MLB: Are the Astros or Rangers the Team to Beat in the West?

Texas Rangers v Houston Astros

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If you believe the computer projections, the Astros will run away with the American League West, and the Rangers will regress into a team that barely cracks .500 (or worse) in 2016. Fortunately for Texas, these projections are wrong as often as they are right (see: the Kansas City Royals, every year). In fact, the race for the AL West title figures to be another intriguing battle with the Rangers looking like the favorite if the core players stay healthy.

This division was the only one that stayed remotely interesting through September in 2015. While blowouts were rampant in both leagues, two teams who few expected to compete delivered a photo finish in October. For Texas, the second-half surge was powered by an offense that was third in runs scored and a shutdown bullpen that recorded the lowest ERA after September 1. Even with inconsistent starting pitching throughout the year, the effort from a club that lost half its rotation was admirable.

Late-season acquisitions Cole Hamels and Mike Napoli bolstered the club’s depth on the field, and it turned out to be enough to leapfrog the slumping Astros and Angels by season’s end. For 2016, Texas is returning most of its key players with the exceptions of Napoli and Yovani Gallardo, the rotation’s ERA leader from last season. However, a full year of Hamels and the return of Yu Darvish (expected by June) bode well for the club this year.

Derek Holland and Martin Perez will have to be much more durable (and consistent) for the Rangers to claim the top spot in the division early, but Texas has the tools in place to repeat if the offense keeps clicking. Our prediction is that the Clay Davenport model (79 wins, last place) and Fangraphs projection (82 wins, fourth place) both turn out to be well off the mark.

As for projections calling for Houston to take the division, these models are closer to reality.

Texas Rangers v Houston Astros

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A full year of Carlos Correa and George Springer hitting behind Jose Altuve makes the Astros offense one opposing pitchers will fear again in 2016. The return of Colby Rasmus and a full season of Carlos Gomez should give Houston more than enough weapons to support the pitching staff led by AL Cy Young Dallas Keuchel. Even the formidable bullpen got stronger with the addition of Ken Giles from Philadelphia.

If there is an area that needs work, the Astros rotation would be it. Keuchel’s supporting cast of Collin McHugh, Lance McCullers, and Mike Fiers has more than a few question marks. Any injury between now and midsummer will test the organization’s rotational depth. Nonetheless, we see this team winning over 85 games with its power-based offense, slick defense, and bullpen leading the way. Homer-happy teams like the Astros usually don’t have problems scoring runs until the postseason.

The West is not a two-team race, of course. A bounceback performance by the Angels or Mariners could make divisional play a headache for every AL West club. We just expect more from the Rangers than the sophisticated computer models that have been so wrong so often in the past do. With the one-two punch of Darvish and Hamels, Texas should also be one dangerous club come playoff time.

Connect with Eric on Twitter @EricSchaalNY

Statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs.

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