AL West Hot Stove preview: Can anyone here mess with Texas?
With their World Series appearance this year, the Rangers became the first non-eastern team to win back-to-back pennants since the 1991-92 Braves (who were actually in the National League West at the time). With their new ownership and television deal and one of the strongest farm systems in the game (per
Failing that, the Rangers do need to reinforce their bullpen, and with Wilson their only significant free agent, need to secure a front-line starter to anchor their rotation, which could soon find itself without its two best starters from the 2010 pennant run. Unfortunately for Texas, there aren't many front-line starters available, with Wilson, who is widely regarded as a No. 2 at most, the best of the available bunch. Many insiders, including our own Jon Heyman, have been skeptical about the Rangers' willingness to make a big offer to Wilson, but they might be forced to do so due to a lack of alternatives. The Rays' James Shields may be available via trade due to the emergence of Matt Moore, and the Rangers certainly have the pieces to land him, but the Rays may be hesitant to trade Shields to a team that they're likely to face in the postseason, as they did in this year's Division Series (note that Tampa Bay banished Matt Garza to a struggling team in the other league, the Cubs). Roy Oswalt is a compelling option as a short-term solution to take the pressure off the still-emerging Derek Holland and Alexi Ogando and give top prospect Martin Perez some more time in the upper minors. Edwin Jackson is not a front-end starter, but he could be a reliable part of a rotation that lacks experience. Another option would be to sign a top closer such as Jonathan Papelbon and move Neftali Feliz into the rotation, though Feliz would likely experience some growing pains in his new role, and would be subject to an innings-limit in the coming season. As for the bullpen, Hawkins and Qualls aren't terribly exciting names, but both are ground ball pitchers who would be a good fit in Arlington.
Angels fans already have a reason to like new general manager Jerry Dipoto: He's the man who traded Dan Haren to Anaheim while serving as the interim GM of the Diamondbacks. He also had nothing to do with trading Mike Napoli for Vernon Wells, the trade which very likely earned former GM Tony Reagins his walking papers. The Angels team that Dipoto inherits from Reagins has its flaws, Wells being a glaring one, but thanks in part to that Haren trade, it also has some significant strengths. Principle among those is run prevention, keyed by a strong front three in the starting rotation and excellent team defense. Only the Rays allowed fewer runs in the American League this year, and only the Rays and Padres had a better park-adjusted defensive efficiency (the rate of turning balls in play into outs). To be fair, Wells, a former Gold Glove center fielder moved to left, contributed to the latter, which was also huge part of why Jered Weaver had such a great season. The Angels should be able to improve their offense, which was the fifth-worst in the AL last year, without sacrificing defense.
The first step is to push Wells to the bench in favor of top prospect Trout, a speedy center fielder with tremendous potential at the plate who was universally lauded as one of the top two prospects in baseball coming into this season, alongside the Nationals' Bryce Harper. Trout is just 20 and could have some growing pains after skipping Triple-A to join the big-league club for parts of last season (and largely struggling at the plate in those limited opportunities), but Wells' .218/.248/.412 performance this year set the bar sufficiently low. In fact, even the struggling Trout out-hit that line after his mid-August recall, hitting .250/.318/.450 in 88 plate appearances, and Trout is widely regarded as a future superstar.
Second, the Angels have $23 million coming off the books now that they're finally free of their obligations to Scott Kazmir (another blight on Reagins' record) and Gary Matthews (Bill Stoneman's blunder). That's right around the annual salary of former Angel first baseman Mark Teixeira, and would make an awfully nice down payment on Prince Fielder or Albert Pujols, either of whom would give the Angels a desperately needed thumper in the middle of their lineup. Yes, Mark Trumbo will make a solid showing in this year's Rookie of the Year voting, and yes, Kendrys Morales is supposed to finally return from his ankle injury next year, but Trumbo will be 26 in January and posted a .291 on-base percentage this year, undermining his considerable power, and, after a year and a half on the disabled list and two surgeries on his ankle, Morales still isn't guaranteed to be ready by Opening Day and seems closer to a non-tender than a productive season at first base in Anaheim. The Angels are likely looking to make a big splash with their new GM after striking out last winter under Reagins, so look for them to go aggressively after one, if not both, of those big-prize first basemen.
