With Spring Training quickly approaching, let's examine five potentially pivotal pitchers in what promises to be another wild American League West race this upcoming season.
1. Yu Darvish, Rangers
Under AL Manager of the Year Award winner Jeff Banister, Texas showed exceptional resilience in surging to the division title with its dominant starter, Darvish, out all season. If Darvish, in his recovery from Tommy John surgery, can regain prime form, he and Cole Hamels could be this summer's version of Zack Greinke and Clayton Kershaw.
At 29 and in his prime, Darvish will be monitored carefully by the Rangers. He might be well served physically with less reliance on the slider and a higher percentage of fastballs.
Reaching into a deep bag of weapons, Darvish is as overpowering as anybody in the game. In 2013, while finishing second to Max Scherzer in the AL Cy Young Award balloting, Darvish led the Majors in strikeouts (277) and K's per nine innings (11.9) and yielded the fewest hits per nine (6.2) in the AL while delivering a career-best 209 2/3 innings and 2.83 ERA.
Texas' starters, who ranked 12th in the AL in ERA (4.32) last season, could climb to the top of the heap with Darvish joining Hamels, Derek Holland, Colby Lewis, Martin Perez and Chi Chi Gonzalez. This rotation could be superior to the units of the 2010 and '11 when the club made it to the World Series.
2. Ken Giles, Astros
A Houston bullpen that had been so good for so long, finishing fourth in the AL in ERA at 3.27, ran out of steam in the postseason against the relentless Royals last season. In 17 1/3 innings, Astros relievers were banged around (6.23 ERA, .275 batting average) while absorbing two of the losses in a five-game AL Division Series that went to the eventual World Series champions from Kansas City.
Moving to address the issue, the Astros paid a hefty tab to acquire Giles from the Phillies. Without much fanfare, the 25-year-old right-hander was brilliant last season. In 70 innings and 69 appearances, he had 87 strikeouts against 25 walks. Giles' 1.80 ERA was third best in the National League among relievers with at least 50 innings of work, and he held hitters to a .569 OPS.
Giles brings the heat, averaging 96.5 mph with his fastball, and he should give the Astros a formidable presence. Before claiming the closer's role after Jonathan Papelbon was dealt to the Nationals, Giles allowed only three of 16 inherited runners to score in a setup role.
A contrast in styles with sinker-slider artist Luke Gregerson, who was effective as a closer last year after excelling as a setup man, should benefit Giles -- and the Astros.
3. Tyler Skaggs, Angels
Skaggs, 24, did not sit around and mope in his recovery from Tommy John surgery. The local kid from Santa Monica, Calif., went to work in the gym, adding muscle to his 6-foot-4 frame. Returning to his original team in a deal with the D-backs after the 2013 season, Skaggs has the skills to give the Angels a formidable young lefty duo alongside Andrew Heaney.
Before giving way to left elbow pain in 2014, Skaggs was showing signs of evolving into a quality starter. Making 18 starts with a 4.30 ERA, he was 5-5 with 86 strikeouts against 30 walks in 113 innings. In 31 career games, Skaggs has held opponents to a .253/.315/.401 slash line.
The Angels have eight viable starting candidates. Skaggs' emergence could free up an arm or two to deal for offense.
4. Taijuan Walker, Mariners
Turning 23 last August, Walker, a superlative athlete, took strides toward becoming the front-end starter he's been projected as since being drafted by Seattle in 2010.
With a fastball that sits in the 93-95 mph range and a quality changeup to go with two breaking balls, Walker has the stuff to give Felix Hernandez some serious support. Walker was 11-8 in 29 starts last year, racking up 157 strikeouts in 169 2/3 innings.
Getting ahead in counts is imperative for Walker. Sixteen of the 29 homers he surrendered were in hitters' counts, compared to six when the count was even and only three when Walker had the edge.
5. Ryan Madson, Athletics
Seemingly retired after missing three seasons with right elbow miseries and surgeries, Madson became a remarkable comeback story for the World Series champion Royals in 2015. The A's snapped up the 6-foot-6 right-hander as a free agent this offseason to help repair a bullpen that came apart last season with the worst ERA (4.56) in the AL.
Madson showed in 2011, his final season with the Phillies, that he can close effectively, notching 32 saves. He was a vital part of the Royals' trend-setting bullpen last summer with a career-best 0.963 WHIP and a 2.13 ERA in 68 appearances. Madson's 92 percent save/hold rate was among the best in the game.