Houston leads AL West, A’s not far behind

Prior to the outbreak of the COVID pandemic, the Houston Astros’ cheating scandal was the major headline in baseball. Prior to the story breaking, Houston’s sign stealing was widely known, particularly in the AL West, but the league ignored it until an article in the Athletic brought it to the public’s attention.

The Astros’ cheating was so well known in baseball that after the Washington Nationals secured the National League crown, they were given information on Houston’s cheating.

“As one member of the Nationals put it, “It was amazing, once [it was assured] we were playing the Astros, how many people were coming out of the woodwork to let us know what they were doing.”

Barry Svrluga & Dave Sheinin, Washington Post

Once the scandal broke, the Astros fired their general manager and manager; leaving the club’s leadership in chaos. Despite the chaos, the quick hiring of Dusty Baker and James Click has seemingly stabilized the franchise during this chaotic time. Plus, the roster is still stacked with talent that easily has them as the projected front runner in the division.


Strengths and Weaknesses

Heading into this season, the AL West is incredibly top heavy with Houston and Oakland easily being the two most talented rosters in the division. While the Mariners and Rangers are filled with lots of young, and promising talent that could really shake-up the division in the next few years…as for the Angels, it’s hard to figure out what management’s vision is for their franchise’s future.

The shortened 2020 season should provide an interesting look at what the strengths and weaknesses of each franchise; because 60-games is too short to really form any judgement about how individual players are progressing or aging.

Houston Astros:

Strengths: The Astros are returning the vast majority of their star studded line-up as we head into 2020. This line-up slugged .495 last season with a wRC+ of 125, as a team. As a result, Houston scored 5.51 runs per game (good for fourth in the MLB). This line-up is incredibly deep with Jose Altuve, Alex Bregman, and George Spring being the most widely known names on it; it’s actually really easy to forget that Josh Reddick is also on this roster and was pretty consistent for the Astros last season.

Starting pitching was also a strength for Houston, as they had a 3.61 ERA and 3.81 FIP. The Astros’ starters had such a low FIP because they kept runners off of the base paths with a low walk rate and batting average. Since most of the starting staff is returning from last year, it seems likely their dominance will continue.

Weaknesses: The bullpen was easily the weakest component of the roster last season, their ERA and FIP were 3.75 and 4.24 respectively. Most of that was driven by struggles from Joshua James as he struggled with a relatively high walk rate and relatively high BABIP; not far behind him was Framber Valdez. Both of these young pitchers were in their first full season at the major league level; don’t be too surprised if they make major improvements heading into the COVID shortened 2020, and 2021.

Texas Rangers:

Strengths: The biggest strength for Texas is the rosters youth and developmental potential. Between the relief and starting pitchers, the average age is 29.1 years old; while the position players’ average age is 29.3. There is a potential for some of these players to take big steps forward heading into 2020; or to go off on a insanely hot two week stretch that could alter the course of the Rangers’ 60-game season.

Weaknesses: Pretty much everything else is a major question mark for Texas as we head into the season. The offense managed a measly wRC+ of 88 while striking out in 25.4% of their plate appearances and only walking in 8.6%. A big reason for these struggles at the plate was the lack of depth or consistency in the line-up, especially since star Joey Gallo missed the majority of last season with an oblique injury. There is optimism that the line-ups overall performance will improve with him in it; but the the fact that only four players saw more than 500 plate appearances is a concern for the line-up.

There is very little optimism with either the bullpen or starting pitchers as well. Last season the starting staff had a FIP of 4.81, while the relievers was 4.88. While the strikeout rate was decent, the walk rate was uncomfortably high and they struggled with a higher than average BABIP as well. With the wildly inconsistent annual results that bullpens get, you could see Texas string together decent season for its relief staff…but that’s really the only thing to look forward to.


Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim

Strengths: Mike Trout…and 26-year old infielder David Fletcher are really all the Angels have to watch heading into 2020. Fletcher capitalized on the promise he showed in 80 games in 2018, by earning a wRC+of 99 in 154 games while being worth 3.4 wins. The 26-year old did this while striking out in 9.8%of his plate appearances, that is almost unheard of strikeout rate in major league baseball these days. With Trout and Fletcher in the middle of their line-up, Los Angeles should still be able to score runs.

