Here are 5 early surprises from the AL West

April 29th, 2021

One of the best things about baseball is the surprises that come with it. As the old adage goes, you can’t predict baseball.

There have already been several surprises early this season in the American League West, including Oakland’s incredible 13-game winning streak after starting off 0-6 and the emergence of the upstart Mariners. It’s been a fun division to follow as a result.

Here’s a look at the biggest surprise for each AL West club so far this season:

Angels: The availability of Shohei Ohtani
Even though the Angels said they planned to be aggressive with two-way star this year, it was hard to imagine him playing every day. But Ohtani has done just that, as he’s played in each of the Angels' first 23 games. He’s been in the lineup for 22 of those games and has made three starts on the mound, including one where he wasn’t in the lineup. Previously, Ohtani was given days off from the lineup on the day before, the day of and the day after his starts, but now he has the power to let the coaching staff and training staff know when he wants to play.

Ohtani’s playing time could slightly decrease as the season goes along, but so far, he has excelled as both a pitcher and a hitter. He's posted a 3.29 ERA with 23 strikeouts in 13 2/3 innings in his three starts, while he also is tied for second in the AL with seven homers. If Ohtani keeps it up, he’ll be in the conversation for the AL MVP Award and will have a huge impact on the Angels’ postseason chances. -- Rhett Bollinger

Astros: The rebound of Yuli Gurriel
, who, along with Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa and Alex Bregman, formed the infield of the Astros’ 2017 championship team, appeared to get old overnight in '20. He had easily the worst season of his career, hitting .232 with six homers in 57 games and going 5-for-44 with no extra-base hits in the playoffs. That didn’t stop the Astros from signing him to a one-year deal for $6.5 million last September, and that looks like money well spent.

Though the Astros' first 24 games, Gurriel has slashed .356/.456/.575 with four homers and 16 RBIs, including a streak of six consecutive games with an RBI. He has had four three-hit games after not registering even one last year. He’s also become more patient, drawing 16 walks in his first 103 plate appearances (he drew 12 walks in 230 plate appearances last year). Gurriel said the start-and-stop nature of last year’s season didn’t allow him to prepare properly for the season, and he showed up to camp in 2021 much lighter and more prepared to play at his '19 level. -- Brian McTaggart

Athletics: Lou Trivino’s emergence
Uncertainty surrounded the A’s bullpen picture once it was announced that new closer Trevor Rosenthal would require surgery for his thoracic outlet syndrome, a procedure that is expected to keep him on the shelf for three to four months. Needing someone from the relief corps to step up, has answered the call. The right-hander has developed into a reliable ninth-inning option for manager Bob Melvin, going 3-for-3 in save opportunities and posting a 1.29 ERA across 12 relief appearances with 16 strikeouts in 14 innings. The A’s envisioned Trivino eventually rising to closer status after enjoying a breakout rookie campaign in 2018. After two down years, he’s back to utilizing his four-pitch mix more evenly in '21 and has shown the ability to perform in clutch situations. Entering Thursday, opponents are just 2-for-18 (.111) against Trivino with runners on base.

Trivino’s resurgence could have a significant impact down the stretch. If Rosenthal is able to return from surgery in the second half, that would give the A’s multiple options with extensive experience closing out games. -- Martín Gallegos

Mariners: The blossoming bullpen
After Seattle's bullpen posted an AL-worst 5.92 ERA last season and with no clear-cut high-leverage arm, Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto was pointed at the onset of the offseason to bolster that relief corps. And while some of his additions came with a level of unproven ability -- notably Rule 5 Draft selection and former starters and -- Seattle’s bullpen has emerged as, statistically, one of the AL’s best in the early leg of 2021.

The Mariners entered Thursday with a 2.44 bullpen ERA that trailed only the Blue Jays (2.30) and Yankees (2.33) for the best in the Majors. Their .186 batting average against was second best in MLB. Graveman and , who was a nice ’20 addition off the waiver wire, have been scoreless in 17 combined outings. And the entire unit collectively has kept the Mariners in games late and positioned the offense for a few epic rallies in Baltimore, Minnesota and Boston already in the first month.

The strikeout numbers aren’t there -- they have just 79, fourth fewest in MLB -- which suggests that some of this might not be completely sustainable. But until they consistently get beat, Seattle’s ‘pen is one to be reckoned with. -- Daniel Kramer

Rangers: Nick Solak’s breakout
's consistent improvement across the field may be the most shocking part of the young season for Texas. He has, in manager Chris Woodward's own words, been the Rangers' best hitter up to this point in the season, a development not many people could have seen coming. Entering Thursday, the second baseman is slashing .319/.404/.582 and is tied for second in the AL with seven home runs.

Woodward challenged Solak in the offseason and into Spring Training to earn the starting second-base job after he was used in a utility role in 2020. Solak successfully pushed longtime Rangers second baseman Rougned Odor to third base before Odor was ultimately traded to the Yankees before Opening Day. After a hot debut in '19 where he hit .293 through 33 games, Solak tapered off a bit in the shortened '20 season with a .268 batting average as he shuffled through multiple positions in the infield and outfield. Woodward hoped securing Solak at one position would lead to improvements on both sides of the ball. Solak has been proving his skipper right ever since. -- Kennedi Landry