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2020 MLB X-Factors: AL and NL West

AL West

Houston Astros | Brad Peacock

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The Athletic

Two trips to the World Series in three seasons is an impressive feat that is hard to replicate; however, the departure of Gerrit Cole and Will Harris will make returning to the Fall Classic even harder. The Houston Astros were stacked top to bottom in 2019 with a team ERA of 3.66 (2nd in AL) and an offense that held a Major League best .274 team batting average.

Houston’s vigorous offense was able to stay in tack during the off-season, but other than reigning Cy Young winner Justin Verlander and All-Star Zack Greinke, their pitching staff has been left slightly depleted and is going to need some help.

Utility pitcher Brad Peacock is the player that is going to pick up the slack for the Astros in the rotation and the bullpen. Peacock has started 83 games and relieved 95 over his career. His career ERA is below 4.00 and his opponents batting average against him in 2019 was a dismal .227.

He is the super utility man that the Astros need, as he can give the team a quality start when necessary, be a long man out of the bullpen, and even close out games. If Houston is looking to return to champion form, Peacock is going to be the X-factor that ensures that can happen, as all the other pieces are in place.

Los Angeles Angels | Julio Teherán

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2019 was just another mediocre season for the Halos with the best player in the world. The Angels seem like they can never put the right team around Mike Trout to consistently win games. Their offense should be more formidable this year with the addition of All-Star Anthony Rendon to go along with aging Hall of Famer Albert Pujols and international sensation Shohei Ohtani, but the problem has always been pitching.

Offseason acquisition Julio Teherán is the player that will step up and finally bring Mike Trout success. The two-time All-Star can be the ace of the Angels staff. The aspect of his game that is most recognizable is durability.

For seven consecutive seasons, Teherán started over 30 games and pitched at least 174 innings. In five of those seven seasons, he had an ERA below 4.00 including the last two seasons. If he can translate the success he had in Atlanta to Anaheim, then he can potentially be a Cy Young candidate and help carry the Angels into the postseason.

Oakland Athletics | Khris Davis

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Oakland surpassed expectations for the second season in a row, but also fell in the AL Wild Card game for the second straight year. The Athletics had the lowest payroll of any playoff team by a substantial margin, which just shows how well their team was assembled with such limited money.

This was in part to fine seasons by Marcus Semien, Matt Chapman, and Matt Olsen, who all hit over 30 home runs, along with having a remarkable pitching staff that had no stars on it but was able to sustain a team ERA of 3.97.

The man who is going to have a bounce back year is Khris Davis. Other than the jaw dropping fact that he did not hit exactly .247 for the fifth year in a row, Davis’ power was way down in 2019. From 2016-2018, Davis hit 42, 43, and 48 home runs compared to a measly 23 home runs in 2019.

In order for the A’s to overtake Houston for the division title and escape the dreaded wild card game, Davis will need to return to form. If Davis can regain the massive power that he possesses in 2020, then the Oakland Athletics will surprise people and once again be a team that is feared.

Seattle Mariners | Mallex Smith

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Last season was a rebuilding year for Seattle, as they traded many of their major assets such Edwin Diaz, Robinson Cano, and Jean Segura for prospects and cap space. Therefore, the expectations were low, and the results showed.

The team ended up being last in the AL West with a very sluggish lineup and multiple underwhelming pitching performances. Speedster Mallex Smith can be the start of the Mariners’ journey to contention.

Smith is a player that Seattle can place at the top of the lineup to set the table for sluggers such as Kyle Seager and Daniel Vogelbach. Smith had a career high 46 stolen bases despite only a .300 on base percentage (OBP). This was in large part due to the lack of contact he made with 141 strikeouts last season.

Smith has the ability to create hits with his speed as he has a career .333 batting average on balls in play (BABIP). Therefore, if Smith can reduce his strikeouts, the Mariners will have a legitimate leadoff hitter with speed, which is a rare commodity in today’s game and can be used to help bring the team back into the AL West race.

Texas Rangers | Corey Kluber

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Troy Taormina/USA TODAY Sports

The modern game revolves around pitching, and the Texas Rangers were unable to find any consistency outside of Mike Minor and Lance Lynn last season. Hitting was not an issue for this team, as they were 6th in the AL in total runs scored (810); however, a collective team ERA of 5.06 is unacceptable especially in the eyes of general manager Jon Daniels.

That is why he went out and acquired 2x Cy Young award winner Corey Kluber via a trade with Cleveland. Kluber has the capability to be an ace on nearly any staff in the Majors, as he has a career 3.16 ERA and was able to win 20 games just two seasons ago.

His success is built off his ability to strike out the world, keep runners off base, and not give up the long ball. From 2014-2018, Kluber had a spectacular strikeout rate of 10.12 (K/9) and a WHIP of 1.02. 2019 was an injury riddled season for Kluber as he only appeared in seven games, but he can still be a dominant force in the rotation.

If the Rangers want to return to their winning ways of the early 2010’s, with back to back AL pennants in 2010 and 2011, they are going to have to ride with Kluber and the results will be soon to come.

NL West

Arizona Diamondbacks | Madison Bumgarner

Matt York/AP Photo

Unable to keep up in the NL Wild Card race and being far behind the division leading Dodgers, the Diamondbacks saw themselves out of the playoffs in 2019. It is hard to pinpoint a direct cause to their failure to win last season, as they were mediocre from top to bottom.

The only real outliers were Ketel Marte, who finished percentage points behind Christian Yelich for the batting title at .329, and Eduardo Escobar, who was able to smash a career 35 home runs out of the park. A roster shakeup was necessary during the offseason and Arizona is really hoping the moves they made will pay off.

