AL West preview: Can Astros repeat? Will Mariners, Angels, Rangers contend? Is this the year A’s turn a corner?
Our countdown to MLB Opening Day continues with a deep dive on the American League West.
Baseball season is right around the corner, which means it’s time for divisional previews! Between now and MLB Opening Day on March 30, Yahoo Sports will be rolling out our thoughts on each division, including a quick recap of the offseason and best- and worst-case scenarios for each team.
We’ve already covered the AL East, NL East, AL Central and NL Central. Let’s take a look at the American League West.
Projected record (per PECOTA as of March 21): 94-68
General manager James Click (effectively) ousted before the champagne-soaked clubhouse carpet has even dried
Former MVP José Abreu makes formidable Astros lineup even scarier
Dana Brown, longtime executive responsible for so many of the Braves’ young stars, named Astros’ next GM
Best-case scenario: In a perfect world, fans outside Houston only end up hating the Astros even more. That’s because it’s impossible to win this much without implicitly morphing into baseball’s final boss — to say nothing of the suspicion such winning engenders. Even if commissioner Rob Manfred had taken back the trophy and nullified the 2017 championship title, the Astros still would’ve authored perhaps the most successful recent run in MLB, and that run doesn’t seem to be in danger of ending anytime soon.
If you watched the World Series, you know what it looks like when this team is going right. It’s not hard to imagine more than half the lineup getting All-Star invites (whether they attend is a different story … ) as long as they stay healthy and perform in line with projections. No longer a newbie at the Midsummer Classic and now a reigning champion, Kyle Tucker can’t be pundits’ go-to pick for underrated player anymore. Yordan Alvarez garners MVP consideration while leading the league in home runs. Jeremy Peña’s sophomore season is a little bit of a letdown from his rookie postseason, in which he won both ALCS and World Series MVPs, but that wasn’t all smoke and mirrors and small sample, as Peña lands somewhere around a solid shortstop for one of the game’s preeminent teams, especially considering his demonstrated ability to handle a big stage.
Even more impressive is how the rotation — which had the second-lowest ERA in baseball last year — weathers the loss of Cy Young Award-winner Justin Verlander. Framber Valdez is every bit the ace, as well as the rare pitcher capable of throwing 200 innings in a season. Cristian Javier survives having to adapt his delivery to the new rules with his so-called invisi-ball intact (a relief to the new regime, considering they just inked him to an extension). With everyone moving up a spot, there’s room for top prospect Hunter Brown, who makes a name for himself when the Astros — again — go deep in October.
Worst-case scenario: Everyone is still talking about the banging scheme?
No, but really, barring catastrophic injury, this lineup is stacked. The rotation, however, has to take at least a small step back in Verlander’s absence. The past few years, Houston’s seemingly endless supply of specifically starting-caliber pitching has been something of a secret weapon come October, when other teams fall victim to the war of attrition. But the Astros’ depth looks a little less reliable this year — not only because they’ve lost an ace among aces but also because they’re likely reckoning with another injury-plagued season for Lance McCullers Jr. In this scenario, Brown cracks the rotation, but the Astros are careful to limit his innings given that he transitioned to full-time starter relatively late in college.
Another factor in the Astros’ worst-case 2023 is simply the randomness of the postseason. After their recent run, an untimely playoff departure would be a real disappointment.
Regardless of record, what would success look like in 2023? When you install an Atlanta Braves exec — and, indeed, a close associate of Alex Anthopoulos — at the helm, questions about extensions follow. Brown has been candid in spring about his desire to bring some of that strategy to Houston, though it’s a little more difficult when you’re starting with a team of fully formed stars. Players don’t love to negotiate in-season, but maybe they’ll make an exception for the right offer. The core of the current Astros team is clearly capable of winning, so keeping them together is as good a plan as any. — Keyser
Los Angeles Angels
Projected record: 86-76
Angels strike early in search of pitching reinforcements, sign Dodgers breakout Tyler Anderson
GM Perry Minasian works to improve supporting cast, adds Hunter Renfroe, Brandon Drury to lineup
Arte Moreno decides to sell the team … then decides not to sell the team
Shohei Ohtani largely declines to speak about impending free agency
Best-case scenario: Get this: The Angels might have the two best players in baseball. On the same team. That sounds like a default best-case scenario, but we know it isn’t, that it hasn’t been. Getting Mike Trout and Shohei Ohtani to the playoffs requires at least competence at more levels than just the tippy-top of the roster.
