A look at the 2019 American League

by Dan M | Posted on Saturday, March 23rd, 2019

1549668259_cut                                                                                                                                                                                                                                             BY DIC HUMPHREY
DHUMPHREY24@GMAIL.COM
Member United States Basketball Writers Association

Spring Training ends this weekend for Texas.  The Rangers are in Arlington for exhibition games Monday night and Tuesday afternoon.  That leads up to opening day on Thursday.  Jon Lester is the Cubs’ starting pitcher, and Mike Minor starts for Texas in a battle of lefthanders.  Friday is an off day in case it rains on Thursday, and the three game series continues Saturday evening, March 30 at 7:05 and Sunday afternoon March 31 at 3:05 PM.   

The Major League season actually opened earlier this week with Seattle and Oakland playing a two game set in Tokyo.  The Mariners won both games to take a one game lead in the American League West over the Astros, Angels and Rangers, and a two game lead over the Athletics.  Ichiro Suzuki started both games for Seattle.  He announced after the first game that he would retire from baseball.  It was a fitting end for him to complete his marvelous career in his native country.  He came off the field for the final time in the eighth inning of the second game after going 0-4 at the plate to a rousing ovation from adoring fans and was met with hugs and some tears from teammates in an exit that lasted a full three minutes.  

He released a statement after the game, saying in part that he was “honored to end my career where it started, with Seattle, and think it is fitting that my last games as a professional were played in my home country of Japan.”  He’s a certain Hall of Famer in five years, and in Japan, he is a national hero.

As for the rest of the American League, here’s a look at how the pennant races stack up as the season begins:

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American League West

Most predictors give the Division Championship to Houston, the team that follows the Cubs to Arlington in the opening home stand.  The Astros have won the division the last two years, and went on to win the World Series two years ago.  They are looking to bring the World Series trophy back to Texas again this year.  Maybe.  

The starting rotation looks good at the top with Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole and Collin McHugh.  However, they’ve lost former Cy Young Award winner, Dallas Keuchel, who is still unsigned after saying no to the Astros’ qualifying offer of one year at $17.9 million.  Also, Lance McCullers, Jr. is lost for the season after undergoing Tommy John surgery last November.  

Right now, the replacements appear to be Brad Peacock and Wade Miley, who was 5-2 in 16 games with Milwaukee last year.  Framber Valdez and Brady Rodgers are the other two top candidates to join the rotation.  The Astros expect Forrest Whitley, their number two minor league prospect to be able to contribute at some point in the season.  

The bullpen looks set with Roberto Osuma as the closer along with key men Chris Devinski, Hector Rondon, Flower Mounds’ Ryan Pressly, hard throwing Josh James, and Will Harris taking care of the late innings in games with a lead.    

As for the position players, former Ranger Robinson Chirinos is the lead catcher splitting time with Max Stassi.  The infield is set at second, short and third with Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa, and Alex Bregman.  Most of the first base assignments will go to Yuli Gurriel.  The outfield has George Springer in center, Josh Reddick in right and a host of possibles in left field – Michael Brantley, Tony Kemp and Jake Marisnick.

It’s a good team no doubt, but the holes in the rotation and the absence of super-sub Marwin Gonzalez make the Astros vulnerable.  A really good team?  Yes!  A “for sure” division champion?  Not so fast.

The Oakland Athletics finished second and got into post-season play last year, coming off of three straight last place finishes.  A one year wonder or the real deal?  Anyone’s guess. They won 97 games last year.  That’s not to be taken lightly.   

On the other hand, a starting rotation of Mike Fiers, Marco Estrada, Brett Anderson, Frankie Montas and Aaron Brooks doesn’t strike fear in opposing batters’ hearts.  

At the back end of the game, Blake Treinen ranks as one of the best closers in baseball.  There’s experience with relievers Joakim Soria and Fernamdo Rodney.  Don’t count out Lou Trivino, Yusmeiro Petit and Ryan Buchter.  The A’s always seem to have guys in the bullpen no one has heard of, and they always seem to have a good bullpen.  

