In honor of the 2016 Major League Baseball season, which starts Sunday, FiveThirtyEight is assembling some of our favorite baseball writers to chat about the year to come. Today, we put the American League West under the microscope with ESPN MLB writer/editor Christina Kahrl and our own baseball columnist, Rob Arthur. The transcript below has been edited.
neil (Neil Paine, senior sportswriter): Who’s ready to talk about the AL West? Am I wrong, or does this look like it might be the most wide-open division in baseball (on paper, at least)?
rob: I’m not sure I agree that it’s totally wide open. I see the Astros as a really strong team that is more likely to exceed their projections than fall apart this year. After the Astros, though, I could see an argument that any of the other teams could find themselves in second place.
christina_kahrl: With the exception of the Oakland A’s in this very division, I think you can make a reasonable argument that each of the other 14 teams in the AL have a shot at 85 wins (which would equal contention). So I don’t think I’d go there, as far as “most wide open.”
neil: OK, fine, you’ve convinced me — there are several tiers to this division. So who belongs at the top?
christina_kahrl: I’m down with Rob’s point that the Astros have the most upside, even though I’m leaning Rangers as the favorite to win the division. But while the Astros may have upside, there’s also a stampede-of-crowds effect where all the smarties want to call the smart guys’ win.
rob: Sure, I can see an argument for the Rangers as well, although last year’s division win seemed a little more luck than skill. Then you have a crowd of mediocrity: Per FanGraphs, the Angels, Mariners and Athletics are all projected for between 79 and 81 wins. Maybe that’s what you meant by wide open, Neil — any of those teams are good enough to launch a playoff run. But it would also be a surprise for each of them.
neil: Right, there seems to be at least a semi-plausible case for all of those teams. (But maybe that speaks mainly to the mediocrity factor you mentioned, Rob.)
christina_kahrl: The big thing for me, as far as the Rangers go, is that the rotation’s going to get a full year from Derek Holland and Cole Hamels, plus Yu Darvish come May. Their mediocre full-season run differential last year was a reflection of how inadequate that number can be when you’re talking about 162 discrete data points, and the first 80-90 didn’t really have much predictive impact on the last 70-80 because the makeup of the team — and the pitching staff in particular — was so radically different. This season should echo that, and then you add in a much deeper lineup that should armor them against the usual injuries or allow them to live with the projectable absences of guys like Josh Hamilton and Adrian Beltre.
rob: You make some good points! I’m convinced that the Rangers belong outside the tier of mediocrity. On the other hand, to play devil’s advocate, the strongest predictor of future injury is past injury, and the Rangers have suffered with that scourge a lot in the last few years. The roster is easy to dream on, but I suspect that we will once again see them losing many players to the disabled list.
But, as you alluded to, they have a deep farm system and the capacity to replace some of what they lose.
christina_kahrl: Yeah, I mean, we’ve all been dreaming about the best-case scenario for Joey Gallo, but even if he’s Russell Branyan with a glove, that’s a freakin’ valuable thing. And Nomar Mazara is probably the answer to a lot of their outfield injuries, assuming he doesn’t win a starting job outright at some point this season.
The thing I keep wondering about is what Elvis Andrus has left in the tank. If he can go back to being an impact hitter with his deadball-era skills and play premium defense, that would be really very nice. The guy’s only 27, but maybe he’s a great example of the argument that we need to revise our expectations about peaks in an era where pitchers seem to be winning the game of adjustments.
rob: Andrus is a fascinating player who’s still incredibly variable. By Baseball Prospectus’s Wins Above Replacement Player (WARP), he had his best season last year (3.8 WARP) and his worst season the year before (1.5 WARP). But my hunch is that he’s probably a 2-3 WAR player who never takes the next step we’ve all been waiting for.
neil: Time might be running out for that to happen, for sure.
neil: It does seem like what’s driving the difference between Houston and Texas in the stat projections — which favor Houston probably more than the conventional wisdom would — is the difference in the lineups, not the pitching staffs.
rob: Definitely. Both lineups are chock full of interesting young players like George Springer, Carlos Correa, Gallo and Rougned Odor. Younger players are notoriously harder to predict, so I could see the division turning on a couple of huge years from either pair of hitters. All of them certainly have the talent.
christina_kahrl: Aye. Although the Rangers’ bullpen does have a few more question marks as well.
rob: I also think the Astros will be able to leverage their excellent bullpen to outperform their runs pythagorean record and get an extra couple of wins, which could be all they need to steal the division from the Rangers.
