Major League Baseball
Rangers or Astros in 2024? Best AL lineup? Most clutch hitter? 5 burning questions
Major League Baseball

Rangers or Astros in 2024? Best AL lineup? Most clutch hitter? 5 burning questions

Updated Apr. 12, 2024 10:11 a.m. ET

Two weeks into the season, the Texas Rangers lead the American League West and the Houston Astros are in the cellar. But their tight four-game series last weekend reminded us all why their meetings are among the most interesting in baseball.

From prolific offenses to arguably the most clutch hitters in MLB to future Hall of Famers (to, alas, myriad starting pitchers on the injured list), the Rangers and Astros are more alike than they are different.

Moreover, they open a three-game set in Houston this weekend — Saturday's matchup will be on FS1 at 4:05 p.m. ET — in search of answers. The Astros still aren't winning at home and have been equally bad on the road. The Rangers just dropped two of three to the A's and have closer issues. 

Still, the intrastate rivals are expected to be among the American League's best this year. Or are they?


FOX Sports MLB experts Rowan Kavner and Deesha Thosar tackle those topics and more in this week's roundtable.

1. Texas and Houston haven't looked particularly even thus far — except when they've played each other. But which of these rosters do you currently like more for 2024?

Thosar: The first-place Rangers, and it's not particularly close. They're defending their championship this season, and adding an extra dose of excitement to the roster by batting top prospect Wyatt Langford third in the lineup. Despite dropping four of five heading into this weekend, the Rangers generally are playing much better than the spiritless Astros right now. Houston even dropped below Oakland for last place in the AL West. 

Although catcher Yainer Díaz is providing a jolt with a .949 OPS through his first 13 games this season, Alex Bregman is slashing .241/.305/.333 thus far and José Abreu is continuing to slip. Houston's rotation is riddled with injuries, and its bullpen is severely underperforming. Overall, the Astros have looked like a lackluster club that wasn't ready for the 2024 season to start.

Kavner: I reluctantly give the Astros the edge, but we're getting into danger territory in Houston, and my answer probably changes if we find out Framber Valdez's elbow injury will keep him out long term. This is not a team passing the vibe check, nor is it a club with an easy solve for the injuries in the rotation or the middle relief innings it lost this offseason. And thus far, the Rangers' pitching staff has done a better job than many expected of holding up without its top arms.

Still, I have to remind myself it's mid-April. I just can't envision the Astros' late-inning relievers all continuing to struggle this staggeringly or Kyle Tucker, Alex Bregman and Chas McCormick all hitting at a league-average or worse rate for long. Talent-wise, this is still a club that should be able to make another run. I think both of these teams end up making the playoffs.

2. The Astros' season-long struggles in 2023 at Minute Maid Park seem to have spilled into this year. What's your theory for why they haven't been good at home, and do you expect that to continue?

Kavner: This year, they've been bad wherever they are. They've actually hit and pitched much better at home than on the road in this season's small sample, it's just their bullpen can't seem to hold things down wherever they are. When the Astros get back on track, which I expect they will, I'd anticipate the home/road splits getting back to normal.

As for why last year's home struggles popped up, that's tough to answer. Some players told The Athletic the batter's eye could be to blame, but that doesn't explain why other teams have handled it better. The players the Astros are counting on most — José Altuve, Yordan Álvarez, Alex Bregman, Kyle Tucker — were all significantly better hitters on the road than at home last season, but it's not like that was always the case for all of them, particularly the right-handed hitters who can use their pull power to launch homers into the short Crawford Boxes. In 2022, Altuve and Bregman were considerably better at home than on the road. That year, the Astros as a team hit demonstrably better at home (.779 OPS) than on the road (.711), as well. Maybe it simply became a mental thing.

Thosar: The Astros had MLB's best wRC+ (151) at home entering Thursday, but that was in large part due to the 20 runs they put up against Toronto in a three-game series at Minute Maid Park. I think this is an Astros club that plays better on the road because they're built to have a chip on their shoulder — whether that's because they have to defend their six division titles in the past seven years, or because they're aware of how disliked they are around the league following their sign-stealing scandal. The Astros have played the role of MLB's villain, and there is no better time for a villain to show up than when they're on the road. I do think Houston's home/road splits won't be as egregious this year — if only because players are aware of the oddity and thus could be actively trying to change it.

