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2019 Preview: American League West

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Last year the American League West featured one of the best teams in baseball in Houston, one of the biggest surprises in baseball in Oakland, a team that competed for a playoff spot for most of the season in Seattle, a team with both baseball’s best player and it’s most interesting player in Los Angeles and a rebuilding project in Texas. How does all of that shake out in 2018?

Houston Astros

The division certainly still has one of the best teams in baseball. The Astros, of course, won it all in 2017 and won 103 games in 2018 and there’s not a lot of reason to think that they won’t still be at the top of the standings in 2019.

Still, there are questions here, particularly in the rotation, given that they lost Charlie Morton via free agency and lost Lance McCullers Jr. to Tommy John surgery. I suppose it’s still possible that Dallas Keuchel returns, but he’s a free agent as of this writing and even if he did come back to Houston, his season is going to start late given his long period of being unsigned. According to the current depth chart Collin McHugh and Brad Peacock are stepping in to join Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole and the newly-acquired Wade Miley.

If it’s determined that Peacock is better-suited to coming out of the pen, Framber Valdez — who got five starts last year — and his questionable command but excellent stuff could slip in to the back of the rotation. If that assemblage does not work the Astros have a great deal of pitching talent in the system. Josh James, who you last saw throwing 100+ m.p.h. gas in the ALCS, is electric. Then there are minor leaguers like Forrest Whitley, who some consider the top pitching prospect in the game, and J.B. Bukauskas and Corbin Martin who both project to be effective big league starters. So, yeah, the Astros have lost pitching but there is plenty more coming, even if it takes a bit of a transitional period to get there.

On offense the Astros are going to be the Astros. Carlos Correa, George Springer, Alex Bregman and Jose Altuve obviously form the core, and the addition of Michael Brantley in the outfield will provide a nice boost. Robinson Chirinos behind the plate is an offensive improvement over the now-diminished and now-departed Brian McCann, but his defense is questionable. Backup Max Stassi is the opposite. With Evan Gattis gone, Tyler White should now get regular playing time at his best position: DH.

All in all it’ll be a somewhat different-looking Houston Astros team in 2019, but not radically so. And there is no reason to believe that they will not, once again, run away with the AL West.

 

Oakland Athletics

No one — absolutely no one — saw the A’s 97-win season coming last year. And no one — at least no one I’ve seen — is predicting them to repeat it. There’s probably a good reason for that. The rotation broke down in the second half last year and the A’s, successfully I will note, went all-in on relievers, even using the opener strategy in their Wild Card game loss to the Yankees. It remains to be seen if they have the depth to lean on their bullpen again. The current rotation of Mike Fiers, Marco Estrada, Brett Anderson and Frankie Montas + an opener remains potentially fragile and does not exactly strike fear into anyone’s hearts.  Top pitching prospect Jesus Luzardo has impressed this spring and, by all rights, should be in that rotation. Daniel Mengden, recently optioned, will likewise see a good amount of time pitching in Oakland. Still, the rotation was a liability last season and could very well be one again.

On offense the A’s lost one of their best players, Jed Lowrie, to free agency. They’re hoping the newly-acquired Jurickson Profar lives up to his former top-prospect hype and serves as Lowrie 2.0. His nice 2018 season suggests that, for all of his time lost in the woods in his early 20, he may finally be coming around. Heck, he’s still only 26. Beyond that, the offense remains a strength, obviously, with Matt Chapman, Khris Davis, Matt Olson, Stephen Piscotty and other mashers hitting a bunch of longballs and shortstop Marcus Semien being one of the more underrated players in the game, both offensively and defensively. It’s a fantastic group.

Most projection systems feature the A’s taking a big step back. I suppose the smart money is on that and, as I said, Houston remains a beast. The A’s, though, are just a couple of arms short of surprising again.

 

Los Angeles Angels

Mike Trout is still Mike Trout. Unfortunately, beyond him, the Angels are still the Angels. A new manager, yes — Brad Ausmus replaces Mike Scioscia — but otherwise it’s, again, an assemblage of familiar and in some cases intriguing players who, as a whole, look pretty clearly to be less than the sum of their parts. Last year’s big addition, Shohei Ohtani, will be limited to DH duties thanks to Tommy John surgery. Those DH skills — while considerable — won’t even be available to start the season as he’s just going to begin taking batting practice this week.

There are new faces in town, as the Halos picked up first baseman Justin Bour, catcher Jonathan Lucroy, starters Matt Harvey and Trevor Cahill and closer Cody Allen. They also obtained infielder Tommy La Stella in a trade with the Chicago Cubs. Allen fills a pretty big need and Harvey has some potential upside, I suppose. Bour fell back last season but has shown he is capable of swinging a potent bat. Maybe the most interesting thing that happens all year in Anaheim is seeing what happens when Ohtani is ready to play and Brad Ausmus has to decide how much to sit the highly paid and obviously famous Albert Pujols in favor of the clearly superior Bour.

As we seem to say with the Angels every year, if everything breaks just right the season could be interesting.  If Trout remains Trout, supporting players play above their heads and the OK on paper rotation — this year Andrew Heaney, Tyler Skaggs, Jamie Barria, Nick Tropeano, Harvey and Cahill — stay healthy, it’s not hard to see some expectations exceeded. If said expectations are exceeded one could imagine the win total pushing from the low-80s to the high 80s and, thanks to the overall weak group of American League Wild Card contenders outside of the East, the Angels being one of, say, three or four teams in the mix. We have learned, however, not to put too much stock in the Angels’ potential, so we will remain bearish on them unless and until they give us reason not to be.

