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November 13, 2008

Hot Stove Preview

AL West

by Marc Normandin

LOS ANGELES ANGELS
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What Do They Need? A power hitter who also can help out with the club's OBP issues, one that plays either left field or first base. They may need one more quality arm (though not a comparable one) in the bullpen to offset the likely loss of K-Rod to free agency, especially if they fail to patch up the offense.

What Do They Have? Right now, the Angels are set at third base with Chone Figgins, at catcher (Jeff Mathis and Mike Napoli), and in their middle infield with Erick Aybar at short and Howie Kendrick at second. They even have the backups for those positions sorted out, with one of their top prospects, Brandon Wood, next in line to take over at either short or third if necessary, and Maicer Izturis still around to play the role of super-utility. The outfield is a bit more confusing than that, with center fielder Torii Hunter the only definite piece. Vladimir Guerrero's option was picked up, but he may end up as the team's DH in order to keep him healthier and more productive. Gary Matthews Jr. is still under contract, but that's not necessarily a blessing; his actual defensive performance is well below the reputation he earned from "The Catch," and with Hunter already manning center, his bat does not play well in either corner. The rotation is set one through four, and if they fail to sign a fifth starter, someone like Nick Adenhart or Dustin Moseley may step in to claim the job. Scot Shields and Jose Arredondo are more than enough insurance to cover the loss of Francisco Rodriguez in the bullpen.

What Are They Likely To Do? The Angels do not have the resources freely available to lock up one of the major starting pitchers on the market, which is why they plan on using the kids they already have in place of a free agent. The rotation is essentially set. They are currently talking to both first baseman Mark Teixeira and closer Francisco Rodriguez about returning, and all future conversations with free agents this winter will be influenced by the outcome of those two moves. If the Halos succeed with both players, they will be quiet the rest of the winter, at least with major moves. They declined Garret Anderson's option already, but chances are good the Angels will attempt to reunite with him at a lower price.

What Should They Do? The first order of business should be paying Teixeira whatever it takes to stay put in Anaheim, as they were a completely different club with him around. Their offense jumped from 4.5 runs scored per game to 5.1 after adding him, and though they still were not a 100-win caliber team then, they were better than the 84 third-order wins they finished the season with. Without him, they are much closer to the pack out west-at least initially, Kendry Morales would be his replacement, which is a huge downgrade in spite of his ability. Ignoring Francisco Rodriguez's contract demands in order to lure another hitter into town with that money may not be a bad plan; Adam Dunn and Pat Burrell are both free agents, and even Raul Ibanez would not be a bad piece to acquire. With just Teixeira they are easily the top team in the AL West, but the addition of another quality bat would keep them on par with the big boys of the AL. If they do avoid K-Rod, picking up a reliever without a hefty price tag is a must; Chad Cordero is a California native recovering from labrum surgery, and should be ready in time for spring training.

TEXAS RANGERS
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What Do They Need? Losing Milton Bradley hurts, but they should still have one of the best lineups in the game even without him; if Nelson Cruz finally turns into a major league-caliber hitter, then they are all set on the offensive side of things. They need players who can field, but most of the top free-agent position players are not known for their gloves, just their bats. The changes will have to come in the rotation, where Vicente Padilla (5.76 ERA, 1.7 SNLVAR in 2008) may be their best current option. To help on that front, Eric Hurley should be back for the start of the season, and they hope Kason Gabbard's elbow injuries are a thing of the past. But even with those two around, they need more pitching; they're just stopgaps right now, not answers, which means GM Jon Daniels has work to do.

What Do They Have? Though Bradley is a free agent, this is still a lineup that can smack the ball around: David Murphy and Cruz are two solid options for the corners, especially with superstar Josh Hamilton in center. Michael Young and Ian Kinsler make up one of the better offensive middle infields in the game. Chris Davis showed promise during his first year in the majors, and will man first base. Hank Blalock was moved off of third permanently, but helps to fix the lineup's one glaring issue, the DH spot. Marlon Byrd is a useful supporting piece in the outfield, especially if Cruz slips up or develops slowly. They also have four catchers and/or catching prospects capable of starting on most teams. On the pitching side of things, the Rangers have nothing. They had the worst rotation in the majors last year-they were nearly 25 full wins behind the first-place Blue Jays in the SNLVAR rankings, and there were 51 starting pitchers who individually produced more than the entire Ranger rotation. The bullpen is in much better shape, with Frank Francisco and C.J. Wilson, but they do not have the depth to make up for the rotation's inadequacies.

What Are They Likely To Do? The Rangers have already publicly commented on the fact that they think long-term, expensive contracts to pitchers are the worst risk in baseball, and something they will not invest in. That means they are going to miss out on the high-profile starting pitchers who can pick up both dollars and years, and instead focus on veterans on their way out (such as Kenny Rogers, a former Ranger) or retreads trying to come back from injury or ineffectiveness (Jason Jennings, Mark Mulder, or Bartolo Colon, perhaps?). If they decide against any of those options, they are going to once again try to go at it with in-house solutions, with familiar results.

What Should They Do? They play in one of the most hitter-friendly venues in existence, but that does not mean they should skimp on starting pitching entirely. Yes, long-term contracts with lots of dollar signs are risky, but the Rangers are not going to go anywhere if they fail to take risks. They should give lots of money to the right starting pitcher, in order to balance reward versus risk properly, and give themselves a fighting chance in the division. A.J. Burnett strikes out hitters and keeps the ball on the ground more often than in the air, and he does not walk a ton of hitters; that's the kind of guy they need to anchor their staff, not some pitcher who, along with Kevin Millwood, would make this staff look great if it were 1999.

