AL West Hot Stove Preview: Can A's, Mariners gear up for run at Angels?
This week, SI.com is breaking down the off-season plans for all 30 teams. Teams are presented in order of finish from 2014.
Los Angeles Angels
Results: 98-64 (.605), lost Division Series to Royals
Third-Order Record: 98-64 (.605)
The Angels face no significant losses to the roster this winter, though they are in something of a tough spot with much of their payroll tied to long-term contracts for Mike Trout and a core of aging veterans (Albert Pujols, Josh Hamilton, C.J. Wilson, and Jered Weaver) that make up over 50 percent of the payroll. With very little talent on the way in the upper levels of their minor league system, the Angels have limited flexibility.
Los Angeles already made an interesting deal for 20-year-old Cuban infielder Roberto Baldoquin, but overall, it should be a quiet winter. Look for general manager Jerry Dipoto to try to add depth to a roster that looked awfully thin down the stretch. But the Angels won't be looking for much of an overhaul this offseason, and they shouldn't be: They did lead the league in runs scored, and before injuries to Garrett Richards and Tyler Skaggs, had one of the best pitching staffs they've had in years.
Targets: Bullpen, starting pitching
All nine everyday players are returning, and the Angels have five starters set in the rotation, with Richards expected to be ready by Opening Day. Dipoto has said that the bench is going to be a focus of the offseason, as well as creating more depth on the pitching staff. The Angels exercised Huston Street's $7 million option for next year, and that might be the biggest deal of the team's offseason. Still, the bullpen should be a focus — the Angels could use some depth from the left side with Thatcher likely gone. Andrew Miller, the most expensive lefty on the market, seems like a reach, but Craig Breslow, Phil Coke, and Neal Cotts could be attractive fits.
The rotation is another area where Dipoto will likely look to add depth, especially with the injuries to Matt Shoemaker and Skaggs, as well as Wilson's struggles. When the Angels lost Skaggs, who will be out until the start of the 2016 season, Dipoto said that the injury "certainly changes our approach for the winter, as far as being cognizant of that back-of-the-rotation swing guy on a shorter contract." So while they won't pursue an elite starter, the Angels could acquire depth via trade, or target a pitcher like Justin Masterson or Kyle Kendrick as arms that could work either in the rotation or in relief.
Bottom line: The Angels have been defined by big offseason signings, as owner Arte Moreno has always shown a willingness to open his checkbook, but don't expect any big moves this winter. Without much payroll flexibility and no glaring holes to fill, the Angels will look to make only tweaks to the roster as they gear up for a championship run in 2015.
Results: 88-74 (.543), lost Wild-Card Game to Royals
Third-Order Record: 98-64 (.603)
It'll be a fascinating winter in Oakland, where the A's looked like a World Series contender for much of the season before flaming out with a disastrous September and a late-inning collapse in the Wild-Card Game. Does Billy Beane blow it up or does he go all-in again in 2015? We know that he has a history of turning over his roster when necessary, and sometimes before most of us see the overhaul coming. Do the A's shop Josh Donaldson and Sean Doolittle, two players whose trade value will never be higher? Do they dangle Scott Kazmir or Jeff Samardzija, who could have considerable trade value as alternatives to the high-priced free-agent aces like Lester, James Shields, and Max Scherzer?
The AL West is only getting stronger, with the resurgence of the Angels and the rise of the Mariners. The Rangers will bounce back, and the Astros are only getting better. But while it was certainly a devastating finish to a promising season in Oakland, it isn't a stretch to think that this team could win the division next year with a few tweaks to the roster. Down the stretch, Brandon Moss, Coco Crisp and Stephen Vogt were all hobbled; the offense should be much improved after they get healthy for the start of the season. The rotation should be strong, with the return of Jarrod Parker and A.J. Griffin. Still, there's work to be done this winter if the A's want to return to the postseason for a third straight season.
