AL West Hot Stove Preview: A’s, Rangers have big questions
Starting today, SI.com will be offering a look at the Hot Stove plans for all 30 teams. First up: Jay Jaffe’s AL West breakdown.
2012 Results: 94-68, AL West champs, lost Division Series
Third-Order Record: 89-73
Pending Free Agents: RHP Bartolo Colon, SS Stephen Drew OF/DH Jonny Gomes, 3B Brandon Inge, RHP Brandon McCarthy
Only two of the players on the list above were still active when the A’s started the postseason: Drew, their starting shortstop, and Gomes, a platoon DH who received all of one plate appearance against Detroit in the ALDS. Meanwhile, McCarthy and Inge had suffered season-ending injuries, and Colon received a 50-game suspension for a positive test for performance-enhancing drugs.
Of all of the aforementioned, McCarthy is the most likely to return. A onetime top prospect who struggled with a plethora of injuries including a recurrent scapular stress fracture, he has put his career back on track with Oakland in impressive fashion, evolving into a groundball-centric pitcher and posting a 3.29 ERA with tidy walk and homer rates (1.6 and 0.7 per nine) in 43 starts over the past two seasons. McCarthy suffered a terrifying skull fracture via a line drive on Sept. 5, requiring emergency surgery, but he’s on the mend, and should be ready to pitch by spring training barring any post-concussion symptoms.
Drew, who was acquired from the Diamondbacks on Aug. 20, hit just .223/.309/.348 with seven homers in 327 plate appearances after missing nearly a year with a severe ankle injury. The A’s have turned down their end of a $10 million mutual option but still have interest in retaining him given that the player he displaced, Cliff Pennington, was dealt to Arizona earlier this month, and that shortstop of the future Addison Russell is a 2012 first-round pick who’s still in his teens.
Gomes, who hit .262/.377/.491 with 18 homers in 333 PA as part of a platoon mix at DH and leftfield, could be back as well. He made just $1 million in 2012, and was valued as much for his leadership as his lefty-mashing.
Top Prospect on the Verge: RHP Dan Straily
A 24th-round pick in 2009, Straily didn’t rank among the top 30 A’s prospects according to the Baseball America Prospect Handbook 2012, but he rocketed from organizational arm to breakout prospect via above-average command of an arsenal — 92-94 mph fastball, slider and changeup — via which he struck out 11.2 per nine split between Double-A and Triple-A, the highest rate in the minors for anyone with at least 100 innings. He made seven late-season starts for Oakland with a 3.89 ERA and four quality starts, but he was tagged for 11 homers in 39 innings, two more than he allowed in 152 minor league innings.
Even if McCarthy returns, Straily could be part of a five-man rotation with Brett Anderson, Jarrod Parker, and A.J. Griffin or Tommy Milone, or he could be the first starter called up in the event of an injury, something the A’s rotation had no shortage of in 2012.
Targets: Shortstop. If they don’t re-sign Drew, they’ll need someone else, as the likes of Brandon Hicks, Adam Rosales and Eric Sogard were the inadequate alternatives to Pennington that triggered the trade for Drew in the first place. The most obvious minor league alternative is Grant Green, a 2009 first-round pick who was the team’s number four prospect coming into the year according to Baseball America. The A’s are far more sold on his bat than his defense, which is why he was shifted from shortstop to centerfield in 2011; though he spent more time in the pasture in 2012, he still played a fair bit of short, third and second base in 2012, and the latter position may be his ultimate destination, possibly in another organization.
The team would appear to need an upgrade at third base, where Inge, Josh Donaldson and company combined to hit .227/.280/.391 with 23 homers. Scott Sizemore, who missed the year with a torn ACL, will return but could be bound for his natural position, second base, instead of returning to the hot corner. Also, if McCarthy isn’t re-signed, the team does figure to have at least one veteran innings-eater on hand even given their rotation depth.
Bottom line: The A’s shocked the baseball world by winning the AL West, and while they do have holes to fill, they’ve also got enviable surpluses of starting pitching and outfielders — particularly after the acquisition of Chris Young in the Pennington/Heath Bell trade — that general manager Billy Beane can draw upon in filling needs.
2012 Results: 93-69, 2nd place in AL West, lost Wild Card game
Third-Order Record: 95-67
Pending Free Agents: RHP Mike Adams, RHP Ryan Dempster, RHP Scot Feldman CF Josh Hamilton, RHP Colby Lewis, RHP Mark Lowe, C-1B Mike Napoli, RHP Roy Oswalt, RHP Koji Uehara, RHP Yoshinori Tateyama.
