In the latest edition of MLBTR’s “3 Remaining Needs” series, we’ll focus on the American League West, which boasted two playoff teams and an 89-win third-place finisher in 2018. It appears the division will once again feature, at most, three playoff contenders in 2019, as two of its clubs are in rebuilding phases.
- Add at least one more starter. With Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole and Collin McHugh set to occupy 60 percent of the Astros’ rotation in 2019, they’re obviously in better shape than most teams. Still, it’s clear the Astros are worse off than they were last season, when Dallas Keuchel, Charlie Morton and Lance McCullers Jr. followed Verlander and Cole to comprise one of the majors’ most formidable rotations. Keuchel is now in free agency, where he may land a richer deal than the Astros are willing to fork over; Morton already left for the Rays on the open market; and McCullers will miss most or all of next season after undergoing Tommy John surgery. That leaves Josh James, who turned heads as a rookie in 2018, and Framber Valdez as the Astros’ projected No. 4 and No. 5 starters going into next season. Down in the minors, the Astros have a super prospect in 6-foot-7 righty Forrest Whitley, a 21-year-old who could debut in 2019, though he has only thrown 41 innings above Single-A thus far. All that said, there’s room for at least one veteran pickup via trade or free agency.
- Upgrade behind the plate, if possible. As with their rotation, the Astros aren’t in poor shape here. They signed the offensively solid Robinson Chirinos in free agency, and he’s slated to complement defensive wiz Max Stassi in a decent behind-the-plate tandem. Chirinos is a weak defender who’s only under contract for a year, though, while Stassi’s offense plummeted off a cliff after a hot April and May last season. Given the pair’s limitations, it’s possible the Astros will attempt to jettison the out-of-options Stassi in favor of someone better. They’ve continued to show interest in Miami’s J.T. Realmuto, the premier catcher in the game last season, but the Marlins’ asking price has been prohibitive to this point. Free agency also has one terrific option, Yasmani Grandal, whom Houston showed interest in early in the offseason. Things have been quiet since then, though.
- Pick up a left-handed reliever. In spite of Joe Smith’s ruptured Achilles, Houston’s still stacked with proven right-handed relievers. It’s not as fortunate from the other side, however, as the only southpaw bullpen options on its 40-man roster are Cionel Perez (11 1/3 major league innings) and Reymin Guduan (19 1/3). Maybe one or both of those hard-throwing hurlers will break out next year, but in the meantime, it wouldn’t hurt to have some veteran insurance. The Astros don’t have to break the bank on the top lefty reliever in free agency, Zach Britton, although they have chased him in the past. Rather, they could go for one of the many cheaper veterans available.
- Improve the rotation. The Athletics went bargain hunting for starters in 2018, signing Trevor Cahill, Brett Anderson and Edwin Jackson to low-cost deals. Surprisingly, all three moves paid dividends, and each of those veterans helped the injury-depleted A’s amass 97 wins and earn a wild-card berth. Cahill is now with the division-rival Angels, while Anderson and Jackson are free agents, leaving multiple glaring weaknesses in the A’s rotation. The team did re-sign Mike Fiers in free agency, but he’s not the most exciting choice, and the rest of its projected rotation includes pitchers who are either unproven or underwhelming. The A’s could certainly deploy the “opener” on a regular basis next season, as they did to positive results in 2018, yet there would still be space for actual starting additions. In true A’s fashion, they’re probably not going to make a big-money splash in free agency, but there are enough affordable veterans out there who could emerge as the Cahill, Anderson or Jackson of next year’s team.
- Get another catcher. If you’re an A’s fan, it’s unlikely you’re eager to watch the Chris Herrmann–Josh Phegley duo in action. Those two own a combined lifetime wRC+ of 139, and neither have been defensive stalwarts. Oakland’s arguably a fit for Realmuto or Grandal, though there’s no indication the team has pursued either to this point. More realistically, a free agent such as Martin Maldonado could make sense as Jonathan Lucroy’s successor. Maldonado’s not much of a hitter, but as a longtime defensive standout, A’s pitchers would likely benefit from his presence.