christina_kahrl: An entirely reasonable expectation, even though I’m sticking with the Rangers. The other factor is that both GMs are willing to deal to win, and both have full farms to deal from. Who makes that big move in July? Probably both of them.
rob: Yep, and I see that as another point of difference between the Astros/Rangers and the other teams in the AL West. Two of those teams have new GMs (Angels, Mariners) who probably wouldn’t go all-out to lock up a playoff appearance (better to build strength for a sustained competitive window). And the other team is run by Billy Beane, who’s been burned by in-season purchases in the recent past.
christina_kahrl: One point of contrast with my earlier note about the Rangers’ hidden upside: The Astros’ rotation is a nice unit, but it has less potential for improvement on last year’s full-season numbers — by which I mean, Dallas Keuchel and Collin McHugh probably can’t get better. So they need that ‘pen to be amazing again … and it probably will be. The thing that’s fun for them is what a full year of “Los Dos Carlos” — Correa and Gomez — might mean, and whether Tyler White or Jon Singleton (or the both of them) step up and rake. That’s definitely fun to think about.
neil: Any fear about the Astros running afoul of the Plexiglas Principle? They did make quite a leap last year.
rob: I’m not worried about the Plexiglas Principle with regard to the ‘Stros. They made a big jump — historically large, in fact — but their runs scored/allowed numbers suggest that they should have done even better. First-, second-, and third-order winning percentages from Baseball Prospectus had them as between a 93-win and 98-win team, which is really amazing. So while I think they will regress slightly, it will be from that lofty peak and not the more modest 86-win total they produced in the standings.
christina_kahrl: I think dynamic talent turnover kind of insures the Astros against the Plexiglas Principle. Perhaps more than any other thing, I come back to thinking that we’ve yet to see what this team can do while getting full seasons from Gomez, Correa and Springer. If they do this year, and they all hit the way we think they can, that’s going to be a team that can outscore a lot of problems and play a pretty good brand of defense to boot.
rob: That, too. Unlike some other teams “on the rise,” the Astros are in the midst of converting an outstanding farm system over the last few years into major-league talent. We have a legitimate reason to believe that they are going to continue getting more playing time and more performance out of a bunch of young players.
christina_kahrl: Yeah, that trio plus Jose Altuve, surrounded by the Astros’ collection of power sources like Evan Gattis and Luis Valbuena? That’s what will sustain their ability to beat teams late, because in close games they have a lineup talented enough, one through nine, to put any mistake in the seats.
christina_kahrl: The team in the division I really don’t know what to think of is the Mariners. New GM Jerry Dipoto has made the right kinds of gestures to indicate he wants to contend now without spending too much, but is this the year that guys like Taijuan Walker and James Paxton finally break through as rotation regulars? And is everybody sold on Ketel Marte as an everyday shortstop, or is he just the latest young Mariners shortstop who will be touted briefly before bouncing to the Rays (or wherever)?
rob: The Mariners seem to me like a mirage. Nelson Cruz had a fantastic year in 2015, slugging .566 at age 34. That cannot continue for long. Robinson Cano saw his WAR fall by about 50 percent from 2014, and I am more sold that his decline is real than PECOTA is (second basemen tend to age quickly). And Marte BABIP‘d .341 on his way to a good year that I don’t think he can repeat (until he goes to the Rays and becomes an All-Star, anyway).
neil: Also, haven’t we seen this movie before, with Seattle overhauling the roster and going all-in on pitching and defense?
christina_kahrl: Yes, but that’s because Jack Z. was the Bond villain of GMs: He had a new master plan for world domination every year, and he never had a two-year plan, so in his run he had time to try everything at least once. Someone should have just given him a white Persian cat and snapped the picture.
rob: As far as the pitching, Paxton and Walker could become great and change the whole trajectory of the Mariners’ season. But I think there’s a roughly equal chance they will become hurt, and Seattle doesn’t have a lot of rotation depth to replace them.
As for the Zduriencik comparison, Dipoto actually seems like he’s all about the long-term plan. Why else would you waste a solid chunk of Mike Trout’s prime like what happened during his tenure with the Angels?
Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
neil: About those Angels …
christina_kahrl: Doesn’t this have to be a year where, having gotten his way, Mike Scioscia has to get the Angels into the postseason?
neil: I mean, with this team, we also have to talk about the collective star power and its failure to really make much of an impact these past few years. Does this serve as an invalidation of the stars-and-scrubs model they’ve built with? Or do we think they have a real breakthrough this season?
