2024 AL West preview: The tussle in Texas

The 2023 American League season came down to a Lone Star State Showdown in the Championship Series. Amazingly, the Houston Astros were back in the LCS for the seventh year in a row, one shy of the record held by the ‘90s Atlanta Braves. They haven’t missed baseball’s Final Four since, well, the last time the Texas Rangers made the playoffs before 2023.

Up in Arlington, the Rangers went through a difficult stretch after Josh Donaldson’s dash began a descent to irrelevance. For six straight seasons, they finished under .500, bottoming out at 102 losses in 2021. The dynastic Astros dominated the baseball conversation in Texas, even after the Rangers raised eyebrows prior to 2022 by signing All-Stars Corey Seager and Marcus Semien.

Seager/Semien Year One did not work out for the team as a whole (they even fired longtime president Jon Daniels), but in 2023, they finished the AL West in a dead heat with Houston. The Rangers blew a 2.5-game lead with four games remaining by dropping three to the Seattle Mariners, and the Astros won the division title on a tiebreaker. The brash Alex Bregman toasted his teammates, saying “A lot of people were wondering what it was gonna be like if the ‘Stros didn’t win the division … I guess we’ll never know.”

Less than a month later, Bregman had to eat his words. Following a dramatic ninth-inning comeback powered by Jose Altuve in ALCS Game 5, Houston was one win away from their third consecutive pennant. They had two shots to close it out, both at home. The Rangers flipped the script, outscored them in Houston by a combined score of 20-6, and snatched the crown right off the Astros’ heads. Clinching the first World Series title in Rangers history would almost have been considered an epilogue had it not been for their past Fall Classic heartbreak.

At the championship parade, the normally-reserved Seager had the perfect comeback for Bregman.

Game on for 2024.

Notable additions and departures were limited to a maximum of five players for efficiency.

2023 season: 90-72 (AL West champions)
Notable additions: Josh Hader, Victor Caratini, Dylan Coleman
Notable departures: Michael Brantley, Martín Maldonado, Héctor Neris, Phil Maton, Ryne Stanek

For a team that ranks as the class of the Junior Circuit for the past decade, there has sure been a lot of turnover. This is partly the byproduct of the sign-stealing scandal, but now, both the front-office head and manager hired in wake of it are gone. GM James Click was allowed to walk fresh off winning the 2022 World Series, and future Hall of Fame skipper Dusty Baker decided to call it a career after the Rangers sent them home in 2023. By next year, the recently-extended Jose Altuve could be the last player remaining from 2017, as Scott Boras client Alex Bregman is about to hit free agency.

So the Astros could finally be reaching end of their long run of unquestioned excellence. All the same, as far as 2024 goes, they’re still the AL West favorites and have as good a chance as anyone to win yet another pennant. There’s stability in the dugout, as Baker’s old bench coach, Joe Espada, is now running the show. Altuve and Bregman are staples in the lineup, Kyle Tucker quietly finished fifth in 2023 AL MVP voting, and with 129 homers and a staggering 165 career OPS+ in 482 games, Yordan Alvarez remains arguably the most intimidating hitter in baseball.

The pitching staff is in a weird spot; that much is sure. Although the talent is still there, Justin Verlander just turned 41 and will begin the season on the IL recovering from a shoulder injury. Framber Valdez took a dip in the second half last year despite a no-hitter in early August. Cristian Javier had his own partial no-hit heroics on multiple occasions in 2022 and then fell to a 92 ERA+ and 1.1 rWAR in 2023. Their trusted old catcher, Maldonado, was thanked and sent on his way to the cellar-dwelling White Sox as a free agent.

All the same, the Astros’ bullpen is nails, and while there weren’t many offseason additions, they made a big one by inking the three-time NL Reliever of the Year Hader to a five-year, $95 million deal. It’s always a gamble to sign relief pitchers to big contracts, but for a win-now team, Hader should help them, uh, win now. Armed with a wicked sinker/slider combo, the lefty struck out 85 batters in 56.1 innings with a 1.28 ERA and 33 saves for the Padres. Houston already had a good closer in Ryan Pressly and Bryan Abreu is no walk in the park, either.

2024 is not the time to write the Astros’ obituary. They are battle-tested, relentless, and simply know how to build a well-rounded roster. The path to the American League pennant will run through Houston until the script says otherwise.

Los Angeles Angels

2023 season: 73-89 (4th place)

Notable additions: Robert Stephenson, Aaron Hicks, Matt Moore, Hunter Dozier, Luis García
Notable departures: Shohei Ohtani, Hunter Renfroe, Randal Grichuk, Mike Moustakas, Gio Urshela

General manager Perry Minasian likely has only one silver lining to draw from bidding adieu to generational superstar Shohei Ohtani: “Man, at least I’m not being hammered with questions about his interpreter and sports betting.”