Weaknesses: While the starting staff is young, an average age of 26.3 years, it struggled to leave runners on base and not give up home runs last season. These numbers were compounded by the injury to ace, Shohei Ohtani that caused him to miss the majority of the season. If Ohtani can stay healthy — which probably means giving up his stints as a designated hitter — then the Angels starters could see improvement; and they need it after posting a FIP of 5.41 in 2019.

With the position players getting older, including the 40-year old Albert Pujols and 32-year old Justin Upton, the Angels are facing a crucial point in the franchise’s course for the next decade or so. There isn’t a lot of flexibility this season with the taxi squad, and their minor league depth is pitiful going into 2021 and beyond.

Oakland Athletics

Strengths: The A’s offense last season was potent, because of a team wRC+ pf 107 and a slugging percentage of .448 they averaged 5.15 runs per game — good for eighth in the league. With most of that starting line-up returning, including Marcus Semien (wRC+ 137), Matt Chapman (125), Mark Canha (146). The depth and durability in the line-up is also impressive, six players posted more than 500 PAs last season and Canha was sitting at 497. This line-up is dangerous and deep, which is going to give them a chance to feast on some of the weak pitching staffs in the division.

Oakland’s bullpen was one of the very best in baseball last season as they held batters to a BABIP of .284, while striking out 24.8% of them and only walking 9.1%. While bullpens are infamously inconsistent from season to season, the A’s K-BB% of 15.7 was the 10th best in the majors last season and that’s reason to be optimistic about this unit heading into the season.

Weaknesses: Despite only walking 6.9% of batters last season while only having a BABIP against of .274, the FIP of the Athletics’ starters was 4.57 in 2019. The staff needs 28-year old Sean Manaea, who missed the bulk of last season recovering from a 2018 injury, to continue to preform at a similar level to his 29.2 innings in 2019; otherwise it could continue to be a tough season for the starting staff.

Seattle Mariners:

Strengths: The Mariners offense was surprisingly average last season, despite the relatively low wOBA of .314 the team still pulled in a wRC+ of 98. It was fueled by the surprising emergency of catcher Tom Murphy who led the team with a percentage of .535 (for qualified batters) while also owning a surprisingly high wRC+ of 126. Just ahead of him in both categories was rookie Kyle Lewis (.592 and 127 respectively); Lewis only did that in 75 plate appearances, while Murphy did it in 281. Even Kyle Seager looked a lot more like the Kyle Seager that Mariners fans have come to know and love throughout his career.

Weaknesses: Well, anything related to pitching really. The Mariners starting staff was woeful, despite the expensive addition of Yusei Kikuchi, and it seems likely that the struggles will continue in the 60-game season. Seattle’s starting pitching struggled to strike batters out while the relievers struggled to strand runners. While the bullpen is probably still going to be an issue heading into this season, at least there is hope that the starting rotation should improve if Kendall Graveman and Taijuan Walker can stay healthy.

The club’s defense was particularly ugly last season as well, but that can be partly blamed on running Jay Bruce in the outfield as much as they did during the first part of the season. If they can get any improvement out there, it will take some pressure off of their offense; but that’s a big if considering how young and inexperienced most of the roster is going to be.

My projected winner

The depth of the Oakland Athletics’ line-up, with the strength in their starting pitching gives them a really good chance at challenging Houston for the division crow. With the arms they have in the bullpen, I could easily see them picking up just enough wins against the awful offenses in Texas, Anaheim, San Francisco, and San Diego for them to squeak out a division title in this pandemic shortened season. General manager Billy Bean has put together another impressive roster with minimal financial resources; and I’m convinced it’s enough to bring another AL West crown to the east side of San Francisco Bay.

Projected playoff odds

TeamProjected W – LWin DivisionWin WildcardMake PlayoffsWorld Series win
Astros36 – 2461.9%16.7%78.6%15.1%
Athletics32 – 2821.5%22.0%43.5%3.6%
Angels31 – 2911.8%15.8%27.6%1.4%
Rangers28 – 324.5%7.3%11.7%0.3%
Mariners23 – 370.3%0.5%0.8%0%
Courtesy of Fangraphs

*Baseball reference simulated an 84 game season in Out of the Park Baseball 21. It is not included in this article but you can read about it here.