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AL West offseason preview — Can Angels land an ace?

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With MLB free agency underway, the offseason is going to pick up steam. What are the big questions facing all 30 teams?

Here’s a look at the AL West, where the Astros continue to loom, the A’s always seem to find a way to contend and the Angels appear poised to go for it.

Team-by-team offseason previews: NL East | NL Central | NL West | AL East | AL Central

Houston Astros: How high will Houston’s payroll go?

2019 record: 107-55
2020 World Series odds: 4-1

Astros owner Jim Crane has paid lip service to the idea of tracking superstar free-agent Gerrit Cole, but that’s likely all it is. There simply does not appear to be the kind of financial flexibility the Astros would need to commit to a $300 million deal, or whatever the final number on Cole turns out to be. And Houston has some key roster spots to address this winter — catcher, bullpen — and little wiggle room against the tax line with which to address them.

According to Cot’s Contracts, Houston currently projects to carry an MLB-high payroll of $228.9 million for its 40-man roster next season. That number can and will change as moves are made and arbitration-eligible players are dealt with. Still, it sure looks like Houston will have to wade into luxury-tax territory (approximately $208 million) to not only keep its group together, but to fill in missing pieces with veteran options. This year’s free-agent chase for Houston takes on added importance because for the first time since Jeff Luhnow’s rebuild blossomed, there doesn’t appear to be the kind of prospect depth required to swing the kind of splashy deadline trades that the Astros have made to land win-now talents like Justin Verlander and Zack Greinke.

That’s not to say that Houston doesn’t have a number of quality, MLB-ready prospects in the system. It’s more to say that given their looming payroll constraints, Luhnow will need those cost-efficient prospects to hold down key roles in 2020. The return of Lance McCullers Jr. from Tommy John surgery will be key for the rotation, but so too will the continued progress of in-house pitching prospects such as Jose Urquidy, Forrest Whitley, Bryan Abreu and Rogelio Armenteros.

All of these calculations have to be made under the cloud of an MLB investigation into alleged sign-stealing malfeasance that could carry with it stiff penalties. — Bradford Doolittle

Oakland Athletics: Can the A’s short-circuit the Astros’ bid to dominate the West?

2019 record: 97-65
2020 World Series odds: 30-1

After consecutive wild-card appearances, you can ask if the A’s are just amid another one of their short runs, or if they have the core talent to challenge the Astros. With Matt Chapman and Matt Olson locked down for years to come, the lineup has anchors to win with. The A’s also have top prospects Jesus Luzardo and A.J. Puk, as well as a fully healed Sean Manaea for a full season. Put that together with Chris Bassitt, Frankie Montas and veteran Mike Fiers as starting pitching may finally be a recognized strength instead of a winter question mark.

With those strengths going for them, what’s on the A’s to-do list? Perhaps more than anything else, seeing if they can get MVP candidate Marcus Semien to keep close to his East Bay roots before he becomes a free agent after 2020. However that plays out, they could also see if there’s a major outfield bat in their price range to take over in either corner. Assuming Billy Beane & Co. are working around their usual budget constraints, the A’s might have to be careful, but they’re also on the cusp of unseating the Astros — super-team status or not — and making a play for the AL West division title in the next several seasons. Play their cards right, and they could put the Astros in their rear-view mirror. — Christina Kahrl

Texas Rangers: How will they build excitement for their new digs?

2019 record: 78-84
2020 World Series odds: 150-1

The Rangers, who have spent the last three years navigating baseball’s dreaded middle space, do not possess a roster that is on the verge of contention. What they do have, however, is a forthcoming new stadium that was partially funded by the City of Arlington, and, one would think, the desire to create some excitement around it with a star, particularly one from Texas.

Did someone say Anthony Rendon?

The Rangers have been in search of a permanent third baseman ever since Adrian Beltre played his final season in 2018. Rendon, a Houston native who has turned himself into a perennial MVP candidate, would be ideal. But the competition for his services will be stiff, which means the chances of landing him are probably slim. Given that, the Rangers must navigate free agency with caution.

They have a litany of questions outside of third base. Their catchers have been astoundingly bad offensively. Rougned Odor, Delino DeShields Jr. and Nomar Mazara have not developed the way they would have hoped. And their pitching staff, outside of the surprising contributions from Lance Lynn and Mike Minor, leaves a lot to be desired. The Rangers, in other words, are not one or perhaps even two stars away; the gap between them and the in-state, division-rival Astros remains massive. They can’t place another bad contract on their payroll. — Alden Gonzalez

2019 record: 72-90
2020 World Series odds: 75-1

Sometimes, on rare occasions, it’s actually very simple — and this, friends, is one of those times. The only way the Angels can conceivably compete for a division title next season is to land either Gerrit Cole or Stephen Strasburg. That’s it. They want to win now, have a desperate need for elite starting pitching and — given the lack of depth on their 40-man roster and the dearth of impact talent in their farm system — can only really attain it through free agency.

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31 MLB players positive for coronavirus after first round of tests

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In Major League Baseball’s first round of coronavirus testing, 31 players tested positive for COVID-19, the league and players’ union announced Friday.

