Now in its last year of existence, baseball’s short stack will get rounded out to five teams when the Astros enter the American League in 2013. But in the meantime, it’s another four-way wrestling match. However, it’s also a starkly segregated division. On one side, you’ve got the defending pennant-winning Rangers (twice over) and their chief rivals, the Angels. On the other side, the Athletics have won 74-76 games in four of the last five years, while the Mariners have been stuck in the 60s for wins in three of the last four.
1. Rotation: Add a veteran? Or re-sign C.J. Wilson?
It isn’t that what the Rangers have right now isn’t good -- most teams would love to have a young quartet as talented as Neftali Feliz, Derek Holland, Alexi Ogando and Matt Harrison lined up with Colby Lewis. They could probably win the division with that. But is any one of them that stopper you expect to beat a playoff team with? Holland or Feliz might grow into it, or Ogando, but do the Rangers want to count on the Madduxes and the talent, or will they hedge their bets by bringing Wilson back or going after someone like Roy Oswalt?
Likely solution: If they don’t bring Wilson back or win the bidding on a high-profile vet with playoff experience like Oswalt, they’ll opt out and not buy a veteran guaranteed rotation slot just for the sake of it. It’ll be either a significant upgrade or some retread for organizational depth, with nothing in between.
2. First base -- Settle or shop?
Last season, it might have seemed like they did quite nicely without having an everyday answer, rotating Mitch Moreland, Mike Napoli and Michael Young through the slot. However, Young isn’t much of a first baseman, Moreland failed to develop at the plate and Napoli spends a good chunk of his time catching. Rangers first basemen rated a whopping 12th in the American League in OPS, beating out only the A’s grab bag of prospects and the Rays rentals. While they’re not likely to get in on Prince Fielder or Albert Pujols, is there anyone else worth chasing?
Likely solution: Unless the Rangers want to revisit last winter’s drama of shopping Michael Young, it doesn’t seem likely that they’ll end up spending serious money at first base. Seeing if Moreland develops at age 26 while they settle for good defenders in center wouldn’t be the end of the world, but this is the team that might get the biggest benefit from sneaking in on Carlos Pena.
3. Center field -- Settle or shop?
The Rangers will need to sort out whether or not they want to add someone new to the mix. Josh Hamilton made only a month’s worth of starts in the middle pasture, and the Rangers spent much of the season with Endy Chavez and Gary Gentry batting ninth and splitting time in center while Julio Borbon’s season was lost to injuries. Will they settle for Gentry and Borbon in 2012, and take their blend of defense and OBP? The market isn’t exactly rich in alternatives.
Likely solution: Here, they can let it ride or go cheap on another defensive specialist, say, Rick Ankiel, with the hope that he rebounds in the Ballpark’s friendly confines. There’s not a lot of point in overpaying the likes of Coco Crisp to be just slightly better.
Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
The biggest issue was finding a solution to the Jeff Mathis fetish, but they’ve addressed that with their pickup of Chris Iannetta. Even if Iannetta’s .707 OPS outside of Coors Field might be a splash of cold water for folks expecting the second coming of Mike Piazza, he’s still a bigger slice of that pie at the plate than Mathis will ever be.
1. A premium bat.
You’d think that with Albert Pujols, Prince Fielder and Carlos Beltran on the market this would be easy, but the Angels are stacked with bodies (if not bats) at the corners. Figuring where to go for a premium hitter is the real trick, because the Angels have stuck themselves with so many ex-famous people, and that’s without getting into what they need to do with Mark Trumbo if Kendrys Morales’ comeback works out. The rumors of interest in the Mets’ David Wright to play third base makes some sense as a deal from depth, but acquiring Wright for Peter Bourjos -- which is really only a good idea if they know they can work out an extension with Wright -- wouldn’t erase their overlapping issues at first base, DH and the outfield corners. Aramis Ramirez is notionally the same sort of fix, except his play at third base leaves a lot to be desired; it wouldn’t be long before he wound up playing a lot of DH or first base.
