American League

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Signed LHP Hisanori Takahashi to a two-year, $8 million contract; noted INF-R Kevin Frandsen‘s departure as a free agent. [12/2]
Signed LHP Scott Downs to a three-year, $15 million contract. [12/10]
Designated C-R Ryan Budde for assignment, and noted his subsequent departure via free agency two days later. [12/13]

The Angels have been playing bridesmaid much of the winter, dickering in unconsummated suggestions that generally leave them with much the same team they finished up with. That’s not all bad news, of course—trading for Dan Haren last July was a better move for a 2011 rotation upgrade than, say, playing the Carl Pavano sweepstakes. And rather than get overly caught up in the pursuit of any one of a number of mediocrities at first base, the Angels are secure in the knowledge that they’ll be getting Kendry Morales back.

However, in signing Takahashi and Downs, they have addressed an overlapping concern involving the makeup of their pitching staff. As often as Mike Scioscia has been willing to do without a situational southpaw, after dealing Brian Fuentes away last summer, the pen lacked a lefty. Signing Takahashi and Downs answers that absence, by adding a pair of people who just pitch. Where LOOGYs resort to chuck-and-duck or look pleadingly toward the dugout when confronted by right-handed batters, Downs and Takahashi were both among the top 30 relievers in the game. Downs might set up, but he could just as easily step into Fuentes’ shoes as the lefty reliever who can tackle save opportunities they don’t want to risk with Fernando Rodney‘s always flammable combination of heat and changeups. In Downs’ case, that would be a matter of design, where with the inflammable Fuentes’, it was unwanted necessity. The Halos may very well find themselves being downright sabermetric, employing either a rotating collection of closers to right the hot hand, or embracing a committee outright and letting Downs, Rodney, Kevin Jepsen, Jason Bulger, and Takahashi all get saves wouldn’t be so very terrible.

Relievers come and go, though, and a good skipper can use all sorts of people to good effect. The most important element that signing Takahashi should present the Angels with beyond a second quality left-hander is flexibility made manifest in cleats. This is a team that needs a reasonable fall-back option for the fifth slot if Scott Kazmir can’t bounce back from last season’s disastrous campaign, and Takahashi produced six quality outings and a .475 SNWP in his dozen starts for the Mets, a decent enough clip for a fifth man. The other ready-now options still on the 40-man roster, Trevor Bell or Matt Palmer, aren’t exactly cause for confidence, but the team’s possession of that full spread of alternatives should allow the Angels to leave Trevor Reckling alone to develop if Kazmir craters all over again.

In the unfinished business department, there are at least three positions the Angels have to give some thought to addressing. First, there’s the question of whether they might still chase after Rafael Soriano, even after landing their brace of lefties. Whether you use WXRL or ARP, the bullpen’s performance last year was fairly mediocre, ranking in the second tier in each instance. Soriano ranked fourth in the majors last season in WXRL, and if he was anything close to as effective, the Halos would have depth enough in the pen to endure a hit or two—say, if Takahashi has to start, or Bulger breaks down again.

While signing Soriano would certainly help keep any lead safe, there’s the other problem, which is whether the Angels will be generating enough offense to create all that many leads. Setting aside their faith that Morales comes back or that Peter Bourjos sticks in center, and that maybe Howie Kendrick finally comes through, their most obvious need is at third base, the position where the market boasts the best player available, conveniently enough. Signing Adrian Beltre might be the difference between contention and also-ran status with this lineup. If playing chicken with Scott Boras over a sixth season in his compensation package winds up with both parties parting, they’re back to some of the familiar propositions on hand, whether unexciting and functional (Maicer Izturis) or frightening (Brandon Wood). Failing an agreement with Beltre, this might be the place for Andy LaRoche to try to land a non-roster invite, assuming there’s any point in trying to make his career a going concern again.

The other position the Angels have to figure out is their DH slot. Obvious big-name bats are still there to be had: Vladimir Guerrero, Jim Thome, and Russell Branyan, or Johnny Damon if you set your sights (and standards) considerably lower. That’s not to say they will do something with any of the “name” DH types, but when you consider their on-hand options, you can see why they might. Juan Rivera has been a useful slugger at different points in his career, but the one year where he bopped well enough to make a solid-to-average DH-quality bat was in 2006 (.292 TAv). Since then, he’s put up just one season that was average by the standard for starting corner outfielders (.276 in 2009). Given their unrepentant fascination with Jeff Mathis and with Morales’ return, there’s also the annual question of where to find enough at-bats for Mike Napoli, and his batting (.279 TAv last year, .285 career) is roughly good enough to suit them at the slot. As is, Napoli is going to be even more available for DH duties (if he isn’t simply traded) should Hank Conger put himself into the picture for playing time behind the plate in March. And there’s also Bobby Abreu, who could use several more days off from fielding, but if he isn’t in the outfield, the Angels might want to add a lefty bat capable of spot-starting a corner—room for a Jim Edmonds return to Anaheim, perhaps? Or for Jeremy Moore to earn a role at some point if he makes good on his second-half breakout in Arkansas and AFL success?

