Texas Rangers armed and ready to make playoff push. What about Angels?
Jonah Heim’s eyes light up when the catcher is asked how fun it will be to handle the revamped rotation of the Texas Rangers, who spent $244 million last winter on an arms package that includes a bona fide ace in two-time National League Cy Young Award winner Jacob deGrom.
“It’s like Christmas morning when you get new toys,” Heim said this spring, “but now we’ve got five new toys.”
The shiniest of them is deGrom, the 34-year-old right-hander with a lively 99-mph fastball and 93-mph wipeout slider who signed a five-year, $185-million deal in December. But the other four are hardly stocking-stuffers.
Texas signed playoff-tested Nathan Eovaldi, the 33-year-old right-hander with a 96-mph fastball and nasty 88-mph splitter, for two years and $34 million, and Andrew Heaney, the 31-year-old left-hander who had a career-best 3.10 ERA in 16 games for the Dodgers last season, for two years and $25 million.
Those three will join left-hander Martín Pérez, the 31-year-old sinker-changeup specialist who had a career-best 2.89 ERA in 32 starts for the Rangers in 2022, and hard-throwing right-hander Jon Gray, 31, who went 7-7 with a 3.96 ERA in 24 games last season, in what could be one of baseball’s best rotations.
“It changes the whole outlook for us — it’s completely different,” said Rangers shortstop Corey Seager, the former Dodgers star who is entering the second year of a 10-year, $325-million deal. “The whole point is to get to the postseason and win playoff games, and you need good talent and arms like this to do it.”
Poor starting pitching is the primary reason the slug-first Rangers have suffered six straight losing seasons — they ranked 24th or worse in rotation ERA over the last five seasons with an ERA of 5.32 or higher in four of those years.
To compare, the top two rotation ERAs last season were the Dodgers (2.75) and the World Series champion Houston Astros (2.95).
But the Rangers are betting big that a new-and-improved rotation will vault them into playoff contention in an American League West that features the Astros, who won 106 games last season, the 90-win Seattle Mariners and a deeper Angels club led by two-way phenom Shohei Ohtani and three-time AL MVP Mike Trout.
“It’s going to be a dogfight every single night,” Angels catcher Max Stassi said of the division. “There are no cakewalks.”
The Astros have more than enough pitching to weather the loss of 2022 AL Cy Young Award winner Justin Verlander to the New York Mets, and a lineup that replaced aging first baseman Yuli Gurriel with 2020 AL MVP José Abreu could be even more potent.
The Mariners, who snapped a 20-year playoff drought and gave the Astros all they could handle in the AL division series, added slugger Teoscar Hernández and leadoff man Kolten Wong to a lineup led by dynamic 22-year-old center fielder Julio Rodríguez, a near-unanimous choice as 2022 AL rookie of the year.
The Angels will lean heavily on the incomparable Ohtani in what could be the 2021 AL MVP’s final season in Anaheim before he hits free agency, and Trout, but a healthy Anthony Rendon and newly acquired sluggers Hunter Renfroe and Brandon Drury should add considerable pop.
“I’m predicting it’s going to take less games to win our division than any time since I’ve been here, simply because there’s more parity,” said Dusty Baker, who took over as Astros manager in 2020.
“Not only Texas, you look at Anaheim too. They added Renfroe, and they’re going to have a healthy Rendon. And Seattle added Kolten Wong and Teoscar, and they have [Luis] Castillo, the pitcher they acquired last year.”
The Rangers lost 94 games and finished 38 games behind the Astros in 2022. It would be a stretch to think with their less-than-stellar infield defense and thin bullpen that they could overtake the Astros in the AL West, but their rotation — if their starters can stay healthy — should at least give them a chance.
Of their five starters, Pérez is the only one who avoided the injury list in 2022. DeGrom suffered a stress reaction in his right scapula last spring and didn’t make his 2022 debut until Aug. 2, and he missed the second half of 2021 because of forearm and elbow injuries.
Heaney missed about half of 2022 because of shoulder soreness, and Eovaldi missed almost two months of last season because of shoulder inflammation. DeGrom and Eovaldi were slowed this spring by left side tightness, and Gray was slowed by a sore back.
But if the durability of the rotation can match its potential dominance, the Rangers should have the arms to contend in the rugged AL West.
“Every single one of these guys has something unique to them, and if we get them all out there at the same time, it’s going to be really special,” Heim said. “We don’t just have one guy. We have five quality guys who are gonna give us a chance each and every night.”
Predicted order of finish in the American League West Division for 2023:
1 | Houston Astros
2022 | 106-56, 1st in West
Last year in playoffs | 2022
Star second baseman and leadoff man José Altuve suffered a fractured right thumb when he was hit by a pitch in the WBC and is expected to be out for two months, an injury general manager Dana Brown described as a “massive blow.” The rotation should be among baseball’s best despite the loss of Justin Verlander to free agency and Lance McCullers Jr. to a muscle strain.
2 | Seattle Mariners
2022 | 90-72, 2nd in West
Last year in playoffs | 2022
One of baseball’s best rotations will have 2022 trade deadline acquisition Luis Castillo for a full season. Three highly touted prospects — Bryce Miller, Emerson Hancock and Bryan Woo — provide quality depth if any of the six starting pitchers get hurt. Winter acquisitions Kolten Wong and Teoscar Hernández should boost the on-base percentage and run production.
3 | Los Angeles Angels
2022 | 73-89, 3rd in West
Last year in playoffs | 2014
The addition of Hunter Renfroe, who had 60 homers and 168 RBIs combined over the last two seasons, and Brandon Drury, who hit 28 homers in 2022, along with the return of a healthy Anthony Rendon and Jared Walsh should boost a lineup that led the majors in strikeouts and ranked 25th in runs despite having two of baseball’s best hitters in Mike Trout and Shohei Ohtani.
4 | Texas Rangers
2022 | 68-94, 4th in West
Last year in playoffs | 2016
Corey Seager and Marcus Semien, who got off to slow starts after signing contracts worth a combined $500million before 2022, are feeling more settled, and that could translate to more consistent production at the plate. The infield defense is spotty, and the Rangers didn’t do much to upgrade a bullpen that had a decent ERA (3.72) but converted only 37 of 67 save opportunities.
5 | Oakland Athletics
2022 | 60-102, 5th in West
Last year in playoffs | 2020
An offense that ranked last in baseball in batting average (.216) and OPS (.626) and second to last in runs (568) in 2022 traded OPS leader Sean Murphy to Atlanta, so there is a question as to how the A’s, with a payroll of $75.5million, will score. A bullpen anchored by Trevor May, who has 12 career saves and is the club’s highest-paid player at $7million, is thin and inexperienced.