The final part of our three-part series will end with the MLB’s Western Division. The Dodgers are projected to come out on top as NL division champs, while the AL has the Astros and A’s as its top contenders.
American League West
The Houston Astros
The Astros are coming into the 2020 campaign after an offseason littered with big-name losses and injuries, as well as anger throughout the baseball community in regard to their 2017 cheating scandal. RHP Gerritt Cole and LHP Wade Miley will no longer be donning H-Town’s orange and navy uniforms, having gone to the Yankees and Reds, respectively.
Additionally, injured relief pitchers Brad Peacock (right shoulder) and Austin Pruitt (right elbow) have yet to make a full recovery, and neither player is expected to make an appearance on the mound for at least a few weeks, barring further complications.
The Astros also have to worry about backlash from the reveal of their infamous stolen World Series title three years ago. The team should watch out for potential retaliation by way of players intentionally getting hit by pitches, as suggested by Cincinnati Reds’ RHP Trevor Bauer in a piece by The Players’ Tribune.
However, what’s working in favor of the Astros is the return of Lance McCullers Jr., who will make his first regular season reappearance after having missed last year’s campaign due to Tommy John surgery. Monday’s exhibition game against the Royals yielded six strikeouts from McCullers, who pitched five innings and allowed only one run during his time on the bump. This, with the combined talent of Verlander and Greinke, makes for a promising 2020 starting bullpen.
The Oakland Athletics
A shoulder strain has landed one of the A’s top starting pitchers a spot on the injured list just days before the team is set to open against the Angels this Friday, July 25. LHP A.J. Puk was slated to be the A’s fifth starter.
This is not the first time Puk has found himself on the IL.
Puk underwent Tommy John surgery two years ago, after tearing his ulnar collateral ligament back in 2018. He also sustained a shoulder injury earlier this year, prior to Monday’s strain. If Puk’s aptitude to injury continues, this could pose some real issues for the A’s.
Also important to note is the A’s tendency to be a second-half team. The past two seasons have yielded favorable results for the Athletics in the latter part of their seasons, going 133-71 after the first 60 games in the past two campaigns combined.
Due to this year’s shortened season, it is imperative that the A’s hit the ground running and come out strong right off the bat. If they are unable to do this, the team’s 2020 success could be compromised.
Despite this, the A’s have a promising season ahead of them. The Athletics have an impressive roster, boasting players like Matt Chapman and Marcus Semien. Chapman hit .249 with 91 RBIs in 2019 and has been named the AL Platinum Glove Award winner for the past two consecutive years, while Semien was a finalist last season for the AL MVP award.
The Texas Rangers
The Rangers have a lot going for them in terms of their roster. 2019 American League Cy Young contender Lance Lynn will take the mound on Opening Day, coming off of a successful 2019 campaign. Lynn pitched 264 strikeouts last season, a career high for himself and the third most strikeouts thrown in a single season by a Rangers pitcher in franchise history.
The Rangers also have utility guy Isaiah Kiner-Falefa, whose impressive preseason performance has been a pleasant surprise to the organization. His plate appearances have yielded exciting results, hitting .295 in Summer Camp and .378 during Spring Training, suggesting that Kiner-Falefa will be an asset to the Rangers’ offense.
In addition, the Rangers also recently picked up two-time AL Cy Young winner Corey Kluber, who has dominated the mound so far this preseason. Assuming he is back to full strength after fracturing his forearm back in 2019 (followed by an oblique injury four months later), Kluber’s impressive past suggests a promising future with the Rangers.
While there is definitely strength in the Rangers’ bullpen, there is also some tightening up to do. RHP José Leclerc has some serious potential, but needs to improve upon last season’s 4.33 ERA. Leclerc also has some work to do in keeping his cool under pressure, and not allowing a poor performance get the best of him. A lack of emotional control could be a hindrance to this closer’s ability to pitch well.
