With free agency underway, the offseason is going to pick up steam. What are the big questions facing all 30 teams? We continue our division-by-division series with a look at the American League West.
Houston Astros: Who starts the other 100 games?
2018 record: 103-59
2019 World Series odds: 6-1
Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole will top the rotation, just like they did in 2018, when Houston starters led the majors in in ERA (3.16). But aside from those two righties, the rest of the Astros’ fantastic front five is suddenly an enormous unknown. Lefty Dallas Keuchel is a free agent and doesn’t seem likely to return. Lance McCullers Jr. just had Tommy John surgery and will miss the entire 2019 season. Veteran Charlie Morton also is a free agent, so his future with Houston is uncertain.
Top prospect Forrest Whitley is on the horizon, but he’s only 21 and missed significant time last year due to a performance-enhancing drug suspension. Flamethrower Josh James turned heads after a September call-up and even cracked the postseason roster, but he has only three big league starts on his résumé. Swingman Collin McHugh, bumped to the bullpen when Houston signed Cole last winter, could rejoin the rotation, but that would deprive manager A.J. Hinch of a guy who turned out to be one of the top relievers in the National League last season. In other words, there are question marks. Lots of ’em. So don’t be surprised if general manager Jeff Luhnow dips into the free-agent pitching pool once again. — Eddie Matz
Oakland Athletics: Can they acquire enough starting pitching to win the AL West?
2018 record: 97-65
2019 World Series odds: 30-1
The A’s surprised a lot of people in 2018, getting the second AL wild-card berth in a season in which most didn’t pick them to make the playoffs. They became the first team since payroll has been tracked to rank last in Opening Day payroll and make the postseason. But along the way, they saw every pitcher who was in their rotation to start the year get injured and miss significant time, headlined by Sean Manaea, who threw a no-hitter against the eventual World Series champion Boston Red Sox in April. He had shoulder surgery late in the year and is expected to miss all of 2019.
That brings us to the biggest question the A’s will face: Can they acquire enough starting pitching to win the AL West? The division is likely to be weaker heading into 2019. The Astros won’t have Lance McCullers all year, and we don’t know yet if they’ll re-sign free agents Charlie Morton or Dallas Keuchel.
The Oakland offense will be there — with Matt Olson, Khris Davis, Matt Chapman, Stephen Piscotty and others. But perhaps Oakland will seek to trade someone for a pitcher. Don’t expect them to break the bank on a free agent. But they could be active in the trade market, which could have a number of names available. One floated already is Sonny Gray, whom the Yankees have said they want to trade in the offseason. Gray began his career with the A’s and had his best seasons in Oakland, including a third-place Cy Young finish in 2015. — Sarah Langs
Seattle Mariners: Whom will Jerry Dipoto find to provide some offense?
2018 record: 89-73
2019 World Series odds: 50-1
For an 89-win team, the Mariners enter the offseason with some serious concerns. On the offensive side, Seattle finished 11th in the AL in runs, and Nelson Cruz, the team’s top home run hitter with 37, is a free agent. The Mariners likely will attempt to re-sign Cruz, but that would still leave some holes, especially in the outfield. Dee Gordon gave it his all in center field, but that transition didn’t really take (minus-8 defensive runs saved in 435 innings), plus he became a liability at the plate with just nine walks and a .288 OBP. The Mariners now list him as an infielder — at least he’s a solid defender at second base. Of course, that’s Robinson Cano‘s position and Cano still has enough range to play there even as he enters his age-36 season.
The best option is probably sliding Cano over to a first base/DH role, displacing the awful Ryon Healy (minus-0.6 WAR). If Cruz signs elsewhere, Dan Vogelbach could suck up some DH at-bats. That leaves an outfield of All-Star Mitch Haniger, plus Ben Gamel and Guillermo Heredia, both best suited to backup roles. Haniger can handle center but is best in right field, so the Mariners could be in on a free agent like A.J. Pollock. Mariners center fielders were a combined minus-25 DRS, so adding a true center fielder is a must. They also could use more offense in left field. We know Dipoto loves to wheel and deal, but the Mariners’ farm system is the worst in the game, so the options there are more likely to be an older vet such as Adam Jones or re-signing Denard Span than adding someone via trade. — David Schoenfield
2018 record: 80-82
2019 World Series odds: 40-1
Really, that’s all this is about. But appeasing Trout — with two seasons remaining on his extension, unless somehow the Angels can sign him to another one before then — is a convoluted undertaking. They have to contend now, but also be set up to do so in the future. And the Angels have failed to walk that tightrope for basically the entirety of Trout’s seven-year career.
Angels general manager Billy Eppler laid out what appears to be a simple plan from the GM meetings earlier this week. He plans to look outside for a starting catcher and lots of pitching for both his rotation and his bullpen. And he’ll cross his fingers that at least two of his five most major-league-ready young players (David Fletcher, Taylor Ward, Luis Rengifo, Matt Thaiss and Jared Walsh) can claim two open spots in the lineup (a first-base complement to Albert Pujols and second or third base, depending on where Zack Cozart plays).
