Except for the addition of the Houston Astros to the standings -- like some sort of basement tenant whose always been there but you just now noticed -- things looked very much the same in the AL West at the end of this year as they did at the end of last year. Beyond the records, of course, things are a bit more complex. The Oakland Athletics now are established as the team to beat moving forward, leaving the Rangers in the unhappy position of having to figure out how to get back to the playoffs, when for the last few years all they'd really been worried about was what to do once they got there. Meanwhile, the good vibes of Mike Trout's rookie season have left Anaheim behind; the Angels have as much as admitted that they have no pitching whatsoever to speak of -- the only question is, what in the world can they actually do about it? And in Seattle, the current regime has been given a one-year extension; so far, it seems their offseason plans to save their jobs (again) focus mainly around … Kendrys Morales? One assumes more will reveal itself as the Winter Meetings approach.
As for Houston, they don't play loud music, and they pay their rent on time. They don't talk to us, and we don't talk to them, and that works well for both of us.
The Oakland Athletics are back in the catbird seat in the AL West for 2014, returning the entirety of the franchise core and replacing the few departures like Colon and Balfour with guys from the minors like Sonny Gray. Gray, of course, was the star of the postseason for the Athletics, though no one man -- except maybe David Ortiz -- can win a playoff series by himself. The Athletics reportedly will pick up Coco Crisp's $7.5 million team option, which means Chris Young is probably headed for the open market, too. In addition to Gray, the Athletics will return A.J. Griffin, Jarrod Parker, Tommy Milone and the whole bunch of guys in the rotation. Except for Balfour and a couple last-man-in-the-pen signings, the bullpen will look the same, too, with Doolittle the heir apparent as closer. Barring injury, the vast majority of the 2014 Athletics are already known, though there's still room to tinker.
Oakland has shied away from the domestic free-agent market recently, preferring to pursue international free agents when they want to spend money, while trying to get everything else they need through trades. While it's harder to predict specific trades than free-agent signings, Oakland likes to deal players who are about to become very expensive in arbitration and are at the peak of their value. That would seem to put shortstop Jed Lowrie, due for a substantial raise in his last year of arbitration, on the hot seat -- especially because 2013 was the first time Lowrie has ever put together a full, big-league season without being derailed by injury. You might hope that last year's consistency means he's finally been able to shake the various injuries that have plagued him over the last few seasons, but don't bet on it.
That said, Oakland's top prospect and Lowrie's presumptive replacement, Addison Russell, finished his 2013 in high Class A Stockton and is still a year away from the big leagues (or, if the Athletics feel like rushing him, an All-Star break away). Oakland is a contending team right now, and shortstops that can OPS .791 over a full season (like Lowrie did last year) aren't just waiting at Triple A waiting for teams to call them up. If a deal arises that makes sense, Lowrie -- or Seth Smith, or Brandon Moss, or whoever -- will be on his way to another city. It's just a bit less likely that we'll see the massive trade flurry coming out of Oakland this season that we did last.
Still, the outfield could use some work. Crisp is what he is at this point; the Athletics will need to address centerfield eventually, but not in 2014. The main issue is the corners; both Josh Reddick and Yoenis Cespedes, two of the team's most high-profile acquisitions before the 2012 season, and two of the players who made names for themselves during that remarkable year for Oakland, failed to build on that success in 2013. Cespedes was a tick above league average at the plate, with way too many strikeouts, while Reddick put up an OPS of .686 and failed to slug even .400. There's not much the Athletics can or should do about replacing either man; all they can do is figure out a Plan B, if Josh Reddick's 2013 season turns out to be more repeatable than his 2012. (Cespedes is the highest paid player on the club by far next year at $10.5 million; he'll be starting in left field as long as he's healthy.)
Other than that, the Athletics are a fairly complete team on paper, so any deals they make this offseason probably will be with the future beyond 2014 in mind. They'll probably sign at least one veteran pitcher for a look in spring training, probably a scrapheap type pickup like Colon a few years ago, but unless they decide to move some of their guys nearing the end of arbitration -- or someone knocks down their door with an offer -- the majority of the news out of Oakland this offseason likely will involve their ongoing relocation fight.
Needs: C, 1B, LF, CF, RF, DH
While Oakland can afford to make minor adjustments here and there, the team they've stolen the AL West crown from with a late surge two years running needs to rethink the entire premise of what they're trying to do. Improbably enough, the issue for the Rangers right now isn't their pitching, or that they play in the most hitter-friendly park this side of Coors Field; the Rangers staff led by ace Yu Darvish had that covered in 2013. The issue is that the Rangers didn't hit last year, and they're stuck with a team full of middle infielders while most of the outfielders are heading for free agency - and given how they hit last season, it might be best to let them go.
