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NEW TGS COVER STORY...PLAY BALL! 2015 AL "FUTURES" TO WATCH!
by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor and Daniel M. Gray, TGS Baseball Consultant


Continuing with our 2015 MLB Preview, we offer our American League forecast and recommendations on "futures" (over/under wins). Remember that beginning next week, TGS will provide featured MLB releases (Monday thru Saturday at 10:15 AM PDT) on Top Choice and Top Choice Plus (+), the latter featuring the daily TC, plus two other featured releases, available online at www.goldsheet.com. As always, thanks to TGS Baseball Consultant Daniel M. Gray for his contributions.

Play ball!

AL EAST: BEST BET...Can we really name a favorite in the East? Some preview publications have picked the division winner to finish with as few as 83 wins. But there still looks to be some value on the board, and despite continuing to lose star-level players via trade and free agency, the Tampa Bay Rays (78 ½) somehow continue to contend. Now, manager Joe Maddon is also gone (off to the Cubs), as is rock star GM Andrew Friedman (to the Dodgers), but the team has promoted from within to maintain continuity, and many contenders would kill to get the Rays pitching staff. Especially a deep starting rotation that figures to get even better in June when Matt Moore is scheduled to return from Tommy John surgery. We aren't too alarmed that a couple of other starters (Alex Cobb and Drew Smyly) are beginning the season on the DL, as their injuries are regarded as minor and both should be activated by mid-April. So as long as Tampa Bay doesn't sink with new skipper Kevin Cash in the first couple of weeks, it ought to be fine. The Rays are still strong at the corners with 3B Evan Longoria and 1B James Loney, and savvy vet SS Asdrubal Cabrera could easily prove an upgrade from error-prone Yunel Escobar. Defensively, the outfield might have more speed than any in the league, with offseason addition RF Steven Souza (from the Nats) keeping Port Charlotte abuzz in March, as did C Rene Rivera. As long as ex-Angel Kevin Jepsen can handle closer chores, the young outfielders don't get too overwhelmed, and the team can avoid the injury problems that have hampered it in the past, the Rays can hang in the race deep into September. And, of course, we highly recommend Tampa Bay games on the MLB TV package, with the always-excellent play-by-play man DeWayne Staats still one of the best in the business. It's an "over" for us at the Trop.

OTHERS: We have been bullish lately on the Baltimore Orioles (82 ½), who were able to play long-ball last year (MLB-best 211 homers) and not worry about manufacturing runs. But we are not as convinced the same formula works this season. That's partly because the Birds could be one team at risk of getting buried in the standings before April is complete. Long before camp broke at Sarasota, manager Buck Showalter was dealing with several injuries, with SS J.J. Hardy suffering from shoulder problems and slated to begin the season on the DL, and C Matt Weiters still recovering from Tommy John surgery and not expected to return to active duty for at least a month, maybe longer. Showalter also lost plenty of offensive pop in the offseason when RF Nick Markakis (to Atlanta) and LF/DH Nelson Cruz (to Seattle) left in free agency, and the bullpen could be weakened by the departure of key set-up man Andrew Miller (to the Yankees). The Birds did not make many significant additions in the winter, hoping to fill those gaps from within and anticipating healthier years from Weiters, 3B Manny Machado, and 1B Chris Davis, who did not play a game together last season. Still, the O's don't have a legit leadoff man, and have serious holes now in both corner OF slots, second base, and perhaps first base, where Davis is shaky in the field. Moreover, among the injured and departed are three Gold Gloves, so don't expect the defense to save as many runs as it did a year ago, which could negatively impact a pitching staff that will watch CF Adam Jones act like a windshield wiper between the corner outfielders (especially if Delmon Young is forced to play in left). The farm system is still not producing sufficient talent, so any further spate of injuries could be be devastating, and we suspect Showalter will regret not encouraging the front office to make a stronger attempt at keeping Markakis. Not this year in Baltimore, as we look "under" at Camden Yards.

