AL West hot stove recap

 


Last season was a forgettable one for Seattle Mariner fans who were forced to watch the American League (AL) West division standings turned upside down in a way that didn’t result in their team reaching the postseason. The two worst teams of 2014 reached the postseason and the two teams that had reached the postseason the season prior took a step backwards. At the same time, the Mariners – who were projected to be a World Series contender – ended up losing 86 games.

This abrupt change of fortune made for an exciting baseball season, plus helped set the stage for an interesting Hot Stove season. As with every off-season, priorities vary between teams as will their respective approach to address weaknesses and/or accentuate areas of strength. With pitchers and catchers set to report next month, it’s about time to review what the Mariners’ rivals have done to improve their rosters so far. It’s important to emphasize the “so far” because there’s still time for deals to happen, especially with several high-impact free agents still on the market.

For each team, you’ll see a payroll projection from baseball-reference.com. The numbers will become more firm after the arbitration process has run its course. For those interested in specifics, MLB Trade Rumors provides arbitration estimates that are widely used by numerous baseball sites, including Baseball Reference and Prospect Insider, which can be found here.

Next, up is each organization’s needs at the end of last season – based on projected free agent losses and areas of weakness. After that, there’s some background information on each club, a summary of their moves to date, and what’s left to be done before the teams break camp for the regular season.

Houston Astros
Estimated payroll: $88.9M
Needs: 1B/ LF/SP/RP

The massive roster reclamation undertaken by Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow propelled the team into the playoff picture much sooner than most observers had predicted. Houston led the division for most of the season before falling on hard times in September. Despite their late season setback, Houston managed to beat the New York Yankees in the AL Wild Card game and extend the World Series champion Kansas City Royals to five games before bowing out in the Divisional Series.

It’s reasonable to anticipate that last year’s rapid improvement and high expectations for 2016 will lead to a groundswell of fan support in 2016. What’s unknown is club owner Jim Crane’s willingness to provide Luhnow with more payroll flexibility. Player salaries have incrementally increased over the past few seasons from a league-low $26 million in 2013 to approximately $72 million last season. Although the team’s payroll will increase again, it’s projected to remain in the bottom third of the league despite the fact they franchise is based in the fourth largest city in the United States.

Off-season action:
Thanks to the bevvy of young talent that Luhnow and his predecessor – Ed Wade – have amassed and the fact that they were able to retain a couple of key free agents, the Astros haven’t made dramatic changes to their roster. In fact, they’ve added the fewest new major league players of any club in the AL West.

The club’s biggest move was picking up closer Ken Giles from the Philadelphia Phillies. Giles’ arrival permits Houston to make former closer Luke Gregerson their eighth inning set-up man. Another move that helped bolster their bullpen was their retention of southpaw Tony Sipp, who was in high demand on the free agent market.

The Astros filled their left field hole when Colby Rasmus became the first player to ever accept a qualifying offer. As with the Giles deal, keeping their own player improves their overall by keeping Jake Marisnick and prospect Preston Tucker waiting in the wings.

What’s next?
It appears that the Astros plan to use Evan Gattis as their primary designated hitter and rely on former top prospect Jon Singleton at first base after the club non-tendered Chris Carter. The team would be well-served to either acquire a full-time first baseman or at least someone provide depth at the position.

Since Chris Davis has opted to stay in Baltimore, the market for first baseman has thinned out considerably. Justin Morneau can still play, but his concussion history makes him a risk. Another option would be Steve Pearce who can play first base or in a corner outfield spot. That kind of versatility is always a plus for any organization, especially if the team carries eight relievers and only has three bench players  – including a catcher. Based on market availability, the club may be best served to look for a trade partner.

As far as the rotation, adding a solid starter like Texas native Yovani Gallardo – who’s made 30 or more starts in seven consecutive seasons – would help provide depth and an innings eater for the Astros. Another option could be former Mariner Doug Fister who hasn’t been as durable, but would come with a lower price tag.

