PT TOMORROW: AL West—Pitching is the priority

Houston Astros

The division champs have their winter work cut out for them with plenty to do position-wise. Like at the catcher spot, where both Robinson Chirinos and Martin Maldonado are free agents, and Garrett Stubbs (C, HOU) looks challenged to take on anything more than a backup role. And like at 1B, where both Yordan Alvarez (DH, HOU) and Kyle Tucker (OF, HOU) will get plenty of offseason reps in an effort to enhance their versatility and paths into the lineup. Particularly after another injury-riddled season from Carlos Correa, who currently has less than 1100 AB over the past three seasons—during which 3B Alex Bregman has been forced over to SS, leaving 1B Yulieski Gurriel to cover 3B.  

But the biggest offseason decisions HOU will face are pitching-related—the first being the reinforcement of a rotation facing the departures of free agents Gerritt Cole and Wade Miley, and health questions surrounding recently-acquired Aaron Sanchez. Cole could re-up, but the likelihood that HOU will go pedal-to-metal on this effort and end up with $100M committed to their top three SPs seems counter-intuitive. Forrest Whitley (RHP, HOU) will be looked upon to step up and rebound from a disappointing two-year 2018-19 stretch in which injuries, suspension, and performance issues limited him to a total of 86 IP.  But even if his rare ace skill set once again moves front-and-center, it's difficult to not see Whitley on some sort of workload limit.

The club has other internal options that offer some bottom-of-the-rotation potential. It's easy to see Framber Valdez (LHP, HOU)—8.7 Dom, 62% GB% over 71 IP—with value if he can ever tame a gawd-awful 5.6 Ctl. Jose Urquidy (RHP, HOU)—34/6 K/BB over 32 IP—also has some upside if he can figure out how induce a few more GB and avoid HR. But all of these questions along with a bullpen that also projects to be ravaged by free agency will keep the club on the lookout for more pitching help.

 

Los Angeles Angels

Pitching is obviously the biggest issue for a club that, entering games of Wednesday, September 18, hadn't rostered a single pitcher with at least 100 IP. Shohei Ohtani will be 18 months removed from Tommy John surgery and hopefully ready to front the rotation, but projecting more than 130 IP from him under the best of circumstances is difficult. Coming off 180 IP in 2018, Andrew Heaney was shut down twice with elbow and shoulder issues that have left him with just 85 IP to date. Griffin Canning's (RHP, LAA) rookie season was generally considered a success (9.6 Dom, 3.2 Cmd over 90 IP) despite a 4.58 ERA—but his season was halted in late August by a combination of elbow soreness and workload concerns.

Beyond these three names and Felix Pena—who faces a 6-to-9 month recovery time after ACL surgery this past August—the question marks get even bigger. Jaime Barria hiked his Dom notably over his rookie 2018 mark. But an inability to generate more GB (35% GB%) and avoid the HR barrage (2.1 hr/9) has left him with a 5.95/5.13 ERA/xERA and unable to complete six innings in any of his 17 starts to date. Similarly, highly-touted rookie Jose Suarez (LHP, LAA) has coughed up a whopping 20 HR in his first 71 MLB IP while showing none of the command or control (3.6 Ctl) that put him on several preseason Top 100 lists.  Despite a 4.91 ERA through seven starts, 2H newcomer Patrick Sandoval (LHP, LAA) offers hope (10.4 Dom, 15% Swk, 47% GB% through 33 IP). But like Suarez, Sandoval has likely been rushed and could use more high-minors seasoning. 

Obviously the outfield presents some questions, notably Kole Calhoun's free agency and club option, Justin Upton's injury-wracked off-year, Brian Goodwin's career year as a 4th (and often regular) OF—and how early to introduce precocious prospect Jo Adell to MLB pitching. But arms are the first and foremost offseason concern here.

 

Oakland Athletics

At least on paper, this organization currently looks poised to mount a challenge to HOU's reign of consecutive AL West championships, and if it happens, pitching depth will be a big reason why. Particularly in the rotation, where after missing most of 2019, a post-shoulder-surgery Sean Manaea (LHP, OAK) suddenly looks more effective than ever, both in his rehab work and a small MLB sample (21/6 K/BB through 18 IP). Most-of-the-season ace Frankie Montas (RHP, OAK) will be looked upon to deliver something approximating his breakout 2019—2.70/3.48 ERA/xERA through 90 IP prior to being interrupted by a PED suspension. And top-of-the-rotation prospects Jesus Luzardo and A.J. Puk will both be long past their 2019 injury woes to generate some early excitement among their owners. All come with big risk, but also enough talent to eventually push healthier and more experienced arms to the back of the line, bullpen work—or even make them trade candidates. 