A lot of people are anticipating another worst-to-first scenario for the Boston Red Sox (86 ½), who won the World Series in 2013 after finishing in the AL East basement in 2012. Now, off of a 71-91 train wreck a year ago, again landing at the foot of the East table as in 2012, the Bosox are supposed to rebound quickly once more? We're not convinced. Granted, GM Ben Cherington shelled out big bucks in the offseason to improve an anemic offense that scored only 634 runs and batted a mere .244, both second-worst in the AL a year ago, with $183 million now invested in FAs 3B Pablo Sandoval and Hanley Ramirez, who is being moved from his normal SS to in front of the Green Monster in LF in one of the more intriguing position switches in recent memory. Cuban import Rusney Castillo, with all of 10 MLB games under his belt, was supposed to team with rookie Mookie Betts complete the new-look outfield with Ramirez, but Castillo is now slated to open the season at AAA, which puts aging Shane Victorino back in the lineup. Adding Sandoval and Ramirez to an attack that still has key 2013 Series cogs 2B Dustin Pedroia, C Mike Napoli, and DH David Ortiz in the fold does suggest the Bosox ought to improve upon last season's offensive numbers, but that might not matter if the overhauled pitching staff doesn't pull its weight. After failing to lure Jon Lester back to Fenway Park, and unsuccessful (though perhaps still trying) attempting to pry Cole Hamels out of Philadelphia, the Sox have no legit number one starter in a projected rotation that for the moment considers Clay Buchholz its ace and combined for a 44-49 record and 4.55 ERA last season. No wonder Cherington tried so hard to land Lester and Hamels. Moreover, 40-year-old closer Koji Uehara likely opens the season on the DL with hamstring problems that have shut him down in Fort Myers since mid-March. We see far too many question marks to expect the Bosox to repeat their 2013 magic...look "under" at Fenway.

Without being burdened by the misplaced hype of 2013, the Toronto Blue Jays (82 ½) stayed in the wild card race until late September a year ago. Now, we really see if GM Alex Anthopoulos knows what he is doing after a couple of potentially-impactful offseason additions as well as the arrival en masse of a rookie pitching brigade that will likely make or break the season at Rogers Centre. Those live young arms are going to be counted upon in a hurry after one of their brethren, Marcus Stroman, who arrived a year earlier than the rest and impressed as a rookie in 2014 when posting an 11-6 record, suffered a season-ending knee injury in March. But touted rookies righty Aaron Sanchez and lefty Daniel Norris both impressed at Dunedin and likely open the season in the rotation, providing a contrast to graybeard workhorses R.A. Dickey (40 years old) and Mark Buehrle (36 years old), who each recorded more than 200 IP a year ago. While Anthopolous added from within the organization to the pitching staff, he went outside to find more offense in the winter, swinging a trade to bring 3B Josh Donaldson from Oakland and inking Pirates C Russell Martin to an $82 million FA contract. Martin's useful bat will be employed in the second spot in the batting order behind catalyst SS Jose Reyes and appears a perfect fit in front of the formidable trio of RF Jose Bautista, 1B/DH Edwin Encarnacion, and Donaldson. We suspect the Jays score enough runs (especially if touted rookie CF Dalton Pompey lives up to his hype) and get ample starting pitching. But sustaining a playoff push might depend upon a bullpen that is hoping Brett Cecil can handle closer duties after Casey Janssen departed in free agency. The aforementioned rookie Sanchez could also end up in the reliever mix in what could be a fluid situation for the first half of the season. Whatever, with the rest of the division looking so suspect, we do not expect the Jays to backslide from last year's 83 wins. With the Maple Leafs missing the playoffs again, the CFL Argos an also-ran last fall, and the Raptors fading, Toronto fans could use some good news, which the Blue Jays deliver with an "over" effort at Rogers Centre.

What has been happening lately with the New York Yankees (81 ½)? For the Bronx Bombers, it was a pretty quiet offseason, with too much attention focused upon Alex Rodriguez' comeback attempt and not enough elsewhere on a roster loaded with "ifs" at so many positions. As for the 39-year-old A-Rod, he looked good enough the past month in Tampa to land the DH job, but will be seen sparingly in the field, with ex-Padre Chase Headley anchored at 3B. Yet Rodriguez should only be a sidebar story in The Bronx, with many other question marks for manager Joe Girardi due to an everyday roster burdened by durability issues, as keeping the likes of 1B Mark Teixeira, C Brian McCann, RF Carlos Beltran, and yes, even A-Rod, healthy looks to be asking a lot. And we haven't even gotten to the pitching staff, where there is considerable concern about not only former ace CC Sabathia, who missed much of 2014 with knee problems, but projected number one starter Masahiro Tanaka, who opted for rehab over surgery on his elbow in the offseason, and onetime flamethrower Michael Pineda, who has made only 13 starts since 2011 (when he was with Seattle) and missed four months with shoulder problems last season. The most-valued offseason addition is likely to be SP Nathan Eovaldi, over from the Marlins and who could end up leading the staff in wins. And the Yankees are now dealing with life minus Derek Jeter and the leadership he provided on the field and in the clubhouse. No team in the East might be more reflective of the division's plight than the Yanks, who appear an extremely difficult read with all of the question marks, as well as the capacity to swing deals (Cole Hamels, perhaps?) if things start going sideways. We'd rather not get involved, so it's a no-call for us in The Bronx.

