive winters of colossally bad decisions in signing Pujols and Hamilton to huge contracts. So kudos to them.

Key Player - When the Angels signed Pujols, they were hoping that he would age gracefully and provide stability in the middle of their lineup. He recovered nicely after an atrociously poor start in 2012, but plantar fasciitis hobbled him extremely in 2013, limiting El Hombre to just 99 games, 44 fewer than his previous low mark. Assuming that he's healthy this year (and apparently he is), Pujols is an iron-clad lock for 140-150 games and should at least hit as well as in 2012. He may never again be the supernova that he was for so long in St. Louis (although he's getting paid like one; $212 million remaining on that contract through 2021), but a four-win Pujols makes the Angels legitimately competitive, even in this stacked division.

Most Exciting Player - The chasm between Trout and his nearest competition on this team (Pujols or a focused Hamilton) is wider than on any team in baseball. People are basically out of superlatives to describe his ridiculous ability, and again, he's still just 22 years old. The only aspect of his game that doesn't rate a 70 or 80 on the 20-80 scouting scale is his arm, and even that is probably a 55 or 60. One of these years (perhaps this one) we're going to see a 40-40 season from him, and he will also contend for Gold Glove honors for a while. There is just no other player in baseball as good as he is, and precious few that are as fun to watch.

Possible Breakout Star - Skaggs was the Angels' first-round pick in 2009, so he has the pedigree of a top prospect, and now should get every chance to deliver on that promise, considering that the fallback option is Joe Blanton. Skaggs should strike out about a batter an inning, and if he can keep his walk rate down to something reasonable, he could become one of the team's top pitchers as a rookie.

Potential Achilles Heel - Take away Calhoun and Trout, and this lineup is O-L-D. No other regular is under 30, ranging from Kendrick (31 in July) to Ibanez (already 42!). That's a lot of potential for decline, especially when you look at the precedent set last year by Pujols and Hamilton. It's hard to remember that just three years ago Hamilton was the best player in the American League, but since then he's forgotten the strike zone and showed a disturbing trend to completely disappear for weeks at a time. The Angels are counting on some stability from him for their $25 million annual investment, which is more than half as much as the Astros or Marlins will pay their entire 40-man rosters.

Hidden Strength - With Frieri, Smith, Jepsen, and Salas, the Angels have a strong bullpen that should help them so long as the starters can carry their share of the weight and pitch six or seven innings on a regular basis. Plus, pitching always plays up in the AL West, which has three extreme pitchers' parks (Anaheim, Seattle, Oakland), one neutral park (Houston), and one hitters' paradise (Texas). If the rotation comes through for the Angels, the bullpen will be that much more effective.

3) Seattle Mariners

Lineup
SS   Brad Miller (age 24, .276/.341/.432, 16 HR, .338 wOBA, 4.0 WAR) - over
3B   Kyle Seager (age 26, .271/.348/.448, 22 HR, .348 wOBA, 4.5 WAR) - under
2B   Robinson Cano (age 31, .306/.379/.504, 24 HR, .378 wOBA, 6.4 WAR) - over
DH  Corey Hart (age 32, .268/.332/.470, 21 HR, .349 wOBA, 1.9 WAR) - under
RF   Logan Morrison (age 26, .253/.335/.427, 14 HR, .333 wOBA, 0.8 WAR) - over
1B   Justin Smoak (age 27, .243/.331/.417, 18 HR, .331 wOBA, 1.2 WAR) - under
CF   Michael Saunders (age 27, .252/.328/.425, 17 HR, .330 wOBA, 2.5 WAR) - under
C     Mike Zunino (age 23, .237/.317/.399, 14 HR, .315 wOBA, 2.3 WAR) - over
LF   Dustin Ackley (age 26, .270/.345/.395, 10 HR, .327 wOBA, 2.0 WAR) - over

Rotation
RHP Felix Hernandez (age 28, 228 IP, 230/56 K/BB, 2.97 ERA, 2.76 FIP, 6.3 WAR) - over
RHP Hisashi Iwakuma (age 33, 204 IP, 167/46 K/BB, 3.17 ERA, 3.69 FIP, 3.3 WAR) - over
RHP Taijuan Walker (age 21, 157 IP, 144/55 K/BB, 3.81 ERA, 3.62 FIP, 2.8 WAR) - under
LHP James Paxton (age 25, 151 IP, 136/56 K/BB, 3.94 ERA, 3.68 FIP, 2.3 WAR) - over
RHP Brandon Maurer (age 23, 101 IP, 86/31 K/BB, 4.55 ERA, 4.03 FIP, 0.8 WAR) - under

