With MLB free agency underway, the offseason is going to pick up steam. What are the big questions facing all 30 teams?
Here's a look at the AL West, where the Astros continue to loom, the A's always seem to find a way to contend and the Angels appear poised to go for it.
Houston Astros: How high will Houston's payroll go?
2019 record: 107-55
2020 World Series odds: 4-1
Astros owner Jim Crane has paid lip service to the idea of tracking superstar free-agent Gerrit Cole, but that's likely all it is. There simply does not appear to be the kind of financial flexibility the Astros would need to commit to a $300 million deal, or whatever the final number on Cole turns out to be. And Houston has some key roster spots to address this winter -- catcher, bullpen -- and little wiggle room against the tax line with which to address them.
According to Cot's Contracts, Houston currently projects to carry an MLB-high payroll of $228.9 million for its 40-man roster next season. That number can and will change as moves are made and arbitration-eligible players are dealt with. Still, it sure looks like Houston will have to wade into luxury-tax territory (approximately $208 million) to not only keep its group together, but to fill in missing pieces with veteran options. This year's free-agent chase for Houston takes on added importance because for the first time since Jeff Luhnow's rebuild blossomed, there doesn't appear to be the kind of prospect depth required to swing the kind of splashy deadline trades that the Astros have made to land win-now talents like Justin Verlander and Zack Greinke.
That's not to say that Houston doesn't have a number of quality, MLB-ready prospects in the system. It's more to say that given their looming payroll constraints, Luhnow will need those cost-efficient prospects to hold down key roles in 2020. The return of Lance McCullers Jr. from Tommy John surgery will be key for the rotation, but so too will the continued progress of in-house pitching prospects such as Jose Urquidy, Forrest Whitley, Bryan Abreu and Rogelio Armenteros.
All of these calculations have to be made under the cloud of an MLB investigation into alleged sign-stealing malfeasance that could carry with it stiff penalties. -- Bradford Doolittle
Oakland Athletics: Can the A's short-circuit the Astros' bid to dominate the West?
2019 record: 97-65
2020 World Series odds: 30-1
After consecutive wild-card appearances, you can ask if the A's are just amid another one of their short runs, or if they have the core talent to challenge the Astros. With Matt Chapman and Matt Olson locked down for years to come, the lineup has anchors to win with. The A's also have top prospects Jesus Luzardo and A.J. Puk, as well as a fully healed Sean Manaea for a full season. Put that together with Chris Bassitt, Frankie Montas and veteran Mike Fiers as starting pitching may finally be a recognized strength instead of a winter question mark.
With those strengths going for them, what's on the A's to-do list? Perhaps more than anything else, seeing if they can get MVP candidate Marcus Semien to keep close to his East Bay roots before he becomes a free agent after 2020. However that plays out, they could also see if there's a major outfield bat in their price range to take over in either corner. Assuming Billy Beane & Co. are working around their usual budget constraints, the A's might have to be careful, but they're also on the cusp of unseating the Astros -- super-team status or not -- and making a play for the AL West division title in the next several seasons. Play their cards right, and they could put the Astros in their rear-view mirror. -- Christina Kahrl
Texas Rangers: How will they build excitement for their new digs?
2019 record: 78-84
2020 World Series odds: 150-1
The Rangers, who have spent the last three years navigating baseball's dreaded middle space, do not possess a roster that is on the verge of contention. What they do have, however, is a forthcoming new stadium that was partially funded by the City of Arlington, and, one would think, the desire to create some excitement around it with a star, particularly one from Texas.
Did someone say Anthony Rendon?
The Rangers have been in search of a permanent third baseman ever since Adrian Beltre played his final season in 2018. Rendon, a Houston native who has turned himself into a perennial MVP candidate, would be ideal. But the competition for his services will be stiff, which means the chances of landing him are probably slim. Given that, the Rangers must navigate free agency with caution.
They have a litany of questions outside of third base. Their catchers have been astoundingly bad offensively. Rougned Odor, Delino DeShields Jr. and Nomar Mazara have not developed the way they would have hoped. And their pitching staff, outside of the surprising contributions from Lance Lynn and Mike Minor, leaves a lot to be desired. The Rangers, in other words, are not one or perhaps even two stars away; the gap between them and the in-state, division-rival Astros remains massive. They can't place another bad contract on their payroll. -- Alden Gonzalez
Los Angeles Angels: Can they land an ace?
2019 record: 72-90
2020 World Series odds: 75-1
Sometimes, on rare occasions, it's actually very simple -- and this, friends, is one of those times. The only way the Angels can conceivably compete for a division title next season is to land either Gerrit Cole or Stephen Strasburg. That's it. They want to win now, have a desperate need for elite starting pitching and -- given the lack of depth on their 40-man roster and the dearth of impact talent in their farm system -- can only really attain it through free agency.
Landing Strasburg, a San Diego native with a checkered injury history who might simply reunite with the Washington Nationals, seems unlikely. Cole, an Orange County native who grew up visiting Angel Stadium, appears to be the prime target. The Angels need at least two starting pitchers, but acquiring an ace will be their foremost priority. They saved $13 million by recently cutting ties with longtime right fielder Kole Calhoun, and Angels owner Arte Moreno has proclaimed that the budget will increase.
The Angels are coming off a 90-loss season and have made the playoffs only once since 2010. But they have a celebrated new manager in Joe Maddon. They employ the best player in the game in Mike Trout, and one of its most captivating ones in Shohei Ohtani, who will return to a two-way role. The back end of their bullpen looks promising. Their position-player club also includes Andrelton Simmons and Justin Upton and the up-and-coming Jo Adell. There's some legitimate talent there. But they need starting pitching. More specifically, they need Cole or Strasburg. -- Gonzalez
Seattle Mariners: Is Jerry Dipoto willing to be patient?
2019 record: 68-94
2020 World Series odds: 300-1
This past season was basically a cleansing for the Mariners, a baseball version of no red meat, no sugar and a lot of raw vegetables. They gave Ichiro Suzuki a final sendoff in Japan, then suffered through Felix Hernandez's final season in Seattle (he went 1-8 with a 6.40 ERA). Along the way, veterans Jay Bruce and Edwin Encarnacion were traded away. By September, youngsters J.P. Crawford, Shed Long and Kyle Lewis were in the lineup and Justus Sheffield and Justin Dunn saw time in the rotation. Others, like first baseman Evan White and starter Logan Gilbert, should be ready early in 2020.
But this is Trader Jerry we're talking about, and while the team's general manager has said it's time to let the youngsters play in 2020, there are still a lot of holes to fill. The rotation is a mess after Marco Gonzales and Yusei Kukuchi (who had a 5.46 ERA his first season in the majors), especially if Sheffield and Dunn need time in Triple-A. The Mariners shuffled through a mind-numbing 40 pitchers, and the top returning reliever is, umm, Brandon Brennan? He had 47 innings and a 4.56 ERA. They need a first baseman and Mallex Smith (.635 OPS) was hardly the answer in center field. In other words, even if it's making moves around the edges, expect Dipoto to be busy as usual. -- David Schoenfield