We come to you bearing excellent news. Even though it is still freezing outside and even though they are still playing football, the baseball season is close -- closer than you think -- and we can prove it. If you were to put together a biweekly preview of each MLB division and finish by the time the season begins, you'd have to start this week. You can actually start counting down the weeks.
Thus, today, our biweekly series previewing each of baseball's six divisions begins with the American League West. Our previews will look at five pressing questions for each club heading into the 2020 season. At the end, we'll make some actual predictions on the final standings -- predictions that are unassailable and so obviously ironclad that we're a little worried you won't even bother to watch the actual games once we read them. We are willing to assume such a risk.
Let's take a team-by-team look at the biggest questions in the AL West this season.
1. How much of a two-way player will Shohei Ohtani really be?
He has completed his Tommy John surgery rehab and is set to enter the rotation this season. But how much will Ohtani really be able to do? Pitching him once a week would seem to be the maximum, and then of course you have to plan his DH appearances around those too. Ohtani made 10 starts on the mound in 2018, and he should make more this season. But have the Angels and new manager Joe Maddon fully figured out how this will work? Do the Halos, a club playing with as much urgency as any in the sport, have the time to do this right? Is there a right way to do this?
2. How many starters will remain in the Halos' rotation throughout the season?
This is particularly important because the Angels' rotation still is full of question marks. Dylan Bundy and Julio Teheran are positives, one supposes, but they still look like Matt Harvey-esque Band-Aids when a major Gerrit Cole surgery was required. The Halos have the lineup of a team that’s ready to contend. But their rotation has the look of something that could spring many leaks, and early.
3. Will Mike Trout somehow be better with Anthony Rendon hitting behind him?
Justin Upton, Albert Pujols, Ohtani … Trout has had adequate lineup protection before, but nothing like he has with Rendon. It’s one thing to pitch around Trout. It’s another thing to do so with Rendon waiting behind him. Trout has been so consistently excellent and a little bit better each year, that we’ve always wondered if there’s one consolidation year where he has a truly monster, all-timer of a season. Having Rendon behind him might be exactly the circumstances where it could happen.
4. What happens with Pujols?
Pujols turned 40 this week. He just put up his third consecutive season with an OPS+ under 100, which is to stay he has been a below-average hitter for three seasons. He’s been a negative WAR player those three seasons as well. But the thing is: Pujols keeps playing. He played 131 games in 2019, and, because he’s Pujols, the Angels always find a way to keep him in the lineup. How long can that continue for a team desperate to win? Right now, he’s helped out by the unconventional usage of Ohtani. With that many days off for a key hitter, Pujols can keep getting in the lineup. But with two more years left on his contract, how much longer can the Halos afford to keep putting Pujols out there?
5. What differences can Maddon make?
Maddon was known for being an unconventional manager with Tampa Bay, though his decisions started veering more toward the old-school in Chicago. But he’s a big personality, and you don’t bring him in if you don’t want to win right now. How much is Maddon willing to shake up? How will he handle Ohtani? Will he be able to have some hard talks with Pujols? Maddon reached the World Series with the Rays and won the World Series with the Cubs -- and this still might be the biggest challenge of his managerial career.
1. Who’s running the show?
Seems like sort of an important question, no? Owner Jim Crane is currently overseeing baseball operations himself, but there is not a general manager or manager right now in Houston after Jeff Luhnow and AJ Hinch were let go after being suspended for the club’s sign-stealing scheme in 2017. Buck Showalter has already interviewed for the managerial vacancy, but the real question is, without Luhnow and his team of executives, are the Astros still the Astros? There’s a massive crater at the middle of the Houston organization right now. How do you fill it?
2. How do they make for up for losing Gerrit Cole?
Oh, yes, in addition to everything else going on, the Astros lost their superstar starting pitcher and have not replaced him with … anyone. Justin Verlander and Zack Greinke are still around, but the back three of the rotation is very much in flux, with Lance McCullers Jr. recovering from Tommy John surgery and Jose Urquidy unproven. Will they bring in one more starter? Who’s even making that decision right now?