Bench/Bullpen
IF Nick Franklin, IF/OF Willie Bloomquist, OF Franklin Gutierrez, C John Buck, RHP Fernando Rodney, LHP Charlie Furbush, RHP Tom Wilhelmsen, RHP Hector Noesi, RHP Blake Beavan, RHP Stephen Pryor, LHP Lucas Luetge

Best Offseason Move - They had to overpay to do it, but signing Cano was a move that indicated that the Mariners believe in their fairly young core and want to compete now. Although seven of their projected regulars are between 23 and 27, and thus right on the cusp of their primes, most of them carry a question mark or three, in particular Smoak and Ackley. Cano, perhaps the best left-handed hitter in the league, brings some stability and a needed skill set to this lineup, which should relieve some pressure from the other members of what has been baseball's worst lineup for the past couple years. All by his lonesome Cano should make this a middle-of-the-pack group, and potentially more if he rubs off on any of the younger guys who have the talent but have stumbled in recent seasons, such as Smoak, Ackley, and Morrison.

Worst Offseason Move - Sure, their bullpen needed an upgrade, but was it really worth it to drop two years and $14 million on the 37-year-old Rodney? There's no guarantee that he'll be as good both due to age and no longer having access to the Tampa Bay juju, and the Mariners could have spread some of that money around to acquire more arms for the bullpen.

Key Player - Cano is really going to be the fulcrum of this team, bringing his excellent bat, solid glove, and leadership experience to a Seattle locker room that needs it. The only other projected regular who has any playoff experience or even much in the way of pennant race experience is the injury-prone Hart, who is working his way back from microfracture surgery on both knees. Just like last year with the Yankees, Cano will be one of the few proven commodities on his team, although now the guys he gets to play with are at least younger and more talented than the teammates he left behind.

Most Exciting Player - Hernandez is in the conversation for "best pitcher in baseball," a fact that tends to be forgotten when you play on a mediocre-to-terrible team. But he just keeps plugging away, tossing the odd shutout among his 200-240 innings every year and producing a slew of miserable-looking at-bats. He's not yet 28 years old but has already thrown a staggering 1824 major league innings, a figure that already ranks twenty-fifth among active pitchers (the other twenty-four are all at least five years older than King Felix - you have to go down to Clayton Kershaw at 57th place with 1180 innings to find another pitcher as young or younger). He's also tossed a perfect game, and believes enough in Seattle's plan that he signed an extension that will pay him through 2019 with a team option for the following season. Perhaps, if the Mariners hang around the pennant race, he will get his due in the Cy Young balloting once again.

Possible Breakout Star - Smoak! Just kidding. While it would be nice if he fixed his swing enough to hit like a first baseman and not like a catcher, there are plenty of other breakout candidates on this roster, especially if they get more national attention due to, you know, being good. Start with Seager, who should probably replace Cleveland's Jason Kipnis at this point as the captain of the "Criminally Underrated All-Star Team." Seager has produced seven wins above replacement in two full seasons as Seattle's third baseman, boasting a steadily improving bat, a slick glove, and plus base-running skills. He has enough power to hit 20-25 home runs (even in Safeco Field), and last year bumped his OBP up by twenty points while hitting for almost exactly the same average. It's not unreasonable to expect an even more significant step forward in his age-26 season, especially not when he should see a steady diet of fastballs in the zone from pitchers who don't want to walk men in front of Cano. Other candidates include: Miller, who should have no problem grabbing the starting shortstop job; Zunino, who profiles as a decent-to-good catcher who can hit; and Walker, who looks ready to grab a spot in the Seattle rotation as a 21-year-old and has ace-caliber stuff.

Potential Achilles Heel - This club will be relying heavily on some unproven or barely proven young players, not to mention some former big prospects who haven't panned out. Miller, Zunino, Ackley, Smoak, Morrison, Walker, Paxton, Saunders, and Danny Hultzen all have questions that range from "Can he stay healthy?" to "Can he hit enough to justify his place in the lineup?" If enough of the answers to those questions turn out to be "No," the Mariners could be in for a long season, Cano or no Cano. This team has two guys who are perhaps the best in baseball at their respective positions, but they need to bat at least .500 on all of the younger players scattered throughout the lineup and rotation in order to remain competitive all season.

