By Jonathan Bernhardt
The new and impro-- erm, the new and different American League West is already off to a hot start in the Hot Stove, with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim adding Ervin Santana to the simmering trade market before trying to toss in Dan Haren and almost starting a grease fire. It’s pretty safe to say that the biggest move has already been made, however: in 2013, the Houston Astros will be joining the formerly four-team AL West, bringing every division in baseball to five teams -- and also effectively ending the West’s one-year reign as the strongest division in baseball, top to bottom. More’s the pity.
As in my AL East Hot Stove preview, the teams are listed in order of projected 2013 regular season finish based on current roster, likely acquisitions, and what I find personally amusing. So Astros fans, just keep hitting Page Down until you run out of real estate.
Probably not the biggest shock in the world to find them up here. The Rangers were robbed of a shot to go all Buffalo Bills on us last season by none other than the Baltimore Orioles, but the team’s core is stable enough and there’s enough good kids on the way up behind them that Texas should be able to at least threaten to lose three World Series in four years -- which, incidentally, is far loftier than anything Baltimore will be up to in 2013.
What They’ll Have: Old standbys Ian Kinsler and Nelson Cruz will be back, along with starter Yu Darvish in his sophomore MLB season. Kinsler’s an aging second baseman, though, and those guys tend to get hurt more than their fair share; Texas has toyed with the idea of moving him to left field in the past, and one more lengthy DL stint might see them pull the trigger on that plan. Mid-rotation stalwarts Derek Holland and Matt Harrison look to return as well, and Elvis Andrus should get one more full season in Texas before the Rangers move him to make room for super-prospect Jurickson Profar.
What They’ll Lose: The big name, of course, is Josh Hamilton (but maybe he doesn’t belong here—more on that in a bit). After him, though, the Rangers will likely be saying farewell to C/1B Mike Napoli (to whom they declined to make a qualifying offer, though that hardly stops them from negotiating a new deal with him at a lower price point), starters Ryan Dempster and Scott Feldman, and bullpen aces Mike Adams and Koji Uehara. Feldman is likely gone to greener pastures -- he’s already been linked to the Orioles, always in the market for fringey swingmen like him -- and both Adams and Uehara are sure to be in high demand, but Texas could probably afford to bring one of the two back. They’d prefer Adams, I’m sure, but he’s likely to be the more coveted on the open market.
Key Targets: The Rangers starting pitching faltered down the stretch, and combined with the departures of Dempster and Feldman it’s likely Texas tries to find a cheapish upgrade there, though there might be no need if Martin Perez wins a rotation job out of camp and Alexei Ogando undergoes his yearly reliever-to-starter conversion treatment with success this time. Of course, the Rangers have also been making noise about signing Zack Greinke, the cream of the free agent starting pitching crop, and have the money to spend big (TV contracts are fun!)
Assuming Hamilton’s departure, the Rangers will need a new centerfielder, and Michael Bourn is probably going to be staying in Atlanta for too much money across too many years. That means the Rangers should be (and are) looking into B.J. Upton as a possible replacement there; the Rangers system has no solution coming any time soon, and after Upton the centerfield market drops off rather sharply to the Angel Pagans and Shane Victorinos of the world.
The other intense positional need for Texas is at catcher -- a need they must already have a plan to address, or Mike Napoli would have gotten his qualifying offer. It’s unlikely they go into the season with Geovany Soto as their starting catcher, but not impossible. They could look at guys like Russell Martin or A.J. Pierzynski in free agency, or see if they can pry free a guy in trade, like the Reds’ Ryan Hanigan.
Dark Horse Acquisition: Josh Hamilton, though it seems odd to say so considering he’s been an elite player and face of the franchise for the last three years. The conventional wisdom is that Texas fans are tired of Hamilton’s issues on the field and what they assume they know about his issues off of it, and that the market for the former American League MVP is going to price the Rangers out of the running very quickly, as GM Jon Daniels has other priorities. The reality is the fans will love him if he hits and hate him if he doesn’t, the market for Hamilton is probably going to be much softer than the 7 years/$175 million at which the outfielder is reportedly opening negotiations, and the Rangers are about to hit a huge TV deal bonanza. As with every other team in baseball, a Hamilton deal with Texas would probably hinge less on the money than on the years. It’s very possible he’s back in Arlington for the home opener next season.
Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
The Angels have gotten the Hot Stove season off to a roaring start by jettisoning 40 percent of last year’s starting rotation. First they dealt Ervin Santana to Kansas City for a 27 year old reliever named Brandon Sisk who has never played in the majors, which while a bad trade on talent was at least serviceable as a salary dump; then they tried to send Dan Haren to the Chicago Cubs for another reliever: Carlos Marmol, owed almost $10 million in salary next year. This deal looked initially like it was going to be a laugher in favor of the Cubs, but it fell apart at the last second -- because Chicago walked away from the table, according to most reports. If that’s the case, Haren’s medicals must look like a Tarantino film. Either way, Los Angeles declined their option on Haren hours later, bought out his last year, and sent him on his merry way to free agency. Now they just need to do something about having either Garrett Richards or Jerome Williams as their number-three starter.
What They Have: Garrett Richards and Jerome Williams! Oh, and staff ace Jered Weaver, ex-Texas staff ace C.J. Wilson, and a pair of guys named Albert Pujols and Mike Trout. They’re pretty good.
Peter Bourjos will be returning in centerfield, at least for the time being, and Trout and Mark Trumbo will man the corners -- Trumbo had one of the worst second-half slumps in baseball last year, but should at least be serviceable in the outfield. Howie Kendrick, Erick Aybar, and Maicer Izturis should continue to rotate through the middle infield now that the Angels’ top shortstop prospect, Jean Segura, is over in Milwaukee as a result of the Zack Greinke deal. Izturis will be a free agent this offseason, but I have a tough time seeing him anywhere but back in Los Angeles of Anaheim. Wherever that is. Alberto Callaspo should continue on at third base on a one-year, arbitration-avoiding deal and all of the Angels’ catchers from last year are still under one form of control or another.
And through it all, from the darkness on the end of the dugout bench, Vernon Wells abides.
What They’ll Lose: A whole bunch of bullpen guys who should be replaceable; a few will leave in free agency of their own volition, while others will be shown the door by Angels management. Torii Hunter, veteran outfielder/clubhouse leader par excellence, will be looking elsewhere for a multi-year deal. As the major shakeups to the rotation have already happened, the Angels probably won’t make too many other cuts.
Key Targets: An everyday catcher would be nice for the Angels to have, but there’s not a slam-dunk option available and a healthy Iannetta should do just fine. The outfield and most of the infield are under contract for another couple years. The Halos just need to do something about that pitching staff. Greinke is their obvious first choice, and they’ve all but confirmed that Haren and Santana were sent packing to open up space in the budget. Greinke, Weaver and Wilson is a fearsome front three, but they could also get in on someone like Carl Pavano or Jeremy Guthrie to hang out at the back of the rotation. As far as bullpen help goes, that’s useless to try and predict this far out; it’ll come down to who’s available, what money’s left over once more pressing needs are addressed, and most importantly, whether or not some other teams go insane on guys like Adams and Uehara and set the market all weird.
Dark Horse Acquisition: Lefty starter Hyun-Jin Ryu of the Hanwha Eagles (Korean Baseball Organization) is going to be posted this offseason. Ryu is no Yu Darvish -- think of him more as a young, South Korean David Wells as far as body type goes -- but he strikes out a bunch of people, goes deep into games, and is only 25 years old. It’s doubtful he’ll command Darvish’s gaudy posting fee and contract because the hype just isn’t there, but outside of C.J. Wilson the entire Angels rotation is righties and Ryu should be MLB-ready immediately. At the very least, he’d have a lot more upside than throwing money at Kyle Lohse.
There’s a tendency to want to believe the Oakland Athletics are For Real (proper noun) because they’re run by Billy Beane, and who doesn’t love Billy Beane? The bad news, though, is that 2013 will probably represent a step back in the standings for the Oakland ballclub. The good news for A’s fans is that this step backwards likely won’t be anywhere near as severe as the universal self-correction that’s going to happen to the other 2012 down-to-the-wire darling over in Baltimore.
What They Have: The Athletics made one of the very first moves of the offseason, though you might not remember it as such because when Beane traded shortstop Cliff Pennington to Arizona for infielder Yordy Cabrera and outfielder Chris Young, the St. Louis Cardinals were still busy blowing a 3-1 lead over the San Francisco Giants in the National League Championship Series. That puts Yoenis Cespedes (the Cuban phenom who would’ve walked away with Rookie of the Year if not for some Angel outfielder named after a fish), former Red Sox prospect Josh Reddick, and the newly acquired Young all in the same outfield. Beane’s said he won’t trade any of them this offseason, but hey, he also mentioned Jonny Gomes by name when talking about keeping the team together -- and this trade nixes any real possibility of Gomes coming back to Oakland.
As for the rest of the club though, Beane probably means it. There’s so many club-controlled players on the roster right now -- including an entire rotation’s worth of 2012 rookies -- that most guys don’t have the option of going anywhere else except the minors. Bartolo Colon will also return.
