There was once a time — and not so long ago — in which the AL West was one of, if not the, most competitive divisions in baseball. Though there was seldom a year in which all five teams were on the upswing, you could usually count on at least three to be good for 90+ wins, and a solid fight to the finish for the division crown.
2021 figures to be a unique year in the division, though — with all five teams at decidedly different points in their competitive cycles. While the exodus from Houston continued this past off-season, the influx in Los Angeles means that the Angels may well be the favourite entering the season. Factor in baseball’s perennial ‘Oh yeah, them’ team in Oakland (who were 2020 division champs, by the way), and a Mariners team that boasts some of the most exciting prospects in the game, and you again have the potential for four competitive teams. One could similarly argue that there is equal potential for the division to be a turtle derby, though, as none of these teams are necessarily a sure thing entering the season. Meanwhile, in Texas, the Rangers may be filling the stands on Opening Day, but they’ll be hard-pressed to fill the win column this year, as they are firmly in the throes of their rebuild.
2020 Record: 36-24 (.600 W%)
Notable Roster Changes
For a team that usually sees the annual turnover of a shopping mall McDonald’s, the A’s retained much of the core of their division-winning 2020 lineup — though it is a lineup that has plenty of room for improvement. The A’s finished below the league average in most standard hitting metrics (AVG, HR, OPS, RBI, TB), and lost some of their bigger bats (not to mention locker room leaders) in Marcus Semien and Khris Davis. The team will rely on its young core of Ramon Laureano, Matt Chapman, and Matt Olson to carry the load in 2021.
Olson off-set an ugly .195 AVG with decent power numbers (14 HR, 42 RBI), while Laureano (.213 AVG, .704 OPS) and Chapman (.232 AVG) were comparatively disappointing in conventional metrics. In fact, the ‘most reliable’ hitter amongst the club’s regulars in 2020 was probably Mark Canha, and he hit just .246. So there is a lot of room for improvement, even if in just the standard hitting metrics.
As is typical of an Oakland A’s roster, off-season tinkering was mostly limited to filling holes. Locker room leader Marcus Semien’s departure left a significant hole at Short, and veteran Elvis Andrus — coming off a career nadir in 2020 — is a speedy option to fill that hole. Coming off of a respectable 2020 campaign, 35-year old Mitch Moreland (.265 AVG, 10 HR, .894 OPS) will step into the club’s DH hole, and while the A’s shouldn’t expect peak-Khris Davis levels of production – Davis himself hadn’t exactly produced peak-Khris Davis levels of production in some time. A .250 AVG and 20 home runs would be considered a win at the spot.
Further down the lineup, Sean Murphy continues to represent a compelling prospect at Catcher – though, at 25, it’s time to talk turkey. Outfielder Stephen Piscotty had a rough 2020, and will look to bounce back to career average numbers; Losing Tommy La Stella as a utility infield option will hurt the club’s depth, as they don’t seem to have an impact prospect ready to fill in the holes.
Projected Starting Pitchers
With respect, having Chris Bassitt as your staff ace is like pulling a 10-4 hand in hold’em. You’ll make it work, but it’s hardly a hand that’ll have you jumping out of your seat. To be fair, Bassitt was strong in 2020 — posting a 5-2 record with a stellar 2.29 ERA and 1.16 WHIP. Much of that was driven by a sparkling four-start run in September, in which he allowed just one earned run (0.34 ERA). Over the past few seasons, Bassitt has been consistently good at what he’s good at: 3.24 K/BB, 0.86 HR/9, and a ridiculous 85.6% LOB. Hitters simply can’t get any pop off of his five-pitch mix. To expect those numbers to carry throughout a 162-game season is pie-in-the-sky, but most projections still suggest a sub-4.00 ERA, which the A’s will take.
