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AL West offseason preview — Can Angels keep Mike Trout happy? – WSAIGO Sports
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AL West offseason preview — Can Angels keep Mike Trout happy?

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With free agency underway, the offseason is going to pick up steam. What are the big questions facing all 30 teams? We continue our division-by-division series with a look at the American League West.

Houston Astros: Who starts the other 100 games?

2018 record: 103-59
2019 World Series odds: 6-1

Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole will top the rotation, just like they did in 2018, when Houston starters led the majors in in ERA (3.16). But aside from those two righties, the rest of the Astros’ fantastic front five is suddenly an enormous unknown. Lefty Dallas Keuchel is a free agent and doesn’t seem likely to return. Lance McCullers Jr. just had Tommy John surgery and will miss the entire 2019 season. Veteran Charlie Morton also is a free agent, so his future with Houston is uncertain.

Top prospect Forrest Whitley is on the horizon, but he’s only 21 and missed significant time last year due to a performance-enhancing drug suspension. Flamethrower Josh James turned heads after a September call-up and even cracked the postseason roster, but he has only three big league starts on his résumé. Swingman Collin McHugh, bumped to the bullpen when Houston signed Cole last winter, could rejoin the rotation, but that would deprive manager A.J. Hinch of a guy who turned out to be one of the top relievers in the National League last season. In other words, there are question marks. Lots of ’em. So don’t be surprised if general manager Jeff Luhnow dips into the free-agent pitching pool once again. — Eddie Matz

Oakland Athletics: Can they acquire enough starting pitching to win the AL West?

2018 record: 97-65
2019 World Series odds: 30-1

The A’s surprised a lot of people in 2018, getting the second AL wild-card berth in a season in which most didn’t pick them to make the playoffs. They became the first team since payroll has been tracked to rank last in Opening Day payroll and make the postseason. But along the way, they saw every pitcher who was in their rotation to start the year get injured and miss significant time, headlined by Sean Manaea, who threw a no-hitter against the eventual World Series champion Boston Red Sox in April. He had shoulder surgery late in the year and is expected to miss all of 2019.

That brings us to the biggest question the A’s will face: Can they acquire enough starting pitching to win the AL West? The division is likely to be weaker heading into 2019. The Astros won’t have Lance McCullers all year, and we don’t know yet if they’ll re-sign free agents Charlie Morton or Dallas Keuchel.

The Oakland offense will be there — with Matt Olson, Khris Davis, Matt Chapman, Stephen Piscotty and others. But perhaps Oakland will seek to trade someone for a pitcher. Don’t expect them to break the bank on a free agent. But they could be active in the trade market, which could have a number of names available. One floated already is Sonny Gray, whom the Yankees have said they want to trade in the offseason. Gray began his career with the A’s and had his best seasons in Oakland, including a third-place Cy Young finish in 2015. — Sarah Langs

Seattle Mariners: Whom will Jerry Dipoto find to provide some offense?

2018 record: 89-73
2019 World Series odds: 50-1

For an 89-win team, the Mariners enter the offseason with some serious concerns. On the offensive side, Seattle finished 11th in the AL in runs, and Nelson Cruz, the team’s top home run hitter with 37, is a free agent. The Mariners likely will attempt to re-sign Cruz, but that would still leave some holes, especially in the outfield. Dee Gordon gave it his all in center field, but that transition didn’t really take (minus-8 defensive runs saved in 435 innings), plus he became a liability at the plate with just nine walks and a .288 OBP. The Mariners now list him as an infielder — at least he’s a solid defender at second base. Of course, that’s Robinson Cano‘s position and Cano still has enough range to play there even as he enters his age-36 season.

The best option is probably sliding Cano over to a first base/DH role, displacing the awful Ryon Healy (minus-0.6 WAR). If Cruz signs elsewhere, Dan Vogelbach could suck up some DH at-bats. That leaves an outfield of All-Star Mitch Haniger, plus Ben Gamel and Guillermo Heredia, both best suited to backup roles. Haniger can handle center but is best in right field, so the Mariners could be in on a free agent like A.J. Pollock. Mariners center fielders were a combined minus-25 DRS, so adding a true center fielder is a must. They also could use more offense in left field. We know Dipoto loves to wheel and deal, but the Mariners’ farm system is the worst in the game, so the options there are more likely to be an older vet such as Adam Jones or re-signing Denard Span than adding someone via trade. — David Schoenfield

2018 record: 80-82
2019 World Series odds: 40-1

Really, that’s all this is about. But appeasing Trout — with two seasons remaining on his extension, unless somehow the Angels can sign him to another one before then — is a convoluted undertaking. They have to contend now, but also be set up to do so in the future. And the Angels have failed to walk that tightrope for basically the entirety of Trout’s seven-year career.