What They’ll Lose: Brandon McCarthy, who seems to be supremely blessed in just about everything except baseball (where he’s merely extremely blessed, seeing as he’s stuck around as a major league pitcher), is a free agent; he will likely be given more money and years somewhere else than the Athletics are willing to fork over to a guy coming off a freak head injury and chronic shoulder issues. When he’s healthy, McCarthy is a very solid starter, though not spectacular with any of his pitches and very reliant on groundballs. Staying healthy is the problem, of course; if the market is soft enough on him, he’ll probably be back in Oakland next year on a one-year deal.
The aforementioned Jonny Gomes will likely depart in free agency, meaning Seth Smith will need a new platoon partner. The Athletics declined shortstop Stephen Drew’s option for next year but will continue to pursue him on the open market. Beane will probably be more active in the trade market than in free agency, so his words about the roster being set will hold true for exactly as long as it takes for him to convince another general manager to do something silly.
Key Targets: The team still needs an infield, basically. Getting Drew back on a more reasonable contract would fill the hole at short, but despite Beane’s words about keeping the team together, Jemile Weeks and Josh Donaldson just are not long-term solutions at second and third barring some great leaps forward. Jeff Keppinger should be cheap enough and mashes lefties well enough that he could be worth a look; the third base market, however, is exceedingly thin at the price point Beane would likely consider his ceiling. Donaldson will probably get some more time there to show Oakland what they’ve got.
Dark Horse Acquisition: If necessary, the Dan Haren Revival Tour could start here; Haren’s still beloved by the fanbase and if his medicals are so abysmal that the Chicago Cubs aren’t willing to be rid of Carlos Marmol to take a chance on flipping Haren at the trade deadline, then he could be in for a rough free agency period indeed. If Haren is willing to sign a relatively inexpensive one-year deal to build his value for the 2013 offseason, there are far worse environments in which to resurrect himself than Oakland.
But for the grace of God and Bud Selig, the Mariners would be the last team in this preview; luckily for them, Houston’s been sent on over from the National League. The Mariners didn’t do much last year and don’t seem poised to do much this upcoming year either, in part because everyone who stays in Safeco for any prolonged period of time seems to forget how to swing a bat. The only reason the Jesus Montero trade last offseason didn’t result in the Yankees cackling their way to the playoffs was because Michael Pineda’s arm fell off and Jose Campos had to be shut down for elbow inflammation; Montero, on the other hand, had no injury to blame for forgetting how to hit right-handed pitching on his way to a .685 OPS. After so many cases of guys coming to town and slumping at the plate, though, the only common factor is General Manager Jack Zduriencik and his organization. If the Mariners finish where I think they’re going to finish next year, he should start feeling the heat.
What They Have: Felix Hernandez, until they trade him to the Red Sox at the deadline for -- ha ha! That was a joke, Seattle fans! Please put down your various firearms! I do not want to die here in your rainy hell city.
But while we’re on the subject of jokes, behind Hernandez the Mariners have Jason Vargas, Blake Beavan, and Hector Noesi under various levels of control. That’s not a situation that can continue if the Mariners want to win baseball games. The rotation will also feature Hisashi Iwakuma, who is serviceable but more than a bit overpaid; he pitched 125 innings of ERA-shiny but peripherally dodgy baseball in 2012, so the Mariners gave him … $14 million over two years, with an option for a third year after that. It’s not a massive overpay, but a couple million too many here or there for a bunch of different guys and suddenly you can’t sign the coveted bat or arm the team actually needs. And there’s really no good reason this rotation doesn’t still include Doug Fister -- the Mariners got nothing of value back from Detroit for him.
In the field, the only real feel-good stories for the Mariners are centerfielder Michael Saunders and third baseman Kyle Seager. Everyone else underperformed or straight up crashed and burned. Saunders’s .738 OPS from center is more impressive than the same .738 that Seager put up from third (their lines are almost identical), and Saunders is more likely to keep this going, but both years were encouraging.
Chone Figgins is in the last year of his utterly disappointing contract with Seattle, unless they let his $9 million 2014 option vest; considering that requires him to rack up 600 plate appearances in 2013, it’s safe to say that will only happen if everyone in Seattle wants to lose their jobs in the most ostentatious way imaginable.
What They’ll Lose: Miguel Olivo shouldn’t be back, and that’s no great loss; Munenori Kawasaki won’t be back either, and that’s a tremendous one. Not because he was a good ballplayer -- Kawasaki was hideously overmatched by the MLB game -- but because he was the best physical comedian in sports in recent memory.
Kevin Millwood and George Sherrill will depart, and it would be extremely concerning if this were not so. Some members of the bullpen will be back, others will not.
Notice how I’ve said nothing about Oliver Perez until now.