At this point it's still impossible to say how the Jurickson Profar/Elvis Andrus/Ian Kinsler logjam up the middle is going to sort itself out; Texas GM Jon Daniels remains adamant that Profar won't be traded, while both Andrus and Kinsler have contracts that are all but unmovable (though the Yankees have taught us to never say never on that front). It's a bit shocking that the Rangers let manager Ron Washington actively impede the team's top prospect from getting into any sort of rhythm, or settle into regular role with the club. It would be surprising, to put it mildly, if 2014 began with Profar still in that situation. Either Kinsler will move to first base or left field, or Profar will have to be traded.
Given how poor the first base market is, and the fact the Rangers need some impact bats right now, Kinsler makes the most sense replacing Mitch Moreland at first. Moreland has a career .758 OPS across three full seasons as a first baseman playing half his games in Arlington; it's time for Texas to move on. Last year's two corner outfielders, Nelson Cruz and David Murphy, are both free agents this offseason; the Rangers have already indicated they have substantial interest in bringing Cruz back (he was the second-best hitter on the 2013 squad, faint though that praise may be), which means unless something unexpected happens, Cruz likely will be back in right field. Left field will be manned by Alex Rios, a late-season pick-up from the Chicago White Sox who should be at least a league-average bat in 2014. That means that unless the Rangers front office is head-over-heels for Leonys Martin and Craig Gentry, centerfield is wide open for the Rangers to sign someone, and Texas should at least take a long hard look at Curtis Granderson and Jacoby Ellsbury.
They're two different kinds of commodities in center; Ellsbury is going to be looking for nearly a decade-long commitment and more than $150 million -- probably well over -- to open negotiations; Granderson is three years older and coming off an injury that more or less cost him all of last season. Granderson will likely be the better fit for the club, since Daniels usually gives the kind of contract that Ellsbury is looking for to his own guys -- the Elvis Andrus extension, for instance. If Granderson signs elsewhere, then the Rangers could look at Shin-Soo Choo for the job, but Choo isn't really a centerfielder, and the Reds were lucky that experiment worked out as well as it did.
The Rangers also need to do something at the catcher position; A.J. Pierzynski isn't worth another $7.5 million for one year at this point in his career, and Texas would be better served bypassing the frenzy over Brian McCann and going straight for Carlos Ruiz -- and they'll have to be quick, because the Phillies are trying to re-sign him for some reason.
Texas showed a bit of their hand regarding Joe Nathan's team option near the end of the season, when they all but put out a press release saying their closer was on the trading block. Nathan's option is at $9.5 million for one year, and Texas's pen is good enough to take his loss in stride (and just as important for Ron Washington, other guys on the Texas staff have closed before). Without having to worry about major changes in the bullpen or the rotation, the Rangers should be free to leverage their remaining budget to get an impact bat in the outfield in addition to Nelson Cruz, bring in a solid contributor behind the plate and make the necessary moves and decisions to ensure Kinsler, Andrus and Profar are everyday players for Texas in 2014. We'll see how it turns out.
Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
Needs: SP, RP
Just about everyone paying attention to the AL West knew what the Angels' priorities would be going into this offseason sometime around the All-Star Break, and there's already rumors flying out of Anaheim that the Angels' front office is looking to move assets to get their hands on quality starting pitching now. Of course, so far those rumors only list said assets as one of Mark Trumbo or Peter Bourjos; one suspects the Angels will get more legitimate offers when it's not quite so obvious they're trying to get someone else to take care of their outfield logjam.
But that's the root of the whole problem, isn't it? The Angels know what they need -- frontline pitching, both at the front of the rotation and the back of the bullpen -- they just have no way of getting their hands on it. Ever since the team traded away guys like pitcher Tyler Chatwood and shortstop Jean Segura for MLB veterans and graduated Mike Trout to the big league squad, the Angels' farm system has been in tatters. How bad has it gotten? Going into 2013, Baseball America rated 3B Kaleb Cowart as the Angels No. 1 prospect, barely beating out Nick Maronde, a lefty reliever with injury concerns who had already spent time in the big leagues in 2012. Cowart proceeded to OPS .580 in the hitter-friendly Texas League. It is not a good system, and the only recent help it could have produced -- Chatwood -- is in Colorado.
If they can't grow pitching and they don't have the assets to trade for pitching -- and no GM in this league is giving up a quality starter for both Trumbo and Bourjos, let alone just one or the other -- then the Angels will have to buy it. But there are problems there, too: not only has the team committed more than a quarter-billion dollars of future payroll over the past two years to a first baseman and a rightfielder who have both drastically under-produced in their time with Anaheim, but it also earmarked more than $100 million in salary between now and 2017 for two of the guys in the current rotation that needs fixing, Jered Weaver and CJ Wilson. Not that in Weaver's case that was a particularly poor decision; Weaver's name would have once again been in the mix for the AL Cy Young Award had he not gotten hurt and had the Angels not been so terrible. The Wilson contract, on the other hand, was excessive at the time and has only gotten worse.
