This is the last in my series on each Major League Baseball division. I close the series today with my analysis of the American League West.
Note: This edition of BERNIE’S BASEBALL WORLD also includes my final, updated rankings of each club’s farm system.
In my opinion, no team is more balanced, more focused and more dedicated to winning a Championship than the Houston Astros. Again. The Astros are probably the most imitated team in baseball due to their front office savvy.
This is one of the teams I served as a professional scout for in my past. We went to the 2005 World Series against the Chicago White Sox, went into a team wide hitting funk and lost the series to Chicago. I don’t think that could happen to this edition of the Astros. They have too many solid hitters to ever suffer a “team” slump. They have terrific pitching which has been bolstered by the addition of Garrit Cole. And to be honest, with the addition of Cole and with Justin Verlander for the entire season, now I don’t know which is better, their offense or their pitching.
I give general manager Jeff Luhnow, his staff and manager A.J. Hinch tremendous credit for believing in the metrics they are seeing and for executing a terrific organizational plan. That’s the same A. J. Hinch that was driven out as manager of the Arizona Diamondbacks because he came to the job as the inexperienced, hand-picked manager of former general manager Josh Byrnes. I’m thrilled he was given another chance to manage.
Everything begins and ends with a 5-foot-6 inch second baseman named Jose Altuve. Altuve was sent away from tryout camps in Venezuela, only to keep knocking on the door and begging for another look. General manager (at the time) Tim Purpura offered to sign Altuve, but the signing contract was very minimal by relative standards. Scout Al Pedrique called Purpura and explained that the guy could really play, but he was only 5-5 or 5-6, at best. Purpura gave the green light, Altuve was signed and the rest is history. He has become one of the best players in the game. He never concedes an at-bat. He makes loud contact. He has speed to steal bases, He has power. He can play defense. He does it all. All-Star, MVP, all of it is Altuve. He is a rock around which the Astros are now built.
After Altuve, the stars align in various ways. On one night it could be shortstop Carlos Correa who does something spectacular to help the team win. The next night it could be outfielder George Springer, using his power or speed to win the game. Yuli Gurriel, who has claimed the first base job is an outstanding hitter and one who is finding his way after coming from Cuba and settling in nicely stateside. Evan Gattis has been on a tear and is providing huge offense for the team.
Marwin Gonzalez is the “get out of jail free” card. Use him when you need him. Use him where you need him. Want to give any position player a day off? In comes Gonzalez. It doesn’t matter where he plays, he plays it well. This year he isn’t the offensive force he has been in the past, but he’s still good.
Third baseman Alex Bregman is as steady as they come. I see no need for the team to pay for Manny Machado to play third base or shortstop with Bregman and Correa around. However, there are reports Machado may be headed for Houston. That could be interesting.
Catching is ably handled by the surprising Max Stassi who is having a tremendous offensive year, Gattis and the veteran Brian McCann can catch or DH as needed. Any of the three are worthy of starting on any team.
Any team in baseball would welcome a pitching staff that featured Verlander, Cole, Lance McCullers Jr., Dallas Keuchel and Charlie Morton. Wow! The biggest decision Hinch may have to make is which pitcher pitches which game(s) in the postseason. He can trust them all. And we shouldn’t forget that Morton was outstanding in October last year.
Verlander defies time and the wear and tear years of pitching deep into games has had on his shoulder, arm and elbow. He just keeps throwing strikes and changing his repertoire to meet his skill-set of the day. He mixes and matches, changes eye levels and keeps the hitter off balance. A master craftsman, Verlander can show the pitching staff how it is done.
I credit the presence of Verlander with the improvement in Cole and Morton. Just watching him can turn a pitcher from average to star performer in a few short spring training weeks. Verlander and Cole are still striking out hitters and dominating games.
If there has been any hiccup to the starters this season, it is the inconsistency of lefty Dallas Keuchel. He has control problems at times and he has a losing record. It really is a bit of an odd season for him, and perhaps he turns everything around in the second half.
