Tuesday on SI.com,
It seems like general manager Billy Beane has been rebuilding the A's ever since he traded Mark Mulder to the Cardinals for Dan Haren, Daric Barton, and Kiko Calero in December 2004. Every year there's another prospect-laden trade, or another gamble on a star player designed as much to yield yet another package of prospects as to actually help the major league team win. If there's a master plan at work here, it's on the "Scott Tenorman Must Die" level, one so utterly convoluted and elongated as to suggest madness as much as genius. I'm more willing to believe that the A's have become something of a Jackson Pollock painting, with Beane throwing everything he has at the canvas hoping something elemental will emerge.
Beane does seem to have produced an impressive young, team-controlled pitching staff, one that held the opposition to 3.86 runs per game in 2010. However just how much lasting star power exists on that staff remains to be seen. Meanwhile, the A's hit like they were facing their own pitchers this year, shedding nearly 100 runs from their 2009 total. The good news is that, with nearly $20 million coming off the books with the departures of Ben Sheets and Eric Chavez, the A's have just $11.5 million committed for 2011, and while they do have a number of arbitration-eligible players, many of them are non-tender candidates, such as Conor Jackson. As a result, on Wednesday, the A's picked up the options for Mark Ellis and Coco Crisp, as easy a decision as declining Chavez's, which they also did.
The goal for 2011 would seem to be establishing as many of their upper-level hitting prospects in the majors as possible. First baseman Daric Barton and shortstop Cliff Pennington finally emerged as viable major leaguers in 2010, but the big bats are Chris Carter, a first baseman who is being pushed to left field by the slick-fielding on-base machine Barton, and right fielder Michael Taylor. Carter is a masher who got his feet wet in the majors this year and could win the left field job out of camp. Taylor is a dynamic five-tool player who struggled at Triple-A and will need to earn a mid-season promotion. Eric Sogard, meanwhile, heads a trio of second-base prospects (also Jemile Weeks and Adrian Cardenas) who will vie for a chance to prove worthy as Ellis's successor for 2012.
Given that, expect the A's to stick to under-the-radar moves to flesh out their roster this winter. Beane has mentioned a desire for versatile, athletic players, likely complementary parts who can be used to fill in the holes preceding and perhaps created by the arrival and possible struggles of those prospects. Of course, that means he's going to sign Cliff Lee and trade him to the Yankees for their four top pitching prospects, half of whom he'll then flip to another team for a five-player package built around a top hitting prospect. Because he's Billy Beane, and he'd like to invite his fellow general managers to his Chili Con Carnival.
Without making a single move, the Angels will enjoy two huge improvements in 2011 in the form of full seasons from first baseman Kendry Morales, who was doing a fine job of following up his excellent 2009 season when he broke his leg celebrating a walk-off home run on May 29, and starting pitcher Dan Haren, a coup deadline acquisition who arrived too late to help in 2010 but should join with Jered Weaver to form a dominant top two in the Angels' rotation for 2011 and 2012. Beyond those two, the Angels need to find a way to improve their offense, which scored just 4.20 runs per game last year, despite the likely departure of Matsui, who was effectively tied with Torii Hunter as the teams' most productive hitter in 2010.
Unfortunately, the most obvious place for an upgrade in the Angels' lineup is at third or second base, and the only big-impact free agents at either of those positions this winter is likely to be Adrian Beltre, who should decline his player option with the Red Sox coming off an MVP-quality season. Though Beltre hit better on the road than at home this year, he's a better fit in Fenway Park than Angel Stadium, and is likely to be overvalued due to his lack of competition in the market place, his performance spike in 2010, and the Red Sox desire to retain him.
The Angels best hope for an effective offensive boost above and beyond the return of Morales, then, is to go hard after one of the big names on the market, Carl Crawford or Jayson Werth. The former fits the Angels preferred style of play. The latter is likely to be the more productive bat. The problem is that, while owner Arte Moreno is expected to increase the team's payroll, the Angels already have more than $93 million committed for 2011, including $11.4 million to the departed Gary Matthews Jr., $18.5 million due to Torii Hunter, and $12 due to Scott Kazmir, who was awful in 2010. On top of that, the Halos have nine arbitration-eligible players including Morales and Weaver, the latter of whom is due for a huge raise from the $4.265 million he made in 2010, as well as infielders Erick Aybar, Howie Kendrick, Alberto Callaspo, and Kevin Frandsen, outfielder Reggie Willits, and catchers Mike Napoli and Jeff Mathis. Of that group, Callaspo, Frandsen and Willits don't figure to be terribly expensive, but Mathis is a non-tender candidate coming off a miserable season on a seven-figure salary as Morales will take back Mike Napoli's starts at first base, and prospect Hank Conger is pushing both Mathis and Napoli from below.
They also need help in the bullpen, which was merely average in 2010 and does not have a single left-hander. Scott Downs is an ideal solution there, unless of course the Blue Jays offer the Type-A free agent arbitration, in which case whichever team signs him will lose their top available pick in the rich 2011 amateur draft, a price too high to pay for a 35-year-old reliever.
The Plan: In penning
The one lasting positive to come out of the Mariners' 2010 season is that Zduriencik was able to use Cliff Lee to land Justin Smoak, one of the game's top hitting prospects and one already getting his feet wet in the majors, from the Rangers. Of course, in doing so he burned his bridge to the Yankees' pitching-rich farm system and acquired a pitcher, Josh Lueke, who had to plea-bargain his way out of rape charges in 2008, but it was that kind of season for the Mariners organization.
The Mariners were in perfect position to begin rebuilding a year ago, but now they have three more years of Chone Figgins gumming up their infield picture for the special price of $27.5 million. At the very least they should undo the counterproductive position switch that moved Figgins to second and Jose Lopez to third, turning one of the best defensive third basemen in the game into a bitter, slumping liability at the keystone. Lopez, who acquitted himself well at the hot corner but also slumped at the plate in the wake of the change, can be a free agent after the coming season (if the M's decline his 2011 option, he'll simply become arbitration eligible, but still team property) thus clearing second base if Ackley, the organization's other stud prospect, is ready to take over by then.
Smoak, who after struggling in the majors for most of the season found his stroke in Triple-A in August and returned to hit .340/.421/.580 in the Show in September, should open the season at first base. That means Kotchman can be non-tendered and Branyan can go on his way. Declining the options of Bedard and Snell is a no-brainer given that Bedard didn't throw a major league pitch in 2010 and Snell was outrighted to the minors in June. Similarly there's no need to resign Bard, Wright or Woodward, who were players of marginal to no value to begin with. The Mariners focus, as it should have been last year, should be long-term. Felix Hernandez's contract extends through 2014, the goal is to contend by that final season, not in 2011. To that end, it might behoove Zduriencik to try to replicate his Cliff Lee sequence by signing or trading for a star player with the intention of flipping him at the deadline for prospects. Then again, Billy Beane has been up to those sorts of tricks for half-a-dozen years now and seems to only be getting further away from perennial contention with each passing season.