Houston Astros’ Jose Altuve (27) celebrates with Carlos Correa after scoring on an RBI single by Michael Brantley during the seventh inning in Game 6 of a baseball American League Championship Series, Friday, Oct. 16, 2020, in San Diego. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)
- Defending-champion Oakland A’s a +125 favorite to repeat as AL West winner in 2021
- Houston Astros saw run of three straight division crowns end following last year’s 60-game regular season
- Read on for analysis, full odds and a best bet for what could well be the tightest division race in baseball
The 2020 Major League Baseball season may very much have been a sprint in terms of the regular season, but with the usual 162-game campaign set to go off as usual – fingers crossed! – on April 1, baseball is back to the marathon it has always traditionally been.
It’s a good thing, too, as in the American League West in particular, the race for the division crown deserves at least that many games to fully unfold. Fresh off a first division title since 2013, the Oakland Athletics are favored at +125 to defend their crown, but their predecessors in the catbird seat, the Houston Astros, are right behind them at +160 in the AL West division odds.
2021 AL West Division Odds
|Los Angeles Angels||+370|
All odds taken Feb. 12 from DraftKings
Stability Reigns In Oakland
Underwhelming would be one word to sum up the off-season for the Oakland A’s. The defending AL West champions saw more players leave than come in. Most glaringly, they refused to extend a qualifying offer to Marcus Semien and then watched as the shortstop who had finished third in the 2019 AL MVP voting signed with the Toronto Blue Jays.
MARCUS SEMIEN WALKS OFF THE ASTROS SEVEN STRAIGHT DUBS FOR THE GREEN AND GOLD pic.twitter.com/Iwo6KcUTTn
— Jared Carrabis (@Jared_Carrabis) August 8, 2020
The A’s promptly replaced him by trading DH Khris Davis and prospects to division-rival Texas for veteran shortstop Elvis Andrus, who hit just .194 last season while being limited to 29 games because of a back problem. The A’s also received catcher Jon Heim a $13.5-million in the deal, so it seems that penny pinching is still part of the modus operandi in Oakland.
We have acquired two-time All-Star shortstop Elvis Andrus and catcher Aramis Garcia from the Texas Rangers in exchange for DH Khris Davis, catcher Jonah Heim, and RHP Dane Acker. pic.twitter.com/CPg3otoGm5
— Oakland A’s (@Athletics) February 6, 2021
If that wasn’t bad enough, they also lost reliever Liam Hendriks, who left for a bumper contract with the White Sox, and infielder Tommy La Stella, who crossed the Bay to sign with San Francisco.
However, the A’s did make a trade with the Dodgers on Friday, acquiring left-handed bullpen arm Adam Kolarek and outfielder Cody Thomas in exchange for Sheldon Nurse and Gus Varland.
Sometimes life comes full circle.
In the 1970s, Frank Kolarek dreamed of playing for the @Athletics.
Today, they traded for his son. pic.twitter.com/DhOR4AnFz3
— Infield Chatter (@InfieldChatter) February 12, 2021
And while talk is still rife that the A’s will also deal third baseman Matt Chapman, the team’s second-leading home run hitter in 2020 behind Matt Olson’s 14, it hasn’t yet come to pass and may not do so until next winter.
What Now For Houston?
For the second straight season, the Astros will be without future Hall of Famer Justin Verlander on the mound, and to make matters worse they also lost George Springer to the Blue Jays.
Thank you for six years of #SpringerDingers and countless memories, George.
You will be greatly missed. #4everAstro pic.twitter.com/NDPBtLjqZZ
— Houston Astros (@astros) January 23, 2021
Much like Oakland, Houston chose not be especially aggressive in roster rebuilding. But given the backward slide taken by their rivals on the West Coast, maybe it was deemed unnecessary? Even without Verlander, Framber Valdez, Zack Greinke and Lance McCullers Jr. can give the front half of the team’s rotation a heavyweight presence on the mound.
In the bullpen, Houston has added Pedro Báez, Ryne Stanek and Steve Cishek. While that trio goes some way to make up for the losses of Roberto Osuna, Chris Devenski and Brad Peacock, there is still the question of who will close for this team, a club that blew 13 saves in 29 opportunities last season.
Springer and his team-leading 14 home runs – the only Astro in double figures – represents a big loss for Houston. But many of the team’s usual stars – Alex Bregman, Jose Altuve and Carlos Correa – caught fire in the playoffs, and should return to normal service in 2021.