AL CENTRAL BEST BET...We are a bit perplexed why the Kansas City Royals (80 ½) are being dismissed so readily after their surprise World Series visit last fall. Yes, things fell into place in September and October for manager Ned Yost, and there was more outflow than inflow to Kauffman Stadium in the offseason, but this has to be the most mocked defending pennant winner, which won the traditional way (pitching, defense, base running) in a long while. The press has mostly overrated departed staff ace James Shields (to San Diego in free agency) as if he were as important to the Royals as Curt Schilling once was to the Bosox or the Phils. Not true. KC still has a deep rotation featuring Yordano Ventura and Danny Duffy, and top offseason addition Edinson Volquez made 19 quality starts for the Pirates last season. After a rocky first two weeks of March in Surprise, the starters settled down en masse the second half of the month. The bullpen, with untouchable closer Greg Holland and set-up men (Wade Davis and Kelvin Herrera) with plenty of gas, might still be the AL's best. The defense is solid. And there is nothing wrong with the everyday lineup, which lost DH Billy Butler and RF Nori Aoki, but added RF Alex Rios and DH Kendrys Morales, while the likes of LF Alex Gordon, 3B Mike Moustakas, and 1B Eric Hosmer are entering their primes. The Royals, as was evidenced by the ALDS sweep of the Orioles, can also manufacture runs with jackrabbits Lorenzo Cain and Jarrod Dyson threats to steal a combined 120 bases. Instead of being pegged at under .500, we think KC might be the best bet in the AL to return to the playoffs. It's a definite "over" for us at the Big K.

OTHERS: Can the Chicago White Sox (81 ½) really make the jump from a distant, 73-89 also-ran to contending status? We think the Chisox will improve, but are not convinced they are ready to make a run at this division. Not for a lack of trying, as an off-season shopping spree that added LF Melky Cabrera, 1B Adam LaRoche, SP Jeff Samardzija, and relievers David Robertson and Zach Duke suggests that Jerry Reinsdorf is serious about putting a winner on the field at The Cell, which hasn't hosted a playoff game since 2008. But there are going to be some questions at the back end of the rotation unless rookie Carlos Rodon, the No. 3 overall pick in last June's draft, is ready to make the immediate jump, because John Danks has lost a lot of his stuff over the past few years and Hector Noesi's penchant for allowing fly balls is a dangerous trait for pitchers on the South Side. The Chisox, who open with three straight weeks of games vs. Central foes, will also likely be doing so without ace Chris Sale, who broke his foot in a freak home accident in late February and saw no Cactus League action. Sale opens the season on the DL, not the place for a staff ace on a team that wants to make a quick start to gain confidence that it can contend. Meanwhile, Robin Ventura will be keeping a close eye on new closer Robertson, whose subpar spring at Camelback Ranch did nothing to suppress rumors of a sore arm. Maybe the offense, decent enough last season, can compensate, now surrounding Cuban power-source 1B Jose Abreu with Cabrera and LaRoche (who probably sees much of the action at DH). But Ventura can't wait much longer for RF Avisail Garcia to begin living up to his potential and support the aforementioned trio. Within this competitive division, we are not sure the Chisox can make such a big jump in wins, so we look "under" at The Cell.

The Minnesota Twins (72 ½) had another tough go last season and finally cut the cord with manager Ron Gardenhire after a fourth straight season with 92 or more losses. The bar is thus set rather low for new skipper Paul Molitor, but there is evidence the Twins might finally be ready to make a move. It won't happen if the staff continues to be as bad as it has been in recent campaigns, especially after the starters have had the worst ERA in the bigs each of the past two years (including a woeful 5.06 mark in 2014) after ranking 29th in 2012. But adding righty Ervin Santana (a 14-game winner in Atlanta last season and Minnesota's highest-priced FA of all-time, at $55 mill for four years) at least solidifies the front end of the rotation with ex-Yankee Phil Hughes, who set a modern MLB record with an 11.63 strikeout-to-walk ratio last season, and Ricky Nolasco, still serviceable if not bothered by arm problems (as was the case last season). If the Twins can improve upon their MLB-worst 4.57 ERA, they'll be part of the way to an improved record. The other part comes with a more efficient offense, which will require 1B Joe Mauer resembling something close to his previous form after hearing unaccustomed boos from the locals in an injury-plagued 2014. Helping out should be the return of familiar face Torii Hunter, who turns 40 in July and moves into RF to add a veteran presence to the lineup while reminding the fans of the better days in Minneapolis during the past decade before Hunter moved to the Angels and Tigers. There is also hope that the middle infield combo of SS Danny Santana and 2B Brian Dozier (just signed to a lucrative contract extension) can be something special, and there will be no holding of breath at the outset for the "arrival" of CF Aaron Hicks, who has disappointed in the starting lineup each of the past two years but was optioned to AAA Rochester on March 28, beaten out by Jordan Schafer. Too soon to begin talking playoffs in the Twin Cities, but top-notch TV combo Dick Bremer and Bert Blyleven might finally have a little something to get excited about after several lean years...look "over" at Target Field.

