One Free Agent Target for Each AL West Team
The American League West became one of the more intriguing divisions in Major League Baseball in 2023 due to the close race between three teams at the top of the division. The Houston Astros have dominated the division for years now, winning two World Series titles and consistently appearing in the League Championship Series. The Texas Rangers spent big and despite losing the division title at the end of the season, went on to win the World Series for the first time in franchise history. The Mariners took a slight step back in 2023 but were still competitive thanks to a stellar rotation and a younger core of players. Then you have the Los Angeles Angels who are spiraling after going all in at the trade deadline but collapsed horribly in the second half and are now likely to lose Shohei Ohtani. Then you have whatever the Oakland Athletics are doing in their bid to move to Las Vegas. Some teams are better off than others, but here is a free agent for each team to pursue this offseason.
Houston Astros: Tom Murphy
The first order of business for the Astros was replacing Dusty Baker as their manager, a task they just completed with the promotion of Joe Espada. The next task will be to plug up any holes that appeared in what could be considered a down year in 2023. For the most part, the team is set up well enough that they have younger players who contributed in 2023, quite capable of taking over at certain positions as needed. The Astros acknowledged they don’t have much financial flexibility, so they will have to rely on less notable deals and trades to fill holes in the bullpen and bolster depth as a whole. They will focus on plenty of things but one position they could add to is behind the dish.
The team has already declared that rookie Yainer Diaz will be their primary catcher. In his rookie season at the age of 24, Diaz slashed .282/.308/.538 with 23 home runs. His bat alone will boost the Astros’ offense, a stark contrast to free agent Martin Maldonado’s uninspiring offense. Still, the team hopes to add an experienced backstop and Tom Murphy could provide that. Over the past five seasons, Murphy has grown into one of the better catchers in the American League with the Seattle Mariners. In 2023, he slashed .290/.335/.538 with eight home runs in an injury-shortened campaign where he played in just 47 games. He provides plenty of offense for a catcher and holds his own defensively. Having Murphy gives the team an inexpensive experienced backup who could easily step in for Diaz should he struggle in his sophomore season.
Texas Rangers: Josh Hader
The Rangers proved last offseason that money is no object and they would be willing to spend to improve their roster. One of the weakest aspects of the team was the bullpen, despite manager Bruce Bochy navigating an entire season masterfully. The Rangers bullpen had the seventh-highest bullpen ERA in baseball and it should be Chris Young’s next area of focus. The team acquired Aroldis Chapman close to the trade deadline, but Chapman struggled due to not being the elite arm he once was. If the team is aiming for a lock-down left-handed reliever who could take over as the closer, Josh Hader may be the man they are looking for.
Hader has been one of the most effective closers of his generation. The five-time All-Star converted 33 saves for the San Diego Padres in 2023 and posted a 1.28 ERA in 56 1/3 innings of work. The lefty dominates the strike zone with a career 42.4% strikeout rate and regularly is one of the most feared arms to come out of the bullpen. He is bound to draw a hefty price, but a fearsome anchor in the bullpen instills confidence in both the offense and starting rotation. With a slim free-agent market in the reliever category, Hader is the best option for teams to jump on to set themselves up for years the come. Members of the baseball world believe Hader and the Rangers are the most likely match, but it remains to be seen.
Seattle Mariners: Lourdes Gurriel Jr.
The Mariners admittedly they probably should have done more in 2023 to be aggressive and pursue the playoffs. The offense wasn’t quite good enough last season, putting further pressure on the pitching staff to keep them afloat. President of baseball operations Jerry Dipoto said the team is looking to improve across the board to address flaws, one of which is a focus on higher-contact bats. The Mariners struggled with putting bat to ball in 2023 and while much of their roster shuffling may come via trade, Lourdes Gurriel Jr. presents a quality option to fit that mold.
Gurriel Jr. had a phenomenal year with the Arizona Diamondbacks, belting a career-high 24 home runs in 145 games and being named an All-Star for the first time. While the Diamondbacks would be wise to retain Gurriel Jr., he did enough to earn the right to explore his options for a new opportunity and a larger contract. He has the ability to hit 20+ home runs and while he still has a more aggressive approach at the plate, he maintained an 83.5% contact rate last season. He had a swinging strike rate of just 6% in 2023, certainly an attractive figure for the Mariners. With higher contact does come the risk of more ground balls, hence a 43.1% rate last season, but it was in line with his career average. Gurriel Jr. wouldn’t be the flashy free agent Mariners’ fans would hope to get, but he fits the mold of the team in terms of profile and monetary restraints.
Los Angeles Angels: Jeimer Candelario
The Angels are in a perpetual state of disappointment. Despite having two of the greatest players in history on the same team, it did very little to move the needle toward contention. Now, one of those players is a free agent and it’s simply a matter of time before the other player demands to be traded away. At some point, the Angels will have to face the music with their roster choices, but for now, we can focus on one free agent to help the squad.
Anthony Rendon’s contract is one of the worst in baseball, simply due to the fact that he hasn’t been able to stay healthy whatsoever. While the Angels have managed to fill the hole at third base in his absence, there hasn’t been much production. If the Angels want to bring in an extra infielder capable of playing both corner infield positions and slide in at DH from time to time, then Jeimer Candelario could fit the bill. In 140 games between the Washington Nationals and Chicago Cubs, Candelario slashed .251/.336/.471 with 22 home runs and 70 RBI. The team does have Luis Rengifo with the capability to play around the infield, but Candelario provides decent defense with a solid switch-hitting bat in the lineup. He makes for a more reliable backup to Rendon, whose health will continue to be a red flag.
Oakland A’s: José Ureña
In all honestly, no one can really tell what the A’s are going to do anymore. After owner John Fisher showed little to no regard for the fans of Oakland with a deliberate tank job in 2023 with the intention to move the team to Las Vegas, the A’s are likely to go bargain-hunting to put up a facade of trying to compete in 2024. Already the team has claimed Miguel Andujar from the Pittsburgh Pirates but from head to toe the team is just intentionally bad.
There are some promising young players and Brent Rooker had a breakout year, but it’s hard to pick one free agent the team could go for. Most deals will be of the minor league variety, but if they choose to pursue someone, José Ureña would be a decent rotation pick. Ureña had a solid second half with the Colorado Rockies in 2022, leading the two sides to reunite for the 2023 season.
Unfortunately, Ureña was abysmal in his first month in 2023, leading the Rockies to release him. He bounced around in the minors a bit and ended the season with the Chicago White Sox. His luck was better in Chicago, In five starts with the White Sox, he tossed 26 1⁄3 innings, including three games in which he went six innings, with an ERA of 4.10. He returned to relying on his sinker more and ended up with 20 strikeouts to eight walks with a 49.4% ground ball rate and a 29.6% hard-hit rate. The A’s rotation struggled quite a bit with their young group, and a veteran looking for their next deal wouldn’t be misguided to sign in Oakland for cheap.