Yordan Alvarez has 55 RBI through his 1st 52 career games.
That’s tied with Ted Williams for the 3rd most in that span. He only trails Joe DiMaggio and Walt Dropo in @MLB history. pic.twitter.com/kiNKs0hfFX
— MLB Stats (@MLBStats) August 17, 2019
Plus they will be boosted by the return of 2019 AL Rookie of the Year Yordan Alvarez, and while he represents an X-factor coming off knee surgery, he could well replace Springer’s offense in the lineup.
Angels Stuck In Neutral
The 2020 Angels struggled in every way possible, but nothing was more glaring than their pitching. The Halos’ starting rotation posted the second-worst team ERA in the majors, behind only the Detroit Tigers. But much of that damage was done by Julio Teheran’s 10.65 ERA in nine starts.
Angels Starting Pitching (2/9/21)
— Halo Life ⚾ (@_HaloLife) February 10, 2021
In his first year in Los Angeles, Dylan Bundy pitched well (6-3, 3.29 ERA), while the team is expecting similar upticks in form from new arrivals Alex Cobb and former all-star left-hander Jose Quintana.
And after three up-and-down seasons blighted by injury, two-way player Shohei Ohtani is back to full health and expected to pitch once a week. The Japanese star went 4-2 with a 3.31 ERA over 10 starts in his first season in MLB in 2018.
Angels GM Perry Minasian on signing RHP/DH Shohei Ohtani to a 2-year deal to avoid arbitration pic.twitter.com/UhwntLM9Mf
— Angels News (@AngelsNews1727) February 9, 2021
Of course, Ohtani is no slouch with the bat either. Fans will doubtless be excited to see what a full season of Ohtani (7 HR), Mike Trout (17 HR), Anthony Rendon (9 HR), Justin Upton (9HR) and Albert Pujols (6 HR) can do together. After combining for 148 RBI in 60 games last year, it could be an explosive offense once some team chemistry develops.
Mariners Out To Sea
Despite a prospect pipeline ranked second in MLB by Baseball America, a 27-33 finish in 2020 isn’t likely enough to inspire a whole lot of optimism for the coming season. With waning championship credentials, the Mariners are operating like many professional sports organizations in the current COVID-19 climate and taking a wait-and-see approach without committing too many dollars.
Source confirms: Free-agent reliever Ken Giles in agreement with Mariners on two-year deal. Coming off Tommy John surgery, will be ready for 2022. First: @shannondrayer.
— Ken Rosenthal (@Ken_Rosenthal) February 12, 2021
With a young roster, the team would like to see more of the likes of outfielder Jake Fraley and utilityman Shed Long can do this season, along with possibly Logan Gilbert, the team’s top pitching prospect.
And with a starting rotation that is looking awfully green beyond the front-line pairing of Marco Gonzales and Yusei Kikuchi, the team’s ERA of 5.03 could get worse before it gets better.
Rangers Bringing Up The Rear
With an AL-worst 22-38 finish in 2020 – and second-worst in all of MLB – only a true Texas Rangers die-hard would be expecting anything but a repeat AL West basement-scraping session on tap for 2021.
We have signed INF Brock Holt, LHP Hyeon-jong Yang and C John Hicks to 2021 minor league contracts with Spring Training invites. pic.twitter.com/6ebd8sT2KW
— Texas Rangers (@Rangers) February 12, 2021
Despite bottoming out, the team’s front office decided to shake things up over the winter. As well as the aforementioned Andrus trade to Oakland, Texas signed a pair of pitchers in Sam Gaviglio and Mike Foltynewicz and brought back Delino DeShields on a minor-league deal.
Rangers ink former All Star Mike Foltynewicz to a 1-year deal. The 2018-2019 mainstay in the ATL rotation only had one start in 2020, but says his velocity is back up, is excited about the new opportunity and eager to prove he can get back to form. More tonight. #Rangers pic.twitter.com/BBarYSXTag
— Chuck Miketinac (@MaxSportsSA) February 10, 2021
Most importantly though, the Rangers traded Lance Lynn, their best starting pitcher, to the White Sox for a package of prospects.
While that may help the team down the road, it almost certainly won’t add much to their win total in 2021.
While both the A’s and Astros are likely to battle for the division title to the very end, Houston’s championship caliber should come to the fore. Many of the Astros’ World Series-winning stars are due for a bounceback season, and if the Greinke-led rotation can hold up an AL West crown is heading their way.