We come to you bearing excellent news. Even though it is still freezing outside, the baseball season is close -- closer than you think -- and we can prove it. If you were to put together a weekly preview of each MLB division and finish by the time the season begins … you have to start this week. You can actually start counting down the weeks.
Thus, today, our weekly series previewing each of baseball's six divisions begins with the American League West. Our previews will be extended games of 20 Questions, in which we look at four pressing questions for each team heading into the 2019 season. At the end, we will make some actual predictions on the final standings, predictions that are unassailable and so obviously iron-clad correct 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 this season.
1. Who's the fifth starter?
Oh, to be the Astros, whose major problem heading into Spring Training is "who will fill in behind our four excellent starters?" With the loss of Dallas Keuchel (probably?), the Astros have a couple of spots to fill in the rotation, and so far, they've only slotted in one of them with Wade Miley, signed just last week. After Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole, Collin McHugh and Miley, there's a big drop down to Josh James, Framber Valdez and Brad Peacock. The Astros could sign another free agent if they wanted -- we hear there are still a few available -- but it's also possible they'll wing it until top prospect Forrest Whitley is ready. However the fifth starter shakes out will affect the current bullpen holes as well. But yeah, this will be the main storyline in camp, which is a sign that matters are going well.
2. Wait, Michael Brantley is here?
Injuries have eaten whole chunks out of Brantley's career, but it was only four years ago that he was finishing third in the AL MVP Award race and looking like one of those players who could simply do anything. He was finally healthy (well, healthier) in 2018, and while he wasn't at his peak, Brantley hit .309 and put up 17 homers and 12 stolen bases with perfectly respectable defense. You can do a lot with a guy like that, and you can do even more with him when you pretty much have All-Stars at every other position like the Astros do. Brantley is only 31, but he's the grizzled vet here, and he's never been in a lineup even close to this talented. This is going to be fun.
3. Who's the DH?
Traditionally, manager AJ Hinch likes to filter in his position players at DH, and you can probably expect Brantley to get some "rest" days there as well. But without Marwin Gonzalez (though Aledmys Díaz is his pseudo-replacement), the Astros aren't quite as deep as they were last year. That means they might be relying a bit on Tyler White, a hitter who showed some flashes last year (a 144 OPS+ will play), but also a 28-year-old guy who the club was reportedly looking to replace before falling short on Nelson Cruz. (He also had a rough postseason.) Is he really the guy to play 130 games at DH? Or will they have to look for an upgrade at some point?
4. Is anybody here gonna get an extension?
The Astros have built a fantastic roster full of top-end talent, but the thing about top-end talent is that it gets expensive. Verlander and Cole are both free agents after this year, and George Springer and Josh Reddick hit the market after that. (Actually, all four top starters are free agents after this year.) And that's not even accounting for all the money Carlos Correa and Alex Bregman are going to start earning in arbitration soon. They can't keep everyone. So who are they going to choose?
Los Angeles Angels
1. That's not really the rotation, is it?
Tyler Skaggs is a perfectly respectable pitcher, a guy who can give you 25-30 starts of above-average mound work. That's good! But … is he this team's ace right now? The two free agents they brought in to boost the rotation, Matt Harvey and Trevor Cahill, are anything but rock-solid certainties, and as talented as Andrew Heaney and Jaime Barria are, they certainly haven't proven they can be counted on. Oh, and they're all probably going to get hurt at least once this season. The Angels are desperately trying to get to the playoffs, but this doesn't look like anything particularly close to a playoff rotation.
2. What happens if anyone in the lineup gets hurt?
We're not even referring to Mike Trout here; if he's hurt, this whole thing is obviously toast. But the Angels' bench is non-existent. Tommy La Stella is a handy player, but if he's your big bat off the bench, you'll probably have trouble. Honestly, the best bat off the bench for the Angels, theoretically, could be a future Hall of Famer. Which brings us to our next issue …
3. How do you handle the Albert Pujols situation?
Pujols is slated to return to Busch Stadium in June for the first time since he signed with the Angels after the 2011 season. The worry is whether or not the Angels can afford to have him on the roster that long. Pujols, for all his past greatness, has been a drain on the Angels for two years now, putting up a .243 average over that period without even the accompanying power. And with Shohei Ohtani only available to play DH and Justin Bour now signed to play first base, what are you supposed to do with Pujols? He has three more years left on his deal. The odds of him finishing those three years with the Angels are becoming increasingly steep.
4. Can they get Trout that first postseason win?
There is perhaps no better illustration of how little one individual player can alter an entire team's trajectory than the fact that Trout has been one of the best players in baseball history for seven years now and still hasn't won a playoff game. He has only two years left on his deal with the Angels, and there hasn't been movement on extension talks. They have two years left to get him that playoff win. This is one of those years. How close do they look to you?
1. Is Matt Chapman that next-level star?
The A's haven't had an AL MVP Award winner since Miguel Tejada in 2002, and save for a couple of Josh Donaldson years, they haven't had anyone come all that close. But Chapman looks like the sort of franchise cornerstone every team dreams of procuring. We all knew about his defensive brilliance, but his bat took a huge leap forward in 2018, showing the sort of power and consistency that suggests even greater things down the line. If Chapman can take even a fraction of that step forward in 2019, you're looking at a near Trout-level player. Can Chapman become a player who can carry a team?
