2019 MLB Preview: Astros rule the AL West, but the NL isn’t so clear

Justin Verlander and his Houston Astros are October-bound.

If you missed my other breakdowns, click here for the AL and NL East and here for the AL and NL Central.

The Houston Astros are pretty awesome, guys. Barring huge upheaval, they will win the AL West. That take will hardly get me on ESPN’s morning shows, but alas. Truth is truth. The boys in Texas have an excellent core of young talent, including the newly-extended third baseman Alex Bregman, former MVP second baseman Jose Altuve and former first overall pick, shortstop Carlos Correa. Oh, and a couple righthanded starters who pack some heat: Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole (who was the subject of an Ode to a Pitcher breakdown a few weeks back).

The NL West isn’t nearly as simple to peg. The Los Angeles Dodgers have been on top for awhile now, but with their ace battling arm trouble and some young talent dotting the rest of the division, suddenly things aren’t quite as secure.

AL West

1. Houston Astros

Goal: Win World Series
Most Important Player: Alex Bregman

I expect the Astros will miss Charlie Morton, who left to sign with the Tampa Bay Rays. Beyond Verlander and Cole, the rotation could prove troublesome for manager AJ Hinch. I expect Collin McHugh to turn into a quality starter without much issue, but will Wade Miley manage another sub-3 ERA with such piddling strikeout numbers? I doubt it.

Will it matter? Nah.

The Astros are both very talented across the roster and boast one of the savvier front offices in the sport. Don’t be shocked if they turn one of their fifth starter options into a valuable piece. (I’m a little surprised it wasn’t Joshua James.)

Much like with the Boston Red Sox, New York Yankees and Cleveland Indians the goal is nothing short of a championship. Those aces and that lineup make them the favorite.

2. Oakland Athletics

Goal: Win AL West
Most Important Player: Matt Davidson

Jurickson Profar was the man like few other prospects I can recall. Breaking into the Major Leagues at 19, he looked tapped for stardom. It just never happened; injuries, ineffectiveness and an unclear spot in the Rangers infield all seemed to play a role. But finally, years after he debuted, Profar turned in a pretty solid year: 108 wRC+, solid enough defense at both shortstop and second base.

He signed with the Athletics in the offseason, a sneaky good move for Billy Beane’s club after letting Jed Lowrie walk. While it’s probably unlikely Profar develops into the superstar he once flashed the potential to become, he could certainly still be an above-average player. Dude is only 26. He’s one to watch in 2019 and beyond.

Oh, and Blake Treinen is good. You should watch him too.

3. Los Angeles Angels

Goal: Make the playoffs
Most Important Player: Willie Mays 2.0

OK, Arte Moreno. I hope you are sitting down for this.

You locked up the world’s greatest baseball player until he’s nearly 40. Great work. In terms of on-field performance, he’s worth the money. He might be the best player who ever lived. He’s an incredible talent and by all reports, a great role model in the Anaheim community. You probably can’t design a better superstar.

Don’t screw this up. You hear me? Don’t screw this up. I don’t care what it takes, I don’t care what it costs you, you had damn well better get Mike freaking Trout to the World Series. Don’t you dare cry poor to me, Arte; we know the truth. Major League Baseball teams print money. I’m saying this to you as a fan of the New York Yankees. The idea of facing Mike Trout in October is petrifying.

Give me a reason to be afraid, Arte. The sport needs Mike Trout doing Mike Trout things in the postseason.

4. Seattle Mariners

Goal: Tank?
Most Important Player: Yusei Kikuchi

One could argue the Mariners’ most important player is actually Justus Sheffield, but I’m much more interested in Kikuchi. He had some really nasty moments in his debut against the Athletics last week and profiles as an above-average starter. He’s dealt with shoulder trouble in the past, but if he stays healthy he might end up surprising some people.

The Mariners were wise to trade second baseman Robinson Cano when they did. Cano had been pretty darn good for them, PED suspension notwithstanding. Edwin Diaz is a lights-out reliever, but including him to draw more out of the New York Mets was worth it. They might miss James Paxton a lot more, but then again I don’t think Sheffield is a big league starter.

Ultimately, the Mariners were smart to rebuild. Last year’s 89 wins were a little hocus pocus. The American League is a bloodbath as long as the Boston Red Sox, New York Yankees, Cleveland Indians and Astros are all great; that leaves one precious Wild Card spot to battle over. Credit to the Mariners front office for beginning to add to a depleted farm system.

The 2019 Mariners won’t contend, but the team is making the right choices to compete in 2022.

5. Texas Rangers

Goal: Tank
Most Important Player: Joey Gallo

You know, it can’t be said Joey Gallo isn’t exciting. If you’re in the ballpark and Gallo is up, your beer goes down and your eyes go up. Focus. He might crush a 450-foot bomb. There’s a great chance he’ll strikeout, of course — he was punched out 196 times in 2017 and 207 times last season. But when Gallo makes contact, he makes contact. Dude doesn’t get cheated. The power is incredible.

None of this makes him a great player, unfortunately. The defense isn’t good and the lack of contact keep his OBPs low. If he somehow clawed his batting average up, say, 15 points, the OBPs would get a lot more interesting. Alas, he is what he is; a fun slugger.  For a team that will struggle all season, Gallo is at least a reason to be invested.

The Rangers also have a farm system in need of more talent, but unlike Seattle, they lack veteran pieces that could deliver as much as Cano and Diaz. Might they deal Gallo? Shin-Soo Choo?