Key Targets: That’s because the Seattle front office thought, for some reason, that aging starter-turned pitching machine-turned reliever-turned left-handed specialist reliever Oliver Perez was worth giving a one-year, $1.5 million contract (with $600k of easily reachable incentives). Remember what I said above about a bit of waste here and a bit of waste there adding up? Perez pitched 30 innings of shiny-ERA, peripherally dodgy specialty relief (seeing a trend?), and if Oliver Perez does that for your team you tip your cap and you move on, especially if you already have a cost-controlled lefty named Charlie Furbush in your pen who absolutely annihilates left-handed hitters. Some thinkers around the internet believe that this same front office should go out and sign Nick Swisher to something like 7 years, $100 million dollars and honestly, why not. Go nuts. It’s basically not possible to finish in last place next year.
Cliff notes: the Mariners need a catcher, a second baseman (not an Ackley fan), a shortstop (nor a Ryan fan), a right fielder, a left fielder, and at least two starting pitchers (I have somewhere between zero and no faith in guys like Hultzen who are coming up through the Seattle system), and they just gave Oliver Perez two million bucks for what appears to be funsies. At this rate, they’re going to give Swisher the moon as a signing bonus.
Dark Horse Acquisition: No one’s connected Cody Ross to Seattle yet, but he’s a perfect fit for the Mariners in a warped, twisted way: he’s coming off a great season, is looking for a big multi-year deal, has a lot of other guys ahead of him in the pecking order for the playoff-bound teams to snap up, and more importantly, Safeco Field will utterly destroy his bat. Forget Nick Swisher: Cody Ross is the best bet for next career to die in Seattle.
Which brings us to the bottom of the list and the worst team in professional baseball last season, the Houston Astros: so bad even the NL Central didn’t want them anymore. But the Astros have a nasty little secret, one that the Rangers and Angels and Athletics and probably even the Mariners are already in on, but many of their fans won’t be until 2014 or 2015: the Astros are now being run by some very, very smart people, and they’ve gone out and turned the worst farm system in sports into an organization without much star power but with very good depth and a very high ceiling on most of its prospects, all in just a little more than a year. Next season’s going to be rough for Houston, and probably 2014 too, but after that? Watch out.
What They Have: The Astros have something along the lines of $5 million in salary commitments now that Carlos Lee, Wandy Rodriguez, Brett Myers and company have been sent packing. It’s tied up in a bunch of guys on entry-level contracts, ranging from second baseman/folk hero/unit of measurement Jose Altuve to likely-AAAA outfielder J.D. Martinez. Jason Castro, Jimmy Paredes, Brett Wallace -- all of these guys are treading water out there for the Astros, and one or two of them might even be part of the next great Houston team -- but as role players, not cornerstones of the franchise. The guys with that level of talent, the guys like Jonathan Singleton and Carlos Correa, are working their way up through the minors right now. The current Astros squad is just keeping their seats warm.
What They’ll Lose: Nothing much, besides a hundred or so games. There won’t be any problem retaining players; general manager Jeff Luhnow has keelhauled the entire roster so harshly that the highest-paid Astro right now is Jed Lowrie, who made $1.25 million last year and is entering his second year of arbitration.
Key Targets: They’ve gotten all they can out of the guys left over from the previous regime when Luhnow took over; now the Astros have to choose who they want to sign from the free agent crop with an eye towards getting compensatory draft picks or prospects in a deadline trade. Guys like Dan Haren and Shaun Marcum might be interesting investments for one-year value-building exercises -- Houston’s going to need someone to start for them and they’d rather not rush someone up who’s not ready -- and Melky Cabrera might try to do the same thing in left field. Making a huge splash and going hard after someone like Josh Hamilton would be particularly daring; adding a five-win player to your team is a pretty good way to kick a rebuild into high gear, after all. If they’re going to be serious about this, the Astros will eventually need a player or two of his production level anyway -- all great teams do -- and they have more than enough space in the budget to fit even Hamilton’s most optimistic contract hopes.
Dark Horse Acquisition: I’m more convinced, however, that the way Luhnow will go about getting this elite outfield production won’t be by overpaying on the open market, but by preying on a team that’s looking to offload young, productive talent for reasons unrelated to the baseball diamond … that is, I think it’s far more likely the Astros make a strong, strong run at Arizona’s Justin Upton. The embarrassingly public feud between Upton and Arizona’s ownership has died down for the time being -- possibly because the Diamondbacks front office has absolutely no interest in an elite 25 year old talent going all Hanley Ramirez on them -- but if it flares back up, Houston has a lot of intriguing, high upside pieces in their farm that could help them make a deal.
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Bernhardt is a freelance sportswriter who has contributed to Baseball Prospectus, The Classical and ESPN's Sweet Spot blog network, among others. You can follow him on Twitter @jonbernhardt.