The Path Back to Contention: AL West
This is the first installment of an annual series where we analyze all the teams that were largely not competitive and map their way back to relevance.
Scouting grades are given for teams who are further away from contention and thus more speculative, whereas teams that are just a couple replacements away from contention do not have scouting grades unless otherwise noted. For more information on how the scouting scale works, read this entry from Fangraphs.
Photo: Jerome Miron - USA TODAY Sports
Next Good Lineup
Bad news Rangers fans: there’s a lot of pieces left to fill for this team to be good again, and there’s not a lot of obvious answers internally. The good news: just because the answers aren’t obvious doesn’t mean they don’t exist. The Rangers farm system is widely considered one of the deepest in the sport and has been climbing up rankings lately, all the way up to 11th on mlb.com.
The pitching depth is quite admirable, as it looks like they’ll be able to fill out an initial rotation with internal pieces. Obviously this isn’t realistic, as some will underperform and/or get hurt, but there are few orgs in baseball who possess this much depth. Leiter has yet to debut in pro ball as he threw a ton of innings at Vanderbilt, but has all the makings of being an extremely talented MLB pitcher, his ceiling is looking like prime Sonny Gray. Howard has the widest range of potential outcomes of this group as he could boom at any time into a front-rotation arm or very well could be the mediocre pitcher he’s been since he debuted in 2020. Re-capturing his minor league mojo that made him one of the best pitching prospects in baseball just over a year ago would be a huge boon to the org. Dunning has looked like an excellent middle-to-back-of-the-rotation guy that every team needs, and if everything breaks right he could get hot and sneak into an All-Star game or two. Winn has yet to debut but has looked really good in MiLB, and Glenn Otto has been all the Rangers could ask for after coming over from New York. Look for Texas to add one or two workhorse arms in the free agent/trade market over the next couple offseasons to supplement this staff, as this rotation carries considerable risk.
That brings us to the lineup… yikes. I didn’t realize how dire the hitting situation was in Texas until I began writing, but for an organization that already holds one of the league’s worst offenses, there’s not much help on the way. Sam Huff can hit a baseball to Saturn but he’s going to strike out well over 30% of the time while playing questionable defense at catcher. Nate Lowe’s minor league numbers were fantastic but his first full season in the big leagues has been a bit underwhelming, and since he’s already a first baseman there’s not much leeway with the bat, they need him to have at least a 120 OPS+ to feel good about his production there. He’s currently at a 113 (as of 09/27), but you’d have to think there’s another gear in there. There was a ton of industry skepticism when the Rangers took Justin Foscue in the first round of the 2020 MLB draft, but the Rangers were clearly on to something, as Foscue has hit a ton and is looking like one of the better 2nd base prospects in baseball. Josh Jung (2019 1st round pick) has tremendous upside, but needs to consistently get the ball in the air more in order to stick around in the big leagues as a 3rd baseman. Kiner-Falefa is an excellent defender, but at some point that will fall off and the bat won’t be able to play anymore, the only question is: when?
Easily the biggest issue of all for this org is the outfield. There’s only one major league quality outfielder in the org and that is Adolis Garcia who may or may not be playing over his head (and is still only getting on base at a .288 clip for a 101 wRC+). A potential solution could come in the upcoming draft, but that’s putting a lot of pressure on a prospect to pan out and even if he does, that’s only 1/3rd of a solution (ask Mike Trout how easy it is to carry a team).
When they will be good again: 2024-2025
How to go forward: Keep trying to develop mediocre or overlooked guys into good players at the big league level while letting your minor leaguers progress and take over. Any player who won’t be good in 2023-2024 needs to be flipped for anything of value. Sign some guys on short-term deals this offseason and try to flip them at the deadline to buy time for Jung & co. Ideally, Leiter will be up sometime in 2023 and will signal the end of the rebuild.
Another year, another disappointing season for the Halos. In their defense, it would have been hard to foresee Mike Trout missing basically the entire season, Dylan Budy turning back into the Orioles Dylan Bundy, Anthony Rendon performing poorly and missing most of the season, and not one, but two disappointing years from top prospects Jo Adell and Brandon Marsh… not even MVP Ohtani can overcome all of that. On the bright side, the Angels still have Mike Trout and Shohei Ohtani coming back for next season and you’d have to expect that Rendon is going to bounce back from this horrendous year.
As you can see from the above chart, the Angels will be looking for answers at shortstop and … the rotation. *insert shocked GIF*
Counting on health and productivity from all three of Ohtani, Sandoval, and Suarez is not a very wise bet, so look for the Angels to add at least three or four more innings-eaters here (think Tyler Anderson, Andrew Heaney types).
Shortstop is a hole that I believe Trevor Story would fit nicely in on a short term deal. Story picked a terrible time to have a down year going into free agency, but the Angels should be salivating at the chance to pick him up on a Marcus Semien one year “prove it” deal for him to rehab his value, as they have a ton of money committed long term already to Trout/Rendon/Ohtani (eventually), so any free agent moves will likely need to be of the shorter-term variety.
The estimates for the lineup are probably a bit generous, as it’s probably not wise to go into the season with Marsh & Adell in the lineup to sink or swim, plus this leaves Justin Upton as a very expensive bench bat (someone has to take over for Pujols, right?). Adell was a personal favorite of mine before his debut but he has flopped mightily in his short time in MLB, and the Angels can’t afford to replace all of their problems externally unless it’s via trade (they should absolutely be in the mix for Ketel Marte or Byron Buxton if they are made available), so it’s likely Adell/Marsh & bargain-bin shopping-or-bust for the other two outfield slots.
When they will be good again: 2022
How to go forward: There’s not many teams in baseball that can match the Angels trio of Trout/Ohtani/Rendon. That’s the good news. The bad news is that this organization’s Achilles heel for the past decade has been depth. That is something that championship teams have in abundance (see: Dodgers, Rays, and Giants) and is something that the Angels need to solve this offseason. Look for them to make one splashy move such on a short term deal and then supplement that with a flurry of lower-key signings that raise the team’s floor.