Spring training preview: American League West
This week from Monday through Wednesday, SI.com baseball experts Cliff Corcoran and Jay Jaffe will break down what to watch for in each team's camp as part of our spring training preview by looking at the Big Change, Big Question and Big Prospect for all 30 clubs. Teams are listed by their order of finish from 2015. Note: The Big Prospect is a player who will be in big-league camp this spring but has not yet debuted in the major leagues. Today's preview: the American League West.
The Big Change: Cole Hamels, Opening Day starter?
The Rangers didn't have a very high-impact winter, but that’s in part because the key midseason acquisitions that helped bolster Texas to its unexpected division title are still around, namely Hamels. Manager Jeff Banister has yet to name the team's Opening Day starter, but the 32-year-old lefty, who will serve as staff ace until Yu Darvish returns from Tommy John surgery sometime in the second half of May, figures to get the call.
Hamels is coming off a season in which he posted a 3.65 ERA and 3.47 FIP in 212 1/3 innings—his sixth straight year above the 200 mark. Oddly enough, he took the ball on Opening Day for the Phillies just twice, in 2013 and '15. The since-departed Yovani Gallardo started the opener for the Rangers last year; even if Banister looks beyond Hamels, this will be the seventh year in a row that Texas has gone with a different starter.
The Big Question: What will become of Jurickson Profar?
The consensus No. 1 prospect coming into the 2013 season (his age-20 campaign), Profar endured a rocky rookie year, hitting just .234/.308/.336 in 324 plate appearances and seeing time at second base, shortstop, third base and leftfield. Since then, however, he's barely been able to stay on the field. A muscle strain in his right shoulder, followed by multiple setbacks, cost him the 2014 season, and surgery to repair a torn labrum—now believed to be the underlying cause of his woes—put him on the shelf until Aug. 27 of last year. When he did play, he was confined to designated hitter duty, going 11 for 43 with a homer in 12 games for the team's Class A and Double A affiliates, then 13 for 50 with a pair of homers in the Arizona Fall League. The scouting reports on his bat speed were positive, and again, he did show some power.
Profar just completed a throwing program, so he should be able to play the field during exhibitions. Right now, the plan appears to be for him to start the year at Triple A Round Rock, playing more shortstop than second base, in part because the team believes that given his injury, the throwing angle from short is less stressful on his arm than the throw from second. Barring a trade or injury to shortstop Elvis Andrus or second baseman Rougned Odor, there's no immediate opening on the big club, and the team is likely to prioritize Profar playing every day to shake the rust off rather than serving as the big club's utility man, at least to start the year.
That said, general manager Jon Daniels indicated a willingness to consider Profar in the leftfield mix if the need arises. Last year, Banister tried a dozen players in that spot, and they combined to hit .225/.295/.393. Hopes for a Josh Hamilton/Justin Ruggiano platoon there have already begun to unravel, as Hamilton will open the season on the disabled list after receiving an injection of stem cells to combat continued pain in his left knee, on which he underwent surgery twice last year. Hamilton is hoping to be ready by late April, but his long injury history suggests more delays are possible. That moves lefty-swinging Joey Gallo (a third baseman by trade who played 19 games in left last summer) toward the center of the picture, with righty-swinging Ryan Rua (the team's Opening Day starter last year) also in the frame, so it's not as though Profar is going to jump to the head of the line. But if he's hitting at Triple A and the team has a need, it's not out of the question.
The Big Prospect: Nomar Mazara, OF
Gallo, who made 123 plate appearances for the Rangers last year, is still technically a rookie, and he's ranked among the top dozen prospects on all the major lists. Two of the four lists have fellow Rangers prospect Mazara above him, with Baseball Prospectus ranking him fifth behind only Dodgers shortstop Corey Seager, Twins centerfielder Byron Buxton, Nationals righthander Lucas Giolito and Phillies shortstop J.P. Crawford; BP also gave Gallo his highest ranking, eighth.