The two most exciting starters in the A’s rotation are Frankie Montas and future-ace Jesus Luzardo. Montas simply hasn’t looked the same since a PED suspension derailed a stellar 2019 campaign. His FB% and HR/FB, and BB/9 rates took off, while his average velocity fell off. 2021 is very much a make-or-break season for the soon-to-be 28-year old, as he looks to reassert himself at the top of the club’s rotation. Luzardo, at 23, is the future of the rotation. His first full campaign as a starter produced middling results (3-2 in 9 GS, 4.12 ERA, 1.27 WHIP), though his 9.0 K/9 ranked in the bottom-20 in the league among qualified starters. He benefits from top-of-the-league GB% numbers and will need to continue that to stay effective. There’s also Sean Manaea, who was starting a wild card elimination game for the team just a year-and-a-half ago, but he hardly overwhelmed in 2020 (4-3, 4.50 ERA, 1.20 WHIP).
As usual, you can expect the bullpen to be the A’s bread-and-butter. The loss of star closer Liam Hendriks — who posted an obscene .067 WHIP and 1.4 WAR in just 25 IP — will certainly hurt, but the club is hoping that Trevor Rosenthal can build on his own stellar 2020 campaign from the closer spot. Failing that, the A’s like lefty stud Jake Diekman a lot, although expecting him to follow-up on a 0.42 ERA campaign at 34 is a bit like expecting your newborn to sleep the night. Nevertheless, the club will roll out a veteran middle-and-late innings platoon that may not be the sexiest on paper, but which will inevitably be in the top-5 in all of the relevant pitching metrics when all is said and done. At least, they’d better be, or this team is in serious trouble.
Impact Prospects: AJ Puk continues to be the one to watch. He made a decent showing of himself in 2020 (10 G, 11.1 IP, 3.18 ERA, 1.32 WHIP), but the team obviously expects more from him than to just be a middling relief pitcher. If Mike Fiers falters in the #5 spot, you can bet that the A’s will look to give Puk a shot. The one-time top prospect is 25 now and needs to start making moves. There’s some buzz around young utility infielder Nick Allen, who is a Gold Glove-calibre defender with a middling bat. He will likely make a cameo at some point in 2021. The A’s still hold out some hope for Daulton Jeffries, although the RHP was a disaster in his first Big League start in 2020 (2.0 IP, 5 ER on 2 HR).
2020 Record: 29-31 (.483 W%)
Notable Roster Changes:
The core that won the World Series for the Astros in 2017 continues to get whittled away, as longtime outfield centerpiece George Springer left for Toronto in the off-season. His departure leaves a massive gap at the top of the order, as he was a consistent 30 HR, 90 RBI, .280 AVG threat. The club also elected not to add anyone to the mix in the off-season, and will instead look to paper over the hole left from Springer’s departure with youth.
Houston is still reliant on much of the core that led them to the title in 2017, though — and much of that core is still in its prime. Jose Altuve (30), Alex Bregman (27), and Carlos Correa (26) were supplemented in 2020 by young star-in-the-making Kyle Tucker, who hit .268 with 9 HR and 42 RBI in the abbreviated season. In doing so, Tucker solidified himself as an everyday starter and gave the Astros already-formidable lineup another weapon. Although Altuve (.219/.286/.344, 5 HR, 18 RBI) and Bregman (.242/.350/.451, 6 HR, 22 RBI) had what were unquestionably the worst seasons of their career, these are two superstars and perennial MVP candidates, and they should bounce back.
Supplementing that core-four are some strong pieces. Among them, hard-hitting Yordan Alvarez, who was limited to just nine plate appearances in 2020 after suffering from COVID-19 and then going under the knife for knee surgery, is a 30+ HR power threat in the middle of the lineup, and Houston will benefit enormously if he can return to his 2019 form. 33-year old Michael Brantley briefly flirted with the free-agent market, before returning to Houston on a two-year pact. A sure-fire bet to flirt with .300 again, Brantley stabilizes some of the erratic power the Astros rely on, and is a dependable veteran presence in the clubhouse. Manager Dusty Baker also really likes 26-year old outfielder Myles Straw (.207 AVG, 8 RBI, 6 SB in 33G), and will likely give him Springer’s old spot in center on Opening Day
Projected Starting Pitchers
|2||Lance McCullers Jr.||R|
The Astros all-righty rotation is an intriguing mix, as it features some toolsy control-based veterans in Greinke and Odorizzi and some young guys with intriguing pitch mixes. With Justin Verlander sitting out the season, veteran Zack Greinke once again inherits an ace’s mantle, and he will look to carry his reliability and effectiveness into the 2021 campaign. Although conventional metrics suggest that Greinke had an off-year in 2020 (3-3, 4.03 ERA, 1.13 WHIP), he actually improved in some key areas, including career highs in K/BB (7.44) and FIP (2.80), along with a career-low BB% (just 3.3%). He did see his Line Drive and Fly Ball% numbers rise a touch, but other metrics show that he was on par with, or better than, last year. Of course, the distinct drop in average fastball velocity (90.0 in 2019 to 88.9 in 2020) is something to be concerned about — but Greinke has never been a flamethrower. He can still be solid at the front-end of a rotation.
