The last three years in the AL West have been mostly been straightforward wins for the Houston Astros, but after a tumultuous offseason and now a difficult start to the abbreviated season, they are facing a fight to even make the expanded playoffs.
After letting Gerrit Cole leave to the Yankees, the Astros had seemingly pinned their hopes on Zack Greinke and Justin Verlander making 60 starts and a series of unproven starters making up the rest. Justin Verlander’s spring Lat issue ended this ambition before the pandemic and his new forearm issues after his first regular-season start is threatening his season.
It is not just the future Hall of Famer who is injured. Eight of their 10 bullpen arms are now rookies, with the news that Roberto Osuna has an elbow problem, along with rookies Christian Javier, Framber Valdez and Brandon Bielak in the rotation. There was concern across the league with the short three-week build-up of summer camp, but the extent of Houston’s pitching injuries is unprecedented. Even at the alternative site, league-wide top 30 prospect Forrest Whitely has injury concerns.
Valdez and Javier have both given the Astros decent starts, but Tommy John returnee Lance McCullers and veteran Zack Greinke have had slower starts. The bullpen arms have been good in a small sample size, but it is fair to wait for regression from such a hastily assembled and inexperienced bullpen. The cracks are now starting to appear after a sweep at the hand of the Athletics over the weekend.
So where do these issues leave the AL West? The Astros won over 100 games and the division in the last three seasons. Seattle have been rebuilding for the past few years, and the Angels are busy wasting Mike Trout by failing to improve their pitching staff.
This leaves the Oakland Athletics, perennial underdogs, who have emerged from their latest rebuild to reach the wildcard game in both 2018 and 2019 and the Texas Rangers, who have hauled themselves to within half a game of Houston after a weekend sweep of the hapless Angels.
The As are 12-5, already 4.5 games ahead of the Astros and are now the favourites to win the division. Neither Matt Olson or Matt Chapman have quite hit the heights of last year with the bat and figure to do so as they regain their rhythm after the break.
The rotation has been adequate, but the addition of top prospect Jesus Luzardo should elevate the group further, pitching 5 scoreless in his first major league start.
Texas are now just a half game back of the Astros in the fight for the second postseason place, led by Lance Lynn in the rotation. Their ascent to the playoff race despite being at a .400 win percentage is more a reflection of the limitations of the new 16 team competition, rather than the Rangers suddenly becoming a good team.
Many believed the Angels could do damage in this division in 2020 after spending big on Anthony Rendon to pair with Trout and Shohei Ohtani, but Ohtani is already done for the year pitching, leaving their rotation lacking in both depth and quality.
They are already 6 games back from Oakland and are bottom of the standings.
If it wasn’t clear before the year, the extreme misfortune of the Astros veteran pitchers has created a great opportunity for a different team to win the division, and the Athletics are the only rival who seems to be taking this opportunity.