Though he doesn't turn 21 until April 26, Mazara has already put in four seasons stateside; he set a record with a $5 million signing bonus as a 16-year-old, the year before international spending limits went into effect. He spent most of 2015 at Double A, with a 20-game cameo at Triple A late in the year, and hit a combined .296/.366/.443 with 14 homers. The 6'4", 195-pound lefty swinger manages the strike zone well, uses the whole field and has more raw power than those numbers suggest. Via the Baseball Prospectus 2016 annual, "The fluidity of his swing path—supplied by long arms and a physical frame—gives an effortless look to a left-handed stroke that elicits some Will Clark comparisons … the hitting tools [give] him legitimate middle-order, All-Star upside."
Defensively, Mazara has a plus arm and decent range in rightfield but below-average speed. He does have 33 games of experience in leftfield, so he could draw consideration if the opening is still there once he gets more seasoning in Triple A.
The Big Change: The big closer
The Astros' signature move this winter was the acquisition of closer Ken Giles, who posted a 1.80 ERA with 11.2 strikeouts per nine in 70 innings for the Phillies last season and still has five years of club control. The 25-year-old righty, who saved 15 games last season after Philadelphia traded Jonathan Papelbon to Washington, was joined in the deal by a 17-year-old infielder named Jonathan Arauz. But Houston paid a steep cost in the trade, sending away five players: 2013 No. 1 overall pick Mark Appel, rotation candidates Vince Velasquez and Brett Oberholtzer and a pair of lower-level pitching prospects in Thomas Eshelman and Harold Arauz (no relation).
It's not as though incumbent closer Luke Gregerson had a bad season (31 saves, 3.10 ERA, 8.7 strikeouts per nine). At least in part, the Giles trade is a reaction to the fact that Houston's entire bullpen hit the skids in September and was then responsible for two of the team's losses in the Division Series against the Royals. It does seem like a serious amount of overcompensation given the cost, particularly because the rotation behind AL Cy Young winner Dallas Keuchel carries some question marks (more on which momentarily). But the Astros' hope is that the pairing of Gregerson and Giles, with holdovers Will Harris and Tony Sipp in front of them, can help to shorten games for the aforementioned starting five.
The Big Question: What will the Astros get out of their non-Keuchel starters?
It's not that the pitchers behind Keuchel aren't good options; it's that they all offer some yellow flags. The Giles trade, meanwhile, thinned out the depth behind them considerably.
Collin McHugh won 19 games last year, but that owed a lot to receiving 5.3 runs per game of offensive support; his 3.89 ERA was good for just a 103 ERA+, though his 3.56 FIP and .312 BABIP both suggest he was a victim of some mediocre defensive support and unfortunate sequencing. After three years of bouncing in and out of rotations (and in and out of the majors), trade deadline acquisition Mike Fiers made 30 starts in a season for the first time in his career, but even while striking out a batter per inning, he struggled to keep the ball in the park, yielding 1.4 homers per nine after coming over from Milwaukee and finishing with a 4.03 FIP overall. Lance McCullers was brilliant as a rookie, delivering a 3.22 ERA and 3.26 FIP in 125 2/3 innings (plus another 32 at Double A), but general manager Jeff Luhnow has already let it be known that he'll be on an innings limit in hopes of keeping him available for the postseason. Free-agent addition Doug Fister is coming off career worsts in ERA (4.19) and FIP (4.55) in a season in which a forearm strain limited him to 103 innings, cut into his velocity and forced him to the bullpen.
Beyond that group is Scott Feldman, who was limited to 18 starts last year due to a torn meniscus and a shoulder strain, and Wandy Rodriguez, who's managed just 175 2/3 innings with a 4.75 ERA and 4.83 FIP over the past three seasons due to a variety of injuries, including a forearm strain. The next wave of guys down from that pair—Asher Wojciechowski, Dan Straily and Brad Peacock—combined for just seven starts in the big leagues last year and have just one major league season of substance with positive WAR. In other words, it gets down to replacement level pretty quickly after Feldman, so the team just doesn't have a huge margin for error. Still, with Keuchel (who pitched to a 2.48 ERA and 2.91 FIP last year) at the front of the line, Houston's rotation still shapes up better than most.