Additionally, the Rangers haven’t made it to the postseason since 2016. While this could potentially give them some momentum in terms of goal-setting for the shortened 2020 season, it could also serve as a foreshadow of this year’s performance.
Weakness within the Angels bullpen was exposed in the second half of the team’s 2019 campaign. The club’s reliance upon Ty Buttrey resulted in a 3.98 ERA in 72.1 innings pitched, and an overworked Cam Bedrosian produced an ERA of 4.76 in the month of July. A strong pitching staff is necessary if the Angels are to have a successful 2020 season, and leaning too heavily upon a select few has proven to have some consequences.
Luckily, Shohei Ohtani is back after having spent the 2019 season recovering from Tommy John surgery. Although his preseason performance was off to a rocky start, Ohtani has shown improvement in each scrimmage he’s taken to the mound. Three innings saw seven batters walked and one batter hit in his first scrimmage back on July 7, but “Sho Time” showed up this past Sunday with six strikeouts and 45 strikes thrown over the course of five innings. If this steady improvement continues, this two-way player is looking to be an asset to the Angels’ bullpen.
In addition, the Angels took on Joe Maddon as their new manager. Maddon took the Cubs to the World Series for the first time in over a century back in 2016, and is 32-35 in postseason play. Maddon can hopefully work this magic on the Halos, the same organization he started his coaching career with a little over 40 years ago.
The Seattle Mariners
The Mariners had an unfortunate run last season, going 68-94 and finishing last in the AL West. This year their focus is on rebuilding their team, which means that unless their young roster comes out guns blazing, Seattle isn’t likely to end up as division champs.
However, the Mariners do have outfielder Kyle Lewis. The first three games of Lewis’ 2019 debut yielded one homer per game, making him the second player in MLB history to achieve such a feat. Aside from this, Lewis also became the first major leaguer to hit six bombs in his first 10 games.
More recently, Lewis nailed two home runs during a preseason scrimmage on Friday. Assuming he can keep up this trend, the Mariners have a definite offensive advantage in Lewis.
National League West
The Los Angeles Dodgers
Although the Dodgers are the top contenders for the NL Western Division title, there are a few red flags in their otherwise solid pitching staff. Take Clayton Kershaw, for example. With a 3.03 ERA and having gone 16-5 last season, Kershaw is still a force to be reckoned with on the mound. However, when comparing his 2019 stats with those of previous years, these are his lowest numbers since his MLB debut over a decade ago. His record is still good, but if this downward trend continues, this could be an issue this season.
Another potential area of concern: Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen. Jansen’s 2019 campaign brought about some issues, and his performance was on the decline throughout the majority of the season. The closer had a DRA of 3.51 and an ERA of 3.79, both of which were uncharacteristically high. In addition to this, the average velocity of Jansen’s fastball in 2019 was 93 mph, down from 96 mph back in 2016.
Aside from this, the Dodgers don’t have much to worry about in regard to the upcoming season. Consistency has always been a strength of theirs, and the team is projected to come out on top as division champions for the eighth year in a row.
Also, with the team’s acquisition of 2018 AL MVP Mookie Betts, the Dodgers have bolstered an already solid offensive front. Betts’ powerhouse swing made its debut at Dodger Stadium on Monday, with the former Red Sox superstar hitting a 3-run long ball in an exhibition game against the Diamondbacks. His offensive prowess, combined with that of a team whose 2019 offense led the NL West in runs scored (886), slugging percentage (.472) and homers (279), makes for a very promising 2020 campaign.
The Arizona Diamondbacks
The Diamondbacks have shown weakness in their offense over the past two exhibition games against the Dodgers. The first of the two games saw only four hits from Arizona (who went on to fall 9-2 to Los Angeles), followed by a game whose only highlight was a single home run by Idlemaro Vargas, which was the only run scored in a 12-1 loss.
This reveals potential cracks in the Diamondbacks’ offensive front, which poses risks in a shortened season where every game counts.
