Today we continue our off-season preview series with a glimpse at the AL West, which has the potential for a number of interesting moves before the 2019 season. Here, we discuss how the Astros might go about assembling their best team yet, how the A’s build off a successful 2018, how the Angels bounce back from not living up to the preseason hype, and how the Rangers and Mariners will become relevant again.
Los Angeles Angels
By Matthew Kikkert
2018 Record: 80-82 (4th in AL West)
2018 Payroll: $173,784,989 (7th in MLB)
While 2018 may have been a disappointing outcome due to their preseason hype, Angels fans should not fret heading into 2019. I would not categorize the Angels as World Series favorites by any stretch, but with arguably the greatest player of all time, Mike Trout, anything can happen. Surrounding Trout, the Angels begin filling out their roster with 2018 AL Rookie of the Year, Shohei Ohtani. Even though he won’t be able to pitch in 2019 after undergoing Tommy John surgery in October, he will still be a force at the plate. The remainder of the lineup is filled with threats such as Justin Upton (OF), Andrelton Simmons (SS), Zach Cozart (3B), and Kole Calhoun (OF). Albert Pujols, who may not be the same player as he was a few years back, still provides some power at the plate, and his remaining salary of $83 million cannot easily be dumped.
In terms of pitching, the Angels desperately need help. In 2018, they had six pitchers undergo Tommy John surgery, including Garrett Richards, JC Ramirez, and the fore-mentioned Ohtani, while two more faced shoulder injuries. Despite this, their starting pitching only had the 11th worst ERA in the majors at 4.34, but they could greatly improve this with more consistency. Andrew Heaney was a bright spot, as he tossed 180 innings following a missed 2017 season. The bullpen was more of the same, posting middle-of-the-road numbers, with room for improvement.
For 2019, the Angels need to focus on pitching. Signing both a starting pitcher and bullpen help will be key to a successful offseason. Beyond this, they have stated they will look for a lefty power bat at first base, to replace an aging Pujols. Catching is also their weakest spot in the lineup, and if they continue their trend of trying to make a big splash in free agency, this may be the spot to make it happen.
Before looking at free agents, one of the tallest tasks this off-season should be signing Mike Trout to a long-term contract. Keeping this once-in-a-generation talent happy and in Anaheim should be the building block for a great team in the future. I recommend paying Trout whatever he wants and consider it a bargain.
Next step, sign pitching. Viable options for the rotation would be someone low-cost and short-term, who won’t increase their already inflated payroll. J.A. Happ and Gio Gonzalez would fit this bill and are targets for the Angels. Another option may be looking at another Japanese phenom in Yusei Kikuchi, who comes from the same school as Ohtani. In the bullpen, the Angels may try to sign a closer, and possible names range from bounce-back candidates in Kelvin Herrera or Greg Holland to marquee names in Craig Kimbrel, David Robertson, or Jeurys Familia.
Lastly, for the lineup, their need of a lefty first baseman can be filled by more low-cost names such as Lucas Duda, Matt Adams, Adam Lind, Pedro Alvarez, or Logan Morrison. Their catching need is not as pressing, but do not be surprised if they make a splash with a big name such as Yasmani Grandal or Wilson Ramos, but they may instead settle for guys such as Jonathan Lucroy, Kurt Suzuki, Matt Wieters, or Brian McCann.
By Max Smith
2018 Record: 103-59 (1st in AL West, Lost in ALCS)
2018 Payroll: $163,524,216 (9th in MLB)
How times have changed.
Not even a decade ago, the Astros were a struggling NL Central team that lost nearly 600 games between 2009 and 2014. Now, Houston is coming off a 101-win 2017 in which baseball’s fourth-best offense by team wRC+ since 1900 (behind only the ’27, ’30, and ’31 Yankees) led them to an epic World Series, and a 103-win 2018 in which it was the second best pitching staff by FIP- since 1900 that might have led them to a repeat title if not for the historically strong Red Sox.
All that is a long-winded way of saying that the Astros’ 2019 outlook is pretty rosy. The lineup still features Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa, George Springer, and 2018 breakout star Alex Bregman — whose 157 wRC+ and 7.6 WAR might have earned him serious MVP consideration in any other year. On the pitching front, M-SABR’s internal Cy Young winner Justin Verlander returns along with Gerrit Cole, who silenced any questions after his offseason trade by doubling his 2017 fWAR. Beyond those two the rotation is currently somewhat up in the air, though highly touted, and phenomenally named pitching prospect Forrest Whitley (#8 overall prospect in MLB.com year-end rankings) should debut in 2019.
