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Starting pitching remains top priority for Angels

It'd be unfair and misleading to evaluate the work of Angels general manager Jerry Dipoto so soon -- barely a week removed from the season's final game, only five days into full-fledged free agency and more than three months away from Spring Training.

Early on, though, he's clearly taking some bold stances.

Dipoto will step into this week's General Managers Meetings in Indian Wells, Calif., with quite the barren cupboard because of it. Three-fifths of last year's star-studded rotation is gone, with Dan Haren's option bought out, Ervin Santana dealt to the Royals and Zack Greinke a free agent. Besides Brandon Sisk, seen merely as organizational depth, the bullpen needs haven't been addressed. And Torii Hunter is unlikely to return because the Angels, a source said, haven't been offering more than a one-year, $5 million contract.

The Halos can't offer Hunter more unless they find someone willing to take on at least some of the remaining $42 million in Vernon Wells' contract, and they aren't making the 37-year-old a priority because their outfield is deep and their pitching is thin.

The Angels, of course, have always wanted to re-sign Greinke. But now, it seems, they need to re-sign Greinke.

They need to because Jered Weaver and C.J. Wilson are the only members of last year's staff still on board -- though the up-and-coming Garrett Richards is seemingly on the verge of joining them.

They need to because Greinke is the only true ace available in the open market, with the likes of Anibal Sanchez, Kyle Lohse, Hiroki Kuroda and an array of others a rather distant second.

And they need to because they gave the Brewers three intriguing prospects (shortstop Jean Segura, along with pitchers John Hellweg and Ariel Pena) with the hope that Greinke would stay long-term.

Dipoto won't express that type of urgency publicly -- but then again, he still has a hand to play.

"We're not isolated on Zack Greinke as a standalone," Dipoto said after a week that saw him trade Santana and the cost of his $1 million buyout for Sisk, then decline Haren's option for $3.5 million. "There are a lot of pitchers out there on the open market right now, and there are a lot of pitchers that can be accessed in different ways. We'll keep an open mind to all of them."

Greinke didn't want to address pending free agency all year -- "I just don't think there's a winning situation in talking about it," he said -- and his recently hired agent, Casey Close, chose not to comment.

How much of an advantage do the Angels have over, say, the Rangers and Dodgers because they housed Greinke for the season's final two months? Tough to say, but it probably won't hurt their chances.

How much was Greinke turned off while seeing the Angels get rid of Haren and Santana, with Hunter likely leaving, too? Tough to say, but it probably won't help their chances.

"Obviously we have a great interest in Zack Greinke," Dipoto said. "We traded for him once, he did a tremendous job for us in the second half of the season and down the stretch, and we have a great deal of interest in pursuing the potential of bringing him back. But there's a lot that has to happen between now and Opening Day next year that will define if that's going to happen or not."

Greinke or not, though, it looks like the free-agent market will be the main supplier of that pitching depth the Angels covet.

Trade chips don't seem to be at their disposal. Not when you consider their lack of top-shelf prospects, or that Dipoto couldn't strike a deal for Haren before his Friday deadline, or that Hunter's likely departure makes the appealing Peter Bourjos the everyday center fielder.

But the Halos do have the financial flexibility to attack the free-agent market.

Last year, the Angels ranked fourth in the Majors with a payroll of about $159 million. So far -- with eight players under contract at just over $96 million, $4.5 million spent on the Santana trade and Haren buyout, and four looming arbitration-eligibles -- they have roughly $115 million tied to their roster.

How much does that leave? Well, a good gauge for the Angels' payroll next year is probably something in the neighborhood of $145 million. But Dipoto won't get into specifics, simply saying: "We've never been short on resources. What we're trying to do is remain flexible."

The Angels' second-year GM has created as much flexibility as possible.

Now he needs players -- specifically, pitchers.

Los Angeles Angels, Peter Bourjos, Zack Greinke, Dan Haren, Torii Hunter, Ervin Santana