MLB 2023 Season Preview: American League West – By Joshua Hertz
While the focus of the last two articles have been some of the changes the MLB has made for the upcoming season, the elephant in the room(no relation to the As mascot) looms large: why these changes? There are a few reasons for the numerous changes both on and off the field. For example, this year’s MLB Draft was the first to feature a lottery determining the draft order of the top few picks, this was an addition to discouraging tanking, which is when teams lose intentionally to get high picks to build a great core from scratch. The last few seasons, tanking has become a bigger issue in the MLB, with most teams falling in either the tanking or playoff contending categories, with very few teams in the middle. This has led to predictable, noncompetitive divisions, and made it difficult for league average players to find a team willing to pay them fair market value. The lottery was therefore implemented as a part of the new Collective Bargaining Agreement(CBA), an agreement between players and the MLB to end the lockout that occurred last offseason. With many of the on the field changes, such as keeping extra-inning baserunners, banning most of the shift, and the controversial pitch clock, the MLB hopes to change the pace of baseball, which is commonly seen as long, boring, and slow to many casual sports fans. This brings up quite a unique dilemma of whether baseball should change to better fit the short attention span of fans in the digital age, or keep with the traditional way the game has been played for the last hundred years or so.
While I cannot answer this dilemma for you, I can happily say that this time, we will be previewing the AL West, home to the best team in baseball last season(as well as the worst team), which spans geographically from the Pacific ocean to about 50 miles from the Gulf of Mexico. Without further ado, let’s take a look at one of the strangest divisions in professional sports.
Who better to start with than the World Series champs! Controversial as they may be due to their cheating on their way to their first World Series title in 2017, the Astros have been arguably one of the best teams in baseball over the last eight years. The Astros have made the playoffs seven of the last eight years, won the AL West division race five out of the last six seasons, won the AL pennant 3 of the last 4 seasons, with the missed division title and AL pennant coming in the chaotic 60 game Covid season. Houston’s sustained success has largely come as a result of utilizing sabermetrics during their tanking years over a decade ago, which led to building a core centered around José Altuve, Alex Bregman, and Carlos Correa. While Correa left after the 2021 season, Altuve is on track for potential being enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, while Bregman has had some injuries and struggles but played well in 2022. To replace Correa, the Astros called up rookie Jeremy Peña to take over at shortstop, who would go on to be the hero of the World Series and take home MVP honors for the series.
To round out a dangerously potent hitting core, the Astros return Kyle Tucker, Yordan Álvarez, and added White Sox first baseman José Abreu to further strengthen the team. On the pitching side, the Astros rotation lost an irreplaceable ace in last season’s AL Cy Young winner Justin Verlander, the team still brings a strong rotation led by José Urquidy, Framber Valdez and Cristian Javier, and an elite bullpen with the newly extended Rafael Montero and elite closer Ryan Pressly. Expect the Astros to once again dominate the AL West and AL as a whole, and similar to last year be active buyers for more depth and bullpen arms at the trade deadline.
Predicted Finish: 1st Place(Playoff Berth as Division Champs)
Los Angeles Angels
Over in Anaheim, the Angels continue to waste the generational talents on their roster. Despite future Hall of Famer Mike Trout operating in center field for the past decade for the Angels, the Halos have played just one playoff series since his debut, coming the year they last won the AL West back in 2014. The Angels are currently on a streak of seven straight losing seasons, and continue to feature a mix of premier talent and expensive injury-prone players. Not only is Trout, a 3-time MVP and #2 player ranked by MLB going into the season on their roster, but the #1 ranked player by the MLB is also on the team, being Japanese two-way player Shohei Ohtani. Ohtani, the AL MVP in 2021, finished last season as the runner-up for MVP and 4th place in Cy Young votes, in part to his crazy good numbers as both a speedy power hitter and an elite right-handed pitcher.
To round out the Angels elite hitting, outfielder Taylor Ward had a breakout season last year, while the team traded for power hitting outfielder Hunter Renfroe and signed infielder Brandon Drury after he had a breakout year himself. On the more expensive side, third baseman Anthony Rendon, who has been hindered by injuries and inconsistency since signing with the Angels a few years ago, has yet to show the ability with the bat that he displayed in Washington’s 2019 World Series run, while being amongst the highest-paid players at his position. On the mound, the Angels brought in lefty veteran Tyler Anderson after a big year in 2021 with their cross-town rivals, and added veteran righty Carlos Estévez to the bullpen staff. While Ohtani, Anderson, and lefty Patrick Sandoval will likely pitch well in 2023, the rest of the Angels pitching staff is relatively unproven or inconsistent, while the Angels bullpen lacks depth and a true closer. Despite the high talent and upside, the Angels will likely continue to struggle in 2023, and despite adding bats, they will not be able to overcome inevitable injury pileup and inconsistent pitching that will only snowball in a grueling 162 game schedule.
