This is a division-by-division look at the bellwether players around baseball, the canaries in the coal mine. It's a simple premise, just one that's hard to fit into a headline: We're looking for the season from a player that's most likely to correlate directly with the success of his team. As goes (player), so goes (player's team).
For example, the player to watch for the Giants in 2012 would have been Buster Posey, returning from injury. If the Giants were going to contend, they were going to need Posey. The breathless fanboys were cautiously optimistic, but not expecting too much. Instead, he won the MVP award. The Giants won the MVP award of baseball teams. They were cosmically linked, those two. Our job is to find those players for every team in baseball, starting with the AL West.
Oakland Athletics - Ike Davis
And, lo, when the Wheel of Beane stopped, it stopped on Ike Davis. Beane nodded in approval as he loaded Brandon Moss into a trebuchet.
"You'll text me, right?" Moss asked.
Beane whispered, "No," and shot him in the general direction of Ohio.
Davis isn't exactly the dingiest of reclamation projections. His career adjusted OPS+ is 111, and he's hit 32 homers in a season before. His strikeout rate dropped last year, and his easily discernible flaw -- batting average -- looks worse than we're used to because of the era. In the pre-shift golden era, he'd be a garden variety .250 hitter, and everyone would be mostly OK with that.
Still, it's jarring to see his name in the middle of the A's batting order, considering the team is most certainly considering themselves to be threats in the AL West again. The Reddick/Butler/Davis triumvirate in the middle of the order has some serious boom/bust potential. The booms could be pleasant enough, but they come with the risk that you can see the busts from space. If Davis regains his 30-homer power and becomes another Moss gathered by a rolling GM, the offseason re-purposing would make a lot of retroactive sense.
Davis fits the new A's paradigm, an extreme fly-ball hitter in a groundball league, so it's not like he's a random name that Beane is trying because he's out of ideas. It's still something of a gamble to feature him so prominently in the lineup. If Beane's right about this one, though, we'll all agree to not question any of his wacky moves until the next one.
Forgotten offseason moves that could pay off big
These four players didn't steal the headlines this winter, but they could have big impacts on their teams' chances in 2015.
Anaheim Angels - Matt Shoemaker
If the Angels are going take the next step, give other teams in the AL West the boot, and enjoy sole command of first place, they're going to need Shoemaker. The roster isn't exactly cobbled together from a bunch of loafers, and GM Jerry Dipoto has laced the lineup with power and sock to help the team win, but they'll need pitching to avoid defeat. Shoemaker avoids walks, and he can string together strikeouts, all right. I'll stop now.
Jered Weaver was average last year; C.J. Wilson was below-average, and often worse than that. If you don't look at the backs of the baseball cards and consider just last season, Shoemaker was the de facto ace once Garrett Richards went down. Which is fine ... until you remember that he was a 27-year-old rookie with a 4.52 career ERA in the minors. That's rough, even after adjusting for Salt Lake City. Then he was called up, flew to Anaheim on a chariot made of clouds, and was an absolute star.
Was the change in parks all he needed? Is he this good now because he doesn't have to worry about every third ball flying over the fence? Will the league make adjustments? No idea. But if he struggles, if he pitches like the career minor-leaguer he was before he was a mid-rotation dynamo, the Angels could be hosed. They need last year's Shoemaker or something close to it because the alternative is to hope for rebounds and injury recoveries from just about everyone else from last year's rotation. That seems like an unrealistic parlay to expect.
Jeff Sullivan suggests there's a Blanton-Iwakuma spectrum for someone with Shoemaker's profile. I'm not sure if Joe Blanton is in the Angels' minor-league camp now, but he probably is, and that's not what they need. They need last year's Shoemaker if they're going to stick their tongue out at the rest of the AL West.
Houston Astros - Brett Oberholtzer
Have you checked out the Astros roster filled with majors-quality baseball players? Check out the Astros roster filled with majors-quality baseball players. Jason Castro is hitting seventh. Jed Lowrie is hitting eighth. That's probably where they should hit in a solid, balanced lineup. At any point over the last three years, though, it wouldn't have been out of place to see those two in the middle of the order, surrounded by players on loan from San Jacinto College. You can look at the middle of the order to see how things have changed for the Astros, but looking at the bottom gives you just as much information.