The infield returns Matt Olson at first base, Matt Chapman at third base, and Marcus Simien at short.  Jurickson Profar takes over second base after a trade with the Rangers.  Robbie Grossman, Ramon Laureano, and Stephen Piscotty are likely starting outfielders.  

Chapman and Olson may not be well known outside of the Bay Area, but they are quickly taking their places as top players in the game.  It’s a good offensive unit anchored by Chapman, Olson, and Ranger killer Khris Davis.  This team will score runs.

The Athletics likely finish second in the division and give the American League a good run for a Wild Card playoff berth.  However, teams that seem to come out of nowhere as the A’s did last year, often take a step back the next season.  It will difficult to repeat 97 wins.

The Angels are the favorites to challenge Oakland and Houston in the division.  They start with the best player in baseball – center fielder Mike Trout.  (What a great place to start!).  This week’s big Angels’ news is Trout’s new contract – 12 years at $430 million, eclipsing Bryce Harper’s previous largest contract in baseball history signed just days earlier.  

Trout is flanked by left fielder Justin Upton and right fielder Kole Calhoun.  The infield looks like Justin Bour at first, David Fletcher at second, Andrelton Simmons at short, and Zack Cozart at third base.  Simmons is considered by many as the best defensive shortstop in baseball.  Albert Pujols is nowhere near the Hall of Fame player he was with St. Louis, but he backs up at first and is the designated hitter to begin the season.  Shohei Ohtani is out for the season as a pitcher, but is expected to DH beginning sometime in May.  

Former Ranger Jonathan Lucroy was signed as a free agent to be the catcher.

The bottom line though is that this team did not score a lot of runs last year, and didn’t do much to improve the offense over the winter.

The starting rotation now looks like Tyler Skaggs, Andrew Heany (both lefties), Matt Harvey, Trevor Cahill and Jaime Barria.  Nick Tropeano could end up beating one of those five out.  Heany, however, may not be physically ready to start the season.

Chad Allen was signed as a free agent to be the closer.  He saved 149 games for Cleveland over the last seven years.  Justin Anderson, Cam Bedrosian (son of former Brave Steve), and Noe Ramirez are the chief set-up men.

The Angels may look so-so on paper, but they have a new manager – Brad Ausmus, who replaced Mike Scioscia after 19 seasons.  If a new outlook and some good luck come their way, the Angels could challenge the A’s and Astros for the division championship.

That leaves Seattle and Texas fighting it out for fourth and fifth place in the division.  Who knows what’s going on in Seattle?  The team got off to a good start last season, and at the All-Star break, they were considered a cinch for the playoffs.  They fell apart after the break, finishing in third place, eight games behind the second place Athletics.

  In their excitement over the good start, they signed GM Jerry Dipoto to a contract extension.  Now they are stuck with him.  He seems to have convinced the hierarchy that he’s the right guy to rebuild the team into the contender they never were.  He traded away their top starting pitcher James Paxton, their elite shortstop Jean Segura, second baseman Robinson Cano, and closer Edwin Diaz, who saved 57 games last year, over the winter.  These are very good players.  Dipoto received some good players in return like outfielders Jay Bruce and Mallex Smith and designated hitter Juan Encarnacion, as well as Justice Sheffield a top minor league prospect. 

Are they selling their fans on a rebuild?  Are they selling a team that can compete this year?  It’s difficult to figure what’s going on in Seattle.

The Rangers finished last in 2018 with 67 wins.  This year’s offense is pretty much the same as the one that set the team record for strikeouts in a season last year.  The two main changes are Jeff Mathis (with a career .198 batting average) at catcher in place of Robinson Chirinos and Asdrubal Cabrera instead of Adrian Beltre at third base,

The starting rotation of Mike Minor, Edinson Volquez, Lance Lynn, Drew Smyly and Shelby Miller has collectively undergone six Tommy John surgeries.  Jose Leclerc is the closer, and he was outstanding over the final two months of 2018 after being named closer.  The rest of the pen is a hodge-podge of veterans and rookies.  