And at long last, that’s what GM Perry Minasian provides. After breaking out with the Dodgers in 2022, lefty starter Tyler Anderson brings stability and No. 2 starter numbers to an already solid rotation behind Ohtani. Meanwhile, bullpen import Carlos Estevez finds success away from Colorado and bolsters a lackluster bullpen.
The lineup gets one boost because Trout plays 140 games for the first time since 2018 and Anthony Rendon plays more than half the season for the first time since 2020’s shortened slate. It gets another boost from added depth of major-league caliber bats, in the forms of Hunter Renfroe, Gio Urshela, Brandon Drury and top catching prospect Logan O’Hoppe. Taylor Ward reaffirms his excellence from 2022 and establishes himself as an All-Star talent atop the order.
Finally operating like a contender instead of a stars-and-scrubs disappointment, the Angels make the playoffs as a wild card and go on a feel-good run to the ALCS, building optimism that Ohtani will re-sign and stick with his original team.
Worst-case scenario: See Angels, Los Angeles, circa 2022, 2021, 2020, 2019, 2018.
Then add the poisoned cherry on top: the likely departure of Ohtani. I’m not sure if the worst case is losing so much it forces a trade at the deadline or losing just enough to miss the playoffs and lose Ohtani in free agency. Either way probably means the Angels are similarly awful.
Regardless of record, what would success look like in 2023? Convincing both the world and one very tall, multitalented, global superstar that the organization as a whole has finally turned a corner and invested in the right things to support a consistent, winning baseball operation. — Crizer
Projected record: 83-79
Mariners address two obvious needs early, trading for outfield offensive upgrade Teoscar Hernández and perennial second-base Gold Glove candidate Kolten Wong
Erstwhile longest-tenured Mariner Mitch Haniger signs with San Francisco
Mariners might’ve done enough to contend but not enough to leave no doubt
Best-case scenario: Let’s start in the middle: In July, all of baseball descends on Seattle for the All-Star Game, and it couldn’t come at a better time. Of course you want a team that merits higher expectations, but for a little while longer, the Mariners can ride the high of having ended The Drought with their postseason appearance last year. Reigning Rookie of the Year Julio Rodríguez is the unofficial host of the weekend, and his genuine jubilance in the spotlight leaves other fan bases a little jealous. It takes depth to win championships but a singular star to enchant a city.
It’s the highlight of Rodríguez’s 30/30 season, and at some point, he starts talking about how his real goal is to join the 40/40 club. Behind him, the Mariners offense is unflashy but sufficient. Ty France gets on base, Teoscar Hernández provides a little bit of extra pop, and heck, maybe Jarred Kelenic even cuts down his K rate now that there aren’t 21 years of history weighing down the once-top prospect.
But last year’s squad made the playoffs with MLB’s second-lowest collective batting average, so the pitching is sort of the point. Luis Castillo, in Seattle to stay after a five-year extension, is good good and in 2023 finally puts it all together well enough to garner Cy Young votes. He heads a rotation maturing into something truly dominant. In their second and third seasons, respectively, George Kirby and Logan Gilbert diversify their fastball-dependent arsenals to become even more effective and stay ahead of the league’s adjustments.
It’s not enough for the M’s to overtake the Astros in the division, but advancing past them in the postseason is extra sweet after how 2022 ended.
