1. Athletics

Key Additions: Parker Bridwell, Marco Estrada, Jurickson Profar, Mike Fiers, Joakim Soria

Key Losses: Jed Lowrie, Jeurys Familia, Trevor Cahill, Jonathan Lucroy

Beware of Oakland. This team is not being given enough credit. Fangraphs has them projected to win 84 games this season after taking 97 contests in 2018. This even though their lineup is predicted to be deeper than Houston’s (Houston has more stars, but has five projected 2+-WAR players compared to Oakland’s seven), their bullpens should be comparable, and frankly, Oakland’s roster a decent-to-good-at-least option at every position on the diamond except maybe left field. Houston has no solid option behind the dish, or at first base. In fact, the only area in which Oakland has a decided disadvantage between the current rosters is starting pitching. Having said that, it’s not that they are devoid of options. They simply are unproven at the highest level, as a good share of the workload is likely to be shouldered by young, highly-talented-yet-unheralded names such as Jesus Luzardo, AJ Puk, and then have guys like Mike Fiers and Marco Estrada round out the rotation as veteran inning-eaters. They also have a host of prospect depth. Houston has this as well, but has shown a remarkable stronghold on their young talent for the most part. If the team starts out strong and is sitting within five or six games of Houston come summer, it’s very reasonable to believe that they could look to another team and be willing to part with names such as Puk, Sean Murphy, Austin Beck, Daulton Jeffries, Brian Howard, or James Kaprielian to create a package to lure a top arm to slide into the top spot of a rotation that will likely have several other solid options by that point. Whether offseason or in-season, frontline-starter jolts like this have been proven recently to take a team from a close race to ahead of the pack (see, Verlander-Astros, Price-Blue Jays, Sale-Red Sox, etc.) and Oakland certainly boasts the capital to do it. Not to mention, this lineup is young and getting better, compared to the team above which may have already peaked, holding steady or even nearing a decline.

2. Astros

Key Additions: Michael Brantley, Robinson Chirinos, Wade Miley

Key Losses: Brian McCann, Dallas Keuchel, Charlie Morton, Marwin Gonzalez, Martin Maldonado, Tony Sipp

Call me a cynic, but I’m simply not in the camp of blindly jumping on Houston as the runaway favorites to win the AL West. In addition to losing free agents Dallas Keuchel, Martin Maldonado, Brian McCann, Charlie Morton, Tony Sipp, and Marwin Gonzalez – a combined 10.6 WAR from the 2018 club – the team is returning a cast of players that won a combined 47.6% of their games versus last season’s American League playoff teams in Boston, New York, and Cleveland, and won just 51.9% of their games against teams with >.500 records, which was exactly average among those four teams. Furthermore, what has typically set Houston above other teams in recent years has been their superior pitching. This season, the Astros are projected by Fangraphs Steamer to have just two >2-WAR pitchers. This is still more than Oakland and, thusly, puts them likely as the odds-on choice by the talking heads to take the division. It is, however, a regression from recent seasons. Since coming into relevancy in 2015, the team has never once rostered fewer than three pitchers with a WAR of better than 2.0. Barring an unforeseen trade, re-upping with Dallas Keuchel, or making a surprise splash for Craig Kimbrel, the team is on track to have the least pitching depth it has seen in five years. Furthermore, Altuve is coming off his worst season in three years, Springer had career lows in wOBA and wRC+ and may never become what he was dreamt upon to develop as, and Correa has eclipsed 110 games played just once in his four years in the majors, and struck out almost 24% of the time this season (after never having a K%-rate of higher than 21.1%) as he slumped to a .239 batting average, .323 OBP, .405 SLG, 101 wRC+, and -4 DRS. With Verlander (albeit a pitcher who thus far has aged like your favorite Moscato d’Asti) looking at pitching this season at age-36, this team may be relying more heavily than ever on Gerrit Cole to extend their rein among the AL’s best.

3. Angels

Key Additions: Justin Bour, Matt Harvey, Jonathan Lucroy

Key Losses: Garrett Richards

You know how every team has an identity? Somewhere along the line, Anaheim’s identity became “a legendary outfielder, a bunch of injured pitchers, that first baseman who was great 10 years ago, a bad bullpen, and role players”. I can’t remember the last season in which this wasn’t the case, and it shows no signs of letting up anytime soon. Maybe in 2021, Adell will have gotten underway, Ohtani will be healthy, Trout will not have left, Upton will still have one more good season in him, Pujols will have been 86’d into retirement, and Simmons’ newfound ability to pull the ball and get fly action will finally allow him to be more productive than a terrific glove who poses no discernable threat at the plate whatsoever. Without Trout, this team would be in the bottom nine or ten clubs in the MLB, and even with him I cannot see a team whose fourth-best player is probably Zack Cozart being even close to a threat this season.