Angels general manager Billy Eppler laid out what appears to be a simple plan from the GM meetings earlier this week. He plans to look outside for a starting catcher and lots of pitching for both his rotation and his bullpen. And he’ll cross his fingers that at least two of his five most major-league-ready young players (David Fletcher, Taylor Ward, Luis Rengifo, Matt Thaiss and Jared Walsh) can claim two open spots in the lineup (a first-base complement to Albert Pujols and second or third base, depending on where Zack Cozart plays).

The Angels won’t have any long-term sustainability if their young players can’t step up. But they have no chance in the immediate future if they don’t get more reliable pitching. Angels relievers blew 26 saves last year, tied with the Los Angeles Dodgers for fifth most in the majors. Over the past three years, while beset by an alarming rash of serious injuries to their rotation, 18 pitchers have made at least five starts for the Angels. — Alden Gonzalez

2018 record: 67-95
2019 World Series odds: 100-1

The Rangers won just 67 games, their fewest since 2014, when they also won 67. They made the playoffs each of the next two years, losing in the division series each time. Joey Gallo had another Gallo season in 2018, with 40 home runs and 207 strikeouts. The Rangers are one year away from moving to a new ballpark, and they will want to get back on the winning side of things. There were rumors that Clayton Kershaw might consider Texas if he opted out of his contract with the Dodgers, but he did not, so Kershaw won’t be the Rangers’ marquee player headed into that season.

One question the Rangers face they can’t answer themselves: Will Adrian Beltre retire? The slugger hasn’t said anything publicly. He’s been on the Rangers since 2011, and he has a .304 batting average and .865 OPS in 1,098 games with the club. This year, at age 39, he still hit .273 with 15 HRs and 65 RBIs in 119 games. He isn’t their most important offensive player by any stretch of the imagination anymore, but he’s been a symbol there for a while and likely is a future Hall of Famer. He’s also 23 home runs shy of 500.

The Rangers likely have more pressing overall personnel questions, like deciding if they should trade one of their outfielders — Nomar Mazara, Gallo, Willie Calhoun or Shin-Soo Choo, who has two years left on his lucrative deal. But the Beltre question will be near and dear to fans’ hearts — and not just Rangers fans, but baseball fans as a whole who take joy in watching him play. — Langs

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Excitement, angst face Cubs fans as winter winds down

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CHICAGO — Talk to a Chicago Cubs fan these days and you’re likely to find mixed emotions. That’s been the theme of the offseason right up to, and through, this past weekend’s annual winter fan convention.

Mixed emotions. Conflicting thoughts. Excitement and angst.

Those are all part of the Cubs experience right now as the calendar inches toward spring training. In the past, the Cubs signed big-ticket free agents like Jon Lester, Jason Heyward, Ben Zobrist and Yu Darvish. But this winter has been anything but big. The front office forecast early that the budget wouldn’t allow for additions like those splashes. Utility man Daniel Descalso is the lone new player on the team that’s won the most regular-season games the past four seasons but has come up short in the postseason the past two years.

“We didn’t have the flexibility this year to go ahead and sign a huge free agent and I’m not sure we would have anyway,” owner Tom Ricketts said on ESPN WMVP-AM 1000 last week in a rare interview. “We like the team we have. We have strong young guys at most positions.”

So free agent Bryce Harper would not have been on the Cubs’ radar, even with the budget for him? Not many fans believe that from an owner who has been less transparent in recent days. Ricketts canceled his annual fan forum over the weekend for the first time since buying the team in 2009. Yet team president Theo Epstein held a session with fans himself. He wanted to face the music after a disastrous end to 2018, and he did.

