Editor's Note: This is part of a three-day series that assesses each of baseball's 30 teams in a division-by-division format. Teams are listed according to the order in which they finished the regular season in their division in 2013.
You'd be forgiven, after the A's 74-88 finish in 2011 and subsequent trades of Gio Gonzalez and Trevor Cahill, for not having predicted two consecutive division titles. But a surprisingly effective platoon-heavy offense, healthy starting pitching and a deep bullpen have led Oakland to 190 wins over the past two seasons.
GM Billy Beane's [stuff] still hasn't worked in the playoffs, though, as 2013 proved a repeat of 2012: a Game 5 shutout by Justin Verlander ended the A's season and marked their sixth straight Game 5 loss going back to 2000.
The second-base situation remains in flux as a cavalcade of solid-at-best players have rotated through the position in the past two years. Eric Sogard could return to be the long half of a platoon, but in an ideal world, he's a utility infielder. Alberto Callaspo is under contract, but his defense at the position is less than pretty and his salary, relative to the A's constraints, may not justify a role in which he mainly starts against lefties. Oakland seems to have soured on Jemile Weeks, and while Scott Sizemore is still in the organization, he's missed essentially the entirety of two straight years with knee injuries.
An upgrade at designated hitter from Seth Smith, who slugged just .391, could also be due.
Balfour's 62 saves over the past two seasons likely price him out of Oakland, especially given the A's philosophy over the past decade of building closers rather than acquiring existing ones. The team could bring in help from outside to compete with Ryan Cook and Sean Doolittle for the ninth-inning job, but it's unlikely to be a big name.
Chris Young had a miserable season and the A's have prospect Michael Choice ready in the wings to step into Young's role as right-handed platoon partner and general backup outfielder.
Kurt Suzuki was acquired for the stretch run because of injuries to the team's catching corps. His team option was much too expensive given his 77 OPS+ in the past three years, especially with Derek Norris cheap and on-hand.
Beane has already made noises about bringing back Colon. As well as he has pitched, Colon's advanced age should keep his price down in a range the A's can live with. Former Athletics second baseman Mark Ellis could become available after the Los Angeles Dodgers signed Alexander Guerrero, but Ellis is 37 and isn't clearly better than the in-house options.
The A's have not been the favorites in their division either of the past two years, not with the persistently successful Rangers and the big-splash Angels sharing the West. Whether the conversation changes in 2014 will likely depend more on who those teams import to fix their issues than on what the A's do, as the theme above is clear: The 2014 A's should significantly resemble the 2013 squad, though Beane frequently finds unpredictable ways to keep himself involved in the machinations of the offseason.
Brett Anderson, for instance, has an $8 million salary and can't stay off the disabled list. That makes a trade unlikely, but all it takes is one team that thinks it has the magic beans that will keep Anderson healthy.
Baseball has a way of defying every expectation, but there's little reason to think the A's won't be in the thick of the playoff hunt for the third straight season.
The Rangers have raised their organizational expectations to the point where a 91-win season is a disappointment, but the shape of 2013 was understandably hard to swallow: The team was in first place as late as Sept. 4, but wound up missing the playoffs. Texas lost 12 of 16 during one stretch in September, including three crucial games to the division rival Athletics. This left the Rangers needing to run off a season-closing seven-game win streak just to reach a wild-card tiebreaker game No. 163 against Tampa Bay.
The middle-of-the-pack offense held the team back, with particularly barrel-scraping performances by the team's first basemen, left fielders and designated hitters, all positions traditionally filled with big boppers. The budget could present obstacles, however, as the Rangers have nearly $90 million dedicated to 10 players after carrying a $125 million payroll in 2013. They have some wiggle room, but not enough to go on a spending spree.
Aside from the corner outfield, first base and DH spots mentioned above, the Rangers do not have a viable starting catcher under contract for 2014. There is also some uncertainty in the rotation -- after the locked-in top three of Yu Darvish, Derek Holland and Martin Perez, the team has Matt Harrison returning from injury and a couple of pitchers in Neftali Feliz and Alexi Ogando whose roles are up in the air. Colby Lewis has expressed interest in re-signing even on a minor-league deal, though he's also coming back from major injury. That's seven potential starters, but only three surefire.
With Alex Rios in the fold, the team has no need to keep David Murphy. (Whether any team has a need for a 32-year-old corner outfielder coming off a 77 OPS+ season remains to be seen.) Garza has hit the disabled list each of the past three years and is not an ace even when healthy, but he's still one of the premier pitchers on the market, so the Rangers could find themselves outbid, particularly if they turn their focus toward the offense.
Nathan was a truly elite reliever in 2013 but will be 39 next year, and the Rangers, like the A's, have a deep bullpen of options, including Neal Cotts, Robbie Ross, Joakim Soria, Jason Frasor, Tanner Scheppers and maybe Neftali Feliz. They can afford to let someone else pay Nathan the big bucks.
