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Monday, May 27, 2024
The Observer

Vaughan: Previewing the American League West

With Spring Training games beginning this week, the 2023 Major League Baseball season is quickly approaching. Opening day is set to occur in just over a month. With players ramping up their preparation, it’s time to look ahead to the upcoming season and the expectations for each club. Over the next few weeks, I’ll dive into previews for all 30 teams, division by division, helping get fans ready for the 154th season of professional baseball. Up this week, the American League West.

Division Overview

Over the past decade, the AL West has been dominated by the Houston Astros, who have won five of the past six division titles. The lone exception came during the pandemic-shortened 2020 campaign. Last season, two AL West teams, the Seattle Mariners and the aforementioned Astros, reached the postseason. The Astros defeated the Mariners in the AL Division Series on the way to a World Series title. Both these teams look to contend again in 2023, with the Texas Rangers and Los Angeles Angels also making big strides over the offseason.

Houston Astros (2022: 106-56, .654)

For the second time in the past six years, the Houston Astros were crowned champions of the baseball world. They defeated the Philadelphia Phillies four games to two, giving Dusty Baker his first World Series title in 25 years as a manager. Far from a one-off season, it marked the sixth consecutive time the Astros reached at least the AL Championship Series, a trend they look to continue in 2023 with most of the roster returning.

The infield features All-Stars Jose Altuve and Alex Bregman at second and third base, respectively. World Series MVP Jeremy Pena returns at shortstop. Replacing free agent Yuli Gurriel at first base is Jose Abreu, who signed a three-year deal worth close to $60 million. Behind the dish, the Astros will feature a combination of veteran backstop Martin Maldonado and rookie Korey Lee. The outfield will be anchored by Michael Brantley and All-Star Kyle Tucker, with Silver Slugger Yordan Alvarez filling the DH role.

On the pitching side, the rotation that finished last season in the top five in ERA, WHIP and strikeouts returns the majority of its starters, with Framber Valdez, Luis Garcia and Jose Urquidy leading the way. Though Justin Verlander departed in free agency, Houston still has plenty of options, including top-50 prospect Hunter Brown, who pitched well for the Astros down the stretch. Closer Ryan Pressly headlines the bullpen, with Rafael Montero and Bryan Abreu serving as lockdown setup men. After winning it all a year ago, Houston remains a dangerous contender. They will look to become the first repeat champions since the New York Yankees of the early 2000s.

Los Angeles Angels (2022: 73-89, .451)

Despite having two of the best players in baseball on their roster in the form of Mike Trout and Shohei Ohtani, the Los Angeles Angels failed to make the playoffs for the eighth consecutive season in 2022, tied with the Detroit Tigers for the longest active streak in MLB. However, the Angels’ front office was busy over the offseason, hoping to assemble a contender. This was particularly important with Ohtani’s free agency looming after the 2023 season.

For one, Perry Minasian and co. acquired outfielder Hunter Renfroe via trade. His strong arm and powerful bat should lengthen the lineup and improve the team’s defense. Moreover, slick-fielding infielder Gio Urshela came over from the Twins, providing a reliable glove anywhere on the dirt. Free agent signing Brandon Drury looks to continue his resurgence on offense.

In terms of returning position players, Trout and Renfroe should be joined in the outfield by Mickey Moniak, a former top prospect, and Taylor Ward, who enjoyed a breakout season last year. The infield looks to be bolstered by the return of a healthy David Fletcher at second and former All-Star Anthony Rendon at third, as well as a return to form for first baseman Jared Walsh. Behind the dish, the Halos look to begin the year with veteran Max Stassi behind the dish, though top-100 prospect Logan O’Hoppe (ranked 34th overall) looks to get a healthy number of at-bats as well.

On the pitching side, the Angels are again led by Ohtani and his two-way prowess. Behind him, All-Star free agent signing Tyler Anderson should slide into the number two spot, followed by lefties Patrick Sandoval (who finished 2022 with an ERA under 3.00) and Jose Suarez. After an up-and-down rookie season that saw him toss a no-hitter, only to be sent down to Triple-A shortly after, Reid Detmers looks to provide more stability at the back end of the rotation.

The bullpen will be anchored by Jimmy Herget, who took over closer duties after Raisel Iglesias was traded last summer. Veteran Aaron Loup and free agent signing Ryan Tepera are slated to be the Angels’ primary firemen. As in years past, the Angels spent money in free agency to try to surround Trout and Ohtani with a winning club. However, with Ohtani and others entering free agency after the 2023 campaign, winning now is more important than ever.

Oakland Athletics (2022: 60-102, .370)

After finishing the 2022 campaign with the second-worst record in baseball, 2023 doesn’t look much brighter for the Oakland Athletics. In terms of on-the-field play, the A’s have assembled a roster with a projected payroll of just over $40 million, the lowest mark in the league by around $10 million. For reference, the New York Mets have two players – Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander – who will each make more than the entire Oakland roster this season.

Off the field, the A’s had the lowest average attendance in baseball last year, failing to break the 10,000 fans per game mark while ownership looks to relocate the club within the coming years. The current roster features a mix of journeymen veterans and unproven young players, most of whom could be trade candidates come this summer.