 

Seattle Mariners 

Robinson Cano, James Paxton, Nelson Cruz, Edwin Díaz, Jean Segura and Mike Zunino are all gone. Kyle Seager is lost to injury for a couple of months. Heck, even the ballpark has a new name. The Mariners, winners of 89 games last season, are a totally new team. And they are totally not going to win 89 again this year.

Eighty-nine wins is not bad, but in Major League Baseball the incentives are such that tearing it all down is simply what’s done now. It’s rebuilding time, and winning baseball games is not going to be the primary interest of the 2019 Seattle Mariners. The only bonafide big name they added in the offseason — Edwin Encarnacion — came on board to offset the money in the Carlos Santana-to-Cleveland deal, and they only got Santana to offset money in the Jean Segura deal. Encarnacion himself will likely be traded this year if he does anything other than completely crater. There are still some well-known names on the roster — Jay Bruce, Mitch Haniger, Dee Gordon, Felix Hernandez and, eventually, Seager will be around — but everything about what’s happening in Seattle this year is about the future, not the present. Their biggest battle will to be against the Rangers to avoid fifth place. I am rather agnostic as to who has a bigger claim on that position at the moment, frankly.

Texas Rangers

Gone: future Hall-of-Famer Adrian Beltre, to retirement. Remaining: the Rangers’ rebuild, which does not figure to bear enough fruit in 2019 to radically improve on last year’s 95-loss club. Added: a whole lot of random players that you’ve heard of and whom, it would seem, are mostly in town to kill time, eat innings and, possibly, be flipped in order to fuel the rebuild some more. Unless of course you think Jeff Mathis, Asdrubal Cabrera, Lance Lynn, Shelby Miller, Jason Hammel, Drew Smyly, Shawn Kelley, Zach McAllister or Jesse Chavez are gonna be a big part of the next great Texas Rangers team. Hunter Pence is in town now. He’s fun.

The 2019 season is going to be all about the development of prospects Taylor Hearn, Yohander Mendez, Willie Calhoun, Anderson Tejada, Leody Taveras, and Bubba Thompson, all of whom are more likely to feature in later seasons of the Texas Rangers Saga as opposed to the current one.

Upshot: It’s the Astros’ world and everyone else is living in it. The A’s are a good team that is fun to watch but they’ll be fighting regression and, in all likelihood, fighting for a Wild Card spot. The Angels could too, I suppose. The M’s and Rangers are gonna stink on ice.

Neal Huntington thinks players should be allowed to re-enter games after concussion testing

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Pirates catcher Francisco Cervelli, who has suffered many concussions throughout his 12-year career, was hit on the back of the helmet on a Joc Pederson backswing Saturday against the Dodgers. Through Cervelli remained in the game initially, he took himself out of the game shortly thereafter and went on the seven-day concussion injured list on Sunday.

Perhaps inspired by Saturday’s event, Pirates GM Neal Huntington suggested that players should be allowed to re-enter games once they have passed concussion tests, the Associated Press reports. Huntington said, “Any player that had an obvious concussion risk incident should be allowed to be removed from the game, taken off the field, taken into the locker room, assessed by a doctor, assessed by a trainer, go through an extended period of time and then re-enter the game. Because right now, all of this has to happen on the field.”

Huntington added, “The player has to feel pressure as he’s standing there with 30,000 or 10,000 or 50,000 eyes on him. He has to feel pressure to make a decision whether (he’s) in or (he’s) out of this game. He knows if he takes himself out and he’s the catcher, there’s only one other catcher, and the game becomes a fiasco if that other catcher gets hurt.”

Huntington, who has been forward-thinking on a number of other issues, has it wrong here. The concussion protocols were created because players frequently hid or under-reported their injuries in order to remain in the game. Especially for younger or otherwise less-proven players, there is pressure to have to constantly perform in order to keep one’s job. Furthermore, there is an overarching sentiment across sports that taking time off due to injury makes one weak. Similarly, playing while injured is seen as tough and masculine. Creating protocols that take the decision-making out of players’ hands keeps them from making decisions that aren’t in their own best interests. Removing them would bring back that pressure for players to hide or minimize their ailments. If anything, MLB’s concussion protocols should become more stringent, not more relaxed.

The powers that be with Major League Baseball have no doubt followed the concussion scandal surrounding the National Football League. In January, the NFL settled for over $1 billion with retired players dealing with traumatic brain injuries, including dementia, Lou Gehrig’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, and Alzheimer’s disease. For years, the league refused to acknowledge the link between playing football and CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy), which is a neurodegenerative disease that can lead to dementia and has many negative effects, such as increasing the risk of suicide. Since baseball isn’t often a contact sport, MLB doesn’t have to worry about brain injuries to this degree, but it still needs to take preventative measures in order to avoid billion-dollar lawsuits as well as avoiding P.R. damage. In December 2012, former major league outfielder Ryan Freel committed suicide. Freel, who claimed to have suffered as many as 10 concussions, suffered from CTE. MLB players can suffer brain injuries just like football players.

Huntington seems to be worried about not having enough rostered catchers in the event one or two catchers get injured. That is really an issue of roster management. Carrying only two catchers on the roster is a calculated risk, often justified. Huntington can ensure his team never has to be put in the position of not having a catcher in an emergency by rostering a third catcher. Rosters are expanding to 26 players next year, by the way.