Predicted Finish:4th Place(No Playoffs)
How woeful it must be to be a fan of this franchise. While this team may be referred to as the A’s, after this past season and offseason, the L’s may be more fitting. This team is trying to alienate Oakland fans as much as they can so they can relocate, whether to Las Vegas, Portland, or elsewhere(maybe Waltham, who knows?). For fans of this team who haven’t been dissuaded, the roster that will take the field at the 57-year old football stadium features almost no recognizable names. Featuring names such as *checks notes* Dick Green, Bert Campaneris and Reggie Jackson? With an elite pitching staff featuring names like Vida Blue, Jim Hunter, and Ken Holtzman, this team could actually sneak their way to, say, a division title at 94-68. Wait, why does this seem like it already happened. That’s because this is the roster from 50 years ago. If you thought these were the names of players on the A’s, don’t feel too bad, because most MLB fans this side of the Mississippi couldn’t name more than one or two players on this team.
The real roster is unrecognizable compared to the team that won the AL West crown in 2020, with veterans Seth Brown, Tony Kemp and Ramon Laureano remaining as holdovers leading a lineup of mostly young rookies and former, unsuccessful prospects looking for one last shot. Offseason additions such as Jesus Aguilar, Jace Peterson, and Aledmys Diaz join to serve as placeholder players while prospects develop in the minors, and should these vets show moderate success, they could be moved to contenders or playoff hopefuls in need of depth. On the pitching side, the A’s feature an interesting rookie to watch in their rotation in Japanese righty Shintaro Fujinami, while Paul Blackburn remains as a decent veteran leader. In the bullpen, the A’s brought in veteran righty Trevor May, a solid pitcher who off the field is a partial owner in a semi-pro football league and is a streamer, but otherwise will run back one of the worst bullpens in all of baseball. In their continued firesale, the A’s also parted with the last of their valuable MLB talent this offseason, trading star catcher Sean Murphy and lefty Cole Irvin for pennies on the dollar. For this team, reaching the 60 win mark they reached last season will be a struggle, and with the new draft lottery, there tank will likely stay in the basement of the AL longer that expected
Predicted Finish: 5th Place(No Playoffs)
Congrats Seattle fans, they finally did it! While there was no World Series title for Seattle last season, they finally broke the longest playoff drought in the MLB of 21 years in 2022, even sweeping the Blue Jays in the Wild Card round before falling to Houston in the ALDS. Sneaking in as the new third Wild Card team last year, the Mariners got to work this offseason in retooling their roster to be better equipped to compete with the top teams in the American League. The team hopes to build their future around reigning AL Rookie of the Year, Julio Rodríguez, who exploded onto the scene with his crazy good hitting skill, elite speed, and tremendous swagger in the way he plays the game. The Mariners opted to break the bank to keep J-Rod long term, giving him a 14-year contract worth up to $400 million, and made moves to enhance the talent around him.
One of the most active teams in the trade market, Seattle made key moves that may allow them to pressure Houston in the AL West race. While already featuring power bats in Eugenio Suarez, Ty France and Cal Raleigh, the Mariners flipped reliever Erik Swanson to bring in All-Star infielder Teoscar Hernández to further bolster the middle of the lineup. With the departure of Adam Frazier and struggles of Abraham Toro as an everyday player, the Mariners traded Toro and struggling outfielder Jesse Winker to Milwaukee, bringing in veteran second baseman Kolten Wong to fill the weakest part of the lineup. The team also made sure to bolster team depth by bringing in veterans A.J. Pollock and Tommy La Stella, the latter of which provides the Mariners with another lefty bat. In the pitching department, the Mariners have exciting young arms Logan Gilbert and George Kirby, who both looked promising last season, while the top of the rotation features former Cy Young winning ace Robbie Ray and All-Star Luis Castillo, both of which are under contract for the next few seasons. The Mariners also have a solid bullpen, with Paul Sewald the likely closer for the team after pitching well last year. Seattle seems keen on preventing a new playoff drought, and the win-now focused moves they made should allow them to stay competitive in what will be a tight playoff race.
Predicted Finish: 2nd Place(Playoff Berth as a Wildcard)
Texas has been a weird team in recent years. Last offseason, the team began to spend money on bigger contracts, which led to an 8-game improvement. The Rangers are looking to reach the postseason for the first time since 2016, and going into the 2023 season, the team is definitely moving in the right direction.
This offseason, the Rangers continued to build their future contender, focusing this time on pitching. The started off the offseason bringing back lefty Martin Pérez on a one year qualifying offer, after he had a breakout 2022 season. The team then spent even more on a rotation already featuring Pérez and Jon Gray, bringing in ex-Mets ace Jacob DeGrom and ex-Red Sox righty Nathan Eovaldi on multi-year megadeals. On the hitting side, the team still boasts one of the top middle infield duos in Marcus Semien and Corey Seager, and will look for big contributions from Nathaniel Lowe, Adolis Garcia, Jonah Heim, and Mitch Garver. One new name to focus on is Josh Jung, a rookie third baseman who the Rangers hope will meet his expectations as a frontrunner for AL Rookie of the Year. One part of the Rangers roster that remains a bit lackluster is the bullpen, which does feature a couple of solid arms, but lacks overall depth. Should the Rangers hang around in a tough AL West race, they could be buyers at the trade deadline who may look to add to their bullpen and overall depth. It is safe to say that Texas has finally escaped the MLB’s basement, but whether or not they will be more than average this season is something that we will have to wait and see.
Predicted Finish: 3rd Place(No Playoffs)