Like every other part of their team, the bullpen is solid with Ken Giles the closer on most occasions. However, Chris Devenski, Brad Peacock, Hector Rondon, and Will Harris certainly form an outstanding group of relievers for Hinch to depend upon game after game.
The team is so good left-handed hitting Kyle Tucker can’t break into the lineup. A powerful slugger with an uppercut swing similar to that of the Dodgers Cody Bellinger, Tucker is currently blocked on the major-league roster. However, Luhnow has indicated Tucker is not available for trade. That means Tucker’s day is coming.
Forrest Whitley was suspended 50-games for violating the league’s drug policy. He is a quality pitcher with a good fastball-curveball-slider-changeup repertoire. He is on the brink of pitching at the big league level, but the team is deep with starting pitching options at this time.
Still young and not carrying many older veteran players, the Astros future is as bright or brighter than any team in baseball. Verlander and Morton are the elder statesmen at 35 and 34 respectively, but age doesn’t seem to be slowing either. The offensive core of the team-Altuve (28) Springer (28) Bregman (24) and Correa (23) are capable of leading the team year after year going forward.
My Astros Farm System Ranking: 9 of 30
Astros prospects with major-league futures and their possible arrival date:
Forrest Whitley-SP- 2019
J B Bukauskus-RHP-2020
There is something about the Oakland Athletics that intrigues me. Maybe it isn’t anything more than the way manager Bob Melvin handles his club. I still don’t see how and why the Diamondbacks fired Melvin. He’s a great manager. He is using all his roster and getting a great deal out of guys with average major-league talent.
The offense features the amazing home run power of Khris Davis, not to be confused with Chris Davis of the Orioles who is having another season to forget. Khris Davis, however, can change any game, any day, with one swing of the bat. Powerful wrists and arms direct balls from his loft-conscious swing over the fence. He just has incredible power. How and why the Brewers traded him escapes me. Still just 30, Davis has more time to do more damage from the right side of the plate.
Corner infielders Matt Olson and Matt Chapman (currently hurt with a thumb contusion) offer the club terrific future power and hitting prowess at first base and third base, respectively. Both the Matt’s help form a core of players to build around. Jed Lowrie is having another terrific offensive year at second base. He has doubles power and is hitting for average. A table setter, Lowrie is 34 and he may be a good trade chip for Oakland to fetch additional pitching. With Marcus Semien the shortstop, trading Lowrie could open up a full-time spot for young infielder Franklin Barreto, a player the team keeps waiting to see blossom. He is getting more playing time now and we should be able to get a much better feel for his skills moving forward.
Mark Canha has power and he is seeing more time on the field. A right-handed hitter, it seems Canha may have gone from platoon player to regular. He, Dustin Fowler and Stephen Piscotty, traded to Oakland from St. Louis, help form a fairly solid outfield. The team is still waiting for all three of their outfielders to bust out. Fowler, a rookie, is an outstanding defender. If he can hit, the A’s have another solid player on their roster.
Jonathan Lucroy really hasn’t been an offensive force since his best days in Milwaukee. He has traveled around a bit, coming to Oakland after stops in Texas and Colorado. He stabilizes the catching, but he could really help if his bat got hot.
The Athletics pitching staff shows promise, but they each have a solid start or two and then regress to a bad start or two. The inconsistency is frustrating. The starters include lefty Sean Manaea, and right-handers Daniel Mengden, Paul Blackburn, Frankie Montas and Chris Bassitt. The Athletics could use another starter or two to help them into contention. The club also has starters Trevor Cahill, Brett Anderson and Jharel Cotton all on the disabled list. It is questionable if any of that trio can help when they return to health.
Oakland is planning to move to a new stadium, or so they say. Questions about the location of the stadium seem to be holding up the works. They have to resolve the stadium question soon, as the current situation is not acceptable to the team, the fans or MLB. So once the site is picked, the team can move along and plan for their future. I think they’re close to finalizing this issue, but I still haven’t seen anything official.
The future should also include a very good pitcher named A.J. Puk, who is now injured and has had Tommy John surgery. If Puk returns with anything close to the stuff he had pre-injury, he will be a future pitching force for the Athletics.