The Big Prospect: A.J. Reed
Even with shortstop Carlos Correa and McCullers graduating to the big league roster, this year's prospect lists contain no shortage of Astros; the Baseball America Top 100 included a whopping seven of them. Last year's first-round pick, shortstop Alex Bregman, was Houston’s highest ranked prospect on the Baseball Prospectus, ESPN and MLB.com lists, but he's at least a year away from the majors. Meanwhile, Reed, whom BA ranked at No. 11 (compared to No. 42 for Bregman), has a chance to make an impact this season, though there does seem to be a wide difference of opinion on him; his lowest ranking on the major lists was No. 55, via BP.
A 2014 second-round pick out of Kentucky, Reed is a 6'4", 240-pound slugger who hit a combined .340/.432/.612 with 34 homers split between high A ball and Double A last year. While his approach at the plate and his plate discipline are both outstanding, his bat speed generates concerns. As BP's Chris Crawford wrote, "The one thing that keeps the hit tool from grading plus is the lack of contact borne of a long swing that lacks elite bat speed. He’s insanely strong, and his natural loft pairs with excellent weight transfer, giving him borderline plus-plus power."
The going-on-23-year-old Reed isn't much more than adequate defensively beyond a plus throwing arm (he also pitched in college), and with just 53 games at Double A, he's probably in need of more seasoning. But with Chris Carter gone and Jon Singleton having evolved from prospect to suspect over the past two seasons, the Astros could have a need at some point. Cobbling together a job share from among the likes of Preston Tucker, Matt Duffy, Marwin Gonzalez and Luis Valbuena will take Houston only so far, so look for the team to take a very close look at Reed this spring.
Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
The Big Change: New left side
The Angels drew plenty of criticism for their failure to bolster their offense this winter (more on which below), but they did add the game's best defensive shortstop, Andrelton Simmons, in a five-player deal with the Braves. The 26-year-old Simmons, who's under contract through 2020, was 25 runs above average last year via Defensive Runs Saved, worth 4.0 Wins Above Replacement (baseball-reference.com version) despite just a .265/.321/.338 batting line, and has been a jaw-dropping 113 runs above average in 499 games over his first three-plus seasons. Last year's starting shortstop, Erick Aybar (who was dealt to Atlanta as part of the package to get Simmons), gave the team even less with the bat (.270/.301/.338) and the glove (-3 DRS) en route to 2.3 WAR. So this does look like an upgrade, albeit one that cost the Angels their top two prospects in pitchers Sean Newcomb and Chris Ellis.
What's less clear is whether letting third baseman David Freese depart via free agency and trading reliever Trevor Gott to the Nationals for infielder Yunel Escobar is also a step up. Freese, unsigned at this writing, was worth a solid 2.3 WAR himself, batting a fairly representative .257/.323/.420 and fielding more or less average (-2 DRS). Escobar wielded a hot bat (.314/.375/.415) during his lone season in Washington, but that was the first time since 2011 he had been an above-average contributor at the plate, and his -11 DRS at third—a position he hadn't played since '07—trimmed his value to 1.9 WAR.
The Big Question: Who will support Mike Trout?
Even with a pair of 40-homer sluggers in Trout and Albert Pujols, the Angels ranked 12th in the league in scoring and in the bottom four in all three slash stats. Pujols, who hit a lopsided .244/.307/.480, is coming off surgery on the plantar plate of his right foot, which caused him "excruciating, unrelenting" pain late last year. He may not be ready for Opening Day, and he could be limited to DH duty early; the larger point is that he's 36 and in a decline that casts him as a supplemental contributor instead of a pillar of the offense.
Elsewhere, Freese (109 OPS+ in 2015, 112 career) is gone in favor of Escobar (113 OPS+ in '15, 100 career), and neither rightfielder Kole Calhoun nor DH C.J. Cron get on base often enough (.308 on-base percentage in '15 for the former, .300 for the latter) to offer much hope of being significantly above-average contributors. Leftfield was the bane of the team's existence last year—after Hamilton was punted to Texas, Matt Joyce and company combined to "hit" .216/.275/.317—but the position is still a mystery worthy of the X-Files team, as it will take supernatural forces for the mix of Daniel Nava, Todd Cunningham and Craig Gentry to produce at an above-average clip. Simmons will take a hit in on-base percentage now that he can no longer count on being walked ahead of the pitcher (he had six intentional passes last year), and starting catcher Carlos Perez hit just .250/.299/.346. Add it up, and it's just not a very promising supporting cast beyond the league's top player.