The mood in spring training is “we’ll better than most people think”.  It’ll be difficult to be worse.  75 wins plus or minus looks like the target.

The people at Baseball Prospectus have a system for projecting teams’ performance titled “Player Empirical Comparison and Optimization Test Algorithm” (PECOTA for short).  Here’s their projection for the A. L. West:

Houston             98 – 64                                                                                                                                                                                                              Los Angeles       80 – 82                                                                                                                                                                                                Oakland              78 – 84                                                                                                                                                                                                         Seattle                 72 – 90                                                                                                                                                                                                              Texas                   70 – 92

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American League Central

The Central is largely thought to be the worst division in baseball.  Three teams are clearly tanking in an effort to rebuild – Kansas City, Chicago and Detroit.  Cleveland has won the Central in each of the last three years and is expected to do so again.  There is so little competition in the Central that the Indians let some key players go, such as closer Chad Allen, in order to reduce their payroll.  

Minnesota looks to be the only team that can catch the Tribe.  The Twins, surprisingly reached the playoffs in 2017, but stepped back to 78-84 last year.  That cost manager Paul Molitor his job.  Rocco Baldelli is the new manager fitting the trend of young managers with little if any managing and coaching experience.  Baldelli is 37.

Here’s the PECOTA projection for the Central:

Cleveland      96   – 66                                                                                                                                                                                               Minnesota    82   – 80                                                                                                                                                                                               Kansas City   72   – 90                                                                                                                                                                                                Chicago         70   – 92                                                                                                                                                                                               Detroit          66   – 96

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American League East

Ah, the best division in baseball.  The Boston Red Sox are the reigning World Champions.  The Yankees have been oh so close the last two years, and look even better this year.  Tampa Bay is a very good team.  Few people realize they won 90 games last year and almost snuck into the second Wild Card playoff berth.  Most observers think the Red Sox, Yankees and Astros are the three best teams in the American League, if not in the Major Leagues.  Tampa Bay isn’t very far behind.

Boston’s starting rotation is rock solid – Chris Sale, David Price, Rick Porcello, Nathan Eovaldi and Eduardo Rodriguez.  They did not re-sign closer Craig Kimbrel, who priced himself out of the market and still hasn’t signed with the season already underway.  There are still some good arms in the pen though like Matt Barnes, Brandon Workman, and Heath Hembree.

On the position player side, the outfield is as good as it gets:  Arkansas Razorback Andrew Benintendi in left, Jackie Bradley, Jr. in center and Mookie Betts in right.  Betts is the reigning American League MVP and perhaps the best player in baseball not named Mike Trout.  Betts and Bradley also won Gold Gloves last year for fielding excellence.  The infield goes Mitch Moreland, Dustin Pedroia, Xander Bogaerts and Rafael Devers from first around to third base. 

The Yankees shored up their starting rotation by trading for James Paxton.  With Dellin Betances and Aroldis Chapman anchoring the back end of the bullpen, it was already one of the best pens in baseball.  They added two more top relievers in Adam Ottavino and Zack Britton.  The batting order is rock solid with Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton batting three four, as fearsome a duo as there is in baseball.  Shortstop Didi Gregorius is sidelined until mid-season, but Troy Tulowitzski was signed to be the place holder.  This is a solid team balanced in every aspect of the game.

Toronto and Baltimore bring up the rear in this division.  They are in the rebuilding mode like Kansas City, Chicago and Detroit in the Central.      

Here’s the PECOTA projection for the East:

New York       96 – 66                                                                                                                                                                                                       Boston            90 – 72                                                                                                                                                                                                         Tampa Bay    85 – 77                                                                                                                                                                                                 Toronto          75 – 87                                                                                                                                                                                                  Baltimore      58 – 104

 NOTABLE:

  • The Rangers announced this week that Edinson Volquez will start game two of the season (Saturday, March 30) against the Cubs, and that Lance Lynn will start game three on Sunday afternoon (March 31).  
  • The “Disabled List” is no more.  MLB has re-named it the “Injured List”.  

 

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