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MLB End-of-April Check-in: AL West

Wait, who’s in first place?

Oakland Athletics v Texas Rangers Photo by Bailey Orr/Texas Rangers/Getty Images

Every day, Pinstripe Alley offers updates on what the Yankees’ top American League opponents are up to through the Rivalry Roundup. The AL East is well-trodden ground there, but with the month of April coming to a close, we’re going to take a peak around MLB as a whole and check in with each of the other five divisions. Who’s surprising? Who’s underwhelming? Who’s simply mediocre at the moment? Read on and find out.

First Place: Texas Rangers (15-11)

Top Position Player: Marcus Semien (1.3 fWAR)
Top Pitcher: Jacob deGrom (1.3 fWAR)

The Rangers are the second-highest scoring team in baseball thanks to contributions from big-name players and prospects they developed and graduated, along with a handful of surprising and timely contributions from veteran role players. Corey Seager may be on the IL with a strained hamstring but he was raking to the tune of a 185 wRC+ prior to going down. Fellow big money free agent signing Marcus Semien continues to be one of the best all-around infielders in the game with a 136 wRC+ and above-average defense.

Adolis García, Nathaniel Lowe, Jonah Heim, and Josh Jung form a solid backbone of the lineup with the former three having started their careers, with different organizations before taking massive leaps in their development after joining the Rangers. And while their career résumés tell us that they likely will not maintain league-average-or-better production for a full campaign, the contributions from Robbie Grossman, Travis Jankowski, and Mitch Garver are a big part of why they are in first.

After a shaky Rangers debut when he gave up five runs on Opening Day, Jacob deGrom is back to being the GOAT ... that is, until he was forced to exit last night’s start in the fourth with a forearm strain. He had also been shut down during spring training with left side tightness and left a no-hit start in the fifth earlier in the month with wrist soreness.

Losing a pitcher of his stature is devastating for any rotation, but the Rangers managed to build in some resiliency for such an eventuality thanks to a targeted offseason strategy. After nabbing their two offensive cornerstones the previous winter, Texas went all-in on upgrading the rotation, bringing in deGrom, Nathan Eovaldi, Jon Gray, and Andrew Heaney while keeping Martín Pérez via the qualifying offer.

Second Place: Houston Astros (14-12)

Top Position Player: Kyle Tucker (1.2 fWAR)
Top Pitcher: Hunter Brown (1.1 fWAR)

It’s a rather alien experience writing an AL West roundup without the Astros in first place, but here we are. A sluggish start which saw them drop six of their first nine is to blame, but they are right back to playing solid baseball in the proceeding weeks.

When Jose Altuve suffered a broken hand after being hit by a pitch in the WBC, one wondered how much the Astros offense would suffer. However, as they’ve demonstrated over much of the last decade, there’s always someone ready to step up and fill the role. After all, this is the same organization that lost Carlos Correa and George Springer to free agency, yet seamlessly replaced their production with the likes of Yordan Alvarez, Kyle Tucker, and Jeremy Peña.

Alvarez may be on the shelf with neck discomfort, but Tucker has quietly established himself as perhaps the most underrated player in baseball, and has a 159 wRC+ entering Friday. The latest wave of next men up include 27 year old rookie Corey Julks (109 wRC+) and Mauricio Dubón, owner of a 20-game hitting streak.

The same could be said of the pitching staff, who again has seen the likes of Gerrit Cole, Justin Verlander, and Charlie Morton depart in free agency. Apparently, nobody told the Astros, because Cristian Javier, Framber Valdez, Luis Garcia, José Urquidy, and Hunter Brown have combined to produce the third-most value of any big league rotation. And that’s before Lance McCullers Jr. has even thrown a pitch, with the righty expected to return in June.

Third Place: Los Angeles Angels (14-13)

Top Position Player: Mike Trout (1.3 fWAR)
Top Pitcher: Shohei Ohtani (0.9 fWAR)

As usual, there are only two things worth talking about when it comes to the Angels: Mike Trout and Shohei Ohtani. Trout, while perhaps unlikely to reach the stratospheric heights of his first decade in the league, is still one of the top players in the league when he’s on the field. He’s batting over .300 and slugging over .550 — all while whiffing in-zone at a career-worst rate mind you — all good for a 169 wRC+.

