The division race in the West this season is shaping up to be a close one.
Tomorrow is Opening Day and the Astros are listed as the presumptive favorite by FanGraphs at 55.5 percent to win the AL West for the fourth time in five seasons. In the AL, only the Yankees have higher odds to win their division in 2021. A 55.5 percent chance even before the first game is a good place to start the season. Of course, plenty could and likely will change between now and October. If you have followed baseball long enough, you’ll eventually realize that little is guaranteed, such as a division title.
To sum it up in one sentence, the 2021 edition of the AL West features three teams with the capability to range anywhere from average to above-average with a pair of rebuilding clubs. At their worst, the Astros are likely an average club, especially if injuries become an issue. We already have a feel for what Houston can accomplish at their best, even taking into account that George Springer is now sporting a maple leaf on his hat. Again, it feels as if this season’s fortunes ride mostly on positive regression for certain position players and overall health for everyone.
Unlike the 2017-19 teams, though, the margin of error is even thinner for the Astros in 2021 with receding depth. For their division rivals, that is music to their ears. The question for those clubs is whether they have enough to overtake Houston right now.
Los Angeles Angels
Coming in with an 85-win season based on the latest FanGraphs’ projections, the Angels are viewed as one of three potential division contenders. The top half of their lineup when it features Mike Trout, Shohei Ohtani, and Anthony Rendon will be among the most formidable in the AL West. If Justin Upton can rebound to some degree and Jo Addell finally lives up to his prospect billing, then this top half can help hide some of the deficiencies likely to be present in the bottom half in the lineup.
The key to success for the Angels’ 2021 season will likely ride on the arms of a starting rotation that hasn’t been a strength for multiple seasons now. In fact, there isn’t one Angels starter who projects to have an ERA better than Andrew Heaney’s 4.14 mark. But that fortune might change if they can get offseason additions Alex Cobb and Jose Quintana back on track in addition to Ohtani the pitcher. So, yes, they have a chance in the AL West. If not, it could be another wasted year of Trout’s prime.
The 2020 AL West winners are notoriously good for churning out production from unexpected places within their organization. They are also known for getting favorable results from undervalued players acquired in a variety of ways. Take a look at their offseason transaction list as I am pretty sure those players will play a major role in why they’ll be neck and neck with the Astros in September. That is the one reason why I don’t necessarily trust the projections about this one.
But Oakland will likely have a tougher time in 2021 as the talent drain in the offseason was notable. Gone are the likes of Khris Davis, Liam Hendriks, and Marcus Semien along with a host of lesser-known contributors. Even with Matt Chapman healthy, the A’s will need to find some contributors up-and-down the lineup to succeed. The starting rotation might be this club’s strength — perhaps the deepest in the division? — especially if Jesus Luzardo and A.J. Puk impress in addition to what Frankie Montas and Sean Manaea bring every fifth day. I’m definitely taking the over on the 84-win projection.
Much like the Astros earlier last decade, the Mariners are in a full-on youth movement. While there are some familiar names (Mitch Haniger, James Paxton), we’re about to see the next wave of Seattle’s top prospects before too long. Jarred Kelenic, for example, is likely to be a fixture in the outfield once, you know, he serves his time in the service time manipulation scheme. Julio Rodriguez is another name to watch in 2021 as he also starts his season in the minors.
As currently constructed, the Mariners have more talent sprinkled around the roster than most folks realize. The pitching staff has the potential to carry the club for some games, especially in the rotation with Marco Gonzales and Paxton leading the way. The development of Justus Sheffield also looms large. Kyle Lewis, the 2020 AL Rookie of the Year, may not be available on Opening Day but adds another dynamic to the lineup when healthy. While it is unreasonable to expect a run at the division title in 2021, this Seattle club might be a problem sooner rather than later.
The more recent iterations of the Rangers felt more and more like the Astros back in the late 2000’s, which was a declining club with familiar faces tied to past success just hanging around. We’re now entering the early 2010’s phase for those who remember those dreadful Astros teams with these Rangers. (Note: We may not see Texas reach the same depths in terms of win-loss record as Houston did, but the overall theme remains the same.) Elvis Andrus, who is now an Oakland A, won’t be on the roster for the first time since 2008. Rougned Odor is now gone. Khris Davis, who was acquired in the Andrus trade, will probably hit quite a few home runs in conjunction with Joey Gallo, which will be fun, but not nearly enough to close the gap in the AL West. Only Gallo and Nick Solak currently project to post a 1.0-plus WAR based on FanGraphs projections on the position player side. For a club that struggled mightily to score runs in 2020, it isn’t getting any better in 2021.
If there is an area where the Rangers might actually exceed expectations, it could be the starting rotation. Kyle Gibson, Kohei Arihara, Dane Dunning, and Mike Foltynewicz could form the core of a passable, albeit unspectacular, staff. If they do outperform their expectations, look for Gibson or Foltynewicz to become trade targets for contending clubs this summer.