The starting rotation exemplifies this youth movement, with 29-year-old Paul Blackburn serving as the elder statesman. In the mix to surround him will be Shintaro Fujinami, a free agent signing from Japan, and former Yankee farmhands JP Sears, James Kaprielian and Ken Waldichuk (currently ranked as the 76th prospect in baseball). The bullpen will be led by older arms, most notably workhorse Domingo Acevedo (who pitched in 70 games last season with an ERA of 3.33 and a WHIP under 1.00), free-agent signing Trevor May and closer Dany Jimenez.

Looking at the team’s position players, the outfield projects to be solid defensively, anchored by Ramon Laureano and Cristian Pache. JJ Bleday and Seth Brown will look to add some thump from the left side of the dish. The infield should have several players receiving opportunities, particularly speedster Tony Kemp, slugger Jesus Aguilar and free agent Aledmys Diaz. Behind the dish, Manny Pina will split time with the highly-touted Shea Langeliers and Tyler Soderstrom (39th-ranked prospect) will be waiting in the wings. Overall, 2023 appears to be another rebuilding year, with plenty of opportunities for playing time to go around.

Seattle Mariners (2022: 90-72, .556)

Last season, the Seattle Mariners accomplished something they had failed to do since 2001: make the playoffs. The Mariners did not merely end their playoff drought, though. They swept the Blue Jays in the AL Wild Card round before being eliminated by the Astros in the ALDS. Heading into 2023, expectations remain high, with hopes that Seattle can build on their 2022 campaign.

One major reason for these hopes is the starting rotation, which not only produced but stayed healthy as well. Seattle looks to rely on the same collection of starters it employed last season, with ace Luis Castillo anchoring the rotation as he did since his acquisition from the Reds last summer. Behind him, the Mariners hope that young arms Logan Gilbert and George Kirby can build on the strides they made last season, with each throwing a career-high in innings while remaining very effective. Former Cy Young Award winner Robbie Ray looks to regain his 2021 form, while Marco Gonzales hopes that a bounce-back season is in the cards. Veteran Chris Flexen and prospect Bryce Miller (98th-ranked prospect) look to provide depth, should injuries occur.

The bullpen, which is almost exclusively right-handed, is filled with many electric arms, from flamethrowers Matt Brash and Andres Munoz (both of whom consistently top triple digits on the radar gun) to crafty firemen Penn Murfee and Paul Sewald, just to name a few.

The lineup is built around one of the best young stars in baseball. Julio Rodriguez is a true five-tool player who had a phenomenal rookie season last year. Joining him in the outfield will be World Baseball Classic teammate Teoscar Hernandez, who came over from the Blue Jays to replace Mitch Haniger, and a platoon featuring A.J. Pollock and Jarred Kelenic.

In the infield, All-Star Ty France, former Gold Glover J.P. Crawford and energetic leader Eugenio Suarez all return to first, short and third, respectively. Trade acquisition Kolten Wong will slot in at second. Meanwhile, utility men Dylan Moore, Sam Haggerty and Tommy La Stella look to play all over the diamond, providing valuable depth over the course of the season. Behind the dish, Cal Raleigh hopes to build on his best season in the bigs last year, while Tom Murphy looks to make a healthy return after a lost 2022.

After ending the playoff drought last season, the Mariners have their eyes once again set on October, hoping to make a deep run in the playoffs.

Texas Rangers (2022: 68-94, .420)

A year after they spent half a billion dollars on their middle infield of the future, the Texas Rangers were once again busy in free agency, this time on the pitching side of things. In fact, the top four starters in the rotation – Jacob deGrom, Nathan Eovaldi, Andrew Heaney and Martin Perez – were all free agents this past offseason, signing for a combined 11 years and $270 million. After finishing with one of the league’s worst rotations in 2022, the addition of deGrom, arguably the best pitcher in baseball when healthy, along with a crafty lefty in Heaney and the hard-throwing Eovaldi, should significantly improve their staff. There is also the possibility of Owen White, the 66th-ranked prospect in baseball, joining the big-league club at some point this season. The bullpen is anchored down by righties Joe Barlow, Jose Leclerc and Jonathan Hernandez. Brock Burke will look to be an effective southpaw out of the pen.

On the offensive side, the Rangers’ strength is found in their infield, which features former Silver Sluggers Nathaniel Lowe, Marcus Semien and Corey Seager at first, second, and short, respectively. Top prospect Josh Jung (ranked 34th) will man the hot corner. The outfield is led by slugger Adolis Garcia, with once-heralded prospects like Bubba Thompson and Leody Taveras trying to break through. Texas has three very good options at catcher in Jonah Heim, Sam Huff and Mitch Garver, with all three likely to catch or DH plenty during the season.

Throwing money at a problem doesn’t always work, but the Rangers hope that it can alleviate their pitching woes. If so, Texas has the offensive firepower to contend and even make a run at the playoffs, hoping to end their streak of silent Octobers.

Closing thoughts and other news

The AL West is shaping up to be an exciting division this season. The Astros and Mariners appear set to make deep October runs, while the Angels and Rangers look to vastly improve and even contend. In other news, college baseball started this past weekend and MLB Spring Training games are set to commence within a few days. With the World Baseball Classic beginning in a few weeks, baseball season is just around the corner. That’s all for the AL West. Look out for next week’s edition, as I continue these previews with the AL Central.