3. Can Carlos Correa make the leap?
When the Astros were still talking about making one last push for Cole, one of their potential strategies was trading Correa to free up money. Whether or not that was ever a serious consideration, they’ll likely be happy that they didn’t. Correa hasn’t turned into the star he was forecast to be a couple of years ago, but he’s still only 25 years old and appears to finally be fully healthy. The talent that once had people more excited about him than even Alex Bregman is still there. Is this the year he finally harnesses all of it?
4. Is this who Yordan Alvarez really is?
It almost seemed unfair when Alvarez was called up last year and started hitting home runs at an insane pace. The Astros were already one of the best teams in baseball, and then they just got to add the eventual AL Rookie of the Year Award winner? Alvarez did slow a little bit down the stretch, and he actively struggled in the postseason (though he hit .412 in the World Series). His first full season in the Majors should tell us how sustainable his slugging will be. Also: He was one of the weakest fielders in baseball last year. Is he stuck as DH forever?
5. Can they put everything back together?
While their substantial damage this offseason was all self-inflicted, it’s difficult to put historical context with any club that has had to deal with the sort of dramatic explosion that the Astros have in the past few months. The Astros seem to have the most talent in the division still, by a pretty wide margin, but baseball organizations and clubhouses are tricky things. There are so many bad vibes with this franchise right now. Can the players put it out of their heads and just concentrate on what’s happening on the field? One thing is certain: No one is going to be allowing any trash cans within hearing distance of the batter's box at Minute Maid Park anytime soon.
1. Can they take advantage of the Astros’ turmoil?
The A’s have won 97 games in each of the past two seasons, a remarkable achievement for a small-market club. And what has it gotten them? Two second-place finishes and two AL Wild Card Game exits. The Astros have been standing in the way of what should have been an incredible run these past two years. (Forget the Dodgers: Shouldn’t the A’s be as upset as anyone about the Astros' scandal?) Houston now looks as wobbly as it has in half a decade. The A’s appear to clearly be the second-best team in the division. If anyone can step up if Houston falls off, it’s Oakland.
2. Any word on a Matt Chapman extension?
It has been awhile since there has been much talk of an extension for the A’s perennial MVP Award candidate. He’s not a free agent until after the 2023 season, but if you’ll remember, Chapman is at around the same stage of his career as Josh Donaldson was when Oakland dealt him to Toronto ahead of the 2015 season. The A's are unlikely to repeat that mistake, but everything that they're doing is centered around Chapman, who keeps getting better every year. Is he a tentpole for this franchise? Or is he another guy just passing through?
3. Where will Oakland find relief pitching?
You would think that the A’s must not have been that concerned about their bullpen, considering that they didn’t bring back Blake Treinen via arbitration for a projected amount that was less than what the Dodgers signed him for. But as much potential as their rotation has, none of those pitchers are known for putting 200 innings on the board in a season.
4. Can Marcus Semien be a top-10 player again?
Seriously: According to FanGraphs, Semien's 7.6 WAR was the fifth best among position players in baseball, behind only Mike Trout, Alex Bregman, Christian Yelich and Cody Bellinger. You might not immediately think of Semien when you put together your all-world lists -- he’s never been an All-Star -- but he was the best player on the team last year and a primary reason the A’s won 97 games. It was also a career year that Semien had never come close to approaching at any other point before. Can he do it again? Can he even come close?
5. Does any of this matter without a postseason win?
Now that the Nationals have broken through at last, the A’s have taken the dubious mantle as the most postseason snakebitten team in baseball. (Though the Twins have an argument as well.) They’ve lost six straight postseason series, and 12 of their past 13. Executive vice president of baseball operations Billy Beane famously said that his “[stuff] doesn’t work in the playoffs,” and while he may have meant that facetiously, it’s a quote that will follow him around until they have their October moment. It better happen soon.