During his six seasons in Orange County, Ohtani delivered a Rookie of the Year, two unanimous AL MVP honors, 19.5 rWAR at the plate and 15.1 on the mound. Despite all that, the Angels failed to make the playoffs once. They never even finished over .500! It was a devastating waste of talent, but that’s nothing new for owner Arte Moreno, who has also earned nary a playoff victory during Mike Trout’s entire 13-year career. The only morsel of post-Game 162 action was a three-game ALDS sweep at the hands of the Royals in 2014.

So now what? Ohtani’s in Dodger blue, injuries have limited Trout to 237 out of 486 possible games (48.7%) over the past three years, the overpriced Anthony Rendon is ever the enigma, and the Halos have a miserable farm system. The last point is partially the result of their pure desperation, as they’ve drafted for the moment and tried to select as many near-MLB ready prospects as possible, passing up on longer-term projects. The messaging has been confusing, and Moreno has also often been derelict in his responsibility to create a productive environment for minor leaguers to flourish, occasionally spending big in free agency but not on the organizational infrastructure needed these days. That hasn’t helped matters. He’s changed his mind about selling the team, too. This is the unfortunate reality for Angels fans.

Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim Announce Mike Trout Contract Extension

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I would love nothing more than to live in a world where Rendon and Hicks turn back the clock, Jo Adell finally clicks, Logan O’Hoppe becomes the next Buster Posey, Nolan Schanuel goes full John Olerud as a contact-oriented first baseman, and the bullpen carries this curious pitching staff to the promised land. An all-time great like Michael Nelson Trout should have more than one failed playoff round to his name because that’s a giant bummer.

New manager Ron Washington is as energetic as force as anyone in the game, even at age 71. He’ll bring the motivation to as many Angels as possible. You can squint for 45 seconds and maybe see it all coming together. Alas, you can cheer on a growing plant every single day, but if the roots are rotten, then it’ll wilt regardless.

2023 season: 50-112 (Last place)
Notable additions: J.D. Davis, Alex Wood, Ross Stripling, Miguel Andújar, Abraham Toro
Notable departures: Trevor May, Tony Kemp, James Kaprielian, Jonah Bride

We move from one bad owner to the absolute pits of MLB’s ruling class. As both the retiring May and Athletic columnist Marc Carig have argued, Oakland fans deserve so much better than the Athletics — specifically Gap nepo baby John Fisher. Why should anyone take anything said by him or team president Dave Kaval with any credulity? They are seemingly determined to nail down some way to move this nine-time championship franchise to Las Vegas, no matter how much they keep tripping over themselves or how (understandably) nonplussed the Vegas community seems to be about the entire concept of the Vegas A’s.

It’s almost a pointless exercise to talk about the team on the field because that’s not where the story is. No one thinks this club is any good, and they aren’t. Zack Gelof is a well-rounded young infielder, Shea Langeliers is a decent enough catcher, and Esteury Ruiz is cool to watch on the bases (when he actually gets there). Other than that, it’s a mix of veterans auditioning for new teams at the Trade Deadline and semi/former prospects trying to get back on track. Avoiding a third straight 100-loss season would be an upset.

Despite all the losses in recent years, the cavalry isn’t really coming. This is no longer the sharp front office once made famous by Moneyball. Billy Beane is hardly involved anymore and not many folks around the game think that this baseball operations team is especially modern or savvy. In fairness, would you want to work for John Fisher and hitch your ride to that wagon? There’s little incentive for anyone to join the A’s these days.

Oakland Athletics Fans Reverse Boycott

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With Opening Day 2024 at the Coliseum just days away, the A’s don’t even know where their next one will be. Maybe they grovel with the City of Oakland for a short extension on their lease to help retain TV revenue. Current minor-league parks in Sacramento and Las Vegas are also (un)attractive options. I don’t know if this Vegas ballpark will actually get built by 2028, but I am very confident in Fisher continuing to make an ass of himself and the A’s putting an awful product on the field. Sell the team.

2023 season: 88-74 (3rd place)
Notable additions: Jorge Polanco, Mitch Garver, Mitch Haniger, Luke Raley, Luis Urías
Notable departures: Eugenio Suárez, Robbie Ray, Teoscar Hernández, Tom Murphy, Jarred Kelenic

The 2022 Mariners could’ve had the story of the 2023 Rangers. Led by one of the brightest stars in the sport, they snapped a postseason drought with a Wild Card spot and soon got the chance to knock off the mighty Astros in a playoff round. But while Texas dispatched Houston in a seven-game ALCS, the Mariners got swept in a Division Series dusting. The three games were painfully close and featured all the agony typical of M’s history, but the result was the result.

It’s not a perfect comparison; for starters, few would argue that the 2023 Astros were quite as loaded as their 2022 champions. All the same, the sting of Seattle’s 2022 ALDS loss hurt even more when they followed it up by missing the playoffs outright in 2023. It was far from a fall into the ravine, as the Wild Card-holding Toronto Blue Jays were merely one game ahead of them and the M’s were just two wins worse than they were last year.