Targets: Shortstop, starting pitching
After dealing away top prospect Addison Russell to the Cubs and with Lowrie hitting the market, shortstop is the team's biggest concern at the moment. Though he had an excellent year at Class A in 2014, top prospect Daniel Robertson has yet to reach any level higher than that. Asdrubal Cabrera, Stephen Drew, and Emilio Bonifacio are available, and the A's could also turn to the international market, which offers some intriguing options. One consideration is Cuban middle infielder Hector Olivera, a second baseman who hit .316 with a .412 OBP last season in Cuba. Another Cuban, 19-year-old Yoan Moncada, played in the same junior league as Yasiel Puig and has big-time upside, but given his age, Moncada is a longshot to play in the big leagues in 2015. Oakland could also take a long look at Korean infielder Jung-ho Kang, who hit 38 home runs overseas last season.
The A's could look to add a starter or two, thus allowing them to move Drew Pomeranz and Jesse Chavez to the bullpen, which will be weakened with the loss of Gregerson. Doolittle is back as the closer, and Dan Otero, Ryan Cook, Eric O'Flaherty, and Fernando Abad will return to the bullpen, but Oakland could use another arm. Jason Motte, Grilli, and Jason Frasor could all be possibilities to strengthen the relief corps.
Bottom line: Last year's Opening Day payroll of $83 million was a franchise record, and a few of their most important pieces are about to become more expensive, so there's limited financial flexibility, as always, in Oakland. Signs may point to the A's rebuilding in 2015, but don't count Oakland out from making a splash with a trade that positions them for a title run next season.
Results: 87-75 (.537)
Third-Order Record: 88-74 (.542)
After making a splash last winter with a big offseason spending spree, the Mariners made a run at their first postseason appearance since 2001, staying in the race until the final day of the season. Even after last year's splurge, the Mariners could increase their spending in 2015 — team president Kevin Mather recently said that payroll will increase next year, so expect GM Jack Zduriencik to be aggressive this winter. Manager Lloyd McClendon, at the team's press conference after the season, said he hopes the team will add a pair of bats to the middle of a lineup that ranked 10th in the league in runs scored.
Pitching was the strength of the team, but the Mariners could still pursue a pitcher to bolster the rotation if they can't land a big bat. Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma are one of the best 1-2 punches in the league, and there are some exciting young arms in the rotation in Taijuan Walker and James Paxton, but don't be surprised if the Mariners go after a veteran pitcher like Ervin Santana or Francisco Liriano.
Targets: Designated hitter, shortstop
The team's biggest weakness is the DH slot, and there happen to be several intriguing options at the position. Victor Martinez would be an ideal fit for the lineup, but after a monster year, he'll be expensive. Nelson Cruz, coming off a 40-home run season, would certainly be an impact bat, and the Mariners surely must regret not being able to sign him last year. If Seattle can't land either of those two hitters, they could settle for Billy Butler, who's coming off a disappointing season with the Royals but could be had for a good price.
Shortstop was also a problem spot, as the Mariners' options there combined to hit .239/.295/.344. Chris Taylor did well after his July callup, hitting .287 with an .347 OBP. Brad Miller struggled at the plate, hitting .221/.288/.365. Lowrie, Cabrera, or Drew could all be slight upgrades at the position. Of course, there's also Hanley Ramirez, the best position player available on the market, but Ramirez has become a poor defender at short, and with Kyle Seager entrenched at third, there's no possibility of Ramirez moving to third.
Bottom line: The Mariners took a big step forward in 2014, and if Zduriencik can upgrade the offense with a significant addition, then Seattle could turn into the favorites in the AL West. With an ownership group that's willing to increase payroll, Seattle should be big players for a second winter in a row.
Results: 70-92 (.432)
Third-Order Record: 74-88 (.459)
The Astros' rebuilding continues after another tumultuous season in Houston: the team failed to sign No. 1 pick Brady Aiken, manager Bo Porter was let go in September, and the club lost over 90 games for the fourth straight season. There were some positive signs, with the emergence of George Springer in the lineup and Dallas Keuchel and Collin McHugh in the pitching staff. The team's offseason began with the hiring of new manager A.J. Hinch, who replaces Porter and can breathe some new life into the organization.