Leaving the slot to a rotation of batsmen would be an understandable, cheap fall-back if they do finally come to terms with Beltre, which is really where their focus should remain. There is no other player available who will mean as much to their lineup or run prevention, so if they have Moreno money to spend, that’s really the only place worth spending it. Spending half of the $70 million or so that they’ve reportedly offered Beltre on Rafael Soriano to try and assemble a truly awesome pen wouldn’t be half as worthwhile, and failure would only put them back into the same place I suggested Oakland finds itself in last week. If the Angels can afford both Beltre and Soriano, though, we’ll have ample cause to cancel those premature expectations of a Rangers dynasty, without even getting into whether the A’s lineup makeover makes them another viable contender.

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Signed DH-L Hideki Matsui to a one-year, $4.25 million contract; signed RHP Brandon McCarthy to a one-year, $1 million contract. [12/14]
Acquired LF-R Josh Willingham from the Nationals for RHP Henry Rodriguez and CF-L Corey Brown. [12/16]
Claimed RHP Philip Humber off waivers from the Royals. [12/17]
Signed RHP Rich Harden to a one-year, $1.5 million contract. [12/21]

I covered this ground fairly thoroughly last week, so there isn’t much to add. Grabbing Humber should provide the organization with a more reliably healthy swing option for the fifth slot or long relief than either McCarthy or Harden, but if he winds up spending the whole season as a workhorse enlisted in the River Cats’ latest bid for PCL glory, there’s nothing wrong with having an insurance policy you never end up needing. What’s left undone? Finding a better answer at third base, but we’ll see if anything changes on that score in the weeks between now and the opening of camp.

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Traded 2B/3B-R Jose Lopez to the Rockies for RHP Chaz Roe; signed LHP Erik Bedard to a one-year, $1 million (base) contract. [12/2]
Signed DH-L Jack Cust to a one-year, $2.5 million contract; agreed to terms with C-R Miguel Olivo to a two-year, $7 million contract, pending a physical. [12/10]
Traded RHP Maikel Cleto to the Cardinals for SS-R Brendan Ryan. [12/12]
Designated C-R Rob Johnson for assignment. [12/13]
Traded C-R Rob Johnson to the Padres for future considerations. [12/21]

Trading Lopez for Roe was a straightforward salary dump, but one where they’re in fairly good shape in terms of replacing Lopez’s purported remaining upside as their third baseman. After giving up 6.5 runs per nine in a full season with the Sky Sox, you might expect that the nicest things you can note about Roe was that he was once a supplemental first-rounder, and that he was healthy, but I’d credit Jack Zduriencik with a nice enough little addition. However, Roe was just 23 and pitching in the pitching hellhole that is Colorado Springs, he has a nice fastball/curve mix he used to get 6.5 K/9 in his first Triple-A campaign while walking fewer than three batters per nine. Put in front of a good defense somewhere that isn’t at altitude, and it wouldn’t be at all surprising if he winds up a useful back-end rotation regular in the next couple of seasons.

So what about third base? Admittedly, Lopez was an outstanding defender at the hot corner, rating very well in Plus/Minus and even better in Colin Wyers‘ new nFRAA with the best tally of runs above average of any third baseman in baseball in the last three seasons. Even so, coming up with something better than last year’s .239/.270/.339 line and .227 TAv at the plate will be easy enough, even if they just leave the job to some combination of Matt Tuiasosopo and Matt Mangini, or—in the greatest self-inflicted extremity—their plague of Wilsons.

Happily, trading for Ryan suggests that the Mariners might have acquired some worthwhile redundancy in the middle infield. The Cardinals may have lost interest in the slick-fielding shortstop, but if Jack Wilson proves that he’s healthy in camp, Zduriencik should be in a position to deal from that depth to whatever club still feeling needy at shortstop. We already know that the Mariners will eat a little bit of salary when they have to—the cost of employing Milton Bradley in 2011 is their single most expensive roster slot if you count what they’re paying Carlos Silva to be a Cub—so Wilson’s $5 million salary won’t be that much of an obstacle. However, just as Ryan didn’t require a great prospect to acquire, any more than J.J. Hardy or Jason Bartlett, let’s try not to burden Jack Z. with any unreasonable expectations for what he’ll get in return; in this latest return to reason, clubs simply aren’t giving up much to get a season with a good-gloved veteran at short.