However, this does not mean that Arizona is down for the count. In fact, the team looks to have a solid 2020 campaign. One contributing factor: the acquisition of former Pirate Starling Marte, who plays good baseball at the plate and in the outfield. Marte’s reliability both offensively and defensively will be an asset to the Diamondbacks’ roster.
The San Francisco Giants
Joey Bart has been making noise within the Giants organization this preseason.
Although Gabe Kapler has made no official move to include the youngster in the team’s Opening Day lineup, Buster Posey’s decision not to play this season leaves an open spot that could potentially have Bart’s name written on it. This could be a solid move by the Giants, given the fact that the catcher has shown talent and stability both on and behind the plate.
One wild card to keep an eye on is Kapler himself. Kapler was hired by the Giants in late 2019 after the retirement of former manager Bruce Bochy. Kapler previously managed the Phillies, and was released by the team after going 161-163 under his leadership.
However, that is not to say the Giants will share the same fate as the Phillies. Kapler is not a guaranteed risk, but he’s also not a guaranteed asset. The value of his addition to the team will be determined as the season plays out. However, the lack of Bochy, who took his team to the World Series three times, could be a sore spot for the 2020 Giants, as their already unique season is made even more challenging by his absence for the first time in 13 year.
The Colorado Rockies
One of the biggest issues the Rockies may face in the upcoming 2020 campaign involves one of their fellow National League opponents: the Dodgers. Due to the unique nature of this year’s abbreviated schedule, Colorado will find themselves in Dodger Stadium twice this season. The issue: the Rockies’ record when playing at this particular stadium is not ideal. Last year, the team went 1-8 when playing the Dodgers in Los Angeles. This makes securing a win against an already top-tier team even more difficult, which can do some damage to their record.
Something that could work in favor of the Rockies this season is their release of relief pitchers Jake McGee and Bryan Shaw. In 2019, the two tossed an ERA of 4.35 and 5.38, respectively. In comes Daniel Bard, who will be making his Major League debut after a seven-year hiatus. Bard had an impressive run with the Red Sox back in 2009-11, and boasted a 1.93 ERA in 2010. However, Bard’s performance began to decline in the latter half of his 2011 campaign with Boston, and found himself back in the minors in 2013. He later announced his retirement.
Despite his struggles, Bard is back to pitching in the big leagues after working as a mental skills coach for the Diamondbacks, which provided him with some clarity. Now, he’s ready to reclaim his former role of a stellar relief pitcher, and his preseason performance shows potential.
Aside from being totally heartwarming, Bard’s return to professional ball could be a huge boost to the Rockies’ roster.
The San Diego Padres
There is much optimism surrounding the Padres heading into the 2020 season.
Fernando Tatis Jr. will be an important key to the team’s success, assuming his second year with the Friars is just as good (if not better) than his first. In 2019, Tatis hit .317 and had an OBP of .379 before his impressive rookie season ended prematurely due to a back injury. Tatis has proven that he can do some serious damage in a short amount of time, which can be a huge asset to the Padres during this abbreviated season.
However, one concern is Manny Machado. Despite the hype surrounding his 10-year, $300 million contract last season, Machado’s performance paled in comparison to what was expected of him. He hit .256 in 2019, down from .297 in 2018, and his OBP dropped from .310 to .294. If Machado continues with this downward trend, this could be a problem for the “Friars”.
I am a senior at San Diego State University majoring in journalism with an emphasis in media studies. I was born and raised in San Diego, California and have a deep love for iced coffee, the beach and Taco Stand. I work for both the marketing and writing departments of The Bullpen, an up-and-coming baseball blog. Additionally, I am a staff writer and reporter for the sports section of The Daily Aztec, SDSU's student newspaper. I have a passion for sports and storytelling, and aspire to be a sidelines reporter for the MLB or a courtside reporter for the NBA.