The Angels won’t have any long-term sustainability if their young players can’t step up. But they have no chance in the immediate future if they don’t get more reliable pitching. Angels relievers blew 26 saves last year, tied with the Los Angeles Dodgers for fifth most in the majors. Over the past three years, while beset by an alarming rash of serious injuries to their rotation, 18 pitchers have made at least five starts for the Angels. — Alden Gonzalez
2018 record: 67-95
2019 World Series odds: 100-1
The Rangers won just 67 games, their fewest since 2014, when they also won 67. They made the playoffs each of the next two years, losing in the division series each time. Joey Gallo had another Gallo season in 2018, with 40 home runs and 207 strikeouts. The Rangers are one year away from moving to a new ballpark, and they will want to get back on the winning side of things. There were rumors that Clayton Kershaw might consider Texas if he opted out of his contract with the Dodgers, but he did not, so Kershaw won’t be the Rangers’ marquee player headed into that season.
One question the Rangers face they can’t answer themselves: Will Adrian Beltre retire? The slugger hasn’t said anything publicly. He’s been on the Rangers since 2011, and he has a .304 batting average and .865 OPS in 1,098 games with the club. This year, at age 39, he still hit .273 with 15 HRs and 65 RBIs in 119 games. He isn’t their most important offensive player by any stretch of the imagination anymore, but he’s been a symbol there for a while and likely is a future Hall of Famer. He’s also 23 home runs shy of 500.
The Rangers likely have more pressing overall personnel questions, like deciding if they should trade one of their outfielders — Nomar Mazara, Gallo, Willie Calhoun or Shin-Soo Choo, who has two years left on his lucrative deal. But the Beltre question will be near and dear to fans’ hearts — and not just Rangers fans, but baseball fans as a whole who take joy in watching him play. — Langs
Pujols jumps Ruth for 5th place with 1,993 RBIs
Pujols passed the Babe in the ninth inning on Saturday night with a solo homer to center field off Anthony Swarzak, though the Angels lost to the Seattle Mariners 6-5.
The Angel Stadium crowd gave a standing ovation to Pujols, who acknowledged the cheers on second base with a wave of his helmet.
Pujols only passed Ruth according to baseball’s official starting point for the mark. RBIs weren’t an official statistic until 1920 — Ruth’s first year with the Yankees, though his career began in 1914 with the Boston Red Sox.
Pujols is also closing in on Lou Gehrig (1,994) and Barry Bonds (1,996) on the career RBIs chart. Hank Aaron (2,297) and Alex Rodriguez (2,086) lead the list.
Michael Chavis’ mad scramble to reach The Show
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — As he packed for a quick three-game road trip to Syracuse, New York, on Thursday, Michael Chavis stared at his bag, then his locker, and again at his bag.
He’d packed too much stuff. He didn’t need all those gloves, bats and knickknacks, he thought. Just three T-shirts and a pair of jeans. After all, the Triple-A Pawtucket Red Sox were scheduled for only three games out of town, just a quick weekend getaway. He figured he’d be back in Pawtucket on Monday.
But a phone call, a turbulent flight, a hectic trip into an airport clothing store and a quick ride to the ballpark later, Chavis found himself standing in front of a locker at Tropicana Field, home of the Tampa Bay Rays. So he was very much not in Syracuse, let alone Pawtucket, Rhode Island. He was more than 1,300 miles away and not even knowing the day of the week off the top of his head.
“I should’ve brought all that stuff,” Chavis said with a chuckle. “I need that now.”
Everything started a little over 24 hours earlier, when Chavis woke up at 10:45 a.m. on Friday in Syracuse to three missed calls from PawSox manager Billy McMillon, who told him he’d been called up to the big leagues. As he began to gather his stuff, Chavis FaceTimed his mom, Dorothy, who immediately began crying. She’d taken up a second job at night to help pay for Chavis’ travel baseball as he was growing up.
“I knew she was going to be the first person to call ’cause she’s done so much for me,” Chavis said. “I honestly think the headlines should be more about everything she’s done for me until this point more than anything I’ve done.”
Then came phone call after phone call after phone call, from friends to family. As the news broke, text messages began piling up, nearly 600 by the end of the night.
“You don’t even remember everything you said,” Chavis said. “The next person, you’re repeating everything.”
Chavis quickly packed his stuff at the hotel and the ballpark before jolting to the Syracuse airport to catch his 1 p.m. flight to Detroit, where he’d connect through to join the Red Sox in Florida. The plane, a small jet, hit turbulence on the short hourlong flight.
“They couldn’t even do drinks or snack service ’cause everyone was falling,” Chavis said. “I felt like I was in ‘Snakes on a Plane’ going to my debut.”
When he landed at the Detroit airport with 45 minutes to spare before his next flight, Chavis realized he didn’t want to walk into his first big league call-up wearing a T-shirt and sweatpants. “I need something to look nice,” he told himself. Frazzled and hungry, he hustled into a clothing store, not even checking what store he was entering, and immediately sought help from the retail employees. He had 10 minutes to find a button-up shirt, jeans and shoes that fit him.