Hidden Strength - Underestimate this team's financial strength at your peril. Sure, they play in Seattle, which means that they have a more grueling travel schedule than any other team and finish their games after most of the country has gone to bed, but this is a team with some potential. The Cano signing indicated that management (Nintendo) will not be afraid to pursue another piece if one becomes available through trade or free agency. With deep pockets and a payroll of just $87.7 million, do not be surprised if the Mariners seek and find an upgrade somewhere in the lineup at some point this season.

2) Oakland Athletics

Lineup
CF   Coco Crisp (age 34, .262/.332/.400, 13 HR, 26 SB, .322 wOBA, 2.9 WAR) - over
3B   Josh Donaldson (age 28, .284/.364/.454, 21 HR, .359 wOBA, 5.9 WAR) - under
SS   Jed Lowrie (age 30, .277/.336/.423, 14 HR, .333 wOBA, 3.3 WAR) - under
1B   Brandon Moss (age 30, .259/.338/.491, 29 HR, .359 wOBA, 2.4 WAR) - under
LF   Yoenis Cespedes (age 28, .269/.328/.485, 27 HR, .351 wOBA, 3.8 WAR) - under
DH  John Jaso (age 30, .271/.378/.372, 6 HR, .339 wOBA, 2.1 WAR) - over
RF   Josh Reddick (age 27, .243/.317/.441, 21 HR, .328 wOBA, 3.5 WAR) - under
C     Derek Norris (age 25, .257/.350/.414, 12 HR, .338 wOBA, 3.0 WAR) - over
2B   Eric Sogard (age 28, .256/.305/.338, 3 HR, .286 wOBA, 1.1 WAR) - over

Rotation
LHP Scott Kazmir (age 30, 145 IP, 143/47 K/BB, 3.96 ERA, 3.68 FIP, 2.1 WAR) - over
RHP A.J. Griffin (age 26, 198 IP, 168/50 K/BB, 3.75 ERA, 3.96 FIP, 2.8 WAR) - under
RHP Dan Straily (age 25, 168 IP, 143/57 K/BB, 3.75 ERA, 3.79 FIP, 2.6 WAR) - over
LHP Tommy Milone (age 27, 162 IP, 131/38 K/BB, 3.85 ERA, 3.89 FIP, 2.1 WAR) - over
RHP Jesse Chavez (age 30, 98 IP, 81/27 K/BB, 3.84 ERA, 3.75 FIP, 0.6 WAR) - over

Bench/Bullpen
IF Alberto Callaspo, IF Nick Punto, 1B Daric Barton, OF Craig Gentry, C/OF Chris Gimenez, RHP Jim Johnson, LHP Eric O'Flaherty, RHP Fernando Rodriguez, LHP Luke Gregerson, RHP Ryan Cook, LHP Sean Doolittle

Best Offseason Move - In light of Jarrod Parker's recent Tommy John diagnosis, as well as flexor tendon issues that will shelve Griffin for a month, the early December move to spend $22 million on Scott Kazmir looks pretty prescient. Kazmir is an old acquaintance of the disabled list himself; he was essentially out of baseball for two years before resurrecting his career in Cleveland a season ago. He can still strike out a batter an inning, and his reacquired talent should play up in Oakland, which like every other California park is kind to pitchers. With Parker out for the year and Griffin out for at least the start of the year, Kazmir suddenly finds himself the staff ace, something that hasn't been the case since he was in Tampa Bay and they were still the Devil Rays.

Worst Offseason Move - Rather than pony up something like the two years and $11 million it would have taken to re-sign angry Australian Grant Balfour to handle the closing duties, Oakland will spend nearly that much ($10 million) just in 2014 for the services of Jim Johnson, acquired in a trade with Baltimore. Billy Beane didn't give up anything of note for Johnson, just the out-of-favor Jemile Weeks and a spare minor league catcher, but the move doesn't appear to be fiscally prudent. Johnson, in fact, will eat up an eighth of the payroll as the team's second-most expensive player (after Cespedes), which is all because he saved 101 games over the past two seasons for the Orioles despite peripherals that do not suggest a dominant closer.

