Halos done dealing, but rivals aren't

December 19, 2012

After the Blue Jays acquired R.A. Dickey earlier this week, I polled 20 baseball scouts and executives for their American League East predictions. The timing was right. The Dickey trade could be the division’s last huge move this offseason.

Wednesday, the Los Angeles Angels sent designated hitter Kendrys Morales to the Seattle Mariners for left-hander Jason Vargas. Undoubtedly, margin-of-error devotees erupted in applause while anticipating a similar assessment of the AL West.

Well, I’m sorry to disappoint you: Nothing yet from the Pacific precinct.

Even as we approach baseball’s holiday recess, there’s a lot we don’t know about the 2013 AL West. Yes, it is heavy on familiar names: Josh Hamilton, Mike Trout, Albert Pujols, Yu Darvish, Yoenis Cespedes, Felix Hernandez … and … uh … maybe a Houston Astro or two, although I can’t think of any. (I do have it on good authority that they are nearing a two-year deal with left-hander Joey WhatsHisFace.)


The Angels look like Offseason Division Champions, just like last winter, but that was only good for a divisional bronze. They have added three starters (Vargas, Joe Blanton, Tommy Hanson), two late-inning relievers (Ryan Madson, Sean Burnett) and one of the game’s best all-around players (Hamilton) in less than a month. They’re spring-training-ready with more than seven weeks to spare.

For the procrastinating college students who are supposed to be studying for finals: Angels GM Jerry Dipoto is the guy who had two final papers and a take-home final on the first day of exam period. He’s done. He’s home. Or he’s skiing in Telluride. Either way, you can’t stand him — until you’re finished, too. A rival general manager or two might feel the same way right about now.

That’s why it’s far too early to handicap this division.

The Texas Rangers, coming off a disappointing season despite 93 wins, have done very little roster renovation, although they are nearing a one-year contract with left-hand hitting catcher A.J. Pierzynski. The Mariners have the prospects to make a much bigger move than Vargas-for-Morales. The Astros … I mean … have you seen the new logo?

The Oakland A’s highlight the division’s unpredictability better than anyone else. Lest we forget, they are the reigning AL West champions. They won 94 games and return five pitchers who made at least 15 starts for the league’s third-best rotation. And that doesn’t include Brett Anderson, who demonstrated in a playoff start against Detroit just how dominant he can be despite a lengthy injury history.

Billy Beane has largely (and understandably) left the pitching staff alone, although free-agent starter Brandon McCarthy signed with Arizona. Beane did tweak the position player cast: Hiroyuki Nakajima and Chris Young in; Stephen Drew, Jonny Gomes, Cliff Pennington and Brandon Inge out. The A’s will have difficulty continuing the singular chemistry they enjoyed in 2012. But with this much young pitching, they absolutely can compete again.

For all the justifiable concern over the Rangers’ inactivity, at least Texas GM Jon Daniels can take solace in the fact that his wealthiest division rival probably won’t improve much more by Opening Day. The Angels are who they are. And Daniels probably has a good idea of what he must do to beat them, after Dipoto plucked a superstar free agent from his roster just last week.

The Rangers still must add offense and could land another hitter in addition to Pierzynski, whether it’s free agent Cody Ross or a splashier trade target. They have the pieces to land any available bat — and even some that supposedly aren’t, such as Carlos Gonzalez and Giancarlo Stanton. And it’s imperative that Daniels add a starter, too, because three-fifths of the present rotation consists of an unproven lefty (Martin Perez), converted reliever (Alexi Ogando) and left-hander who regressed after a big contract extension (Derek Holland).

The temptation is there to upbraid an organization that not long ago was widely judged as baseball’s best. But it’s far too early to do that. The Rangers will swing from their heels in these final offseason at-bats.

Plus, even the Angels’ heavy spending hasn’t made them an overwhelming favorite. Dipoto effectively replaced Morales and Torii Hunter with Hamilton and Peter Bourjos in the everyday lineup. (Mark Trumbo should be the primary DH, with Vernon Wells the fourth outfielder.) The Angels will be more athletic as a result, since an outfield of Bourjos, Trout and Hamilton will cover as much ground as any in the majors. But it’s not as if Hamilton is a huge improvement over Hunter’s 2012 production.

In fact, Hunter had a higher WAR than Hamilton last season — 5.3 to 4.4 — according to FanGraphs.com. “Is Hamilton going to be that much better than Hunter was?” one National League executive observed Wednesday. “That’s the hole he’s filling.”

Meanwhile, Dipoto hasn’t added a No. 1 or No. 2 starter to a rotation that ranked eighth in the AL with a mediocre 4.02 ERA this year. Since the end of the season, Vargas, Blanton, and Hanson have replaced Zack Grienke, Dan Haren and Ervin Santana. Many in the industry would question whether that is an improvement at all.

The Mariners are a longshot for the 2013 playoffs but can make themselves more relevant with another move or two. Wednesday’s trade opened up a spot for a veteran left-hander in the Seattle rotation. (The Mariners spoke with the Dodgers recently about Chris Capuano, a source said Wednesday, but it doesn’t appear those talks have progressed.) Of course, the Mariners’ more pressing need is a trade for offense. And as Ken Rosenthal wrote this week, Seattle general manager Jack Zduriencik has the prospect capital to make that happen.

For the time being, though, we must wait for the next AL West blockbuster. While Dipoto has earned a long winter’s nap, his division rivals may be texting with Santa Boras on Christmas Eve … with visions of October dancing in their heads.