PT TOMORROW: AL WEST—TEX signs a middle infield

Texas Rangers

Coming off a 102-loss year and with just over $50M of committed  salary, the Rangers went to work quickly this offseason and probably aren't finished. They signed prominent free agents Corey Seager (SS, TEX) and Marcus Semien (2B, TEX) to multi-year deals that should lock down the TEX middle infield for the foreseeable future. Health permitting (notably for Seager) both should be OK in Arlington. But fantasy owners should be mindful that neither will have the offense-friendly home venue or surrounding lineup they enjoyed last year; the 2021 Rangers finished dead-last in AL scoring and OPS. 

Seager's acquisition projects to bump Isiah Kiner-Falefa (SS, TEX) from SS to 3B—and likely a utility role if/when top prospect 3B Josh Jung (3B, TEX)—.990 OPS over 342 PA at AA/AAA last season—is ready for his MLB debut, which could come early. Semien's arrival puts Nick Solak's (2B, TEX) role (and perhaps his stay) in Arlington into question, given his sub-par glove pretty much everywhere. 

To fortify an unsettled outfield, 35-year-old veteran Kole Calhoun (OF, TEX) was also signed to a 1yr, $5M deal. Calhoun's and season-long hamstring issues aborted any 2021 liftoff (5 HR, .670 OPS, 85/145 PX/xPX over 182 PA). But though the Rangers are hoping that some of their younger/unproven OF names—Adolis García, Willie Calhoun, Leody Taveras perhaps Solak again in LF—can put together consistent/healthy seasons, there's enough uncertainty here for a healthy Calhoun to pick up at least another 400+ AB as a HR source vR. Injuries will almost certainly be a factor here.

The club also signed free agent Jon Gray (RHP, TEX) out of COL to front and hopefully improve on an awful rotation that finished ahead of only BAL in AL team ERA—and that obviously still has plenty of vacancies and questions. Coming off an unfortunate 4.59 ERA (149 IP) and a month on the IL with a flexor strain, the 29-year-old Gray finally escapes Coors Field. His 4.03 xERA and Rangers pitcher's relative success at home last year (a full run better ERA-wise) suggest that his odds will improve at Globe Life Park. He's a health risk, but Gray's history and age still point to mid-rotation upside, which now seems more possible than in previous seasons.

The Rangers have been linked to other remaining free agent SPs (notably Dallas native Clayton Kershaw) and some likely to be traded by their current clubs. More moves on the SP front seem likely once the lockout ends.

 

Seattle Mariners

The Mariners made news prior to the lockout, signing AL Cy Young winner Robbie Ray (LHP, SEA) and trading a couple of minor leaguers to the Padres for 2B/OF Adam Frazier (2B, SEA). Following a career year (2.84 ERA, 25% K-BB% over 193 IP) fueled by better control (finally) and some good fortune, Ray immediately moves to the front of the rotation and should at least enjoy better bullpen support than he had in TOR. He immediately replaces Yusei Kikuchi, who coming off a 6.22 ERA over 64 2H IP may have given the Mariners an early Christmas present when he rejected a $13M player option for 2022 to become a free agent. 

Frazier parlayed an 88% ct% and good Eye into a career-best .305 BA (639 PA) this past season and looks to be first in line to take over the club's problematic 2B job. But the only Opening Day positional locks here might be Gold Glove SS J.P. Crawford, RF Mitch Haniger, and Frazier, Jarred Kelenic and Ty France all somewhere on the field. SEA's too-early lineup position projections are complicated by GM Jerry DiPoto's trading tendencies, the division's most loaded farm system, and a surprisingly successful 2021 season in which the club was still in playoff contention entering the season's final weekend.

The departure of long-time third-baseman Kyle Seager to free agency adds to the immediate uncertainty. Will SEA look for a proven 3B or audition recently-acquired Abraham Toro (3B/2B, SEA)—or even 1B/utility France—there in 2022? The Mariners could also use a plus defender in CF in addition to rotation upgrades if they decide to go all in this year. And they have a slew of talented, near-ready prospects that include OF Julio Rodriguez and SPs George Kirby, Emerson Hancock and Matt Brash—among others—from which to make more moves when the MLB lights go back on. No one currently in Mariners organization seems like an absolute lock to be there for too long with DiPoto in charge and in win-now mode.

 

Houston Astros

The most notable offseason news here was the agreement with 39-year-old Justin Verlander (RHP, HOU) on a two-year $50M contract that includes an opt-out after 2022. Though this announced deal was only officially announced in recent days, Verlander will apparently return to the Astros after effectively missing two years while rehabbing from Tommy John surgery. Verlander's pre-TJS frontline effectiveness isn't in question, but age, the injury and time off now make him a high-upside flyer. He'll move back to the top of the Astros rotation, replacing departing free agent Zack Greinke. 