Key Player - Donaldson emerged last year as one of the three or four best players in the American League, hitting .301/.384/.499 and playing a stellar third base. Donaldson was stolen from the Cubs in the Rich Harden trade six years ago, and his breakout season was a seismic leap from the part-time duty of 2012 (.241/.289/.398). Even if he regresses to merely an All-Star level of play, he still represents an inexpensive investment for Oakland ($500K) who can help anchor a playoff team.

Most Exciting Player - There are few things quite as exciting as seeing Cespedes square up a baseball and send it into orbit. He routinely hits the ball over 400 feet, and has the power to reach far-away Mount Davis on occasion. Of course, that max-effort swing means that he strikes out a fair amount as well, but watch out for a bounce-back year from the Cuban outfielder; guys who hit the ball that hard generally do a lot better than the .274 batting average on balls in play that he managed last year.

Possible Breakout Star - This seems like it might be the year when Norris shows the baseball world that the A's perhaps will wind up on the winning end of the Gio Gonzalez trade two winters ago. Norris is a very patient hitter with decent power who happens to be pretty good wearing the tools of ignorance, too. Did I mention that he's only 25 years old? If he can catch 120-130 games as opposed to the 91 he caught last year, don't be surprised to see a three-or-four-win season out of him in 2014.

Potential Achilles Heel - The farm system is much shallower than you might think given who runs this team, and the injuries to Parker and Griffin are a major concern. For now the A's have the depth to cope, but if another starting pitcher gets injured, they will be skating on thin ice. As mentioned before, Kazmir is well-known in the trainer's room, having made thirty starts just twice in his career. Chavez will be stretched like never before in his professional career, and Milone will be back in the rotation instead of serving as an over-qualified long man. Oakland needs the rest of their pitchers to stay relatively healthy.

Hidden Strength - Having milked various market inefficiencies for all their worth, Beane and the A's have moved on to a new pattern; platooning guys to exploit beneficial matchups. Only Donaldson and Lowrie played 150 or more games last year (a borderline miracle for the fragile-as-porcelain Lowrie), and Moss was the only other player to appear in more than 135. Oakland will not keep you on the bench to collect splinters; they seek out meaningful contributions from all twenty-five guys on the roster, and that mindset has helped forge a strong unit that can't be easily beaten even if they lack the star power of other teams in their division or in their league.

1) Texas Rangers

Lineup
LF   Shin-Soo Choo (age 31, .288/.400/.465, 20 HR, .382 wOBA, 4.3 WAR) - over
SS   Elvis Andrus (age 25, .282/.340/.364, 4 HR, 39 SB, .314 wOBA, 3.6 WAR) - over
DH  Prince Fielder (age 30, .289/.381/.527, 34 HR, .387 wOBA, 4.1 WAR) - over
3B   Adrian Beltre (age 35, .305/.355/.513, 29 HR, .372 wOBA, 5.4 WAR) - under
RF   Alex Rios (age 33, .282/.320/.437, 17 HR, 35 SB, .329 wOBA, 2.4 WAR) - over
1B   Mitch Moreland (age 28, .252/.314/.410, 18 HR, .315 wOBA, 0.1 WAR) - over
2B   Jurickson Profar (age 21, .269/.344/.414, 13 HR, .334 wOBA, 3.0 WAR) - over
C     Geovany Soto (age 31, .244/.323/.398, 14 HR, .319 wOBA, 2.2 WAR) - under
CF   Leonys Martin (age 26, .271/.330/.404, 10 HR, 36 SB, .323 wOBA, 3.1 WAR) - over

Rotation
RHP Yu Darvish (age 27, 218 IP, 269/80 K/BB, 2.93 ERA, 3.10 FIP, 5.7 WAR) - over
LHP Martin Perez (age 23, 186 IP, 141/59 K/BB, 3.92 ERA, 3.91 FIP, 3.1 WAR) - under
RHP Alexi Ogando (age 30, 114 IP, 84/35 K/BB, 3.73 ERA, 4.34 FIP, 0.8 WAR) - over
LHP Robbie Ross (age 25, 69 IP, 66/23 K/BB, 3.71 ERA, 3.74 FIP, 0.3 WAR) - over
LHP Matt Harrison ( age 28, 119 IP, 79/36 K/BB, 3.72 ERA, 3.97 FIP, 1.5 WAR) - under