Finally, Hank Conger remains the Angels' catcher of the future, but he struggled at the plate in May and wasn't give much opportunity thereafter despite Jeff Mathis continuing to be sub-replacement-level at the plate. Mathis, who has earned $3 million over the past two seasons and hit .184/.222/.268, is up for arbitration again this winter. He should be non-tendered and replaced with a veteran who can help ease Conger into the starting job. Ramon Hernandez is the best of that lot on the free-agent market. Though his production over the last two seasons has largely been a product of Cincinnati's Great American Ball Park, he has also thrown out 36 percent of opposing base stealers and would be an improvement over Mathis on both sides of the ball. Of course, so would just about any other major league catcher, including former Angel Jose Molina, who is also a free agent and may be required as Mathis methadone for Halos skipper and catch-and-throw junky Mike Scioscia.
Remember that great young rotation that the A's were supposed to have? Not so fast. Brett Anderson can't stay healthy and had Tommy John surgery in July, shelving him for at least half of the coming season. Trevor Cahill's 2010 season was largely the product of a .237 opponent's average on balls in play, and when that corrected itself last season, he looked extremely ordinary. Dallas Braden had shoulder capsule surgery in May, which can be career-altering. Brandon McCarthy had a nice season, but he has lost at least a month to injury in each of the last five years, the last three due to a chronic scapula injury. Guillermo Moscoso had a nice rookie campaign, but, like Cahill a year ago, is due for a big correction to his .222 BABIP. That leaves 26-year-old lefty Gio Gonzalez, who still walks too many hitters, but gets the strikeouts to compensate and has posted a 3.17 ERA in 65 starts over the last two seasons.
That doesn't give the A's much to build around, and the Rangers' dominance and Angels' potential doesn't give them much hope of a dark-horse run for the division title. With their entire outfield and designated hitter all hitting the free-agent market, the A's have an opening to boost their perennially anemic offense, but two of the better outfielders on the market, Josh Willingham and Coco Crisp, were already A's this past season. Besides which, given Oakland's limited budget and chances in the West, spending to fill the outfield with big bats may be an exercise in spending just to spend. Rather, the A's would be better off taking some low-risk, high-reward gambles on players who could either be flipped at the trading deadline for prospects (one of GM Billy Beane's favorite gambits) or who would net draft picks as free agents after the season (as Willingham, a Type A free agent and David DeJesus, a Type B, will this winter).
The Mariners haven't outscored their opponents over a full season since 2003 and have had a winning record just twice in the interim. They haven't averaged four or more runs scored per game since 2008 and have been dead last in the majors in runs in each of the last two seasons, missing the lowest run total in 2009 by just four. Writing this piece two years ago, I said that the Mariners were not a good team. I was guilty of understatement. They're a terrible team, and general manager Jack Zduriencik, who was greeted with much enthusiasm upon his hiring three years ago, has done little to change that.
Last season, the Mariners graduated two top prospects in right-hander Michael Piñeda and second baseman Dustin Ackley, the latter drafted under Zduriencik. Both impressed, but they barely made a dent in the team's fortunes, and the continued struggles of first baseman Justin Smoak, the key piece obtained from the Rangers in the Cliff Lee trade and a young player who is supposed to be a central part of the Mariners' offense going forward, undermined the good feelings that those two engendered.
Casting further pall over the team is the realization that Ichiro Suzuki is likely on his way out. Suzuki had his first poor season in 2011, failing to collect 200 hits, hit .300, or post an OPS+ above league average for the first time in his 11 major league seasons. That might have been the result of bad luck on balls in play, but Suzuki is now 38 and entering the final year of his contract, so the end is most likely near.
Also, now that Smoak, Ackley, Piñeda, and infielder Kyle Seager have graduated to the majors, there aren't many prospects left in the high minors that Seattle fans can dream on for the coming year. Those four, particularly the first three, could and should be even better in the coming year, with Piñeda, who turns 23 in January, being less limited in terms of workload. The Italian-born Alex Liddi could bump Seager from third base to a utility role, though Liddi isn't necessarily a superior prospect. Still, the Mariners are a long way from a .500 record, never mind contention.
So, here's the kicker: The Mariners' best plan for the coming year might be to hope that Ichiro has a big first half and can be cashed in for prospects at the deadline. That could be a public relations disaster, but Suzuki has only a limited no-trade clause (he can block trades to 10 teams) and a trade could be pitched to both him and the fan base as giving a future Hall of Famer one last shot at a postseason run. Beyond that, and perhaps a smaller deal involving catcher Miguel Olivo, there's not much that the Mariners can do beyond draft well, wait, and pray to the baseball gods. See that link to the FlipFlopFlyBall chart in the Rangers comment above? Click it again. See where the Mariners rank? Twenty-eight out of 30. This is a team deeply entrenched at the bottom of the standings, and nothing Zduriencik does this winter is going to change that.