Along with Puk when he returns, the Athletics will feature left-hander Jesus Luzardo, a 3rd round draft pick of the Nationals in 2016. Luzardo was part of the huge trade that sent pitchers Sean Doolittle and Ryan Madson to Washington in 2017. Like Puk, Luzardo has had Tommy John surgery. I am very bullish on third baseman Sheldon Neuse (pronounced Noisy). I first saw him in the Arizona Fall League and I was totally convinced of his major-league quality abilities. He is currently blocked at third base by Chapman, but he’s good enough for the A’s to find a future place for him. I can see him becoming an outfielder or a major trade candidate.
My ranking of the Oakland Athletics Farm System: 13 of 30
Top Athletics prospects and their expected date of major-league arrival. These rankings do not include Barreto and Fowler who are playing at the major-league level:
A.J. Puk-LHP-late 2019
Jorge Mateo-INF-late 2018
LOS ANGELES ANGELS
The news that star rookie Shohei Ohtani has been shut down from pitching due to elbow issues should not have been a surprise to either the Angels organization or those that follow baseball carefully. Ohtani had elbow issues when he signed his contract with the club. Every major-league team that placed a bid for Ohtani’s services was made well aware of his condition. They were provided medical records. Now, Ohtani and the Angels must determine if he will have Tommy John surgery, keeping him away from the game for more than a year. He has a Grade 2 sprain of the ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow. He has had stem cell injections to try to ease the pain and quiet the problem. His situation will be evaluated in July and a decision will be made about how to proceed at that time. If in fact surgery is chosen, he would have wasted almost two and a half months waiting to have the operation.
Without Ohtani, the Angels rotation took a huge hit. Not the most healthy group to begin with, the Angels pitching staff has been handled carefully this season in an effort to keep arms, shoulders, and elbows ready, willing, and able to pitch. Kenyan Middleton, a solid reliever who had assumed the closer’s role went on the disabled list in May and is out with his own elbow miseries and Tommy John surgery.
Ailing pitchers dominate the season so far. Starter Garrett Richards is dealing with hamstring issues and is on the disabled list himself. Matt Shoemaker had right forearm surgery. Nick Tropiano has right shoulder inflammation. Blake Wood has had Tommy John surgery. J.C. Ramirez has had Tommy John surgery and is in recovery. Jim Johnson has a lumbar strain. Alex Meyer has had right shoulder surgery. Not good. Not good at all.
Compounding this year’s pitching woes is the fact that lefty Tyler Skaggs, one of the best starters in the Angels rotation has missed time the past several years with his own arm and elbow injuries and surgeries. Is he ever going to be totally healthy?
The offense has plenty of firepower with All-World Mike Trout leading the way. Now totally healthy himself, Trout is showing the generational talent that has made him the finest player on the planet in the opinion of countless analysts. Trout is hitting for power and for average. He is driving in runs and stealing bases. He may even win a Triple Crown.
Trout got some offensive help when the Angels signed outfielder Justin Upton, himself a source of great power. Upton joins Trout and the aging Albert Pujols in forming a trio of very tough outs for the opposition. When Ohtani was active he added power and depth to the offense as a designated hitter. Might the Angels keep Ohtani away from surgery and let him remain as a hitter this season? I doubt it.
The Angels added third baseman Zack Cozart and second baseman Ian Kinsler to improve their infield around Gold Glove quality shortstop Andrelton Simmons. Simmons by the way, has provided offensive spark and speed on the bases. Cozart, often injured when he was with the Cincinnati Reds before joining the Angels, is now on the disabled list with left shoulder issues.
Catcher Martin Maldonado has a cannon of an arm and he has stabilized the catching corp.
Relief pitching, just like the starting rotation, has had both good and bad moments this year. Cam Bedrosian was considered by some to be in the closer conversation when camp opened this past spring. So was right-hander Blake Parker. Ultimately, the job was won by Kenyan Middleton who was going along fine until he went down with his injury. Now, perhaps the team will continue to look to Parker to close games. Righty Justin Anderson may be called upon as well. Overall, the bullpen has been inconsistent. And injured. And in flux.
