AL West Hot Stove Preview: Top free agents, targets for every team
Over the past few days, SI.com has been breaking down the off-season plans for all 30 teams. Teams are presented in order of finish from 2015. Free agents are listed in order of wins above replacement (Baseball-Reference.com version). Age is their 2016 playing age. The listed salaries and bWAR totals are those for their final 2015 team only. Players with undecided options for 2016 are listed with the free agents and denoted by an asterisk.
Results: 88-74 (.543), lost ALDS to Blue Jays
Pythagorean Record: 83-79 (.512)
Yovani Gallardo is nearly the youngest and was by far the most valuable of the above players in 2015. There could be some interest in re-signing him if he’s willing to offer a hometown discount (born in Mexico, Gallardo graduated from a Fort Worth high school). The Star-Telegram’s Jeff Wilson floated the compelling suggestion that Gallardo could become the first player to accept the $15.8 million qualifying offer, as he’d rank far higher among next winter’s free agent starters than he does among this year’s crop, and thus could land a much better contract after the 2016 season if he has a campaign similar in value to what he did this year. The Rangers don’t necessarily need Gallardo back with Yu Darvish returning from Tommy John surgery, Cole Hamels still under team control and the likes of Chi Chi Gonzalez, Nick Martinez and Anthony Ranaudo available to battle over the fifth-starter spot, but Gallardo's price tag would be reasonable.
As far as the rest, manager Jeff Banister put Ross Ohlendorf in some big spots down the stretch and in the postseason, so the team may be interested in bringing him back, but the others need not apply. Mike Napoli’s return to Texas down the stretch was surprisingly productive, but he doesn’t have a regular place to play on this team with first basemen/designated hitters Mitch Moreland and Prince Fielder both coming off strong seasons.
Targets: Catcher, back-end starter, relief help
The Rangers added Hamels, outfielder Josh Hamilton, and relievers Jake Diekman and Sam Dyson during the 2015 season. They should get Darvish and one-time super prospect Jurickson Profar back from season-erasing injuries, and they still need to find a place to play Profar, an infielder who is arbitration eligible despite missing the last two seasons due to injury, and slugging prospect Joey Gallo, who impressed during his 36-game stint in the majors. All that means that a lot of their work for 2016 is already done. If they keep Gallardo around, that would eliminate the need for an upgrade in the final rotation spot, and if they upgrade that spot with Gallardo or another free agent it would make Chi Chi Gonzalez and other No. 5 starter candidates available to flesh out the bullpen.
That would leave general manager Jon Daniels to focus on improving his catching situation. Matt Wieters is the biggest name on the market, but Texas has a number of cheaper alternatives. Chris Gimenez posted a 118 OPS+ in 36 games, and Robinson Chirinos had 10 home runs in 78 games, but both are north of 30 and unlikely to repeat that success. Among the outside options are Chris Iannetta, who was one of the best pitch framers in the majors in 2015, Alex Avila, the youngest catcher on the market albeit one with serious concussion concerns, and ex-Ranger A.J. Pierzynski, the oldest but one coming off a strong showing with the Braves.
Bottom Line: The Rangers were tied with the eventual World Series-winning Royals for the second-best record in the American League from May 1 through the end of the season and are well stocked after making several in-season additions and with further reinforcements coming from the minors and via injury return. A return to the postseason looks like a strong possibility if they address their few areas of need.
Results: 86-76 (.531), won wild-card game, lost ALDS to Royals
Pythagorean Record: 93-69 (.574)
The Astros declined Chad Qualls’ $3.5 million option, but they may have interest in retaining lefty specialist Tony Sipp and postseason hero and fashion icon Colby Rasmus. Sipp is the more necessary of the two, as he was one of the team’s most reliable relievers in the postseason, and the bullpen is the Houston’s primary area of need this off-season. Rasmus could be replaced in leftfield by some combination of Jake Marisnick and Preston Tucker, with Carlos Gomez due to take over centerfield on a full-time basis and George Springer installed in right. However, with Gomez and Springer proving fragile, Gomez entering his walk year, and neither Marisnick nor Tucker having compiled an on-base percentage in the .300s last year, it wouldn’t be overkill to keep Rasmus around.
