2016 Preview: Los Angeles Angels

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Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2016 season. Next up: The Los Angeles Angels.

With Mike Trout, all things are possible. Well, not all things, but a whole lot more wins than a team with this many holes and as thin a system as the Angels have might otherwise expect to get. When you start with the best player in baseball — and when you back him up with a declining but still dangerous Albert Pujols — you’re starting out OK.

Beyond those two things get a bit uncertain. The trade for Andrelton Simmons definitely shores up the defense up the middle, but unless he has that breakout offensive season some have figured he has in him someplace (Braves fans waited for four years and it never happened), his bat won’t add much to the party. Yunel Escobar at third base is an intriguing option for some offense if you think his nice 2015 was indicative of a resurgence as opposed to an outlier. Kole Calhoun took a step back last year but is still solid and has some upside. C.J. Cron‘s power is the real deal and he could hit between 20-30 homers. Overall, though, there’s an awful lot of low-OBP dudes on this Angels lineup, minimizing the damage Trout, Pujols and Cron can do with their bombs. And that’s before you figure that Pujols, who is battling some foot problems this spring, is likely to continue to go slowly and gently into that good night. Last year the Angels were close to a bottom-third offense. It’s hard to see them improving dramatically this year.

Garrett Richards tops the rotation. He wasn’t as great in 2015 as he was in 2014, but still has fantastic stuff and is another full offseason and a regular-ramp-up removed from his ugly knee injury from late in 2014. Jered Weaver‘s velocity — or shocking lack thereof — is concerning. Hector Santiago‘s screwballs are fun. Andrew Heaney could truly emerge this year as a solid number two or three starter. C.J. Wilson will start the year on the DL and there is no solid timetable for his return. Matt Shoemaker was a disappointment last year but he’ll fill in for Wilson. Huston Street and Joe Smith in the pen is pretty decent. The rest of the pen is neither great nor terrible.

The biggest issue with the Angels: there’s not a lot of upside to be seen here. Mike Trout is amazing, but you can’t reasonably expect him to get better. You can’t expect most of the rest of this club to get better either, but that’s because it’s less than amazing. They won 85 games last year and it felt like that exceeded their real level of talent by a good deal. Where does the improvement come from this year? Especially given how barren their minor league system is?

Prediction: Third place, AL West.

Yankees keep ALCS hopes alive with 4-1 win over Astros

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The Yankees defeated the Astros 4-1 during Game 5 of the American League Championship Series on Friday night, staving off a potential postseason elimination and forcing the series to at least six games.

In just the third playoff appearance of his career, Yankees southpaw James Paxton turned in another impressive performance, limiting the Astros to four hits and four walks over six innings of one-run ball. According to MLB Stats, his nine strikeouts made him the second Yankees lefty to record multiple starts of 8+ strikeouts in the same postseason campaign, two decades after David Wells did so for the 1998 championship-winning club.

Paxton’s strong outing was backed by a handful of runs from DJ LeMahieu and Aaron Hicks, both of whom went deep against Astros ace Justin Verlander in the bottom of the first inning. LeMahieu’s leadoff solo shot marked his first postseason home run since Game 1 of the ALDS, while Hicks’ three-run 347-footer was his first home run of any variety since July 24 (and his first in the playoffs since the 2017 ALDS).

Neither team managed a single run after the first inning, leaving the two pitching staffs to duke it out for eight quick innings. Verlander outlasted Paxton — taking the game through the seventh with five hits, four runs, and nine strikeouts — but even with a flawless contribution from Brad Peacock in the eighth, there was little the hurlers could do to help the Astros solve Paxton and an airtight Yankees bullpen.

With the win, the Yankees will try to push the series to a full seven games in order to snatch the AL pennant from the Astros. They’ll have to do in Houston, however, as the Astros will regain home field advantage when Game 6 kicks off on Saturday at 8:08 PM EDT. Neither starter has been announced yet; per Houston skipper A.J. Hinch, it will likely be a bullpen day.