Dynasties are awesome. Winning back-to-back World Series? That’s glorious. Actually doing those things, though? Therein lies the challenge. Just ask the Chicago Cubs.
The Houston Astros aren’t that different than the Cubs of last year. They return a very talented young core just months after winning a World Series that came from a complete tear-down-and-rebuild. The Astros, on paper, look every bit capable of repeating and becoming an MLB dynasty.
Oh, but it ain’t easy.
While the Astros are the certain favorites to win the AL West, a 162-game baseball season presents hurdles and pitfalls that you can’t even imagine in April, let alone March. So the AL West isn’t just the Astros and everybody else.
The Seattle Mariners are trying to break the longest playoff drought in baseball and could do it if things go their way. The Los Angeles Angels made the biggest offseason acquisition in the game, to go along with the best player in the game. That makes them at least dangerous. The Texas Rangers are, well, interesting. And the Oakland Athletics have talent and a knack for the improbable.
It’s the Angels that get the most attention, though because of Japanese import Shohei Ohtani, who is trying to do what might even be more improbable than a dynasty: He wants to become a two-way star in MLB as an ace pitcher and a slugging DH. The early returns haven’t been great, but it’s called spring training for a reason. If Ohtani delivers on his enormous potential, it could make the Astros’ path to October even tougher.
Let’s dissect the AL West with a look at its new faces, its biggest questions and what each team would have to do to win.
In case you need you a reminder of who plays where now.
Gerrit Cole, Houston Astros
The Astros have exactly what they need at the plate, and even after winning the 2017 World Series, they’re still working to improve their rotation. Considering the Astros’ attitude about spending money on anything that’s riskier than crossing the street, it’s not surprising that they chose to fill one of their holes via trade. They didn’t give up much to get him, which is a reflection of his past few years: Cole spent 2016 and 2017 being injured and/or inconsistent. But if there’s still ace stuff lurking in Cole’s arm, the Astros know how to find it. Charlie Morton’s stunning turnaround is certainly evidence of that. And pitching in the same rotation as Justin Verlander and Dallas Keuchel certainly won’t hurt his form, either. If Cole can get back to where he was in 2015, the Astros could cruise right back to the playoffs — and beyond.
Shohei Ohtani, Los Angeles Angels
Ohtani was one of the most anticipated international prospects of all-time, if not the most anticipated. But after the kind of spring he’s had, it almost feels like cheating to put him here. His pitches haven’t fooled many hitters, and he’s constantly looked overmatched at the plate. But there are a few things to remember before making any definitive judgments. In Japan, Ohtani never impressed in spring training, and always managed to bounce back. And Ohtani has been facing MLB hitters and pitchers for less than two months. Thirty teams weren’t interested in Ohtani just because he could both pitch and hit; the guy’s got real potential. If everyone is patient and gives him some time to adjust to MLB, he could help the Angels shake up the AL West (or at least the wild-card).
Bartolo Colon, Texas Rangers
Ichiro Suzuki, Seattle Mariners
These two don’t play the same position, and they’re not even on the same team. But anyone looking for nostalgia from baseball seasons past doesn’t have to search beyond the AL West. Both players are over 40, and they know they’re running out of time before retirement catches up and overtakes them, but it’s still comforting to see them out on the field. For some fans, those players are the last link between the baseball they watch today, and the baseball they watched 10-15 years ago. Nostalgia is still worth something in baseball today, but both Colon and Suzuki still have more left in the tank. Ichiro has been mostly pinch-hitting and hasn’t been a full time player in a few years, but since his age 40 season (which was, insanely, 2014), he’s managed to hit .264 with a .318 OBP. And Bartolo Colon is still an innings-eater at age 44: in 2017, he averaged over five innings a start. We won’t be able to watch them for much longer, so let’s enjoy every single inning of Ichiro and Bartolo we get to see.
THREE BIG QUESTIONS ABOUT THE AL WEST
Good news: We’ve got 162 games to figure out the answers.
Could the Astros improve on 101 wins?
The Astros are as set as any team could be heading into the season. The only legitimate question surrounding them might be if they can actually be more dominant than they were when winning 101 games and a World Series last season. The scary thing is that it’s entirely possible. Not only will they have a full season with Justin Verlander in 2018, they’ve added another ace in Gerrit Cole. The offense will again revolve around Jose Altuve, and it’s reasonable to think guys like George Springer and Carlos Correa will be even better going forward. The Astros are scary good.
Can the Mariners rotation stay healthy?
Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto is confident he has the pieces to put together a winning rotation. It’s keeping those pieces in one piece that’s been the issue. Last season, the Mariners called on 17 different pitchers to start games. It’s difficult to build any consistency or hope when that’s the case. That’s especially true when the guys you’re counting on most, Felix Hernandez and James Paxton, are in and out. If those two stay healthy this season, Seattle should be able to build around them. If not, it could be another long and disappointing season.
Will the Rangers have enough pitching?
For three straight seasons, the Rangers have had a top ten scoring offense. There appears to be nothing standing in the way of the streak continuing in 2018. Unfortunately, they’ve had a bottom ten pitching staff in four straight seasons, and that streak seems just as likely to continue. The Rangers figure to be reliant on veterans like Matt Moore, Mike Minor and Bartolo Colon after ace Cole Hamels, which isn’t very inspiring. In the bullpen, the closer’s job might be Tim Lincecum’s to lose. He hasn’t pitched in MLB since 2016. Unless they find some better answers quickly, it could be a long season in Texas.
HOW THEY COULD WIN
Every team can’t win. Most won’t. But here’s how each could *could* win the AL West.
• Houston Astros: The Astros are the best, and possibly deepest, team in baseball. It’s possible World Series fatigue is a thing — many of the Cubs’ pitchers saw some decline last season — so staving that off will be key. But unless the Angels find a way to clone Mike Trout three times, the Astros are winning the West.
• Los Angeles Angels: After many injury-riddled campaigns, everyone in the rotation stays healthy and pitches effectively. Spring training turns out to be a tiny blip in what becomes a Rookie of the Year caliber season from Shohei Ohtani on the mound and at the plate. Albert Pujols drives in 100 runs … again. Or, you know, none of that happens and Mike Trout wills them to the postseason anyway because he’s that good.
• Seattle Mariners: James Paxton stays healthy, finally delivering 200 unreal innings. That’s not enough to make him the bonafide ace, though, because Felix Hernandez returns to form in time to start the Mariners’ first playoff game in 16 years. Jerry Dipoto goes wild at the deadline and finally goes all-in realizing this is the team’s last chance to win with its current core.
• Texas Rangers: Joey Gallo somehow hits .250, and the combination of power and patience makes him a darkhorse MVP candidate. Elvis Andrus proves last year is his new norm. The Delino DeShields Jr. truthers are right, and he becomes one of the best leadoff hitters in the game. Cole Hamels returns to form. Matt Moore returns to form. Doug Fister returns to form. Mike Minor returns to form.
• Oakland Athletics: The Jonathan Lucroy signing really pays off. He rediscovers his excellent framing tactics, leading to massive improvements in the rotation. Stephen Piscotty becomes the rare player to leave St. Louis but still retain some “devil magic.” Franklin Barreto comes up and shows massive strides at the plate. Brad Pitt shows up at the division-clinching game to start doing research for his role in the “Moneyball” sequel.
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