4. Mariners

Key Additions: Justus Sheffield, Jarred Kelenic, Domingo Santana

Key Losses: Nelson Cruz, Edwin Diaz, Robinson Cano, Ben Gamel

The Mariners are to the MLB what the Raiders have become to the NFL. They make a commitment to a huge name (Robinson Cano, Jon Gruden) to sell to their fans that it’s a “new” day, and then realize they weren’t built for that pressure, so the wheels come off and they spin their wheels into the ground. The Raiders just two years ago were 12-4, they had seven Pro Bowl players, and fans were dreaming on a young core of QB Derek Carr, WR Amari Cooper, and DE Khalil Mack. Now, it’s 2019, the Raiders went 4-12 and pick fourth in April’s draft, Mack’s a star in Chicago, Cooper was a key cog in a division win by Dallas, and Carr’s been rumored to be shopped to half the organizations in organized professional football. But it’s okay because now Gruden, who hasn’t coached an NFL game since I was in third grade, can link with Mike Mayock, a draft analyst with no executive experience, with a bunch of money and a bunch of picks and get their own guys, sort of like the Chip Kelly experiment in Philadelphia a few years ago. But at least they were committing to a rebuild…right? Wrong, they relinquished their grasp on two of their beloved draft selections in order to replace the young, talented, upside-heavy, loved teammate of Cooper with…Antonio Brown, a diva of a wide receiver who thinks quarterbacks shouldn’t be able to call out other players, will be 31 this season, is owed over $50 million between now and 2022, and alienated so many teams by his attitude that the Steelers practically had to beg the Raiders to take a Pro Bowl wideout off their hands. Oakland took the bait and proved they had no plan at all; it was all ad-libbing. I see striking similarities with the Seattle Mariners. Seattle, in 2014, had Cano, Seager, Hernandez, and Iwakuma. Not amazing but the cupboard wasn’t bare either, and the team finished 3rd in their division with 87 wins. 2015 was problematic, as the team stumbled to 76 wins, the offense was slim pickings aside from Nelson Cruz and Cano, and decline was clearly imminent for Hernandez. Understandably, however, the team did not want to clean house after one bad season especially with the hefty commitment made to Cano. 2016, the team is back over .500 with 86 wins, riding a more potent offense on the backs of Cano, Cruz, Seager, Smith and Aoki, to mask the stench that emanated from the team’s pitching staff, which was atrocious beyond breakout star James Paxton. The teeter-totter continued in 2017, with the team once again falling into losing territory with a 78-win record, the result of a mostly-strong lineup being bogged down by the albatross that was a pitching staff with a combined 4.46 ERA, and 1.31 WHIP. The Mariners, until this offseason, have had no clear direction and it’s not spoken about enough how they wasted five years of a future-Hall-of-Famer second baseman’s career by their sheer inability to get it right. This offseason, they let go of Cano, Paxton, Jean Segura, Mike Zunino, Nelson Cruz, Ben Gamel, and Edwin Diaz. They announced Felix Hernandez won’t start the opener. If they are committed to this once-and-for-all, Mitch Haniger, Kyle Seager, and Mallex Smith will all change their colors by the end of the season as well.

5. Rangers

Key Additions: Lance Lynn, Asdrubal Cabrera, Jesse Chavez, Logan Forsythe, Ben Revere, Luke Farrell, Carlos Asuaje

Key Losses: Robinson Chirinos, Adrian Beltre (retirement)

The Rangers are, like the Mariners, rebuilding. They have shown more commitment to the process, which is why you don’t still see several very good players in or past their primes scattered around the roster. The team was terrible last season and probably will be this season and perhaps next as well, but they are all-in on this reboot and fans can take comfort and find excitement in knowing that talented young players such as Julio Pablo Martinez, Bubba Thompson, Cole Winn, Owen White, and Mason Englert, will get a chance to develop into names they can more realistically dream on one day. That being said, this season is much less about what the players at the Major League level do. What will be key for the Rangers organization and its fans is to show that some of these high-risk, high-reward, lower-level prospects are for real down on the farm.

Final Thoughts…

Having said all of this, I believe it’s closer between Houston and Oakland than some people are willing to admit. Oakland’s lineup, depth, bullpen, and ability to bolster their rotation mid-season, coupled with my aforementioned concerns about Houston, have me believing this division could be a surprise win for the Athletics. I don’t think Houston misses it by more than a game or two. I fully expect Trout, Simmons, Ohtani, and one or two pitchers to keep the Angels at least relevant enough to be a default third-place finish, though missing the playoffs due to stiff competition from teams like Minnesota, Tampa Bay, and whoever finishes second between New York and Boston. I think that the Mariners will hold on to their remaining good players long enough to have a barely-better record than the bare-cupboard Rangers.

Projected Standings:

  1. Oakland Athletics
  2. Houston Astros
  3. Anaheim Angels
  4. Seattle Mariners
  5. Texas Rangers

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