Although it feels like he has been in the league forever, Lance McCullers Jr. is just 27 and is coming off a comparatively poor year by his standards. He saw his HR/FB and hard contact numbers rise, and his strikeout metrics fall. Like Greinke, much of this can probably be traced to a velocity dip across the board, particularly in his Cutter ( down to 83.7 mph from 86.2 in 2019). He’s still young, though, and should be able to dig to find those heights again. Signed in late February, Odorizzi was limited to just four starts for Minnesota in 2020 but was excellent in his last full-season (15-7, 3.51 ERA, 1.21 WHIP). Jose Urquidy (25) and Cristian Javier (23) both have breakout potential in 2021 and will need to be elevated into the regular rotation after the injury to rotation stalwart Framber Valdez in Spring Training
It’s Ryan Pressly’s ‘pen now, as the 32-year old perennial set-up man inherited the role in 2020 after Roberto Osuna went down to injury. Houston went out and signed Pedro Baez and Ryne Stanek to solidify what was a shaky middle-part of the bullpen, and the club will rely again on 20-somethings Enoli Paredes and Blake Taylor to carry heavy loads in the middle innings
Impact Prospects: The news that perennial top-prospect Forrest Whitley would be undergoing Tommy John surgery is yet another setback for the 2016 first-rounder, who now is likely ETA 2023 at best. Having graduated most of their top prospects to the Bigs in recent years, the Astros are currently a bit lean in potential impact. The club could tap 23-year old utility infielder Jeremy Pena for some appearances in 2021, but he is more of a defensive and speed specialist than an elite bat.
2020 Record: 27-33 (.450 W%)
Notable Roster Changes:
Subtractions: Yoshihisa Hirano, Dee Gordon
|Shed Long Jr./td>||INF||L|
A fresh, young core is bubbling to the surface in Seattle, and while we may not see two of the crown jewels of that core (Jarred Kelenic, Julio Rodriguez) on Opening Day, odds are that we’ll see them in the Pacific Northwest at some point in 2021. For the time being, the club will center its lineup around reigning AL Rookie of the Year Kyle Lewis, who rode a blistering start of the campaign (.368 AVG, 7 HR, 24 RBI in the 1st half of the season) through to the honors. It has been frequently pointed out this off-season that the second half of his season was comparatively abysmal (.150 AVG, 4 HR, 13 RBI, 36.8% K-rate), and the hope in Seattle is that he has worked to remedy those swing issues this offseason.
Lewis will be supported in the lineup by the likes of middle infielder Dylan Moore, a 30+ stolen base threat who hit a solid .255 with 8 HR in just 137 AB. Veteran Kyle Seager returns for his 11th season in Seattle, and still doesn’t get the recognition he deserves as a consistent 25 HR, 80 RBI threat in the heart of the lineup. The club still expects big things from 24-year old first baseman Evan White, though his ugly hitting metrics in 2020 (.176/.252/.346 with 8 HR) didn’t exactly reward the club’s consistent investment (182 AB, fourth-most in the lineup). There’s a lot of buzz around 26-year old Ty France, acquired from the Padres in a mid-season deal. He hit a healthy .302 AVG with an .815 OPS in 86 at-bats for the Mariners, and will likely be rewarded with an Opening Day slot in the middle of the order. Mitch Haniger is still a strong option at the top of the lineup, though it’ll be interesting to see how he has recovered after missing nearly two years with a variety of injuries.
