X-Houston Astros 99-63
In 2018, the Houston Astros appeared to be well on their way to repeating as World Series Champions until they ran into a team of destiny. The Astros won a franchise best 103 games during the regular season before steamrolling the Cleveland Indians in the American League Divisional Series. Houston would then take the first game from the American League Championship Series, but the roof caved in on a bullpen that could no get it done like they had in the past. And when it was all said and done, the Boston Red Sox showed the Astros the door in five games. But even with Houston’s postseason setback last October, this will not be a team that’ll be licking their wounds as they have the ability to not only get back to the playoffs, but to also be the last team standing just like they were in 2017.
For Astros manager A.J. Hinch, he has a team of youngsters on offense that became grizzled veterans in a hurry. Third baseman Alex Bregman is entering his fourth season with the Astros, and he has the makings of being a bona fide star. Bregman’s numbers have improved in each of his Major League Baseball seasons as he finished fifth in the American League MVP voting last season after he led the A.L. in doubles with 51. At 6’0″, 180 lbs., Bregman has a compact swing, but he makes the most of it as he’ll flirt with batting .300 this season along with having an on-base percentage at .400 or above. The Astros believe in Bregman as they reached a six-year extension that is worth $100 million with him earlier this month, and I do not see his production dropping off in 2019.
Houston was able to win 103 games last season in spite of the fact that some key players on the team didn’t have the typical seasons that have been set by their standards. From 2014-2017, second baseman Jose Altuve led the American League in both batting average and hits, but neither was the case in 2018. Altuve did miss some time last season, but he still managed to be .316. Altuve still has some of the best eyes in baseball, and as long as he is healthy, I anticipate him being in the running to win his fourth batting title.
In four seasons with the Astros, shortstop Carlos Correa has only appeared in at least 150 games once for Houston. And after Correa had a big impact for the Astros in 2017, his production dropped off last season. Correa was only able to hit .239 last year as he is going to be a vital cog for a Houston team that is once again looking to win the World Series. Correa does give the Astros some slick fielding at short, but he needs to find a way to once again be an impact player at the plate in order to give Houston more depth.
Like Correa, outfielder George Springer saw his production drop off in 2018. Springer was the World Series MVP in 2017, and although that he is not an RBI machine, he can still hit for power. However Springer does strike out a ton as more plate discipline will be needed from him in 2019.
In a move that has flown under the radar, the Astros added some outfield depth when they signed outfielder Michael Brantley. In ten seasons with the Indians, Brantley was a .295 hitter which included leading the American League in doubles in 2015 with 45. Aside from being a solid contact hitter, Brantley is an excellent defender as he will give the Astros a good glove in left as they will look to once again be the top defensive team in the American League.
Starting pitcher Justin Verlander might be 36-years of age, but he has been born again since joining the Astros in 2017. During Verlander’s time with the Astros, he has posted a sub-3.00 earned run average as he finished second in the American League Cy Young Award balloting last season. Verlander is a crafty veteran who not only knows how to pitch, but he’s also one of the best in regards to mixing up his speeds. Verlander won 16 games for the Astros last season, and you can expect him to once again be one of the top pitchers in the American League.
Last year the Pittsburgh Pirates were ready to walk away from starting pitcher Gerrit Cole, but like Verlander, he has gotten new life for himself in Houston. Cole won 15 games for the Astros last season which included striking out 276 batters. Cole has one of the top power arms in the American League and as he is setup to be a free agent at the end of this season, you can expect to attempt to hit free agency on a high note.
The Astros are clearly the team to beat in the American League West, and as long as they take care of their business, you should expect them to not have any problems in regards to winning this division for a third consecutive year.