3. Is one of these lineups the best in the American League?

Thosar: Texas is certainly in the conversation for the best offense in the AL, though I think the Yankees and Orioles have a slight edge to begin the season due to the depth in those AL East lineups. Still, the Rangers entered Thursday first in the AL in average, on-base percentage and slugging. They could very well end the season by having the best lineup in the AL. Nobody would be surprised. As for the Astros, they no longer look like the American League's team to beat, a position they have held since 2017. The Yankees, Rangers, Royals and Guardians all more offensive fWAR than Houston two weeks into the season.

Kavner: I think you're looking at the top two lineups in the AL, despite the Astros' abysmal start, but I'll take the Rangers. The Josh Jung injury gives me some pause, but what they did last October can't be ignored. This is a juggernaut offense, and there's no reason to expect them to slow down much with Wyatt Langford now part of the mix.

4. We know from Bruce Bochy's time with the Giants that he's not shy about switching his closer during the season. Is it time to pull José Leclerc out of that role, and do the Rangers need to look for an external option?

Thosar: Bochy might not be shy about switching closers midseason, but he does show deference to his veterans, and that tells me he'll give Leclerc — the man who Bochy trusted on the mound to secure the final out of an intense ALCS Game 7 that sent Texas to the World Series — a long leash. Either way, it's way too early for the Rangers, who are atop the division, to hit the panic button with Leclerc and look for outside reinforcements. They have the benefit of waiting a few more weeks before shifting to, say, David Robertson or Kirby Yates for save chances, both of whom have major-league experience being big-time closers. Leclerc struggling badly to begin the year is certainly one of the team's biggest challenges of the early season, however.

Kavner: No one can take last postseason away from you, José.

But yes, it's time to turn elsewhere for the time being, at least until he can find his form again.

It was the right call to let Leclerc get the first crack — the Rangers probably don't win a World Series without him stepping up in the closer role — but it's not like he has an extensive, pristine ninth-inning track record. Even last year, he had as many saves in the postseason (four) as he did during the regular season, and it's been a disaster for him to start the year. He allowed at least two baserunners in each of his first five outings of the 2024 season, including runs in four of those games.

I'd start with a committee. Let newcomers David Robertson and Kirby Yates get an opportunity to seize the role. If it still goes poorly, and Leclerc is still struggling, then you can start looking externally.

5. Your season is on the line, and you can choose just one hitter between the Astros and Rangers to bat. Who's your pick?

Kavner: Man, I'd feel ecstatic with Corey Seager or José Altuve at the dish, but I'd put the bat in Yordan Álvarez's hands. There may not be a more feared hitter in baseball when healthy. His career OPS is over .950 at home, on the road, against righties and against lefties. That number is barely a tick below, at .949, for his postseason career. Since the start of 2022, he's hitting 81% better than league average with the second-best wRC+ in baseball (179) behind only Aaron Judge. Over that stretch, his on-base percentage is even higher than Altuve's. I'd feel confident with him at the plate in virtually any situation. At the least, Álvarez would find a way to keep the season alive.

Thosar: Corey Seager. No moment is too big for the two-time World Series MVP, and he knows how to turn it on when his team needs him the most. All Seager cares about — intensely cares about — is winning. Plus, he's extremely prepared thanks to an obsessive approach that is typically reserved for pitchers, not for position players who are trying to stay on the field for 162 games. Seager's business-like calmness at the plate only further proves the point that, when the season is on the line, he can be as unemotional as necessary to get the job done.

Bonus: Which Texas city — Dallas or Houston — has better food?

Thosar: Neither? I'm not really a fan of queso covering every inch of my meal or chicken-fried steak or most BBQ dishes besides mac and cheese. And if I want southern soul food, I'm going to a city in one of the Carolinas, not Dallas or Houston. (Sorry, not sorry.)

Kavner: Are you trying to get me banned from my hometown? Look, we can only go with what we know. And as a Dallas native, I know more spots there — I still think about Pecan Lodge way more than one should for someone who has lived in California for the past decade — so I'll give it the slight edge. But I won't try to influence you otherwise, especially considering the expanded seafood options and Cajun influences closer to the gulf. You really can't go wrong with BBQ or Tex-Mex in either place. 

Deesha Thosar is an MLB writer for FOX Sports. She previously covered the Mets as a beat reporter for the New York Daily News. The daughter of Indian immigrants, Deesha grew up on Long Island and now lives in Queens. Follow her on Twitter at @DeeshaThosar.

Rowan Kavner is an MLB writer for FOX Sports. He previously covered the L.A. Dodgers, LA Clippers and Dallas Cowboys. An LSU grad, Rowan was born in California, grew up in Texas, then moved back to the West Coast in 2014. Follow him on Twitter at @RowanKavner.


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