Fortunately for the team, the main pieces of their roster are relatively inexpensive and the lineup should improve simply by having AL Rookie of the Year Carlos Correa and fellow rookie Lance McCullers for an entire season as long as they avoid a sophomore letdown. Also, healthy production from outfielders Carlos Gomez and George Springer for an entire season provides an instant improvement. With that said, the areas that I just noted need to improve in order for the club to get ahead in the competitive AL West.

Peter Gammons of the Gammons Daily noted yesterday that three different baseball executives have told him that they believe that free agent Yoenis Cespedes could end up in Houston. Certainly, the Astros could afford the 30-year-old outfielder from a financial standpoint, especially with so many young stars under team control for the foreseeable future. However, the club would likely need to move one of their outfielders or Gattis to make room for the right-handed slugger on their roster.

Oakland Athletics
Estimated payroll: $83.1M
Needs: 1B/2B/SP/RP

The Athletics are attempting to get back on track after a disastrous last place finish. Oakland fans were forced to watch their team finish with 68 wins, while former Athletic Josh Donaldson – who was traded last off-season – won the AL Most Valuable Player and helped the Toronto Blue Jays reach the AL Championship Series.

The fact that the club has demonstrated a willingness to deal a budding superstar, like Donaldson, has led to speculation that the A’s might do something similar with ace Sonny Gray. After all, the 26-year-old would bring a significant return. Team vice president Billy Beane recently told MLB Radio that he doesn’t intend to trade their star hurler and best player. The right-hander has a 2.88 earned run average (ERA) in 74 career starts and is under team control through the 2019 season. That’s right, the pitcher who finished third in last season’s AL Cy Young award voting will earn the league minimum in 2016. If Beane changes his mind, he won’t have trouble finding potential trade partners.

Off-season action:
Since the cash-strapped club is never in the market for a upper-tier free agents and management is currently unwilling to part with their staff ace, the Athletics are more inclined to assume risk and make unconventional acquisitions like free agent starting pitcher Henderson Alvarez, who was signed to a one-year $4.25 million deal. Alvarez, who was non-tendered by the Miami Marlins after having shoulder surgery last summer, will open the season on the disabled list. However, he’s only entering his age-27 season and will be under team control through 2017.

Another reclamation project is southpaw Rich Hill. The 35-year-old – who’s been a reliever for the majority of his 11-year career – will be starter for the Oakland in 2016. Both Alvarez and Hill present different kinds of risks for the club. Time will only tell if either gamble pays off for the Athletics.

To upgrade second base, the club obtained infielder Jed Lowrie from the Astros, which prompted them to ship Brett Lawrie to the Chicago White Sox in exchange for minor league pitchers Jeffrey Wendelken and Zack Erwin – a fourth round pick in the 2015 Major League Baseball Amateur draft. I’m sure that some Oakland fans feel a sense of irony in seeing Lawrie leave just one season after being part of the package received for Donaldson.

At first base, the A’s acquired Yonder Alonso in a trade with the San Diego Padres. The left-handed hitter represents a significant upgrade at the plate over Ike Davis and is viewed as a good defender. Alonso will likely pair with the right-handed hitting Mark Canha to form a first base platoon when Canha isn’t playing in the outfield.

Oakland aggressively addressed their bullpen needs by adding relievers Ryan Madson, Liam Hendriks, John Axford, and Marc Rzepczynski. The team hopes that these four veterans – plus a healthy Sean Doolittle – will help reinvigorate a relief corps that permitted an AL-worst 34-percent of inherited runners to score last season.

What’s next?
With the trade of righty Jesse Chavez for Hendriks, Manager Bob Melvin will have to rely upon Hill and youngsters Jesse Hahn, Chris Bassitt, Kendall Graveman, Sean Nolin and Aaron Brooks to form a rotation behind Gray. Jarrod Parker could also be in the mix after missing the past two seasons due to arm surgery.

Teams with higher operating budgets would have the payroll flexibility to address their rotation needs by going after a lower-tier free agent starter like Gallardo, or even Fister. Perhaps, the market will drive down the price on one of the remaining free agents. If the club stands pat with the current roster, a lot of things have to go just right for Oakland to contend in 2016.