Likely solution: It won’t be easy to work something out, but third base is a good place to go. But they can’t settle for getting one year of Wright before free agency for five of Bourjos and call it a day. Ideally, Jerry Dipoto needs to swap out one of the aging stiffs and bring in a real thumper, no easy feat. If he manages it, he might automatically win the label for Hot Stove MVP. If he also gets Morales back and bopping in 2012, the offense will be better still.
Even if Garrett Richards is almost ready and regardless of whether or not you want to believe Jerome Williams is an answer, they’re best left to fight it out for the last slot. Because of the mess on offense, one way to compensate would be to add a premium starter to help keep more games in reach. Unfortunately, the market isn’t stocked with quality options, but chasing after C.J. Wilson is an obvious avenue to pursue, giving the rotation a quality lefty to balance their reliance on Jered Weaver, Dan Haren and Ervin Santana up front.
Likely solution: Signing Wilson would be the easy solution. They hold 2013 options on Haren and Santana, but beyond that, it’s Weaver and nobody in terms of commitments. Signing Wilson would address that while providing balance.
3. Making room for Mike Trout.
The ex-famous people problem is the real issue here. Torii Hunter will be turning 32 next summer; he isn’t going to get any better. Trumbo’s just the new Dave Kingman if he builds on his rookie season. Bobby Abreu’s power is a distant memory, and Vernon Wells’ dead-cat bounce in 2011 only went so high. These are the guys in Trout’s way to everyday play, not Bourjos.
Likely solution: It’s easy to say these things will sort themselves out, but by July, it’s doubtful that Trout will be any more ready than he already is. Eating the $63 million it’ll cost to employ Wells the next three years might be more affordable because Trout’s under contractual control for the next six years.
If you’re an outfielder, the A’s need you, because all three regulars are outbound. Ryan Sweeney might get to man one corner, and you might hope that Jermaine Mitchell mounts a bid on the job in center. But the A’s really need to sign an outfielder or two, ideally one who can play center. Re-signing Crisp as a placeholder seems to be getting a lot of consideration, which would be a return to the lamentable legacy of Willie Wilson serving time in this outfield in the ’90s, and cause for joy for nobody. After a .960 OPS between Double- and Triple-A, Mitchell’s interesting as an athletic, late-developing farmhand, but he’ll be 27 next year. There’s also Michael Taylor, once considered one of the top prospects in baseball, and currently more of a source of frustration after two mediocre seasons at Sacramento.
Likely solution: The only likelihood is that the fixes will be cheap. Whether it’s a matter of absorbing the tail end of other people’s bad-news deals if they’re footing the bill, renting hitters a year removed from free agency like DeJesus and Willingham, or sifting through the bargain bin, get ready for a new temp crew.
2. Power: 12th in the AL and 24th in MLB in Isolated Power (ISO)
Even if they wind up with outfielders like the ones we’ve noted, it isn’t like Crisp or Mitchell or Sweeney provide any power, which the A’s will sorely need with Willingham’s departure. Between Brandon Allen, Chris Carter, Daric Barton and Kila Ka’aihue, they might have in-house answers for first base and DH, but a multitude of options is not the same thing as having answers.
Likely solution: Ditching Hideki Matsui has helped open room for the crowd of first base/DH options, and a full season from Scott Sizemore at third base should help, but don’t be surprised if the A’s spring for one slugger to man first, DH or one of the outfield corners. It might help them remain 12th in the league.