So there was transparency from one executive, whereas the owner claimed “low ratings” from previous years were to blame for canceling his own panel discussion. Ricketts did explain himself regarding the employment of shortstop Addison Russell, who is suspended for the first 28 games of 2019 after violating the league’s policies on domestic violence. That’s yet another topic ripe with mixed emotions, especially when you consider the Cubs won’t invite former star Sammy Sosa back into the fold until he comes clean about use of performance-enhancing drugs. For some fans, that opened the door to compare and contrast Russell’s and Sosa’s situations. Right or wrong, it doesn’t sit well that one has a job with the team and the other can’t wave to the fans at a fan convention.

Without Ricketts answering questions, without charismatic team leader Anthony Rizzo in attendance (he was on his honeymoon) and without a major new addition to the team, the headlines from the convention fell to Kris Bryant. He was openly critical of how free agency has played out again this winter, then hours later called the city of St. Louis “boring” — starting an offseason feud with the rival Cardinals. Many fans loved it, but since Bryant and his team must now back up the rhetoric, even that moment brought some mixed emotions.

Eventually, the weekend discussion returned to the field, where the Cubs failed on offense down the stretch last season and then vowed to fix what ailed them. That’s when the Harper discussion picked up, only to be quashed early in the offseason.

“The money got eaten up in a lot of ways by the guys that were coming through the [arbitration] system, and it’s not like we had a big contract roll off,” Ricketts said.

So the team turned inward, with manager Joe Maddon saying over the past few days there was more to “extrapolate” from his current group, while the front office has asked players to maximize their day-to-day prep better. After all, the Cubs won 95 games last season. Tweaking to maximize potential only makes common sense.

“You turn over every stone,” Zobrist said. “You’re thinking about ‘why.’ It’s not just that it did happen. You have to figure out why and then you have to make an adjustment and do something different.”

The Cubs also want better leadership in the clubhouse. This was supposed to be a tight group — the same that won the World Series in 2016. But perhaps it’s been too tight. Calling each other out, when needed, hasn’t been a part of the room since David Ross and Jon Jay moved on. Perhaps a full season with pitcher Cole Hamels will provide some extra leadership.

“That’s where I need to be,” Hamels said this past weekend. “That’s the role directed towards you if you play this game long enough. Being more vocal, instead of just letting it play out on the field.”

Ultimately, if the Cubs start to hit again, the rest should take care of itself. The starting staff is deeper — Darvish is healthy and seems more confident — and Epstein has found effective arms for his bullpen over the years, even if they aren’t always the biggest names. The key might simply be the Cubs’ attitude. They were once on top of the world, but the end of last season knocked them down. How they get up off the mat is how they’ll be judged moving forward. Mixed emotions and all.

“We’re a confident group,” Albert Almora Jr. said. “We just have to finish what we start. We want to send a message early on.”

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MLB — Everything you need to know on Hall of Fame announcement day

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The results of the second stage of the annual Hall of Fame voting process will be announced Tuesday evening with the Baseball Writers’ Association selections, and we can safely say not to expect any stunning news along the lines of what happened in December with the Today’s Game Era committee.

In other words, we’re not going to see a reunion of the 2005 White Sox with the elections of Jon Garland and Freddy Garcia.

The committee’s election of Harold Baines, however, does raise an interesting question: How much does the BBWAA vote even matter if a 16-person committee is simply going to override those results in the future?

Take Fred McGriff. He’s on the BBWAA ballot for the final time. He’s not going to get in. Not to worry; in a few years he seems like a surefire committee choice. He’s like Baines — a one-dimensional slugger, highly respected, played a long time — except even better at that one dimension. McGriff hit .284 with 493 home runs and an OPS+ of 134. Baines hit .289 with 384 home runs and an OPS+ of 121. McGriff’s 52.6 WAR dwarfs Baines’ 38.7. He’s fared much better in BBWAA voting than Baines ever did.

The same can be said of some of the other borderline candidates on the ballot, such as Larry Walker, Scott Rolen and Jeff Kent. Todd Helton and Andy Pettitte are on for the first time. They aren’t strong candidates based on traditional BBWAA standards, but compared to Baines, Lee Smith and Jack Morris — elected the past two years by the special committees — they look pretty good. We can debate their merits, but in the long run they’re probably all getting in. The BBWAA vote only (potentially) expedites the process.

