Sizing Up The AL West, Hot Stove League Style

The last time NASA checked, the ultimate goal in baseball is, of course, to win the World Series. Every last team in the league has that aspiration. From the New York Yankees to the Toronto Blue Jays to the Kansas City Royals and the Tampa Bay Devil Rays.

Some clubs go about their business with different levels of ambition, but winning the whole enchilada is what the game is all about.

For the Seattle Mariners, getting to and winning the World Series is indeed the organization's objective. They do go about things in a business-like manner, but from top to bottom the club has a deep desire to be crowned the best in the game. You can always question their priorities, but that is another conversation for another day.

But first things first. The M's have to leapfrog a few obstacles right in front of them, before they can move their eye to the prize. They have to find a way to overtake the other three teams in their own division before the postseason and the World Series can even enter their immediate thought process.

To do so, the M's are clearly in the market for a couple of quality starting pitchers, some help behind the plate, a left-hand hitting left fielder and a stronger bench. But while the Mariners are out doing their winter shopping, the Texas Rangers, Oakland Athletics and two-time defending division champion Los Angeles Angels aren't going to be at home sitting on their rumps and waiting for Santa and his sleigh to bring them a Merry Christmas or lighting the menora to ignite all the Hanukkah Joy.

Oakland GM Billy Beane is going to be out searching for another creative deal to land him cheaper talent on its way to prime years, in return for his own players who are on their way out of the best years of their careers. He does it almost every winter.

Angels' GM Bill Stoneman, perhaps the most underrated front office executive in the game, will be on the lookout for another bat and perhaps more help for the starting rotation, with the likely departure of at least one of their own free agent arms.

Rookie GM Jon Daniels presents the most interesting scenario. He's the youngest general manager in the history of the game, and is certainly going to be itching to make a splash in his first winter at the helm. Texas needs pitching, pitching and more pitching, and they could also use a center fielder.

In other words, Mariners' GM Bill Bavasi won't be shopping in an empty mall.

Oakland Athletics
Alberto Castillo, C Joe Kennedy, P OF Bat
Jay Witasick, P Juan Cruz, P LHR
Ricardo Rincon, P Bobby Kielty, OF 4th OF
Keiichi Yabu, P Adam Melhuse, C SP
Erubiel Durazo, DH Mark Ellis, 2B RH Bench Bat
Octavio Dotel, P Kiko Calero, P Catcher
Scott Hatteberg*, DH Seth Etherton, P Reserve MI

Available Payroll: $7-12 million

Trade Bait:
Oakland will almost certainly take calls on left-hander Barry Zito in hopes that that the Yankees would send them Chien-Ming Wang or prospect Philip Hughes in a package deal, or possibly Anibal Sanchez from the Boston Red Sox.

The A's could use some offense to offset the solid young pitching that already exists in the starting rotation. Oakland was able to score some runs in 2005, but in the end their lineup was incapable of sustaining any semblance of consistency, forcing the starting pitcher to hold the opposition to three runs or less night-in and night-out.

Oakland already exercised their option on outfielder Jay Payton and if he ends up starting, the A's offense is going to have to suffice, pretty much as it stands. Left field and DH are the only two positions in which they do not have a viable starter already on the roster.

Rincon is re-signable, but Beane may look elsewhere for left-handed relief help. Durazo had TJ surgery this fall and is unlikely to return. Hatteberg has a team option for '06, which may or may not be exercised, depending on how fruitful the market is for the A's early on in free agency.

A good portion of the A's available payroll is going to be spent on keeping the arbitration eligible players in Oakland, so Beane will have to pull his magic act again this winter.

Texas Rangers
Kenny Rogers, P Alfonso Soriano, 2B SP
Richard Hidalgo, OF Kevin Mench, OF SP
Steve Karsay, P Gary Matthews, OF SP
Doug Brocail, P Rod Barajas, C CF
John Wasdin, P Koaquin Benoit, P RP
Greg Colbrunn, DH Brian Shouse, P RP
None R.A. Dickey, P Corner OF

Available Payroll: $10-18 million

Trade Bait:
The Rangers may be able to land a quality starting pitcher for arbitration-eligible second baseman Alfonso Soriano, who could get as much as $10 million this winter after making $6 million in 2005.

The Mets are known to covet Soriano and have Aaron Heilman, Victor Zambrano and Matt Lindstrom to offer as part of a trade package.

The Rangers' need for starting pitching runs deep, even with a few solid pieces in place in center-handers Kameron Loe and Chris Young. Kenny Rogers is not going to be back and the market is thin in the pitching department. Daniels is going to have to work the phones and land a pitcher via the trade route. But he's got pieces to offer.

Expecting the Rangers to land a significant starter via free agency is like expecting the Miami Hurricanes football team to start picking up their opponents after knocking them down, and out, or getting local beat writers to share what they know, instead of sugarcoating the truth in favor of the lies that the franchise tells the public.

Translation: It's just not going to happen. Mostly because the parties involved have next-to-nothing in the form of what's necessary to make it happen in the first place. The ‘Canes don't have respect for their adversaries, certain beat writers don't have a clue, and the Rangers don't have the natural surroundings that tell a starting pitcher that the BallPark at Arlington is the place to spend the prime years of their career.

Soriano may not be the only Rangers' slugger on the block. Don't be surprised if Texas makes a move with Hank Blalock, who struggled during the second half of this past season, but has a ton of value being a plus defender with a good left-handed stick – and a reasonable contract at just 25 years of age.

Los Angeles Angels
Bengie Molina, C Scot Shields, P OF
Jarrod Washburn, P Brendan Donnelly, P DH
Paul Byrd, P Francisco Rodriguez, P 3B
Jason Christianson, P Jose Molina, C LHR
Tim Salmon, DH Jeff DaVanon, OF RP
Curtis Pride, OF Juan Rivera, OF Bench Bat
Lou Merloni, 2B John Lackey, P CF

Available Payroll: $8-16 million

Trade Bait:
Potentially, first baseman Darin Erstad could be moved back to the outfield, likely left, making Garret Anderson the DH or the bait of a trade to add more offense or another starting pitcher.

The Angels aren't sure that Dallas McPherson can play third base everyday, leaving the option of moving McPherson to left or using him as the DH, and dealing Anderson for a third baseman.

Stoneman would love to get a taker for Steve Finley, who is due $7 million next season with a $1million buyout for 2007. With Anderson's contract a tough one to move as well ($36 mil guaranteed through 2008), the Angels have their work cut out for them. But the Manny Ramirez rumors are flying, and the Halos have the money to take on Manny Ramirez, if Anderson is shipped east to Boston in the trade.

Washburn is rumored to be a goner, Byrd says he'll return for a one-year deal, and Molina wants to test free agency. All three are likely to occur, although it is not known how interested in Byrd the Angels are at this point.

With Jered Weaver and Joe Saunders nearly ready for the big leagues and a rotation stocked with Lackey, Bartolo Colon and the return of Kelvim Escobar, Los Angeles could get by without Byrd in their rotation.

But someone needs to step in and protect Vlad Guerrero or none of the pitching will matter, anyway. A healthy McPherson, a full year of first baseman Casey Kotchman and the potential addition of Ramirez would make the Angels' offense, well, ungodly.

The M's have a long road to haul, but it's not an unattainable venture. With youth, money, a decent farm system, a legitimate cleanup hitter and the league's best defense behind the one thing that the M's haven't had since 1998, Seattle's journey to the top of the American League West is far from impossible.

That one thing? Felix Hernandez. Already one of the top starting pitcher's in baseball at the bargain basement price of $316,000.

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