Nevertheless, if the Angels are going to acquire quality pitching this offseason they will have to do so by expanding the budget even more, which is something team owner Arte Moreno might not be happy to hear. But there's one pitcher on the market (so to speak) who allows the Angels to avoid tacking on another $12 million a year in sunk cost to the latter half of the decade in exchange for a single lump expenditure right now: Masahiro Tanaka, the 24-year-old Japanese ace set to be posted sometime next month. Tanaka should be at the top of any team's list of priorities if they're looking for pitching this offseason, however, and only one team is going to be able to actually sign him; besides, even if Tanaka is as good as advertised he won't be able to fix the Angels' pitching woes by himself.
Regardless of whether or not they're in on Tanaka, the Angels will almost definitely be linked to Matt Garza as those negotiations unfold. How interested the Angels will be will likely depends on how reluctant they are to hand out another big contract in free agency after what's happened the past two years; if the market drops on Garza for whatever reason, the Angels will likely be first in line.
The easiest way to build a successful bullpen -- the way the Dodgers, Yankees, Giants, and everyone else do it -- is through the draft, outside of the first round but still on the first day. The Angels didn't have a first round pick this year -- one more thing they spent on Josh Hamilton -- but from rounds two through 12, the Angels drafted exactly one non-pitcher, a catcher named Stephen McGee in the ninth. If the Angels have a good bullpen a year or two from now, it won't be because they spent millions on Grant Balfour or other name relievers, but because guys from the first day of their draft a year or two back have stepped in and are contributing. As it is, no one signing is going to fix the Angels' pen.
Needs: 1B, LF, CF, DH
That list of needs is a bit misleading; the Mariners likely aren't in the market for, say, a starting catcher, because they have a guy they're going to play 22-year-old Mike Zunino. There's no guarantee, however, Zunino is going to be any good, and in fact, if based on what we've seen of him so far, we'd be forced to conclude that catcher will be a position of need again, after all, for the Mariners in 2014. We can say the same for second base (Nick Franklin) and shortstop (Brad Miller), as well as parts of the starting rotation (Brandon Maurer, James Paxton and Taijuan Walker). Not all the 2013 results were as underwhelming as Zunino's; Paxton was brilliant in his short stint in the rotation at the end of the year, and Brad Miller brought stability to a position that was ping-ponging between Robert Andino and Brendan Ryan. That said, it's a lot of very certain uncertainty.
Seattle could use an upgrade over Justin Smoak at first base, but there doesn't seem to be one available at the moment. The Mariners are contemplating giving Kendrys Morales, their 30-year-old designated hitter who managed only a .785 OPS last year, a qualifying offer -- a $14.1 million, one-year contract. Even more remarkably, Morales reportedly is going to decline it when it arrives, though that may just be the beginning of a long dance between the two sides toward a long-term contract. This is sort of a microcosm for the whole, strange situation the Seattle organization finds itself in at the moment; the current front office regime was given a one-year contract extension by ownership at the end of last season, effectively sending them right back into fight-for-your-job mode. Last offseason we saw that manifest in the attempted Justin Upton trade with Arizona that Upton himself nixed; it's hard to tell how it'll show up this time.
Now, just as then, we'll know by the outfield, because that's the one major area where no prospects have been installed into starting jobs for the upcoming season thus far. At the moment, the only outfield starter of note for Seattle is Michael Saunders, who is most comfortably placed in right field. Franklin Gutierrez, the Seattle centerfielder whose career has been derailed by injuries the past couple seasons, has a $7.5 million club option that we can almost certainly assume won't get picked up. That leaves left field and centerfield open for free-agent signings.
Last season, the Mariners filled their outfield with the likes of Jason Bay, Raul Ibanez and Mike Morse. Ibanez in particular turned out to be a fantastic bargain. This season, the Mariners' money might be better spent signing Jacoby Ellsbury, a very competent centerfielder who hits well outside of Fenway Park. Ellsbury adds defensive and baserunning value, and he's young enough to still be in his prime in a couple years, when the prospects the Mariners are developing finally gel. Since Seattle's first-round pick is protected, they'll only lose their second-round pick when the Red Sox extend him a qualifying offer. This is precisely the sort of thing Cleveland just did to shuttle the replacement-level players out of their lineup last offseason. Worked out pretty well for them, as I recall. It'll be interesting to see how the Mariners approach the market.
The Astros will likely hang out on the periphery of the hot stove, and they'll almost certainly be involved in low-level prospect trades of one sort or another, but their grand scheme still needs another year or so to develop. Once the real prospects start filtering up toward the middle-end of next year, we'll have a better idea of where the team sits.