- Find left-handed relief depth. The lone lefty in the A’s bullpen is an excellent one, Ryan Buchter. There are no lefty options to be found after him, though, so the club could stand to buy itself some more aid. As noted above in the Astros section, reasonably priced free-agent possibilities abound.
- Keep shedding costly veterans. The Mariners were nearly a 90-win team last season, but their success in the standings didn’t convince general manager Jerry Dipoto that they were true contenders. As a result, Dipoto has undertaken an aggressive “re-imagining” campaign that has seen the Mariners part with Robinson Cano, Edwin Diaz, James Paxton, Jean Segura, Carlos Santana (acquired for Segura), Mike Zunino, Alex Colome, Juan Nicasio and Ben Gamel in a bevy of trades. There are more trade candidates on hand, too, including just-acquired veterans Edwin Encarnacion, Jay Bruce and Anthony Swarzak, not to mention holdovers Dee Gordon, Mike Leake and Kyle Seager. Admittedly, it would be a major challenge to move all (or even most) of those players, but at least a couple are real candidates to don different uniforms come 2019. Meanwhile, if it wants to continue upgrading its formerly atrocious farm system, Seattle wouldn’t have any trouble finding takers for the likes of Mitch Haniger, Mallex Smith or Marco Gonzales. It appears they’ll remain in place, however, with Dipoto hoping they’ll be key parts of the next contending Mariners team.
- Pursue more starters and relievers. With Paxton gone, Leake and Gonzales are the only M’s starters who are good bets to perform respectably in 2019. It’s not a certainty either will be on the team then, though, nor is it clear what the club will get from Felix Hernandez, Wade LeBlanc or prized prospect Justus Sheffield (acquired for Paxton). Because Seattle’s unlikely to contend next season, it’s not going to spring for someone like Keuchel in free agency, but Japanese import Yusei Kikuchi is a worthwhile target. Dipoto has made it known he’s a fan of the 27-year-old Kikuchi, who figures to sign a deal long enough to make him a factor on Seattle’s next good team – if the GM’s plan works, of course. Regardless of whether Kikuchi becomes the latest Japanese star to join the Mariners, it would be wise for them to pursue other vet arms – both starters and relievers. They could search for their next LeBlanc, who was unexpectedly effective in 2018 after signing a cheap, major league deal, and perhaps flip the player(s) at the deadline for more prospects. Safeco Field is a good place for a pitcher to improve his stock, after all.
- Bolster bench depth. The M’s projected bench for 2019 includes David Freitas, Ryon Healy and Kristopher Negron, with minor leaguers Dan Vogelbach, Joey Curletta, Kaleb Cowart, Dylan Moore, John Andreoli and Braden Bishop also in the 40-man fold. Aside from the mediocre Healy, there’s not an established major leaguer in the bunch. On one hand, there’s an argument Seattle should mostly stick with that group and see if anyone is capable of grabbing a role in the majors. On the other, it wouldn’t hurt to bring in vets on minor league deals or perhaps cheap MLB pacts, potentially giving the M’s more players to flip for youth during the season.
Los Angeles Angels
- Continue searching for starters. Having added Cahill and Matt Harvey in free agency, it’s possible the Angels’ heavy lifting is done in their rotation. It probably shouldn’t be, though, as neither of the Angels’ new additions are all that trustworthy. Elsewhere in their rotation, there’s hope for Andrew Heaney, Tyler Skaggs and Jaime Barria, but they also come with question marks. If the Angels are going to make an aggressive push toward contention during Mike Trout’s final two years of control, Keuchel or Kikuchi may give them the front-end starter they don’t seem to have at the moment (the injured Shohei Ohtani excluded). Keuchel would be especially pricey, though, and it’s unknown whether owner Arte Moreno wants to spend much higher than the team’s projected Opening Day payroll of $167MM.
- Address the bullpen. The Angels are reportedly interested in free agent David Robertson, who’d be a quality pickup for a team in need of shutdown innings late in games. He’s far from the only free-agent reliever capable of boosting the Halos, though. While most of the top free-agent relievers are righties, the team should also have its eye on lefties. After trading Jose Alvarez this month, the sole southpaw reliever on the Angels’ 40-man is Williams Jerez, who struggled mightily across 15 major league innings in 2018.
