PT TOMORROW: AL West—Retreading water

Oakland Athletics

Not unpredictably, what projected as a sub-par rotation has struggled out of the gate with a few exceptions. Frankie Montas' (RHP, OAK) first three starts (3.18/3.43 ERA/xERA over 17 IP) hint that he may be slowly turning a development corner. Oft-injured Brett Anderson (LHP, OAK) has also been more than effective over his first four efforts (24 IP, 7 earned runs, 3 wins)—though a 5.3 Dom, 1.6 Cmd and 4.55 xERA and fragile history suggest that regression and shelf-time aren't far away. But early on it's been "frontliners" Mike Fiers (RHP, OAK) and Marco Estrada (RHP, OAK) whose performances are the most troubling.

After five starts, Fiers owns a 7.06 ERA (5.31 xERA) and isn't yet close to the anomalous 1.9 Ctl and 66% FpK displayed during his career-best 2018 effort. Estrada's 6.85 ERA (6.83 xERA) also after five starts isn't much better, and his outlook seems notably more alarming. A 4.2 Dom, 8% SwK, downticking velocity and 7 HR allowed over his first 24 IP will make him unrosterable at the MLB level as well as in fantasy play unless something changes quickly. Indeed, Estrada went on the DL late Wednesday.

Though Chris Bassitt (RHP, OAK) will get the first call, either Daniel Mengden (RHP, OAK) or newly-signed Edwin Jackson (RHP, OAK)—depending on how long it takes for him to round into shape—could be up next. A favorite for the final rotation spot in spring training, Mengden's control struggles (7 BB over 11 IP, just 5 Ks) earned a Triple-A demotion instead. Though he's seemingly righted himself (21/5 K/BB) over his first 17 IP in the hitter-friendly PCL, historically sub-par Dom/SwK, fly-ball tendencies and health questions cap Mengden's back-end upside. The 35-year-old Jackson's anomalous 3.33 ERA over 17 starts and 92 IP down the 2018 stretch for OAK look intriguing—but that 4.85 xERA and 1.8 Cmd points to the risk, likely more reality. Both of these names seem likely to get starts soon enough, but buyer beware; the rotation will likely tread water until their best pitchers get healthier or newer faces show up.

 

Los Angeles Angels

Another slow start from Kole Calhoun (OF, LAA) offers the front office another benchmark as it maps the remainder of 2019 and the future. Calhoun's 11-for-his-first-61 AB (.180 BA) is partly the result of some poor luck (20% h%, 14% LD%, 120 HctX), but also the fact that his ct% is closer to 70% than than 80%—where it was during three .270+ BA seasons. Calhoun's 2018 2H (16 HR, 149/171 PX/xPX) and his current 188 xPX say that the power is legit, so the immediate outlook is hardly hopeless. 

But Calhoun is a 2020 free agent-to-be on a club where Mike Trout is a lifer, Justin Upton is signed for three more years, and uber-prospect Jo Adell (OF, LAA) was persuading everyone watching him play before his March injury that he's on a fast track to Anaheim. And now recently-acquired and club-controlled Brian Goodwin (OF, LAA)—13-for-39, 2 HR—is hinting at better contact and that he might be useful left-handed-hitting OF depth where there had so little for a long time. The big if, of course, he can stay healthy.

Barring the type of extended swoon that fueled a June Triple-A demotion last year, Calhoun's immediate playing time isn't any jeopardy. Upton remains on the DL with severe turf toe, and four-to-six weeks away from returning, and Adell is looking at a half-season of minor league time. But a pitching-needy club with limited contention aspirations and the 2020 landscape suggests that LAA won't be rushing to re-up a 31-year-old OF with a declining BA. Calhoun has to be viewed as one of the Angels' more viable trade candidates later on this year, obviously depending on his performance from here and the needs of wannabe post-season teams—in which case Goodwin's playing time could grow legs. Something to watch.

 

Houston Astros

Same ol' same ol' for the division's best team early on, in that there have been no significant injuries, playing time surprises or roster moves to speak of. In fact aside from reliever Framber Valdez being replaced by Reymin Guduan, the Opening Day roster remains intact. That said, the back of an outstanding pen has undergone an obvious tweak that shouldn't go unheeded by fantasy owners since it could have ramifications down the road. Following the 2018 trade deadline acquisition of Roberto Osuna (RHP, HOU), the club briefly found itself with two worthy closers. Hector Rondon (RHP, HOU) had pitched more than effectively after taking the role from Ken Giles in June, allowing just seven runs over 30 IP while recording 14 saves until Osuna eventually took over. Even following a crash-and-burn September, Rondon's full-season 3.20/2.96 ERA/xERA and 126 BPV still hinted that any non-Osuna ninth inning call would be his.