OAKLAND ATHLETICS
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What Do They Need? Another bat that is above-average at his position-beyond Matt Holliday. Right now, you could make the argument that Jack Cust is the second-best hitter on the team. They need a new shortstop, as Bobby Crosby is just not getting it done with three straights years of sub-.300 OBP production. The bullpen and rotation are both stocked with a lot of promising young talent, so with Oakland's limited budget, their money is better spent trying to improve the lineup.

What Do They Have? Plenty of good players, but a shortage of great ones beyond Holliday. Eric Chavez, Bobby Crosby, Mark Ellis, and Daric Barton could make up a solid infield, and Kurt Suzuki is potentially better than many behind the plate, but the outfield, even with Matt Holliday, may be lacking in punch. Travis Buck, Ryan Sweeney, Chris Denorfia, and Rajai Davis all saw playing time in 2008, and are not the best lot to pick two-thirds of your outfield from if you're competing for a division title. At least Jack Cust is there at DH to hit for power and get on base, even if his batting average is closer to .200 than .300. The A's have plenty of young arms ready to test as major league starters. Justin Duchscherer had plenty of help from his defense last year en route to his breakout campaign as a starter, but he will still have his home park and a quality defense behind him once again as he takes the mantle of ace. Following him are Dana Eveland, Sean Gallagher, Gio Gonzalez, and then possibly someone like Dallas Braden, who threw 71 1/3 innings before going down with a groin injury. While not an excellent staff like the first-half version from 2008, this is still a group of arms that may pan out well enough that the Athletics can compete, assuming they also hit a little. The bullpen, even sans Huston Street, may be good enough without adding a veteran. They'll have a full season of Brad Ziegler to build on last year's 59 2/3 innings and 1.06 ERA, and though Joey Devine probably won't replicate his 0.59 ERA, his adjusted ERA totals were still impressive. Jerry Blevins also pitched well during his short stint with the club, and since his peripherals are solid enough, the A's may have themselves at least three dependable arms in relief.

What Are They Likely To Do? Given they already made a splash in trading for Holliday, there is not much else left for the club to do besides turn the Rafael Furcal rumors into fact. Furcal would give the lineup the extra bat it needs, and better yet would replace Bobby Crosby's replacement-level production. Most of the quality outfielders on the market are out of their price range, so unless they can pick someone else up on the cheap, they are probably done with everything except working on the margins until spring training. They have enough young players all over to use position battles with in-house options as a way to set their lineup.

What Should They Do? Make sure that Rafael Furcal joins the Athletics. He is not a .357/.439/.573 hitter like he was over just 143 at-bats last year, but he is capable of hitting roughly .285/.350/.410 while picking up steals at a quality rate. Furcal's worst season in recent memory, an injury-plagued 2007, saw him nevertheless earn 11.8 VORP at short, over a full win more than Crosby's output last year. If he is able to replicate his 2005 or 2006 seasons value, we are talking about a four- or five-win improvement for the A's on offense alone. He's also average or better with the glove, and less of an injury risk than the incumbent. If they acquire him, they are less likely to be dealing Holliday away by July 31, as they should be competing.

SEATTLE MARINERS
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What Do They Need? A hitter to replace Raul Ibanez' production in the outfield if he skips town as a free agent... and even then, perhaps a few more quality bats beyond that. They could use more help in the rotation, especially with Carlos Silva providing plenty of regret in the rotation, but they will not be able to afford that if they first get a hitter. The lack of bats is the issue that makes everything else look worse, because even when the pitchers are good they do not come away victorious.

What Do They Have? Ichiro Suzuki is holding down the fort in right field, Jose Lopez is growing as a player at second base, and Adrian Beltre hits well enough at third given he has one of the best gloves at the position. Outside of that, the M's are looking at a bunch of players who need to turn into quality major leaguers if they are to avoid 100 losses again. Outfielder Jeremy Reed, catcher Jeff Clement, and shortstop Yuniesky Betancourt all need to figure out how to hit, and soon, or we will see a repeat of 2008. They have Felix Hernandez in the rotation, and the combination of Brandon Morrow and Ryan Rowland-Smith gives them two intriguing young pitchers, but outside of that group you have some serious question marks on the staff. Is Erik Bedard a top-tier starter when healthy, or was 2007 all he had as far as that kind of season? Can Silva avoid being an absolute train wreck on the mound, and instead just be more like a traffic accident where everyone walks away unscathed? The Mariners' budget is limited-nearly $80 million is tied up into players already, an amazing feat given the lack of talent on the roster-so they need the problems in the rotation to work themselves out.

What Are They Likely To Do? The Mariners are in disarray after the reign of Bill Bavasi and his poorly thought-out plans. Because of this, new GM Jack Zduriencik will most likely spend this winter working on the little things, making small transactions and avoiding committing too much money to one single player. Bats are (thankfully) the focus for Zduriencik this winter, whether they re-sign Ibanez or not, though Ken Griffey Jr.-the name most often associated with rumored M's shopping these days-is not an answer, but would rather be a ploy to make Mariners fans forget or ignore that the team's awful.

What Should They Do? Target their sunk costs and jettison them. Carlos Silva is either going to be league average or worse, and overpaid either way. Jarrod Washburn has not been bad in a vacuum for the M's, but with his price tag he should also be moved to any interested party. In light of the ever-increasing price tag associated with average starting pitching, his contract should not look too bad to some other clubs in desperate need of a starter. They are not going to compete this year, so figuring out which of the young, inexpensive players with their service-time clocks already ticking are going to be productive members of Mariners society is the best plan going forward. Adrian Beltre is a free agent after this season, so finding a home for him in exchange for useful pieces that can help build a better future is something to look into, despite his being one of the few productive players in the lineup. Their 2009 season should be treated as an audition for 2010, when they'll have more spending money available for free agents, and at which point the kids will be further along in their development.

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