(And how much more does Trout have to do to make that happen???)
rob: I don’t think it invalidates stars-and-scrubs generally, only this extreme version of it. They’ve had literally the best star player in the game and some of the worst scrubs all around him. Unfortunately, that doesn’t seem like it’s changing all that much this year. Andrelton Simmons will help, but their farm system is still in shambles and they weren’t active on the free agent market.
christina_kahrl: Maybe the Angels are an elaborate piece of performance art, a commentary on the emptiness of celebrity.
rob: Or a counter-argument to the Great Man theory of history.
No matter what Trout does, he cannot rescue the team on his lonesome. The Angels are projected by PECOTA for 27.1 combined WARP; Trout alone is responsible for about a quarter of that. Even if he attained prime-era Barry Bonds status, or took to the mound Babe Ruth-style, he can only add a few more wins to the team’s tally, which won’t be enough to make them true contenders.
christina_kahrl: I’m reminded of why the “great” Angels teams of the ’70s — which had plenty of famous players — didn’t win while the Oakland A’s did: An absence of on-base percentage. Yunel Escobar and Daniel Nava might help them a lot in that department (especially if the Angels get the good Nava and not the nega-Nava who exasperated Red Sox fans every other season), but I’m still wondering whether this is another Trout-and-Pujols kamikaze run ending in 82 wins and a participation medal.
rob: That scenario is precisely what I expect to happen. Merely having Trout on the roster is enough to make them mediocre; not having other good players is enough to stop them from being anything more than mediocre.
christina_kahrl: I’m imagining Trout’s plaque in Cooperstown now:
“Kept the Angels above .500. ‘Hey, you try it.’ — M.T.”
neil: Poor Trout.
christina_kahrl: I guess that brings us to the A’s. I guess they have some fourth-place potential if the Mariners implode. But are they left with “best last-place team in baseball” ambitions? Or will they not even be better than whoever finishes last in the AL East?
neil: And, relatedly, why do they continually win less than their component stats say they should? They’re like the anti-Royals.
rob: It’s the new market inefficiency.
christina_kahrl: On a practical, non-snarky level, I just want to see guys like Jesse Hahn and Chris Bassitt turn the corner. And find out whether Marcus Semien can stick at shortstop — because the one thing that organization has a lot of is good shortstop prospects, between Franklin Barreto, Chad Pinder, Yairo Munoz and Richie Martin.
rob: Yeah, they definitely have some interesting players. In seriousness, I think they’ve played below their components because of a bad bullpen that doesn’t look to get any better.
On the plus side, Sonny Gray is a lot of fun to watch.
christina_kahrl: Also yes, I mean, as much as I don’t think they’ll contend, they’re an interesting club with an expanding talent base. Matt Chapman isn’t too far off at third base, either. In the long term, they have to sort out their keepers in the infield and the rotation. This year will help give them clarity.
neil: So are the A’s clearly in their own tier at the bottom of this division, then? Or is it fairer to lump them in amongst the Mariners and Angels — with all three solidly below the Rangers and Astros?
rob: I see enough downside risk with the Mariners and a lack of non-Trout talent on the Angels to put them down with the Athletics. None of them are truly bad: They all have promising players somewhere, but each is crippled enough that I don’t think they can be a true-talent 88-90-win team, the way the Rangers or Astros could be.
christina_kahrl: Quite right. I’d also lean more towards the two-and-three grouping. The A’s might rate below the Mariners and Angels now, but if Gray gets some help in the rotation, they might be better than both. But young pitching and heartbreak go together like Wallace Beery and wrestling pictures; we all know that roadmap.
neil: Is that a “Barton Fink” reference, @christina_kahrl?
christina_kahrl: Of course. ;)
neil: If this division was a Coen brothers film, which one would it be?
christina_kahrl: Well, I’ve tipped my hand already. But when I think of the Rangers beating the Astros, last year and now picking them to do it again this year, I pretty much automatically think of John Goodman shouting, “I’ll show you the life of the mind!” And I know that’s totally unfair to how smart the Rangers are, or how talented the Astros are.
rob: That’s a tough one. I’ll go with “No Country for Old Men”, with Anton Chigurh representing the (in the long-term unstoppable) Astros, Llewelyn Moss as the Rangers, and the trail of violence between them as what happens to the other teams in the division when they have to face the Astros and Rangers.
Also, clearly, this is No Division for Old Men. The teams on the rise have young talent by the boatload; the teams falling apart do not.
christina_kahrl: Now you’re just making me feel bad for Coco Crisp.
Ben Lindbergh joins the Hot Takedown podcast to preview the 2016 MLB season.