It’s the first week of December, and the Seattle Mariners, who won 89 games last year and had a 90% chance of making the playoffs in late June, will look unrecognizable come Spring Training. As of this typing, they’ve sold their elite closer, their All-Star shortstop, their fringe Hall of Fame second baseman, and have no interest in bringing back the ageless Nelson Cruz.
Before we talk about the implications, let’s go back six years, when the Astros were in their last year of the National League, in which they won 55 games, and finished 42 games back of the Cincinnati Reds. Yes, the Reds won a division title this decade. The Astros were getting ready to be the fifth team in the AL West, which in 2012 had 3⁄4 of their teams win 89 games or more, and were 54 games over .500 as a division. It looked like old nemesis Pujols would decimate the Astros for another decade, the A’s were already the vision of what the Astros hoped to be, and the Rangers had better players, more money, and a long window of success ahead. Oh yeah, the Mariners were there too.
The AL West would be perhaps the toughest or 2nd toughest division for the foreseeable future, and the Astros were 2⁄3 of the way through the worst three-year stretch of any team in modern baseball history. In 2013, the Astros would prove to be fodder for the front runners, going 2-17 against the Rangers, and 4-15 against the A’s. I specifically remember one of those wins, in Oakland, when Chia-Jen Lo closed out the game against Chris Young, who hit three consecutive foul ball home runs, at least two of which flew within inches of the foul pole, before somehow making an out. The BABIP Enter the Dragon roared that day.
Nostalgia aside, the AL West did not shape up to be as formidable to the Astros as it looked on a dreary December day six years ago. 2013 was the one and only year the team finished in last place in the AL West (thanks, injury-riddled 2014 Rangers). Post-2013, the division has been strong, producing at least three teams with winning records every year, barring 2017. It’s been, without much debate, the 2nd toughest division in baseball since the Astros entered, and it played that way last year. One reason it’s been so good is the Mariners, who’ve spent money and housed star talent to keep the team competitive. They’ve averaged almost 84 wins/season over the past five years. There’s something snakebitten about Seattle though, which has teased but never fulfilled its promise. The franchise hasn’t even won 90 games in a single season since 2003. That’s Pittsburgh-level futility for a team that nobody perceives as consistently bad.
In 2018, there’s no such thing as baseball middle-class. Fans don’t want to cheer a competitive 78- to 85-win team that plays good baseball but cannot get over the hump. The Cubs and the Astros changed the perception of that outcome for fans young and old. And finally the Mariners relented, accepting that Robinson Cano was no longer a superstar, and the farm system had not produced internally the hitting talent needed to round out a lineup. Additionally, Kyle Seager never really developed as had been expected, and King Felix aged faster than hoped.
The 2019 Mariners will be bad. They might lose 100 games. No AL West team has lost more than 95 games since the 2013 Astros (well, at least before the Rangers stunk up the AL West this year). Speaking of which, the Rangers will be bad too. No Hamels, No Beltre, no Chorinos, and no clear replacements for those players. for a team that won 67 games in 2018. Their core is Odor, Gallo, Mazara, and Profar—that’s not a core of a winning baseball team. Without magic fairy dust, the AL West has two teams who will lose more than 95 games.
After going all-in last offseason by signing or trading for Ohtani, Cozart, and Kinsler, the Angels flamed out in mid-May (they were positively frightening in mid-April). With Richards and Kinsler gone, and Ohtani re-habbing, and with a rejuvinated farm system still at least one year away from making an impact, the Angels seem destined for the lower-middle class, barring a surprise Bryce Harper signing.
That leaves the A’s and the Astros. There’s a lot of reasons to think the A’s will remain good, but they’re probably not 97-wins-good. But make no mistake, the Astros playoff probability is extremely strong. In 2018, the Astros went 46-30 against the AL West, and 57-29 against the rest of baseball. In other words, the AL West was the challenging part of the schedule. Barring some strange quirk, the Astros will win a higher % of their 76 intra-division games against the West, meaning the path to the playoffs, or to 100 wins, will be a lot easier.
I’m no scientist, but I would bet more money than Sig Megdal ever saw wagered in Reno that somewhere in the Nerd Cave there’s a formula for determining a path to the playoffs based on the strength of the division. The Astros play almost half their games in the division, and two teams are shaping up to be as bad or worse than any one team has been in the division in the past five years. But you don’t even need to dwell in the Nerd Cave to know that Houston has the clearest path to playoff baseball as any team in MLB.