With the season, goodness, only days away now, it’s time to start previewing some divisions. While allotting for the fact that there are still surely plenty of moves to be made, we have a pretty good idea, at this point, what teams will generally look like.
Today: The American League West
Every team wants to make the playoffs, but the AL West may have the teams that are most desperate to. The Astros are trying to transition into their next phase of contention. The Rangers are trying to jump-start a new stadium with big-ticket free agents. The A’s ... OK, so maybe the A’s are taking a bit of a break. But mostly, it’s the Mariners and Angels. The Mariners, famously, have the longest postseason drought in North American professional sports -- the last time they made the playoffs was Albert Pujols’ rookie year -- and the Angels have maybe the best baseball player of the last 20 years -- one who happens to have not won a single postseason game in his career.
There are a lot of storylines in this division, but there aren’t many bigger than those two. But, as always, you have to start with that polarizing team in Houston that, much to the chagrin of many, just won’t go away. Teams are listed in alphabetical order up top, with my standings prediction below.
Los Angeles Angels
1. You’ll never believe this, but … there are some concerns about the pitching?
There is something hilarious and terrific about the Angels being so worn down by their lack of pitching for so many consecutive years now that they went ahead in 2021 and just said, “OK, this year, we’re drafting only pitchers.” It’ll be a while until they reap the benefits of that particular approach, which means, as usual, they are trying to cobble together a staff on the fly. The Noah Syndergaard acquisition was their most high-profile add, but you still have to wonder how many innings Syndergaard, coming off Tommy John surgery, can really throw. The most reliable starter on this staff is … Shohei Ohtani? The Angels’ lineup looks healthy and scary, at last, but well, it sure looks like they’re going to run out of pitching. Again.
2. Mike Trout is fully healthy now, right?
Trout has played 223 games in the last three years, a profoundly depressing total: that’s only 40 games more than Yusmeiro Petit has pitched. He looks ready to go this year, but you do have to start to wonder: Not since 2016 has he made it through a season without missing time for injuries. He’s not the only one with injury issues, either: Anthony Rendon played in only 58 games in 2021, and, well, as incredible as Ohtani is, you always worry he’s one tweak away from being taken away from us. The mind boggles to imagine that Trout/Ohtani/Rendon/Jared Walsh combo that the Angels can roll out. But they actually have to be able to roll it out.
1. Is their strength now … their young pitching?
The Astros have always been stacked with young hitters, but their rotation has often been filled with veterans and some random rolls of the dice. But with Justin Verlander back, the Astros look like they might just ride their starting pitching to a division title. With Framber Valdez, Luis Garcia, José Urquidy and Cristian Javier, four already-effective pitchers still in their 20s (and they still have Jake Odorizzi hanging around too), the Astros look well fortified in the one spot in which they always felt they were just hanging on in the past. The pitching is the thing you’re not sweating this year.
2. Can Alex Bregman be a star again?
This should be Alex Bregman’s prime, you know: He’ll turn 28 right before the season starts, right when he should be most expected to mash. And Bregman hasn’t been bad for any stretch over the last two seasons. But he has taken an undeniable step back. He finished fifth in MVP voting in 2018 and second in 2019, but he hasn’t gotten a single vote since then, and he somehow slugged only .422 last year, which is lower than, say, Chas McCormick and Jake Meyers. With Carlos Correa gone, Bregman is the two-way superstar of this team, or at least he’s supposed to be. There’s more weight to carry, both offensively and defensively, for Bregman. He had wrist surgery last November, so the hope is that his injury woes are behind him.
1. What’s the next move?
The trades of Matt Chapman (to Toronto) and Matt Olson (to Atlanta) were exactly what A’s fans feared: They’re rebuilding again. That’s not necessarily the worst thing long term, but it can be distressing to live through in the moment. And they’re likely not done. With Sean Manaea and Frankie Montas likely on the market -- and teams desperate for starting pitching -- the A’s could get worse before they get better. They do have a lot of leverage, though: Anybody would want either of those pitchers. They’d best gather as much capital as they can, because after those two, there’s not much left.
2. Can they turn it around quickly again?
A’s fans are certainly used to these zeniths and nadirs: The A’s tend to shake things up and start over every few years, so this stretch isn’t shocking. The difference between the A’s and a lot of other franchises, though, is that the valleys tend not to be as deep as other teams’ valleys, and they don’t generally last as long either. Can the A’s show enough this year to make their fans feel the next turnaround could be sooner than others might think? Because right now, there are a lot of old guys in this lineup -- potentially six lineup spots from guys 30 or older. That doesn’t scream “future.”
1. Do the new additions provide enough offense?
The trade the Mariners made for Jesse Winker and Eugenio Suárez almost made more headlines for what it said about the Reds than what it said about the Mariners, but it represented a clear all-in approach for Seattle this season: After winning 90 games last year, the team isn’t looking to idle. But there are certainly questions about both additions, considering Winker’s noted trouble with left-handed pitching and Suarez’s massive struggles last year. The team is counting a lot on Jarred Kelenic continuing to build on his late-season awakening, on Ty France and Mitch Haniger repeating their surprising 2021 seasons and, probably, Julio Rodríguez making a difference immediately. That could be enough. But there are a lot of question marks too.
2. Do they have to end the skid this year?
The Mariners are constructing a roster that’s meant to compete for years to come: There are many young players who won’t be peaking for several years. Add that to the fact that most of their improvements in 2021 came from veteran players who probably aren’t part of, say, the 2025 Mariners. So where does that leave this year’s team? It would seem like a transition year, a chance for Kelenic and Rodríguez and company to truly establish themselves. But the Mariners also signed the reigning AL Cy Young winner and have a nagging postseason drought to end. How much will they really go in for just this season? How much should they? It’d be tough to argue with any Mariners fan who is tired of hearing about “the future.” The time sure feels like now.
1. Is moderate improvement enough?
The Rangers took some big swings this offseason, and they connected on two big ones: There isn’t a team in baseball that wouldn’t want Corey Seager or Marcus Semien, let alone both of them. But the worry is that, well, that’s all the Rangers have on their team. Mitch Garver was an adequate addition, but the rest of this lineup, particularly with how Adolis García faded last year, looks awfully thin. (Is Brad Miller really going to be this team’s everyday left fielder?) Seager and Semien filled two big holes in this lineup. But there are plenty more.
2. Can they bridge the gap until the next wave arrives?
The Rangers have a solid farm system that should produce real results in the next few years, though losing Josh Jung for the year to a torn left labrum was a definite bummer. But they still have to get to that point, with a new ballpark that still feels like it hasn’t truly been broken in yet. Seager and Semien are obviously terrific additions, but this still looks like a losing team, this year and probably next year, at least. Will Rangers fans remain patient? Will Seager and Semien, for that matter?
I’m just not sure the Mariners are going to have enough hitting, and the Angels enough pitching, to catch the Astros or, for that matter, grab a Wild Card. Which is downright cruel to those fanbases, all told. Hey: There’s always next year!