AL West Offseason Outlook
The 2013 season, much like the previous one, ended with a late surge by the Athletics and a collapse by the favored Rangers. The division race begins anew in April with the Rangers and Angels in pursuit of the back-to-back division champion A’s. Whether the American League West will continue to be locked in a two-team race remains to be seen.
Following a disappointing first-round playoff loss, the A’s will look for ways to improve a roster built for the marathon, but has struggled with the playoff sprint. Billy Beane has turned the game upside down with his ‘Moneyball’ philosophy, but his A’s have only advanced once in seven October appearances.
The A’s were able to hit for more power and manufacture runs at a rate unheard of in Oakland since the early days of Beane’s tenure. This postseason run was supposed to be different from those in Oakland’s recent past. The A’s, who have had the pitching to win the World Series in each trip to the playoffs, appeared to have finally figured out how to win close games with their offense.
Yet once again, the A’s offense struggled with consistency. They scored six runs in each of their playoff victories, but just three runs in the games they lost. A’s players jokingly said they need to stop facing the Tigers in the playoffs, but it’s unlikely they would have fared much better against Boston and Tampa Bay.
Next season the A’s will likely bring back the same lineup for another run, though the flaws in this offense will continue to fester if the younger players are unable to become complete hitters. While players like Donaldson and Stephen Vogt show promise, the A’s desperately need Yoenis Cespedes and Josh Reddick to return to their 2012 form.
The only significant players the A’s may lose are on the pitching staff, which is troubling considering the Rangers’ pitchers have been steadily catching up to the A’s over the last two seasons. Grant Balfour and Bartolo Colon, both integral parts of Oakland’s squad, are free agents.
Balfour, the top reliever on the market, will likely receive contract offers well out of the A’s price range. Sean Doolittle and Ryan Cook have potential, but the A’s will likely add some veterans from outside of the organization to the mix before Spring Training.
After finishing 18-6 with a 2.65 ERA, Colon was a bargain for the A’s at $3 million. It’s doubtful the 40-year-old will receive more than one guaranteed season, but a club in need of a quality starter may offer Colon a contract well beyond the A’s budgetary limits.
Once an offensive force, the Rangers must now find a way to inject more power into the middle of their order. The Rangers will seek a right-handed bat and a catcher to fill in until top catching prospect Jorge Alfaro is ready. Brian McCann, who the Rangers have attempted to acquire repeatedly, will be the top catcher on the market.
McCann adds power to the middle of the order, but can also manage a pitching staff and keep a running game in check. He’s likely to command at least a five-year contract. Texas may not be willing to make a commitment of that length with Alfaro progressing through the system.
The Rangers are expected to be aggressive in their pursuit to stabilize the middle of the order. A deal could be made with the Marlins for Giancarlo Stanton. Nelson Cruz may accept his qualifying offer and return to the outfield, or Jon Daniels could sign an outfielder like Shin-Soo Choo or Jacoby Ellsbury.
The Rangers also have to determine what to do with top prospect Jurickson Profar. The organization wants to find a regular position for Profar, but is hesitant to move Ian Kinsler from second base. A platoon with third baseman Adrian Beltre, who has chronic hamstring problems, may be the best option.
The only question about the Rangers pitching is the fate of Joe Nathan, who has voided his club option. Nathan is looking for a two-year deal and Texas has not been willing to commit to more than one. Following a career year for the veteran closer, Nathan will likely find the contract offer he seeks, but the Rangers have a number of internal options to replace him.
Former closers Joakim Soria and Neftali Feliz have the most experience, though Tanner Scheppers will likely be the favorite going into Spring Training. The young right-hander was the primary set-up man for Nathan and is the heir apparent for the closer role in Texas. Despite boasting one of the top pitching staffs in baseball, Daniels will likely add some depth this winter, though improving the offense will be his top priority.
The Angels finished with the highest batting average in baseball, yet at the bottom of the league in pitching. Arte Moreno has shown a willingness to spend whatever the team needs in order to improve the roster, but he has not addressed the needs of the organization. It’s worth noting the Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton contracts were Moreno decisions.
The front office has been out of sync since Jerry Dipoto was named General Manager. Mike Scioscia and Dipoto have argued about everything from free agents to who will be on Scioscia’s coaching staff. Moreno stepping in to negotiate mega-contracts with players the Angels do not need has made the situation even worse.
It’s difficult to determine who is actually making decisions for the Angels on a daily basis with each member of the front office going in a different direction. They’re all saying the right things publicly, but it is clear they do not share the same vision for what the Angels need to do to catch the A's and Rangers. Nevertheless, the Angels have options to fix the flaws on their roster if they can come together as an organization.