The Detroit Tigers (84 ½) managed to stay in contention after the retirement of manager Jim Leyland through replacement Brad Ausmus, who was able to win the Central last season before getting quickly hustled out of the playoffs by the Orioles in the ALDS. But making the playoffs for a fifth straight term in Motown might be a dicey proposition. Already, one-time ace Justin Verlander has landed on the DL for the first time in his career due to a triceps strain, stalling a recovery from his career-worst season in 2014. The Tigers have been counting upon a big comeback by Verlander, who was slowed by offseason surgery a year ago and whose fastball had already lost considerable zip the previous year in 2013. The mid-career version of Verlander has not been blowing away hitters as in previous years, but don't feel too bad for him...his girlfriend is supermodel Kate Upton. The rotation was already minus ace Max Scherzer, who moved to the Nats in free agency, and has also lost Rick Porcello (to the Bosox). And while many believe having David Price in the fold from the outset effectively replaces Scherzer, the ex-Ray was not overpowering for Detroit after his trade acquisition last summer. With a new look at the bottom end of the rotation (ex-Yankee Shane Greene and ex-Red Alfredo Simon), we are not convinced the Tigers are going to be able to consistently turn over leads in the late innings to Joakim Soria and Joe Nathan, either. The everyday lineup could also begin to show some signs of wear and tear, especially with 1B Miguel Cabrera (ankle bone spur and stress fracture repair) and DH Victor Martinez (knee surgery in February), both well into their 30s, off of winter surgeries, and making little impact in March at Lakeland. Expect Ausmus to do a lot of lineup juggling, especially in April, though adding ex-A's and Red Sox OF Yoenis Cespedes provides some flexibility. No matter, the Tigers hardly look the sure things that they have been in recent seasons, and even with a manageable win total, we're going to look "under" at Comerica Park.

There has been considerable offseason buzz regarding the Cleveland Indians (84 ½), who made a spirited run at the playoffs last season. The Tribe remains well-managed under Terry Francona, plays hard, and has ample pitching, so we suspect they will not backslide from last year's 85-77 record. Corey Kluber's quick ascent to ace status and surprise Cy Young Award winner provide a nice anchor to a rotation that could turn into a real strength with continued progress from live young arms Carlos Carrasco and Trevor Bauer, who each flashed significant upside a year ago. Francona also makes good use of a deep bullpen; an AL-record four relievers notched 70 or more appearances in 2014, with all sorts of left-right combinations available in front of capable closer Cody Allen. If there are some concerns as camp breaks in Goodyear, they involve minor injury issues within the everyday lineup, though none among DH Nick Swisher, 2B Jason Kipnis, and top offseason addition Brandon Moss (likely in RF) figure to be sidelined for long. The batting order also figures to feature only one true right-handed bat (C Yan Gomes), with the rest either lefties or switch-hitters. Still, there are plenty of catalysts in the lineup, with underrated LF Michael Brantley having blossomed into an All-Star-caliber force. Though we are not quite as bullish on the Tribe as are some others, we think there are enough positive signs to look "over" at Progressive Field and give the locals something to cheer about into September (we don't think the Browns are going to provide much of an alternative).

