HOUSTON -- The American League West has undergone the kind of facelift this winter that would make a plastic surgeon proud. The division’s biggest stars remain, with the Angels’ Mike Trout, the Astros’ Alex Bregman and A’s Marcus Semien -- who finished 1-2-3 in last year’s AL Most Valuable Player Award race -- coming back, along with 2019 Cy Young Award winner Justin Verlander and '19 Rookie of the Year Award winner Yordan Alvarez, both of the Astros.
Seven of the 11 top finishers in last year’s AL MVP Award balloting came from the West, including Matt Chapman of the A’s and George Springer of the Astros. The depth of elite talent in the division improved this winter when two-time Cy Young Award winner Corey Kluber (2014, ’17) was traded to the Rangers and the Angels landed Anthony Rendon, who signed a huge deal after finishing third in the National League MVP Award balloting last year with the Nationals.
The A’s, who are brimming with young talent, figure to push the Astros harder in this year’s AL West race considering Houston lost Gerrit Cole, who won 20 games and struck out 326 batters last year. The Astros have endured a controversial offseason following an MLB report that punished them for using electronics to steal signs in 2017, which led to the dismissal of AJ Hinch as manager and Jeff Luhnow as general manager, as well as the fresh-start hiring of Dusty Baker as manager and James Click as GM.
The Angels and Rangers finished below .500 last year and well behind the 107-win Astros, but each made improvements this winter that could allow them to close the gap. As for the Mariners? Well, their rebuild continues.
So are the Astros, who are reeling from the sign-stealing scandal and losing several key impact players this winter, still the team to beat in the AL West? Can they win four consecutive division titles? Or is this the year the A’s don’t settle for the Wild Card?
Here’s a closer look at how the Astros’ stranglehold of the AL West could be loosening:
Despite all the offseason drama surrounding the sign-steal scandal, the firings of Luhnow and Hinch and the loss of Cole to the Yankees, the Astros remain the team to beat, though the A’s could be closing the gap. Houston was eight outs shy of winning its second World Series title in three seasons last year and returns nearly its entire starting lineup, as well as a pair of horses at the top of the rotation with Verlander and Zack Greinke. The Astros are loaded, and they’ll be playing with a huge chip on their shoulder. They return Lance McCullers Jr. to the rotation and traded for Austin Pruitt, but there’s no sugarcoating the loss of Cole and impact it could have. Still, the AL West runs through H-town.
The A’s offseason may look quiet to those looking in from the outside, with perhaps their biggest move being the acquisition of utility man Tony Kemp, but their improvement lies in the fact that they’ll be getting full seasons out of their top three prospects in left-handers Jesús Luzardo and A.J. Puk and catcher Sean Murphy. The trio shined in brief 2019 cameos and adds to a strong core already in place that has contributed to 97-win seasons the past two years and includes Chapman, Semien, Matt Olson, Ramón Laureano, Sean Manaea, Frankie Montas and Liam Hendriks.
The Angels, under new manager Joe Maddon, added more power to their lineup with the acquisition of outfielder Joc Pederson from the Dodgers in exchange for infielder Luis Rengifo. Pederson hit 36 homers last year and figures to be the starting right fielder, joining a lineup that already includes Trout, Rendon and Shohei Ohtani. But it still doesn’t address their biggest need, which is frontline starting pitching. The Halos did add some durability by acquiring Dylan Bundy in a trade with the Orioles and signing Julio Teheran to a one-year deal, but they still don’t have much to combine with Ohtani atop the rotation. They should score plenty of runs and have a solid defense, which could make up for their lack of quality starting pitching. The Angels are aiming to be contenders this year, but they’re still not among the class of the AL just yet.
The Rangers’ most significant work was with their starting rotation, acquiring Kluber by trade and signing free agents Kyle Gibson and Jordan Lyles. But Kluber still has to show he is healthy. He was limited to seven starts last season because of a fractured right forearm. Lyles won a career high 12 games last season, but prior to that his best was seven wins. Gibson has a career 4.52 ERA and a 1.41 WHIP but has been good for 10-13 wins. The Rangers swung and missed on Rendon and signed Todd Frazier instead. They also missed out on Nicholas Castellanos but signed free-agent catcher Robinson Chirinos. Overall, their offense does not look significantly improved from last season. For the Rangers to contend, their rotation really has to come through.