A’s still a slight favorite to repeat in AL West despite defections

BY J.A.SCHWARTZ

The Oakland A’s are the defending AL West champions, and are coming off their third consecutive postseason berth. Despite an offseason of player movement that saw Marcus Semien decamp to Toronto and Khris Davis move to Texas in a salary relief trade, Oakland should be in contention to make a run at the division title again in 2021. Elvis Andrus, who lost the shortstop job in Texas after 12 seasons as their starter, was imported from the Rangers to take over for Semien. The lineup will once again depend upon the productivity of Matt Olson, Ramon Laureano, and Matt Chapman, whose offseason hip surgery might slow him in the early portion of the season.

©DANIEL GLUSKOTER
Back on the field after missing the final month of the 2020 season with hip surgery, Oakland third baseman Matt Chapman’s abilty to return to form is key to the A’s ability to repeat in the AL West. The two-time Gold Glove winner set career highs with 36 home runs and 91 RBI’s in 2019.

The rotation will be very similar to the group that finished 2020, with improvement expected from young lefty Jesus Luzardo. With Chris Bassitt, Frankie Montas and veteran Mike Fiers, who returned on a one-year deal, the A’s should have consistent performers take the mound every night. The pen may be an area of concern, having lost elite closer Liam Hendriks to the White Sox, although in a recent move they did acquire Trevor Rosenthal, who bounced back from Tommy John surgery to have a solid year closing for the Royals and Padres last season. Additionally, Oakland invested in one-year deals for Yusmeiro Petit and Sergio Romo, and traded to get lefty specialist Adam Kolarek from the Dodgers. The A’s payroll, never among the league’s upper half, projects to be $77 million (22nd in baseball). General Manager David Forst figures to have little financial flexibility when considering in-season upgrades for a playoff push.

The Houston Astros nearly made history in 2020, rallying from being down three games to none to force a Game 7 against Tampa min the ALCS, but their valiant charge fell short. They allowed George Springer to leave via free agency, leaving Myles Straw as the best in house solution to play centerfield this season. They were able to retain Michael Brantley, who will reprise his role near the top of a still potent Astros lineup that will also welcome the return to health of 2019 AL Rookie of the Year Yordan Álvarez, who missed most of 2020 with knee surgery. Franchise cornerstones Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa and Alex Bregman will all look to rebound from down years at the plate last season.

©DANIEL GLUSKOTER
Houston’s Yordan Álvarez looks to bounce back after missing all but two games last season due to surgery on his right knee. The Cuban import made a monstrous debut in 2019, winning the AL Rookie of the Year award after slugging 27 homers with 78 RBI’s in just 87 games.

The Astros will be without ace Justin Verlander for the 2021 season following his Tommy John surgery last summer. Veteran Zack Greinke will lead the staff, which will probably not include breakout 2020 star Framber Valdez, who broke his finger in a spring training game and is contemplating season ending surgery. In response to that injury, the Astros signed free agent Jake Odorizzi to a two-year, $20 million deal in early March, and will count on he, Greinke and Lance McCullers to provide innings for the Houston staff. The pen will be anchored by veteran Ryan Pressly, who will take over the closer role from the since departed Roberto Osuna.

The Los Angeles Angels have had the best player in baseball-Mike Trout-on their roster for ten seasons. During his stellar major league career, the Angels have qualified for the playoffs a single time, and they were swept in 2014 by Kansas City in the ALDS. There is significant pressure on the organization to capitalize on the remaining prime seasons for their 29 year-old superstar, but they failed, yet again, to manage a significant upgrade to their roster this offseason. They did convince free agent Jose Quintana to leave the Cubs, and traded to import Alex Cobb from the Orioles, but neither is considered an impact addition to a pitching staff that finished 13th in the AL in ERA in 2020.

©DANIEL GLUSKOTER
Two years after helping to lead the Washington Nationals to their first World Series title, Anthony Rendon returns to a potent Angels lineup featuring Mike Trout, Shohei Ohtani and Albert Pujols. In 2019 he led the National League with 44 doubles and 126 RBI’s on the way to a third place finish in the NL MVP race.