Assuming that Cruz returns, either on a qualified offer or a longer-term contract, the Rangers may not be able to afford another premiere bat like Mike Napoli, Kendrys Morales, Shin-Soo Choo or Carlos Beltran. If Cruz leaves, it will be absolutely imperative to replace his offense and any of those four would fit, either directly into right field or at first base and/or DH.
Marlon Byrd might be tempting in the middle salary range in right field (allowing Cruz to DH if he sticks around), but he's a 36-year-old coming off a career year, so buyer beware. Justin Morneau could be an interesting flier at first base, though he's not such an obvious upgrade over Mitch Moreland that the Rangers should commit a significant amount of money to finding out how much he has left in the tank.
The Rangers have work to do, but that work is in relatively obvious areas -- it's a lot easier to upgrade offense at designated hitter than it is at, say, shortstop.
With the Angels' continued decision-making difficulties and the Mariners' and Astros' simple lack of major-league talent, the Rangers are poised to do battle with the A's again for the division title in 2014, even without any major upgrades. If they find room in the budget for two mashers instead of just one (or pull a trade using one of their extra infielders or their very good crew of low-minors prospects), they could be downright dangerous, potentially fielding a top-notch offense to go with their already-excellent pitching staff.
This was simply not what was supposed to happen with a $141 million payroll that ranked sixth in baseball. The team returned a diminished-but-still-excellent Albert Pujols along with the best player in baseball, Mike Trout, and added masher and MVP candidate Josh Hamilton to the fold.
The pitching was going to be questionable after C.J. Wilson and Jered Weaver, but with the aforementioned top three and good supplementary pieces like Howie Kendrick, Erick Aybar, Chris Iannetta and Peter Bourjos, the offense and defense should have been good enough to make up for a subpar staff.
Instead, the Angels ended April at 9-17 and never recovered, allowing the seventh-most runs in baseball. The offense finished a decent sixth in the American League in scoring, but it was nowhere near enough to make up for the battering the pitching staff took.
Pujols played just 99 games and posted a career-low OPS+, and Hamilton stayed healthy but was a merely adequate hitter, not the superstar the team thought it was buying. Trout was Troutian, but a sole superstar won't get anywhere in baseball without help. (Ask Felix Hernandez.)
In the aftermath of the Alberto Callaspo trade, the team should also be on the lookout for a third baseman, but mainly the Angels need pitching. In the rotation, C.J. Wilson and Jered Weaver are a nice 2-3 punch, but neither is an ace at this point in their careers. Garrett Richards and Jason Vargas aren't dreadful, but Joe Blanton and Tommy Hanson are, and, in any event, "not dreadful" is not the standard a team needs to meet if it wants to get past the Rangers and A's in 2014. If help were forthcoming from the farm system, the Angels' straits might not be so dire, but in its present state, general manager Jerry Dipoto will need to look to free agency to shore up his staff.
• LHP Jason Vargas
Vargas' profoundly unspectacular numbers, especially in the strikeout column, could prevent a bidding war from starting for his services, so the Angels probably have the inside track on re-signing him to a reasonable deal to be a quietly mediocre fifth starter.
As is usually the case, there are a pile of arms available for signing, but few top-flight ones. The cream of the market consists of Ervin Santana, A.J. Burnett, Masahiro Tanaka, Matt Garza and Hiroki Kuroda, none of whom are drop-dead obvious Cy Young candidates for 2014.
Santana will cost a draft pick, which the Angels can ill afford to let go given the weakness of their minor league system, and would require the Angels to swallow their pride given that they traded him for peanuts just last year.
From the next tier of free agents, Ricky Nolasco may be a good bang-for-buck acquisition, as his solid performance outstrips his nonexistent name recognition.
The Angels have to fix their pitching, but even after they do so, their season will rise or fall with Pujols and Hamilton. If the former can return to health and the latter to his peak hitting form, then 2014 could play out the way 2013 was supposed to, with a top-notch offense and an average crew of hurlers. One note of caution is that with Wilson turning 33, Weaver and Iannetta 31, and Kendrick and Aybar 30, the supporting unit is aging into the territory where sudden cliffs become a real possibility. If some of these players fall apart or get hurt, it will undermine the Angels' chances even with good work from Pujols and Hamilton. With the age of the core on this squad and the lack of replacements working their way up, the lost year in 2013 looms large.
All of this assumes, however, that owner Arte Moreno doesn't go completely nuts and sign Robinson Cano to that $305 million deal he wants.
The Mariners have not captured the West since their incredible 116-win season in 2001. They haven't even cracked 90 wins in the past 10 years. There was hope in the air when general manager Jack Zduriencik came aboard for the 2009 season, but after an initial burst of adequacy (85 wins that year powered mainly by luck -- the team was outscored by a significant margin), the Mariners have not even sniffed .500 in Trader Jack's tenure. Justin Smoak, Dustin Ackley and Jesus Montero have failed to live up to expectations and, more specifically to 2013, the acquisitions of Mike Morse, Aaron Harang and Joe Saunders were complete duds.
There is more talent in the pipeline, especially on the pitching side, but enthusiasm for the next batch of youngsters is reasonably tempered by the failures of the prior crop.