AL WEST: BEST BET...In retrospect, we pegged the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim (88 ½) pretty well as they headed into the playoffs as the runaway AL West champ last season after absolutely feasting upon the lower-echelon teams, playing over .700 against a wide collection of also-rans but hovering around .400 against playoff-caliber foes. Thus, we were not surprised that the Halos, displaying classic bully tendencies, were quickly booted from the ALDS by the Royals. True, this new win total of 88 ½ is a big drop from last year's 98-64 mark, but we anticipate much rougher traffic for the Halos in 2015. Not necessarily because of LF Josh Hamilton's off-field troubles; adding ex-Ray Matt Joyce should effectively take Hamilton's place in the lineup. But we suspect the team will miss the glue that departed 2B Howie Kendrick provided for so many years. And if Albert Pujols can't stay healthy (always a concern), we're not sure how well the lineup can protect superstar CF Mike Trout, off his first of what could be several MVP seasons. Vet 3B David Freese had a considerable downturn in his power numbers last season, so keeping Pujols in one piece will be key. Mike Scioscia also has some questions with his staff, and is counting heavily upon rookie starter Andrew Heaney, recently ballyhooed with Miami, but unproven at the top level, while Garrett Richards is going to start the season on the DL as he continues to rehab from last August's knee injury that figured to keep him out for at least nine months. We're also not sure how much gas lefty C.J. Wilson (last seen getting blasted in the ALDS) has left in his tank, putting lots of pressure on Matt Shoemaker to prove last year's surprise 16-4 record was no fluke. The Halos might make the playoffs again, but we do not anticipate another easy ride to the postseason, especially since the lesser AL teams do not figure to roll over as easily this term. So, we're looking "under" the 88 ½ at the Big A, though recommending an "over" for visits to former lefty Clyde Wright's Tennessee BBQ stand down the third base line.

OTHERS: Noted wheeler-dealer GM Billy Beane might have gotten too clever for his own good last summer with the Oakland A's (81 ½), who had MLB's best record as of August 8, but proceeded to lose 30 of their next 46 and had to wait until the final day of the regular season before finally clinching a postseason berth. It was easy at the time to suspect that Beane made one move too many at the trade deadline, as dealing OF Yoenis Cespedes to the Bosox in the Jon Lester trade would almost immediately hamper the offense and remove its most-intimidating element; leading MLB in runs scored prior to the Cespedes trade, Oakland was the AL's lowest-scoring team thereafter, and would blow a late lead in the wild card playoff game at Kansas City. Now the A's have gone through yet another Beane-fueled makeover with new faces all over Hohokam Park in Mesa during March, with no signs of pitchers Jason Hammel, Jeff Samardzija and Jon Lester, Beane's midseason staff additions last season that were supposed to lead a deep playoff run who were instead wearing different unis this spring. Beane has now tasked manager Bob Melvin into fitting five newcomers into the everyday lineup and at least three new starters into the rotation. Remember, however, that Beane's unique formula often works, and while not getting too carried away with March results, Oakland has been the talk of the Cactus League with a 19-9 record. A rebuilt rotation still features holdovers Sonny Gray and Scott Kazmir and is projected to get Jarrod Parker and A.J. Griffin back from their respective Tommy John surgeries by June. And hanging around on the fringe is vet Barry Zito, making a comeback and impressing at Hohokam. Closer Sean Doolittle opens the season on the DL with shoulder problems, but one of Beane's many offseason adds, Tyler Clippard from the Nats, has closer experience and reflects a still-deep bullpen. Granted, Oakland lost a lot of offensive power during the offseason when trading away 3B Josh Donaldson, 1B/OF Brandon Moss, and C Derek Norris, just months after moving out Cespedes, but the revamped lineup displayed considerable aggressiveness and potential at the plate in Arizona. And among the many new additions, jack-of-all-trades ex-Ray Ben Zobrist (likely slated to open the season in RF with Josh Reddick on the DL short-term with a strained oblique) should especially come in handy for Melvin. The A's have surprised when downgraded in recent seasons, and we believe 2015 will be no exception; it's an "over" for us for the Billy Beanes at the Coliseum.

The Texas Rangers (76 ½) finally fell off of the map last season, tumbling into the AL West cellar with a 67-95 mark that prompted the bumpy exit of longtime skipper Ron Washington early last September. Upbeat new manager Jeff Banister figured that there would be no way his roster could endure the sort of injury woes that helped derail the operation in 2014, but almost immediately suffered another setback when staff ace Yu Darvish lasted just one inning in the Cactus League before going down with arm issues and resultant Tommy John surgery that will keep him out until 2016. Now pressure moves to the rest of the rotation that is hoping Yovani Gallardo, over from Milwaukee, can rediscover long-ago ace-like stuff and that Derek Holland and Colby Lewis are beyond their recent injuries. Ex-Nat Ross Detwiler, who hasn't started since 2013, is going to be asked to fill that role in Arlington. The bullpen is also revamped, with the experiment of Neftali Feliz as a starter now in the rear-view mirror as he returns to his more-familiar closer role. Tanner Scheppers, who missed most of 2014, is also back in the set-up man role he had in 2013, but the rest of the pen still appeared to have many moving parts as camp broke in Surprise. We do note that the Rangers were still competitive last season until they lost key offensive contributors 1B Prince Fielder, RF Shin-Soo Choo and DH Mitch Moreland to injury; all three are now healthy (knock on wood) and will hit in key spots in the Texas lineup along with still-productive 3B Adrian Beltre, which should be a plus. But lots of things are going to have to go right for the Rangers to get back into contention, and they're already off to a bad start with ace Darvish on the shelf. Texas should be better in 2015, but jumping ten wins is asking a lot...we look "under" at Globe Life Park.