That isn’t to suggest that everyone better than Jack Morris or Harold Baines should get in. Heck, there are 21 players on this ballot with a higher career WAR than those two. What remains to be seen is how the soft selections of Morris, Baines and Smith might start influencing the BBWAA vote.

Anyway, here are some key things to look for with Tuesday’s results. All references to voting totals are courtesy of the great work Ryan Thibodaux does with his Hall of Fame vote tracker.

Will Mariano Rivera become the first player elected unanimously?

Among those who obsess about Hall of Fame balloting, there is a small subset who obsess over this twist of history: No Hall of Famer has received 100 percent of the vote. Somehow, 23 people didn’t vote for Willie Mays. Nine people didn’t vote for Hank Aaron. Imagine having a Hall of Fame ballot and not voting for Willie Mays or Hank Aaron. Twenty didn’t vote for Ted Williams, but, hey, a lot of writers despised the man. In the first election in 1936, 11 writers didn’t vote for Babe Ruth. The rules might not have been entirely clear: Ruth had just retired the previous year. Still, Ruth received just 215 votes out of 226 ballots.

So, as Joe Posnanski related in a recent column, the issue of unanimity became a thing right from the beginning.

Tom Seaver came close. He was named on 425 of 430 ballots in 1992. Three writers sent in a blank ballot, protesting that Pete Rose was not on the ballot. One writer had just gotten out of open-heart surgery and simply missed checking off Seaver’s name. The final non-vote, as Posnanski writes, came from a retired writer named Deane McGowan, who apparently refused to vote for any player on his first ballot. And you think Baseball Twitter is cranky.

Ken Griffey Jr. set the record with 99.3 percent of the vote in 2016. Three writers didn’t vote for him. We don’t know who they were since voters don’t have to reveal their ballots. Maybe somebody sent in a blank ballot. Maybe somebody refused to vote for anybody who played in the steroid era. Maybe somebody decided, “If Babe Ruth wasn’t no unanimous, nobody should be unanimous.”

So it goes. As did Griffey, Rivera has received 100 percent of the publicly revealed ballots. He’s 180-for-180 so far. My guess: He won’t get 100 percent. Somebody will enforce the Ruth rule. Maybe somebody feels no reliever deserves to be enshrined. Maybe somebody, knowing Rivera will get elected, will use his or her 10 spots on the ballot for other candidates. But Rivera has a chance to end the silly 100 percent stigma.

Does Edgar Martinez get in on his final ballot?

It would be a little awkward if Baines is giving a speech in July and Martinez isn’t. After all, the Designated Hitter of the Year award isn’t named after Baines. Fortunately, it looks like Martinez will get elected. He’s received 90.8 percent of the public ballots, compared to 76.3 percent last year, when he finished at 70.4 percent. So even with an expected decline in the percentage he receives from the private ballots, he looks in good shape. Book those hotel rooms now, Mariners fans.

Does Roy Halladay get in on his first ballot?

Halladay is polling at a surprising 94.1 percent — not that he’s undeserving, but he’s not a slam dunk by career WAR (64.3) or wins (203), standards that BBWAA voters have employed in the past. Compare him to Mike Mussina and Curt Schilling:

Halladay: 64.3 WAR, 203-105, 3.38 ERA, 131 ERA+
Mussina: 83.0 WAR, 270-153, 3.68 ERA, 123 ERA+
Schilling: 79.6 WAR, 216-146, 3.46 ERA, 127 ERA+

Mussina is on the ballot for the sixth time and received just 20.3 percent of the vote on his first ballot. Schilling is on for the seventh time and received 38.8 percent of the vote his first time. There are reasons to like Halladay over Mussina and Schilling — he won two Cy Young Awards and finished second two other times, and his seven-year peak is highest of the three (50.4 WAR, 48.7 for Schilling, 44.6 for Mussina) — but it seems Halladay is being viewed much differently than those two. Perhaps his unfortunate death in a plane crash is helping his vote total.

Anyway, like Martinez, his total will surely drop in the private ballot, but he needs just 59.5 percent on the remaining ballots to clear 75 percent.

Speaking of Mussina and Schilling, how will they do?

