Angels see gap close in AL West

The rest of the American League West is closing the gap on the Angels. The other AL powers – the Yankees, Rays and Twins at the moment – seem to be pulling away.

Where exactly are the Angels headed?

Backward, it would appear. But not too far, and not for long.

The Angels, who host the Yankees this weekend (MLB on FOX, Saturday, 4:10 p.m. ET), remain the class of the West, though “class” this season might be defined as 85 to 88 wins.

Still, a division title is hardly assured, particularly with left-hander Cliff Lee scheduled to return for the Mariners next Friday and fellow lefty Erik Bedard potentially back in May.

Heck, even if the Angels win the West for the fourth straight season and sixth time in seven years, it’s difficult to imagine them advancing in the playoffs unless they make a trade or two.

For starters, the Angels might need a power-hitting third baseman if Brandon Wood flops, and another setup reliever if right-hander Scot Shields fails to return to form.

But the questions extend beyond this season.

The Rangers ranked second in Baseball America’s recent organizational talent rankings. The Mariners ranked 11th, the A’s 12th, the Angels 25th.

Such rankings are subjective, hardly a guarantee of future success. The Angels, naturally, believe their system is underrated. They are particularly excited by four prospects at Class AAA – catcher Hank Conger, 22; first baseman Mark Trumbo, 24; outfielder Peter Bourjos, 23; and left-hander Trevor Reckling, 20.

The competition, though, continues to improve.

The Mariners, under general manager Jack Zduriencik, are emerging as a serious threat. The Rangers are a sleeping giant as they await a new owner. The low-revenue A’s would be transformed if they ended up in San Jose.

The Angels’ payroll has dropped slightly in recent years, from $119.2 million in 2008 to $113.7 million in ’09 to $105 million in ’10, according to figures compiled by USA Today.

What’s more, GM Tony Reagins will not gain much financial flexibility this offseason – Shields, closer Brian Fuentes and designated hitter Hideki Matsui are the Angels’ most notable potential free agents.

This is a team that lost right-hander John Lackey, third baseman Chone Figgins and designated hitter Vladimir Guerrero to free agency last offseason, a team that is short on elite prospects at the upper levels.

But let’s not overlook the Angels’ advantages.

This is the seventh straight season in which the Angels have fielded the highest payroll in the AL West. The Mariners actually were within $3 million of the Angels in 2007 and ’08, back when they were burdened by the contracts of first baseman Richie Sexson and third baseman Adrian Beltre, among others. But the difference between the teams’ respective Opening Day payrolls this season was nearly $20 million. Seattle, even in the best of times, does not offer the same revenue potential as Los Angeles.

The Angels also are in position to replenish their farm system quickly. They had five of the top 48 draft picks last year, gaining extra selections as compensation for losing two Type A free agents, first baseman Mark Teixeira and closer Francisco Rodriguez. They will make five of the top 50 choices this year, gaining picks for losing Figgins and Lackey.

Two outfielders from last year’s draft, Mike Trout and Randal Grichuk, rank among the Angels’ top seven prospects, according to Baseball America. Another outfielder, Peter Bourjos, ranks second.

They should ease the transition from the Angels’ current roster, which is young in the infield, older in the outfield. The Angels, like most clubs, also profess to be deep in young pitching.

While the turnover after this season will be minimal, the team’s potential free agents after 2011 include two starting pitchers, right-hander Joel Pineiro and lefty Scott Kazmir, along with reliever Fernando Rodney and outfielders Bobby Abreu and Juan Rivera.

After 2012, the list of potential free agents is even more extensive: Two more starting pitchers, right-hander Jered Weaver and lefty Joe Saunders; both catchers, Jeff Mathis and Mike Napoli, and the middle infield, second baseman Howie Kendrick and shortstop Erick Aybar.

The Angels almost certainly will sign some of those players to extensions – and the enduring presence of Mike Scioscia, one of the game’s best and most powerful managers, practically ensures that the team will maintain a stable, winning culture.

Still, the landscape is changing. The Angels operate with a certain air — “we do it our way, thank you very much” — and few can argue with their results. But as the division becomes more competitive, the Angels might need to show more aggression on certain fronts.

Scott Boras clients, in particular, routinely elude the Angels in free agency. Signing center fielder Carlos Beltran after the 2004 season would have enabled the team to avoid later contracts with Gary Matthews Jr. and Torii Hunter. The Matthews deal was a disaster. And while Hunter has been a success, he turns 35 on July 18 and is in only the third year of a five-year deal.

The Angels whiffed on Boras clients in each of the past two offseasons, failing to re-sign Teixeira and declining to even bid for left fielder Matt Holliday. Kendry Morales proved a capable, affordable replacement for Teixeira. But the Angels had a plan to take advantage of both, moving Morales to the outfield.

Weaver, a Boras client, is unlikely to accept an extension, and the free-agent talent pools continue to evaporate as teams sign their best young players — particularly starting pitchers — long-term.

The good news is, the Angels are robust enough financially, and shrewd enough at developing talent to remain an upper-tier club.

Their future will just be more challenging, that’s all.