Worst-case scenario: We don’t even like to speculate on it, but in the worst timeline, Rodríguez misses significant time due to injury — maybe he overextends himself in the Home Run Derby — and the Mariners offense falls apart without him. That alone is so demoralizing that even Good Vibes Guy Eugenio Suárez struggles to keep spirits up, and Kelenic’s continued struggles with strikeouts don’t help.
It’s suddenly starkly clear that Seattle needed to add more on offense — AJ Pollock is taking the majority of the designated hitter at-bats, which is just not what you want — in the offseason to truly hang with Houston. That could be an easy enough fix at the deadline, but, worst-case scenario, the front office doesn’t take the opportunity to do so.
Regardless of record, what would success look like in 2023? Notice the dichotomy in Kelenic’s strikeout propensity in the two timelines above. The top prospect-turned-one of the worst hitters in baseball history (literally) could really go either way and take the team with him. In his first partial seasons in the big leagues, he basically couldn’t hit anything breaking or anything especially fast — a bad combo in today’s game.
But at only 23 years old, Kelenic is the same guy who crushed the minors and was considered particularly good at adapting to pitchers. The skills are still there, and a new swing could unlock All-Star potential. The Mariners could feel a whole lot better about their lineup if the next big bat were actually already there. — Keyser
Projected record: 79-83
Bruce Bochy, who would know about these things, decides Rangers’ chance of contention is worth coming out of retirement again
People who say money can’t buy happiness must not have $185 million to spend on five years of Jacob deGrom
Rangers round out rotation overhaul with Andrew Heaney, Nathan Eovaldi, Jake Odorizzi
Best-case scenario: Jacob deGrom stays (relatively) healthy all season. His presence — as the crown jewel of the second consecutive splurgey offseason, at the top of the rotation, as the owner of the almost automatic epithet “best pitcher in baseball” — gives the Rangers the second-best starting pitcher WAR, according to FanGraphs. DeGrom alone accounts for roughly one-third of that.
There was a time, before 2021, when he was considered consistent, making 30-plus starts in three straight seasons pre-pandemic. Now, hard-throwing hurlers don’t tend to become more durable in their mid-30s, but deGrom has long been an outlier, and besides, even a mostly healthy season goes a long way toward changing the Rangers’ outlook. Cautiously rationing deGrom’s innings early in the season pays off as the Rangers find themselves in a wild-card chase come September.
Of course, deGrom can’t single-handedly take the rotation ERA from bottom-five to something befitting the contender that new GM Chris Young keeps insisting his team is. Fortunately, there’s plenty of competence behind him: Andrew Heaney takes what the Dodgers taught him to Texas, Nathan Eovaldi cuts down on his home runs allowed, and Jon Gray is a better fit for the middle of the rotation than the top. It doesn’t hurt that relatively unheralded catcher Jonah Heim makes them all look just a little bit better. Pitch framing might soon be a thing of the past, but for one last summer, the Rangers make the most of it.
What’s more, last year’s shiny-new additions, Marcus Semien and Corey Seager, live up to the latent hype; Semien proves his early struggles were just a rough transition, and Seager benefits from the shift ban. Nathaniel Lowe makes his first All-Star team, and the Rays are forced to reckon with whether they actually lost a trade. And if you look only a few names beyond those top three, the Rangers lineup looks OK! That probably isn’t a winning formula, but the team does lead MLB in stolen bases again, this time in a season when people are paying attention to that sort of thing.
Worst-case scenario: There’s ample evidence that expectations for the 2023 Rangers should be tempered — for instance, where they rank in this preview. But try telling that to fans of a team that hasn’t had a winning season in six years and fired its manager and head of baseball operations last summer, when it became clear that doing the fun part of a rebuild first (signing star free agents) didn’t give them a shortcut to contention. That’s worth bearing in mind because the big-picture “worst-case scenario” of the Rangers missing the postseason again is unfortunately entirely possible, even if some of the individual best cases above come to pass.