Along with the players, seven staff members also tested positive. The 38 positives represent 1.2% of 3,185 samples collected for the first set of results. For comparison, the NBA reported a 5.3% rate of positive tests (16 of 302) among players on June 26, while MLS announced a positive rate of 2.7% (18 of 668) among players two days later.

The positives come from 19 MLB teams, the league said, as all 30 teams began training camp Friday at their home ballparks.

MLB will not be identifying who tests positive for the coronavirus, citing the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act. Teams also will not specifically announce a COVID-19 injured list placement for a player who is removed from the club after testing positive, just an injured list trip.

If a player’s test is positive for COVID-19, he will be instructed to immediately self-isolate. He will be treated with protocols that are detailed in the operations manual that the league and union agreed to as part of the negotations that resulted in a 60-game 2020 season.

Cleveland Indians outfielder Delino DeShields Jr. was one player announced as testing positive Friday, according to Chris Antonetti, the team’s president of baseball operations.

The 2020 MLB season is set to begin July 23 or 24.

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22 minor league baseball teams now suing insurers

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Two days after the cancellation of the 2020 season due to the coronavirus pandemic, 22 minor league baseball teams filed lawsuits Thursday against insurance companies over rejections of business interruption claims.

Fourteen of the 22 teams withdrew the federal suit filed last week in Pennsylvania in favor of the new cases.

A 15th team in that June 23 suit, the Binghamton Rumble Ponies, also withdrew it Thursday. Binghamton, however, did not file a new suit against its insurer as the others did.

Andy Sandler of Mitchell Sandler, co-counsel with McKool Smith for the plaintiffs and other ballclubs, declined to comment about specific teams but told ESPN additional lawsuits are planned.

Thursday’s filings were in three jurisdictions.

One is in the U.S. District Court of Arizona, with 16 teams as complainants: the Amarillo Sod Poodles, Augusta GreenJackets, Boise Hawks, Chattanooga Lookouts, Columbia Fireflies, Eugene Emeralds, Fort Wayne TinCaps, Fredericksburg Nationals, Frisco RoughRiders, Idaho Falls Chukars, Inland Empire 66ers, Lancaster JetHawks, Myrtle Beach Pelicans, San Antonio Missions, Stockton Ports and West Virginia Power.

The other two filings were in the U.S. District Court of New Jersey, with the Asheville Tourists, Everett AquaSox and West Michigan Whitecaps as plaintiffs, and in the Philadelphia County Court of Common Pleas, for the Delmarva Shorebirds, Greenville Drive and Staten Island Yankees.

The teams say they incur more than $2 million in expenses to operate “without regard to whether they suffer interruption of their operations.”

The majority of the teams have policies with subsidiaries of Nationwide Insurance, which said in a statement last week that business interruption coverage due to a virus outbreak has been excluded from standard policies, such as these, for quite some time — and that including it would “make such coverage unaffordable or even unavailable.”

The complaints assert that such exclusions are “void, unenforceable and inapplicable.” The teams also contend that insurers are failing to recognize that being unable to use ballparks due to restrictions on gatherings and lack of access to players (players are normally provided by Major League Baseball, which pays their salaries) constitutes direct physical loss — and should be covered under the policies.

As ESPN first reported, the teams place some of the blame for their “catastrophic losses” on the U.S. and state governments, alleging that in the first few months of the year the federal government “failed to recognize the severity of the pandemic and did not contain the virus.” And they note a “failure of the federal government to build an effective wall preventing the continued migration of the virus from states that were hit early to the rest of the country.”

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White Sox pitcher Michael Kopech missing start of camp

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Chicago White Sox prospect Michael Kopech missed the start of summer camp Friday due to a personal matter.

General manager Rick Hahn said he doesn’t have a timeline for the return of the 24-year-old right-hander.

“Given the time we’re living through together, I will try to answer the question that’s probably now at the top of everybody’s mind and just share the fact that currently Michael is healthy,” Hahn said on a video conference call.

Kopech is coming back from Tommy John surgery in September 2018. He hit triple digits on the radar gun during his first spring training appearance.

He was optioned to Triple-A Charlotte on March 26 and likely would have began the year in the minors had the season started on time, but it was pushed back by the coronavirus pandemic. Now Kopech is in the mix for a spot in the starting rotation depending on how long he is away from the team because of the personal matter.

“I know it’s very general, and I’m not going to get more specific than that, other than we fully support Michael and are going to provide him whatever time and resources he needs and look forward to seeing him in the future,” Hahn said. “This doesn’t just apply to Michael, this applies to everything related to this entire season. You know, things are a little bit day to day.”

Kopech was acquired by Chicago in the December 2016 trade that sent Chris Sale to the Boston Red Sox. He made his big league debut in 2018, going 1-1 with a 5.02 ERA in four starts.

Hahn said infielder Cheslor Cuthbert also missed the start of the camp because of travel issues coming from Nicaragua. Cuthbert is expected to join the team next week.

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