The Big Prospect: Kaleb Cowart
With the trade of Newcomb, the Angels didn't land a single player on any of the major top prospect lists. ESPN's Keith Law called what was left behind "by far the worst system I've ever seen." None of the team's top prospects—such as they are—figure to help the big club substantially in 2016, but it's worth a look at one who was expected to: 24-year-old third baseman Cowart. A 2010 first-round pick out of a Georgia high school, Cowart is now three years removed from his last top 100 appearance; Baseball Prospectus, which did not include him among the team's top 10, called him a "notable omission."
After flat-lining at Double A Arkansas in 2013 and '14, Cowart began last season scuffling (.242/.326/.387 in 51 games) at Class A Inland Empire, but his mechanical adjustments began to pay off once he got to Triple A Salt Lake City (.323/.395/.491 in 62 games), a high-altitude hitters' haven. He went just 8 for 46 in a September trial with the big club, and in an alternate universe, Cowart might have shown enough to have the inside track on the starting third base job once Freese reached free agency, but the acquisition of Escobar testifies to the team's lack of confidence in him. BP's Crawford, who noted his plus defense and strong arm, compared him to glove-first backup Jack Hannahan, noting, "Outside of a 62-game sample in some of the friendliest hitting confines in baseball, Cowart has shown a 40 hit tool with 40 power." Ouch.
Cowart may not see much time with the big club, but another name to keep an eye on is 24-year-old lefty swingman Nate Smith. An eighth-round pick in 2013, he had a 3.86 ERA in 137 2/3 innings split between Double and Triple A, but that mark is deceiving; he posted a 2.48 ERA in 101 2/3 innings in the first stop, but a 7.75 mark with 1.8 homers per nine in 36 innings at the latter. Smith can throw four pitches for strikes but lacks a true plus pitch. He's far down the depth chart as far as starters go, behind not only the projected starting five—Jered Weaver, C.J. Wilson, Garrett Richards, Andrew Heaney and Hector Santiago—but also Tyler Skaggs, Matt Shoemaker and Nick Tropeano. Smith doesn't profile as more than a back-of-the-rotation piece anyway, so his path to Anaheim could be shorter via the bullpen.
The Big Change: The new regime
En route to their fifth losing season in six years, the Mariners finally cut bait on general manager Jack Zduriencik in late August, then let manager Lloyd McClendon go at the end of their 76-win season. In their places are former Diamondbacks and Angels GM Jerry Dipoto and first-time manager Scott Servais, who served as Dipoto's assistant GM in Anaheim. Dipoto has been the game's busiest GM this winter, turning over more than half of the 40-man roster and getting a B- from Cliff Corcoran in our Winter Report Card series. The lineup's new faces include catcher Chris Iannetta, first basemen Adam Lind and Dae Ho Lee and outfielders Nori Aoki and Leonys Martin. Pitching-wise, the rotation's candidates now include Wade Miley and Nate Karns, and the bullpen has added closer Steve Cishek and setup man Joaquin Benoit.
The Big Question: How will the rotation shake out behind King Felix?
While it's true that just about every team could ask a variant of this question at a time when hope springs eternal and the first wave of elbow sprains has yet to arrive, the subject is more compelling for the Mariners than most teams. In part, that's because the unit underperformed last year; its 4.17 ERA was 8% worse than league average. Even the King, whose 3.53 ERA and 3.72 FIP were his worst marks since 2007, wasn't immune, but his track record suggests his 15.3% home-run-to-fly-ball rate will normalize and that he'll bounce back.