This ownership situation isn’t as outright dire as that of the Angels or Athletics, but it’s not a breezy ride for Mariners fans. Credit is justified for knowing how impactful, young, and charismatic Julio Rodríguez happens to be, as Seattle extended him for a long, long time in summer 2022. Other big-money moves were made to lock up recently-acquired ace Luis Castillo (good) and free agent Robbie Ray (bad; he’s already been dumped). Before the beginning of the 2023-24 offseason though, the Mariners said that they had to cut payroll. That’s exactly what every long-suffering Seattle fan wants to hear, right?

Houston Astros v Seattle Mariners

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So trade-happy president of baseball operations Jerry Dipoto went on a creative deals spree to move some contracts off the books and restructure the payroll. If you enter the exercise acknowledging that Dipoto had constraints imposed on him by owner John Stanton, then it’s fair say that he generally did what he could. He’d coveted the productive Polanco for what felt like ages, and modest free agent signing Mitch Garver is just a good hitter to have around, too. Raley, Urías, and the returning Haniger are more rolls of the dice in their own unique ways, but they could work out.

It just stinks that this has to be the modus operandi. Suárez, Hernández, and Murphy were all solid hitters in the batting order, and they’re just gone. The Suárez dump to Arizona is particularly annoying because while he wasn’t going to be the four-win player he was in 2022 anymore, he was still a real answer at the hot corner. Matt Chapman was sitting out on the market forever, and he ultimately signed with the San Francisco Giants for a perfectly normal deal. The M’s had interest, but didn’t even want to invest in that. That’s all to say nothing of what Seattle native Blake Snell got from San Francisco, too. Castillo, George Kirby, and Logan Gilbert provide the bones of a no-joke rotation; imagine if they had added the 2023 NL Cy Young Award winner, too?

This preview might be a bit more dour on the Mariners than the players themselves merit. There are three AL Wild Card spots to be had in 2024, and I’d wager to guess that Seattle ends up grabbing one of them. Julio is so ungodly talented that not even a .721 OPS first half could stop him from a five-win season and a fourth-place finish for AL MVP. I trust him; I just don’t necessarily trust that Mariners leadership is putting its best foot forward to finally reach a World Series.

2023 season: 90-72 (2nd place, Wild Card; World Series champions)
Notable additions: David Robertson, Michael Lorenzen, Kirby Yates, Tyler Mahle
Notable departures: Jordan Montgomery, Mitch Garver, Aroldis Chapman, Will Smith, Robbie Grossman

For the first time in franchise history, the Rangers enter a season as the defending World Series champions. Unlike some recent winners, there are scant national writers predicting a repeat.

This is partly the result of how the Rangers entered the playoff picture in the first place last year. They lost the AL West to the Astros on the last weekend of the season, and if the Mariners were just a smidge better, they might not have made it to the dance at all. They deserve full credit for getting hot at the right moment and building a team with stars like Nathan Eovaldi, Marcus Semien, and two-time World Series MVP Corey Seager. Cream rises to the top, and they delivered.

A more pressing issue is that Texas is right back to where they were at the 2023 Trade Deadline, in major need of starting pitcher upgrades. Back then, they remedied this by acquiring Montgomery and Max Scherzer; the former is still out there on the free agent market and the latter won’t pitch until midseason 2024 due to back surgery. That’s when Texas is hoping to get Mahle and Jacob deGrom back from Tommy John surgery, too. Any second now, the front office could re-sign Montgomery and assuage some rotation concerns, but until it actually happens, Eovaldi will have to shoulder the lion’s share of the responsibility — ideally with some assistance from Lorenzen, Jon Gray, Andrew Heaney, Dane Dunning, and a bullpen that came up big in October.

As noted in the Mariners section of this preview, Garver is no longer the Rangers’ DH. But boy, do they have a fun alternative who will also see extended time in the outfield: Wyatt Langford.

The 22-year-old out of Florida was the fourth overall pick in the MLB Draft barely over eight months ago. He wasted little time in turning the minor leagues into his own playground, batting .360/.480/.677 with 17 doubles and 10 homers across a mere 44 games, finishing at Triple-A Round Rock. Scouts across the industry were blown away, and after keeping it up this spring with six long balls in Cactus League play, manager Bruce Bochy confirmed that Langford would be on the Opening Day roster.

The funny thing is that Langford isn’t the only AL Rookie of the Year contender on this team. Left fielder Evan Carter settled into the Texas lineup so effortlessly last September and throughout the World Series run that it’s easy to forget that he still has rookie eligibility. There will be days when Bochy writes out a lineup that features Seager, Semien, Langford, Carter, ALCS MVP Adolis García, and All-Stars Josh Jung and Jonah Heim. Once first baseman Nathaniel Lowe (159 extra-base hits since the start of 2021) gets back from his oblique injury … holy mackerel is that some lineup. Hell, it already is!

In an ideal Rangers world, the lineup keeps the rotation afloat until the old man cavalry of deGrom and Scherzer is healthy and ready to come back. Although it might not work out quite that smoothly for the men on the mound, this offense isn’t going to be fun for any opponent to handle. A return trip to October seems likely; we’ll see what the staff looks like then.

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