The grind of a 162-game season has returned as baseball has, for the most part, returned to normalcy with Opening Day taking place at the start of April and a full schedule as 30 teams battle for the Commissioner’s Trophy. While some aspects of last year’s 60-game schedule (such as a runner on second to start each inning in extra innings and a seven-inning doubleheader) are still in place, the postseason format will return to normal with five teams representing each league in the postseason. As Opening Day is drawing near, here is a preview of the American League West, a division full of question marks and absolute mystery.
1. Oakland Athletics (2020 record: 36-24)
The Athletics are always that team that finds a way into the postseason. Even if their success in the postseason is limited and scarce, they can usually be counted on in the regular season to get into the postseason. 2020 was no different as despite losing third baseman Matt Chapman to a hip injury in September, the Athletics still came away with an AL West crown. In the playoffs, they swept the Chicago White Sox in the Wild Card Round before losing to the Houston Astros in the ALDS.
In regard to pitching, the 2020 team was led by Chris Bassitt, who starred last season with a 5-2 record and a 2.29 ERA. The other four starters, Mike Fiers, Sean Manaea, Jesus Luzardo and Frankie Montas, all anchored a rotation that contributed to the fifth-best team ERA in the MLB (3.77). All five starters return for 2021, looking to build from an already strong 2020 season. While they lost star closer Liam Hendriks to the White Sox, former Cardinals bullpen ace Trevor Rosenthal will take the reigns at closer this season.
Their lineup loses Khris Davis, who was traded in a deal with Texas that involved Elvis Andrus, and shortstop Marcus Semien, but they gain Andrus and Mitch Moreland, who has been a reliable contributor for the San Diego Padres and Boston Red Sox over the past few seasons. With the heart of the lineup back with Chapman, Matt Olson, Mark Canha and Ramon Laureano and their rotatio back, expect the Athletics to repeat as the AL West champions.
2. Houston Astros (2020 record: 29-31)
The Astros’ first season post-scandal was bumpy, reaching the playoffs with a losing record in 2020 only because of the extended playoffs format last season. However, once they got to the playoffs, they looked like their old selves, defeating the Minnesota Twins and Athletics to reach the ALCS for the fourth consecutive season. They eventually fell to the Tampa Bay Rays in the ALCS in seven games.
Houston’s lineup struggled in their first season since the sign-stealing scandal was exposed, dropping to 16th in team OPS in the MLB in 2020. Two of their main hitters over the past few years in Alex Bregman and Jose Altuve saw a significant drop in production, as Altuve hit for a .629 On base+ Slugging Percentage (OPS) while Bregman’s dropped to .801, his lowest since his 2016 rookie year. Pitching was a mess, as without ace Justin Verlander, the rotation struggled to find their World Series form with Zack Greinke and Lance McCullers Jr. notching 3-3 records, leaving Framber Valdez and Christian Javier to pick up the slack.
Despite reaching the ALCS, the Astros are a shell of what they used to be when they made two World Series in three years. They lost star center fielder George Springer this offseason and despite the return of Kyle Tucker and Michael Brantley, hope for an improved offense in 2021 appears to be bleak. While they added Jake Odorizzi to bolster the rotation, it will take time for him to get implemented into the rotation. I expect the Astros’ regular season to be similar to last season with the Astros missing the postseason for the first time since 2016 as the postseason returns to five teams instead of eight.
3. Los Angeles Angels (2020 record: 26-34)
The Angels are a frustrating franchise. They have bolstered the best player in the MLB for the past decade, yet continue to waste his career as the Angels have reached the postseason a grand total of one time without a single playoff win (swept by the Kansas City Royals in the ALDS). Last season, Trout was sixth in the MLB in OPS with .993 with his fifth MVP award, yet the Angels finished fourth place in the AL West behind the rebuilding Seattle Mariners. Pitching was the biggest culprit as the Angels finished with the sixth-worst team ERA with 5.09.
The Angels this offseason refused to break the bank on 2020 Cy Young winner Trevor Bauer, who went to the Los Angeles Dodgers. Their pitching, while possibly being reinforced by Shohei Ohtani whenever he returns to full health, is still a huge question mark. Their lineup remains the same with veteran Dexter Fowler to take over at right field after missing half the 2020 season with a stomach ailment. Without much change, the Angels will be stuck in mediocrity as Albert Pujols enters the final year of his albatross contract.
4. Seattle Mariners (2020 record: 27-33)
The Mariners’ offseason was filled with controversy as former team president Kevin Mather resigned after insensitive comments about players and staff. Outside of that, the Mariners head into another season of their long rebuild. Last season, their rebuild took a step forward as center fielder Kyle Lewis broke out with a strong start to the season, winning the AL Rookie of the Year award unanimously and first baseman Evan White showed signs of promise.
Pitching, the Mariners struggled with the seventh-worst team ERA in the MLB but Marco Gonzalez pitched like an ace with a 7-2 record and an ERA of 3.10. Their rotation has been bolstered for the 2021 season with their big free agent acquisition in James Paxton, who returns for a second stint with the team after winning 23 games in two years with the team in 2017 and 2018 before pitching for the New York Yankees in 2019 and 2020.
With two of the top-five prospects in Jarred Kelenic and Julio Rodriguez still developing, this will be another season for the Mariners to stay the course during their rebuild. If the rotation can shows signs of improvement from last season, the future will become that much brighter for the Mariners.
5. Texas Rangers (2020 record: 22-38)
The less said about the Rangers’ 2020 season, the better. Outside of some stellar pitching performances from ace Lance Lynn, the Rangers’ starting pitching rotation was less than desirable with the other four starters (Kyle Gibson, Jordan Lyles, Mike Minor and Kolby Allard) all losing at least five games with no more than two wins and a minimum ERA of 5.35. Their lineup was arguably even worse, finishing with the second-worst team OPS in the MLB with a mark of .648.
This offseason, they traded away Elvis Andrus and Lance Lynn while acquiring outfielder David Dahl and former Athletics’ designated hitter Khris Davis to add depth into the lineup. With their farm system in the bottom 10 in the MLB and lacking any star to build around, this will be another dark year in a bleak road ahead for the franchise.