What to cheer for in 2018 for non-Astros fans
Like the gunslingers of generations past, the Houston Astros are a force to be reckoned with out west – specifically, the American League West – and anyone who dares trifle with the reigning champs, emboldened by their first-ever World Series title and trigger-happy one-through-nine, will be swiftly vanquished.
Jeff Luhnow, the Astros’ longtime general manager, knows it, too.
“I think we got a better team this year than we did last year,” Luhnow told MLB Network Radio.
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Conservatively, the Astros are going to win 95 games in 2018, and the two most prominent, publicly available projection models – FanGraphs and Baseball Prospectus – have pegged them to finish closer to 100. Between Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa, George Springer, and Alex Bregman, the Astros boast a trove of MVPs, recognized or not, while their ostensible worst starter, Charlie Morton, finished tied for 22nd in the majors in WAR last season, ahead of Robbie Ray and Ervin Santana – both of whom earned All-Star nominations. Tanking may be a contemptible practice, but the Astros’ burgeoning dynasty isn’t exactly a cautionary tale.
So what, then, can the rest of the AL West get up for in 2018, knowing that the Astros’ second straight division title is practically preordained? It’s still March, after all, and hope springs eternal at this time of year, but is there any reason for excitement in Anaheim, Seattle, Oakland, or Arlington? Well, of course there is!
Los Angeles Angels – Sho-time!
For the first time in years, the Angels actually have a pretty decent team behind Mike Trout thanks to a fine offseason of wheeling, dealing, and Shohei Ohtani-reeling from general manager Billy Eppler. It was so good, in fact, that the Angels, even with glaring deficiencies in their rotation, are some observers’ favorite for the second American League wild-card berth (although, in fairness, the league’s glut of non-competitive teams has helped their prospects in a big way, too).
Irrespective of their postseason chances, though, the Angels are going to be an unbelievably fun team to follow this year, seeing as they now have the game’s best player (Trout) and its most compelling attraction (Ohtani). Trout, the two-time MVP who managed a career-best 1.071 OPS (187 OPS+) in 2017, is never not entertaining, after all, and it should be both fascinating and frustrating watching manager Mike Scioscia try to incorporate Ohtani into the offense on his non-pitching days; his starts, meanwhile, at least at the outset of the campaign, will be appointment viewing, his unimpressive spring notwithstanding.
Seattle Mariners – Ichiro’s return
Typically, at this time of year, pundits are heaping praise on Jerry Dipoto for the 742 marginal moves he brokered over the preceding winter months and picking the Mariners’ as a wild-card team. This year, however, while only the most optimistic prognosticators have the Mariners sneaking into the postseason, Dipoto should be anointed Executive of the Year for repatriating Ichiro Suzuki, the 44-year-old legend who, following an extended sojourn in Miami (via New York), has returned to Seattle on a one-year deal.
Now, is there a quantitative argument to be made that Ichiro’s roster spot should go to someone who can actually improve the Mariners’ remote playoff chances? I mean, sure. But do you want to be the person who craps all over his long-awaited return to the Mariners, the club that brought him over from Japan back in 2001 and watched him bloom into an eventual first-ballot Hall of Famer? Don’t be that person. And to you, Mariners fans, rather than bemoan another middling season and the continuation of the longest playoff drought in the majors, just relish this final summer with Ichiro. Head down to Safeco early to watch him smack BP homers. Give him a standing ovation before every at-bat. Shower him with praise after every spectacular catch. Because he’ll be gone before you know it, and this time for good.
Oakland Athletics – Prospects, prospects, prospects!
Languishing in a perpetual rebuild is no way to live, and while the A’s are once again poised to field one of the worst teams in the majors in 2018, at least a few of their most prized prospects are expected to spend considerable time with the big-league club this year.
Of the three A’s prospects on the recent Top 100 list at MLB.com, for example, the most highly regarded position player, 22-year-old Franklin Barreto, has already made his big-league debut and is expected to be Oakland’s everyday shortstop this year after hitting .290/.339/.456 with 15 homers and 15 stolen bases at Triple-A in 2017. A.J. Puk, meanwhile, received at least semi-serious consideration for a rotation spot this spring despite making just 13 starts above High-A in 2017, his first full professional season, in which he struck out a whopping 34.5 percent of opposing hitters; if all goes well, the 6-foot-7 left-hander will make his A’s debut in June, after the club has manipulated his service time to the point that he won’t be eligible for a fourth year of salary arbitration. Finally, Jorge Mateo, a speedy shortstop acquired from the New York Yankees in the Sonny Gray trade, could also find himself in Oakland come July, as the 22-year-old hit .296/.357/.521 with eight homers, 14 doubles, and 10 triples with 24 stolen bases in 60 games at Double-A last season. (Honorable mention goes to roster hopeful Dustin Fowler, another gem acquired in the Gray deal, who suffered a season-ending knee injury in his MLB debut with the Yankees before getting shipped to Oakland.) It’s easy to be cynical in Oakland, of course, given the club’s track record, but the wealth of impact talent on the horizon is reason for optimism.
Texas Rangers – Beltre’s potential swan song
When it comes to the venerable elder statesmen of the AL West, Ichiro is definitely the straight man, all austere and regimented, and Adrian Beltre is his zany foil, a Cooperstown-bound goofball whose talents are (almost) as compelling as his hilarious antics. Sadly, not unlike Ichiro, Beltre’s future beyond 2018 remains murky, as he turns 39 in a few weeks and his contract expires at season’s end. If he wants to keep playing, he probably will – last year, though he played only 94 games, Beltre still managed a .915 OPS (135 OPS+) – but it’d be presumptuous to think the four-time All-Star will definitely be back in Arlington next year, swatting home runs from down on one knee and horsing around with Elvis Andrus.
As such, while Rangers fans can invest their emotional currency, if they so choose, in what’s likely to be an unrealized wild-card run, they would probably be better served just coming out to the ballpark to enjoy the terrific theater that is Beltre, a walking GIF who messes with anybody and everybody on the diamond (umpires included) and happens to have 3,048 hits and 462 home runs on his resume. And, for at least one more season, he’s all yours, Rangers fans. Cherish him.