When we last looked at Baseball Prospectus’s PECOTA projections for 2019, I noted that the Astros were well ahead of everyone else in the AL West. At 98-64, there was no one else within spitting distance, with the nearest divisional rivals closer to .500 than the Astros. And Baseball Prospectus is hardly the only one saying this, though. For instance, Fangraphs has the Astros at 94 wins, 10 wins ahead of the Angels and 13 ahead of the 2018 Wild Card Athletics.
Of course, teams can always surprise; who saw the Athletics getting as close to the Astros as they did last year, or the Mariners hanging in playoff contention for as long as they did? So it’s probably worth running down Houston’s nearest rivals, to see what’s new this year, what players may improve and bring them into competition, and other things to watch out for in the 24 divisional series we have to look forward to.
Of course, not every team is created equal. The Rangers, who lost 95 games last year, seem to still be in the rebuilding stage going forward. And the Mariners, who nearly reached 90 wins in 2018 despite being outscored, decided to tear it all down and lost eight of their twelve best players by Baseball-Reference’s WAR (Jean Segura, Robinson Cano, Edwin Diaz, Nelson Cruz, James Paxton, Mike Zunino, Alex Colome, and Denard Span) to trades and free agency. One of those teams could surprise us, in theory, but they’re starting from such a weak place that we should probably wait for evidence that it’s actually happening before worrying about it.
Instead, let’s turn our focus to the Oakland Athletics today, with the Los Angeles Angels to follow later in the week:
The Oakland Athletics
2018 in review
Not a lot was expected of the A’s heading into 2018, coming off their 75-win 2017 season. However, thanks to some canny pick-ups and a few young players (particularly third baseman Matt Chapman) coming into their own, they won 97 games, more than 26 other teams, and made the playoffs. And unlike the Mariners, it wasn’t driven by an unsustainable record in one-run games, meaning Oakland didn’t feel the need to tear everything down.
What’s New in 2019?
While they didn’t consciously decide to rebuild, though, the Athletics definitely suffered some losses over the past few months. Ex-Astro Jed Lowrie, who was their best non-Matt Chapman player, left for the New York Mets, leaving them a hole in the infield. They acquired Jurickson Profar from the Rangers to fill that hole, and while Profar hasn’t quite lived up to the top-prospect potential he had a few years ago, he did take a step forward in 2018. If he can stay healthy (a big if), he should be a decent replacement who can minimize the loss of Lowrie, with the potential for more.
No other departures were that impactful. Matt Joyce has been replaced in the outfield with Robbie Grossman, another ex-Astro, which feels like a minor sideways move. Jonathan Lucroy is out after a disappointing year, with Josh Phegley’s playing time likely expanding in response (and Nick Hundley coming in as back-up). It’s probably at least an equivalent exchange, if not a small improvement.
The pitching rotation had a bunch of shuffling as well. Edwin Jackson and Trevor Cahill, both of whom were surprisingly okay mid-rotation arms, are gone. The similarly-surprising Brett Anderson is back, though, as is mid-season pick-up (and another ex-Astro) Mike Fiers. Marco Estrada goes to Oakland as well after a disappointing age-34 season. You can’t expect much from those two new (or new-er, in the case of Fiers) additions, but after all of their pick-ups last year seemed to turn out decently, maybe they have a secret for turning broken down pitchers into something workable.
On the bullpen side of things, their big mid-season pick-up, Jeurys Familia, has returned to the Mets. In his place, the team added Joakim Soria. Overall, their bullpen will likely once again be stronger than their rotation.
Really, outside of Lowrie, the biggest change to the roster is that team ace Sean Manaea will be out for most of the year, giving them even more quality innings to make up for. After tearing his labrum, it looked like southpaw would miss the entire 2019 season, although recent reports say he might be ready to return after the All-Star break (although how long he’ll need to get back into form is another question). For a rotation that looks as thin as Oakland’s, that’s a big problem.
Key Players in 2019
Matt Chapman had a breakout 2019 that saw him finish seventh overall in MVP voting, and his strong bat and outstanding glove (he won both the Platinum Glove and the Wilson Defensive Player of the Year Award) have established him as one of the game’s top third basemen, even with the amazing depth at that position right now. He would unquestionably be the best in the division were it not for Alex Bregman.
This dynamic plays out for the infield as a whole as well. Chapman, Profar, shortstop Marcus Semien, and first baseman Matt Olson are a strong unit, and by Fangraphs WAR projections are the third-best infield in the AL. Of course, one of the two teams ahead of them is the Astros
Best AL Infields by WAR (Fangraphs, projected)
Meanwhile in the outfield, a full year of Ramon Laureano in center field should be an improvement over last year. Khris Davis and Stephen Piscotty are also nice complements to the lineup. Add in the number of options they can cycle through in left field until something works, and the A’s offense and defense should be among the top of the league.
How do they measure up to the Astros?
Overall, it’s not hard to imagine a scenario where the A’s lineup and defense is more valuable than the Astros’ in 2019. I would say the Astros are better at each position outside of right field and first base (and I’d probably call DH a wash), but the second-best player in each of those matchups is only a tick or two worse. If injuries or luck breaks hard against the Astros, it’s not hard to imagine the A’s winding up ahead in that area.
But that’s only half of the problem; while injuries might be able to jump Oakland’s position players ahead of Houston’s, the pitching of the two is nowhere close. The A’s’ pen was strong last year, but the Astros’ was noticeably better, and the situation looks about the same this year. And the disparity in the rotations is massive; with Manaea’s injury, there’s not one starter in the Athletics’ current rotation that would crack the Astros’ Opening Day quintet. Even if Fiers and Anderson hold things together and turn in admirable seasons, it just isn’t going to measure up to a rotation headed by Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole.
Or, to put it another way, a lot went right for them last year: the A’s over-performed in 2018 (2 wins above their Pythagorean won-loss) in a year in which the Astros lost a lot of time to injuries AND got unlucky (6 wins below their Pythagorean won-loss), and it still only got them to 6 games back. Since then, they’ve lost better players than the Astros have, and brought in fewer replacements for those lost players.
The A’s are certainly a good enough team to make it back to the playoffs in 2019 if things go reasonably well, but there are some clear weaknesses in the roster that could take them out of contention entirely as well. In a year when a lot of AL teams still seem to be rebuilding (and the Rays will again be facing dual-juggernauts in their division), that may be enough to reach October. Was their success in 2018 due to some sort of new knowledge about making a patchwork roster with no budget work, or was it just the stars aligning for a team with a strong core but a lot of glue and prayers at the edges? Because that will also play a big part in determining how 2019 plays out. Right now, I’d say they’re more of a threat than the Angels (who are flawed in a very different way), but it’s also hard to say they’re on the same level as the Astros right now.