AL West: Early alert in Houston

Houston Astros

The first rotation news out of camp hasn't been great for a team that already enters 2024 depth-challenged. Both Justin Verlander and J.P. France have been stalled by shoulder issues that will at least delay their exhibition appearances, and perhaps more. While we're a month-plus out from Opening Day, this should be at least a little concerning for the 40-year-old Verlander, whose 2023 was delayed until early May by shoulder issues — and whose age and underlying peripherals (4.56 xERA) from last season are already flashing warning signs. 

Coming off a 2023 MLB debut and a professional IP high (156), France's bottom-of-the-rotation spot was already less assured, giving his poor August / September 2023 finish and remaining minor league options. But if either arm has to miss time early, veteran José Urquidy (5.29 /5.51 ERA/xERA last year over 63 IP) is the most likely benefactor, if he's healthy—something that along with flagging skills, have presented their own recent issues. Particularly with both Luis García and Lance McCullers Jr. both coming off surgeries and unavailable until at least mid-summer, the club's other Opening Day options need some early scrutiny.

After making 13 credible starts (3.83 ERA over 80 IP and 15 appearances) last season, Brandon Bielak would again appear to be the next man in. But beyond a 49% GB%, there was nothing plus about Bielak's peripherals (4.85 xERA), and an 80% S% suggests more downside than up here. Prospects Spencer Arrighetti and Misael Tamarez are both decent bets to make their MLB debuts at some point in 2024 after tossing 100+ IP in the high minors last year. These look like back-of-the-rotation profiles right now, but opportunity and HOU's ability to wring the most out of its pitching talent keep them on our radars.

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Seattle Mariners

Presuming the health of oft-injured Mitch Haniger in RF, one of the more interesting Opening Day position battles to watch this spring may be here in LF. Nothing is etched in stone; we currently project Dominic Canzone as the job-winner for the balance of 2024. Canzone's Eye was sub-par in his rookie MLB exposure, as he struggled to a .220/.258/.399 line with six HR over 182 PA—all in the 2023 2H. An 81% ct% and 141 xPX offer hope, and Canzone's handedness seemingly works in his favor. 

But newly acquired Luke Raley and holdover Taylor Trammell are Canzone's primary competitors, and both are lefthanded bats without remaining minor league options, which may be critical. The addition of Raley covers the Mariners all over the OF, where he was more than proficient defensively in 2023. Poor ct% and nagging injuries fueled a dismal 2H (.670 OPS) that followed a monster .950 OPS (14 HR, 9 SB) through June. But Railey's roster status and overall 2023 performance (.823 OPS over 406 PA) give him an early playing time edge over Canzone.

The arrival of Raley in SEA also gives the club better depth at 1B, where incumbent Ty France turned in pedestrian numbers (.250/.337/.366, just 12 HR) over 665 PA. France's history suggests he's capable of more, and at least a mild rebound seems likely. But a repeat of his struggles vR could lead to Raley stealing some time at 1B as well. The offseason re-engineering hasn't been perfect, but the Mariners are already more versatile and deeper offensively than they were at this time last season.


Texas Rangers

Our January skepticism notwithstanding, the early injury news out of Rangers camp is making a potential Wyatt Langford Opening Day roster spot more interesting. Corey Seager's end-of-January surgery (sports hernia) will reportedly shelve him for most of spring training, leaving his Opening Day in doubt. The news is only a little better on Josh Jung, who is expected to miss the next two-plus weeks with a strained calf before he's reevaluated. 

Neither injury projects as too long-term for now, but of course that can change. And while the Rangers have plenty of infield depth to cover a short-term loss of either or both names, the offensive lineup would take a significant hit in their early absence, should that come to pass. Top prospect Langford will need an OF injury to get us really excited, and he'll still have to post a productive Cactus League to show he belongs. But with a DH spot already projected to rotate, these injuries and some potent February / March offense may be all Langford needs. Again, to be continued. 


Los Angeles Angels

Despite that woefully sub-par power projection as he enters his first full MLB season, Nolan Schanuel appears to have plenty of runway as the Opening Day 1B. For one, Schanuel was the club's 1st-round 2023 draft pick. But also in his small sample MLB debut, Schanuel showed off the uber-selective / high-contact skills for which he was valued. It's a singles-heavy profile right now, but Schanuel's patience and all-fields approach produced a .275 BA (.402 OBP) over 132 PA that should stick in the lineup, if he can make it work similarly over the long haul.

But he will be an outlier at a typically power/production position. And if the 2024 hits don't drop as often for Schanuel, everyday utility-and-DH Brandon Drury—26 HR, 84 RBI, .492 Slg while making 48 appearances at 1B last year— could find himself at 1B more frequently than we currently project. 

The Angels have further hedged their 2024 1B bets by signing one-time MIN 1B/DH Miguel Sanó to a minor league contract with a non-roster invite to spring training and acquiring ex-SEA prospect 1B Evan White during the winter. The departure of DH Shohei Ohtani makes the 30-year-old Sanó (and his career .481 Slg, 181 PX) mildly intriguing. But Sanó also brings a career 58% ct% into 2023, along with a checkered health-and-conditioning history that leaves him with much to prove. It's a similar story for the once-regarded White, whose career has been long stalled by injuries and poor contact. Keep an eye on their springs. 


Oakland A’s

A poor everyday lineup looks anything but “everyday,” and no position points more to uncertainty and likely in-season turnover than 3B. Jordan Diaz and Abraham Toro look like the Opening Day favorites, with 34-year-old utility Aledmys Díaz coming off the bench as backup. Good exit velocity and age (23) give Jordan Diaz (.637 OPS, 10 HR over 272 AB in OAK last year) a chance for growth, but poor pitch selection, “meh” ct%, big GB% and sub-par defense work against him. The 27-year-old Toro has shown slightly better plate skills with similar results (.634 OPS) over his MLB career. Both players still look like longer-term bench utilities unless something changes. 

Injuries and the COVID season stalled Miguel Andujar's MLB time with NY, with the former ending his time at 3B following a terrific 2018 rookie season. Still, the situation in OAK and Andujar's potentially superior bat keep us watching / hoping that the A's try to resurrect him there in Cactus League play. Which probably won't happen.

Non-roster spring training invite Brett Harris is a solid 3B defender who posted an .807 OPS (8 HR, 10 SB, 50/69 BB/K) over 461 PA between AA/AAA. Harris' 2023 numbers accurately reflect his strong plate skills, pitch selection and average power—all of which make him sleeper to monitor, whether now or later in 2024. 


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