Relievers Kendall Graveman and Yimi García were also lost to free agency, and the club has responded early by signing Héctor Neris (RHP, HOU) to a 2-yr deal as a setup man for closer Ryan Pressly. But following the free agency departure of Carlos Correa, the biggest hole in HOU is now at shortstop. After missing most of 2021 with a wrist injury, glove-first prospect Jeremy Peña (SS, HOU) hinted at the offensive upside some have projected, posting a .942 OPS (10 HR, 6/1 SB/CS over 160 PA) mostly at AAA-Sugar Land. Toolsy CF prospect Pedro Leon (CF/SS, HOU) also spent most of his Double-A time last year at SS, as the Astros seek to broaden their options. But at the very least a competitive club seems likely to bring in a stopgap SS before auditioning either name at the MLB level.

Center field is also an open question, with improving Chas McCormick and Jose Siri the projected candidates to be joined by rehabbing Jake Meyers (torn labrum in the playoffs) at some point midseason—so there's good depth and MLB experience here. Apart from SS and perhaps catcher, the lineup looks solid again. With its enviable organizational rotation depth, HOU again seems like the favorite to come out on top of the AL West; more big offseason moves may not be necessary.

 

Los Angeles Angels

The Angels ended 2021 much like they began: A top-heavy club both talent and salary-wise, with little MLB-ready depth, plenty of pitching questions and health issues. Their most notable new free agent acquisitions to date were a one-year contract with Noah Syndergaard (RHP, LAA), the single-year sign of Mchael Lorenzen (RHP, LAA), and a two-year deal doled out to setup reliever Aaron Loup (LHP, LAA).

After missing all of 2020 rehabbing from Tommy John surgery, the 28-year-old Syndergaard tossed just 2 IP last season. Despite frontline starter stuff earlier in his career, Syndergaard has essentially missed the past two seasons, leaving his immediate effectiveness and workload in question. Signed with the agreement that he would get a shot at the LAA rotation and coming off an injury-riddled 5.59/5.02 ERA/xERA (29 IP) performance out of the pen in CIN, Lorenzen seems like even more of a risk. But at least early on, they project now to replace departing free agents Alex Cobb and Dylan Bundy somewhere behind Shohei Ohtani in the Angels rotation.

A looming decision on 2024 free-agent-to-be Ohtani and owner Arte Moreno's reluctance to pony up hefty long-term deals for free agent SPs seem likely to leave the club dependent on more development from—or trades of—the likes of Patrick Sandoval, Jose Suárez, Griffin Canning and rookie Reid Detmers for any immediate improvement. Similarly the Angels also need a starting SS, and may already be out on the pricier side of that free agent market. Second baseman David Fletcher (2B, LAA) might be an answer as the club will work the FA fringes in an effort to shore up the middle infield. LAA will need better depth, health and another step up from its young OFs to see any improvement in 2022. 

 

Oakland Athletics

Last September in this space (here and here) focused on what looked like a historically (and notoriously) frugal club's imminent tear-down as it flamed out badly down the 2021 stretch—and the A's inactivity in the early offseason has done nothing to change our minds. Along with 2B/DH Jed Lowrie, two starting OFs (notably Starling Marte and Mark Canha) have already been lost to free agency—and one of MLB's worst farm systems currently offers up little with which to replace them. Corner infield mainstays Matt Olson (1B, OAK) and Matt Chapman (3B, OAK) are arbitration-eligible and will be free agents at the end of 2024. Neither will be in an A's uniform by the end of this time, and interested contenders will begin to check in on them quickly once the lockout ends.

Coming off of productive seasons, SPs Sean Manaea (LHP, OAK) and Chris Bassitt (RHP, OAK) project to walk at the end of 2022, are also unlikely to be in OAK at the end of that time, and could help competitive clubs now. Following an outstanding 2H (2.11/3.19 ERA/xERA over 94 IP) Frankie Montas (RHP, OAK) is eligible to walk after 2023; the A's seem likely to listen to offers here as well.

In short, this may be the division's most currently unprojectable Opening Day lineup and rotation. OAK seems likely to trade anyone on the current roster in an effort to become competitive again in a couple of years. New 2022 playing time opportunities are going to open up, but for whom remains to be seen. The A's will be one of the division's most active traders prior to Opening Day in 2022—and likely for the subsequent 12 months afterward.


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