With both long-time Astro Dallas Keuchel and 2018 surprise Charlie Morton hitting free agency and Lance McCullers needing Tommy John surgery, the Astros’ quest for another starter will be the defining story of their offseason. Other open spots include a catcher, and potentially an outfielder, but given its immense star powers, the lineup should be great either way.
With a team that boasts such a bevy of talent at both the Major and Minor league levels, and should once again be an inner circle World Series contender, the only suggested move is to swing for the fences. Whether that is aggressively pursuing Bryce Harper–which they already did around the trade deadline–or trying to make Patrick Corbin the most overqualified third starter in baseball, Houston has two big-name options in free agency.
As for trades, having both Whitley and the #5 overall prospect, outfielder Kyle Tucker, means the Astros can realistically make a fair offer for just about anybody, whether that is a Madison Bumgarner or even a Corey Kluber.
Flashy moves aside, bringing in Wilson Ramos or Tyler Flowers to replace the recently departed Brian McCann behind the plate would be sound business–as would bringing in other arms to compete for end-of-rotation innings. If one of those arms happened to be a Nathan Eovaldi or a JA Happ, and the team acquired one of the aforementioned superstars, the 2019 Astros could be team’s scariest iteration yet. Watch out, baseball!
by Erik McKeen
2018 Record: 97-65 (2nd in AL West)
2018 Payroll: $80,315,288 (28th in MLB)
Current 2019 Outlook:
The Athletics were able to win 97 games and make the AL Wild Card Game last season despite having the 3rd lowest payroll in the league. They have some solid young fielders to build around including Gold Glove infielders Matt Chapman (6.5 fWAR) and Matt Olson (3.4 fWAR), and outfielders Stephen Piscotty (3.0 fWAR) and Ramon Laureano (2.1 fWAR in only 48 games!). The A’s also had career years from infielders Marcus Semien (3.7 fWAR) and veteran Jed Lowrie (4.9 fWAR) last season, and designated hitter Khris Davis (2.6 fWAR) led the league in home runs with 48. All of this success led the A’s to score the 4th most runs in the MLB.
On the pitching side, the A’s had AL Reliever of the Year finalist Blake Treinen (3.6 fWAR), who had a lower ERA (0.78) than WHIP (0.83) in 2018, and starter Sean Manaea threw a no-hitter.
Other than those Treinen and Manaea, the A’s don’t have much else on the pitching side for this season. Trevor Cahill and Edwin Jackson were decent when healthy, but they are both free agents. Mike Fiers and another injury prone starter Andrew Triggs are under contract for next season, but they can’t be counted on. The A’s are also lacking in good relievers.
Lowrie is the only fielder I mentioned above who is a free agent but will likely choose to sign with a team that will pay him. The A’s have two top pitching prospects in Jesus Luzardo and A.J. Puk, but they almost certainly won’t be ready to pitch in the majors in 2019. The A’s should sign some innings eaters to fill out their starters, or they could sign a good starter if they actually want to spend money and have a chance at winning in the playoffs.
By Gregory Severin
2018 Record: 89-73 (3rd in AL West)
2018 Payroll: $160,993,827 (10th in MLB)
Things could have been looking up for the Mariners. A promising core of young players boosted by veteran talent from Nelson Cruz and Denard Span—among others—led the club to finish with their best record in fifteen years. However, much like 2003, Billy Beane and his moneyballing ways blocked the M’s from their destiny of losing to the Yankees in the playoffs. Instead of making the improvements to the outfield and starting rotation that would have been necessary to create a legitimate contender, Jerry Dipoto has taken a step back and shifted focus to the 2020s. Gone are fan favorites James Paxton and Mike Zunino, shipped off to the AL East in return for a bouquet of prospects and Mallex Smith. The hole in center field left by the failed Dee Gordon Experiment has ostensibly been filled, at the cost of creating a bigger hole at catcher. The rotation has become even more of a mess. Keep an eye on Erik Swanson, who did well at the high-minors level and was acquired in the Paxton deal, to contribute to the rotation in some way this season. Whether that’s a testament to his talent or the lack thereof in the Mariners’ current arms is yet to be seen. In all likelihood, we’re looking at a club with a ceiling of .500 as it stands right now.
For all the players who have departed via trade, a few will be leaving simply because their contracts have expired. Nelson Cruz headlines this group. This past season saw a noticeable dropoff in nearly every conceivable metric, and though he has been open about a return to Seattle, the front office has not reciprocated this interest. Beyond Cruz lie the one-year rentals that were Denard Span, Adam Warren, and Cameron Maybin, worth a cumulative 2.3 bWAR and thus not worthy of any more discussion here. David Phelps’ contract also expired, but whether he’ll return to pre-Tommy John form remains to be seen.
