O/U wins: 33 ¹/₂
Key player: RHP Mike Fiers. Remember when he was more famous than Dr. Anthony Fauci? The whistleblower in the 2017 Astros sign-stealing scandal now goes back to work — in a free-agent year, to boot — with considerably less fanfare. Perhaps that will make it easier for him to replicate his strong 2019, when he became Oakland’s most reliable starting pitcher.
Player who’ll need to step up: DH Khris Davis became a metronome of production, exceeding the 40-homer mark from 2016 through 2018 — not to mention the same exact .247 batting average from ’15 through ’18 — and that earned him some multiyear security (through 2021) last year, at which point he plummeted to 23 homers and a lowly .679 OPS. The A’s need more from him.
Name you’ll get to know: You might already know LHP Jesus Luzardo, as he has been a hot shot before — and occupied this precise space last year — and appeared in six big-league games last season after a pair of injuries had slowed him down. Now the A’s want him to be part of their starting rotation.
Biggest question mark: Do they have enough behind the plate? Rookie C Sean Murphy, a touted youngster in his own right, will get the first shot. He has 20 games of major league experience on his résumé.
How it’ll go down: No club is better positioned to capitalize on the Astros’ tumult — which exists thanks to Fiers — than these guys, who are stacked for a real October run. Most Valuable Player candidates 3B Matt Chapman and SS Marcus Semien (in his walk year) will lead the charge to a fun mini-season on California’s East Bay.
O/U wins: 30 ¹/₂
Key player: OF Mike Trout. Yes, yes, we can slap this label on him every season, but this unprecedented campaign stands out because of Trout’s admirable public trepidation over playing this season due to his wife being pregnant. No intelligent person will think less of Trout if he opts out, yet such an action would, obviously, dramatically hurt this team’s 2020 hopes.
Player who’ll need to step up: SS Andrelton Simmons played in only 103 games last year due to a left ankle injury and, when healthy enough to take the field, didn’t honor his own standards. In his walk year, turning 31 in September, can he regain his groove that earned him some MVP love in 2013, 2017 and 2018?
Name you’ll get to know: OF Jo Adell is the Angels’ future star you’re looking for, the key to general manager Billy Eppler’s five-year rebuilding effort. The only upside of a Trout opt-out would be a clear opportunity for Adell.
Biggest question mark: It’s always the starting rotation. Last year, Eppler imported veteran RHPs Trevor Cahill and Matt Harvey and saw both bomb. This time, it’s veteran RHPs Dylan Bundy and Julio Teheran getting turns. The most important arm, however, figures to be that of RHP/DH Shohei Ohtani, who is back from Tommy John surgery and intends to resume his double-threat ways.
How it’ll go down: New manager Joe Maddon might just be a great fit for this mix of veterans and youngsters that is aiming high, all the more so after convincing 3B Anthony Rendon to join them for big bucks. The Angels should at least be in the postseason mix after four straight losing campaigns.
O/U wins: 28
Key player: RHP Corey Kluber, acquired from the Indians last December, will be counted on to reach back to his Cy Young ways after an injury-shortened 2019 and help lead a starting rotation that kept the Rangers afloat for a while last year. He has a team option for next year that can serve as further incentive.
Player who’ll need to step up: While 2B Rougned Odor never has been an offensive juggernaut, his defense slipped last year, turning his value into replacement level. On a team that will ride its arms to whatever success is possible, Odor must regain the prowess with his glove.
Name you’ll get to know: DH/IF Nick Solak, a Yankees draft pick from 2016, enjoyed a cup of coffee last year and might be able to provide a boost to a lineup that could use some pop. He has jumped from the Yankees to the Rays to the Rangers for this opportunity.
Biggest question mark: It’s not a terrible one: Can LHP Mike Minor and RHP Lance Lynn come close to repeating the ace-like production they surprisingly supplied last year? Can lightning strike twice? If it does but the Rangers still don’t contend, Minor, in the last year of his contract, can be a trade chip when many teams figure to be in the race considering the length of the schedule.
How it’ll go down: The Rangers can clock another interesting, forward-moving year if Kluber proves 2019 to be the aberration. While a playoff bid feels unlikely, don’t entirely rule out a group with this sort of pitching, especially if OF/DH Joey Gallo is OK after a coronavirus scare.
O/U wins: 34 ¹/₂
Key player: RHP Justin Verlander, the reigning AL Cy Young Award winner, must keep dominating at age 37 now that his co-ace Gerrit Cole has fled to The Bronx. His spring training 1.0 was disrupted by a lat injury, which also wound up impacting his groin.
Player who’ll need to step up: RHP Lance McCullers Jr. missed all of last year rehabilitating from Tommy John surgery and will be counted on to provide innings with not only Cole but also LHP Wade Miley departing.
Name you’ll get to know: While RHP Forrest Whitley endured a rough 2019 in the minor leagues, the Astros’ pitching needs and this odd campaign could afford him a chance to show his stuff at the highest level.
Biggest question mark: It’s a macro one. Can the Astros continue their five-year reign of excellence after a pair of scandals compelled them to fire their top two baseball operations officials as well as their manager? Dusty Baker replaced A.J. Hinch in the manager’s office for his knack at providing calm amidst a storm. Will that be enough when you throw in the losses they suffered to their starting rotation?
How it’ll go down: There’s no doubt, as crude as it sounds, that the ’Stros benefited from the pandemic shutdown, which gave the world bigger fish to fry and bans paying crowds from the ballparks. But that doesn’t mean they can pick up like everything is fine. They are a wounded franchise and they’ll need time to recover, no matter how much talent they field in their everyday lineup. At least their recovery will occur out of the spotlight, relatively speaking.
O/U wins: 23
Key player: LHP Justus Sheffield. He was the main piece the Mariners received from the Yankees in the trade for James Paxton, and he experienced a rough introduction to the Pacific Northwest, registering a 5.50 ERA. Seattle needs far more of its youngsters to emerge and Sheffield stands as important as any of them.
Player who’ll need to step up: OF Mallex Smith established himself as a good all-around outfielder with the Rays, only to fall on his face last year upon getting traded to the Mariners. Perhaps being more acclimated to the team and ballpark will help.
Name you’ll get to know: Will this be the year for OF Jarred Kelenic, whom Mets general manager Brodie Van Wagenen disposed of quickly after arriving, only to see him further blossom while Robinson Cano and Edwin Diaz underwhelmed? In ordinary times, the 21-year-old Kelenic, who finished his 2019 with a 21-game stint for Double-A Arkansas, probably would take another season to refine his skills. With no minor league ball, however, why shouldn’t the M’s let Kelenic get at least a taste of the big leagues?
Biggest question mark: When does the payoff come? GM Jerry DiPoto engineered a teardown , highlighted by the Mets trade, after the 2018 campaign, and he has restocked a gutted farm system. When does that system start reaping dividends? More likely than not, 2021 or later.
How it’ll go down: Teams like the Mariners really suffer from the absence of minor league competition, which would at least give the fan base something to follow and dream on. Instead, the diehards can watch the big-league club stagger to a second straight finish in the cellar.