No free agent is a bigger puzzle than Hamilton, who hit a career-high 43 homers (21 through the end of May via a blazing hot start) but batted a middling .245/.322/.487 from June 1 onward while dealing with oddly public struggles pertaining to quitting chewing tobacco and overconsuming energy drinks to the point of blurring his vision. Hamilton’s preference is to stay, but given his past substance abuse problems and his need for an “accountability partner” to keep him out of trouble, he may be more trouble than he’s worth on a long-term deal. The Rangers appear inclined to let him explore the market before deciding if there’s a fit.
Napoli couldn’t match his monster 2011, but he did bop 24 homers to go with a .227/.343/.469 line. Lewis underwent surgery to repair a torn flexor tendon and won’t be ready to start the year, but he and the Rangers are said to have agreed to terms for a 2013 deal. Oswalt, Dempster and Feldman all struggled to pick up the slack in Lewis’ absence, and none figures to return; the Rangers turned down Feldman’s $9.25 million option. Adams underwent surgery in mid-October to alleviate his thoracic outlet syndrome but expects to be ready for spring training. Given general manager Jon Daniels’ understandable reluctance to give multi-year deals to relievers — Joe Nathan’s two-year pact was a first — Adams may have to look elsewhere, though especially with the potential departures of Uehara and Lowe, the Rangers will be in the market for righty relievers.
Top Prospect on the Verge: SS Jurickson Profar
The Rangers have a wealth of upper level prospects, but it’s the 19-year-old Profar (who turns 20 on Feb. 20) who topped the midseason top 50 lists of Baseball Prospectus and ESPN, and ranked second (behind pitcher Dylan Bundy) on that of Baseball America. Profar hit .281/.368/.452 with 14 homers as a teenager in Double-A before getting a brief cup of coffee with the Rangers; he’s an above-average defender with the potential for 20 steals and 20 homers. The issue is that the Rangers have no spot for him at the moment, with 24-year-old Elvis Andrus still under club control for two more years. The team has considered shifting Profar to second and Ian Kinsler (who’s signed through 2017) to leftfield, or swinging a trade involving one of the two incumbents, but nothing has happened yet.
Slugging 24-year-old third baseman Mike Olt (.288/.398/.579 with 28 homers at Double-A) is in a similar boat, blocked by Adrian Beltre (who’s signed through 2015), and not guaranteed to beat out Mitch Moreland at first base. Twenty-five-year-old Cuban defector Leonys Martin, a centerfielder, may be the prospect who winds up getting the most playing time for the Rangers, particularly if Hamilton departs. Martin put up eye-popping numbers at Triple-A Round Rock (.359/.422/.610) in 260 plate appearances despite missing over a month with a torn thumb ligament that required surgery, but he went just 8-for-46 in 24 games with the big club. He’s a leadoff-hitter-type with a quick bat and gap power to go with above-average defense.
Targets: Starting pitching and catching
At the very least, the Rangers need a couple back-end starters to flesh out a rotation featuring Yu Darvish, Matt Harrison and Derek Holland; they won’t have Lewis or Neftali Feliz (who underwent Tommy John surgery on August 1) back until mid-to-late season. Highly touted rookie Martin Perez could compete for a spot, and Alexi Ogando would prefer to start, but the potential losses of Adams and Uehara may push the Rangers to keep the latter in his setup role. Particularly if they let Hamilton go, the team could pursue free agent Zack Greinke, though cheaper free agent options such as Anibal Sanchez, Brandon McCarthy and Kyle Lohse are out there as well.
As for backstops, if Napoli departs, the Rangers still have Geovany Soto, but he hit just .198/.270/.343 in 361 PA split between the Cubs and Rangers. Unlike a few years ago, the team has no ready catching prospect, so a dip into the free agent market, where options such as Russell Martin and A.J. Pierzynski are available, may be the route they take.
Bottom line: After back-to-back AL pennants, the Rangers fell short of the World Series via a final-week collapse that culminated in a defeat in the Wild Card game. Even if Hamilton and Napoli depart, the team has deep resources in terms of both money and top prospects and should be expected to retool with a vengeance.
Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
2012 Results: 89-73, third place in AL West
Third-Order Record: 93-69
Pending Free Agents: RHP Zack Greinke, RHP Latroy Hawkins, RF Torii Hunter, RHP Jason Isringhausen, IF Maicer Izturis
Greinke cost the Angels three of their best prospects in a late July deal that didn’t pay off; he didn’t pitch badly, but an extra bit of bad luck in his rate of home runs per fly ball (which shot from 8.2 percent with Milwaukee to 12.1 percent with Anaheim) hurt him, and the Angels missed the playoffs. The team very much wants to retain him and is searching for ways to cut payroll in other areas, including bringing Hunter back at a lower annual salary than the $18 million he averaged over the past five years. Though his 16 homers were his lowest total since 2005, Hunter hit .313/.365/.451 as a 36-year-old and was at least 10 runs above average in the field according to three of the major defensive metrics. The Angels don’t even intend to make a $13 million qualifying offer to guarantee themselves a draft pick if he departs, which he may given strong interest in his services from other teams.
