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AL West Preview: Three key questions for each team

by Chris Brown

While there are no guarantees in the current environment, if all goes according to plan, there will once again be regular season MLB games in this country in under two weeks. The shortened schedule figures to make the 2020 season more of a sprint than a marathon, with each game taking on a higher importance than in normal circumstances, and nearly every team could be capable of a remarkable 60-game run.

With that in mind, 110 Sports is getting you set for the action by previewing each division with three key questions for each team in the shortened season. Let’s dive right in, starting with the American League West.

Houston Astros

Can the team’s aging starters remain healthy and productive?

After helping him emerge as one of the very best pitchers in the game, the Astros will be without Gerrit Cole in 2020 after he signed a nine-year, $324 million contract — the largest ever given to a pitcher — with the Yankees in December. Without Cole, Houston will lean heavily on 36 and 37-year-old starters to anchor a rotation with decreased depth than in recent years. Justin Verlander is coming back from a lat strain and groin surgery which would have sidelined him some in a typical season. And while Zack Greinke has remained one of the league’s top starters into his mid-30s, there’s always risk involved in having high expectations from a 36-year-old. Behind that pair in the rotation is Lance McCullers, who’s returning from Tommy John surgery, and projected fourth and fifth starters Jose Urquidy and Josh James, who have both missed the start of training camp with the team.

Will the sign-stealing scandal remain largely a headline of the past?

In normal circumstances, questions, speculation, and scrutiny would have carried over significantly into the 2020 season as one of the sport’s biggest headlines. But everything that’s occurred over the last five months has pushed that topic far off the front page. And given the absence of fans at ballparks in the shortened season, the team won’t have to hear the boos and taunts from fans that were surely set to come their way. That may be no small thing. Plus, the team won’t be facing the media in the clubhouse every day given COVID-19 restrictions. All that being said, fair or not, should the team get off to a slow start offensively, questions will be asked. 

Can Dusty Baker help right the ship?

In the wake of that scandal, the Astros hired widely-respected veteran manager Dusty Baker on a one-year deal to guide the team through a tumultuous period. While the hiring made perfect sense in some respects, it’s also interesting in that Baker’s traditional managerial style seems potentially at odds with the Astros’ well-documented analytical approach. In the end, Houston decided Baker’s leadership skills and experience were the most important. But it seems unlikely that Baker will change his tendencies in the dugout, and it will be interesting to see how that affects an analytically-driven team already under great pressure to win in 2020.

Los Angeles Angels

How will Shohei Ohtani fare in his return to the mound?

Ohtani burst onto the major league scene as a two-way star in his first MLB season, hitting .285 with 22 homers and 10 steals in 367 plate appearances and pitching to a 3.31 ERA in 10 starts. His elbow gave out later in the season, but despite making limited starts in the season’s final months, Ohtani won AL Rookie of the Year by a wide margin. After undergoing Tommy John surgery following the season, Ohtani returned as a hitter in 2019, putting up similarly impressive numbers. Now, Ohtani is just a few weeks away from pitching in a major league game for the first time in roughly two years. His impact in a shortened season could be tremendous, but it also wouldn’t be fair to expect him to be without some rust in his return to the mound. 

Can Joe Maddon lead the Angels out of a rough period?

It’s been a rough last few years for the Angels. The team is coming off a stretch of four straight losing seasons, something that hasn’t occurred since the 1970s, and their 72-90 record in 2019 under first-year manager Brad Ausmus was their worst since 1999. Enter Maddon. The quirky, charismatic, highly popular manager joins the Angels following a largely successful stretch with the Rays and after leading the Cubs to their first World Series title in 108 years. Maddon will be tasked with balancing a unique roster, one that includes the best player in baseball, a two-way star coming off Tommy John, a 40-year-old future Hall of Famer, key veteran players returning from injuries and a host of unproven starters. 

Is the addition of Anthony Rendon enough to elevate the team’s offense to another level?

The Angels don’t feature great offensive depth, making key injuries significantly impactful, but they do now have some significant star power. With Albert Pujols in the declining years of his career, Mike Trout has been without really high level protection in the lineup in recent seasons. That all changes with the addition of Rendon, who inked a seven-year, $245 million deal with the team this past December following a 34 homer, 44 double, 126 RBI, .319/.412/.598 season with the Nationals. The Angels finished 18th in batting average and 15th in runs scored last season. With the addition of Rendon — and the return of a now healthy Justin Upton — the Angels will look to improve upon those numbers and will certainly be a team to watch in the shortened season.

Oakland Athletics

Can the A’s avoid a slow start?

The Athletics have posted a better second half record than first half mark in each of the last three seasons. It’s the team’s M-O: A slow start and a great run down the stretch to make a push for the playoffs. But obviously, in a 60-game season, there’s no time to recover from an extended subpar stretch to start the schedule. The Mariners and Rangers are likely to occupy the bottom two spots in the AL West standings, but the Astros are projected for one of the highest win totals in baseball and the Angels have made substantial roster upgrades. If Oakland gets off to a slow start in 2020, there may not be time to recover.

Who’s at the keystone?