Not to lean too heavily on the injury aspect of sliding-door seasons, but deGrom’s health is, shall we say, high-variance. Things could get ugly if he misses the bulk of the season and suddenly the Rangers are carrying a top-10 payroll while struggling to finish above .500. In this scenario, Lowe isn’t the .300 hitter he played like last year, prospect Josh Jung’s sub-replacement stint in the majors was a sign of what’s to come, and Texas’ entire DH position combines for fewer home runs than, like, half the guys on the Astros.
Come spring 2024, Rangers fans are cautious about emotionally (or financially) buying in after two years of early over-investing.
Regardless of record, what would success look like in 2023? It’s pretty basic, but the answer is a wild-card spot. Preseason predictions have the Rangers looking up at a whole lot of teams, including the reigning champions, so that’s no small task. Then again, that kind of uphill battle makes it all the more exciting (to an unbiased viewer, anyway) that they’re forging ahead with pricey free agents instead of waiting out this cycle of contention.
The Rangers have done a lot to control what they can control. Now, I’m sure they’d feel a lot better if 2023 also looks like the first year of the Astros’ (subtle) downswing and the last year of the Angels having both Trout and Ohtani. Maybe next year the Rangers can bank on playing meaningful games in September, but doing so a year early would be even better. — Keyser
Projected record: 65-97
A’s trade Sean Murphy to Braves, land Esteury Ruiz in puzzling, three-way deal
Trevor May, Jesus Aguilar, Jace Peterson headline veteran placeholder signings
Best-case scenario: It requires a leap to see the torn-to-the-studs A’s finishing Not Last in the otherwise competitive AL West. The best thing that could realistically happen for the Athletics is progress from a barrage of young players ready to get playing time, including catcher Shea Langeliers. The real pinnacle would be a season that proves them right on Esteury Ruiz, the prize of the Sean Murphy trade.
A speedy center fielder, Ruiz stole 86 bases (!) last year, with 85 coming across the upper minors and one in his major-league cup of coffee with the Brewers. The A’s seemingly went out of their way to get him instead of William Contreras, the headlining young All-Star the Braves gave up to get Murphy, who went to Milwaukee instead. The issue with Ruiz, who ran absurd, extremely valuable on-base percentages in the minors, is that he does not hit the ball hard. At all. There are zero productive major-leaguers who wield a bat as weak, by exit velocity, as Ruiz’s reportedly has been.
In the majors, hitters such as this are typically overmatched, and whatever baserunning and defensive value they manage is overshadowed by a complete lack of offensive ability. The A’s clearly think that won’t hold true for Ruiz and placed a fairly large bet (in opportunity cost) on that position. In their ideal world, Ruiz manages a well above-average OBP and unlocks the potential value in his speed, and the A’s say they told us so.
Beyond that, the rest of their (less notable) bets pay off. They fix former top pick JJ Bleday’s swing, find two new core starters among recent trade pieces Ken Waldichuk, JP Sears and Kyle Muller, and add another in Japanese import Shintaro Fujinami. Enlivened by a stadium resolution, they begin to target 2025 and a realistic contention year.
Worst-case scenario: Pretty much everyone else’s opinion on Ruiz winds up looking right, and he joins Cristian Pache in the minors as marquee trade acquisitions trying to find enough of a bat to stick on a major-league roster. The young pitchers can’t find traction, and veterans such as outfielder Ramon Laureano and 2022 All-Star Paul Blackburn crash before the A’s can trade them at the deadline.
Regardless of record, what would success look like in 2023? There are something like 10 early-career players or prospects acquired in recent trades who will or could get playing time in Oakland this year. Aside from Langeliers, it’s actually fairly difficult to feel great about any one of their chances of becoming a good big-leaguer. Success would be at least two of them making that picture brighter and reestablishing some trust in a process that recently has felt all about the money with very little ball. — Crizer