AL West Preview: Can Ohtani, Angels unseat the Astros?
By STEPHEN HAWKINS
Once Shohei Ohtani struck out Mike Trout for an epic finish to the World Baseball Classic, the former AL MVPs quickly returned to being teammates again for what could be their last chance together to lead the Los Angeles Angels to the playoffs.
For the Athletics, this might be their last season in Oakland.
A long postseason drought is over for the Seattle Mariners after their first playoff appearance since 2001 - and they feel like they can do it again. Three-time World Series champion manager Bruce Bochy and two-time NL Cy Young Award winner Jacob deGrom have joined the Texas Rangers, who have had six losing seasons in a row.
In the AL West, they all still have to try to get by Dusty Baker and his reigning World Series champion Houston Astros.
Even with Jose Altuve injured and three-time Cy Young Award winner Justin Verlander gone in free agency, Houston is a solid favorite to win another division title, according to FanDuel Sportsbook. Its leadoff-hitting second baseman is out until possibly June after breaking his thumb while playing for Venezuela in the WBC, while Verlander departed in free agency during the offseason.
The only time in the last six years the Astros didn't win the AL West was the 2020 season shortened to 60 games because of the pandemic. They went to the ALCS each season and made it to four World Series, winning two of them.
HOW THEY PROJECT
1. Houston Astros: Altuve is out until possibly June after getting hit by a pitch, but the Astros added former MVP 1B José Abreu in free agency to a lineup that otherwise remained mostly intact, including slugging DH Yordan Alvarez, 3B Alex Bregman and RF Kyle Tucker. All-Star lefty Framber Valdez is 28-12 the past two seasons and Cristian Javier threw 11 1/3 scoreless innings in two postseason starts last year. But their rotation depth will be tested with Lance McCullers Jr. (strained right elbow) out to start the season.
2. Seattle Mariners: Coming off their first playoff appearance in more than two decades, the Mariners believe they have added pieces to close the gap in the division. They boast one of the strongest starting rotations in baseball and should benefit from having ace Luis Castillo for a full season following his midseason trade from Cincinnati last year. AL rookie of the year Julio Rodríguez is the face of the franchise and should be even better in his second season. Seattle’s success will depend largely on if the offense is improved after adding Kolten Wong, Teoscar Hernández and AJ Pollock.
3. Texas Rangers: Bochy was coaxed out of a three-year retirement by one of his former pitchers, GM Chris Young, who then revamped the Rangers' starting rotation. Along with deGrom ($185 million over five years), whose final two seasons with the Mets were injury-plagued, former All-Star Nathan Eovaldi and lefty Andrew Heaney signed multiyear deals in free agency. Jake Odorizzi was acquired in a trade. None pitched the full season last year because of injuries. Neither did Jon Gray, signed to top the rotation last season before three IL stints, though lefty Martín Pérez was a first-time All-Star. At 68 wins, Texas had only eight more than in 2021 before the $500-million addition of middle infielders Corey Seager and Marcus Semien.
4. Los Angeles Angels: Two-way superstar Ohtani has made it clear he wants to play for a winner. The 2021 AL MVP, and runner-up for that award last year (15-9, 2.33 ERA/.283 batting average with 34 homers, 95 RBIs), is going into his sixth and final season under contract with the Angels. They haven't even had a winning season since he arrived from Japan. Three-time MVP Trout, the U.S. captain at the WBC and signed with LA through 2030, has been to the playoffs only once in his 12 seasons. The Angels were swept in the 2014 ALDS, four years before Ohtani arrived, and their postseason drought since matches the longest in the majors. They did sign another All-Star pitcher, lefty Tyler Anderson ($39 million, three years) after he was 15-5 for the Dodgers, and added the bats of Gio Urshela, Hunter Renfroe and Brandon Drury to the lineup.
5. Oakland Athletics: Coming off the franchise’s first 100-loss season since 1979, the A’s then traded away their stars in another winter of salary shedding - dealing catcher Sean Murphy to the Braves and left-hander Cole Irvin to the Orioles. That comes after last year’s trade-heavy winter sending away several other stars. That makes it tough on manager Mark Kotsay, who kept his cool and positive spirit even as his club lost 102 games in his first season, only two years after the low-budget A’s won the AL West during the virus-shortened 2020 campaign. Oakland did acquire hard-throwing 6-foot-6 Japanese right-hander Shintaro Fujinami on a $3.25 million, one-year contract.
BET ON VEGAS?
The A's are considering a relocation to Las Vegas, and Major League Baseball has said their current home of the rundown Oakland Coliseum is not a long-term answer for the franchise. They have played there since 1968, and had MLB's lowest average attendance last season at 9,973 per game.
BAKER AND BOCHY
The 73-year-old Baker and 67-year-old Bochy, each going into his 26th season managing and with more than 2,000 career wins, are the oldest current managers in the majors.
Baker got his first World Series championship as a manager last season, his third with the Astros since taking over in the aftermath of the sign-stealing scandal that left a stain on the franchise's 2017 title. The Astros lost the 2021 World Series in six games to Atlanta.
Bochy won his titles with San Francisco in 2010, 2012 and 2014. The first of those came against Texas, which returned to the World Series in 2011 but hasn't been back since.
AP Baseball Writer Janie McCauley, and AP Sports Writers Tim Booth and Greg Beacham contributed to this report.
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Updated March 24, 2023