AL West Observations

Best Pitchers going into 2019 Best Position Players going into 2019
1. Justin Verlander 1. Mike Trout
2. Gerrit Cole 2. Alex Bregman
3. Yusei Kikuchi 3. Jose Altuve

NL West

1. Los Angeles Dodgers

Goal: Win World Series
Most Important Player: Corey Seager

Tick tock. Tick tock.

The Clayton Kershaw era in Los Angeles has certainly been full of winning — Cy Youngs, an MVP, a handful of division crowns and a couple deep playoff runs. But now, after consecutive defeats in the World Series, only one thing matters. Winning the World Series.

But might the clock be nearing midnight? With Kershaw battling injuries amid dropping velocity, one wonders. It’s not easy getting to the World Series at all, much less three years in a row. Walker Buehler’s emergence sort of mitigates the potential loss of Kershaw, but no rotation maintains its stature amid such a loss.

The lineup should be as good as ever, especially if Corey Seager returns to form after missing all of last season with an injury. I’m not especially confident about Austin Barnes and Russell Martin replacing Yasmani Grandal, but it’s a blow they can afford. This team won’t hurt for runs.

Be careful with Kershaw. Even if he’s not ready until June or later, the Dodgers should be strong enough to hang around in the NL West. For both the future Hall of Famer and the club, October glory means more than anything else.

2. Colorado Rockies

Goal: Make playoffs
Most Important Player: Nolan Arenado

When Dan Syzmborski’s ZiPS projections for the Rockies came out, he had this to say about the top of the Colorado rotation:

Going into last season, ZiPS thought that all five projected starters would be league-average or better and that’s pretty much what happened, though Kyle Freeland crushed his preseason projections to put up a legitimate Cy Young-esque season. ZiPS isn’t sold on Freeland being that good, but it is sold on German Marquez being a legitimate ace pitcher.

Freeland put up more than 8 wins above replacement last season. I doubt he’s that good, but for the sake of the Rockies I hope he’s not what ZiPS thinks either: 4.54 ERA. If Marquez pitches to his potential, as ZiPS believes he can (3.82 ERA), the Rockies could have quite the one-two punch. I’m a big fan of Marquez; give me all the strikeouts.

Trevor Story and Nolan Arenado are a pretty slick left side of the infield. I’m not sure anyone is too enthused about Ian Desmond in center field, but Charlie Blackmon wasn’t the answer either. This might have been a funky place for Billy Hamilton to sign. I might be the only one, but that thought made me smile. A big goofy smile.

3. Arizona Diamondbacks

Goal: Tank?
Most Important Player: Zack Greinke

I doubt it was a fun offseason for Snakes fans. The team traded the franchise’s greatest position player, Paul Goldschmidt, to the St. Louis Cardinals. The team watched two above-average players (Patrick Corbin and AJ Pollock) leave in free agency. That’s a bitter pill in any circumstances, but Arizona, having just won 82 games, profiled like a team with reason to build, not dismantle. The bottom 40% of the division is rebuilding and the Dodgers are showing some cracks.

But, alas.

One wonders if the teardown continues, perhaps with the exploration of a Zack Greinke deal (although the former Cy Young winner has a partial no-trade clause). No reason to hang around in the upper 70s in wins. The Snakes chose not to push for 90 wins; might as well tear it down to 72 or so.

The farm system is doing considerably better than in years past, which while hardly a solace for fans who watched so much talent exit the state, might be nice in a few years.

4. San Francisco Giants

Goal: Tank
Most Important Player: Buster Posey

It almost seems forgotten in modern baseball conversation, but the Giants won three championships in five seasons not too long ago. Heck, even considering it myself was a bit jarring: three titles in the last eight seasons? Wow. You employ Barry Bonds at the peak of his powers, manage one appearance in the Fall Classic and lose. He retires and two years later, bam. Championship.

Baseball is a weird sport. The Giants of today are in the midst of a slow rebuild. Flags fly forever — we must not forget that. One wonders, though, if the Giants are willing to go full Houston Astros and sell off every decent piece available. The Madison Bumgarner rumors abound, and I’m sure the front office would love nothing more than a kickass first half from the lefty who once terrorized the Kansas City Royals. Either way, probably smart for the team to cash him in. Same with Brandon Belt and Brandon Crawford. Crawford especially could be a valuable piece.

The much more gut-wrenching choice would be former MVP Buster Posey. I’m not sure I could pull the trigger on that one.

5. San Diego Padres

Goal: Get ready for 2021
Most Important Player: Manny Machado

Someone finally signed Machado, quite the shrewd move for both team and player. Machado got his money and the Padres got a middle-of-the-order slugger who should be able to man third base for half a decade or more, alongside prized prospect Fernando Tatis Jr at short. The depth extends past Tatis, too; the Pads finished first in Keith Law’s team rankings. It might not become clear this season, but the future looks bright down in Southern California.

If Tatis Jr becomes a star and Machado holds his value — an if, but not necessarily a big one — the Padres have a foundation to really work with. Given ownership’s willingness to spend in doling out the Machado (10/300) and Hosmer (8/144) deals plus the potential of that aforementioned farm system, optimism is founded. But one must remember the 2018 team nearly lost 100 games. There is plenty of work to be done.

NL West Observations

Best Pitchers going into 2019 Best Position Players going into 2019
1. Zack Greinke 1. Nolan Arenado
2. Clayton Kershaw (out of respect) 2. Manny Machado
3. Walker Buehler 3. Justin Turner
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