PT TOMORROW: AL WEST—Red flags

Los Angeles Angels

Health permitting, a six-man rotation is projected for Opening Day with MLB-experienced depth backing it up, beginning either in the bullpen or at Triple-A. But quality IP and particularly durability are still across-the-board questions here. Dylan Bundy's (RHP, LAA) outstanding 2020—career-low 3.29/3.72 ERA/xERA, 1.04 WHIP over 67 IP—was supported by career-best 21% K-BB and 0.7 hr/9. But a 4.54 ERA over five MLB seasons hints that some regression is likely, and to what? Andrew Heaney (LHP, LAA) made it through the short season without an IL stint for the first time since 2015, and an 18% K-BB teased again. But he finished his 66 IP with a 4.46 ERA, par for his career and just a tick off his MLB mark. 

They're followed in the rotation by off-season acquisitions that are even bigger question marks. Durability-challenged Alex Cobb (RHP, LAA) hasn't earned positive R$ for the past three seasons, and while his 52 IP and 54% GB% in 2020 were improvements on the heels of just 12 IP in 2019, a 4.30/4.42 ERA xERA still looked strictly back-of-the-rotation. Once a reliable mid-rotation innings eater, 32-year-old José Quintana (LHP, LAA) fell off dramatically in 2019 (4.68 ERA, 139 WHIP over 171 IP), before pitching just 10 IP last year in his first season ever on the MLB IL (thumb, lat). What he might offer going forward is anyone's guess.

If all proceeds to plan, the other two spots will go to holdovers Griffin Canning (RHP, LAA) and Shohei Ohtani (RHP, LAA), and huge questions. Following more spring elbow woes, Canning tossed 56 IP of 3.81 ERA ball in the short season, and came away with his arm intact (maybe). But his peripherals took an across-the-board hit (4.81 xERA)—and while he's still young and talented enough for some growth, injury concern abounds. Coming off of Tommy John rehab, Ohtani's 2020 pitching effort was cut short following two disastrous outings and a flexor strain. Now two years removed from his 2018 top-of-the-rotation pre-TJS flash (3.31 ERA, 30% K% over 52 IP), wash, rinse, repeat, i.e., his output and health are also in question. With more upside than any LAA starter, an Ohtani rebound is likely the key to any LAA postseason hopes.

One (or more) of these names seems likely to be on the shelf before Opening Day, which is why we keep an eye on Jaime Barria (RHP, LAA) and Patrick Sandoval (LHP, LAA). Both have had significant MLB exposure, Barria has been mildly more successful despite shaky peripheral support—but Sandoval's career 13.3 SwK and 51% GB% (76 IP) say there's something better here than a 5+ ERA to date. Neither are immediately rosterable, both are watchable; it's that kind of rotation in general. We'll check back in March.


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Oakland Athletics

A couple of weeks can change the playing time landscape significantly in an uncertain pre-season. As noted in this space at the end of January, the middle infield didn't look anything close to that of a postseason club, but things have improved at least a little. Elvis Andrus (SS, OAK) was no longer wanted in TEX, and is a downgrade from Marcus Semien both at the plate and in the field. And Oakland Coliseum won't help Andrus' BA rebound from his injury-fueled 2020 (.194 BA over 103 BA) or provide a major boost to already sub-par power. But Andrus is still just 32 years old and without a long MLB IL history. If healthy, he'll play every day with solid contact skills and at least moderately plus baserunning that should be enough to earn fantasy rosterable counting stats in most leagues. This and a barren OAK farm system may be the best news for his fantasy managers, i.e., barring a complete and unforeseen collapse, Andrus' playing time is likely to go unchallenged, particularly early in 2021.

Andrus's presence at SS turns what was an equally abysmal 2B spot into something a little more competitive. Chad Pinder (2B/OF, OAK) now projects to get most of his playing time sharing 2B with Tony Kemp (2B/OF, OAK)—although neither appear to be immediately fantasy-worthy either on their own or together. And a new 2B wild card has been introduced in the form of Jed Lowrie (2B, OAK), who returns to OAK under a minor league contract after seeing just eight plate appearances over the past two years with NYM due to chronic left knee injuries. Lowrie's best years were enjoyed with the A's, including as recently as 2018 when he hit 23 HR while posting an .801 OPS in a career-high 680 plate appearances. Now at age 37 and after two years off, Lowrie seems like a long-shot to have much impact, but the A's have nothing to lose by inviting him to spring training. This is likely how it will go for an organization bereft of legitimate MLB-ready offensive-minded infield help; expect OAK to keep rummaging through the FA list, waiver wires, and unwanteds from other clubs in 2021.