Oakland Athletics 86-76
It’s safe to say that the Oakland Athletics are “the little engine that could” of Major League Baseball. The Athletics play in one of MLB’s smaller markets which prevents them from making big moves in free agency, but when you least expect it, they’ll surprise you with a playoff run. The A’s did just that in 2018 as after three last place finishes in the American League West, they were playoff bound this past October. Oakland would win 97 games in 2018 for their best season since 2002, but their remarkable turnaround was not enough for them to win the American League West as they’d came up short to the Houston Astros, while they had to settle for a wild card berth. And in the American League Wild Card Game, the Athletics found themselves on the road to face the mighty New York Yankees who were too much for them to overcome. However hope springs eternal in Northern California, and as new MLB season is set to commence, the A’s know that plenty of people will be doubting them, but will these underdogs find a way to reach the postseason for a second consecutive year?
The Athletics might lack big names to put on the marquee, but they are not without substance. Last season Oakland was second in the American League in home runs as they went yard 227 times. And at the top of that list was outfielder Khris Davis. Davis’ Major League Baseball career began with the Milwaukee Brewers in 2013 where he did have some success, but a 2016 trade sent him to the A’s and he has quickly become one of the game’s most underrated sluggers. In each of the last three years Davis has hit at least 40 homers in each campaign which was highlighted by belting 48 dingers in 2018. Davis’ 48 homers led the A.L. last season, while he also drove in 123 runs. Normally those numbers alone would’ve been enough for Davis to win the A.L. MVP Award, but his .247 batting average hindered him as he finished eighth in the voting.
And although that Davis does not hit for average, while he strikes out a ton, he still knows how to get on base which is evident by his .326 on-base percentage last season. But if the A’s can make sure to put guys on base when Davis comes up to the plate, you’re looking at a player who can easily drive in 100 runners for the fourth consecutive year.
After finishing fourth in the American League Rookie of the Year voting in 2017, first baseman Matt Olson is showing that it was no fluke. Olson is another power bat in the middle of Oakland’s lineup, and if he is able to cut down on his 163 strikeouts from last season, he could find himself in contention to make his first All-Star team.
After tending to some personal issues in 2017, outfielder Stephen Piscotty found a comfort zone with the A’s in 2018. Piscotty was traded by the St. Louis Cardinals to the Oakland Athletics in order to for him to be closer to his ailing mother who was suffering from ALS. And although that Piscotty’s mom would ultimately succumb to the disease, he put together the best Major League Baseball season of his career in 2018 as he went yard 27 times, while driving in 88 runs. Piscotty is the prototypical Athletics player as he falls into the category of being undervalued, but you cannot overlook his ability to do a little bit of everything. Piscotty has as knack for getting the clutch hit as well as providing Oakland with a solid glove in right field as he enhances their chances of getting back to the playoffs for a second consecutive year.
The Athletics lacked the dominant frontline starter last season, and still managed to make the playoffs. Starting pitcher Sean Manaea led the A’s in victories last season with 12, but he missed their trip to the postseason due to a torn labrum, and he will be out this year until at least the All-Star break. A’s manager Bob Melvin will once again rely on one of the best bullpens in baseball that has a slew of live arms which includes relief pitchers, Fernando Rodney, Joakim Soria, and Blake Treinen.
Playing in the American League West should allow the Athletics to rack up in the win column, but I am not sure if that’ll be enough for them to return to the playoffs.
Los Angeles Angels 78-84
The Los Angeles Angels have the luxury of having the best player in Major League Baseball suiting up for them on a daily basis. But the superhuman feats of outfielder Mike Trout alone have not been able to make the Angels into a contender. Since 2010, the Halos only have one playoff appearance to their credit, while this also marks the first time since 1994 that they put together three consecutive losing seasons. The Angels are in the midst of a transition as for the first time since 1999, Mike Scioscia will not be the team’s manager. No manager in Angels franchise history has had more success than Scioscia did which was highlighted by him leading Los Angeles to their only World Series Title in 2002.
Angels general manager Billy Eppler has now turned to Brad Ausmus to be the team’s new skipper. From 2014-2017, Ausmus was the manager of the Detroit Tigers where after leading them to an American League Central Title in 2014, he had to deal with an aging ball club that bottomed out in 2017 as they lost 98 games. But in Southern California, Ausmus is looking to write a new chapter in his managerial career as he looks to get the most out of an Angels ball club which has become dormant in the American League West.
