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AL West offseason preview — Can Angels land an ace?

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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.

Team-by-team offseason previews: NL East | NL Central | NL West | AL East | AL Central

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

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.

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Yankees GM rappels building, gets fan’s message on Gerrit Cole

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STAMFORD, Conn. — While Brian Cashman was descending the outside of a building Friday, the New York Yankees general manager came across a message taped to a 10th-floor window from a fan: Please sign Gerrit Cole.

Cashman, whose rappelling adventure has become a holiday tradition, confirmed he met with Cole in California on Tuesday and spoke with another free-agent pitcher, Stephen Strasburg, the following day.

“It was a great opportunity, clearly it was very public, that we met with Gerrit Cole and Strasburg while I was on the West Coast,” Cashman said. “At least, that’s who you all are aware of so far. Who knows who I met with?”

The Yankees have made signing Cole their clear offseason priority and have ownership-level approval to offer him a record-setting deal, sources familiar with their plans told ESPN’s Jeff Passan on Thursday.

Cole and Strasburg are the top pitchers on the free-agent market. The Yankees would like to add an ace to a rotation that already includes Luis Severino, Masahiro Tanaka, James Paxton and J.A. Happ.

Along with Cashman, assistant GM Mike Fishman, manager Aaron Boone, new Yankees pitching coach Matt Blake and former Yankees pitcher Andy Pettitte made the trip to speak with both pitchers, who are represented by Scott Boras.

The Yankees’ fondness for the 29-year-old Cole, whose fantastic 2019 season with the Houston Astros set him up to smash David Price‘s record $217 million contract for a pitcher, was only reinforced during the meeting, sources told ESPN.

New York and the Los Angeles Angels, a team similarly smitten with Cole and in even greater need of pitching, are preparing for a bidding war that executives expect will reach well beyond $250 million, according to sources. The Los Angeles Dodgers‘ interest in Cole is acute as well, though they are also considering bids for Strasburg and third baseman Anthony Rendon, sources told ESPN.

Cashman offered little about possibly signing either pitcher, declining to discuss how much the Yankees might spend.

“I think it was an important part of the process for them,” Cashman said. “It sounds like they have met with many teams, and obviously I can’t predict the future or the timing of their futures; only really they control that.”

Cole was 20-5 with an American League-best 2.50 ERA and a big league-high 326 strikeouts this year for the AL champion Astros. He was originally drafted by the Yankees with the 28th overall pick in 2008, but he declined to sign a contract and opted to attend UCLA.

Strasburg was the MVP of the World Series for the Washington Nationals and was the first overall pick in the 2009 draft.

Cashman will return to California for the baseball’s winter meetings, which begin Monday. First, he’ll attend Sunday’s Heights and Lights, where he will dress as an elf and again descend the Landmark Building.

“I’ll be flying back out after this event and in the meantime staying engaged,” said Cashman, who declined to say if another meeting with either pitcher was planned.

“I’m open to do clearly whatever, as always, is important for the Yankees. If there are certain steps that need to be taken, or conversations on the phone, like any club we are fully prepared to do what’s necessary.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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What’s next for the teams that lose the Gerrit Cole sweepstakes?

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The day Gerrit Cole picks his next team will be a holiday for some team’s fan base, for some team’s front office. That team — maybe the Yankees, maybe the Angels or the Dodgers or the Giants — will have locked down a staff ace for most of the next decade, the best pitcher on the planet (currently) at the absolute apex of his career.

But the other teams will get a call from agent Scott Boras in which he says, in so many words: Gerrit is moving in another direction. That will be a hard moment, a hard day, and the losing bidders will have to quickly pivot.

It won’t be easy. As one general manager asked the other day, “Where are all these teams going to find the starting pitching they need?”

It’s not only the Yankees, Angels and Dodgers who need starting pitching. The White Sox are pushing to add two veteran starters. The Reds need help, and so will the Nationals if Stephen Strasburg doesn’t re-sign. The Phillies, Mets, Blue Jays, Red Sox, Padres and others are looking for starting pitchers.

This is where the losers in the Cole bidding could turn:

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Win-now Padres pay steep price for Tommy Pham

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The Padres and Rays lined up yet again on a trade Thursday night, with the Rays sending Tommy Pham, whom they acquired less than 18 months ago for three prospects, to the West Coast in a deal that nets them one of San Diego’s top prospects. It’s a heavy price for the Padres to pay to try to improve their odds of contending in 2020.

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