The Angels are trying to repair a farm system that has been ineffective and of little help to the parent team in recent years. They are developing some talent, but additional drafts are needed to shore up the organizational depth.
Right hander Jaime Barria is a good pitching prosect who is currently getting starts in the Angels rotation. He is pitching well, but he may have to adjust once the league catches up with him. He has been a huge help to the team with all their pitching injuries depleting the staff.
Basically, I believe what we see now on the Angels current 40-man roster is fairly typical of what we should see as they enter 2019. They will get some of their injured pitchers back, and that will help a great deal. But a cloud hangs around the status and future of Ohtani. It really is a cloud that will be minimized if the team bites the bullet and elects to have Ohtani undergo Tommy John surgery. The sooner it is done, the quicker he returns.
My ranking of the Angels Farm System: 22 of 30
Angels prospects and their expected date of arrival:
The loss of second baseman Robbie Cano to suspension for abuse of the major-league substance policy did not come as a surprise to many associated with the New York Yankees, Cano’s former team. True or not, some people felt Cano didn’t get a long-term contract offer from New York due to whispers about the issue that got him suspended in Seattle. Perhaps that’s just talk. What is fact, however, is that Cano is gone from his team when they need him the most. He still has plenty of skill remaining when he returns to the Mariners.
General manager Jerry Dipoto has not been shy about mixing up his roster via trade. He has been a wheeler and dealer in the front offices of the Dbacks, the Angels and now the Mariners. Dipoto has never been shy about using prospects in deals. After making a number of deals since he took over, he is now left with very thin organizaitonal depth in Seattle.
At one time Felix Hernandez was crowned King Felix due to his prowess on the mound year-after-year. Now, Hernandez has thrown so many innings that the sting is gone from his fastball and he has had to re-tool his pitching style to be more deceptive and get the most out of his secondary pitches. On some days it works well. On other days he’s, well, meh! I fear more meh days are ahead. The crown of the King may be rusting a bit.
During the winter I mentioned to Dipoto that I thought he might have a Cy Young candidate on his hands. Dipoto agreed that lefty James Paxton had the stuff if he could stay healthy. Like Herandez, there have been some fabulous moments, like his no-hitter in May against the Blue Jays in his home country of Canada. But there have been some hiccups and he isn’t a sure thing every time he touches the mound. But Paxton, the ace of the staff now is someone for the team to build around.
Lefty Marco Gonzales has helped add length to the staff, but he too has had his ups and downs. He is a perfect illustration of the inconsistency of the Mariners starting staff. Not a huge strikeout pitcher, Gonzales pitches to contact. At times that contact can be far too hard.
Mke Leake has an ERA closer to 5.00 than 4.00. Erasmo Ramirez is hurt. Wade LeBlanc, a lefty who has been around a while with several different teams rounds out the staff. The lack of pitching depth and pitching quality hampers the Mariners and keeps them from really challenging the Astros in the division. The Mariners staff doesn’t come close to being capable of leading the team to or through the playoffs. They are likely in the hunt for another pitcher. As I write this, LeBlanc has been a very good pitcher for them, but how long can that last? I’m not too sure it will.
A trade Dipoto made with the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2017 has set the pace for the Mariners offense. The Mariners gave up starting pitcher Taijuan Walker (now disabled) for shortstop/second baseman Jean Segura and outfielder Mitch Haniger as the principles in the deal. So far, Segura and Haniger have proved to be two invaluable components of a good Mariners lineup. They are both having outstanding seasons and can be looked upon as major players for the future of the team.
Dipoto also traded for 1B Ryan Healy and he has provided some offensive power and punch along with designated hitter Nelson Cruz. Cruz started the season a bit slowly, but he and Healy are now providing some much needed punch in the absence of Cano. Catcher Mike Zunino is another source of power for the Mariners. He won’t hit for a good average, but Zunino can break open a game with the long ball.
Dipoto also traded for outfielder/second baseman Dee Gordon. Gordon started the year in center field, a new position for him. However, when Cano was suspended, Seattle turned to Gordon to return to his original position at second base. He has done very well. But when Cano returns, Gordon will return to center field as well.