Los Angeles Angels
Estimated payroll: $167.7M
Needs: C/3B/LF/more offense

The Angels remained in postseason contention until the last day of the 2015 season, but fell short to Houston for the second wild card spot. The abrupt mid-season departure of former general manager Jerry Dipoto provided an opportunity for the Angels to redo their front office and assess their roster with a fresh set of eyes.

New general manager Billy Eppler inherits a roster weighed down by the $45 million that veterans Albert Pujols, Jered Weaver, and C.J. Wilson will be earning in 2016. Plus, the team is on the hook to pay former Angel Josh Hamilton $26.4 million, although he’s playing for the Texas Rangers. In total, the Halos have over $70 million obligated to four players who are either in decline or playing for a divisional rival.

To compound matters, owner Arte Moreno is on record saying that he’s reluctant to go over the luxury tax threshold of $189 million. As a result, the team hasn’t been active in an big-ticket free agents.

Off-season action:
Shortly after taking over the baseball operations, Eppler pulled off his first significant deal by getting shortstop Andrelton Simmons and minor league player Jose Briceno from the Atlanta Braves in exchange for shortstop Erick Aybar and pitching prospects Sean Newcomb and Chris Ellis.

Adding a defensive stalwart like Simmons is a plus for the Angels. But, it came at the cost of two prospects and didn’t address an area viewed as an urgent need – shortstop. Newcomb is a potential top-end starter, who is ranked in the top-20 among all major league prospects and number-two in the Braves system. Filling a more urgent hole in a deal would have beneficial for the Angels’ 2016 outlook.

The remaining moves made by the Angels were low cost additions. With the departure of last year’s third baseman – David Freese – via free agency, the club acquired Yunel Escobar from the Washington Nationals in exchange for reliever Trevor Gott and minor leaguer Michael Brady. Newly acquired Geovany Soto is expected to pair with youngster Carlos Perez to form the Angels’ catching tandem. Plus, free agent Cliff Pennington can play second base, shortstop and third base and some outfield, if needed.

What’s next?
Although Eppler has stated that he believes Moreno would approve exceeding the luxury tax mark for the right player, the team has yet to find that player and make a significant upgrade at any position from an offensive standpoint.

The area that desperately needs that “right player” is left field. For a club that ranked number-25 in on-base percentage last season, upgrading the position with an established offensive player would be a step in the right direction towards reinvigorating the club’s offense. Currently, the club has arguably the best player in the game – Mike Trout – in center field and Gold Glover Kole Calhoun manning right field. Calhoun has pop in his bat, but his batting average and on-base percentage are just league-average.

That leaves a potential tandem of Daniel Nava and Craig Gentry to man left field. Other outfielders currently on the team’s 40-man roster include Todd Cunningham, Efren Navarro and minor leaguer Rafael Ortega. If the Angels can’t find more offensive punch from their outfield, 2016 could be another year of the club’s offense being Mike Trout and eight other guys.

Three free agent outfielders who would be an immediate upgrade be Cespedes, Dexter Fowler and Justin Upton. But, it comes back to the same thing – ownership’s reluctance to go over the luxury tax mark. Perhaps, they can sign a lower tier free agent like Austin Jackson or Denard Span. Neither is a perfect fit, but would present better options than what’s on the current 40-man roster.

Texas Rangers
Estimated payroll: $144.2M
Needs: C/SP/RP

The defending AL West division champions were forced to take a broken road to postseason contention last year. First, the club lost ace Yu Darvish to Tommy John elbow surgery in Spring Training. To make matters worse, the club was forced to go without the services of fellow starters Derek Holland and Martin Perez for the first half of the season. Throw in the uncertainty surrounding slugger Prince Fielder – who was returning from neck surgery – and the Rangers 2015 outlook appeared bleak.

While most observers didn’t expect Texas to be a contender after their run of bad fortune with their rotation, general manager Jon Daniels never waved the proverbial white flag. He continued to look for opportunities to improve his roster for 2015 and beyond throughout the season. He first reacquired former Ranger Hamilton from the Angels after he wore out his welcome in Anaheim. Hamilton’s contributions proved to be limited. But, Daniels made his most significant moves in July when he traded for Philadelphia Phillies ace Cole Hamels and added relievers Jake Diekman and Sam Dyson to bolster his bullpen.