 

Houston Astros

If there's a last-minute free agent strike to be made by this front office that isn't for a centerfielder, it seems likely to add more bullpen help. But at least for now cutting ties with Roberto Osuna leaves the closer role to Ryan Pressly (RHP, HOU), who overcame an early 2020 knee injury and finished strong, posting a 3/43/3.25 ERA/xERA along with 12 saves over 21 IP. More mid-90s velocity, another big 17.8 SwK and 50%-ish GB% suggest that Pressly can hold his own and then some in the ninth inning over the long haul. But in another AL West organization with limited MLB-ready talent, Pressly's setup options and potential replacement in the event of another injury are less obvious.

Rookie Enoli Paredes (RHP, HOU) showed plus stuff and held his own with a 3.05 ERA over 20 IP in his 2020 MLB debut, but a 4.78 xERA points to lagging peripherals and growing pains ahead. The club has already signed free agent names like Pedro Báez (RHP, HOU) and Steve Cishek (RHP, HOU). And these names along with Joe Smith (RHP, HOU)—who sat out 2020—will try to provide veteran high-leverage bullpen help. But though all are still capable of do-no-harm sub-4 ERAs, all are also on the wrong side of 30 with skills and durability that are beginning to fray. None are worth chasing into the pre-season based on role alone.

Still just 23, Bryan Abreu (RHP, HOU) roared through 2020 spring training into a high-leverage Astros bullpen role to begin the season. But he was quickly dispatched back to the alternate site for good in early August after his chronic control issues suddenly reared up again (7 BB in 3 1/3 IP). 368 Ks over 287 minor league IP speak to Abreu's swing-and-miss stuff, with walks the only thing standing in his way of an MLB job. If there's big strikeout relief arm with upside worth watching this spring, it's Abreu. Again.

 

Seattle Mariners

Another club talking about a six-man rotation to begin 2021, with Marco Gonzales, recent free agent sign James Paxton, Yusei Kikuchi and Justus Sheffield all seeming like Opening Day locks as pitchers and catchers report. Returning stateside following a successful KBO season (164/37 K/BB, 2.79 ERA over 145 IP) in Korea, Chris Flexen's (RHP, SEA) 2yr/$5M deal this off-season tabs him as another rotation favorite and makes him watchable as spring training begins. But while Flexen apparently improved his breaking pitch in Korea, a career 7.25 ERA and 14% K% over 68 MLB innings still leave questions as to whether he can stick in an MLB rotation. It wouldn't surprise to see him in a long-relief / swing-man role at some point in 2021. 

The other early rotation contenders at this point in time are Justin Dunn (RHP, SEA) and Nick Margevicius (LHP, SEA). Dunn's broad repertoire, prospect pedigree and 4.32 ERA over 10 2019 starts would seem to give him an edge. But this came largely on the back of a 19% H%, and some awful underlying metrics (16% BB%, 19% K%, 47% FB%) say that he could begin 2021 at AAA-Tacoma for more seasoning. The soft-tossing Margevicius ate 51 innings for this rebuilding club as a most-of-the-time starter in 2020, posting a 4.57/4.79 ERA/xERA and more uninspiring MLB peripherals that keep him off fantasy radars.

The best thing about the current Mariners is a top-shelf farm system, the standout among some otherwise dismal AL West organizations. Rotation-wise, the immediate watch here is Logan Gilbert (RHP, SEA), now a non-roster invitee to spring training. A seasoned college arm, Gilbert owns pedigree, repertoire, pitchability and a mid-rotation floor—with a reported uptick in stuff from the 2020 alternate site that has him currently on track for SEA sooner than later in 2021. Emerson Hancock is another consensus Top 100 SEA prospect, but he'll need more development time than Gilbert and will begin 2021 in High-A or Double-A, with an outside shot at a late-season MLB debut. Keep an eye on both of these names.

 

Texas Rangers

Suddenly the catching corps is beginning to look mildly intriguing in deeper two-catcher fantasy leagues. Now 28, defense-first Jose Trevino (C, TEX) has never wowed with his bat. But the right-handed-hitting Trevino flashed a short-season power uptick last year (115/128 PX/xPX, 2 HR over 76 AB—and a career 79% ct%, 119 HctX over 204 MLB AB can't be dismissed outright. And as part of the Elvis Andrus trade, Trevino is now joined by switch-hitting Jonah Heim (C, TEX) another solid option behind the plate whose BA and plate skills—notably an ability to take a walk—have ticked up markedly in the high minors.

But the biggest reason for some tempered enthusiasm is the 2020 performance of rookie Sam Huff (C, TEX) in his brief 2020 debut after making the jump from High-A and the Rangers' alternate site. Huff was 11-for-31 with three HR (and 11 Ks) in the latter part of September, and his legitimate plus-plus power is a reason that his name is beginning to creep up on prospect lists. Huff will struggle to hit for average, and has work to do behind the plate—but he has a plus arm and the Rangers are reportedly thrilled with his defensive progress to date. Barring another move, Heim's acquisition seems likely to ticket Huff for some high minors seasoning early on, but his spring and early 2021 progress should be monitored. 


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  For more information about the terms used in this article, see our Glossary Primer.