On Wednesday, the Angels picked up the $13 million option they held on Ervin Santana and sent the 30-year-old righty and $1 million to the Royals in order to free up cash to put toward retaining Greinke and/or Hunter. Santana was considered expendable, as he was torched for an MLB-high 2.0 homers per nine en route to a 5.16 ERA.
Prior to the trade, Los Angeles was said to be aggressively exploring the possibility of trading Dan Haren as well, and they still may be. Haren, who turned 32 in September, battled back woes and yielded 1.4 homers per nine en route to a 4.33 ERA, his highest since 2004.
As for the rest of the free agents, Hawkins and Isringhausen were both part of a bullpen that was the team’s Achilles heel. Neither pitched all that well, and both will be 40 by opening day. Izturis has been a useful utilityman for years, but he’s coming off a down season which saw him slip to a .256/.320/.315 line and –0.7 WARP.
Top Prospect on the Verge: RHP Nick Maronde
With the graduations of Mike Trout and Garret Richards and the trade of Jean Segura, John Hellweg and Ariel Pena to the Brewers for Greinke, the Angels’ top upper level prospect may be Maronde, a 2011 third-round pick who climbed from rookie ball to the majors (12 appearances, six innings) in his first full professional season. The 23-year-old lefty projects as a mid-rotation starter down the road, and could be the first callup if the team needs a replacement starter. He has two plus pitches (a 91-94 MPH two-seamer with great vertical movement and a slider) with an improving changeup whose progress will determine his ultimate path, rotation or bullpen
Targets: Starting pitching, bullpen, outfield. Jered Weaver, C.J. Wilson and Garrett Richards will return, but the fates of Haren and Santana are up in the air, and Greinke will be heavily sought by many teams in search of frontline pitching.
Long a hallmark of the team’s success, the Angels’ bullpen as a whole took a huge step backwards in 2012, finishing the year with the league’s third-worst ERA (3.97), the highest rate of allowing inherited runners to score (33 percent), and the most blown saves (22). Beyond closer Ernesto Frieri and righty Scott Downs, the unit will need a major overhaul.
In the outfield, if the Angels don’t re-sign Hunter, they’ll still need a starter to go along with Mike Trout and Peter Bourjos; Vernon Wells is still owed $42 million through 2014, but is sub-replacment level with the bat (.230/.279/.403 in 2012).
Bottom line: The Angels are reeling from having missed the playoffs despite the high-profile signings of Wilson and Albert Pujols last offseason. Owner Arte Moreno has long proven his willingness to spend, but exactly what shape the team’s offseason overhaul will take depends on whether or not they can keep Greinke.
2012 Results: 75-87, 4th place in AL West
Third-Order Record: 78-84
Pending Free Agents: RHP Hisashi Iwakuma, RHP Josh Kinney, C Miguel Olivo, LHP George Sherrill, RHP Kevin Millwood, LHP Oliver Perez
The Mariners already dodged their biggest free agent decision by trading Ichiro Suzuki to the Yankees on July 23. Of their remaining free agents, the highest priority is the 31-year-old Iwakuma, who threw 125 1/3 innings of 3.16 ERA ball between 16 starts and 14 relief appearances. He’s likely to cost considerably more than the $1.5 million he made in his first stateside season.
After bouncing through three organizations and making just nine big league starts in 2011, the 37-year-old Millwood served as an adequate innings-eater (28 starts, 161 IP, 4.25 ERA) for his $1 million price tag, but he’s replaceable. The 31-year-old Perez, who was a disaster with the Mets, put himself on the path of salvaging his career via a 2.12 ERA in 29 2/3 innings as a lefty reliever, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him return. Sherrill missed nearly the entire season due to Tommy John surgery, while Kinney had a breakthrough as a setup man during the second half, striking out 10.1 per nine in 32 innings, the most big league innings the 33-year-old righty has thrown in a season. The Mariners have already declined a $3 million option on Olivo, who hit an abysmal .222/.239/.381 with an 85/7 strikeout-to-walk ratio.
Top Prospects on the Verge: LHP Danny Hultzen
The Mariners boast a trio of blue-chip pitching prospects in Hultzen (the number two pick of the 2011 draft), righty Taijuan Walker (the 43rd pick of the 2010 draft) and lefty James Paxton (a 4th round 2010 pick). Any of them could find their way into the Mariners’ rotation at some point during 2013, but how things will all shake out is an open question at this point, particularly given the fickle nature of young arms.
Hultzen, who turns 23 in November, ranked fifth on BA’s list. He tore through Double-A with a 1.19 ERA in 75 1/3 innings, but his command and control deserted him when he was promoted to Triple-A, and he was lit for a 5.92 ERA while walking 8.0 per nine (!) in 48 2/3 innings. Given that it was his first professional season, fatigue may have been an issue, but assuming he returns rested and in good health, he should get the call first.
