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As the A’s map out their course for the offseason, it’s worth considering how the shifting landscape of the American League West might influence their decision-making.
In recent years, the division had seemed to be split into clear “haves” and “have-nots.” But the five-team A.L. West appears to be getting stronger across the board.
The division-champion Los Angeles Angels led the majors with 98 wins in 2014, and though they were bounced in their Division Series against Kansas City, their star-studded core remains intact. The Seattle Mariners fell just short of a wild-card berth, but they appear to be an emerging force behind their excellent young pitching.
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What of the two teams that brought up the rear in the 2014 standings? The Houston Astros’ developing young talent suggests they could improve on their 70-92 record, and figure the Texas Rangers (67-95) will be better simply with a return to health of impact players such as first baseman Prince Fielder and starting pitcher Derek Holland.
“Probably the toughest division in baseball,” one major league scout observed about the A.L. West.
What does this mean for Oakland?
There’s an emerging viewpoint that A’s general manager Billy Beane might look to rebuild, after the “win-now” trades for pitchers Jon Lester, Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel this past season failed to get Oakland past the Wild Card game. ESPN’s Buster Olney went so far as to suggest the A’s will look to trade All-Star third baseman Josh Donaldson, a cornerstone player who is just now entering his first year of salary arbitration.
Beane never reveals specifics about offseason strategy, but he did mention in his end-of-year media session that “the cycles here are very short” to compete with the same cast of core players. The A’s have eight free agents, headlined by Lester, who most figure to be playing elsewhere in 2015.
Will the toughening competition in the A.L. West influence Oakland to start selling? Maybe, but keep in mind that “selling” – as it relates to the A’s – isn’t so black-and-white.
In the winter leading up to the 2012 campaign, the A’s appeared to be punting on that season as they traded pitchers Trevor Cahill, Gio Gonzalez and Andrew Bailey. As it turned out, they obtained quality major league-ready players in those deals (Josh Reddick, Jarrod Parker, Tommy Milone among them) and sprinkled in some key free-agent acquisitions. The result was a surprising late-season run to a division championship.
“They could still compete even if they deal Donaldson, as long as they’ve got that pitching,” a second major league scout said.
Sonny Gray, Scott Kazmir and Samardzija form an excellent trio to anchor the 2015 rotation, although Samardzija might end up being a prime trade target himself. He’ll be a free agent after the upcoming season and will command a hefty contract.
Oakland’s needs for next season include the middle infield – shortstop Jed Lowrie is a free agent and second base could use an upgrade. The A’s also need an impact right-handed hitter following the July trade of Yoenis Cespedes, which netted Lester and fellow free agent-to-be Jonny Gomes.
As for the other A.L. West teams, the Angels are looking for starting pitching but don’t have a lot of room to splurge without bumping up against the luxury tax. The Mariners want a right-handed bat, and their top officials have indicated a willingness to spend this winter. As mentioned above, the Rangers should improve if some of their key players simply return to health. The Astros’ ownership has mentioned a willingness to increase payroll.
What it all means for the A’s remains to be seen.
“I think Oakland has shown the ability to compete every year in different shape or form,” one of the scouts said. “Somehow it comes together for them.”