For Rangers fans, this offseason has been something of a let-down so far. The offseason Droolfest 2010, which started with the team reportedly having designs on BOTH Lee and Greinke, ended with a McClung. With few impact FA left on the market, the front office has become curiously quiet. Although the DH and a rotation spot remain unfilled, nobody really know who the club is targeting and what they feel about the current roster.
On this board, I think there have been two ways that we've looked at the team. The optimists argue that since the black holes at catcher, 1B and Harden will be eliminated, the club should still be the AL West favorites, even in its present state. The pessimists point to a full season of Haren and Morales for the Angels, and the flurry of incremental improvements that the A's have made to complement their young, talented pitching staff as signs that the balance of power in the AL West is shifting. All living beings agree that Seattle is still kind of hopeless. I wanted to put some numbers to this question, so I made a position-by-position WAR count for the four teams (click the table for bigger view):
Usually, people do this kind of exercise when the rosters are set in ST, but I wanted to do one right now to get an idea of what additional moves are needed in the offseason. Wins above replacement (WAR) values for position players are roughly estimated with park-adjusted wOBA from statcorner and the defense values from fangraphs. Pitching WARs are based on the Fangraphs FIP values. All WARs are adjusted by my arbitrary judgement. Generally, I estimated improvements for younger players and regression for older players, or those having exceptional years. Please note that these are rough estimates, and expect an error bar of a couple of WARS. I have only included 4 member of the rotation, since the #5 tends to be a very fluid spot.
Angels: The Angels have a very good rotation. Their 1-2 is the best in the division, and I may be underestimating Pinero's performance a little bit. The signing of Downs and Takahashi plugs some holes in their below-average bullpen, and the return of Morales is a instant 2-3 win upgrade. The issue is that outside Morales and Hunter, the remaining position players are really uninspiring and quite average. They are probably looking to sign a DH, or even a outfielder to get Abreu out of there. Overall, there is not too much upside in their bats (no real breakthrough candidates). They are not too far off, but are still a couple more upgrades from being on par with the top of the division. The good news for us is that outside of Mike Trout, they don't particularly have much in terms of prospects. They are also a bit tied up financially for this year and possible the next. They may be able to sign Beltre, which should give them a 2 win upgrade over Izturis, in which case they will be closer, but by no means a favorite.
Athletics: Probably the primary contender to the Rangers right now. They added a few pieces in the offseason, and although none of these upgrades are concerning in isolation, the sum of the part is quite significant. They have turned out a lineup like a deluxe version of last year's Padres - there are no real stars, but they have no black holes, and are solidly average to above average at every position. This is also a team with a large chunk of value built into their defense. Last season, their starting infielders turn out almost 5 wins (according to UZR) on defense above average. Compared to a poor defensive team, say the Royals, the infield defense alone makes up around a 8 win difference between them. 8 Wins! On infield defense alone! On the other hand, I get a little bit suspicious when a large chunk of the team's value is based on defense. Since they still cannot be evaluated quite well, there is often a tendency for large regression (i.e. last season's Mariners).
The pitching staff is good, but probably overrated. I think the only real ace-level pitcher on the staff right now is Brett Anderson, though the rest have the potential to get there. The worst of their top four starting pitchers is probably still a solid #3. Because of the excellent defense and the park, they are likely to put up really low ERA numbers and look a lot better once again.
Last year, the A's organization had a terrible year in the minors, but an excellent year for the major league club. All of their young pitchers made progress or established themselves, and Barton emerged as a very good player. I think that although this is a young team, their best chance to compete for the division is not a few years down the line, but now. A's cannot spend a lot of money, and with Barton and Cahill becoming arbitration eligible next offseason, their payroll will have to increase by more than 10 million annually just to keep up with arbitration raises. Since their maximum payroll is probably no more than 60-70 million unless they can move somewhere else (not for a few years, if at all), they will not be able to afford to keep the core roster together in a few years and still have money left to spend for anything else. Given that their farm system lacks top-end talent that can provide major contribution soon, I think their window of winning the West is now, particularly with the Angels stuck in the doldrums and Mariners not quite ready. After that, they might have to trade away those pitchers and rebuild again. Given the moves Beane has made so far, it's clear that he believes the team to be competitive now as well. They are going to be the main rival in the next 2-3 seasons.
Mariners: The Mariners are not in as bad a shape as most think, since they have some very good players and young players with high upside. The problem is that they don't have enough of a supporting staff to seriously mount a challenge for the division right now. Sure, there is a chance if Smoak, Saunders develop, if Pineda/Ackley contribute immediately after being called up, if Figgins return to his pre-contract form, if the bullpen finds some stability, if Bedard returns healthy, and if the remaining players manage not to be black holes that they can legitimately compete, but that's if nothing bad happens either.
The Rangers have the best group of position players, if not somewhat brittle. The A's has similar problems with injuries, but they are not quite as top heavy, so injuries will hurt a bit less. The problem right now is the rotation. It's the third best in the division, and there are way too much uncertainties for a team expected to win the division. This problem must be addressed. They cannot just move Feliz into the rotation or expect someone like Feldman to pick up the slack. Ideally, you'll want a solid #3 who can give you innings, possibly a reclamation project, some depth, and stick Holland in the rotation because they need to find out what he can do now. Keep Feliz in the pen for now, I don't think it's a good idea to add even more question marks to the rotation as it is. Overall, the Rangers are probably the favorites right now, but only slightly.
Then what do the Rangers need to do? Had they been able to sign Lee or get Greinke, they would have opened up a more comfortable 3-5 win gap between themselves and the A's. In not doing so, they improved their long-term outlook at the cost of the short term. Now, if the A's manage to get Beltre, which really is not that big of an upgrade of Kouzmanoff, (1-2 wins), they are essentially co-favorites for the AL West. Also, because I think the A's competitive window is closing, just like some thinks ours is closing, it makes sense for the Rangers to try to open up this gap a little more. Maybe it's through upgrading the rotation by trading for someone like Nolasco, or finding a good DH option, or even upgrading center field, but I think it's imperative that the team finds a way to add a couple more wins worth of talent before the end of the offseason to tilt the balance more in their favor.
Finally, it's worth mentioning that the Rangers are by no means in a bad situation. They have both the best major league talent and the best minor league talent in this division. They have extra picks next offseason, only one bad contract, and money to spend. Right now, I think the team is in great shape in the long run. However, without further upgrade this offseason, they may be facing very stiff competition in the next couple of years.
tl;dr: Rangers good, need better, Oakland chasing, sandwich tasty.