Angels are one player away

ANAHEIM -- The Los Angeles Angels were half-a-contender in 2011, which makes figuring out the next step pretty easy, wouldn't you think? Even the guys in the middle of the fray can see it. They're pretty unanimous about what's been lacking for the past six months.

"The big bat would definitely help things out," Jered Weaver said.

"The one player we need is a power hitter," Torii Hunter said.

"I think a little more offense would be a good thing," Dan Haren said.

Even with some poorly timed bullpen failures and the disintegration of the back of the Angels' rotation, the Angels still led the American League in ERA. They pretty much had to, or contending into the final series of the season would have been unlikely. The Angels finished 10th in runs, 11th in on-base percentage and eighth in slugging.

As owner Arte Moreno, general manager Tony Reagins and manager Mike Scioscia confront the offseason following Wednesday's 3-1 loss to the Texas Rangers, they've got two choices: fix their shortcoming or improve their strength.

It might be easier to do the latter. There is a glut of pitching entering the free-agent market this fall, while the premium offensive players tend to play a position -- first base, shortstop or outfield -- where the Angels are either set or logjammed.

As challenging as it will be to bridge the gap with the Texas Rangers, the Angels have some glimmers of hope this winter. Assuming Moreno is willing to spend as freely as he did this year, the Angels should have the finances to sign a couple of second-tier free agents. About $40 million is coming off the books, much of which has been going to two players who did nothing for the Angels this season, Gary Matthews Jr. and Scott Kazmir.

Accounting for raises, Reagins should have about $26 million to play with if Moreno approves another $140 million payroll. With a pitching nucleus of Weaver, Haren and Ervin Santana, the possible return of slugger Kendrys Morales, plus an emerging group of young players, the Angels could be one hitter and one bullpen arm away from returning to World Series contention.

"I love the nucleus of this club, I love the youth, I love the veterans on this club," Scioscia said. "I think we're still championship caliber, with some depth that needs to be added."

The challenge, as always, will be isolating the right names and playing the right cards in negotiations. The Angels' front office couldn't have had a much worse offseason than it had a year ago, when the Boston Red Sox outbid them for Carl Crawford. The Angels made a trade -- getting Vernon Wells for Mike Napoli and Juan Rivera -- that was universally panned and turned out worse than anyone feared. Wells finished the season with the worst on-base percentage in baseball and Napoli (.320, 30 home runs) had a career year.

The biggest names this fall are Albert Pujols, Prince Fielder and Jose Reyes, players who figure to be too pricey for the Angels and also play the same positions as some of the Angels' best players, Morales, Mark Trumbo and Erick Aybar.

The Angels figure to wade into a deep, if not star-studded, market for pitching, with relievers Heath Bell, Matt Capps and Jonathan Papelbon all available, and starters Zack Greinke, Matt Cain, Cole Hamels, Shaun Marcum and C.J. Wilson all potentially out there. The Angels would love to land a proven reliever who could mentor Jordan Walden until he's ready to become a consistent closer. The Angels led the league in blown saves and were 13th in save percentage.

After their big three, there are no certainties in the rotation. Joel Pineiro is a free agent and, while Jerome Williams probably pitched well enough to be in the mix, youngsters Tyler Chatwood and Garrett Richards didn't do enough to lock up a spot.

The Angels got scant power from their third basemen and virtually no offense from their catchers, but neither of those problems is easily fixed. It's a down period for premium offensive players at those positions and teams that have them -- such as the Tampa Bay Rays with Evan Longoria and the St. Louis Cardinals with Yadier Molina -- figure to hold onto them dearly.

The Angels finished 10 games out in the AL West in 2010 and 10 games out in 2011, so how much really changed? One thing that didn't budge was the Rangers, who simply got hot later in the season this time, leaving the Angels to linger within striking position. Texas' only major loss could be Wilson, a free agent. The rest of their team, including recently acquired relievers Mike Adams and Koji Uehara, figures to be back next year.

"Even with a lot of the issues presented to us this year, starting in spring training, I think we proved that we're close, but there is a separation that we need to close," Scioscia said.

Mark Saxon covers the Angels for ESPNLosAngeles.com.