Any success that the Angels intend on having begins and ends with Trout. Trout already has two American League MVP Awards to his credit, while he has never finished lower that fourth in the voting in any of his season in the Majors. At 27, Trout is in the prime of his career and he’s making a complicated game look effortless. Trout is a lifetime .307 hitter who still managed to hit 39 homers last season in spite of the fact that he missed 22 games. In recent years the Angels have flirted with moving Trout around in different spots in recent years, but his quintessential spot is to bat third. However it doesn’t matter where Ausmus and Eppler decide to place Trout in the lineup as he continues to re-write the franchise’s record book, while also showing off his range in the outfield.
But as good as Trout is, the Angels front office has come up short in regards to putting a quality team around him. Last year the Halos were 13th in the American League in runs scored (1,323), 11th in batting average (.242), and 10th in on-base percentage (.313). In recent years the Angels have attempted to improve their lineup through free agency with mixed results.
After the Angels acquired outfielder Justin Upton from the Detroit Tigers in 2017, they re-signed him to the tune of $106 million over five years. Upton did have a solid first season with the Angels as he belted 30 homers to go along with 85 runs batted in. But the downside with Upton at the plate is that he tends to strike out a ton, and last season was no different as he struck out 176 times which is five more than his career average.
In 2012, the Angels were able to lure veteran first baseman Albert Pujols to Southern California with a ten-year deal for $254 million. While donning an Angels uniform, Pujols has been able to reach some historic milestones which passing the 600-home run mark as well as joining the 3,000-hit club. But Pujols’ body is breaking down as several foot injuries have taken away his ability to play first base as he is primarily used now as a designated hitter. Pujols just turned 39-years of age this past January, and as his skills are eroding right before our eyes, how much longer will he continue to play for the Angels?
In 104 games last season for the Angels, Shohei Ohtani showed that he was the real deal. Ohtani batted .285, while hitting 22 home runs and driving in 61 runs. The Angels also used used Ohtani as a starting pitcher as he went 4-2 in 10 starts with an earned run average of 3.31. Ohtani’s exploits were good enough for him to be named as the American League’s Rookie of the Year, but the bad news for the Angels is that he will not be available for them to begin the season as he is in the process of recovering from Tommy John surgery. And because of that, I do not expect Ohtani to pitch this season, but that doesn’t mean that he cannot build off of his strong rookie season at the plate.
Last season the Halos were a middle of the pack pitching staff in the American League, and Eppler has attempted to remedy this by signing veteran catcher Jonathan Lucroy. In ten Major League Baseball seasons, Lucroy is a career .276 hitter, but his biggest impact to a club is his ability to call a game behind the plate for a pitching staff. Last season the Angels only had one starting pitcher win at least 10 games, and although that their staff still lacks a dominant frontline starter, at least Lucroy’s presence behind the plate will help them improve.
The Angels are definitely a franchise that is in transition, but Eppler is the right guy to lead the charge, while it does not hurt to have a superstar like Trout who can make a big impact in each game.
Seattle Mariners 74-88
It’s been 17 years and counting since the Seattle Mariners were able to make the playoffs. Over that stretch the Mariners have put together their fare share of winning seasons which includes a couple of 90-win campaigns. The M’s would go 89-73 last season, but they would finish 14 games behind the Houston Astros for the top spot in the American League West, while they’d be 8 games in back of the Oakland Athletics for the final wild card slot in the A.L. When this happened you would expect the team’s front office to push all of their chips to the middle of the table in the following off-season in order to get over the hump, but in the case of the Mariners brain trust, they’ve decided to take a different approach.
This off-season Mariners general Jerry Dipoto has decided that it is time for this franchise to start over as he’s been sending quality veteran players to teams around Major League Baseball that are looking to win now. Most notably in that barrage of deals was the M’s sending second baseman Robinson Cano and relief pitcher Edwin Diaz to the New York Mets, infielder Jean Segura to the Philadelphia Phillies, and starting pitcher James Paxton to the New York Yankees.
