The free-agent signings still are trickling in (man, that was a lot of money to give Ian Kennedy), but let's look at some of the most intriguing players to watch in 2016. We'll start with the AL West and do a different division each day this week.
In recent years, we'd seen a bit of a talent drought at shortstop. Outside of the injury-prone Troy Tulowitzki, the star quality was limited. Players such as J.J. Hardy and Rafael Furcal were starting All-Star Games. The fact that Starlin Castro made three All-Star Games in recent years said more about the position than it did about Castro. That all changed in 2015 with the call-ups of Correa, Francisco Lindor, Addison Russell and Corey Seager and the development of Xander Bogaerts. Just like that, we have several big stars on the rise.
Correa already is one, and if there's one player who can challenge Mike Trout and Bryce Harper for best-player-in-the-game honors, it's Correa. As a 20-year-old rookie, he hit .279/.345/.512 with 22 home runs, 22 doubles and 14 stolen bases in 99 games while playing solid defense. Extrapolate that to 155 games and you get 34 home runs and 22 stolen bases. Correa posted a 132 adjusted OPS; the four previous players to post a higher adjusted OPS at age 20 were Harper, Trout, Alex Rodriguez and Ken Griffey Jr.
The impressive thing about Correa is how well he controlled the entire plate as a rookie, spraying the ball around the field as well (five of his 22 home runs went to right field):
If the Rangers are to challenge the Astros, they'll need a big year from their ace, given the unknown production from Yu Darvish as he returns at some point from Tommy John surgery. In 12 starts after coming over from the Phillies, Hamels went 7-1 with a 3.66 ERA, just above the 3.30 career ERA he had with the Phillies. Keep in mind that in recent years Hamels has toiled in a division with some of the worst offenses in the game. It will be interesting to see how he fares over a full season in the American League, especially considering that four of his 12 starts came against a weak-hitting Seattle lineup and his career ERA in interleague games is 4.74 over 33 starts.
3. Mike Trout, CF, Los Angeles Angels
Hey, don't blame him for the Angels' missing the playoffs in a season in which it took just 88 wins to capture the AL West. Trout might have four MVP awards in four seasons if the Angels had made the playoffs more than once. Trout posted career highs in home runs and slugging percentage and boosted his OBP back over .400 in 2015 thanks to a couple of adjustments: He cut his strikeout rate from 26.1 percent to 23.2 percent, and he did a slightly better job on pitches in the upper third of the strike zone. Look, everyone knows that Trout is a dead low-ball hitter, but it's not quite so easy just to throw fastballs up in the zone, particularly when pitchers are trained these days to keep the ball down. Anyway, Trout's numbers against those upper-third pitches:
2012-2014: .144/.441/.288, 9 HR
2015: .172/.476/.376, 6 HR
It's possible he's getting better. Angel Stadium is a tough place to hit 50 home runs, but it wouldn't shock me if Trout did it in 2016.
4. Dallas Keuchel, LHP, Houston Astros
What can he do for an encore? He became of one of the least likely Cy Young winners ever, maturing from a soft-tossing lefty who posted a 5.20 ERA over his first two seasons in the league into the best pitcher in the AL who struck out 216 batters in 232 innings. His two-seam fastball plays up because of his impeccable command, and an excellent changeup and cutter allowed him to hold right-handed batters to a .227 average with limited power. The only concern for a repeat season is that, including the postseason, he threw 46 innings more than in 2014.
He now has made 334 starts in his career -- with none of them coming in the playoffs. In the division era, only Fergie Jenkins accumulated a higher WAR among pitchers without appearing in the postseason. He turns 30 in April and has made 30-plus starts every year of his career, but there were some warning signs in 2015 that his dominance may be starting to decline. His strikeout rate dropped 4.1 percent from the year before; he allowed his most home runs since his rookie season; batters hit .230/.271/.339 against his changeup after hitting .152 against it the previous five seasons; he allowed 10 runs in one start and eight runs in another when he recorded just one out, leading to his highest ERA since 2007. He deserves an October moment, but are the Mariners good enough to get there?
6. Rougned Odor, 2B, Texas Rangers
He struggled early on, was sent to the minors, came back in mid-June and raked the rest of the season. Even with that slow start -- he was hitting .144 when sent down after 29 games -- he led major league second basemen in slugging percentage, as he hit .294/.334/.527 after his call-up. He swings hard but doesn't strike out excessively, and he's just turning 22. While he has some finer points of his game to work out -- defense, baserunning -- we saw in the postseason how this kid has that extra level of excitement and flair to his game, that "it" factor. He has the chance to be one of the best second basemen in the game.
7. George Springer, RF, Houston Astros
Really, I could do a whole list of Astros players. This is more of a gut feeling than anything, but I believe this will be Springer's breakout season -- in a big, big way. He's 26, at that right age, and keep in mind that he grew up in Connecticut and then played in the Big East, so he wasn't consistently exposed to good pitching until he signed professionally. I like that he cut down significantly on his K rate in his sophomore season, and now that he'll be fully healed from the wrist injury that sidelined him last year and sapped some of his power in the second half, he has 30-30 potential.
8. Robinson Cano, 2B, Seattle Mariners
The future Hall of Famer -- right? -- struggled the first three months with four home runs and a .238 average. By then, the Mariners were dead and buried. But he recovered to hit .330/.383/.536 the final three months. If Mariners get that production over six months, maybe King Felix will get his postseason shot.
9. Ken Giles, RHP, Houston Astros
Yes, another Houston player. If you're getting the idea that I like the Astros to win the division, you're right. Anyway, they paid a steep price to get Giles to become their closer. Houston's bullpen was fine last year until that Game 4 meltdown against the Royals, so the flame-throwing Giles will get ninth-inning duties. He has only a partial season of closing under his belt, and that was for a bad team in Philadelphia. Let's see how he does in a pennant race ... and then in October.
Not only is he fun to watch -- hey, who doesn't have a thing for short right-handers? -- but he finished third in the Cy Young voting last year after changing his repertoire a bit, increasing the usage of his slider while throwing his big curveball less often. He also unveiled a cutter, which he didn't throw much in 2015 but may throw more in 2016. Unfortunately, another reason he'll be so intriguing to watch: He could be trade bait come July, especially if the A's are sitting in last place.