I’ve lamented Cust’s lot in the past, but his move to the Mariners got written up before it had been formally inked. He’s already familiar with taking ball four as an admirable cog in a punchless offense, so he’ll feel right at home here. It would be fun to see them do something like bat Cust second behind Chone Figgins, and move Ichiro Suzuki to the third slot to see if the ultimate bat control asset has a Tommy Herr ’85 in him. It’s also not bloody likely.

Finally, ditching Johnson is an initial bit of clearing away some of the overgrown scrubbery on the roster in anticipation of their finalization of the multi-year deal they’ve reached with Miguel Olivo, but are waiting to submit to the league offices once he’s had a physical. It ought to be another upgrade from last season’s humiliating offensive performance from their backstops, who collectively generated a .205 TAv to Olivo’s .261, and since Olivo can usually be counted on to kill off a third of stolen-base attempts or more, it’s a straightforward improvement for a team that was caught carrying too many empty slots in the lineup.

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Signed C-R Yorvit Torrealba to a two-year, $6.25 million contract. [11/29]
Signed RHP Yoshinori Tateyama to a one-year contract with club options for 2012 and 2013. [11/30]
Re-signed C-R Matt Treanor to a one-year, $850,000 contract; outrighted RHP Ryan Tucker to Round Rock (Triple-A). [12/13]
Signed LHP Arthur Rhodes to a one-year contract with a 2012 option, pending a physical. [12/23]
Signed RHP Brandon Webb to a one-year, $3 million (base) contract, pending a physical. [12/26]

If you think nothing happened, then you missed the fruitless pursuit of the big-ticket item of the winter, Cliff Lee. Stuck with that failure, the Rangers have been stuck with ticky-tack transactions to leave with something to show for their December.

First, there was adding or re-adding a pair of placeholding backstops to prop up in front of Taylor Teagarden, the prospect who wasn’t left from the pile of young catching that didn’t reach very high. Torrealba is coming off a best-ever season at the plate in the most unlikely of circumstances: in Petco, and during his age-31 season. Part of that package was a career-best walk rate; he didn’t hit for power, because he usually doesn’t, but in the collection of right-handed low-OBP catchers, Torrealba was neither the best or worst; the Rangers effectively paid market price early, preferring him to the alternatives. Meh.

Left with the appealing alternatives left on the shelf once they knew they’d have to go Lee-less, signing Webb to an incentive-laden deal was perhaps the best combination of upside risk and value left. As an extreme ground-baller familiar with the challenges of pitching in a bandbox, he should be able to profit from pitching in front of Elvis Andrus and company while not suffering too terribly pitching in Ballpark. That’s if he’s healthy, something that can be safely deposited atop a list of unknowns, given that he essentially hasn’t pitched in two years.

Then there are the little bits in the bullpen, because almost everyone tinkers with that particular unit every winter. Signing Rhodes when they’re already in possession of Darren Oliver for quality set-up southpaws might seem redundant, it wasn’t like Clay Rapada provided much cause for satisfaction, and the interesting upshot of signing Rhodes is that, at the least, it ought to leave Michael Kirkman in the starting pitcher picture, since the rotation beyond C.J. Wilson and Colby Lewis involves an awful lot of hope and very little in the way of certainty. But more importantly, adding a veteran reliever while also retaining Frank Francisco is going to inspire some hope that they’ll also put Neftali Feliz back in the rotation. More likely, we’ll have to settle for more Matt Harrison, and maybe an Alexi Ogando conversion, but these are the things that spring really provides us as far as new-year resolutions.

As for signing Tateyama, if he sticks, he’ll probably wind up a situational righty—he’s a side-armer and already 35, and rather than get worked up, I’d suggest that people remember the short, ugly careers of other recent low-end imports, like Yasuhiko Yabuta, Masahide Kobayashi, or Ryota Igarashi. Not everything from the Land of the Rising Sun shines.

Tomorrow: the NL West’s moves.

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Might the Angels be interested in Fukudome for Kazmir? I think it may help both sides and the $ are nearly identical. It is not a cost saving trade but could be helpful since the Cubs seem to want to get rid of Fukudome and the Angels could use a playable defensive OF with some on base skills. The Cubs could use a starter with some upside potential. Colvin could play every day and Kazmir might just thrive in the pitcher league. What do you think of my GM for a Day trade proposal?
Am I wrong in thinking the Angels see Jordan Walden as the heir-apparent to the closer throne?