But that's less certain now, even unlikely, and it has nothing to do with Rondon's fine 2019 effort to date (one run allowed through his first 7 IP, 69% FpK, 15% SwK)—because Ryan Pressly (RHP, HOU) has been even better. Pressly has yet to allow a run or a walk over his first 8 IP in 2018, posting a 73% SwK, 15% SwK, 65% GB% and a 233 BPV in the process. He's not only now the primary 8th inning setup option, but Pressly also owns the only non-Osuna HOU save after being called upon to give the closer breather following three consecutive work-days. None of this is particularly earth-shattering news in light of The Forecaster's "UP: 40 Sv" call following Pressly's huge 2018 skill surge. But fantasy owners chasing holds and future closers should be aware that despite Pressly's meager 4 MLB saves spanning seven MLB seasons, Hector Rondon (and his 92 career saves) no longer looks like the heir to the ninth-inning in HOU.

 

Seattle Mariners

Partly the result of Hunter Strickland's shoulder woes and a sub-par, inexperienced pen that owns a 4.71 ERA in the early going, Anthony Swarzak (RHP, SEA) fell into save opportunities immediately following his return from the DL. Swarzak's immediate takeover of the ninth inning can't be completely discounted, at least per early small sample— two saves in as many opportunities, 5 IP, 9/1 K/BB, 20% SwK%—though he obviously has much to prove. His current 12.5 Dom and 56% GB% would be easy career bests if they last. A big plus now is that Swarzak is at least healthy now following a down 2018, and is only a year removed from his best effort, a 2.36 ERA, 4.1 Cmd and 15% SwK over 76 IP in 2017. And it's his job to lose.

But Swarzak's balky shoulder and absence of year-over-year track record keeps us at least looking, and a few new names are beginning to pop up. Unheralded Rule 5 pick Brandon Brennan (RHP, SEA) has similarly dominated in the early going, allowing just a single run in his first 12 IP of work, supported by an outstanding 68% FpK, 17% SwK, 59% GB% and mid-90's fastball velocity. The 27-year-old's history of arm injuries likely have the club holding its breath, but so far, so good.

Another early plus has been Connor Sadzek (RHP, SEA), who struggled to find the strike zone in Cactus League play (7 BB, 6 runs over 8 IP) before being dealt away by the Rangers. Sadzek can dial his fastball up into the high-90s, and to date has given the Mariners 6+ IP of one-run ball. His control hasn't been quite as shaky (3 BB), and hasn't cost him to date, courtesy of a 16% SwK—though walks and a big 54% FB% hint at potential problems. As with Brennan, there are some skills here worth watching, but inexperience is a red flag. This bullpen still looks like a season-long adventure.

 

Texas Rangers

Thirty-six-year-old Jeff Mathis (C, TEX) is just 3-for-27 in the early going, which surprises pretty much no one. Mathis hasn't batted over .200 for the past five seasons, his receiving skills being the only thing keeping him in MLB work. But even considering the current offensive shortfall from MLB catchers, it's the AB that are surprising. At least now and per our projections, Mathis is on pace to accumulate 250+ AB for the first time since 2008. Clearly the Rangers' calculation is that an offense in the top tier of MLB scoring can afford to make concessions in order to help a pitching staff with a 5+ ERA that isn't likely to get much better. 

And reportedly until further notice, Mathis will share catching duties with converted infield utility Isiah Kiner-Falefa (C/2B/3B), a position enhancement that looked mildly intriguing when it happened last season, but now seems less so. For one, even though Kiner-Falefa is batting .269 with a 15% bb% through his first 26 AB, he has yet to play an inning in the infield—which obviously hurts his limited BA/SB-base value. Despite having a cannon arm and better than league-average track record in controlling the running game, Kiner-Falefa's other receiving metrics aren't grading out well, and not to Mathis' level. And when Mike Minor owns a 2.60 ERA after four starts that have all come with Mathis behind the plate... well, this is what is important to the Rangers right now.

Of course this will change, either gradually or quickly depending on circumstances. There's a catching opportunity in Arlington; now we just have to identify the name able to take advantage of it.


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