Beyond that, it should be very interesting to see if Taijuan Walker can build on an uneven but largely healthy rookie season, one in which he posted a 3.62 ERA and 6.9 strikeout-to-walk ratio over his last 20 starts after getting cuffed for a 7.33 ERA with a 1.7 ratio over his first nine. A healthy season from James Paxton, who in parts of three seasons has posted a 3.16 ERA and 3.70 FIP over 165 innings, would be a boost, though he's likely to face an innings cap at some point given that he threw just 73 2/3 last year and missed time due to a strained tendon in his middle finger and a torn fingernail. Hisashi Iwakuma is back as well; he was healthy enough to throw a no-hitter last August and to deliver a 2.63 ERA in 12 starts over the final two months, but unhealthy enough for the Dodgers to not follow through with a three-year deal they thought they had completed. Mike Montgomery, an ex-Royals prospect who threw back-to-back complete-game shutouts in June but was battered in September, returns to provide depth.
New to the rotation is Miley, a lefty workhorse acquired from the Red Sox. After previously pitching for Arizona and Boston, Miley is finally in a park that favors pitchers; he owns a career 3.61 road ERA, compared to a 4.32 mark at home. Karns is a fellow off-season addition who was solid as a rookie with the Rays (3.67 ERA and 4.09 FIP) but struggled with the longball (1.2 homers per nine).
It's a mix that has a clear ace, good depth and a whole lot of promise, but also considerable risk. The inability of Walker and Paxton to pan out in timely fashion were a small part of the failure of the Zduriencik regime, but with a combined nine years of club control remaining (five for Walker, four for Paxton), their success could still help this team turn the corner.
The Big Prospect: Boog Powell
No relation to the slugging first baseman of the 1960s and '70s Orioles squads (named John Wesley Powell after the 19th-century explorer), this Boog is Herschel Mack Powell, a 23-year-old outfielder. He was originally a 2012 20th-round pick by the Athletics out of community college, then was sent to Tampa Bay in the Ben Zobrist trade and most recently was part of the November deal centered around Karns and shortstop Brad Miller. The lefty-swinging Powell split 2015 between the Rays' Double and Triple A affiliates, hitting .295/.385/.392 with three homers and 18 steals.
If those numbers don't jump off the screen, that's because Powell isn't an elite prospect. The Mariners' farm system is in rough shape, ranked among the bottom three by both ESPN and Baseball America. Seattle landed just one player, outfielder Alex Jackson, on the top-100 prospect lists; the No. 6 pick of the 2014 draft ranked either 94th or 95th on the three lists he made, and he's too far away from the majors to count here. But Powell—ranked toward the bottom of the team's top-10 lists, with a high of No. 7 via ESPN—is in a position to help the Mariners in 2016.
As you might guess by his size (5'10", 185 pounds) and the stat line above, Powell doesn't have much power. Via a compact swing, he sprays line drives to all fields, knows how to take a walk and has the speed to steal upwards of 20 bases, though his technique could use some work, as his career 59% success rate attests. He lacks an elite arm or range, casting him as a fourth outfielder capable of manning centerfield or left; one crosschecker told BP's Crawford that Powell was "a poor man's Brett Gardner." Given the fact that the M's can start an all-lefty outfield of Aoki, Martin and Seth Smith, there's no immediate opening on the roster, but if Martin can't bounce back from a dreadful season with Texas, Powell could get a look.
The Big Change: New bullpen
Oakland's bullpen was unspeakably awful last season, ranking dead last in the league in ERA (4.63) and second-to-last in homers per nine (1.3). The failure of that unit was a big reason why the team fell nine wins short of its Pythagorean record, going 68–94 instead of 77–85. One big part of the collapse was the loss of closer Sean Doolittle to injuries; between an off-season rotator cuff strain that cost him spring training and then a second shoulder strain after just one appearance in May, he was limited to 13 2/3 innings overall. Tyler Clippard ably filled in at closer before being traded in August, but other pitchers counted on to help—such as Fernando Abad, Ryan Cook, Edward Mujica and Dan Otero—were dreadful.
Over the winter, executive vice president of baseball operations Billy Beane made fixing the bullpen a focal point. Along with the return of a healthy Doolittle, the unit will feature free agents Ryan Madson and John Axford and trade acquisitions Liam Hendriks (from Toronto) and Marc Rzepczynski (from San Diego).
