AL West preview: A’s look strong, but cannot afford to be slow out of the gate

Projected finish for 2020: A’s, Rangers, Astros, Angels, Mariners.

After two consecutive seasons of 97 victories and wild card postseason losses, the Athletics are the favorites to win American League West this season.

That’s assuming Oakland gets off to a fast start, something that hasn’t happened in the last two years. In a 60-game season, the Athletics can’t afford another slow start.

In 2018, the A’s were 31-29 after 60 games, good for fourth place in the AL West. Last season, the team started 30-30 and found themselves 10 games out in their 60-game start.

Oakland has rotation depth, an airtight defense and a power-hitting lineup that hit 257 home runs in 2019. The have Gold Glove winners in third baseman Matt Chapman, first baseman Matt Olson and centerfielder Ramón Laureano.

Chapman and Olson each hit 36 home runs last season. Marcus Simien hit 33 and Mark Canha 26. Khris Davis is healthy after injuries dropped his home run total to 23 last season.

Pitcher Mike Fiers (15-4, 3.90 in 2019), the whistleblower on the Astros’ sign-signing shenanigans, leads a rotation that has the healthy return of lefty Sean Manaea, who was a consistent pitcher for the A’s in three seasons before 2019. There are also two other lefties - A.J. Puk and Jesús Luzardo - as well as Frankie Montas and Chris Bassett.

Bassett is valuable because he could either start or work multiple innings out of the bullpen, extra important when the starters will go five innings at best to start the season.

The A’s chances of winning the division are helped by a weaker rotation in Houston, a team that has won the division title three consecutive seasons. They won the World Series in 2017 and lost to the Nationals in the World Series last fall.

Houston has had three consecutive seasons of triple-digit wins.

The Astros lineup, led by Alex Bregman’s 41 home runs and .423 on-base percentage in 2019, is the same and, while none of the players were punished for the team’s sign stealing, they’ll be dealing with the fallout from that. Stadiums will be empty, but will opposing teams hold the Astros accountable?

Dusty Baker replaces Hinch as Astros manager, an ideal hire to help the Astros’ rehabilitation, given Baker’s legacy. He’s also managed the Giants, Cubs, Reds and Nationals.

For the first time in years, the Astros have muddled questions at the back of their rotation.

They’ll miss Gerrit Cole, 29, who had 2.50 ERA and a 0.89 WHIP last season before signing with the Yankees. The Astros rotation will be solid with Justin Verlander and Zack Greinke in the first two slots. Verlander won 21 games with a 2.58 ERA last season. Greinke was 8-1 with a 3.02 ERA.

Lance McCullers Jr., is the No. 3 guy and he’s coming back from Tommy John surgery and hasn’t pitched 2018. The rest of the rotation is inexperienced.

The Angels, who won 72 games last season and have been to the postseason only once since Mike Trout joined the team in 2011, hope that an explosive lineup will make up for a questionable rotation.

Anthony Rendon, 30, slashed .319/.412/.598 with 34 home runs last season for Washington and then hit .328/.413/.590 with 15 RBI in 17 postseason games for the World Series champion Nationals. He joins a lineup that has Trout, a three-time AL MVP with a 1.083 OPS last season, and Justin Upton, limited to 63 games and 12 home runs in 2019.

“When you’re watching him practice, that’s what he looks like in a game,’’ Angels manager Joe Maddon told reporters about Rendon via Zoom. “He doesn’t muscle up or try to do more. He plays that same game. That’s the beauty of it.’‘

How will the Angels’ pitching hold up?

Shohei Ohtani, who hit .286 with 18 home runs last season, is coming back from Tommy John surgery and Angels fans will get to see the excitement of a hitter-pitcher combo that he is. Ohtani is expected to pitch every Sunday with his first appearance July 26 against Oakland.

Will starter Dylan Bundy (4.79 ERA with 29 home runs allowed in 2019 for the Orioles) rebound on the West Coast? It’s the same question for former Brave Julio Teheran, who, like Bundy, is with a new team for the first time.

Bundy is looking for the first sub-4.00 ERA of his career. The Angels said that getting out of the AL East and hitter-friendly Camden Yards could improve Bundy’s ERA by a run.

“He knows what he’s doing,’’ Maddon says.

How bad was the Angels rotation last season? Trevor Cahill was their leader in innings-pitched with 102 1/3. The prospects that will get chances in the rotation are Griffin Canning, José Saurez and Patrick Sandoval.

In Texas, the Rangers re-built their rotation and they could be a surprise contender. They had 78 victories last season, not bad for a team that went 30-42 in the second half.

The Rangers tried to sign Rendon. They tried to sign Josh Donaldson, who went to Minnesota. So they wound up with Todd Frazier at third base.

Texas had success adding pitching, getting Corey Kluber, Jordan Lyles and Kyle Gibson. They’ll join a rotation that has All-Star Mike Minor (14-10, 3.89 ERA) and Lance Lynn (16-11, 3.67 ERA), each of whom earned AL Cy Young votes in 2019.

Injuries limited Kluber, who has won two AL Cy Young awards, to seven games with Cleveland in 2019. Lyles was 7-1 with a 2.11 ERA in 11 starts for Milwaukee, Gibson 13-7 with a 4.84 ERA for Minnesota.

In Seattle, restless Mariners fans are dealing with another rebuilding season, and getting to their first postseason for the first time since 2001 doesn’t seem likely.

Kyle Seager and Dee Gordon are the most familiar names on the roster. Marco Gonzales is the best starter on the staff. He’s followed by reclamation projects Taijuan Walker and Kendall Graveman and prospects such as Justus Sheffield and Justin Dunn.

Walker has made four starts in the last two seasons. Graveman had ERAs of 4.11 and 4.19 in Oakland before injuries limited him in 2019.

In this division, it’s easy to pick Seattle last.