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AL West Preview: Astros still top the division while Rangers are reigning World Series champions

Bruce Bochy doesn’t ever want the Texas Rangers to let go of those memories of their first World Series title.

“We just don’t want to lean on them,” said Bochy, whose first season with the Rangers ended with the first World Series championship for the 63-year-old franchise, and his fourth as a big league manager.

While Texas has the opportunity to be the first team in a quarter-century to win back-to-back world championships — the New York Yankees were the last, with three in a row from 1998-2000 — the Rangers aren’t even defending champs in their own division.

And they aren’t favored to win the AL West this season.

Houston is again the odds-on favorite in the division it has won each of the last six full MLB seasons since the Rangers finished on top in 2016. The Astros won their regular season finale last Oct. 1, matched Texas at 90-72 and won the AL West since they were 9-4 head-to-head.

The Astros have made the AL Championship Series the past seven seasons, even when not division champs in the 2020 season shortened to 60 games because of the pandemic. They made four trips to the Fall Classic and won two titles in that span.

Dusty Baker retired days after Houston lost ALCS Game 7 at home to the Rangers last fall, finishing with 2,183 wins over 26 seasons as a big league manager with five teams.

New Astros manager Joe Espada, their bench coach for six seasons, is certainly familiar with a lineup that has big hitters Jose Altuve, Yordan Alvarez, Alex Bregman and Kyle Tucker, and a loaded starting rotation.

Espada isn't the division's only new manager. Ron Washington, who took the Rangers to their previous World Series in 2010 and 2011, was hired by the Angels, who still have Mike Trout but not two-way star Shohei Ohtani, now with the other team in Los Angeles.

Seattle again revamped its roster without big spending in free agency and hopes for a quicker return to the playoffs. The Mariners missed by one game last season, a year after its first postseason appearance since 2001.

And just like last year, the Athletics go into another season not knowing if it will be their last in Oakland.

HOW THEY PROJECT

1. Houston Astros. Three-time Cy Young Award winner Justin Verlander, reacquired in a deadline trade last July, will start this season on the injured list. But the 41-year-old’s IL stint is expected to be a short one. The Astros still have lefty Framber Valdez (12-11, 2.45 ERA, 200 strikeouts and a no-hitter) and right-hander Cristian Javier. Eight-time All-Star second baseman Altuve signed a new $125 million, five-year contract that goes through 2029. But two-time All-Star third baseman Bregman, the only other position player to make all seven ALCS trips, is at the end of a $100 million deal.

2. Texas Rangers. After going from six losing seasons in a row to a World Series title, the Rangers should be playoff contenders again. They return ALCS MVP Adolis García and most of the lineup that hit 233 homers and scored an AL-high 5.4 runs per game. But World Series MVP and AL MVP runner-up shortstop Corey Seager (sports hernia), Gold Glove first baseman Nathaniel Lowe (oblique strain) and All-Star third baseman Josh Jung (calf) missed significant time in the spring. All-Star right-hander Nathan Eovaldi tops a rotation still missing injured multiple Cy Young Award winners Max Scherzer and Jacob deGrom.

3. Seattle Mariners. The front office put together a roster that might be better than last year, but everybody has to stay healthy. Seattle should be better offensively with the additions of Mitch Garver, Mitch Haniger, Jorge Polanco and Luke Raley to go with young superstar Julio Rodriguez. If J.P. Crawford can replicate last season at the plate and Ty France returns to his 2021-22 form, the lineup will be deeper. Couple a better offense with one of the best rotations in baseball led by Luis Castillo, George Kirby and Logan Gilbert, the Mariners should once again contend in the division.

4. Los Angeles Angels. They feel like they’re starting over yet again and still haven't been to the playoffs since 2014. Ohtani left after six seasons for a record $700 million with the perennially contending Dodgers. The Halos added almost nothing in free agency, only revamping their bullpen again and taking low-cost flyers on Aaron Hicks and Miguel Sano. Trout and Anthony Rendon are back, and an open DH spot will allow them to rest their injury-prone bodies more regularly. Their rotation is last year’s group minus Ohtani. The 71-year-old Washington brings a unique blend of expertise and enthusiasm, which should benefit an exciting crop of young talent ready to break through in the majors.

5. Oakland Athletics. This could be the final season playing at the Coliseum with a lease set to expire. So the A's are still trying to figure out where they will play beyond this year with a new ballpark and move to Las Vegas scheduled for 2028. Manager Mark Kotsay has been committed to keeping his team focused on what it can do to be better on the field after two years with a combined 214 losses (112 last season). The A’s acquired Ross Stripling from the San Francisco Giants and added Alex Wood to the rotation.

OLD SKIPPERS

When the 74-year-old Baker retired, Bochy became the oldest manager in the majors. That lasted only a few weeks until the Angels hired Washington. Bochy will turn 69 on April 16, just 13 days before Washington turns 72. Bochy, with 2,093 wins going into his 27th season, is one of six managers with four World Series titles, his first three coming in San Francisco (2010, 2012 and 2014). Washington won a franchise-record 664 games in eight seasons with Texas from 2007-14. He was on Atlanta's staff the past seven years, and part of the Braves' 2021 World Series title.

RELIEF HELP

Several new relievers are in the AL West, including hard-throwing lefty Josh Hader with the Astros, veteran right-hander David Robertson and former All-Star closer Kirby Yates in Texas, Gregory Santos and Ryne Stanek in Seattle and Robert Stephenson with the Angels.

Hader's $95 million, five-year deal was the biggest after becoming a first-time free agent. The 29-year-old, once in the Astros' minor league system, turned down a $20,325,000 qualifying offer from San Diego.

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AP Baseball Writer Janie McCauley and AP Sports Writers Greg Beacham and Tim Booth contributed to this report.

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AP MLB: https://apnews.com/hub/MLB