3. San Jose or bust.
This is really the most important issue for the franchise this and every winter until it’s resolved, but team owner Lewis Wolff is slowly wading through lawsuits by proxy and MLB’s indecision over territorial rights to Santa Clara County to complete a ponderously slow attempt to move south within the East Bay region. The mayor of San Jose asked for this to be fixed two years ago; he was politely ignored. The city’s now trying to sell land to Wolff for the express purpose of building a ballpark, but it’s unclear if he’ll be allowed to move his team to the city out of an exaggerated consideration for the Giants’ claim. If the A’s were generous in ceding rights to San Jose when the Giants were moving into their new digs (away from San Jose), the Giants have been selfish in subsequently asserting their claims.
Likely solution: There isn’t one. The A’s and their fans as well as the cities of San Jose and Oakland remain hostage to the original sin of Bud Selig and company for sloppily and generously granting the Giants these rights in the first place. It’s up to the industry to fix that error, but so far there’s been an abdication of authority from MLB in the face of noisy assertiveness from the Giants. The Giants are well within their rights and understandably acting out of self-interest -- either to try and force the A’s out of the market, or extort an ill-gotten payday -- but this needs fixing. With the CBA and Astros’ sale done, this should be the top item of business for the commissioner. Let’s see if he treats it that way.
1. A middle-of-the order thumper. (.115 ISO, 28th in MLB)
You can blame playing in Safeco, but that goes only so far, as the Mariners’ .658 OPS on the road was only slightly better than their awful .623 OPS in home games. Much of the problem is self-inflicted -- they’re the team that values punchless shortstop Brendan Ryan for his virtues afield more highly than any other, after all. While the holdovers in the outfield almost all endured horrific 2011 seasons, a group that includes Ichiro Suzuki, Franklin Gutierrez, Trayvon Robinson, Mike Carp and Michael Saunders is capable of doing better. Which really leaves third base, DH and possibly first as the places where GM Jack Zduriencik might add an impact bat. This has fed into a lot of speculation over Zduriencik’s former Milwaukee connection to Prince Fielder.
Likely solution: Landing Fielder would be a major coup, but it would be a fairly extreme act of faith by Fielder that Zduriencik’s going to get this thing turned around during the life of his contract, assuming Seattle even has the money for that kind of offer. It’s more likely that the Mariners will have to settle. A right-handed bat would be great for their lineup’s balance, but Safeco is death on right-hander power, suggesting that someone like Aramis Ramirez wouldn’t be a good fit. Guys like Casey Blake and Ryan Ludwick are familiar to manager Eric Wedge from their days in Cleveland; they’re also not really answers. Moving Carp to DH and looking at J.D. Drew or Jason Kubel would be a little more interesting.
This is really about making sure they get innings until a few more of the kids are ready for call-ups. Ideally, any veteran would also be someone they could flip at the deadline. Top prospects like Danny Hultzen and James Paxton might earn September call-ups, but the Mariners need someone to take the ball in the meantime. Because they have a great venue for pitchers and a strong defense to offer as inducements beyond cash, they should be able to find someone interested.
Likely outcome: They’ll get the inning guys like Aaron Harang, Paul Maholm and Jon Garland should be calling the Mariners rather than the other way around; finding somebody will be more a matter of finding someone willing to sign for what they’re willing to offer. It would be interesting to see if the M’s could induce Hiroki Kuroda to sign on rather than return to Japan now that the Dodgers are out of the picture.
3. Third base: Open.
Prospects Alex Liddi, Francisco Martinez and Vinnie Catricala are all a bit rough at the hot corner, and the Mariners probably have zero interest in giving Figgins another crack at the job after witnessing his .595 OPS in two seasons in Seattle. Kyle Seager might get the lion’s share of playing time by default if the Mariners don’t add a vet for temp duty. It won’t cost them the pennant.
Likely solution: Third base is an area of need for a lot of teams, and if the Mariners are willing to eat most of the $18 million they still owe Figgins, they’d almost certainly find an interested party. They shouldn’t waste the roster spot indefinitely if they’re not going to play him. A veteran placeholder like Blake might fit here on a one-year deal, assuming Zduriencik doesn’t conjure up a better solution with some wheeling and dealing.
Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.