Of course, much of the excitement in the Emerald City surrounds the prospect of MLB top-10 prospects Jarred Kelenic and Julio Rodriguez making their debuts at some point this off-season. There was a great deal of consternation surrounding the bizarre, unacceptable rantings of now-former club President Kevin Mather over the summer — much of which surrounded the club’s acknowledgment of service time manipulation with Kelenic, and a patently insulting declaration that Rodriguez’s English was ‘not tremendous’. Recognizing that these two represent the future of the organization, the Mariners went into damage control mode almost immediately – and as part of that, there is increasing belief that Kelenic could be part of the Opening Day roster. With 23-year old Taylor Trammell the only other realistic option in left field, it makes more than a little sense to give Kelenic — at 21, MLB.com’s #4 ranked prospect — the chance to prove himself.
Projected Starting Pitchers
Even a cursory glance confirms that the Mariners have one of the most bizarre rotations in baseball. With the signing of longtime franchise cornerstone James Paxton — who spent parts of two seasons with the Yankees — the club cemented a front-four built entirely of lefties. Paxton has the name value, but he started just five games in New York in 2020 and did not look good in them (50% FB rate, 46.4% Hard Contact, 3 mph velocity loss on his fastball). Of course, having undergone an intrusive bit of back surgery before the season didn’t exactly set him up for success, and he has all the tools to return to the dominant pitcher he has been for most of his career.
Marco Gonzales isn’t exactly a marquee name at the front of a rotation, but he has proven over the last three seasons to be a reliable one. Pitching to a strong 7-2 record with a 3.10 ERA and 0.95 WHIP on a relatively weak Mariners squad in 2020, Gonzales has reached the peak of his powers. His K-rate (23.1%), FIP (3.32), and BB rate (2.5%) were all career bests. He does rely on the deceptive movement of an 89 mph fastball as his central pitch, though — so he’s walking on a razor’s edge. Justus Sheffield showed a great deal of promise as a 24-year old in 2020, pitching to a 4-3 record in 10 starts, with a 3.58 ERA and 1.30 WHIP. He’s a sinkerball pitcher now, and reduced his walk rate in 2020 — though that came in tandem with a reduced Swinging Strike%. The club has announced that it will start the season with a six-man rotation, ostensibly to work in two low-inning righties at the #5 and #6 spots.
Rafael Montero, acquired from the Rangers in the off-season, figures to get his shot as the club’s closer to start the year. At 30 years old, 2020 was the first year in which he was relied on to close, and he hardly blew the doors off the joint (8 SV in 8 opportunities, 4.08 ERA, 26.4 K%), but he is a reliable veteran presence, and should help solidify a bullpen that was league-worst in Inherited Runners Scored % in 2020 (53%).
Impact Prospects: Kelenic’s time is now, and he should be a regular on the roster by July. If he’s not, it’ll be because of injury, and nothing else. He’s too good to hold back, and the optics behind doing so — particularly after what Mather said — would be terrible. Rodriguez isn’t likely to make his debut in 2021, but he is perhaps the even better prospect. MLB.com has him ranked #5, and at 20, he is the real deal. RHP Logan Gilbert, who was similarly referenced in Mather’s comments, is a 6’6 flame-throwing beast. Expect to see him get some starts at T-Mobile Park this season. He’s the real deal.
Los Angeles Angels
2020 Record: 26-34 (.433 W%)
Notable Roster Changes:
Though there have been many seasons recently in which the Angels would be declared a disappointment, 2021 was perhaps the nadir for a team that simply should be much better. At 26-34, the club finished 4th in the AL West, behind a rebuilding Seattle Mariners squad. There were some disappointing bats, but if you look at it closely, their hitting metrics bear out similarly to the division-winning A’s. Top-10 in Runs scored, Home Runs, RBI, OBP — and above league average in a lot of other categories. It would be fair to say that the bats held up their end of the bargain in 2020, and with most returning (and some looking significantly better in the Spring), there’s reason to be excited about the LA team in red.
By his lofty standards, 2020 would probably be considered a down-year for Mike Trout. A .281 AVG was his worst in a full season. His K% was up, and his walk rate, wRC+, wOBA, and hard-hit numbers will all down. He also stole just one base, sparking a flurry of hand-wringing about the ‘inevitability of his decline. But, look — this is Mike Trout. It was a weird year for everyone. He’s still just 29. He mentioned this Spring that he ‘discovered’ some things about his swing that were off last year — which, of course, should live pitchers everywhere in cold sweats.
