With free agency underway, the offseason is going to pick up steam. What are the big questions facing all 30 teams? We continue our division-by-division series with a look at the American League West.
Houston Astros: Who starts the other 100 games?
2018 record: 103-59
2019 World Series odds: 6-1
Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole will top the rotation, just like they did in 2018, when Houston starters led the majors in in ERA (3.16). But aside from those two righties, the rest of the Astros’ fantastic front five is suddenly an enormous unknown. Lefty Dallas Keuchel is a free agent and doesn’t seem likely to return. Lance McCullers Jr. just had Tommy John surgery and will miss the entire 2019 season. Veteran Charlie Morton also is a free agent, so his future with Houston is uncertain.
Top prospect Forrest Whitley is on the horizon, but he’s only 21 and missed significant time last year due to a performance-enhancing drug suspension. Flamethrower Josh James turned heads after a September call-up and even cracked the postseason roster, but he has only three big league starts on his résumé. Swingman Collin McHugh, bumped to the bullpen when Houston signed Cole last winter, could rejoin the rotation, but that would deprive manager A.J. Hinch of a guy who turned out to be one of the top relievers in the National League last season. In other words, there are question marks. Lots of ’em. So don’t be surprised if general manager Jeff Luhnow dips into the free-agent pitching pool once again. — Eddie Matz
Oakland Athletics: Can they acquire enough starting pitching to win the AL West?
2018 record: 97-65
2019 World Series odds: 30-1
The A’s surprised a lot of people in 2018, getting the second AL wild-card berth in a season in which most didn’t pick them to make the playoffs. They became the first team since payroll has been tracked to rank last in Opening Day payroll and make the postseason. But along the way, they saw every pitcher who was in their rotation to start the year get injured and miss significant time, headlined by Sean Manaea, who threw a no-hitter against the eventual World Series champion Boston Red Sox in April. He had shoulder surgery late in the year and is expected to miss all of 2019.
That brings us to the biggest question the A’s will face: Can they acquire enough starting pitching to win the AL West? The division is likely to be weaker heading into 2019. The Astros won’t have Lance McCullers all year, and we don’t know yet if they’ll re-sign free agents Charlie Morton or Dallas Keuchel.
The Oakland offense will be there — with Matt Olson, Khris Davis, Matt Chapman, Stephen Piscotty and others. But perhaps Oakland will seek to trade someone for a pitcher. Don’t expect them to break the bank on a free agent. But they could be active in the trade market, which could have a number of names available. One floated already is Sonny Gray, whom the Yankees have said they want to trade in the offseason. Gray began his career with the A’s and had his best seasons in Oakland, including a third-place Cy Young finish in 2015. — Sarah Langs
Seattle Mariners: Whom will Jerry Dipoto find to provide some offense?
2018 record: 89-73
2019 World Series odds: 50-1
For an 89-win team, the Mariners enter the offseason with some serious concerns. On the offensive side, Seattle finished 11th in the AL in runs, and Nelson Cruz, the team’s top home run hitter with 37, is a free agent. The Mariners likely will attempt to re-sign Cruz, but that would still leave some holes, especially in the outfield. Dee Gordon gave it his all in center field, but that transition didn’t really take (minus-8 defensive runs saved in 435 innings), plus he became a liability at the plate with just nine walks and a .288 OBP. The Mariners now list him as an infielder — at least he’s a solid defender at second base. Of course, that’s Robinson Cano‘s position and Cano still has enough range to play there even as he enters his age-36 season.
The best option is probably sliding Cano over to a first base/DH role, displacing the awful Ryon Healy (minus-0.6 WAR). If Cruz signs elsewhere, Dan Vogelbach could suck up some DH at-bats. That leaves an outfield of All-Star Mitch Haniger, plus Ben Gamel and Guillermo Heredia, both best suited to backup roles. Haniger can handle center but is best in right field, so the Mariners could be in on a free agent like A.J. Pollock. Mariners center fielders were a combined minus-25 DRS, so adding a true center fielder is a must. They also could use more offense in left field. We know Dipoto loves to wheel and deal, but the Mariners’ farm system is the worst in the game, so the options there are more likely to be an older vet such as Adam Jones or re-signing Denard Span than adding someone via trade. — David Schoenfield
2018 record: 80-82
2019 World Series odds: 40-1
Really, that’s all this is about. But appeasing Trout — with two seasons remaining on his extension, unless somehow the Angels can sign him to another one before then — is a convoluted undertaking. They have to contend now, but also be set up to do so in the future. And the Angels have failed to walk that tightrope for basically the entirety of Trout’s seven-year career.
Angels general manager Billy Eppler laid out what appears to be a simple plan from the GM meetings earlier this week. He plans to look outside for a starting catcher and lots of pitching for both his rotation and his bullpen. And he’ll cross his fingers that at least two of his five most major-league-ready young players (David Fletcher, Taylor Ward, Luis Rengifo, Matt Thaiss and Jared Walsh) can claim two open spots in the lineup (a first-base complement to Albert Pujols and second or third base, depending on where Zack Cozart plays).
The Angels won’t have any long-term sustainability if their young players can’t step up. But they have no chance in the immediate future if they don’t get more reliable pitching. Angels relievers blew 26 saves last year, tied with the Los Angeles Dodgers for fifth most in the majors. Over the past three years, while beset by an alarming rash of serious injuries to their rotation, 18 pitchers have made at least five starts for the Angels. — Alden Gonzalez
2018 record: 67-95
2019 World Series odds: 100-1
The Rangers won just 67 games, their fewest since 2014, when they also won 67. They made the playoffs each of the next two years, losing in the division series each time. Joey Gallo had another Gallo season in 2018, with 40 home runs and 207 strikeouts. The Rangers are one year away from moving to a new ballpark, and they will want to get back on the winning side of things. There were rumors that Clayton Kershaw might consider Texas if he opted out of his contract with the Dodgers, but he did not, so Kershaw won’t be the Rangers’ marquee player headed into that season.
One question the Rangers face they can’t answer themselves: Will Adrian Beltre retire? The slugger hasn’t said anything publicly. He’s been on the Rangers since 2011, and he has a .304 batting average and .865 OPS in 1,098 games with the club. This year, at age 39, he still hit .273 with 15 HRs and 65 RBIs in 119 games. He isn’t their most important offensive player by any stretch of the imagination anymore, but he’s been a symbol there for a while and likely is a future Hall of Famer. He’s also 23 home runs shy of 500.
The Rangers likely have more pressing overall personnel questions, like deciding if they should trade one of their outfielders — Nomar Mazara, Gallo, Willie Calhoun or Shin-Soo Choo, who has two years left on his lucrative deal. But the Beltre question will be near and dear to fans’ hearts — and not just Rangers fans, but baseball fans as a whole who take joy in watching him play. — Langs