As expected, Angels reliever Scot Shields and outfielder Hideki Matsui became free agents at 9:01 p.m. PT on Saturday in accordance with the new rules governing free agency.

Shields, one of the game's premier setup men before submitting to knee surgery during the 2009 season, is the last link to the 2002 World Series championship club from a player personnel standpoint. Shields has said that he'll likely retire if no worthwhile offers surface, while Matsui is determined to continue to swing the bat for somebody.

Matsui's strong finish showed that the big man from Japan is still capable of being an effective run producer. But the Angels have a preference for keeping the designated-hitter spot open to a variety of options, not one primary source. Matsui's return is unlikely but not out of the question, depending on the possibility of moving an outfielder such as Juan Rivera in a deal.

With an offense that underachieved significantly, the Angels enter the offseason looking to add a productive bat or two. This is their highest priority -- with the bullpen, also an area of possible need, looming on the backburner.

The X-factor is the return of Kendry Morales, whose absence after his freak May 29 fractured left leg left a major hole in the heart of the lineup. Morales is expected to return, full force, to first base. This, as manager Mike Scioscia put it, "is the biggest free-agent signing you could have."

But that doesn't mean the Angels won't aggressively pursue a run producer or top-of-the-order presence in free agency or in the trade market. General manager Tony Reagins has made it clear the club will explore every opportunity to improve, and history suggests he isn't shy about making the big move.

Since Reagins assumed his position, the Angels have acquired Torii Hunter as a free agent, and Mark Teixeira and Dan Haren in midseason swaps. Deals don't come much bigger than those.

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Play Free Agent Frenzy

The potential free agents most likely to attract the Angels' attention are Carl Crawford, Adrian Beltre, Jayson Werth and Adam Dunn. The bullpen also could use some fortifying with a left-handed presence to replace the departed Brian Fuentes. As it stands now, there is not a lefty in the bullpen, and the market holds some intriguing possibilities.

The payroll has been in the neighborhood of $120 million the past few seasons, and while owner Arte Moreno would like to keep it in that range, he has given indications that he's open to exceeding that figure if the right deal presents itself.

The one position that holds a question mark is third base. Alberto Callaspo was acquired after Brandon Wood struggled to create offense, and he had mixed results in the second half. Scioscia likes Callaspo's defense and his ability to make contact, but the preference at that position is always for a run producer.

That could move Beltre to the top of the priority list, although Crawford would seem to hold that distinction, given his career-long production and versatility. Crawford would generate the speed that was lost with Chone Figgins' departure, while bringing a clutch bat and brilliant defense.

After Fuentes was dealt to the Twins, Fernando Rodney struggled with his command in the closer's role. Young power arms Kevin Jepsen and Jordan Walden could assume the role, but the question is whether they are ready now. An import is possible, given the club has some tradeable commodities.

Contract issues

Free agents: Scot Shields, RHP; Hideki Matsui, OF-DH

Eligible for arbitration: Jered Weaver, RHP; Kendry Morales, 1B; Alberto Callaspo, 3B; Jeff Mathis, C; Mike Napoli, C; Howard Kendrick, 2B; Erick Aybar, SS; Reggie Willits, OF; Kevin Frandsen, INF

Player options: None

Club options: None

Non-tender possibilities Frandsen

Payroll

It has been maintained in the $120 million range in recent seasons, but it will be difficult to keep it there -- even with the subtraction of the Fuentes, Shields and Matsui salaries, which add up to $18.5 million. Significant arbitration raises are due for Weaver, Kendrick and Morales, most notably, with others also ticketed for higher salaries in the process. Moreno has indicated he will push the payroll higher, if necessary, and the rise of the Rangers to American League West prominence might be all the incentive he needs.