Mussina is inching closer, but it looks like he’ll fall just short. He’s at 82.2 percent of the public vote and would need 69.2 percent of the remaining ballots. He received just 46.7 percent of the private ballots last year, so he will need a significant increase in that area. Still, he’s trending in the right direction and looks primed for 2019. If Halladay gets in, that helps Mussina since it clears a strong candidate off the ballot and there aren’t any strong starting pitchers hitting the ballot in upcoming years. (Tim Hudson and Mark Buehrle are the best.)

Schilling, meanwhile, continues to fall behind Mussina — even though as recently as 2016 he was well ahead (52.3 percent to 43.0 percent). Schilling is polling at 74.1 percent, which is better than the 60 percent he received on public ballots a year ago, so it’s difficult to know how much his various contentious statements on Twitter and elsewhere have hurt his vote total.

Will Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens get any closer?

We know the Hall of Fame’s stance on these two. Joe Morgan’s letter in November 2017 — he’s the Hall’s vice chairman and on the board of directors — made that clear. Issued from a Hall of Fame email address, Morgan implored voters not to vote for known steroid users. “We hope the day never comes when known steroid users are voted into the Hall of Fame. They cheated. Steroid users don’t belong here,” he wrote.

Of course, there’s the almost certain likelihood that there are steroid users already in the Hall of Fame, and recent elections have voted in players strongly suspected of steroid use. The Hall doesn’t want Bonds or Clemens in, and it could simply remove the pair from the ballot (not to mention Manny Ramirez, who actually failed tests for performance-enhancing drugs), but hasn’t had the audacity to do that.

Anyway, Bonds and Clemens won’t get in, at least not this year. They’re both polling at 73 percent, which is an increase from last year’s public ballots, when they were at 64 percent. Like Schilling, this is their seventh year on the ballot and time is running out, with just three years remaining after this vote and likely not enough momentum in the private ballots (which tend to be more anti-steroids).

What happens after that if they don’t get elected? Who knows. The Hall of Fame could simply choose not to put Bonds and Clemens on the committee ballot. Or it could put them on with the implicit knowledge they won’t get elected. We certainly know one board member who won’t vote for them.

Will Andy Pettitte stay on the ballot?

A player needs 5 percent of the vote to remain on the ballot the following year. Pettitte is at 6.5 percent. Like Jorge Posada a couple of years ago, he’s in danger of getting the boot after one year. (Even Bernie Williams lasted two years.) Pettitte has a stronger case than those two former teammates, however, and a similar — but much stronger — case than Morris. The strongest part of Pettitte’s case might be his postseason record: He went 19-11 with a 3.81 ERA over 44 starts, including 23 starts in which he allowed two runs or fewer.

Still, he’s not one of the 10 best players on this ballot, and his 3.85 career ERA is a tough hill to climb to get in. He also admitted to a one-time use of PEDs, although I haven’t seen anybody reference that as a reason they didn’t vote for him.

How close will Larry Walker get?

Walker is polling at 67 percent of the public ballots compared to 37.5 percent last year. That’s good! Except this is Walker’s ninth year on the ballot. That’s bad! It feels too late to make a run. Tim Raines, for example, was up to 69.8 percent in his ninth year and Martinez was even closer last year. Even if Walker becomes the guy everyone pushes next year, he’s probably going to have to finish with at least 65 percent of the vote this year, and it seems unlikely his private support will keep him at that level.

Even if he falls short next year, there’s always the Today’s Game Era committee. After all, Baines, who lasted only five years on the ballot, topped out at just 6.1 percent on the BBWAA vote.

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MLB — Cincinnati Reds risk overpaying to finally land Sonny Gray

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The long-rumored trade of Sonny Gray to the Cincinnati Reds came through on Monday, with Gray and minor league reliever Reiver Sanmartin going to Cincinnati, infielder Shed Long going to the Seattle Mariners, and outfielder Josh Stowers and a 2019 competitive balance pick (from the Reds) going to the New York Yankees. It’s a puzzling deal for the Reds, some value for the Yankees in moving a player they didn’t want, and I’m not really sure why the Mariners are here unless Jerry Dipoto was bored.

Gray’s tenure in New York was a disaster, but the Reds are hoping that reuniting him with his college pitching coach Derek Johnson, who came over from the Brewers and was with Gray at Vanderbilt, will help him rediscover his form.

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