Hitting directly behind Trout will be Anthony Rendon, who had a relatively strong 2020, despite the weirdness of it all. His important metrics remain strong, and at 30-years old, he’s still an MVP-calibre player in his prime. There’s also the matter of Shohei Ohtani, who has absolutely torn up Spring Training at-bats. The two-way superstar was anything but in 2020 — hitting an ugly .190/.291/.366 in 153 AB, to go along with a disastrous pair of pitching starts. Ohtani still needs to develop greater patience at the plate, but his weak power-hitting metrics, coupled with an unlucky BABIP (.229) suggest that the elbow issues that cost him pitching starts may have impinged upon his hitting as well.
Beyond the ‘big three’, the Angels are hopeful that super-prospect Jo Adell can grow into more consistency after a rough first MLB season (.161 AVG, .478 OPS in 124 AB). Veterans Justin Upton and Albert Pujols are legends, but are on their last legs, and provide little more than occasional pop. The team likes what it gets from utility man David Fletcher, who stepped onto the scene in a big way in 2020 (.319/.376/.425, 3 HR,18 RBI in 207 AB).
Projected Starting Pitchers
|MID||Jose Alberto Rivera||R|
While the Angels batting order upheld its end of the bargain (for the most part) in 2020, the pitching staff was decidedly more suspect. The Angels boast a rotation that is without a bona fide ace — something which they’ve lacked since the salad days of Jared Weaver and Garret Richards — but have some arms that are of above-replacement level. Andrew Heaney continues to tease ace stuff but produce #4 numbers. A deep dive suggests he was unlucky in 2020 (3.79 FIP, 3.68 K/BB, 12.9 HR/FB%) – but at some point, he needs to get his ERA below 4.
Dylan Bundy surprised many in 2020, with the best numbers of his career (6-3, 3.29 ERA, 1.04 WHIP, 72 K) in his first season with the Halos. Improvements in the fundamentals (K/BB%, HR/9, FB%) – but he did this all with reduced velocity and the opposition still hitting him pretty hard. He’ll need to continue with whatever adjustments he made last year if he wants similar success. Jose Quintana started just one game for the Cubs in 2020 and comes into this season with a lot to prove. So, too, does Griffin Canning, who put up respectable numbers (2-3, 3.99 ERA, 1.38 WHIP, 8.9 K/9) in his second full season, and is still just 24.
Ohtani is the wild card here. He looked abjectly poor in his two starts returning from Tommy John, but his velocity and other metrics are up in Spring Training starts thus far, and we all remember what he can do when healthy (see: 2018). If he can provide the Angels with one ace-quality start per week, that will be worth significant WAR, even in limited employment.
The club sought out Raisel Iglesias to solidify what was an area of real ugliness in 2020. The Angels bullpen ranked bottom-5 in the league in Save %, Blown Saves, and Inherited Runs Scored %. Gone are some of the main culprits for this misery (including one-time closer Hansel Robles), with the reliable Iglesias. In four seasons as the Reds go-to closer, he saved 100 games and was second in NL relief pitcher WAR in 2020. Iglesias had a strong campaign beyond that, posting career bests in swinging-strike rate, K/BB%, and walk rate, all while posting his highest average velocity since 2017.
Impact Prospects: Jo Adell should still be considered a prospect, even if he graduated in 2020 — it was a pretty poor graduating report card, though. He still has the pedigree to be great. Brandon Marsh looks like a future stud in the outfield, and at 23, is ready to get a real shot this year. The club still has hope that 22-year-old RHP Chris Rodriguez can be a rotation regular, despite a cadre of injuries over the past few years.
2020 Record: 22-38 (.367 W%)
Notable Roster Changes:
What has been a steadily sinking ship in the years since 2016, full-on capsized in 2020, as the Rangers recorded their worst winning percentage since 1973. It was a disaster up-and-down the lineup, but the team’s inability to effectively hit the baseball (dead-last in RBI, bottom three in AVG, OPS, H, R/G, TB) was their greatest undoing.