- Buy infield insurance. The Angels are golden at shortstop with Andrelton Simmons, but the rest of their infield picture looks somewhat bleak. What if Zack Cozart scuffles again after an injury-shortened 2018? What if David Fletcher doesn’t hit enough to hold down a starting job? What if the newly signed Justin Bour puts up a second straight disappointing offensive season? Those are all valid questions the Halos have to consider, meaning they should be monitoring the market with the fear that their infield plans (Simmons aside) could go awry next season. They’re reportedly interested in free agent Josh Harrison, who’d provide a nice fallback option at both second and third. Fellow free agent Marwin Gonzalez, who can play every infield position and both corner outfield spots, would make even more sense. However, he may be out of the Angels’ price range.
- Land more pitching. The rebuilding Rangers may trade their top starter, Mike Minor, but even if they keep him, there’s room to add to their rotation. The club already made one noteworthy pickup in Lance Lynn, whom it signed to a three-year, $30MM contract this month. With Lynn in the mix, the Rangers are likely now pushing for Kikuchi, who could slot in near the top of their rotation for several years. Besides Kikuchi, Texas should be focusing on low-cost stopgaps who can eat innings and allow young hurlers such as Jonathan Hernandez, Taylor Hearn, Brock Burke and Joe Palumbo to get more seasoning in the minors. Assuming Minor goes, Lynn would be the Rangers’ only decent bet to handle a heavy workload next season. Edinson Volquez and Drew Smyly may join Lynn in that regard, but it’s hard to be overly optimistic considering the recent arm problems which have stalled their careers. Similarly, despite the presence of lights-out closer Jose Leclerc, bullishness likely isn’t merited with Texas’ bullpen. As a non-contender, the team shouldn’t be splurging on any free-agent relievers, but it’s a logical landing spot for affordable veterans who could potentially become trade candidates during the season. The Rangers have already inked two such arms in Jesse Chavez (two years, $8MM), whom they signed last winter, traded over the summer and brought back this offseason, and Jeanmar Gomez (minor league deal).
- Consider trading Leclerc and others. Although he enjoyed his best season in 2018, the Rangers just traded 25-year-old infielder Jurickson Profar because they didn’t believe he’d stick around for the long haul. Perhaps we’ll see even more deals along those lines from general manager Jon Daniels prior to next season. The Rangers may not have a more appealing trade chip than the 25-year-old Leclerc, whose value is likely at its zenith. Texas may try to extend Leclerc as a result, but there’s a legitimate case the team should trade him this offseason. The Rangers aren’t ready to win, and a shutdown closer isn’t a must-have piece for a team in that position. Leclerc’s controllable for the next four years, including one more pre-arb campaign, and would probably net a bounty in return. The likes of Minor, Nomar Mazara, Joey Gallo and Shin-Soo Choo also shouldn’t be untouchable, though they would bring back more modest packages than Leclerc. The club may simply hold Mazara and Gallo – who are under control for three and four more years, respectively – as opposed to selling low. The two were closer to average than spectacular in 2018, but youth is on the duo’s side (Gallo’s 25, Mazara’s 23), meaning one or both could emerge as long-term core members in Arlington. At 36 and with two years left on his deal, Choo’s time with the Rangers is waning. Choo can still produce offensively, but as an expensive DH/corner outfielder who’s on the wrong end of the aging curve, he’d probably be impossible to trade without taking back another team’s undesirable contract in return. That may not be worth the trouble for the Rangers.
- Address third base. After the revered Adrian Beltre retired last month, third base temporarily belonged to Profar. Now that Profar’s gone, the Rangers’ No. 1 option at the hot corner looks to be Patrick Wisdom, whom they acquired from the Cardinals during the Winter Meetings. A first-round pick of the Redbirds back in 2012, Wisdom finally debuted in the majors last year and held his own, albeit over just 58 plate appearances. Maybe the 27-year-old will take the opportunity in Texas and run with it, but in the meantime, it appears the club will add a veteran fallback. Harrison and Matt Davidson are among the players who have been connected to the Rangers in the rumor mill.