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Following an offseason marred by controversy, the Houston Astros will look to put the cheating scandal behind them as they set their sights on a fourth successive AL West title.
In order to do so, the Astros will have to navigate their way through the AL's deepest division. The Oakland Athletics won 97 games last year, the Los Angeles Angels flashed the cash this offseason and are poised to make a run at a postseason return, and the Texas Rangers have a strong roster that seems to be flying dangerously under the radar. The Seattle Mariners are there, too.
|Los Angeles Angels||+800|
Public enemy number one this season is undoubtedly the Astros, after news broke of the team cheating throughout the 2017 campaign and parts of the 2018 regular season. The scandal sent the baseball world into an outrage, and people seem to have talked themselves into the fact the Astros are poised for a steep decline in 2020. Don't fall into that trap.
There was no evidence the Astros cheated in 2019, yet the team still led the league in OPB, SLG, and OPS. They were third in both home runs and runs scored, and first in the most important category of all - wins. Houston won 107 games in 2019, and while the rotation will look different without Gerrit Cole and Wade Miley, the 2020 edition of the Astros isn't far off from last season's squad.
The lineup will continue to rake, and while the rotation has some big shoes to fill, Houston has the personnel to absorb the loss of Cole and Miley. Lance McCullers Jr. is set to return from Tommy John surgery after missing the duration of 2019 and Josh James looks ready to cement himself into the rotation after an inconsistent season pitching out of the bullpen albeit with impressive underlying numbers. McCullers possesses elite stuff and James has a dominant arm - both are capable of delivering sub-4 ERAs and a number of strikeouts, and any potential innings limit can be disregarded now as a result of a shortened season.
So while the Astros likely do remain a dominant force in the league, the question is whether anyone else in this division can elevate to Houston's level and end its tyranny in the AL West.
This season has come about four years too soon for the Mariners, and while I'm high on the Rangers this year - a deep, veteran rotation and balanced lineup - their absolute cap is still a win total in the low-90s and a shot at the wild card.
The Angels seem a popular pick after a busy offseason and there's a lot to like about a team with perennial-MVP front-runner Mike Trout, dual-threat Shohei Ohtani, and Anthony Rendon swinging the bats. That being said, the lineup is top heavy, Rendon is a prime regression candidate, and it's hard to see them getting enough quality pitching from a patchwork rotation to compete for anything more than a wild-card spot.
That leaves the Athletics as the team with the best shot of catching the Astros, and there's a lot to like about their chances. Oakland won 97 games last season with 11 different pitchers making at least five starts. Sean Manaea missed the bulk of the campaign following shoulder surgery in 2018, while Frankie Montas was slapped with a lengthy suspension. Getting those two ace-caliber arms back full time will be a massive boost to a rotation that is also expecting contributions from highly heralded prospects Jesus Luzardo and A.J. Puk. Those four will be joined by the experienced and capable Mike Fiers and Chris Bassitt, giving Oakland an embarrassment of riches in the rotation.
The scariest part is the hitting will be even better than the pitching. Oakland scored 5.22 runs per game last season and that figure will likely go up. Matt Olson is a full year removed from breaking his hamate bone, Khris Davis has a clean bill of health after battling a hip injury for the duration of last season, and Ramon Laureano, who was one of the hottest hitters in baseball last season before landing on the IL with a stress reaction in his shin, looks primed for a breakout in his age-26 season. Add Matt Chapman and Marcus Semien to the mix and that's a ridiculously lethal lineup.
The Astros are a juggernaut, but Oakland is undoubtedly up there alongside them as one of the best teams in baseball, and in a division race that should be neck and neck - especially so in a shortened season - getting 4-1 with the Athletics is criminal.
Best bet: Oakland Athletics (+400)
Alex Moretto is a sports betting writer for theScore. A journalism graduate from Guelph-Humber University, he has worked in sports media for over a decade. He will bet on anything from the Super Bowl to amateur soccer, is too impatient for futures, and will never trust a kicker. Find him on Twitter @alexjmoretto.