A preseason look at a two team race
Today, we’ll kick off Midwest Sports Pulse’s MLB season preview with the American League West division. It’s tough to say that this division is at all competitive; in fact, it’s hard to say that any team has a chance outside of Houston. The Astros are built solidly from top to bottom, but their window to win may be closing sooner rather than later.
The only AL West team that might give them some fits this year is the Oakland Athletics. We’ll get into that more in a bit.
Outside of the Astros and A’s, this division isn’t going to produce much. One team is in a clear rebuild while the other two are still missing a few key pieces to be able to compete. Below, we’ll work through perhaps the weakest division from top to bottom in baseball, complete with record predictions and what to expect.
Projected record: 102-60
If you’re a baseball fan like me, watching the Astros evolve over the last eight years has been incredible. The Astros won 56, 55, and 51 games from 2011-2013, which loaded them up with high draft picks. They promptly used those to rebuild and fortify their roster with the likes of Carlos Correa, Alex Bregman, and George Springer.
Coming off of two straight AL West crowns, I fully expect the Astros to threepeat. I thought at the end of last season that they might knock off the Red Sox in the ALCS and win their second straight World Series title, but that didn’t quite pan out. I see no reason why they won’t be back in the playoffs as division champs again this year.
This offseason, the Astros signed outfielder Michael Brantley, which gives them more depth beyond the dirt. The biggest question that Houston faces in the immediate future is setting their rotation. The Astros have a few big names with Justin Verlander and Gerritt Cole already. It isn’t out of the question that they might re-sign 2015 Cy Young winner Dallas Keuchel, but beyond that, the Astros may be looking for a few more starters. Houston signed Wade Miley at the beginning of February, but if Keuchel leaves, that’s a big hole to fill.
After this season, the Astros face a whole host of new problems. Both Verlander and Cole become free agents after the 2019 season. George Springer and Josh Reddick join the free agency pool after 2020, and young superstars Carlos Correa and Alex Bregman will shortly be eating into the payroll with what they earn in arbitration.
But for now, the AL West crown runs through Houston.
Projected record: 93-69
The Oakland Athletics are the only team that might give Houston a run for their money this season, but I think they are one or two pieces away from a division championship. To be fair to the A’s, if Houston was still in the NL Central instead of the AL West, they wouldn’t be a piece or two away from a division crown, but the Astros are just that good.
Oakland won 97 games last season under Bob Melvin and clinched a Wild Card spot in the American League playoffs before losing that game to the New York Yankees. This team has a lot of the same key components as last year and a few interesting additions that will make them competitive in 2019.
Khris Davis is certainly the biggest factor in the offense, having hit 40+ home runs in each of the last three seasons (including a career-high 48 last year). The A’s also brought in Jurickson Profar from a division rival (Texas), and they hope that he’ll finally become the cornerstone-type player that has always been expected. (For the record, when Profar was first brought up in 2012, I remembered thinking, “Man, that guy was a stud in the Little League World Series.” Those Curacao teams were STACKED.)
Another key addition for the A’s was Marco Estrada, who will help the starting rotation. Estrada was an All-Star in Toronto in 2016, though he struggled last season. He’s also 35, but the A’s are hoping he’ll provide some stability to their pitching staff and help them get over the hump this year.
The player to watch this year for Oakland is, without a doubt, Matt Chapman. Since Josh Donaldson left four years ago, the A’s haven’t really had an MVP-caliber player on their roster. Chapman could change that, and he’s a dark horse candidate for MVP if he’s able to produce at the levels expected of him. Watch out for Chapman, but don’t fear the A’s too much this year.
Projected record: 79-83
These next two teams could really be in either order, but I think the Mariners will just edge out the Angels in 2019.
One of the biggest questions Seattle has to answer is, “How much does Félix Hernández have left in the tank?”
The 32-year-old ace struggled last year, but has obviously been mostly phenomenal since 2010, and all of that success has come with Seattle. It’s hard to ask for much more, but the Mariners haven’t been able to put a lot together around him during his career.
The Mariners have added a few bats to the lineup to try and replace Nelson Cruz, acquiring outfielder Jay Bruce from the Mets in the Robinson Cano trade and adding Edwin Encarnacion through free agency. Bruce has a couple of Silver Slugger Awards along with a few All-Star appearances. Encarnacion has been one of the most consistent sluggers over the last seven seasons with both Toronto and Cleveland, hammering 263 home runs since 2012. Seattle also has Kyle Seager in that lineup as well, so that trio could be something for opposing pitchers to worry about.
The player to watch this year for Seattle is outfielder Mallex Smith. Admittedly, I am biased in this selection because I watched Smith play for the Fort Wayne Tincaps in 2013 and briefly in 2014, but if he can find all of the tools he needs to be a productive leadoff hitter, he could quickly become a headache for a lot of teams in the American League.
Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
Projected record: 76-86
What do the Angels really have going on besides Mike Trout and Shohei Ohtani? This is a team with a couple of the best pure hitters in baseball, but then there is a steep drop off from that point.
The rotation is…not great. I like Tyler Skaggs, and Matt Harvey is a proven starter, but he’ll also be 30 by Opening Day and has already had Tommy John surgery. After those two, who knows what will happen? Trevor Cahill is there as well, but it remains to be seen whether or not he can be effective again as a starter.
Trout has two years left on his deal with the Angels, and after that, I fully expect him to leave LA, or at least the Angels. If I was drafting a team right now and had to pick one player to build around, I would take Trout over Bryce Harper and anyone else in the league. We know (barring injury) that Trout will produce, but the Angels don’t seem to have enough around him to get them anywhere close to the playoffs this year.
Ohtani will be interesting to watch as he enters his second full season in the majors. He hit 22 home runs last year and made a decent effort from the mound, but also underwent Tommy John surgery in November. He likely won’t pitch again this year, but he and the Angels are still hopeful that he might be able to go by Opening Day.
Another huge question mark is Albert Pujols. Pujols is due $28 million this season, which is a lot to pay someone who hasn’t had very productive seasons the last two years. Pujols hit 23 home runs in 2017 and 19 in 2018 before season-ending surgery on his knee. He’s also 39 years old coming into this year, and is under contract with a full no-trade clause through 2022. Albert Pujols is easily one of the best hitters of this generation, and one of the greatest sluggers of all-time, but that’s a lot of money to pay someone who is nearing 40 and not producing the numbers you’d want for $28 million.
The Angels have a lot of talent, but the lack of pitching hurts them greatly. Keep an eye on Justin Bour, the former Marlins and Phillies first baseman, to make an impact for the Angels on offense this year.
Projected record: 62-100
The Texas Rangers…yikes. Where to begin?
This is just a bad team. Besides Joey Gallo, the Rangers don’t have a lot going on. Elvis Andrus has been consistent for the last 10 years, and the Asdrubal Cabrera signing should help the offense a little, but Texas is very obviously in the middle of a rebuild.
The starting pitching doesn’t look too bad on paper, but it’s tough to argue that these pitchers haven’t already peaked. Lance Lynn, Drew Smyly, Shelby Miller, and Edinson Volquez sounds much more menacing in 2013 than in 2019, and any or all of those pitchers could be dealt before the end of July if they are having decent seasons.
There isn’t much more to write about Texas. Keep an eye on Gallo, obviously, but Nomar Mazara might be a name on your radar by the end of the season. He’s hit 20 home runs in each of the last three seasons and has a career .258 batting average. While that alone isn’t great, he’s proven to be consistent and can potentially give the Rangers a boost this season and in the future, given that he’s only 23 years old.
Next up: the AL Central. Stay tuned for it later this week.