AL West Hot Stove Preview: Offseason plans for A’s, Rangers, Angels, Mariners, Astros
This week, SI.com is breaking down the offseason plans for all 30 teams. Teams are presented in order of finish from 2013.
2013 Results: 96-66, first in AL West, lost Division Series to Tigers
Run Differential: +142, 4th in MLB
Pending Free Agents: RHPs Bartolo Colon and Grant Balfour, OF Chris Young, C Kurt Suzuki
The A’s declined options on Young ($11 million) and Suzuki ($8.5M) and seem unlikely to re-sign either. Billy Beane was among the first general managers to understand that it’s better to make a new closer than pay an established one, so Balfour won’t be back either. However, Oakland might be tempted to retain Colon for his age-41 season. The A’s are flush with talented young starting pitchers, but Colon was so good in 2013 (18-6, 2.65 ERA) that it would be hard not to give him a one-year contract, which is about all he could expect at his age.
Top Prospect on the Verge: OF Michael Choice
A corner outfielder who can hit, Choice was drafted 10th overall in 2010 and hit 30 home runs in 118 games in High A in 2011. His 2012 season ended early due to a broken hand, and an effort to cut down on his strikeouts resulted in a corresponding loss of power in 2013. He nonetheless put up a solid season in the Pacific Coast League (.302/.390/.445), got a September call-up and will compete for a playing time in the outfield corners and at designated hitter in the spring.
Targets: Relief pitching
Beane knows better than to pay “established closer” prices for a short reliever and will likely promote either Ryan Cook or Sean Doolittle to the role after Balfour’s departure, but that still leaves Oakland a man short in the bullpen. The prospect of Doolittle landing the job would point toward the addition of another set-up lefty.
Bottom line: The A’s don’t have a lot of work to do. They won this division each of the last two years, finished fourth in the majors in run differential in 2013 and will remain largely intact in 2014. Choice and pitching prospect Sonny Gray, who made his mark in the Division Series, represent in-house upgrades for next season, and elite shortstop prospect Addison Russell will open the season in Double-A, putting him tantalizingly close to reaching Oakland, perhaps by September.
A team with more spending power might look to add a star via a big bat or perhaps an established closer, but that’s now the A’s do business. Given their success the last two seasons, there’s little reason to believe they should change course.
2013 Results: 91-72, second in AL West, lost wild-card tiebreaker to Rays
Run Differential: +94, 7th in MLB
Pending Free Agents: OF Nelson Cruz, C A.J. Pierzynski, OF David Murphy, UT Jeff Baker, DH Lance Berkman, RHP Matt Garza, RHP Colby Lewis, RHP, Joe Nathan
Either Neftali Feliz or Joakim Soria, both of whom returned from Tommy John rehab late in 2013, will return to closing in the wake of Nathan voiding his $9 million option and becoming a free agent. Assuming Matt Harrison can return from surgery to repair a herniated disc in his back and Thoracic Outlet Syndrome in his non-throwing shoulder — hardly a given but something the Rangers seem to be counting on — Texas shouldn’t have to worry too much about its pitching despite the likely departures of Nathan and Garza.
That’s good, because Rangers general manager Jon Daniels has a ton of work to do on his lineup. Adrian Beltre, Elvis Andrus and Ian Kinsler are locked in place in the infield, and Leonys Martin and Craig Gentry make a nice centerfield platoon, but the rest is either underperforming or, in the wake of the free agency of the above players, vacant. Texas will extend a qualifying offer to Cruz and is open to resigning him to a multi-year deal. Backup catcher Geovany Soto out-performed Pierzynski, who is six years his senior, in 2013 and proved to be worth retaining, which is why Texas reached a one-year contract with him on Tuesday.
Top Prospect on the Verge: IF Jurickson Profar
Technically Profar isn’t a prospect anymore, having lost his rookie status with 324 plate appearances in 2013. However, he won’t turn 21 until late February, he was the consensus top prospect in baseball prior to the 2013 season and he failed to live up to that ranking in part-time duty in 2013. Given the complete dearth of alternative candidates for this category in the Rangers’ system (but keep an eye on Double A second baseman Rougned Odor), Profar remains the right pick for this category. With fellow shortstop Elvis Andrus now under team control through 2023, it remains to be seen what Profar is actually on the verge of, though: stardom in Texas or a blockbuster trade.