Ohtani, meanwhile, is doing Ohtani things. In terms of pure pitching ability he’s probably the best hurler in the league. He looked nigh on unstoppable until his first clunker of the year, giving up five runs to the A’s of all people last time out. He’s even taken a step back with the bat, with only a 136 wRC+, but even still he’s second on the team in home runs. Given his track record and all the dark red on his Statcast page, I expect a return to his career levels of offensive production sooner rather than later.

Despite my previous comments, I would be negligent if I didn’t mention two other storylines on the Angels offense. Noted Trout lookalike Hunter Renfroe is actually looking the more Trout-like through the early going, leading the team with seven home runs and second with a 152 wRC+. Rookie catcher Logan O’Hoppe was off to a brilliant start with a 141 wRC+, but sadly may have played his last game this season after tearing the labrum in his shoulder, an injury which will require surgery.

No matter what herculean feats that pair pull off, it’s difficult to shake off the inertia of a franchise mired in being perfectly average. As we said in our preseason PSA Twitter Space, the Angels are the most aggressively .500 team in baseball and that certainly seems to be coming to fruition through the first month.

Fourth Place: Seattle Mariners (11-15)

Top Position Player: Jarred Kelenic (1.3 fWAR)
Top Pitcher: Luis Castillo (1.4 fWAR)

After an impressive showing in 2022 that saw the team win its first playoff game in 21 years, many expected the young Mariners squad to take another step and challenge the Astros for the AL West crown. That hasn’t quite played out through the first month with some of the big bats in the lineup yet to get hot — reigning AL Rookie of the Year Julio Rodríguez, winter trade acquisition Teoscar Hernández, and 2022 team home run leader Eugenio Suárez are all hovering right around league-average production.

On the plus side, Jarred Kelenic easily has been the most heartening story of MLB so far this side of Drew Maggi. The beleaguered former top prospect arrived with enormous expectations in the Edwin Díaz trade, but was downright miserable across his first two big league campaigns, resulting in prolonged stretches at Triple-A. He’s undergone multiple swing changes in only a few years, but finally seems to have found something that works, which our own Esteban Rivera detailed over at FanGraphs. He now leads the team in virtually ever offensive category including home runs (seven), wRC+ (190), and fWAR.

The Mariners’ 2022 deadline trade for Luis Castillo looks better with each passing day. He’s second in the AL behind Gerrit Cole in fWAR with one fewer game pitched. Behind him, Seattle boasts a pair of impressive homegrown starters in George Kirby and Logan Gilbert. Unfortunately, that’s where the good news ends. Robbie Ray is done for season after it was determined he required flexor tendon surgery. Replacing that production with Marco Gonzales and Chris Flexen at the back of the rotation is not where anyone wants to be — between this year and last, the pair are the fifth and sixth worst pitchers in baseball of anyone with at least 150 innings pitched.

Last Place: Oakland Athletics (5-22)

Top Position Player: Brent Rooker (0.8 fWAR)
Top Pitcher: Mason Miller (0.3 fWAR)

I suppose the nicest thing I could say about the A’s is their fans will only have to endure the vermin and sewage infested confines of the Coliseum for four more years. The team recently entered into a purchase agreement for a 49-acre parcel of land on the Las Vegas Strip, almost all but ensuring the team’s move to Sin City. In the end, all of the misdirection surrounding the Howard Terminal plans was just that, misdirection to extract a sweeter deal out of the Las Vegas municipal tax base for a new stadium.

It’s hard to envision a more miserable team than the 2023 iteration of the A’s. Over the last two years, they’ve traded away Matt Chapman, Matt Olson, Chris Bassitt, Frankie Montas, Sean Manaea, Sean Murphy, and I’m sure dozens of others I’m forgetting, all for the purpose of losing as many games as possible in the near term, fielding the lowest payroll possible, and ostensibly restocking their farm system. If the goal was to ostracize what few fans remained to make the break for Las Vegas as clean as possible, congratulations A’s chairman John Fisher, you take that cake. That they’ve even managed to win five games is a minor miracle, but we could be looking at a modern era record for most losses come the end of the season.

All cited statistics outside of team won/loss record were active as of the beginning of play on Friday, April 28th.