Sizing up the AL West: Could Change be Coming?

The AL West is one of baseball’s most underrated divisions. In the past twenty years, no team has taken the leap to separate themselves from their division rivals. The A’s and the Angels have won the divisional title six times in that period. The Rangers four times, the Astros three times, and the Mariners only once. In that time, only the Astros and Angels have reached the pinnacle of baseball excellence, the World Series, and come home champions.

The story line of the past few seasons has been the Astros success in the postseason (which now looks far less impressive due to a massive scandal), the Athletics stuck embarrassing themselves in the wild card game, the Angels failing to provide Mike Trout a team that he can lead to the postseason, and the Rangers and Mariners just kicking dirt in the infield. But after a hectic offseason and a shortened schedule due to the pandemic, things could be looking different in the west. So, how is each team shaping up come the end of July?

Houston Astros

The Astros are coming back this season with their heads hung low from a demoralizing combination of a Game 7 World Series loss and a cheating scandal that shocked the world. On top of this, they lost their strikeout king and ace, Gerrit Cole, to their biggest rival in the American League, the Bronx Bombers. The belief is that bad things come in threes, but the Astros were not so lucky – they also lost their General Manager and Team Manager due to a sign-stealing scandal. Yet, the Astros are still the favorite to win the AL West. That just shows how much talent is in their lineup still.

Alex Bregman may be one of the most hated players in the league currently. He talks a big game, which irritates a lot of fans, but when you finish 20 points away from winning the MVP award and set new career high’s in batting average, dingers, and RBI’s, you’re afforded the luxury of spitting some trash talk. Houston will rely on Bregman again this year to help them reach the postseason for a fourth consecutive year. Bregman isn’t alone in that offense though, as the offseason helped the Astros heal up, as Altuve, Springer, and Correa are all healthy and ready to play. Even Houston’s biggest haters have to recognize the incredible hitting potential from that group.

The Astros won’t be relying on hitting alone though. While they certainly are not getting any younger, Justin Verlander and Zack Greinke are still two all star pitchers who are capable of having Cy Young seasons. Verlander showed last year that even at 35 years old, he’s still capable of pitching a no-hitter. Greinke looked a bit lackluster in his time in H-town so far, but a season without fans could be exactly what someone like him needs.

The Astros biggest wildcard is sophomore slugger Yordan Alvarez. Alvarez hit an incredible .313 last year, finishing fourth on his team in home-runs in half of a season only. It was no surprise to see him win the Rookie of the Year Award because of this. But when the playoffs came, Alvarez disappeared in the ALCS – only getting ONE hit against the Yankees in six games. His batting average dropped to .045l, which would make Chris Davis look like an all star. In the World Series, he got back to his elite hitting, but you have to wonder if the Yankees figured something out that other teams will capitalize on with an entire offseason of film study and prep.

Oakland Athletics

The A’s are coming off of two back-to-back dud performances in the postseason wildcard game. When the vote comes up discussing if the MLB should change the one game playoff format, Oakland will be sprinting to the podium in favor of removing it. The A’s streak of losing winner-take-all postseason games continues to now nine straight losses. Oakland looked well over there heads in 2018 against the Yankees losing 7-2, and then somehow looked even worse last season losing 5-1 to the Rays. With Houston favored to win the west again, The A’s will either need to step it up to secure a postseason series or attempt to break their streak in the wildcard game.

The A’s have some weapons of their own to battle Houston for the top spot. While Alex Bregman won 2nd in MVP voting last season, A’s shortstop Marcus Semien was 3rd after an incredible breakout season. Semien was an incredible factor in the A’s offense while also contributing to the A’s elite defense they’re known for. If Semien can replicate his career best season he had last year, the A’s will have someone to rely on to shoulder the load of their offense.

Speaking of Oakland’s defense, Semien was a top 10 MLB player in DWAR last season although he didn’t receive a Gold Glove award for his efforts. Yet two other Athletics did last season. 3rd basemen Matt Chapman continues to be arguably the best defender in the entire league. In only his third season he’s already made the all star game, won two gold gloves, and was the leader in DWAR in the AL for the past two seasons. First Basemen Matt Olsen was right behind him in DWAR last season, and also won a gold glove award the past two seasons. The Athletics rely on ground ball pitchers to put the ball into the infield and let their elite defenders handle the rest. But wait there’s more. In the outfield, the A’s have one of the best arms in the game, behind Ramon Laureano who loves when runners test his arm.

On the pitching end, Oakland remains solid as long as they stay healthy. Sean Manaea had an ERA last season of 1.21 in the few games he played, but unfortunately could not stay on the field with a shoulder issue, finally returning for the postseason only to have a rough outing in the wildcard game. In front of him is Frankie Montas who throws absolute heat earning him the ace spot in the A’s rotation. They also have Mike Fiers who is famously known now as the man who revealed the Astro’s true nature, but he is still a solid pitcher who can help the A’s earn some wins if he plays up to his potential. In the bullpen, Liam Hendriks had an incredible breakout season where he became one of the best closers in the league. It will be interesting to see if these pitchers can help soften the blow of losing 3 quality pitchers in the offseason in Homer Bailey, Tanner Roark, and Brett Anderson.

Los Angeles Angels

The Angels have the best player in the entire MLB and yet have had little success with him. Mike Trout has won 3 MVPs, made 8 All-Star games in 8 seasons, and won MVP in 2 of those 8 games. He’s also won a Silver Slugger award in every season he’s played except one. In his 8 full seasons with the Angels, he’s tasted postseason baseball only once getting swept against the Royals in the 2014 ALDS. Trout has needed help for a long time now, and there was even a period of time in which people believed he’d walk away when his contract was up to sign with a contender. The fish man shut down that thought when he signed the largest MLB contract in history with a mass extension. Now it’s time for the Angels to get some pieces around him, and they started off with a bang this offseason.