With the rebuild clearly on, there weren’t man impact bats brought in to assist a shallow lineup. Joey Gallo is the club’s most effective hitter, at least in terms of power numbers — but he managed just 10 HR in 193 AB in 2020, and posted an abysmal .181 AVG. His SLG was a career-worst .378, and he struggled to build on a strong 2019. His underlying metrics are decent, though (no spike in K-rate or chase numbers), and he should bounce back. Beyond Gallo, the versatile Isiah Kiner-Falefa emerged as an everyday contributor (.280 AVG, 8 SB), and so too did Nick Solak. But it was slim pickings otherwise.
The team entered the off-season looking to re-tool, and they went an interesting route — acquiring hard-hitting veteran DH Khris Davis from Oakland in a large deal. Like Gallo, Davis can’t be looked to give much beyond power — although he produced very little of that in a limited 2020 campaign. The club also added Nate Lowe from Tampa Bay, and the 25-year old has the potential to break out in an everyday role, despite a disappointing (see the theme?) 2020 (.224/.316/.433, 4 HR, 11 RBI in 67 AB). Beyond that, there isn’t much to write home about — unless highly-touted prospect Willie Calhoun stays healthy enough to make an impact in 2021.
Projected Starting Pitchers
While much of 2020 was an abject failure for the Rangers, their one bright spot was the performance of 33-year old Lance Lynn. Perpetually underrated, Lynn posted a 6-3 record with a 3.32 ERA and 1.06 WHIP on the second-worst team in the league. This remarkable feat inevitably led to trade discussion in the off-season, and with Lynn moving to the South Side of Chicago in exchange for a package including top-prospect Dane Dunning. The Rangers have high hopes for the 26-year-old Dunning, who showed well in seven starts with the White Sox last year (2-0, 3.97 ERA, 1.12 WHIP). The Rangers also hope that 26-year old Kyle Cody can show something, after a positive handful of starts in his first big-league season (1-1, 1.59 ERA, 1.23 WHIP in 5 starts).
Beyond those two, though, it ain’t a whole lot to talk about. It’s a bit like that old Billy Eichner skit, except it’s ‘NAME A PITCHER!’ The always respectable Kyle Gibson should be good for 18+ starts, but he has been trending downhill since 2018 and posted some ugly numbers in 2020 (2-6, 5.35 ERA, 1,53 WHIP). Jordan Lyles was similarly terrible, and yet still figures to be the team’s #2 starter come April. The pipeline is pretty dry, too — beyond Dunning and 21-year old Cole Winn. There just ain’t much there, and there ain’t much coming.
The Rangers bullpen was below-league average in most categories in 2020, and it traded away its closer in Rafael Montero. Jose Leclerc is a respectable option in the spot, and there’s a lot to like about young Jonathan Hernandez in the set-up role — but not many established guys beyond that.
Impact Prospects: If Dunning is still considered a prospect at 26, you can count him here. He’ll be one of the most interesting storylines to follow in Texas. 22-year old Leody Taveras is a speed-demon and will be a regular in the lineup from Opening Day. He has a power ceiling, but can be a .250+ hitter consistently for the club. The team is waiting on top prospect Josh Jung to arrive at third. When he does, he’ll be a consistent bat for the club and an easy 20-home run threat.
1. Oakland Athletics
2. Houston Astros
3. Los Angeles Angels
4. Seattle Mariners
5. Texas Rangers
While it’s tempting to predict the Angels to finally make a break-through, their pitching is still too suspect to see them consistently challenge the top-two. A healthy Ohtani could change all of that. The Mariners are also a tempting choice to elevate, but they’re a year or two away. (Kelenic and J-Rod, though…) It’ll be a slug-fest between the A’s and the Astros, and we still like Oakland. They were really good last year, and they’ve maintained much of that core — while doing Oakland-y things to supplement it. The Astros have a couple of big holes to fill in Springer and Verlander, and some real question marks in their lineup for the first time in ages. The A’s aren’t a World Series contender, but they’re good enough to win amongst this motley crew.
Photos by IconSportswire | Adapted by Justin Redler (@relderntisuj on Twitter)