1. Will Justus Sheffield emerge?
Of all the trades that the Mariners have made in the past few years -- and there have been a lot -- Sheffield, who came over in the James Paxton deal, will be the first phenom acquired to be a fixture of Seattle's Major League club. Sheffield struggled early last season, but he seemed to figure it out after a stint in the Minors. The Mariners are still a long way from contention, but if they’re going to find their way back, Sheffield will have to lead the way.
2. Are these Kyle Seager’s last days in town?
The Mariners would obviously like to trade Seager, and it does seem like he’d be a handy consolation prize for whatever team doesn’t end up with Kris Bryant if Bryant is traded. But Seager has a club option that turns into a player option if he’s traded, which could mean that whatever team that acquires Seager would have him well into his mid-30s. Can the Mariners convert Seager into a part that they can use down the line?
3. Does Dee Gordon have anything left?
Gordon hasn't posted an above-average OPS+ since 2015. The next year was his PED suspension, and there just hasn’t been much there since. He’s still stealing bases, but he wasn’t healthy last season, barely got on base and fell off defensively. His contract is finally done after this year: Can he show enough to make him someone the Mariners can flip at the Trade Deadline?
4. Is there anything left for Seattle to trade?
Obviously, the Mariners are still rebuilding, but outside of Seager and Gordon, the cupboard is mostly bare. It’s possible that this is just what the Mariners have moving forward, take it or leave it. That may be hard for some to accept.
5. How patient will the fans be?
Look around at the rest of the AL West. The Astros are in total turmoil. The Angels are desperately trying to win now. The A’s are in a good spot, but always have their peaks and valleys. And the Rangers seem stuck in-between. The Mariners are the only club actively building exclusively for the future within the division. And there is value in that! They can be ready to roll when their competitors are on a downward swing. But it requires patience on the part of a fanbase that hasn’t had much to be happy about in nearly two decades. How long can that patience be pushed?
1. Can Joey Gallo stay healthy?
Do not forget how unbelievably good Gallo was when he was healthy last season. He slugged .678 in March and April, and .585 in May. He looked like the hitter that the Rangers had long waited for him to become. And then he underwent hamate surgery and only played in nine games in the second half. If Gallo is the MVP candidate he looked like for 61 games last year, the Rangers have themselves a superstar. But if he’s still gimpy or can’t stay on the field, they just have a big hole in the middle of their lineup.
2. What does Corey Kluber have left?
The Indians took a lot of heat when they traded Kluber for not the most thrilling return this offseason, but it is worth nothing that Kluber was a mess last season, wrecked by a fractured right arm. Kluber made just seven starts and posted a 5.80 ERA. If Kluber is 2017 Kluber or even 2018 Kluber, the Rangers have themselves an ace. But if he can’t come all the way back, then they'll have the same problem that the 2019 Indians did.
3. Can Lance Lynn and Mike Minor be aces again?
According to FanGraphs' WAR, the Rangers had two of the top 20 pitchers in baseball last year. That’s a 1-2 punch that was only the lesser of the Nationals, Dodgers and Astros. But Lynn and Minor are not exactly phenom flamethrowers just called up and taking the league by storm. It’s tough for two veterans to have career seasons at the same time. It is particularly tough for them to do it twice.
4. Who is Rougned Odor, exactly?
When do the Rangers get tired of waiting on Odor? In 2016, a still-only-22-year-old Odor was an above-average hitter and fielder and looked to the world like someone who was setting out on an All-Star career. But he has gotten progressively worse every year since, and his strikeouts tied for the most in the AL last year. Odor hit 30 homers in 2019, but so did 30 other big leaguers -- and each of them did so with a better batting average than Odor's .205. He still has three more years on his contract, one that looked like a bargain when the Rangers signed it. Can Texas afford to play him every day all the way through it?
5. How will Globe Life Field play?
This is no small concern when you have as many veteran pitchers as the Rangers do. It may take a couple of months to figure it out … months that the Rangers, if they’re going to contend, may not have time for.
Predicted standings (subject to change with roster changes)
Houston Astros: 92-70
Oakland A’s: 88-74
Los Angeles Angels: 85-77
Texas Rangers: 78-84
Seattle Mariners: 61-101