With Jurickson Profar now in San Diego, the A’s are looking to fill a hole at second base, with two players battling for playing time. Franklin Barreto, a former top prospect, has struggled in the majors but mashed at the AAA level, hitting .295 with 19 homers in 98 games there in 2019. He was the biggest prize in the deal that sent Josh Donaldson to the Blue Jays way back in 2014. Tony Kemp, meanwhile, is a left-handed bat amongst a highly right-handed roster, and impressed back in the initial spring training. Neither Barreto or Kemp are likely to be a star, but if one can emerge as a real offensive contributor, they could transform Oakland’s infield into legitimately one of the best in the game.

Can Khris Davis bounce back?

The A’s slugger was one of the most consistent hitters in all of baseball the latter half of the 2010s, at least until last season. For four straight seasons from 2015-18, “Khrush” hit exactly .247. The latter three of those seasons he hit between 42 and 48 homers, leading baseball with 48 in 2018. Last season, Davis regressed to a .220 average with just 23 home runs in 133 games, a decline seemingly contributed to greatly by a hand injury. With the long layoff from regular season action, Davis could be poised to bounce back in a big way in the shortened season, though at age 32, it’s also fair to wonder if his best performances may be behind him.

Seattle Mariners

Which young players are set to impress?

As MLB.com’s Greg Johns wrote a few weeks ago, subtract center fielder Mallex Smith and third baseman Kyle Seager and the seven other projected starting hitters in the Mariners lineup average just 263 at-bats of major league experience. The Mariners are projected for one of the lowest win totals in baseball in 2020, and even in the shortened season the team has virtually no chance of competing for a playoff spot. With that in mind, all eyes will be on the young players set to take on significant roles this season. The team’s fourth-rated prospect, Evan White, is in line to take over at first base despite not playing above AA last year. Shed Long will get an opportunity to prove he’s the team’s second baseman and leadoff hitter of the future. And former first-round draft pick Kyle Lewis is the team’s projected cleanup hitter.

Will Mitch Haniger play at all in 2020?

In 2018, the outfielder, acquired in the Jean Segura deal with the Diamondbacks, hit an impressive .285/.366/.493 with 26 home runs, 93 RBI and eight steals in 157 games. Following the departures of players such as Robinson Cano, Nelson Cruz and James Paxton prior to last season, Haniger was in line to be one of the Mariners’ best hitters and a team leader. But after getting off to a poor start, Haniger missed most of the season with a highly unpleasant injury and underwent both back and core surgeries this past offseason. Just recently, Seattle GM Jerry Dipoto said Haniger has yet to resume baseball activity. It’s unclear if Haniger will get the chance to take the field and attempt to back up his breakout year at all in 2020. 

Which version of Daniel Vogelbach will show up?

The first baseman and designated hitter broke out in 2019 to the tune of 30 home runs and 76 RBI, albeit with an extremely poor .208 average. But Vogelbach was essentially two different players last season: In the first half, the former Cubs prospect slugged 21 homers with a .238 average and was named an All-Star for the first time. In the second half, Vogelbach was one of the worst hitters in baseball, slashing a pitiful .162/.286/.341 with nine longballs. It seems likely that the league’s pitchers caught up with Vogelbach and were able to exploit weaknesses in his hitting profile. But whatever the reason for his rapid second half decline, Vogelbach will need to perform in 2020 to prove his first half in 2019 wasn’t a complete fluke.

Texas Rangers

How will the team’s new park play?

The Rangers are set to debut Globe Life Field this season without all the usual fanfare that comes with it, and, ridicule about the look of the facility aside, there are questions about how the ballpark will play for hitters and pitchers. The team’s old stadium, the similarly named Globe Life Park, was a notorious hitter’s park, but the same doesn’t appear likely of the new facility. Rangers slugger Joey Gallo told reporters back in May, “It’s definitely going to be a pitcher’s park. … It’s a little deep out to center. Us hitters are getting a little nervous about that.” That could be good news for Texas’ pitching staff, but what impact could that have on a Rangers offense that aside from Gallo is lacking in big bats? That will undoubtedly be something to monitor in 2020.

Will Corey Kluber rebound to his previous form?

Speaking of their pitching staff: Whether the Rangers are able to compete at all in the AL West will undoubtedly depend significantly on whether or not the team’s veteran starters are able to repeat previous success. Perhaps the biggest factor in that is Corey Kluber. The two-time Cy Young Award winner is looking to bounce back after posting a 5.80 ERA in seven starts last season before a fractured arm prematurely ended his 2019 campaign. In the five years that preceded that, Kluber pitched 200+ innings five times, led the AL in wins twice, was a three-time All-Star and four years finished top three in AL Cy Young balloting. But there were a few statistical signs of decline near the end of that run, and at 34, it’s fair to question what version of Kluber lies ahead. The Rangers are certainly hoping he has something significant left in the tank.

Can Lance Lynn and Mike Minor replicate their 2019 success?

Another starting pitching question. Alongside Kluber in the Rangers rotation will be two pitchers in their early 30s coming off career years. Minor pitched to a 3.59 ERA over 208 ⅓ innings in 2019, winning 14 games and being named to the All-Star Game for the first time in his career. Lynn, who’s slated to start Opening Day for the team, struck out a whopping 246 batters in a career-high 208 ⅓ frames last season, finishing fifth in Cy Young voting. Neither seems likely to repeat quite that level of success, but the degree to which they regress could be highly significant in determining the Rangers’ fate in the shortened season.

Click here to see our other 2020 division previews.

Photo by “pscf11” / Flickr.

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