Targets: Catcher, outfield, lineup
Brian McCann is believed to be the Rangers’ top target this winter, though the competition for his services will be steep with the Yankees and Red Sox also sizing up the seven-time All-Star catcher. Texas is also expected to bring Cruz back, though he’d be a better fit at designated hitter than in rightfield given his injury history, poor play defensively and advancing age (he’ll be 34 in July).
That could put the Rangers in the running for Carlos Beltran, though there have been more rumors concerning their interest in Jacoby Ellsbury. A reunion with Ellsbury’s Red Sox teammate Mike Napoli could also give Texas a nice upgrade at first base over Mitch Moreland, who, at 28, profiles as more of a bench or platoon bat.
Meanwhile, the Rangers have to find something to do with Profar, be it sticking him in leftfield until a position opens up in the infield — thereby giving him consistent at-bats and a clear understanding of his role on the team — or trading him for an upgrade elsewhere.
Bottom line: Texas will be a major player this offseason as consecutive late-season collapses and the failure to make it past a one-game playoff in either of the last two seasons have served notice that it has slipped from its recent heights. The lineup needs a significant overhaul, and the Rangers are expected to show at least some level of interest in many of the top free agent hitters on the market. They also own the majors’ top trade chit in Profar. Having been spurned by Josh Hamilton and Zack Greinke last offseason, the team will likely be more aggressive this winter in an effort to take advantage of a window of opportunity that won’t stay open forever.
Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
2013 Results: 78-84, 3rd place
Run Differential: -4, 15th in MLB
Pending Free Agents: LHP Jason Vargas
Of the three pitchers brought in to flesh out the rotation in 2013, Vargas was the only one who wasn’t terrible, and the Angels have expressed interest in re-signing him.
Top Prospect on the Verge: 2B Grant Green
Like Profar, Green lost his rookie status, and thus his official prospect status, in 2013 (albeit with just 153 PA). However, like the Rangers, the Angels have very little on-the-verge talent in the minor leagues, so Green gets the mention here.
A former top-100 prospect, Green was acquired from the A’s straight-up for Alberto Callaspo at the trading deadline in a curious challenge trade between division rivals. Green hit .326/.380/.493 in the Pacific Coast League in 2013, but he turned 26 in September and put up far less impressive numbers in his major league debut (.280/.336/.384 with Los Angeles after going 0-for-15 with Oakland). Still, Green’s presence may allow the Angels to shop the final two years of Howie Kendrick’s contract in exchange for pitching help.
Targets: Pitching, third base
Only the Mariners and Astros had a worse team ERA+ in the American League in 2013 than the Angels’ collective mark of 89, and L.A. isn’t going to return to contention if it can’t do a better job of keeping its opponents from scoring. The focus here will be both the back of the rotation, where Tommy Hanson will likely be non-tendered and Joe Blanton will have to fight for a job in the spring, and the bullpen.
However, the Angels don’t have a lot of room below the luxury tax threshold ($189 million in 2014) nor many compelling prospects to trade (they don’t, for example, have what it would take to land Rays ace David Price), so they may be forced to trade established major league hitters such as Kendrick or Mark Trumbo in order to strengthen their pitching staff, effectively borrowing from Peter to pay Paul. Meanwhile, with Callaspo gone and third base prospect Kaleb Cowart coming off a lousy season in Double A, Los Angeles already lacks a third baseman (it finished 2013 with Chris Nelson at the hot corner).
Bottom line: With Vargas their only pending free agent, the Angels don’t have a lot of flexibility on their roster or with their payroll. In fact, they could come dangerously close to the luxury tax threshold in the coming year with Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson due to make a combined $12 million more than in 2013 and Trumbo and reliever Ernesto Frieri arbitration eligible for the first time.
A lot of the Halos’ hopes for 2014 will thus have to be pinned on players who were hurt or otherwise underperformed in 2013 (Pujols, Josh Hamilton, Jered Weaver) bouncing back to their former levels. That, or general manager Jerry DiPoto will have to pull off some brilliant trades this winter, something his track record doesn’t suggest is a strong possibility. Overall, there’s not much reason for optimism here.