There is an awful lot of hype surrounding the Seattle Mariners (86 ½), who along with the Nats/Expos remain the only MLB team to never make the World Series. But there were enough positive indicators on display in Peoria this March to suggest that the M's will at least have a chance to get into the postseason and have a shot at their first-ever appearance in the Fall Classic (who knows, maybe vs. the Nats!). Seattle addressed its one acknowledged weakness last season by adding a righthanded bat in Nelson Cruz, who hit 40 homers (admittedly taking advantage of the short dimensions at Baltimore's Camden Yards) in 2014 and likely handling DH duties, batting cleanup between 2B Robby Cano and 3B Kyle Seager and adding more menace to the offense. There are still a few questions elsewhere, though fewer of them than at any time in recent memory at Safeco Field. Among those issues are CF Austin Jackson, who underachieved after his midseason addition from Detroit last summer and still needing to prove himself at the top of the batting order; getting another big year out of closer Fernando Rodney, who has been a high-wire act for most of his career; and lessening the load on workhorse starters Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma, who showed signs of wear-and-tear down the stretch last season. But youngsters James Paxton and Taijuan Walker have flashed plenty of upside, and adding vet J.A. Happ means that the Mariners probably don't need to go looking for other options at the back of the rotation, where the promising Roenis Elias could also figure into the equation. The bullpen also has depth and other closer options (such as Tom Wilhelmsen) should Rodney falter. And while Cruz generated the most buzz among the everyday lineup additions, we suspect no-nonsense manager Lloyd McClendon will get plenty of good use from the versatile Seth Smith, the former Ole Miss Rebel who is penciled in as the new right fielder. The greatest risk we see in Seattle is Rodney in the bullpen, where his 48 saves from last season might be hard to match. But we also don't believe McClendon would allow that situation to get out of hand if Rodney falters. And if Rodney comes close to picking up where he left off last season, Seattle is a good bet to win the West, which is why we look "over" at Safeco.

We find it interesting that after a full-scale rebuild that commenced with the move to the American League a couple of years ago, the Houston Astros (75 ½) decided to add some bargain-priced additions from elsewhere in the offseason to detour the recent youth movement that has not produced many everyday players from within the organization other than RF George Springer and 2B Jose Altuve. The likes of familiar-looking vets from other locales such as 3B Luis Valbuena, CF Colby Rasmus, SS Jed Lowrie, and LF/DH Evan Gattis are now part of the Houston lineup as experiments with the likes of 3B Matt Dominguez and 1B Jon Singleton at the big league level have been temporarily put on hold. All of which is probably a plus for the lineup, though the batting order still has a boom-or-bust look about it. Another new addition is skipper A.J. Hinch, who did not succeed in his last managerial try with the D-backs but has been enlisted to pick up the pieces from the failed regime of Bo Porter. Hinch will likely benefit from offseason reinforcements to a bullpen that recorded an AL-worst 4.80 ERA a year ago, but has since added established set-up men Luke Gregerson and Pat Neshek and suddenly has plenty of options for Hinch and pitching coach Brent Strom. We are less convinced about a starting rotation that beyond the crafty Scott Feldman and emerging southpaw Dallas Keuchel has some question marks, with rookie Asher Wojciechowski earning a spot after a surprising March audition in Kissimmee and the very well-traveled Roberto Hernandez temporarily the fifth starter until lefty Brett Oberholtzer (blister on index finger) returns from the DL sometime in mid-April. The "Astro-nomicals" (as the one-and-only Reds announcer Marty Brennaman still occasionally refers to them) have improved from pushover status, and if everything falls into place could make a move closer to .500, but the recovery could also take a step back if the staff regresses. Lots of questions at Minute Maid Park, so we'd rather simply take a pass in Houston.


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