The main Mariners need has nothing to do with the winter: They need their young players to play well. Seattle is not going to go from 91 losses to 91 wins by buying wins on the free-agent market. Indeed, the Mariners would probably do well not to put anyone in the way of Brad Miller, Nick Franklin, Mike Zunino, Taijuan Walker or James Paxton.
The team is unlikely to challenge for the division in 2014 one way or the other, so Seattle may as well take the opportunity to see whether, in addition to the legitimate prospects, players like Abraham Almonte can attain major-league success and be a supplemental part of competing teams in 2015 and later.
Morales is a worthy everyday starter at first base or DH and should thus be in demand among certain contending teams who need some pop and on-base ability. The Mariners are reportedly going to extend a qualifying offer and thus will recoup a draft pick when he leaves. Ibanez should similarly find work as a part-time outfielder and/or DH while the Mariners leave room for Almonte or Carlos Peguero.
Franklin Gutierrez's $7.5 million option was declined; he's never cracked the code on staying healthy, though that does not rule out Seattle bringing him back on the cheap just in case he finally returns to 2009 form -- he would make a nice deadline-deal flip to a contender in that case.
A backup catcher, presumably a veteran glove-man who can teach Zunino the ways of the world, will need to be signed, though that could simply mean bringing back Quintero. There is no end of other options, though, and the Mariners should not be paying much more than the league minimum for that role.
Similarly, the Mariners will need an extra outfielder or two in case of injury or the necessity for additional seasoning of a youngster. As with catcher, the in-house options (Chavez, Gutierrez) could fit. Alternatives include Trevor Crowe, Rajai Davis and Andres Torres.
The Mariners are the flip side of the Angels' coin -- Seattle also depends on its existing roster more than it does any major additions this offseason, but in the Mariners' case, they're dreaming on youngsters reaching their potential rather than aging stars regaining past glories. If enough of those players do perform to the talent they were once seen to have, then the Mariners staff can go about supplementing that core in the style of the great home-built teams of recent decades (the mid-'90s Indians, late '90s Yankees and early '00s A's come to mind).
And if the team continues to see prospects bust, then questions will need to be asked about what in the evaluation and/or development process is causing it. Zduriencik may not like the answers.
Operation "Top Pick" proceeds apace. The Astros will have their third straight No. 1 overall selection in the 2014 draft, and their third straight year of wielding the biggest bonus pool, both in the international free-agent market and the draft. What all the major league failure (an incredible 324 losses in the past three years) and all the trading of veterans has garnered is a farm system regarded as one of the best around.
Some of the products of the rebuild are trickling in: Matt Dominguez emerged as a valid starting third baseman in 2013 and Robbie Grossman may be on his way to a reasonable career as a second-division starter or fourth outfielder. The rest, including the truly top-notch talents (Mark Appel, Carlos Correa, George Springer) are still working their way up.
Patience. Though perhaps that's more in the way of what the team is asking of its fans. The front office clearly already has patience in spades, resisting any urge to sign veteran stopgaps who might stand in the way of a farm-system product who needs big-league time. The Astros could theoretically sign a star corner outfielder who would be expected to suffer through a down 2014 but would supplement the core arriving in 2015 and beyond; Springer can play center field and, further away, Domingo Santana will slot into one corner, but Houston does have room if the Astros want to get a jump on making an addition in the other corner.
• LHP Erik Bedard
Somebody has to pitch innings, and Bedard threw 151 of them this year with reasonable success, so he could be back for another go-round and another chance at being flipped for a Grade-C prospect at the trading deadline. Alternatively, he could sign up to be some contender's fifth starter directly.
In the category of star corner outfielder, the only real fit is Shin-Soo Choo (to whom the team has been linked).
Jacoby Ellsbury could also make sense if the Astros want to move Springer to a corner. The 2015 outfield market will be barren, so now might be the time to strike. The same type of plan might make sense for star Japanese pitcher Masahiro Tanaka, who will be just 25 and thus should remain in his prime even if 2014 is punted.
Elsewhere, the Astros managed to flip Jose Veras for a decent prospect seven months after signing him, so they could try that again with Jesse Crain, Octavio Dotel, Michael Bowden, Chad Qualls or any number of other solid relievers.
It is almost certainly too much to hope that 2014 will begin to end the team's dry spell. Appel, Lance McCullers and Mike Foltynewicz, top starting pitcher prospects, are getting closer, but they're not ready. Same for Correa at shortstop and Domingo Santana in the outfield.
On the other hand, outfielder Springer, who had an eye-popping 37-homer, 45-steal year across Double-A and Triple-A, should arrive in 2014, and first baseman Jonathan Singleton may get a chance in the second half if he re-establishes himself after a down year at Triple-A (which followed a 50-game suspension for marijuana). Remember, though, that even Mike Trout, the gold standard for young players, struggled in his first exposure to the big leagues, so rough patches should be expected as the enormously talented youngsters begin to arrive.
Jason Wojciechowski runs Beaneball, a blog covering the Athletics.