Want to know how close we are to the beginning of the 2023 season? Well, if you were to preview a different division every two weeks and make sure you got all six of them in before the season started, you’d have to start right now. Like, today. That’s exciting, right? It’ll be here before you know it.
That is our long-winded way of saying today kicks off our Division Previews series, in which we ask two big questions about each team and, foolishly, attempt to make predictions. We begin with the American League West, a division that has:
• The defending World Series champion
• The best player of the last decade
• The best two-way player ever
• The top free-agent pitcher signing
• The defending AL Rookie of the Year who just led his team to the playoffs for the first time in 21 years
• The A’s
So, fun division! Let’s start our previews with the AL West. Teams are listed in alphabetical order by nickname. We’ll pose two key questions for each team (10 total) with my standings prediction below.
1) How many of the vets can stay healthy?
The problem with the 2022 Angels was, if you can believe this, not their pitching. The team had five starters with above-average ERA+ numbers, and the bullpen was, well, average -- which for the Angels counts as improvement. But the lineup imploded. Injuries ravaged what was supposed to be a formidable lineup, which is the sort of thing that happens when you have as many veterans as the Angels did. Well, guess what? They have more veterans this year. The additions of Hunter Renfroe and Brandon Drury should theoretically lengthen the lineup, but they’re both over 30 themselves (though still younger than Mike Trout). The Angels’ lineup could be a strength this year, but only if Trout, Jared Walsh, the two new additions, Shohei Ohtani and, perhaps especially, Anthony Rendon, can stay healthy. Can the Angels count on that? Can they ever?
2) How long will they hold firm with Shohei?
You may have heard that Ohtani, the most thrilling player in baseball and a talent like we haven’t seen in decades, is a free agent at the end of this season. The Angels have been steadfast in not entertaining any trade offers for him, but that’s because they plan on contending this year. What happens if it’s late June and they’re eight games out of a playoff spot? (Not likely given the expanded playoff format, but certainly possible.) The minute the Angels admit they’d pick up the phone if anyone calls about Ohtani would open up a trade feeding frenzy that’d make the Juan Soto sweepstakes look like a Pokemon swap. The Angels still want to re-sign him. But no player potentially on the market next offseason would bring back more than Ohtani, considering he is, essentially, two players. The Angels have a ton of questions facing them after this year. Trading Ohtani might be the only way to answer at least some of them.
1) Can any of the young starters step up and be the next Justin Verlander?
All right, so there really isn’t a “next Verlander.” The guy just won the AL Cy Young, another one, so expecting Framber Valdez or Cristian Javier (or even Luis Garcia) to do what Verlander did for this Astros rotation is unrealistic. But Valdez, Javier and Garcia (and Lance McCullers Jr. and José Urquidy) have all spent their Astros careers not having to be that No. 1 guy because Verlander was there. Now he’s not. They all have the possibility of being ace starters, especially Valdez and Javier, but the Astros need one of them to step up and do so. Put it this way: If there’s a top-shelf starter who hits the market in July, the Astros may well be in on him.
2) Did they need to upgrade at catcher?
The Astros don’t have a lot of holes, which makes sense: They did just win the World Series. But they were widely expected to be in on a catcher this offseason, whether it was a free agent like Willson Contreras or a trade candidate like Sean Murphy. Houston ended up staying put, keeping Martín Maldonado (a free agent after this season), saying goodbye to midseason acquisition Christian Vázquez and hoping the youngsters can fill in appropriately. The Astros actually have two prospect catchers: Yainer Diaz (MLB Pipeline’s No. 3 Astros prospect) and Korey Lee (No. 7). Diaz is the better hitter, one who can play first base (which is now occupied by José Abreu), and Lee is the better fielder. The Astros obviously trust them both in the long term. Which one do they trust in the short term? Also: You can tell the Astros are good because we just spent a few sentences asking questions about their backup catchers.
1) So which young players are you building around?
