Every year, MLB experts peg one team as the "can't miss" outfit in a certain division. For the past couple seasons, that club has been the Washington Nationals in a thin National League East. Now that the New York Mets have emerged as a legitimate contender, pundits are looking elsewhere for their unanimous preseason selection.
This year, that club seems to be the Houston Astros. Projection systems love them, with both PECOTA and FanGraphs predicting a comfortable division win. Most experts feel the same way, especially as their young core continues to mature. Having the reigning AL Cy Young winner and Rookie of the Year doesn't hurt, either.
However, many have already forgotten that the Astros didn't win the division in 2015. The Texas Rangers, 2014's "can't miss" pick, emerged atop the heap last season, wrestling the crown away from Houston in late September. The Los Angeles Angels were also in the conversation, just one game behind the Astros.
Things shifted quite a bit during the offseason -- the Seattle Mariners went Extreme Home Makeover on their roster, for instance -- but we might see a similar dogfight in 2016.
Texas Rangers (88-74 in 2015)
Many saw the Rangers' run to the 2015 AL West title as a surprise, but this was largely the same roster that many picked to dominate their competition in 2014. Despite having one of the worst pitching staffs in the American League -- their 4.25 team ERA was third-highest -- the Rangers were able to outperform their pythagorean expected record by five wins. Closer Shawn Tolleson and setup men Keone Kela and Sam Dyson were a major reason, combining for a 2.41 ERA and just five blown save opportunities in 164 innings.
If the Rangers are to make a return trip to the postseason, it will need to be on the back of their offense. Shin-Soo Choo and Prince Fielder both had bounce-back seasons in 2015, with Fielder winning the AL Comeback Player of the Year Award. Adrian Beltre led the team with 4.6 fWAR, while second baseman Rougned Odor broke out with a 126 wRC+ after an early season demotion to the minor leagues. Delino DeShields was a surprise contributor at the top of the lineup as well. If Ian Desmond can rebound from a subpar 2015 season -- his .777 second-half OPS is a good indication -- the Rangers may be in the mix again this year.
Houston Astros (86-76 in 2015)
The Astros returned to contention a year or two early, leading the AL West for most of 2015. They ultimately fell behind the Rangers, but still clinched a playoff spot in the final week of the season. Though their late-inning collapse in the ALDS was disappointing, they enter 2016 with even higher hopes. AL Rookie of the Year Carlos Correa is a pre-season MVP candidate, while teammate Jose Altuve looks for his third consecutive four-win season. Reigning AL Cy Young winner Dallas Keuchel headlines a solid rotation, and their bullpen is among the best in baseball.
If the Astros' star power weren't enough, they have as much depth throughout their roster as any in the league. Outfielder George Springer is a monster talent, and the rest of their outfield -- Carlos Gomez, Jake Marisnick, Colby Rasmus, and Preston Tucker -- could all start for many teams. Top prospects like Jon Singleton and A.J. Reed are being sent to the minors, and their farm system still ranks among the best in baseball. Injuries are an early concern, with players like Evan Gattis and Lance McCullers already on the disabled list, but there is just too much talent here for them to fail.
If you need further proof, consider this: the Astros underperformed their pythagorean expected record by seven wins last season.
Los Angeles Angels (85-77 in 2015)
The Angels might have the worst farm system in the history of baseball, but their 2016 club still has enough talent to contend if things go their way. Of course, having a perennial MVP candidate in Mike Trout helps, especially when said MVP candidate is still only 24 years old. He will need help, particularly from bats like Albert Pujols, C.J. Cron, and Kole Calhoun. If Yunel Escobar and Daniel Nava can get on base consistently at the top of the order, their offense may jump back into the upper half of the American League.
Then there's the starting pitching, which is thinner than Dixon Machado. Garrett Richards is a legitimate frontline starter, but the Halos will need at least one of Jered Weaver, Hector Santiago, Matt Shoemaker, or Andrew Heaney to take a leap forward. Santiago was the best of the bunch last season, with a 3.59 ERA in 180 2/3 innings. Huston Street and Joe Smith are a decent one-two punch at the back of the bullpen, but the rest of the unit is a major question mark.
In short, the Angels are the MLB equivalent of ¯\_(ツ)_/¯. They could win 90 games, lose 90 games, or anything in between.
Seattle Mariners (76-86 in 2015)
Thanks to the Toronto Blue Jays' second-half rampage to the AL East title, the Mariners now own the longest playoff drought in baseball. They were a game away from the postseason in 2014, but injuries and shoddy roster construction sabotaged what looked to be a title contender on paper in 2015. This latest failure cost Jack Zduriencik* his job, a long-overdue firing in the minds of some Mariners fans.
Enter new general manager Jerry Dipoto, and exit a whole lot of dudes. Dipoto made over the roster on the fly, adding players like Joaquin Benoit, Steve Cishek, Nate Karns, Wade Miley, Evan Scribner, and Nick Vincent.
And that's just the pitching staff.
Offensively, the Mariners are hoping that newcomers like Nori Aoki, Leonys Martin, and others can supplement the solid middle-of-the-order thump provided by Nelson Cruz, Robinson Cano, and Kyle Seager. They may not score many runs, but 2016 should be less depressing than last year.
*Sorry, M's fans, but I had to mention Zduriencik because I finally learned how to spell his dang name.
Oakland Athletics (68-94 in 2015)
While three consecutive playoff appearances should buy you some job security -- somewhere, Dave Dombrowski shuffles awkwardly in his chair -- the nigh-intentional sabotage of said playoff roster would make many owners uneasy. A's general manager Billy Beane took a lot of heat for trading Josh Donaldson to the Blue Jays in 2014, and that was before Donaldson won the 2015 AL MVP Award. Meanwhile, the A's finished the season with the league's worst record as most of the return from the Donaldson trade struggled.
Oh, and Beane got a promotion.
Oakland's mad scientist did his usual amount of tinkering over the offseason, which means the A's will be fielding an almost completely different team in 2016. Of all the moves they made during the winter, I'm intrigued by adding Khris Davis and Yonder Alonso, a pair of sluggers that should match Oakland's "swing hard or don't swing at all" philosophy nicely.
It's hard to see this team being any good, though. The rotation is quite thin once you get past Cy Young contender Sonny Gray, and the bullpen has boom-or-bust potential written all over it. The lineup is a typical A's motley crew, but without the kind of breakout star power they once had in Yoenis Cespedes and Brandon Moss.
Rest assured, though; they will find a way to sweep the Tigers at least once in 2016.