Even with pitching questions, Astros look to be cream of AL West crop

The Astros won their first World Series in 2017 and followed that with a franchise-record 103 victories last season. But they were then beaten in the postseason by the eventual World Series champion Red Sox.

“Last year was a disappointment, but we are an organization that’s built to win multiple championships,’’ says Jeff Luhnow, the general manager who puts the roster together.

The Astros’ core of players includes a healthy middle infield in Jose Altuve and Carlos Correa. There’s also Alex Bregman, George Springer and Yuli Gurriel.

Houston’s rotation is the biggest change from a year ago with only Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole as returning starters.

Oakland was last year’s surprise team, going 62-39 after June 16 to make the postseason as a wild card.

The Angels are trying to get outfielder Mike Trout a second postseason appearance and need Matt Harvey and Trevor Cahill to pitch well in the rotation.

Seattle is trying to rebuild and contend at the same time.

Texas has the ability to score runs, but can the Rangers get a healthy rotation?

The predicted order of finish: Astros, A’s, Angels, Mariners, Rangers.

HOUSTON: The Astros won the franchise’s first World Series title in 2017, and now they are trying to become the sixth team in history to have three consecutive 100-win seasons, the last team being the 2002-2004 Yankees. The 1969-71 Orioles are one of the five teams to do so. ... It wasn’t that long ago, from 2011-2013, the Astros were losing 106, 107 and 111 games in three consecutive seasons. ... But rebuilding could come quickly: If the Astros are going to another World Series, they need to act fast. Verlander (16 wins, 2.52 ERA) and Cole, their top two in the rotation, are free agents after this season, and OFs Springer, Michael Brantley, Josh Reddick and Gurriel are eligible for free agency after the 2020 season. ... Verlander and Cole (15 wins, 2.88 ERA) lead a rotation that will have three new pitchers - LHP Wade Miley and RHPs Collin McHugh and Brad Peacock. Peacock and McHugh are former starters who worked in the bullpen last season. Miley, who fizzled as an Oriole in 2017, was 5-2 with a 2.57 to help Milwaukee make the 2018 postseason. ... The new left fielder will be Brantley, an average-power guy who seldom strikes out. ... The infield is the same from third to first, Bregman, Carlos Correa, Altuve (.316) and Gurriel (.291), who has developed into a solid defensive player. ... Bregman has a chance at 200 hits and 30 home runs this season. Correa had back issues last season and averaged a career-low .239. But Correa hopes new workouts, including offseason yoga, will make his back stronger. Altuve had knee surgery in October, but there are no lingering effects.

LOS ANGELES: The Angels’ new manager replacing Mike Scioscia is former catcher Brad Ausmus, who managed the Tigers for four seasons, including 2014, the year they won 90 games and lost to the Orioles in the American League Division Series. ... Two-way player Shohei Ohtani, who had Tommy John surgery Oct. 1, is expected back in early May as the Angels DH. Until then, Ausmus will use Albert Pujols, 39, coming back from knee surgery, and Justin Bour, a left-handed batter, at first and DH. But when Ohtani returns, Ausmus is going to have a logjam. Ohtani will not pitch until 2020. Ohtani had four wins and a 3.31 ERA as a pitcher and hit .285 with 22 home runs in his first season with the Angels. ... The outfield, from left to right, will be Justin Upton, Trout and Kole Calhoun. ... Trout, who has two years left on his contract with the Angels, has led the AL in on-base percentage the last three seasons (.441, .442, .460). He’s under contract through 2020 and has only made the postseason once with the Angels in 2014, the year they were swept by the Royals in the first round. ... The Angels’ new closer is RHP Cody Allen, 30, who had five consecutive seasons with a sub-3.00 ERA before it jumped to 4.70 last season. ... The rotation is banking on a comeback from RHP Matt Harvey, 29, who had 2.71 ERA for the Mets in 2015 before running into discipline issues with the team. He pitched for the Reds last season. ... The rotation is led by LHP Andrew Heaney (9-10, 4.15) and RHP Tyler Skaggs (8-10, 4.02).