Another trade acquisition, Denard Span has offered some speed and help in covering center field during the absence of Cano and the move of Gordon. In essence, Cano’s selfish act has impacted his team in several different roles.
The Mariners have one of the best closers in the game in Edwin Diaz. But wanting more depth in his bullpen Dipoto traded for former closer Alex Colome from the Tampa Bay Rays. Colome provides a good set-up man for Diaz. Juan Nicasio is returning from injury and he will help bolster the bullpen.
The Mariners won’t be looking to the farm system to help them fill many holes in the future. Look for Dipoto to be active again trying to find pitching help in any way he can.
My ranking of the Mariners Farm System: 29 of 30
Mariners top prospects and their potential major-league arrival date:
At one point a few years ago, didn’t American League clubs fear the Texas Rangers? Didn’t the Texas Rangers enter most seasons in the past with a solid chance to win their division? The answer to both those questions is yes. They once had a good team that was formidable year in and year out. So what happened? What went wrong with this once credible baseball team that now finds itself having to fight to stay out of the American League West basement.
One can point to a number of factors that helped the club go south in a hurry. First and foremost, the Rangers have a woeful pitching staff. Yu Darvish, Cole Hamels, and Colby Lewis were three credible starters. All but Hamels are now gone. Joakim Soria, Derek Holland and Neftali Feliz were credible names in the bullpen. All are now gone.
Pitching woes have plagued the Rangers for a few years, and there are few signs relief is in sight.
The offense included names like Prince Fielder, Leonys Martin, Mitch Moreland, Ian Kinsler, and Nelson Cruz. Those days are long gone as well.
The Texas Rangers are no longer feared.
An aging Adrian Beltre is still an outstanding hitter and probably remains the player to be trusted the most to produce solid offense. However, the Rangers need so many parts at the major-league level, Beltre may be traded for much needed pitching or even more offensive help.
The Rangers are suffering from the underwhelming production of second baseman Rougned Odor. Barely hitting .225 with less than double-digit home runs as we get closer and closer to mid-season, Odor will have to fight for at-bats unless he can show that he is capable of producing. But Odor is not alone.
Joey Gallo, a first baseman, outfielder and some time third baseman is hitting less than .200 as I write this. He has 18 homers and 42 RBIs, but he is leaving men on base and striking out as much as ever. Improvement in his batting average and his hit tool in general has not come as the team and the baseball world had expected.
It remains to be seen if regular playing time might boost the production of Jurikson Profar, a player once touted as a future star. Injuries did him in for multiple years, leaving his throwing ability in doubt. With the return of previously injured Elvis Andrus to shortstop, Profar is seeing more time at second base in place of Odor. Profar is likely a better hitter than his current .240 batting average, but it remains to be seen just how much better he can be.
Shin-Soo Choo is 35, but he is hitting well. He has really come along recently and there are signs that he remains in the Rangers plans. However, due to his age, it may be helpful for the Rangers to try to move Choo as the trade deadline approaches. He is an asset that may help land some much needed pitching.
Another bright spot for the Rangers, Nomar Mazara has solidified himself as a possible 25 to 30 home run hitter with a nice hit tool. His batting average is solid, and he can produce runs. If, in fact, Beltre leaves via trade. The burden on Mazara to drive in runs will increase if Beltre and/or Choo depart.
Delino DeShields provides some necessary and essential speed for the club. At one point in his career, Elvis Andrus stole bases as well. Now we will have to see what Andrus does when healthy. For sure, DeShields can steal bases. However, his on-base percentage could use a bit of a boost. If Andrus and DeShields can get on base regularly and steal, the Rangers will be in much better shape. That’s a big “if”.
The Rangers like the power potential of left-handed hitting first baseman Ronald Guzman. Guzman and Joey Gallo are the biggest guns in the lineup regarding home run potential. While Beltre still has pop, Guzman and Gallo will likely be looked upon as game-changing hitters in the Rangers future. However, both have to step it up regarding their poor batting averages and bad on-base percentages. More production from those big bats would go a long way to helping the less than stellar pitching staff.