2. Can they finally get Jurickson Profar to fly?
For the first time in his career, the former No. 1 overall prospect in baseball finally got a full season to show what he could do in 2018. And he was … fine. He was just fine: 20 homers, .335 OBP and tons of position versatility. Nothing wrong with any of that. But still, this is the guy who was supposed to change baseball. The A's are the sort of team who often gets these sort of players to thrive, to unlock whatever was holding them back. They'll take a repeat of Profar's '18 season if they must, but this might be the season we find out if there's anything else.
3. Is the rotation enough?
No one in the A's rotation is a drain, including new free-agent acquisition Marco Estrada. But none of these guys terrify you either -- an issue that came up in the AL Wild Card Game last year, and one that a team like the A's, with a monster ahead of them in their division, must be acutely aware of. Do they package some of their rotation depth for a larger piece? Do they still try to bring someone in? The A's have enough guys to get them through their season. But do they have anyone who scares opponents?
4. What's going to happen with Kyler Murray?
This doesn't affect this year's team necessarily, but when your top overall pick is thinking about not playing baseball anymore, it's a situation of considerable urgency. Murray announced Thursday he will attend the NFL Combine. Will he be at Spring Training? This will get resolved in the next two months, and no one has any idea how it's going to go.
1. What's the plan here?
It has been a delight to watch Jerry Dipoto flip his roster around like crazy, but now that the wheels have stopped spinning -- and allotting for the fact that they might not have actually stopped spinning -- what does this roster really have? The lineup is oddly old for a team that's in a bit of a rebuild, and it has the added problem of being old, but not particularly reliable. The Jay Bruce/Edwin Encarnacion/Kyle Seager trio looks a bit formidable, but it maybe looked a little more so three years ago. Dipoto's trades, individually, have made sense and solved a lot of issues for the Mariners. But the current roster still looks a bit goofy. Maybe he'll trade them all away by the time we get to the next question.
2. Is Mallex Smith a legit building piece?
Smith was thought to be mostly just a speedster before last season, but he showed to have some legitimate plate skills for the Rays last year, getting on base at a .367 clip and hitting a league-high 10 triples. Dipoto traded for him and now has four years of team control over him. If Smith can keep building on what he did last year, the Mariners could have the best leadoff man in the sport in a couple of years. But if he can't, the Mariners traded quite a bit for a pinch-runner.
3. Can Félix Hernández get a graceful goodbye?
What has happened to Hernandez the last few years is another sad reminder of the effects of time and decay. He has been a below-average pitcher for three years now, and he was particularly rough last year with a 5.55 ERA and a plummeting strikeout rate. He'll still be in the rotation in the final year of his contract, because why not at this point? But this is a proud franchise legend in deep decline. You just want to see him have a few moments that remind us of the old King.
We don't have a question here. We just wanted to be delighted that Ichiro is going to be on the field for Opening Day in Tokyo. That might end up being the season highlight for the Mariners this year. But what a highlight it will be.
1. Will Joey Gallo ever evolve?
As currently constituted, Gallo is a perfectly fine baseball player; he had a 107 OPS+, 40 homers and acceptable defense last season. But the way he went about putting up those numbers was increasingly insane, with his 40 homers juxtaposed with 38 singles and a frigid .206 average. He doesn't quite walk enough to make that batting average entirely acceptable, and as cool as 40 homers are, they don't quite make up for all of it. Can he either get on base more or hit more doubles? Or maybe strike out less? This is rapidly becoming Two True Outcomes, and that's difficult to sustain.
2. What's Chris Woodward going to be like?
The new Rangers manager was on Dave Roberts' staff the last three years, an excellent resume booster that maybe took a few hits with some of the postseason decisions Roberts made last October. The Rangers wouldn't have hired Woodward over the many candidates to interview for the job if they didn't trust him to be innovative, and considering the current constitution of this roster, he's gonna have to be. This might be a long grind, so we'll learn how Woodward's built for it this year.
3. How many of these starting pitchers will still be around in August?
The Rangers rotation seems built to be flipped at the Deadline: Every single guy, even Lance Lynn (who was signed for three years), is a candidate to be shipped out if they have a first half that rebuilds their value. It's reclamation project after reclamation project . . . Mike Minor, Drew Smyly, Edinson Vólquez, even Shelby Miller. The first half of the year is one long audition for essentially the whole staff.
4. Will you get out and say goodbye to the Rangers' longtime home park?
This is the last year for the Rangers at Globe Life Park, which opened in 1994. Globe Life Park wasn't necessarily one of baseball's most beloved parks, but people liked it, and more to the point, baseball stadiums are sacred cathedrals that should always be appreciated. If you haven't seen the club play there, this is your last chance.
1. Houston Astros: 104-58
2. Oakland A's: 92-70
3. Los Angeles Angels: 79-83
4. Seattle Mariners: 77-85
5. Texas Rangers: 64-98