Walker, who turned 20 in August, is the most highly regarded (fourth on Baseball America’s Midseason Top 50 Prospects list) thanks to two plus-plus pitches (fastball and curve) but he was hit for a 4.69 ERA in 126 2/3 innings at Double-A, and could use at least another few months in the minors.
Paxton, 23, is the oldest and perhaps the most big league ready; he put up a 3.05 ERA while striking out 9.3 per nine in 106 1/3 innings at Double-A. Ranked 43rd on BA’s list, he has the lowest ceiling of the three and could be dealt for offense.
Targets: Offense at first base and the outfield corners; starting pitching
The Mariners ranked last in the league in scoring at 3.82 runs per game and got horrible production at all three positions. Former blue-chip first baseman Justin Smoak hit 19 home runs thanks to a strong September, but with just a .217/.290/.364 line overall — numbers below even his 2010 and 2011 showings — he has to be considered a major bust, particularly as he turns 26 in December.
Seattle leftfielders hit a combined .207/.277/.370 while their rightfielders (including Ichiro) hit .245/.287/.373. Finding players to top that shouldn’t be too difficult, though exactly whom they’ll target is up in the air; a lower-tier type like Melky Cabrera or Delmon Young could well find a home here. If centerfielder Franklin Gutierrez is healthy, Michael Saunders could fill one slot.
Behind Felix Hernandez, Jason Vargas and Blake Beaven, the Mariners have two openings in their rotation, and without much chance of contending, they have little reason to rush their young arms into big league duty. Expect a couple of low-cost veterans to round out the rotation, with Iwakuma quite possibly one of them; taking a chance with somebody who could be flipped at the trading deadline to open up a spot for a prospect would seem to make sense.
Bottom line: With the A’s emergence as contenders, the Mariners’ battle to renew their relevance has gotten harder. Even their promising young players such as Dustin Ackley and Jesus Montero have a ways to go before they live up to expectations, and the rest of the roster needs considerable work.
2012 Results: 55-107, 6th place in NL Central, now moved to AL West
Third-Order Record: 59-103
Pending Free Agents: C Chris Snyder
The Astros’ midsummer housecleaning resulted in the team’s most notable potential free agents — Carlos Lee, Brett Myers and Brandon Lyon – being shipped out of town already. They’ve declined their $4 million option on Snyder, who hit just .176/.295/.308 in 258 plate appearances as a backup; he would have been the highest-paid player on the team had they picked it up.
Top Prospect on the Verge: CF Robbie Grossman
Acquired from the Pirates in the Wandy Rodriguez trade, Grossman is a 23-year-old on-base machine who hit .266/.376/.410 with 10 home runs split between two Double-A stops. He has no star-level tools, but he does have decent speed, a bit of power, plenty of plate discipline, and no real weaknesses; the question of whether he can stay in centerfield is a big one, but with Jordan Schafer having hit just .211/.297/.294 in 359 plate appearances, there’s nothing stopping the Astros from finding out.
Another player who could emerge at some point in the season is leftfielder/first baseman Jonathan Singleton, particularly given that incumbent first baseman Brett Wallace’s best defensive position is “hitter.” Acquired in the 2011 trade for Hunter Pence, Singleton hit .284/.396/.497 with 21 homers at Double-A as a 20-year-old, and projects as a middle-of-the-order hitter thanks to his combination of extreme raw power and excellent plate discipline.
Targets: Starting and relief pitching, designated hitter, outfield
Beyond Lucas Harrell, Bud Norris and Jordan Lyles, the Astros have openings in their rotation. They’re said to be seeking a free agent pitcher who can front the rotation and eat innings, and they have plenty of room for someone in need of a golden opportunity to rejuvenate his career after an injury or an absence, so they can cast a wide net for candidates, some of whom could also wind up in the bullpen to support closer Wilton Lopez and top lefty Wesley Wright.
The move to the American League opens up an extra lineup spot at DH, but the Astros don’t have an obvious candidate to fill it. They might pursue someone who could fit into the mix at the infield corners with Matt Dominguez and Wallace, both of whom showed promise late in the year but have yet to piece together full seasons of adequate productivity at the major league level.
In the outfield, Opening Day cornermen J.D. Martinez and Brian Bogusevic were busts, and while Justin Maxwell and Fernando Martinez finished the year strongly, the Astros could use a more established run producer. As with the rotation, they can offer some opportunity for a player on the rebound from an injury or a down year, though letting the likes of Juan Rivera, Andruw Jones, Rick Ankiel or some other stiff stand in the way of a youngster has only so much value.
Bottom line: The Astros spent the past year laying the foundation for a turnaround, and have accumulated a good bit of young talent through the draft and trades of veterans. Not many of those players are close to ready, though, and the next couple of years could be very lean.