Bench/Bullpen
C J.P. Arencibia, IF Adam Rosales, OF Michael Choice, OF Engel Beltre, RHP Neftali Feliz, RHP Joakim Soria, LHP Robbie Ross, RHP Tanner Scheppers, RHP Jason Frasor, LHP Neal Cotts, LHP Michael Kirkman

Best Offseason Move - Already blessed with a hitters' haven of a ballpark and a couple of serious thumpers in the middle of the order, the signing of Choo should lead to a whole lot of runs thanks to his being on base all the time. Choo was second in the National League in on-base percentage a year ago for the Reds (behind teammate Joey Votto), and his lowest mark in a full season is .373. The Korean outfielder also has respectable power and base-running ability, and his glove should be very playable in a corner as opposed to the center field he played last year. If Andrus gets back on track after a disappointing 2013 (and he was noticeably better down the stretch), Beltre and Fielder should get lots of opportunities to drive in runs, making this potentially the most dangerous lineup in the division.

Worst Offseason Move - With Harrison and Derek Holland looking at lengthy disabled list stints to open the season and boatloads of money available, you're telling me that the best Jon Daniels could do to beef up the rotation was go out and sign Tommy Hanson and Joe Saunders? Poor Hanson appears to be yet another victim of the Braves' developmental system (see Medlen, Kris; Beachy, Brandon; and Minor, Mike) who is still young but with an arm that might be completely shot (and he has since been released and signed to a minor league deal by the White Sox). Saunders just isn't very good, although he's at least capable of standing upright for about as many innings as you need to leave him on the mound. The Rangers also took fliers on Armando Galarraga, who's more or less disappeared since Jim Joyce blew his perfect game, and Jose Contreras, who's 42 (in Cuban years, no less) and hasn't started a major league game since 2009. As brilliant as Darvish is, and as promising as Perez is, they need more help until Harrison and Holland get healthy.

Key Player - Beltre is rather quietly building a compelling Hall of Fame case while defying the effects of Father Time. Long one of baseball's finest defensive third baseman, Beltre continues to hit like a player still in his twenties, raking last year to the tune of .315/.371/.509 and leading the majors in hits. He's durable, too, having appeared in at least 140 games in eleven of his fifteen full major league seasons. You might be surprised to learn that he should easily pass 2500 hits, 500 doubles, and 400 home runs in his career this season, and that he still gets it done with the leather, although he has slowed a touch and is no longer the Gold Glover of younger days. He and Fielder should be a devastating 3-4 combo, especially with the short porches and jet streams of Arlington.

Most Exciting Player - Thanks to the injuries, Darvish will have to hold together a rotation that is mostly duct tape and string beyond him and Perez. Fortunately he is perhaps the best pitcher in the American League and therefore up to the task, with a devastating five-pitch arsenal that can make any hitter look foolish. The Japanese import led the majors with 277 punchouts last year, increasing his strikeout rate while also lowering his walk rate from his rookie season. As you can see from the embedded .gif, each of those pitches comes from the same release point and has killer movement; one of these days we might see Darvish throw a five-walk no-hitter.

Possible Breakout Star - Profar was the highest-ranked prospect in baseball a year ago, and the Rangers made the decision to ship Ian Kinsler off to Detroit for Fielder in order to open up a spot for the switch-hitting shortstop who is blocked by Andrus. Profar will likely be the youngest everyday player in the majors this season, but if he develops as expected he could be a game-changer for Texas, with power, speed, and an outstanding glove. In fact, an infield of Moreland, Profar, Andrus, and Beltre could be one of the best defensive units in the game, particularly up the middle.

Potential Achilles Heel - Manager Ron Washington runs a good clubhouse, but he is quite simply not very good at managing the individual aspects and matchups that crop up in games. His mismanagement of Game 6 in 2011 likely cost the Rangers a World Series title, and he remains a manager who goes by the antiquated book. For example, under his direction Andrus led the league in sacrifice bunts last year, and he hasn't shown any capacity for arranging his lineup to benefit everybody. Wash will once again have a very talented team on his hands, but he may cost the Rangers a game or two in a pennant race or playoff series that they can ill afford to lose.

Hidden Strength - As bad as the rotation looks beyond the top two guys, the bullpen has some serious talent. Both Feliz and Soria have backgrounds as elite closers, and Cotts is one of the better LOOGYs around. There are no seriously weak links in the 'pen, and it will only become stronger if Harrison returns quickly and bumps Hanson or Ogando from the rotation.

Coming next; the NL West.