The Angels hitting has been questionable for a while now. They added Japanese duel pitching and hitting superstar Shohei Ohtani, who won Rookie of the Year in 2018 but ended that season needing Tommy John surgery which kept him off the mound all of last year. He looks to continue his success at the plate and hopefully begin pitching again now that he is fully healthy. The Angels shocked many though this offseason signing 3rd basemen Anthony Rendon to a huge contract after he won the world series with the Nationals. Rendon is an incredible hitter who somehow looks better and better each season, coming in 3rd place in last season’s NL MVP voting. The Angels hope that the hitting trio of Trout, Rendon, and Ohtani can help them make the postseason once again. In a shortened 60 game season, that may be true.

If the Angels announced they forgot pitching was an aspect of the game, many would not be shocked. Last year they faced a tragic death in young pitcher Tyler Skaggs, and have not acquired much talent since. If Ohtani struggles to be the ace the Angels are looking for, they’ll have to look at veteran acquisitions Dylan Bundy and Julio Teheran, both of whom are far from ace material and are really inning eaters at this point. The Angels just need to hope that hitting will carry them to a postseason berth, where they can hopefully win a playoff game for the first time in Mike Trout’s career.

Texas Rangers

It’s almost been a decade since the Rangers have been to the World Series, and while they were unsuccessful both times, those years were far better than what the Rangers have put out recently. Texas ranges season to season from slightly below average team to a slightly above average team, not winning a single postseason series since 2011. Last season they went 78-84 putting them in the direct middle of the division bordering mediocrity. But in a 60 game season anything can happen, and Texas fans have plenty of reasons to be optimistic.

The Rangers had two great pitchers last season in Lance Lynn and Mike Minor. After a rough stint with the Yankees, Lynn had success in Texas. There he posted a respectable 16-11 record, with a 3.67 ERA that put him 5th in Cy Young voting in the AL. Mike Minor put up similar stats which earned him his first All-Star game in his career. These two provided 30 of the Rangers 78 wins alone. Now the Rangers have added All-Star pitcher Corey Kluber, trading for him after a bad season with the Indians. It’s only been 3 years since Kluber won the Cy Young award, and prior to last season Kluber had a 3 year streak of All-Star games with an average ERA of 2.76. If Kluber can get back in his groove, the Rangers have the opportunity to have a top 5 rotation in baseball.

Offensively, the Rangers are still pretty lackluster. Joey Gallo is the main piece in that lineup, and cannot carry an offense alone. The rest of the Rangers hitters are extremely streaky, including Rougned Odor. Odor last season led the league in strikeouts but also put up a career-high number in RBI’s. They also have Danny Santana, Elvis Andrus, Willie Calhoun, and Shin-Soo Choo, who are all quality players but not game-changers the Rangers need. If come the deadline, the Rangers are in contention, they’ll be a team to keep an eye on for acquiring a bat.

Seattle Mariners

The Mariners are in rough shape. The last time they made the postseason, they had the AL Rookie of the Year in 2001. His name is Ichiro Suzuki who has since retired. Ichiro played an entire lengthy career in the time since the Mariners made the playoffs in his rookie year. For bad teams this 60 game season will be a good time to see who will be apart of the future after the rebuild is over, and the Mariners are not an exception to this.

The three key players Seattle will be looking closely at are Evan White, J.P. Crawford, and Shed Long Jr, all of which are 25 or younger. White is a 2017 first round pick who looks like he could develop into an elite defensive player at first base, and his hitting has improved as well. This year will show if he’s ready for the majors or if he needs more time down in double-A. Crawford and Long flashed potential last season batting, so this will be a good test as well to see how they perform in a full season. Long hit an impressive .263 in his first action in the MLB last season in 42 games.

Seattle also has two of the top prospects in baseball, both outfielders, and will continue to develop them during this shortened season. Both are young players though and are far away from seeing the majors anytime soon. This past draft, the Mariners also added an arm to their farm, drafting a pitcher 6th overall. Hopefully Seattle could add another top prospect after this season in next seasons draft, and continue upgrading their farm which is currently ranked 9th according to MLB.com.

Key Players to Watch:

Yordan Alvarez will be a crucial piece in determining how successful the Astros are this year. He has power and the potential to lead the league in home runs.

Jesus Luzardo is a top rookie prospect who saw success in the limited action he faced last year with the A’s. Luzardo had a delayed training camp due to testing positive to the Coronavirus but is now healthy and joining the team. It seems as though the plan is for him to begin relieving first, and then starting where he will begin his climb up the rotation.

Shohei Ohtani/Jo Adell are two big pieces for the Angels future. Adell is a top 5 prospect in the MLB and may see some time called up this season. He has dominated the minors, and is close to a call-up where he will eventually play in the outfield alongside Trout. In the mean time, Ohtani is the biggest variable. If he can stay healthy and live up to his hype, the Angels will be in good shape.

Corey Kluber can make the Rangers a top rotation in baseball. If he can return to his former glory, Texas will have 3 incredible pitchers in a row, giving teams fits in each series. If he can’t then the trade to acquire him will set back the Rangers progress quite a bit.

Evan White is already a gold glove contender at first, and projects to be the Mariners first basemen of the future. His defensive rating as a prospect was nearly perfect, and his hitting in the minors has been a success. Now we get to see how he performs in the major league.

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