If the AL West hasn’t been a one-team race lately it has been, at best, a two-team battle between a pair of elite teams (defined as winning 97 or more games). So what did the off-season bring? One team lost its ace, another key SP and a key reliever, its manager, its GM, and its credibility (we’ll leave you to guess which team), one team has stayed remarkably the same (was the key addition Tony Kemp or Austin Allen? Begin your spirited discussion anytime).
And then there’s the Angels and Rangers, making a bid to rise from their recent obscurity and claim relevance in the AL West. Is it enough to challenge for the division, or even a wild card spot? That remains to be seen, as each team combines undeniable strengths with lingering weaknesses. But at the very least, one has to concede they had a good off-season.
Are the Angels “contenders”?
The Angels lost out on sweepstakes for Gerrit Cole and Stephen Strasburg, but have made splashes nonetheless. Their acquisitions of Anthony Rendon (3B) and Joc Pederson (COF), the return of Shohei Otani, and the continued presence of Mike Trout, not to mention Justin Upton, Andrelton Simmons, and the still crafty Albert Pujols (who parlayed a 93 wRC+ into 93 RBI), elevate the Angels’ lineup to “officially scary” top to bottom.
Additionally adding Rendon, a solid 3Bman, and Pederson, elite in the corners, to gold glover Simmons and the far swimming Trout, gives the Angels a leg/gill up on a solid defensive core — though any time spent in the field by Upton or Pujols will go a long way to negating.
The question, of course, is pitching. This is a team that lost 92 games in 2019 and has yet to make a clear upgrade to a beleaguered rotation. There are whispers that Ross Stripling may be coming as part of the Pederson deal, but Stripling is no ace and neither are Andrew Heaney, Julio Teheran, or Dylan Bundy, all of whom rose to the big leagues with high ceilings they did not reach. Shohei Otani is a possible ace but returns from TJS, and Griffin Canning returns from injury as well.
If you’re a skeptic, you point out that the Angels are starting from a baseline of 70 wins and have a rotation of mostly #4-ish SPs trying to lead them. But if you’re an optimist you can see ample talent in that rotation and a team poised to score plenty.
Ultimately, this analyst sees a team significantly improved but too dependent on offense to vie for the division. The 2020 Angels appear reminiscent of the Rangers teams of the 2000s that tried to win a lot of games 7-6 and wound up instead losing a lot of games 7-6. And remember, a jump of 15 wins would be impressive but would leave the Angels at 85 wins, far short of the total needed to capture the AL West, or even to claim a wild card spot.
Are the Rangers “contenders”?
First off, the Rangers are coming from a season 6 wins better than their Orange Counter countyparts (spoonerisms, FTW). Texas won 78 games last year, and for the third year in a row they spent their off-season energy on starting pitching.
The big addition is Corey Kluber, whose presence gives Texas a “big 3” with Lance Lynn (last winter’s add) and Mike Minor (the previous winter’s prize), bolstered by solid back-end options Kyle Gibson and Jordan Lyles, depth with Jesse Chavez and the up-and-coming Kolby Allard.
Trouble is, last year’s Rangers really couldn’t hit and the offense looks only more questionable with Nomar Mazara gone and Shin-Soo Choo now 37 as he enters the final year of his 7 year/$130M contract. (In fairness, Choo hasn’t shown signs of slowing down, with a .371 OBP in 2019, but Father Time does remain undefeated.)
You don’t really want your team’s offense to be defined by the mantra, “Joey Gallo and play everyone else shallow,” but there it is. These are not your 2003 Rangers trying to outslug you. They are poised to pitch and try to squeeze out enough offense to win. But they may have the horses to pull it off more often than not.
That is, assuming they can field the ball. Another legitimate concern is that Texas has shaky defense all around the diamond, from the increasingly inept Choo (-15 UZR/150, -13 DRS) to Odor at 2B (-4.7 UZR/150, -8 DRS in 2019) to Robinson “throw out a base stealer? I wouldn’t dream of it” Chirinos behind the plate to “heaven help us all if Willie Calhoun sees the field”.
To this analyst, the Rangers may not be a complete enough team to finish in second place but they are a worthy contender to vie for third ahead of the bigger name Angels. Good pitching tends to beat good hitting. Ultimately, though? Bad defense also undermines good pitching and the Rangers are only 1 for 3 in the “pitching, hitting, defense” trifecta. So I will pick the Angels to pass Texas in the standings for the honor of still not being nearly as good as Oakland or Houston.
All this being said, even if the A’s and Astros remain the cream of the AL West crop it appears the Angels and Rangers are poised to show improvement and that could make the division strong overall.
What this means is that the injustice of the wild card landscape may be highlighted, as Oakland and Houston will have 38 battles on their hands while the Indians are “battling” the Royals and the Tigers.
On what planet can teams fight for the same playoff spot while playing an entirely different schedule? It’s absurd and unjust — but that’s the Astros’ problem. (You see what I did there?)
How do you size up the AL West right now? Whether or not you see a three or four team race for the division crown, the races for first and third place are far from clear cut.