Unicorn Shohei Ohtani, who hopes to return to both pitching and DH’ing for the Angels this season after losing another season to injuries that curtailed his mound work, is difficult to project as a potential ace despite having 100 MPH heat among his diverse arsenal of offerings. His inability to stay healthy for pitching duty has been a recurring theme during his stateside career, which has seen him throw only 53 innings over his three seasons in Anaheim. It is at the plate where the Angels hope to see Ohtani make his primary impact, adding length to a batting lineup that features Trout and Anthony Rendon at its heart, supplemented by breakout slugger Jared Walsh. If Jo Adell, the Angels top prospect and the #13 overall talent in the minor leagues, steps forward to claim an outfield job, the club may finally give Trout his well deserved chance to shine on the bright October stage.

The Seattle Mariners are building towards contention, and are flush with young, emerging minor league talent, many of whom could debut in 2020. Their top prospects are a pair of outfielders: Julio Rodriguez and Jarred Kelenic, ranked #3 and #4, respectively, in Baseball Amercia’s top 100. Kelenic may well make the Opening Day roster, while Rodriguez is likely to debut in 2022. Both are considered cornerstone assets, augmenting their 2020 AL Rookie of the Year winner Kyle Lewis in a dream outfield of potential superstars.

©DANIEL GLUSKOTER
Mariners centerfielder Kyle Lewis heads an influx of young talent into the Seattle organization.The 2020 AL Rookie of the Year could be a key as the team strives to make the postseason for the first time since 2001, the longest stretch of futility in the majors.

The M’s are not nearly as talented in the other positions around the diamond, but hope to see improvement from young infielders Evan White and JP Crawford to help position the team for a pennant run in the near future. Seattle has publicly committed to a six-man rotation, and will allow veteran Marco Gonzalez to front that group, likely followed by free agent James Paxton, Yusei Kikuchi and Korean league import Chris Flexen. The Mariners also figure to break in Justin Dunn, Justus Sheffield and Logan Gilbert as young pitching hopefuls that might well make their mark in 2021, giving long-suffering Seattle fans something to dream about.

The Texas Rangers trotted out the worst offense in the American League in 2020, scoring just 224 runs in 60 games, 24 runs behind Cleveland. Their outlook for the 2021 season is not significantly better, as the Rangers are in the midst of a rebuilding effort that is entering its fifth year since their last winning season. Hulking slugger Joey Gallo is the lone bright spot in an otherwise nondescript lineup, and his towering home run blasts will have to provide a reason to attend games at Globe Life Park this year. Elvis Andrus, who was with the club for 12 seasons, lost his starting job and was traded to the A’s for Khris Davis in a swap of unwanted contracts, but Davis may well be among the most dangerous hitters in the lineup despite coming off two seasons of plummeting productivity in Oakland.

©DANIEL GLUSKOTER
Joey Gallo of the Rangers is one of the most feared sluggers in the game, but he also strikes out at one of the highest rates in MLB History. The Gold Glove first baseman is a career .208 hitter but reached 40 home runs in both the 2017 and 2018 seasons.

The best Ranger bats are probably Nick Solak, Willie Calhoun and the versatile Isiah Kiner-Falefa, who won a Gold Glove at third base for the Rangers in 2020, and will slide to his left to become the starting shortstop this season. Their rotation no longer includes workhorse Lance Lynn, who was traded to the White Sox for starter Dane Dunning (among others) this winter, and will be dependent upon free agent additions Kyle Gibson and Japanese league veteran Kohei Arihara to lead a staff of promising young hopefuls who aspire to be part of the next competent Texas ballclub.

Predictions:

AL East: Yankees
AL Central: Twins
AL West: Athletics
Wild Cards: White Sox, Rays

AL Pennant: Yankees

About J.A. Schwartz

J.A. Schwartz is a reporter and columnist for the Martinez Tribune. He's also a licensed professional in the health care field when he's not opining on the world of sports and culture for the benefit of our readers.

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