The team is still a few years from contending, but owner Jim Crane has indicated that payroll could go up next season, perhaps by another $20 million, and the team could go out to acquire some cornerstones, if it makes sense. This is a creative, outside-the-box front office, so don't be surprised if they do make a bold move this winter to position themselves for a run in the near future.
Targets: Bullpen, third base, shortstop, starting pitching
GM Jeff Luhnow has said that upgrading the bullpen will be a priority, and after the team declined Albers' $3 million option, the staff looks particularly thin, though paying a top reliever like David Robertson doesn't make a whole lot of sense for a rebuilding team. There are some possible good fits for the Astros, however, from Grilli to Burke Badenhop to Casey Janssen to Gregerson. Two buy-low candidates are Luke Hochevar and Motte, as well as Sergio Romo, who struggled in 2014 but could re-establish himself in Houston.
Another area that Luhnow could target is the left side of the infield, where Jonathan Villar and Matt Dominguez were very underwhelming. Carlos Correa and Colin Moran are both on their way, but the team will need a stopgap before their arrivals. Drew or Callaspo could be a good one-year options — both are buy-low candidates who would be relatively inexpensive. The rotation could also use some experienced arms to slot behind Keuchel and McHugh. If Houston can get a good price on a one-year deal for Brett Anderson, Gavin Floyd, or Brandon Morrow — a trio of hurlers with decent upside — they could jump at the opportunity.
Bottom line: The Astros are still a few years from contending, and don't count them out from trading anyone on their roster as they continue to rebuild. Houston won't be making a run at an elite veteran free agent, but could get creative with the acquisition of a young talent like Cuban outfielder Yasmany Tomas. They were, after all, in the hunt for both Jose Abreu and Masahiro Tanaka last year.
Results: 67-95 (.414)
Third-Order Record: 66-96 (.408)
Last year was a disaster for the Rangers, a team many thought would win the division but ended up with its worst record since 1985. Injuries were a big reason for the team's last place finish — of the regulars, only Elvis Andrus stayed healthy, as the team used a major league record 64 players and 40 pitchers during the season — but with so many problematic long-term commitments on the team and the departure of manager Ron Washington, there are a lot of big questions. Are the Rangers really contenders in a very competitive division, or should they consider tearing it down in Arlington?
With Prince Fielder and Shin-Soo Choo returning from injury, the offense should be a force again, though the outfield and catcher's position are question marks. Changes are likely coming to the starting rotation, which posted the third-worst ERA in baseball (4.75 ERA) and its highest since 2008. Texas used 15 different starters, tied with the Rockies for the major league lead. Starting pitching will be the priority of the offseason, though Daniels has also said that he doesn't plan on the team being in play for an elite free agent. Rangers fans will want big changes after last year's performance, but Daniels may be limited in what he can do.
Targets: Outfield, starting pitching
Don't look for Texas to pursue Lester, Scherzer and Shields; payroll is not expected to rise higher than the $133 million figure from 2014. There's a chance the Rangers could still sign Lewis, who is a free agent but with whom the Rangers have had preliminary talks about a new contract. Lewis had a strong second half for Texas, with a 3.86 ERA, and he seems to be over his hip and elbow issues. Some options in Texas' price range include Masterson, Santana, Brandon McCarthy, and Hammel.
With Rios gone and Leonys Martin in center, there's an opening for a corner outfield position, but the market is thin on options. Some possibilities include Colby Rasmus and Torii Hunter, as well as a reunion with Cruz, who spent eight years with the Rangers before his monster season in Baltimore. Texas certainly could have used Cruz's big bat this season, and he would be a perfect fit in the Rangers' lineup.
Bottom line: There's still a lot of star power on the roster — remember, the Rangers won at least 90 games and made the World Series twice over four consecutive years before this season — and if Daniels can find a way to significantly upgrade the pitching staff, the Rangers should be in the hunt again in 2015.