AL West preview: Astros still reign supreme, even with defending champion Rangers

Houston Astros pitcher Josh Hader throws during the fifth inning of a spring training.

The Texas Rangers and Houston Astros staged a dramatic intrastate American League Championship Series last October, with the Corey Seager-led Rangers winning a seven-game classic, in which the home team lost every game, en route to their first World Series title.

A repeat engagement is entirely possible, as the Rangers and Astros, who boast two of the deepest lineups in the league and highly capable rotations, join the pitching-rich Baltimore Orioles, a burgeoning power in the AL East, at the top of the class.

The Seattle Mariners, who sport one of the best rotations in the league and a dynamic young star in center fielder Julio Rodríguez, should contend for a playoff spot, while the Shohei Ohtani-less Angels will be hard-pressed to end their nine-year playoff drought and string of eight consecutive losing seasons.

The Oakland Athletics? Don’t ask.

1 | Houston Astros

2023 | 90-72, Tied 1st in West

Last year in playoffs | 2023

Four projected starting pitchers — Justin Verlander (shoulder soreness), Lance McCullers Jr. (elbow surgery), Luis Garcia (elbow surgery) and Jose Uriquidy (forearm strain) — will open the season on the injured list, but Verlander, the three-time Cy Young Award winner, could return by the end of April, and McCullers and Garcia could fortify the rotation with second-half returns. New closer Josh Hader, displaced closer Ryan Pressly and setup man Bryan Abreu give the Astros the best back-of-the-bullpen trio in baseball. An already potent and balanced lineup should receive a boost with offensive-minded catcher Yainer Diaz replacing defensive whiz Martin Maldonado.

2 | Texas Rangers

2023 | 90-72, Tied 1st in West

Last year in playoffs | 2023

The Rangers’ infield of shortstop Corey Seager, second baseman Marcus Semien, first baseman Nathaniel Lowe and third baseman Josh Jung packs a punch, with Seager, the two-time World Series MVP, and Semien combining for 62 homers, 82 doubles and 196 RBIs last season. Seager (sports hernia surgery) and Lowe (oblique strain) might open the season on the IL but should return by mid-April. Veteran right-handers Jacob deGrom (elbow surgery) and Max Scherzer (back surgery) could provide huge boosts to a Nathan Eovaldi-led rotation with second-half returns. Texas might have two rookie-of-the-year candidates in outfielders Evan Carter, 21, and Wyatt Langford, 22.

3 | Seattle Mariners

2023 | 88-74, 3rd in West

Last year in playoffs | 2022

Payroll limitations prevented the Mariners from making a big free-agent splash this winter, but Seattle still was active, dealing away third baseman Eugenio Suarez and left fielder Jarred Kelenic and acquiring slugger Mitch Garver, second baseman Jorge Polanco and relievers Gregory Santos and Ryne Stanek. The Mariners have one of the league’s deepest rotations, and dynamic 23-year-old center fielder Julio Rodríguez already has accumulated 11.5 wins above replacement (WAR), the 11th-most by a player in his first two seasons since 1901, according to ESPN. But the bullpen might be a little thin after last season’s trade of closer Paul Sewald to Arizona.

4 | Angels

2023 | 73-89, 4th in West

Last year in playoffs | 2014

This season could be pivotal for franchise icon Mike Trout, who said at the start of spring training that he was “pushing” the front office to sign one or more of the premier free agents available and acknowledged for the first time that he was open to being traded in the future. With no big moves by mid-March, Trout was asked what would have to happen for him to remain in Anaheim long term. “I’m not putting a time frame on it,” he said. “If there’s a time down the road where it doesn’t feel right, you guys will know.” A ninth straight losing season could trigger a trade of Trout, the start of a rebuilding process and — many fans hope — the sale of the team by owner Arte Moreno.

5 | Oakland Athletics

2023 | 50-112, 5th in West

Last year in playoffs | 2020

The A’s will attempt to navigate another lame-duck season with one foot in the batter’s box and one foot out the door, the franchise’s impending move to Las Vegas and owner John Fisher’s refusal to invest in the club dooming the A’s, with a projected payroll of just $55.2 million, to their third straight last-place finish. But if Oakland can get decent production from a trio of San Francisco Giants castoffs — pitchers Alex Wood and Ross Stripling and third baseman J.D. Davis — and 24-year-old second baseman Zack Gelof builds on his stellar 2023 debut, when he hit .267 with an .840 OPS, 14 homers and 32 RBIs in 69 games, the A’s might be able to avoid their third straight 100-loss season.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.