2H 2019 rentals Tanner Roark and Homer Bailey will likely depart via free agency, as may Brett Anderson. But notwithstanding lagging peripherals and their September issues, both Mike Fiers (RHP, OAK) and Chris Bassitt (RHP, OAK) own worthy 2019 efforts, and project to return in 2020. Notably Fiers came up with a 21-start stretch from May through August in which he logged a sub-3 ERA for four straight months, which along with a 171 IP YTD workhorse season that will give him a rotation spot somewhere. Similarly, Bassitt produced a sub-4 ERA July and August, along with 140 IP that could also give him a rotation leg up on Opening Day, particularly if the A's decide to go slow with their health-challenged youngsters. 

A bullpen that struggled more than anticipated will need help, some of which may begin with this crowded rotation scenario. The club will need to address a second base job already rife with fantasy intrigue given the current list of internal candidates. And a lineup that allows Robbie Grossman 400+ AB (.692 OPS, 6 HR, 9 SB) certainly needs to add more OF depth. As in 2019, the A's again project all kinds of experimentation and role-changes throughout 2020.

 

Seattle Mariners

With just two 2020 rotation spots spoken for (by Marco Gonzales and Yusei Kikuchi) and a bullpen in season-long disarray, this is easily the division's most pitching-challenged club. With a rebuild that had already begun prior to 2019 Opening Day, the Mariners at least have legitimate prospects that now have opportunity to seize MLB jobs. After putting together fine efforts at AA-Arkansas, both Justus Sheffield (RHP, SEA) and Justin Dunn (RHP, SEA) are now getting their feet wet at the end of 2019 with mixed results to date; they'll be relied upon early and often next year. After a promising end-of-year 50 IP at Arkansas (2.88 ERA, 56/15 K/BB), the Mariners' best pitching prospect Logan Gilbert may only be a half-season behind them. If no one in this group steps up, 2020 projects to be a very long season. Expect SEA to at least kick the tires on whatever free agent pitching might be available this winter.

There's more immediate hope on the position side, where inexperience also remains at least a short-term issue. J.P. Crawford (SS, SEA) will begin his first full MLB season, and is expected to improve on his current .232/.320/.382 line (through 306 AB). His plate skills (76% ct%, 11% bb%), 127 Spd, and age (24) offer hope, but his health needs to cooperate. Finally beyond a fractured finger, Shed Long (2B/OF, SEA) is producing in his September call-up (13-for-42, 3 HR, five consecutive multi-hit games through Tuesday September 17) while getting both infield and OF reps—and will be a strong candidate for near-everyday play.

Jake Fraley's (OF, SEA) disappointing September audition (6-for-40, 14 Ks) has ended with a thumb injury. But Kyle Lewis's (OF, SEA) small sample MLB kickoff (9-for-30, 4 HR) hints that he may finally be emerging from several years of injury and adversity—and that he could still tap into some of that once-significant offensive upside. All of these auditioning names will get opportunities, and need to contribute for the Mariners to improve upon a dismal 2019.

 

Texas Rangers

The Rangers will likely be shopping for a third baseman in the winter free agent market, and the catching corps could use more offense. But a club currently 12th in MLB scoring that projects to lose only Logan Forsythe and Hunter Pence to free agency seems likely to return most of the familiar faces. Contrast this with a pitching staff that is 22nd in MLB ERA, and pitching depth looks like the offseason priority.

That being said, this is a pitching staff that has made strides. Both Mike Minor and Lance Lynn should top 200 IP apiece with near career-best efforts, projecting both health and stability at the very top of the rotation. After struggling in the 1H, Jose Leclerc (RHP, TEX) has rebounded enough in the 2H—3.27/4.79 ERA/xERA, 11.9 Dom over 27 IP—to begin spring training as the closer again. He'll also begin 2020 fronted by some intriguing late-inning talent that includes TJS returnee Rafael Montero (RHP, TEX), who has hiked his velocity into the mid-90s out of the pen, with plus command (1.8 Ctl, 64%, 9.7 Dom, 12% SwK) through 25 IP. And Emmanuel Clase (RHP, TEX), a legitimate 100 mph youngster still learning his craft—but who has now posted a 2.45 ERA, 60% FpK, 12% SwK and 60% GB% over his first 18 MLB IP.

Three rotation spots look up for grabs, with rookies Kolby Allard, (LHP, TEX), Brock Burke (LHP, TEX), and Joe Palumbo (LHP, TEX) the current favorites for extended opportunity. All of these names have legitimate mid-to-back-of-the-rotation upside, all have flashed skills in abbreviated 2019 MLB debuts, all could still spend half a season in the minors next year. And all are better long-term (keeper league plays) than either Ariel Jurado (RHP, TEX) or Adrian Sampson (RHP, TEX), both of whom posted 5+ ERA/xERAs from the TEX rotation for half the season. Another pitching staff on whom fantasy pitching opportunists should keep an eye on this offseason and again in March.


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  For more information about the terms used in this article, see our Glossary Primer.