Fortunately for Daniels and his ball club, the Rangers were able to ride out their early misfortune. Holland and Perez returned after the all-star break, Fielder earned American League Comeback Player of the Year honors, and Hamels helped the club make a late surge to pass the Astros and Angels to win the division. Now, the club is poised to compete for the postseason again.

Off-season action:
To a degree, Daniels got an early start with his off-season shopping when he picked up Hamels, Diekman, and Dyson last July. The club’s major hot stove move was trading outfielder Leonys Martin and pitcher Anthony Bass to the Mariners in exchange for reliever Tom Wilhelmsen, outfielder James Jones, and prospect Patrick Kivlehan. The key to this deal for Texas was adding the hard-throwing and versatile Wilhelmsen to buoy their bullpen, which now brags a core of closer Shawn Tolleson, Diekman, Dyson, sophomore Keone Kela, and their newest addition from Seattle.

The Rangers also signed former Mariners outfielder Justin Ruggiano – who rakes against left-handed pitching – to boost outfield depth and possibly be a back-up first baseman. Ruggiano also provides the team with some insurance in case Hamilton encounters performance or availability issues. Although the fan favorite is expected to be a regular contributor, Hamilton underwent another knee procedure this off-season and has struggled to stay healthy. The silver lining for Rangers’ management is that the Angels are paying the majority of his salary. So, the team won’t be fiscally constrained if they need to move past the former league MVP.

Despite the speculation that the club wouldn’t retain their arbitration-eligible catchers – Chris Gimenez and Robinson Chirinos – both players are still on the roster. Gimenez would appear to be the low-hanging fruit if another option were to be found. He had a strong 2015, however, his .255/.330/.490 slash in a small-sample size of 113 plate appearances were well above career averages.

What’s next?
The team appears to be satisfied with going to the Cactus League with Darvish and Hamels serving as co-aces and having Holland, Perez, Colby Lewis, Nick Martinez, and Chi Chi Gonzalez competing for the final three rotation spots.

Top prospect – third baseman Joey Gallo – wowed fans with his tape measure home runs after being called up to fill in for the injured Adrian Beltre last season, but his high strikeout rate landed him back in Class-AAA ball after Beltre returned. The team began playing the young slugger in left field last season and could permanently transition him to the outfield, especially if reports are correct that the club is working on extension for the seemingly ageless Beltre. It’s also possible that Gallo could be an injury replacement at first or third base.

It’s possible that Daniels will, once again, wait until the regular season to further upgrade his roster. One potential trade chip – shortstop Jurickson Profar – could be in high demand if he proves that he’s ready to play the field after two shoulder surgeries and a long recovery. It’s unlikely that Daniels would be willing to move the former number-one overall prospect in the majors when his value is so low. It’s more probably that he’ll hold onto Profar until he regains his form either with the big league club or at Class-AAA ball.

Final thoughts
It’s important to note once again that there’s still time for deals to be made, especially with several high-profile and many lower-tier free agents still on the market. Position players like Cespedes, Upton, and Dexter Fowler would make sense for more than one AL West club, if the price was right. The same could be said about Gallardo or Fister.

Every one of these clubs will continue to attempt to add major league talent, plus extend minor league invites to players in order to create more depth opportunities, especially with relievers and starting pitchers. Even after the season starts, there’s still time to make additions to the roster. Just look at the 2015 Rangers and their in-season maneuvering if you’re looking for a blueprint on how to upgrade on the fly.

Later this week, I’ll cover the Mariners’ very active Hot Stove effort to upgrade their roster and brighten their 2016 outlook.

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Luke Arkins

Luke is a native New Yorker, who grew up a Mets fan. After the US Navy moved him to the Pacific Northwest in 2009, he decided to make Seattle his home. During the baseball season, he can be seen often observing the local team at Safeco Field. You can follow Luke on Twitter @luke_arkins
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