Around the Division
We all know the Mariners have been active over the offseason, generating a dizzying amount of roster turnover. But what have the other clubs in the American League West been up to? What's the competition going to be like this year? Let's take a look.
2018 record: 103-59, 1st place
Notable departures: LHP Dallas Keuchel, RHP Charlie Morton, DH Evan Gattis, IF/OF Marwin González, C Martín Maldonado, C/DH Brian McCann
Notable additions: LF Michael Brantley, LHP Wade Miley, C Robinson Chirinos
Houston had the universe's greatest starting rotation for a year and a half, so the fact that they lost Keuchel and Morton—and Lance McCullers Jr. to Tommy John surgery—doesn't seem like it'll really hurt them that much. Miley slots in to one of those spots behind co-aces Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole, Collin McHugh rejoins from the bullpen for the fourth spot, and there's plenty of depth to choose from for number five. Brad Peacock only made one start last season, but he was in the mix for 21 starts in 2017; highly-touted rookie Forrest Whitley has yet to crack Triple-A, but an impressive spring could have him skip the level and go straight to Houston; fellow youngster Corbin Martin likewise would figure to go to Triple-A, but is also being considered for the Astro rotation; and Josh James, who got a few starts with the Astros after a solid Triple-A campaign last year, injured his quadriceps muscle early in spring camp and may start the season on the DL but figures to compete for that last spot at some point. And if whomever gets the nod flames out, the others will be there to step in at a moment's notice. Starting pitching will not be a weakness for the Houston faithful, and the bullpen is pretty solid too. Their relief corps is much as it was last year, anchored by closer and alleged domestic abuser Roberto Osuna, though they may open without a lefty there.
With that kind of staff, the Astro lineup won't have to score many runs to win, but they still will. They may miss González some, but the team that ranked in the top five in batting average, runs scored, and OPS last year should be right back there again, with All-Stars George Springer, José Altuve, and Alex Bregman the big bats supported by newcomer Brantley, Carlos Correa, Josh Reddick, Tyler White, and Yuli Gurriel.
If the Astros have a weak spot, it's hard to find. They've got pitching, power, disciplined hitting, and solid defense around the diamond, with the possible exception of first base. Houston remains formidable in 2019 and will likely win the division in a walk.
2018 record: 97-65, 2nd place (lost Wild Card game)
Notable departures: 2B Jeff Lowrie, C Jonathan Lucroy, RHP Jeurys Familia, RHP Edwin Jackson, OF Matt Joyce, RHP Trevor Cahill, RHP Emilio Pagan, RHP Kendall Graveman
Notable additions: RHP Marco Estrada, 2B Jurickson Profar, RHP Joakim Soria
Conventional wisdom says the A's can't possibly be 90+ game winners again this year. The fact that they were last season was an aberration, with the team benefiting from unsustainable levels of luck. Well, perhaps. But somehow or other, Oakland always manages to frustrate the rest of the West and I wouldn't consign them to also-ran status just yet. In '18 they did it with a patchwork starting rotation and a bullpen made up of midseason trade pieces, and nothing says they won't do the same this year.
Sean Manea will be out for much of the year with a shoulder injury, leaving midseason pickup Mike Fiers as the closest thing the A's have to an ace. Estrada hopes a change of scenery will help him bounce back from a down year in Toronto, and big things are expected from rookie Jesús Luzardo. After that it's a bit murky, but so was it with the A's last year.
Even though they lost their All-Star second baseman in Lowrie and a solid catcher in Lucroy, the lineup is still respectable, anchored by DH Khris Davis and the pair of second-year Matts, Olson and Chapman. That said, it isn't exactly scary; Davis and Olson are strikeout machines (175 and 163 Ks last year, respectively), so even though you have to respect their power, they can be got if you don't groove one to them. Chapman is another story, he's going to get on base. Just don't let the guys after him beat you.
Oakland always seems to do better than expected, so predicting a finish for them is tricky; anywhere from 2nd to 5th is possible.