They added one of the best center fielders on the trade block in Starling Marte and free agent right fielder Kole Calhoun to add depth to their lineup. However, one the best acquisitions for the Diamondbacks was swiping Madison Bumgarner from the division rival Giants. The former San Francisco ace was brought in to fill the void of Zack Greinke, whom they traded to Houston last summer.

Bumgarner provides everything you would expect from a top of the line starter, as he will provide the team with much needed innings with over 200 innings pitched in 7 of the last 9 seasons. He has a career 3.13 ERA and most importantly, he is clutch the postseason.

He has a breathtaking 2.11 career postseason ERA including his miraculous 2014 playoff run where he helped the Giants win the World Series with a jaw dropping 1.03 ERA in 52.2 innings. If the Diamondbacks are able to make the postseason, no team will want to play them with a horse like Bumgarner on the mound.

Colorado Rockies | Kyle Freeland

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Forming a winning team in Colorado is perhaps one of the most difficult tasks to do in baseball. Finding pitchers who can thrive in the mile-high stadium is like looking for a needle in a haystack. Offensively, it is a hitter’s paradise with the thin air, as Rockies batters such as Nolan Arenado, Trevor Story, and Charlie Blackman have all taken advantage and earned themselves numerous All-Star appearances.

In 2018, something happened that seemed impossible and that was Kyle Freeland thriving at Coors Field. He finished that season 17-7 with a 2.85 ERA (2.40 ERA at home) in one of the best pitching seasons in franchise history. Freeland might have even had a chance at winning the Cy Young award if not for the historic season by Jacob deGrom that year.

Unfortunately for the Rockies, he was unable to translate his success into 2019, as he struggled mightily with a 6.73 ERA (9.25 ERA at home) in 22 starts. Last season may have just been a rough patch for him, and if he was able to find success in the extremely tough pitching conditions once before, then there is no reason why he cannot do it again and prove that the Rockies can win consistently.

Los Angeles Dodgers | Kenley Jansen

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Pitching is the name of the game, and the Dodgers were the best at it last season. Behind the wits of Clayton Kershaw, Hyun-jin Ryu, and Walker Buehler, the Dodgers were able to sustain a league best 3.37 team ERA (3.11 starters ERA). The departure of Ryu may hurt the team a little, but the roster has so much depth in the rotation that they will be able to recover.

Los Angeles’ hitting should be even stronger in 2020 with the addition of the 2018 AL MVP Mookie Betts to play alongside last season’s MVP Cody Bellinger along with a great ensemble of batters, but it is Dodgers closer, Kenley Jansen, that will decide if the team will win its third NL pennant in four seasons.

The Dodgers as a team were tied with the Nationals for the most blown saves (29) last season. Jansen was a major factor in the team’s late inning woes with 8 of those blown saves being his responsibility. The normally lockdown reliever had a career worst 3.71 ERA in 2019.

While he was solid, there was no guarantee that Jansen would get the job done in the ninth inning last year. Jansen has the capability with a career 2.35 ERA and over 300 saves under his belt, but the key for him is limiting baserunners as he had his highest WHIP since his 2014 campaign. If Jansen can get back on track, there is no doubt that the Dodgers will be one of the deadliest teams to face in 2020.

San Diego Padres | Tommy Pham

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Petco Park is not a hitter friendly stadium, and the Padres struggled to create any real source of offense last season. San Diego had another lousy season in 2019 with a last place finish in the NL West. They had some nice performances by rookies Chris Paddack and Fernando Tatis Jr. (until he got injured in August), who both made the MLB All-Rookie Team.

However, other than the Padres budding stars, there was not much else to celebrate on a roster that greatly underperformed after the signing of big-name free agent Manny Machado in 2019. The Padres held an NL worst .238 team batting average last season, and a potential answer to counteract all their offensive hardships is newly acquired outfielder Tommy Pham.

The 32-year old hitter has a career .277 batting average and .373 on base percentage, while no Padre hit higher than .265 or had an OBP higher than .334 last season. The team expects players such as Machado and Eric Hosmer to have better offensive seasons in 2020, as they both have the ability to hit at All-Star levels.

But most importantly, if Pham can reach base on the Padres at a similar rate that he has everywhere else he has been, then San Diego will become a much-improved team that will be looking to battle for a playoff spot.

San Francisco Giants | Evan Longoria

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It is an even year, so you know the Giants have a chance after winning the World Series in 2010, 2012, and 2014. San Francisco was not cut out to win in 2019 with the ballplayers they had on their roster. The Giants pitching held their own; however, the loss of longtime ace Madison Bumgarner is something the team will have to overcome, but in a ballpark as large as Oracle, the pitching staff should not struggle too poorly.

It was the lack of production from the bats that really raddled people in San Francisco with the 3rd least home runs in the NL (167) and the 2nd worst batting average in the NL at .239. Evan Longoria is the man who is going to turn it all around in the Bay Area.

Longoria had a solid 2019 after a rough first year in San Francisco with 20 home runs and 69 runs batted in. Longoria is still yet to play a full season in a Giants uniform; therefore, his production will surely increase this season, and now that he will be entering his 3rd season in the enormous park, his batting average should return closer to his .267 career average.

He was a three-time All-Star in Tampa Bay and one of best third baseman in baseball during his prime. Despite the fact that Longoria is starting to reach the twilight of his career at the age of 34, he still has plenty left in the tank. Making adjustments and staying healthy is what is crucial for him to have a productive season. If Longoria can conquer these feats, then the Giants may be able to topple expectations.

A new season means a reset for all the ball clubs. Everyone is 0-0 on Opening Day and every team is fair game. It is up to these game changers to decide whether their team will be competing in postseason baseball this year.

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