Right now, the Rangers have Cole Hamels, Mike Minor, Yovani Gallardo, Austin Bibens-Dirkx and the veteran and aging wonder Bartolo Colon in their rotation. It can be expected that rookie Yohander Mendez, one of their best prospects will get his share of starts. Bibens-Dirkz has had some nice outings, and I believe he and Mendez will be counted upon to lift the rotation out of their doldrums.
For most of the season, the bullpen has been in flux. Questions persisted for most of the spring about the identity of the closer. Would it be lefty Alex Claudio? Nope, he flopped. How about lefty Jake Diekman? Nope, not him either. Righty Matt Bush had closed before, but he didn’t get the job. After a few audition games early in the season, the Rangers settled on right-hander Keone Kela for the role. He has done a nice job and seems to be secure. But not unlike the rotation, the bullpen staff won’t make anyone associated with the Rangers jump for joy
Is the future of the Rangers any brighter due to the farm system? Well, not really. There aren’t many bright lights waiting to knock down the major-league clubhouse door. Clearly, outfielder Willie Calhoun should have been playing at the major-league level by now. If for no other reason, don’t the Rangers want to see what type of player they have in him? He was traded to Texas by the Dodgers in the deal that sent Yu Darvish to Los Angeles. Right-hander Mendez has already been summoned to the parent club, and he might bring some help to the rotation.
The Rangers have some outfield help in their system, but they really haven’t stockpiled much in the way of pitching. It remains to be seen what they will do with players like Beltre and Choo going forward. Can they get some much needed starting pitching for those veterans? And of course, their own aging pitchers like Hamels and even Minor may have some appeal to a contender.
My ranking of the Rangers farm system: 21 of 30
Minor league Rangers players who may make the major-league club and their year of arrival:
Julio Pablo Martinez-OF-2020
MY FINAL MAJOR LEAGUE FARM SYSTEM RANKINGS AS REVISED 6-23-18
1- NEW YORK YANKEES
2- ATLANTA BRAVES
3- SAN DIEGO PADRES
4- PHILADELPHIA PHILLIES
5- CHICAGO WHITE SOX
6- MILWAUKEE BREWERS
7- TORONTO BLUE JAYS
8- ST. LOUIS CARDINALS
9- HOUSTON ASTROS
10 LOS ANGELES DODGERS
11-TAMPA BAY RAYS
22-LOS ANGELES ANGELS
23-SAN FRANCISCO GIANTS
25-BOSTON RED SOX
28-NEW YORK METS
30-KANSAS CITY ROYALS
The emergence of Nationals outfielder Juan Soto has been very welcomed by the club. Soto has been on fire at a time when the team is ramping up for their postseason run. They haven’t been able to count on the bat of first baseman Ryan Zimmerman due to injury, and Bryce Harper has scuffled some. Soto’s arrival has been a real shot in the arm for a team hoping to win it all, once and or all.
Injured Ronald Acuna is almost ready to return to the Braves outfield, as he has begun his rehab assignment. He may even have returned by the time you read this.
Eloy Jimenez, the great outfield prospect of the White Sox is getting closer and closer to a possible major-league debut this season. It seems pretty certain we could see Jimenez in September, if not sooner. He has now been promoted to Triple-A after hitting .317 at Double-A Birmingham.
Matt Kemp is in the conversation as the National League MVP. He’s having a great season for the Dodgers after having been traded from the Braves. Didn’t we all think Kemp would be dumped after he left Atlanta? Kemp lost 40 pounds, became more fit and agile, and the rest is history.
James Paxton, a pitcher many thought would challenge for a Cy Young has had a disappointing couple starts for Seattle. I look for him to bounce back in the second half if he can stay healthy.
Who is the pitcher the Yankees will gobble up in a trade that has to include Brandon Drury? Drury really deserves to be with a big league club, and I hope he finds a new home. The Yankees can’t be blamed for using Miguel Andujar at third base. Drury is not a good second baseman. His best position is third.
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