If they're going to shock the world, or even mildly surprise it, they'll need to pitch. Last year, the Astros got two fantastic seasons from Collin McHugh and Dallas Keuchel, and while it might be reasonable to hope for them to repeat their performances, it might not be the safest bet to expect it. If the Astros come together as a fully formed lineup, they shouldn't assume that they'll have a pair of co-aces at the top of the rotation waiting for them.
Depth, then. The Astros need depth, and while I picked Oberholtzer, he's really just a proxy for "anybody." Assume that McHugh and Keuchel will be somewhere between OK and outstanding, assume that Scott Feldman will Scott Feldman, and then hope for something more at the bottom. It could be Oberholtzer escaping the gravity of the generic-lefty planet, it could be Mark Appel rising faster than anyone expected, or it could be Alex White reclaiming his first-round promise. Something/anything from the gaggle of back-end candidates, and the Astros will be in much better shape than people are giving them credit for.
At the very least, the absence of a total implosion that would allow the Astros to reassess their chances in July would be a delightful twist for a team that might be a little ahead of schedule.
SB Nation presents: It's your team's year ... unless you're a Braves or Phillies fan
Texas Rangers - Dr. Keith Meister
Laugh at the best-shape-of-his-life canard all you want, but you've never seen anyone work a tongue depressor like Meister this spring. He can cut through a lamppost with one of those things.
Which is to say, for goodness' sake, stay healthy, Rangers. At least stay healthy enough to where you aren't actively depressing the fans of the other 29 teams. If you're desperate for a name, any name, to represent the general health of the Rangers, how about Prince Fielder? Remember that guy? I know his defense and base running have usually conspired to limit his overall value, even when he was hitting, but he used to be such a danged presence in the middle of a lineup. After eight straight seasons of 157-plus games played, it's far too easy to forget Fielder following one season-ending injury. He's still a compelling player to watch in Arlington. This time, for sure.
The problem with this exercise, though, is the Rangers have a dozen candidates, which means their fortunes aren't going to rely on any single player. Shin-Soo Choo not being one of the worst players in baseball would be a dandy start. Elvis Andrus taking that Omar Vizquel/Ozzie Smith step to move from offensive liability to offensive plus would be another one. Rougned Odor breaking out, Derek Holland staying healthy, Yovani Gallardo thriving in the AL, Jake Smolinski becoming a fixture in the outfield ... the whole team is filled with question marks.
Jeff Banister should wear a Matthew Lesko suit and twirl a cane for the entire season. At least the spring. You've got five on that, right? I'll get the Kickstarter going. Even with all the question marks, though, the Rangers aren't as easy to dismiss as, say, the Phillies or Braves, even if it feels like they've been quietly dumped in that bin. They'll need a lot of luck, sure, but first they'll need a little health.
Seattle Mariners - Nelson Cruz
There are a lot of places the Mariners can find some extra offense this season. Brad Miller could hit a little; Dustin Ackley could be playing the same long con as Alex Gordon. Mike Zunino could emerge, Austin Jackson could rebound, and Seth Smith could keep his surprising performance up.
Right there in the middle of the lineup, though, making more money than most of them, is a 35-year-old DH moving from an extreme hitter's park in a division with a majority of hitter's parks to Safeco and the AL West. Do you want to read an article that Mariners fans hated? Here's one:
"Why Nelson Cruz will fail spectacularly with the Mariners."
It's a trolly, clicky headline, but, boy, there is a razor-thin margin for success here. Like most free agents on a multi-year deal, Cruz's eventual decline is something the Mariners are expecting. That's the tradeoff for the immediate success that the Mariners are desperate for. If Cruz is a dud, the Mariners will follow the same template of being wholly reliant on their pitching, which hasn't worked well for them recently. If he repeats his best seasons as a Ranger or last season, the Mariners will have at least two legitimate sluggers in their lineup for the first time since ... why, since Russell Branyan and Jose Lopez. Or maybe even since Alex Rodriguez and Edgar Martinez were in the same lineup. It's been a while.
If there's a bellwether player in baseball, it's probably Cruz. If you look up in August and Cruz is chasing down 30 dingers, the Mariners are probably in the middle of a pennant race. If not ...