OAKLAND: After three consecutive last-place finishes in the AL West, the A’s won 97 games and went to the wild card playoff game last season, a campaign that was supposed to be a rebuilding season. ... The A’s have experienced 20-game swings three times in the last seven seasons, going from 74 to 94 wins in 2012, 88 to 58 wins in 2015 and 75 to 97 win last season. ... The top three pitchers will be RHP Mike Fiers, RHPS Marco Estrada and LHP Brett Anderson. ... The A’s are loaded with power hitters, defense and a strong bullpen. The rotation is spotty after using 15 starters last season. ... DH Khris Davis, who hit 48 home runs last season, is looking to increase his season total for a 10th consecutive season. ... There are also Gold Glove winners with 1B Matt Olson (29 home runs) and 3B Matt Chapman (24 home runs). ... The shortstop is Marcus Semien, who has consecutive seasons of at least 10 home runs and 10 steals. ... The new 2B is Jurickson Profar, a switch-hitter who takes over for Jed Lowrie. Profar, 25, has battled injuries in the last few years with Texas, but expects to build on his breakout 2018, when he hit .254 with 20 home runs, 35 doubles, six triples and 10 stolen bases. ... The outfield has CF Ramon Laureano and RF Stephen Piscotty. ... Former Nationals RHP Blake Treinen is the closer in a deep and deadly bullpen. Treinen had a 0.78 ERA last season, best in history for a pitcher with at least 80 innings.

SEATTLE: The Mariners haven’t been to the postseason since 2001, the year they lost to the Yankees in the ALCS. Since then, they have finished second twice in the AL West. It’s the longest playoff drought in North American sports history. ... The Mariners have plenty of questions, but two stories to watch will be the bounceback attempts this season from 3B Kyle Seager (.221 last season with 22 home runs) and 2B Dee Gordon (.268 average with a .288 on-base percentage and 30 steals). Seager, however, starts the season on the injured list after surgery on his left hand. He’s expected back May 1 at the earliest. ... Former Oriole Tim Beckham could play a role in Seager’s absence. ... Can RHP Yusei Kikuchi or LHP Marco Gonzales - the pitchers that will start the Mariners’ first two games against the A’s in Japan - be the rotation leader in place of LHP James Paxton, who was traded to the Yankees? ... After 10 opening day starts, the Mariners have made franchise icon RHP Felix Hernandez their No. 5 starter. He’s upset that he’s not starting opening day, but he’s nowhere near a top-of-the-rotation pitcher. ... RHP Hunter Strickland, the former Giant, is the closer who will take over for 50-save guy RHP Einar Diaz, traded to the Mets. ... The Mariners are banking on another 25 home runs from RF Mitch Haniger and hoping that LF Domingo Santana can revert back to his 30-home run form in 2017 with the Brewers. ... Mallex Smith, a strong defensive player, will be in center.

TEXAS: The Rangers, who are coming off a 95-loss season, made the postseason in 2015 and 2016, losing both teams in the ALDS to the Blue Jays. ... The new manager is former Dodgers coach Chris Woodward, who is using analytics to help his players challenge traditional strategic thinking. . ... Asdrúbal Cabrera takes over at 3B for future Hall of Famer Adrian Beltre, who retired with five Gold Gloves and 3,166 hits. ... The Rangers’ hope is that a group of young hitters - Joey Gallo, Nomar Mazara, Rougned Odor, Delino DeShields and Ronald Guzman - will grow into a nucleus that can help the team scored 800 runs in a season for the first time since 2012. ... LHP Mike Minor is the rotation ace and the Rangers need healthy and effective seasons from RHPs Lance Lynn, Shelby Miller and Edinson Vólquez, and LHP Drew Smyly. ... Lynn had Tommy John in 2015, didn’t pitch in 2016 and came back and with 33 starts in 2017 for the Cardinals. He didn’t pitch well for the Twins and Yankees last season. Volquez, Smiley and Miller have each had elbow surgery in the last two years. Miller, once a stud prospect for Atlanta, hasn’t pitched since July 11, 2017. ... RHP Jose Leclerc is the flame-throwing closer. He had 85 strikeouts and allowed one home run in 57 1/3 innings.