AL West Hot Stove preview: Can anyone here mess with Texas?
The Rangers will return a pennant-winning team almost completely intact
The Angels should be able to improve their offense without sacrificing defense
A decimated rotation leaves Oakland without much to build around
This week, SI.com will analyze the offseason plans for each team in a division-by-division format. Teams are listed in order of finish in 2011.
2011 Results: 96-66, AL West champs, World Series
Runs Scored/Runs Allowed: 855/677
Pythagorean Record: 98-64
Pending Free Agents: SP C.J. Wilson, RP Darren Oliver, RP Mike Gonzalez, SP Brandon Webb, CF Endy Chavez, C Matt Treanor
Prospects on the Verge: CF Leonys Martin, SP Martin Perez, RP Mark Hamburger, RP Tanner Scheppers
Building For: Another pennant and that last strike
Strengths: Returning a pennant-winning team almost completely intact
Biggest Holes: Front of rotation, middle relief
Targets: 1B Albert Pujols, 1B Prince Fielder, Wilson, SP James Shields, SP Roy Oswalt, SP Edwin Jackson, RP LaTroy Hawkins, RP Chad Qualls
With their World Series appearance this year, the Rangers became the first non-eastern team to win back-to-back pennants since the 1991-92 Braves (who were actually in the National League West at the time). With their new ownership and television deal and one of the strongest farm systems in the game (per this FlipFlopFlyBall graphic, the Rangers' and their affiliates had the best organizational winning percentage in baseball in 2011), they have a very real opportunity to build a dynasty near Dallas, thereby enabling countless headline puns built around 1980s prime-time soap operas (prize goes to whomever can work in Falcon Crest). That's why Pujols and Fielder are on the "targets" list above, despite the fact that first base is not listed as one of the team's biggest holes. The Rangers can cover first base as they did this year through some combination of Mitch Moreland, Mike Napoli (with Yorvit Torrealba filling in at catcher), and Michael Young, but bringing one of this offseason's big bats to their launching pad of a home ballpark could put this team into orbit.
Failing that, the Rangers do need to reinforce their bullpen, and with Wilson their only significant free agent, need to secure a front-line starter to anchor their rotation, which could soon find itself without its two best starters from the 2010 pennant run. Unfortunately for Texas, there aren't many front-line starters available, with Wilson, who is widely regarded as a No. 2 at most, the best of the available bunch. Many insiders, including our own Jon Heyman, have been skeptical about the Rangers' willingness to make a big offer to Wilson, but they might be forced to do so due to a lack of alternatives. The Rays' James Shields may be available via trade due to the emergence of Matt Moore, and the Rangers certainly have the pieces to land him, but the Rays may be hesitant to trade Shields to a team that they're likely to face in the postseason, as they did in this year's Division Series (note that Tampa Bay banished Matt Garza to a struggling team in the other league, the Cubs). Roy Oswalt is a compelling option as a short-term solution to take the pressure off the still-emerging Derek Holland and Alexi Ogando and give top prospect Martin Perez some more time in the upper minors. Edwin Jackson is not a front-end starter, but he could be a reliable part of a rotation that lacks experience. Another option would be to sign a top closer such as Jonathan Papelbon and move Neftali Feliz into the rotation, though Feliz would likely experience some growing pains in his new role, and would be subject to an innings-limit in the coming season. As for the bullpen, Hawkins and Qualls aren't terribly exciting names, but both are ground ball pitchers who would be a good fit in Arlington.
2011 Results: 86-76, 2nd place
Runs Scored/Runs Allowed: 667/633
Pythagorean Record: 85-77
Pending Free Agents: 1B Russell Branyan, SP Joel Piņeiro, RP Fernando Rodney, RP Horacio Ramirez
Players with Options: OF Bobby Abreu ($9 million, vested)
Arbitration Eligible Players: 1B Kendrys Morales, 2B Howie Kendrick, SS Erick Aybar, 3B Alberto Callaspo, C Jeff Mathis, SP Jerome Williams
Prospects on the Verge: CF Mike Trout, SP Garrett Richards
Building For: Keeping up with the Rangers
Strengths: Top three starting pitchers, team defense, Trout
Biggest Holes: Catcher, heart of the batting order
Targets: 1B Albert Pujols, 1B Prince Fielder, C Ramon Hernandez
Angels fans already have a reason to like new general manager Jerry Dipoto: He's the man who traded Dan Haren to Anaheim while serving as the interim GM of the Diamondbacks. He also had nothing to do with trading Mike Napoli for Vernon Wells, the trade which very likely earned former GM Tony Reagins his walking papers. The Angels team that Dipoto inherits from Reagins has its flaws, Wells being a glaring one, but thanks in part to that Haren trade, it also has some significant strengths. Principle among those is run prevention, keyed by a strong front three in the starting rotation and excellent team defense. Only the Rays allowed fewer runs in the American League this year, and only the Rays and Padres had a better park-adjusted defensive efficiency (the rate of turning balls in play into outs). To be fair, Wells, a former Gold Glove center fielder moved to left, contributed to the latter, which was also huge part of why Jered Weaver had such a great season. The Angels should be able to improve their offense, which was the fifth-worst in the AL last year, without sacrificing defense.
The first step is to push Wells to the bench in favor of top prospect Trout, a speedy center fielder with tremendous potential at the plate who was universally lauded as one of the top two prospects in baseball coming into this season, alongside the Nationals' Bryce Harper. Trout is just 20 and could have some growing pains after skipping Triple-A to join the big-league club for parts of last season (and largely struggling at the plate in those limited opportunities), but Wells' .218/.248/.412 performance this year set the bar sufficiently low. In fact, even the struggling Trout out-hit that line after his mid-August recall, hitting .250/.318/.450 in 88 plate appearances, and Trout is widely regarded as a future superstar.
Second, the Angels have $23 million coming off the books now that they're finally free of their obligations to Scott Kazmir (another blight on Reagins' record) and Gary Matthews (Bill Stoneman's blunder). That's right around the annual salary of former Angel first baseman Mark Teixeira, and would make an awfully nice down payment on Prince Fielder or Albert Pujols, either of whom would give the Angels a desperately needed thumper in the middle of their lineup. Yes, Mark Trumbo will make a solid showing in this year's Rookie of the Year voting, and yes, Kendrys Morales is supposed to finally return from his ankle injury next year, but Trumbo will be 26 in January and posted a .291 on-base percentage this year, undermining his considerable power, and, after a year and a half on the disabled list and two surgeries on his ankle, Morales still isn't guaranteed to be ready by Opening Day and seems closer to a non-tender than a productive season at first base in Anaheim. The Angels are likely looking to make a big splash with their new GM after striking out last winter under Reagins, so look for them to go aggressively after one, if not both, of those big-prize first basemen.
Finally, Hank Conger remains the Angels' catcher of the future, but he struggled at the plate in May and wasn't give much opportunity thereafter despite Jeff Mathis continuing to be sub-replacement-level at the plate. Mathis, who has earned $3 million over the past two seasons and hit .184/.222/.268, is up for arbitration again this winter. He should be non-tendered and replaced with a veteran who can help ease Conger into the starting job. Ramon Hernandez is the best of that lot on the free-agent market. Though his production over the last two seasons has largely been a product of Cincinnati's Great American Ball Park, he has also thrown out 36 percent of opposing base stealers and would be an improvement over Mathis on both sides of the ball. Of course, so would just about any other major league catcher, including former Angel Jose Molina, who is also a free agent and may be required as Mathis methadone for Halos skipper and catch-and-throw junky Mike Scioscia.