Los Angeles Angels
2018 record: 80-82, 4th place
Notable departures: MGR Mike Scioscia, RHP Garrett Richards, RHP Matt Shoemaker, RHP Blake Parker
Notable additions: MGR Brad Ausmus, C Jonathan Lucroy, RHP Trevor Cahill, 1B Justin Bour, RHP Cody Allen, RHP Matt Harvey
The watchwords for the Angels this season are "if healthy." If healthy, the Halos should contend for a Wild Card berth. If healthy, their starting pitching will be serviceable and a good bullpen will keep them in most games. If healthy, their lineup will seem more like a big-league team's and not just Mike Trout and Some Other Guys. Historically, though, the Angels haven't stayed healthy. And depth is not a strength down in the OC.
Cahill relocated from the East Bay to join a SoCal rotation that strikes fear in the hearts of no one, and Allen gives the Angels a reliable closer at the back end of an otherwise unremarkable ’pen. As for the lineup, Trout is the star, of course, and sure, if there's one guy that can beat you by himself, it's the Fishman. But his supporting players are less than intimidating. Albert Pujols is a certain Hall of Famer, but for what he's already done, not what he'll do in 2019; the 39-year-old will probably be a part-time player this season. Andrelton Simmons is a solid player—a .300 bat and about the best there is with the glove at shortstop—but Justin Upton and Kole Calhoun are perpetual mysteries at the plate, and it's anyone's guess whether they'll be the Jeckyll versions of themselves or the Hydes this season. Zack Cozart might turn things around after an injury-plagued 2018, but, you know, "if healthy." Sometime this summer the Halos should get Shohei Ohtani back, but only as a DH; his recovery from Tommy John surgery will keep him off the mound for the entirety of the season.
Where will the Halos finish? Well, Brad Ausmus' debut year as Angel skipper will likely disappoint, with another fourth-place finish on the horizon. Unless his squad—say it with me, now—stays healthy.
2018 record: 67-95, 5th place
Notable departures: 3B Adrian Beltre, IF Jurickson Profar, RHP Doug Fister, RHP Bartolo Colón, C Robinson Chirinos, OF Ryan Rua, RHP Yovanni Gallardo
Notable additions: C Jeff Mathis, RHP Drew Smyly, RHP Jesse Chávez, RHP Lance Lynn, RHP Shelby Miller, IF Astrubal Cabrera, RHP Jason Hammel, OF Hunter Pence, OF Ben Revere, 2B Logan Forsythe, RHP Shawn Kelley
The Rangers are in a state of flux even greater than that of the Mariners, only they're starting from a last-place position, so they can't really sink lower (though 100+ losses is not out of the question). 2019 looks like a season for the Rangers to tread water while they wait for whatever will materialize as their future goals. How they'll perform in the meantime is largely dependent on the ability of their starting rotation to recover from its collective Tommy John procedure—Lynn is now two years removed from his return from TJ surgery, proving it to have been a success, but even the best Lance Lynn is a three of four guy in an average rotation or a long man out of the ’pen; Smyly hasn't pitched since he underwent TJ surgery after the 2017 WBC; Edinson Volquez went under the knife even more recently than Smyly; and Miller pitched only 15 innings in 2018 in his attempt to return from TJ surgery before re-injuring the elbow and hitting the DL again (he returned at the very end of the season an threw one additional inning without hurting himself). The one guy without a Tommy John procedure in his recent past is Mike Minor, who lost all of 2015 and much of '16 to a torn labrum. He started 28 games for Texas last year and posted an ERA just over 4.00. The Ranger bullpen seems plenty respectable, but they may get overworked with that group of starters; José LeClerc showed himself to be a fine closer last year and Kelley is a solid setup man.
As far as the bats go, DH Shin-soo Choo leads a squad of mediocrity, with Cabrera the only other regular to have posted an on-base mark equal to or greater than .330 last season. OF Joey Gallo has been talked up for a few years now as the Next Great Thing in Dallas-Ft. Worth, but so far he hasn't delivered, and there's no reason to think he will this year, either.
If the Rangers finish above last place, it will likely be due to a collapse from the other teams in the division than any surge of excellence from themselves. They will be bad.
All this means that the transitional year for the Mariners might not be so bad—just by nature of the unbalanced schedule, there'll be a lot of opportunity to bank some wins against underwhelming co-habitants of the AL West. Well, except when they play Houston. But the other three represent over a third of the whole season schedule, giving the M's a better shot at a .500+ season than they might otherwise have in an in-between year like this one promises to be.