The Astros still have Josh Fields, Luke Gregerson, Will Harris and Pat Neshek and can flesh things out with some overflow from their rotation, but they need a matchup lefty, of whom Sipp is the best available option, and it wouldn’t hurt to add a more reliable high-leverage righty. There will be plenty of competition for his services, but adding free-agent Darren O’Day to that quartet above would give the Astros an excellent relief corps, and there’s some chance the team may go even bigger. Remember, prior to the non-waiver trading deadline they inquired after the Reds' Aroldis Chapman, who is entering his walk year, or the Padres' Craig Kimbrel, who has two years and an option remaining. San Diego is unlikely to part with Kimbrel, but Cincinnati would be foolish not to consider trading Chapman for something out of Houston's rich farm system.
Bottom Line: The Astros are a well-built team with multiple options at nearly every position and plenty of young talent that could take a step forward in 2016. Given that, they don’t have a great many needs, but every team could benefit from having more pitching, and re-signing Rasmus in leftfield, while not fully necessary, could prove to be a smart move for a team that won’t have many expenses this offseason.
Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
Results: 85-77 (.525)
Pythagorean Record: 79-83 (.488)
Chris Iannetta was one of the best pitch-framers in baseball this past season and his poor campaign at the plate was most likely a fluke, as his .225 batting average on balls in play masked the fact that his power and peripherals were in line with his career rates. Still, he’s a 33-year-old catcher coming off a down year and the Angels have a capable replacement on-hand in 25-year-old Carlos Perez.
David Freese, meanwhile, had an excellent year based on his career to date, thanks to a spike in power and improvement in the field. Of course, that extra power resulted in just 14 home runs and a .420 slugging percentage and his defense is now merely average. He’s entering his age-33 season and is another player whom Los Angeles can easily replace in-house, thanks to the presence of third base prospects Kyle Kubitza and Kaleb Cowart. In fact, there’s not a player on the above list that the Angels should have any interest in re-signing (though reportedly they are interested in keeping Freese).
One reason for the Angels to pass on Freese and Iannetta is to spend the savings on an elite bat. Yes, this team already has Mike Trout and Albert Pujols, but Pujols will be 36 in January and hit just .231/.288/.419 after the All-Star break this past season. Even with Trout putting up another MVP-worthy season, the Angels ranked 12th in the 15-team American League in runs scored in 2015. They need bats, and with a big hole in leftfield, top free agents Justin Upton and Yoenis Cespedes should sit near the top of their list. Then again, given L.A.'s homer-suppressing ballpark, Jason Heyward and Alex Gordon, extremely valuable corner outfielders whose value lies in their on-base ability and outstanding defense, may be better fits.
The team should also pursue a second baseman, with ex-Angel Howie Kendrick among the top options, including Ben Zobrist and Daniel Murphy. Heck, the Angels are so desperate for bats, they could sign all three and put Zobrist in leftfield, Murphy at third base, where he made 41 starts last year and which was his primary position in the minors, and Kendrick at second.
Trading Kendrick to the Dodgers last winter likely cost Los Angeles, which finished one game out in the wild-card race, a playoff berth this year. But now that he is a free agent and the player they acquired for him, lefty starter Andrew Heaney, is established in the rotation, that trade should start to pay off. Heaney’s emergence in the second half of 2015 has put the Angels in a situation in which they actually have starting pitching to spare, some of which could be flipped for help on the other side of the ball.
Now that both C.J. Wilson (surgery to remove bone spurs from his elbow) and Tyler Skaggs (August 2014 Tommy John surgery) are expected to be ready to start spring training, and Nick Tropeano, acquired with Perez for Hank Conger last winter, has established himself after pitching to a 2.86 FIP in 11 major league starts and one relief appearance over the last two years, L.A. enters the winter with eight legitimate rotation candidates. With Wilson and Jered Weaver each entering the final year of their contracts, none of them are untradeable. The Angels may not be able to land an elite bat for anyone other than Heaney or Garrett Richards, and they would definitely have to eat some salary to trade Wilson or Weaver, but they are nonetheless in a position to restore some balance to their team by trading excess starting pitching for players who can help flesh out their offense.
Bottom Line: The Angels are in good position to make a run in 2016, and with Trout locked up for another five years, some extra offense could get them back to the postseason next year.