At the time of this writing, the Mariners have what must be the sorriest battery in baseball. A rotation anchored by Wade LeBlanc, Mike Leake, Marco Gonzales, possibly Erik Swanson, and the Félix Hernández we saw in 2018 will only strike fear into the hearts of Mariners fans; that they will be pitching to David Freitas and his career wRC+ of 64 will terrify them. The fact that Mike Leake, who is at least a solid mid-rotation piece, may not even be in this rotation come Opening Day is not soothing. Patrick Corbin, Nathan Eovaldi, and Yasmani Grandal are most likely out of the Mariners’ price range but don’t be surprised to see them take flyers on the Drews Pomeranz and Jonathans Lucroy of the market in the hopes that they bounce back from disappointing 2018 efforts.
Tear it down. No, seriously. Tear it all down. The hard part about making a soft rebuild and looking only one or two years ahead is that it gives the implementation of The Process very little room for error. If team management is sure that Justus Sheffield will give ace-level production, that Mallex Smith and his 2018 BABIP of .366 are sustainable, and that every noteworthy member of what little depth the farm system has to offer will—not can, will—develop into MLB-ready talent in two years, then by all means they should stand pat and wait for them to join what will then be a veteran core headlined by Jean Segura, Edwin Díaz, and Mitch Haniger. This strategy also brings the risk that the Mariners will be stuck treading the waters of mediocrity and watching the Astros, Athletics, Rangers, and Angels pass them by just like they’ve been doing since the mid-2000s. As much as I’d miss Díaz and Haniger, a full rebuild would at least give me the hope that I could see a Cubs or Astros-like turnaround further down the road.
By Anthony Brown
2018 Record: 67-95 (5th in AL West)
2018 Payroll: $140,625,018 (16th in MLB)
Current 2019 Outlook:
While the Rangers weren’t really supposed to be contenders in 2018, it was a surprise to see them this bad. After a terrible first half of the season, they traded Cole Hamels to the Cubs and Keone Kela to the Pirates for decent returns. Their team looks mostly the same in 2019, with most of their starting nine returning. The big exception is Adrian Beltre who retired after 21 seasons and will end up in the Hall of Fame. With his absence, Jurickson Profar will most likely move to third base full time, and Joey Gallo takes over first base. With Elvis Andrus and Rougned Odor up the middle, the infield actually isn’t half bad. The outfield of Willie Calhoun, Delino DeShields, and Nomar Mazara has a lot of potential, but wasn’t great last season. At DH, Shin-Soo Choo had a breakout first half and was selected to his first All-Star Game, but completely fell apart in the second half with a 76 WRC+ compared to a 143 WRC+ in the first half. The starting pitching remains a mess, but this year they don’t have Yovani Gallardo or Bartolo Colon, so there’s no point in watching them.
There has to be a silver lining to all of this, right? Well, not really. Their farm system ranks around the middle of the pack, but all of their top prospects are still years away. They have an abundance of young players who will be exciting to watch, with Gallo, DeShields, Calhoun, Odor, Mazara, and new closer Jose Leclerc all 25 or under. Other than that there’s not much else to look forward to. Even with this awful season, the Rangers only have the 8th pick in the draft, which could slow their rebuild down. With a super competitive division, it will another rough season for the Rangers and could be several years before they become relevant again.
Surprisingly, the Rangers offense doesn’t look too bad for next season. They addressed their biggest offensive need by signing backup catcher Jeff Mathis a couple of weeks ago. It wouldn’t hurt to sign a fourth outfielder or a backup infielder, but all of the starting jobs are filled. On the other hand, their pitching is a big mess. Mike Minor is their only returning starter, and the remaining spots will likely be competed for by Drew Smyly, Ariel Jurardo, Yohander Mendez, and Adrian Sampson. So a starting pitcher is definitely a target for the Rangers. It would also be a good idea to bolster their bullpen. Jose Leclerc looks like a dominant closer, and Matt Bush and Alex Claudio are decent set-up men, but there’s not much beyond that.
As a rebuilding team, the Rangers likely won’t be going after the big-name free agents. However, they will need some cheaper starting options to stay relatively competitive. Signing a reclamation project such as Matt Harvey or Jeremy Hellickson could help them short-term and could be flipped for prospects at the trade deadline. While the Rangers don’t have many trade chips, Elvis Andrus and Rougned Odor could be flipped for some decent prospects after solid seasons.