LOS ANGELES -- There is still time for the Los Angeles Angels to make the kind of big-splash move that marked their last two winters, when they signed Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson with a one-day, $317.5 million splurge before the 2012 season and Josh Hamilton to a five-year, $125 million deal before 2013.
However, their options are limited.
The Angels appear to be at least one front-of-the-rotation starter away from playoff contention, and there is only one pitcher left on the free-agent market who wouldn't cost them a first-round pick, Japanese right-hander Masahiro Tanaka, who fits that bill.
The Angels are about $15 million under the $189 million luxury tax threshold and are expected to be very aggressive in their pursuit of Tanaka, who was 24-0 with a 1.27 earned-run average for the Rakuten Golden Eagles last season.
But so are the deep-pocketed Los Angeles Dodgers, New York Yankees, Chicago Cubs and Texas Rangers, who could drive the price for Tanaka well past $100 million, on top of the $20 million posting fee that the winner of the Tanaka sweepstakes will pay Rakuten. Seattle, Arizona and Minnesota are also expected to bid on Tanaka.
Angels General Manager Jerry Dipoto, on a conference call Monday to introduce recently signed designated hitter Raul Ibanez to a one-year, $2.75 million deal, would not put a measure on his interest in Tanaka.
"It's not fair to the individual player, the organization or the league in general to openly discuss free agents," he said.
Upgrading the rotation was Dipoto's top priority this off-season, and although he added quality depth with the acquisitions of left-handers Hector Santiago from the Chicago White Sox and Tyler Skaggs from Arizona, that may not be enough to overcome Oakland, Texas and Seattle in an improved American League West.
Tanaka, 25, would combine with ace Jered Weaver and Wilson to give the Angels a formidable front three, with Garrett Richards and Santiago or Skaggs filling out the rotation.
If the Angels don't land Tanaka, right-hander Matt Garza, who would not cost them a draft pick, would make a nice consolation prize. The Angels remain seriously interested in Garza, who was 10-6 with a 3.82 ERA for the Cubs and Rangers in 2013, but Tanaka is believed to be their top choice.
The Angels have shown virtually no interest in Ubaldo Jimenez or Ervin Santana, both of whom are tied to draft-pick compensation, and they don't have the prospects to trade for Tampa Bay ace David Price.
The rotation as it stands looks better than it did in 2013, and the bullpen, with the signing of former Cleveland setup man Joe Smith to a three-year, $15.75 million deal and the expected return of veteran left-hander Sean Burnett, should be deeper.
The Angels have the best all-around player in center fielder Mike Trout, but it will be difficult to replace the team-leading 34 home runs and 100 runs batted in provided by first baseman Mark Trumbo, who was sent to Arizona in the three-team deal that brought Santiago and Skaggs.
"On the field," Dipoto said, "we're as talented as anyone out there."
The Angels will need Pujols to bounce back from an injury-shortened 2013, Hamilton and newly acquired third baseman David Freese to rebound from subpar seasons and Ibanez, 41, to remain productive at an age when most players are into retirement.
"If I didn't think I could still perform at a high level and exceed the level I was at last year, I wouldn't play," Ibanez said. "The only reason I continue to play is I have a deep passion for winning and competing."
Ibanez hit .242 with 29 home runs and 65 RBIs for Seattle last season but slumped in the second half, batting .203 with five home runs and nine RBIs in 51 games.
A heavy defensive load -- Ibanez played 832 innings in the field, the equivalent of 92 full games -- may have contributed to those struggles, but Ibanez won't play much outfield in Anaheim.
"I basically stunk in the second half," Ibanez said. "Being a DH more will help, but you'll never hear me say that playing the field that much impacted me. There's no such thing as preparing to DH; you prepare to be a baseball player."
(c)2013 Los Angeles Times
Visit the Los Angeles Times at www.latimes.com
Distributed by MCT Information Services