The Big Question: What is Beane doing?
Operating as they do under considerable financial restrains, the A's tend to zig when the rest of the league is zagging. Beane—who was promoted to executive vice president of baseball operations last fall, with David Forst taking over GM duties—makes a practice of selling high and buying low. It usually works out to at least some degree; he's overseen eight playoff-bound teams in his 18 years at the helm. But more than a year after the ill-fated trade of eventual AL MVP Josh Donaldson to the Blue Jays helped turn Oakland from an AL West powerhouse into the worst team of Beane's tenure, it still isn't clear what the A's are doing—unless, perhaps, the answer is simply "hunkering down and hoping the stadium situation gets fixed." The trades of Donaldson, catcher Derek Norris and starter Jeff Samardzija looked like rebuilding moves—a rebuild that didn't appear necessary at the time given the Athletics' run of success, but who knows about their balance sheet—but they were accompanied by more aggressive moves, such as a head-scratching three-year deal for already-in-decline designated hitter Billy Butler and the quick flip of Zobrist to the Royals.
This winter's moves have been somewhat inscrutable as well. Trading second baseman Brett Lawrie (the big return in the Donaldson trade but a player who was said to have been a clubhouse problem) made a certain kind of sense, though Oakland sold low as far as ready major league help. The bullpen needed fixing, as noted, but why give three years and $22 million to Madson, who was very good in 2015 but missed the entirety of the previous three seasons due to Tommy John surgery? Or why hand out two years and $10 million to Axford, who has pitched for five teams over the past three years and is coming off his first above-average season since 2011? Why give $6 million to lefty Rich Hill based on four September starts, his first four in the majors since 2009? Just as confusing is trading for first baseman Yonder Alonso, whose lack of power recalls that of roster barnacle Daric Barton, or dealing a legitimate catching prospect in Jacob Nottingham to Milwaukee for DH-ready thumper Khris Davis when Butler still has two years remaining on his deal.
Collectively, these moves don't look as though they'll be enough to return the A's to contention, let alone sustain another run.
The Big Prospect: Sean Manaea
Shortstop Franklin Barreto is more highly regarded on prospect lists, and he may yet salvage the Donaldson/Lawrie trade for the A's, but he spent last year in high A ball and doesn't turn 20 until Feb. 27. Much closer to the majors and in the middle of the top-100 prospects lists is Manaea, a 24-year-old southpaw who was the key acquisition in the trade of Zobrist to Kansas City last July. A 2013 supplemental first-round pick out of Indiana State, Manaea made just 14 starts scattered over four stops last year after missing the first half due to abdominal and groin strains. He finished with a 2.66 ERA and 10.9 strikeouts per nine in 74 1/3 innings, with even better numbers—a 2.36 ERA and 11.2 strikeouts per nine—in 49 innings at Double A stops for the Royals and A's.
Beyond an 80-grade head of hair that required him to choose a larger hat this spring, the 6'5", 245-pound Manaea has a repertoire that starts with a 92–94 mph fastball that can touch 97. His slider flashes plus, though his changeup is merely average. Thanks in part to his size, he adds considerable deception via his delivery; as the Baseball Prospectus 2016 annual put it, "Manaea has a delivery that shows batters more joints than a Spike Lee marathon. He's all elbows, knees and ankles pre-pitch, and a big arcing finish with his trail leg after. These distractions help his already-quality stuff play up."
Though he has fewer than 200 professional innings under his belt, Manaea may well find himself in Oakland's rotation at some point this year. The likely starting five to begin the year features Sonny Gray, Hill, Jesse Hahn, Chris Bassitt and Kendall Graveman. Aside from Gray, Hill is the only pitcher in that group who has spent a full season in a major league rotation before, and that was back in 2007, before years of injuries and a move to the bullpen. Henderson Alvarez and Jarrod Parker are trying to work their way back from injuries, which could alter the pecking order as well, but the odds do seem high of Manaea making his big-league debut in 2016.