In exchange for these players, the Mariners have shed payroll, while also restocking their minor league system. And as 2019 will be a wash in regards to the M’s contending for a postseason spot, how will this team that is expected to be bottom feeders in the American League West compete?
Some of Seattle’s key pieces from last year’s team are gone, but one player to keep an eye on will be second baseman Dee Gordon. 2018 was a struggle at times for Gordon as made the adjustment from playing in the National League to the American League, but it’s so difficult to overlook the speed element that he brings to the table. In eight Major League Baseball seasons, Gordon has averaged 38 steals per year which puts the emphasis on him getting on base. Last year Gordon only produced an on-base percentage of .288. Throughout Gordon’s career he has never been able to put a strong emphasis on drawing walks and getting on his base which has hindered his ability to be an even more productive base stealer. Gordon is now 30-years of age, and he is at the point of his career where the M’s will need him to be more of a leader for their young team.
Last season Seattle had a middle of the pack pitching staff in the American League which is something that first-year pitching coach Paul Davis will be looking to improve. Last year starting pitcher Marco Gonzales led the M’s in wins with 13, but being that he is not a big strikeout pitcher, he has been prone to surrendering hits in bunches. Veteran starting pitcher Felix Hernandez is entering his 15th years with the Mariners, and although that he doesn’t have the velocity that he did once upon a time, he can still be effective. Hernandez is coming off of his worst Major League Baseball season as he posted an earned run average of 5.55 last season. Hernandez will be 33-years of age in a matter of days, and in order to prolong his career as well as his effectiveness, he must focus on locating and pitching to contact as he is no longer a big strikeout pitcher.
The Mariners will show flashes in 2019, but this is a franchise that is clearly in rebuilding mode.
Texas Rangers 69-93
The Texas Rangers are more than happy to put the 2018 Major League Baseball season in the rear-view mirror as they lost 95 games, while finishing in last place in the American League West for the second time in five years. The Rangers also went through two managers during this trying campaign as they were fighting an uphill battle all season long. This off-season Rangers general manager Jon Daniels would hire former MLB player Chris Woodward to be the 27th manager in franchise history. Woodward enjoyed a 13-year MLB playing career before spending the last five years as a coach with the Seattle Mariners and Los Angeles Dodgers respectively, and now he finds himself as the field general for a Rangers that is attempting to avoid getting caught up in the wash that is the A.L. West for the second consecutive year.
Since their inception hitting has never been an issue for the Rangers as they can slug with the best of them, and 2019 won’t be an exception to that. Outfielder Joey Gallo has hit at least 40 home runs in each of the last two seasons, but hitting for average is what has done him in. In five seasons with the Rangers, Gallo only has a career batting average of .204, while he struck out a whopping 207 times last season. It is either feast or famine when Gallo steps up to the plate, but hopefully for his sake and that of the Rangers, he will be able to minimize his strikeouts in order to be a positive contributor in 2019.
Aside from Gallo, the Rangers have a solid group of veterans in their everyday lineup which includes shortstop Elvis Andrus, infielder Asdrubel Cabrera, and outfielder Shin-Soo Choo, while Texas is also hopeful that 35-year old veteran outfielder Hunter Pence still has some magic left after he helped the San Francisco Giants win a pair of World Series Titles this decade.
But the offense of the Rangers will not amount to a hill of beans if they are unable to get some quality pitching. Last season the Rangers were 13th in the American League in team earned run average (4.92). Texas was also only able to produce 63 quality starts which was 12th, while Mike Minor was the only Rangers starting pitcher to win at least 10 games. The Rangers do not have the talent in their starting rotation which is going to put the onus on the team’s first-year pitching coach Julio Rangel to attempt to get the most out of veterans such as Minor.
During Woodward’s playing career, he put his head down and ran and played as hard as he possibly could. Woodward is going to attempt to infuse his style to the Rangers, but it won’t be enough for them to keep up in the American League West.