Results: 76-86 (.469)
Pythagorean Record: 74-88 (.457)
The acquisition of righthanded starter Nate Karns, who will be a 28-year-old sophomore next year after a solid rookie showing in the Rays’ rotation, could mean the Mariners no longer have room for Iwakuma. As things stand, their rotation projects as, in order, Felix Hernandez, Taijuan Walker, Karns, James Paxton and Roenis Elias, with Mike Montgomery and Vidal Nuño as alternates. Given that Iwakuma will be 35 in April and has missed time each of the last two years due to injury, Seattle's money would be better spent filling in its outfield, where Brad Miller, the primary piece sent to Tampa Bay for Karns, finished the year. As to whether or not Gutierrez should be part of that effort, there are better investments than a soon-to-be-33-year-old who has been healthy enough to appear in just 140 games combined over the last four seasons.
Targets: OF, C, middle relief
Miller, Dustin Ackley, Austin Jackson and Justin Ruggiano combined to start 143 games in centerfield for the Mariners this past season. All four are now gone, leaving a big hole the team could fill with a free agent such as Dexter Fowler, Colby Rasmus or Denard Span, or even by bringing back Jackson. Assuming the team intends to keep Nelson Cruz at designated hitter and included Logan Morrison in the Kearns trade in part to clear room for Mark Trumbo at first base, the Mariners could also pursue another bat for an outfield corner. That could put them in direct competition with the Angels, new GM Jerry Dipoto’s former team, for the likes of Yoenis Cespedes, Justin Upton and perhaps even Alex Gordon. Don't expect the Mariners to pursue Jason Heyward, however, as he seems likely to land the largest contract of the bunch because he’s just 26 and is coming off consecutive seasons of 6.2 bWAR or better.
Seattle also needs help at catcher, where former third-overall pick Mike Zunino has been a huge disappointment, proving to be such a poor hitter (.193/.252/.353 in 1,055 career plate appearances and a worse line than that in 2015) that even his strong receiving skills can’t bring him above replacement level. It might be worth it for the Angels to see if Chris Iannetta, Dipoto's former Angels catcher, has a bounceback season in him.
As for the bullpen, Carson Smith had an outstanding rookie season and ultimately became the closer, Tom Wilhelmsen remains viable in a set-up role, and lefty Charles Furbush and rookie righty Tony Zych (now the last name in MLB's all-time alphabetical listing) pitched well in abbreviated seasons. If Furbush can return from a partial rotator cuff tear, the Mariners have a nice top four there, but they could use a couple extra arms in the middle. It’s not clear that soon-to-be-26-year-old lefty C.J. Riefenhauser can be one of those arms.
Bottom Line: The Karns trade seems to have answered the questions about what the Mariners were going to do with Miller and whether or not they’d re-sign Iwakuma. The most pressing issues now are catcher and the outfield. If they solve those, Seattle may be able to prove that 2015, not their near-miss season in '14, was the fluke.
Results: 68-94 (.420)
Pythagorean Record: 77-85 (.475)
Whatever it is the A’s need, a reunion with Edward Mujica and his 3.85 career ERA is not it.
Targets: Trade partners
Of all the teams in the American League, Oakland is by far the most difficult to get a handle on heading into the offseason. After selling off most of their veteran talent last winter and at the trading deadline, the A’s are a team that is somehow stripped bare yet lacks any obvious holes. As a result, they have room to upgrade at literally any position, but they have no glaring needs at any particular spot. The latter is particularly true if you’re willing to be optimistic about the returns of starting pitchers Jarrod Parker and A.J. Griffin from injury or about some of the players the organization has in the high-minors who could help fill in the infield during the coming season, such as second baseman Joey Wendle, shortstop Chad Pinder and third baseman Renato Nuñez.
Given its bleak short-term outlook in an increasingly competitive division, its lack of departing free agents and its limited budget, don't expect Oakland to be a factor in the free agent market. The only thing that seems certain is that Billy Beane, now officially the team’s executive vice president of baseball operations with David Forst taking over as general manager as part of the MLB-wide trend of title inflation, is going to pull off at least one wild trade that no one saw coming. As it stands, ace Sonny Gray and rightfielder Josh Reddick are his top major league trade chips. The latter seems far more likely to be dealt than the former, though Beane has said he doesn’t anticipate trading either, and the outfield is the thinnest part of the A’s roster heading into the postseason.
Bottom Line: The A’s are never inactive, but this could prove to be one of their quietest off-seasons in recent memory.