“What’s going on?” one employee asked.
“I’m going to the big leagues, dude,” Chavis responded. “I don’t know what’s happening.”
The store’s employees shuffled him into the storage room, the closest thing they had to a changing room, so he could try on the impromptu business-casual uniform. Chavis pulled out his phone and turned on the front-facing camera to make sure everything fit and rushed off to his flight.
Texts kept pouring in as Chavis anxiously awaited landing in Florida. His brother, Fuzzy (real name: Christian), was driving down from Alabama along with five other close friends and family. Meanwhile, Red Sox officials kept texting, asking where he was as the game was about to begin.
“I’m literally in the air right now,” Chavis thought to himself. “I don’t know what you want me to do. I need to fly.”
After landing, Chavis called an Uber, which dropped him off three blocks from the stadium. With his backpack, suitcase and a bag full of personal items on him, Chavis walked toward the stadium. His phone buzzed — a text from Fuzzy.
“Hey, where are you?” the text read. “I’m sitting at the gate waiting for you.”
“You beat me here,” Chavis said.
Chavis arrived in the Red Sox clubhouse in the fifth inning. And before he had a moment to appreciate his arrival in a big league clubhouse for the first time, Boston coach Ramon Vazquez told him that the team might need him to pinch hit in two batters.
“That’s impossible,” Chavis said.
Rookies, he’d heard, always get messed with during their first stint in the big leagues. There he stood, in jeans and a shirt. He hadn’t stretched. He didn’t know what pitcher the Red Sox were facing. He hadn’t seen a single scouting report. But Vazquez wasn’t joking.
“I didn’t even get to tell him congratulations,” Vazquez said.
Panic set in.
“Where are my cleats? Do I need a cup? Where are my batting gloves?” Chavis asked himself. “Where are my bats?”
As Chavis quickly warmed up in the batting cage, catcher Christian Vazquez knocked a two-run homer into center field, giving the Red Sox a 4-1 lead, negating any need for him to pinch hit, giving him a night to rest.
On his second day in the big leagues, Chavis went through his normal routine, trying to stay in the moment and not overthink things just because he’s now in the big leagues. For the past few years, Chavis had slowly started to see the other high school players from the 2014 draft make their major league debuts. But now that he’s made it here, Chavis is trying to keep things as normal as possible, which is much easier said than done.
“Holy crap,” Chavis said before Saturday’s game. “Now I’m in the big leagues. That sounds weird right now.”
When Rays outfielder Tommy Pham hit a solo homer off reliever Matt Barnes to tie the game 5-5 in the eighth inning, Chavis knew he would be hitting in the ninth. And he knew that in Rays star reliever Jose Alvarado, he had a big challenge ahead of him.
“Facing Alvarado in the [Gulf Coast League], he was a starter and he absolutely just destroyed us whenever he faced us,” Chavis said. “I was just joking with [Fuzzy] before today’s game and all, if I get my first AB late in the game today, let’s just not have it be Alvarado.”
With outfielder Jackie Bradley Jr. on first base and the score tied 5-5 with one out, the count on Chavis tallied to 1-2, and Alvarado called timeout. Chavis, feeling his knees literally shaking, took a moment to gather himself before driving a 99 mph slider from Alvarado straight over the head of center fielder Kevin Kiermaier. His first big league hit — a double — set up the go-ahead RBI sacrifice fly from Andrew Benintendi for a 6-5 Red Sox victory and put Boston in position to sweep the series with a win on Sunday.
That’s why Chavis, the No. 5 prospect in the Red Sox farm system according to ESPN’s Keith Law, is up in the big leagues in the first place — his bat. In 12 games and 40 at-bats this season in Triple-A, Chavis had four homers and was hitting .250/.354/.600. Manager Alex Cora said Chavis will make his first major league start on Sunday in the series finale. Ultimately, Boston will look to its top prospect to fill multiple positions, including first, second and third base.
“There’s no lack of confidence,” Cora said.
Chavis said he’ll be giving the ball from his first major league hit to his mom, as a thank-you for the sacrifices she made for him. And as the night of his first game ticked away, the rookie infielder stood in the Tropicana Field visitors’ clubhouse, trying to absorb everything that had just happened.
“I can’t tell you how many times at my house, in the backyard we had a garden, how many times I envisioned this exact scenario, pinch hitting for the Boston Red Sox in the ninth inning off a closer who’s nasty and getting a hit,” Chavis said. “I tossed up rocks, pretending I was in this moment. When I was on deck, I looked around, and I was like, wow.”
Pujols ties Ruth for 5th all time with 1,992 RBIs
The Angel Stadium crowd gave a standing ovation to Pujols, who acknowledged the cheers on second base with a wave of his helmet.
Pujols only tied Ruth according to baseball’s official starting point for the mark. RBIs weren’t an official statistic until 1920, and Ruth’s career began in 1914 with the Boston Red Sox.
Pujols is also closing in on Lou Gehrig (1,995) and Barry Bonds (1,996) on the career RBIs chart. Hank Aaron (2,297) and Alex Rodriguez (2,086) lead the list.
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