2013 Results: 71-91, 4th place
Run Differential: -130, 26th in MLB
Pending Free Agents: 1B Kendrys Morales, OF Raul Ibañez, OF Franklin Gutierrez, OF Endy Chavez, C Henry Blanco, OF Humberto Quintero, LHP Joe Saunders, LHP Oliver Perez
The Mariners made Morales a qualifying offer and hope to re-sign him, most likely to a multi-year deal. Re-signing Ibañez heading into his age-42 season would be a purely sentimental move, despite his impressive power production this past season (29 home runs). The only other man listed above that Seattle should have any interest in resigning is Perez, whose career it salvaged by making him a matchup lefty in the bullpen.
Top Prospect on the Verge: RHP Taijuan Walker
A big righty from Louisiana, Walker is one of baseball’s top 10 prospects. Featuring a mid-90s fastball, cutter and curve, he has strikeout stuff (10.0 K/9 in Triple-A this season, 9.7 K/BB across all minor league levels) and made three major league starts late this past season, pitching to a 3.60 ERA. He should enter his age-21 campaign with a secure spot on the starting staff, where the team hopes he will emerge as a front-of-the-rotation arm alongside Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma.
Targets: Bats, relief pitching, manager
With Walker and James Paxton ready to join Hernandez and Iwakuma, Seattle’s rotation is a strength, and with Nick Franklin, Brad Miller and Mike Zunino having arrived to take over at second base, shortstop and catcher, respectively, the Mariners have promising young position players up the middle too. What they need are a couple of big bats for the heart of the order who can be stashed on the far left of the defensive spectrum (Morales could be one) and some help in the bullpen.
Bottom line: The M’s graduated a lot of talent to the majors in 2013, and if those players blossom in 2014 and are complimented by productive veteran bats in the middle of the order, the team could be a surprise in the coming season. Exactly how big the front office goes with regard to those veteran additions will say a lot about its faith in that happening. It’s worth noting, however, that general manager Jack Zduriencik’s administration has not been the best judge of this team’s proximity to contention in the past.
2013 Results: 51-111, 5th place
Run Differential: -238, last in MLB
Pending Free Agents: LHP Erik Bedard
Bedard will turn 35 in March, hasn’t qualified for an ERA title since 2007 and posted an 82 ERA+ over the last two seasons. He might have some value as a match-up reliever, but he posted had a reverse split in 2013. This is a player even the Astros don’t need.
Top Prospect on the Verge: CF George Springer
All Springer did in his age-23 season, split between Double and Triple A, was hit .303/.411/.600 with 37 home runs, 108 RBIs, 106 runs scored and 45 stolen bases at an 85 percent success rate. OK, he also struck out 161 times, and there are some concerns about how much major league pitchers will be able to exploit his tendency to swing and miss, but thus far in his career he has only improved his production as he has climbed the ladder. Since being drafted 11th overall in 2011 out of the University of Connecticut he has hit a cumulative .299/.394/.558 in the minors. He’ll be Houston’s starting centerfielder in 2014 and, it hopes, a core player for its next contending team.
Targets: Bats, bullpen
The Astros are constructed similarly to the Mariners, though Houston is much further away from a significant improvement. The Astros have young talent in the infield, behind the plate and in centerfield. They have young arms in the rotation (though not nearly on the level of those in Seattle). What they need is to supplement that emerging talent with some veteran boppers in the outfield corners and whichever of first base or designated hitter won’t be occupied by Chris Carter. They also need to assemble a viable bullpen, something they both lack and will have acute need for given the youth in their rotation.
Bottom line: Having stripped their payroll to the bone in 2013, Houston has money to spend for 2014. Jose Altuve is currently the only player the club will pay more than $1 million to in 2014, and his salary for next year ($1.25 million) barely exceeds that threshold. That will change as the Astros flesh out their roster via free agency. It remains to be seen what quality of player they can convince to come to Houston given that they are all but guaranteed to endure another losing season, but it won’t be hard to do better than last year’s crop of Bedard, Carlos Peña, Rick Ankiel and Ronny Cedeño.