The emergence of young hitters J.B. Shuck and Kole Calhoun allow the Halos to focus solely on pitching this offseason. Jered Weaver and C.J. Wilson have anchored the rotation the last two years, but the rest of the staff needs to be addressed. Matt Garza will likely receive the most interest, but Ubaldo Jimenez is another intriguing arm who may be available. They could also make a bid for Japanese right-hander Masahiro Tanaka, who may be posted this offseason.
The Angels may not be in the market for a closer, but Javier Lopez and Joaquin Benoit would bring some stability to the late innings. Scioscia made numerous attempts to piece together a bridge to Ernesto Frieri throughout the season, but the front office needs to give him more reliable options. Javier Lopez and Joaquin Benoit are both compelling options who would bring a veteran presence to the late innings. It’s unlikely the Angels can address all of their pitching needs in one offseason, though Moreno has the resources to try.
The Seattle Mariners have attempted to build a competitive team through player development, but they have been unable to produce impact hitters. They have the pitching to contend, but they must produce on offense more consistently. Of the players the Mariners have promoted since 2011, only Kyle Seager and Dustin Ackley have hit above .260 in a season.
Hired in 2008 to right the ship, Jack Zduriencik has missed on more than a few high profile trades, most notably the Cliff Lee deal in 2010. Justin Smoak still hasn’t established himself as the answer at first base and Blake Beavan has only shown occasional flashes of becoming the dominant starter the Mariners expected to receive for Lee. There is still hope for Beavan, who is just starting his career, but four years after his debut with Texas, Smoak still hasn’t figured it out.
The Mariners have a significant amount of money coming off the payroll this year, but history suggests they will not spend it. The Mariners made Felix Hernandez the highest paid pitcher in baseball, yet they have been unwilling to sign top players from outside of the organization. They have made runs at free agents like Prince Fielder, but have not been willing to do what it takes to sign anyone who can alter their chances.
The M’s will likely try again next season with the same group of players, though Eric Wedge will not be back in the dugout. The Mariners need a hands-on manager who has shown an ability to work with younger players. Eric Wedge was supposed to be that guy, but his tenure was a failure due to his inability to get the most out of his young squad.
Lloyd McClendon and Chip Hale are the most well-known among those candidates to be interviewed by Zduriencik. McClendon is likely not an option, as he is currently the leading candidate to replace Jim Leyland in Detroit. With one year left on his contract, Zduriencik cannot afford to make another mistake.
The Houston Astros may be the worst club in baseball, but the speed at which they are rebuilding the organization has been impressive. Despite losing a club record 116 games, the Astros were able to identify some championship pieces on their roster.
Jason Castro and Chris Carter were two bright spots in an otherwise awful season for the Astros. Castro, an all star this season, hit for a respectable .276 average and played exceptionally well behind the plate. The Astros are fortunate to have one of the few complete catchers in the game, and he still has room for improvement.
Carter hit 29 homers, but he needs to work on his strikeout rate to become a truly effective power hitter. These two players are a small sample of the direction the Astros scouting and player development programs are heading.
With top prospects Carlos Correa, Mark Appel and Jonathan Singleton steaming for the majors, the Astros are on track to be in contention for a playoff spot as soon as the 2016 season. Most of their top talent is still in the lower levels of the system, though after two productive drafts there is little doubt the Astros will continue to build an impressive prospect pipeline.
While the future is bright in Houston, the Astros have some revenue and fan relations problems which need to be addressed. Bud Selig forced Jim Crane to move the Astros to the AL West as a condition for his ownership approval. The Astros had been in the National League for 51 years, thus the forced move was not well received.
To make matters worse, Crane exasperated the fan base further with his comments about the team’s payroll prior to the season. These issues may have created animosity among the fans, but they pale in comparison to the damage done by the Astros’ television contract with Comcast.
When the Astros joined the Houston Rockets in a deal with Comcast to develop their own regional sports network, both organizations thought they would receive more than a typical revenue contract due to owning a stake in the network. Things haven’t gone according to plan for the Astros, who have only received approximately 30 percent of the revenue owed to them by Comcast. This is a potentially catastrophic situation for a team that is likely to lose over 100 games for a fourth consecutive season.
Things haven’t gone according to plan for the Astros, who have only received approximately 30 percent of the revenue owed to them by Comcast. Houston has attempted to terminate their 20-year deal with Comcast, but the network has filed for bankruptcy protection. This is a potentially catastrophic situation for a team that is likely to lose over 100 games for a fourth consecutive season.
In addition to the millions of dollars in revenue losses, Comcast only serves 40 percent of the Houston market, leaving the majority of fans unable to watch their team play on television. Crane is optimistic that this will be sorted out during the offseason, but with the television deals in Texas and Los Angeles, the Astros will need more revenue to compete.
The standings may remain unchanged upon the conclusion of next season, but the Astros are becoming a considerable threat in the American League West. It’s only a matter of time before this potential contender starts making noise.