The A’s are in such a period of flux right now -- honestly, is it possible Aledmys Díaz is the cleanup hitter for this team? -- that you really can only look at the future. Which current Athletics will be on the next competitive A’s team? Shea Langeliers, yes; Ramón Laureano, maybe. Esteury Ruiz, hopefully. The A’s actually have more veterans on their team than you might like, from Díaz to Jace Peterson to Tony Kemp to even Seth Brown, who is over 30 himself. You don’t want to rush guys, but how excited can you be about anyone over 30 on this roster right now?
2) Are we going to get some clarity soon?
So much of the A’s future is up in the air, including their future home ballpark. If you’ve been to a game in Oakland when this team is competitive, you know how exciting a place it can be when it’s rocking: The fan base often resembles that of a college football one -- rowdy, loud, young, rambunctious, consistently loud. It has been a while since we’ve seen that in Oakland. There’s some interesting young players here, especially some of those rotation pieces, but that run of three straight playoff appearances from 2018-20 seems like a long time ago, doesn’t it?
1) The drought is over. Now what?
One wouldn’t necessarily say the wait was worth it -- 21 years is an unreasonably long among of time to be without playoff baseball -- but certainly there was a lot of frustration released in the Mariners’ Wild Card Series win vs. Toronto last year. (There’s an alternate universe where Yordan Alvarez strikes out in the ninth inning of ALDS Game 1 and things turn out very differently for everyone.) But you only get to break through once. Now, the Mariners will be expected to make the playoffs moving forward. Their offseason moves reflect this: The additions of Kolten Wong, AJ Pollock and (especially) Teoscar Hernández are the moves of a team that feels like it is just getting started. The Mariners might be right.
2) How high can Julio fly?
Julio Rodríguez was all the Mariners could have possibly hoped for last year. The guy did everything. He hit for power, he stole bases, he played terrific center-field defense, he was the face of the franchise, and he made you feel like baseball was the most fun sport that has ever been invented every time he stepped on the field. So now he just has to go out and do it all again, and maybe even be a little better. Where could he possibly improve? You wonder if there’s a little bit more power in that bat, maybe? Maybe a little higher OBP? Rodríguez, according to Fangraphs WAR, was the 28th-best player in baseball last year. Imagine how high this team could soar if he’s in the top 10. So, go get ’em, Julio!
1) How many innings can they reasonably expect from deGrom?
It is undeniably exciting that Jacob deGrom is pitching for the Rangers. Texas fans should be ecstatic: That’s Hall of Fame-level talent right there, on the mound for you, every fifth day. But, of course, it’s the every-fifth-day part that is the question. deGrom hasn’t thrown more than 92 innings in a season since 2019, and while the innings he has thrown have mostly been incredible -- though he did get a little shaky down the stretch last year -- there just haven’t been enough of them. If the Rangers make the playoffs and deGrom is at 100 percent for a Game 1 start, this move looks genius. But a lot of things have to happen for both of those things to line up. Would you predict it?
2. Do they need an outfield upgrade?
It’s impressive that the Rangers have been so willing to go after top-tier talent, and, it should be noted, Nathan Eovaldi and Andrew Heaney aren’t bad back-of-rotation adds either. But it’s sort of weird that the Rangers haven’t added much to the outfield, isn’t it? Your mileage on Adolis García may vary -- the power is impressive, obviously, but he’s a free swinger and an iffy fielder. Then again, at least he holds down a spot. Is a playoff contender really trotting out Leody Taveras and Josh Smith in the other spots, though? It sure seems like the Rangers should be dialing Pittsburgh’s phone about Bryan Reynolds, no? The Rangers have some top-shelf players, and a few positive notes like Jonah Heim and the emerging Josh Jung. But there are big holes here. Can they fill them?
THIS HUMBLE SCRIBE'S BEST GUESS AT THE STANDINGS:
It’s tough to see anyone catching the Astros, but the Mariners look like a clear playoff team, and the Angels and the Rangers will certainly be in the chase. (The Angels may have more boom-or-bust potential than any team in baseball.) The division winner might not be in doubt, but one gets the sense we’ll be hearing plenty from the AL West in the postseason.