Yes, Jonathan Papelbon and Joe Nathan signed lucrative deals to close games for new employers. Sure, teams couldn't wait a second longer to hand out multimillion-dollar deals to a cavalcade of scrappy, talent-deprived middle infielders. But with baseball's winter meetings around the corner, the top free agents still available, and limitless trade possibilities looming, the time for a Hot Stove preview is now.
Thirty teams, what they need, what they're likely to get, and what we should expect in 2012 and beyond. We lead off today with the 14-teams-for-one-more-season American League:
What They Need: 1B, 2B, 3B, LF, DH, at least three starting pitchers
What They'll Likely Do: Tough to say exactly, given the new man in charge. Dan Duquette has stressed the importance of patience, scouting, and player development in his role as Orioles GM, so it's hard to imagine Baltimore going after big-ticket free agents or blockbuster trades this offseason. His predecessor did leave some warm bodies behind, but only four of the nine starting-lineup spots appear to be well covered. Mark Reynolds might be the worst fielder in the game and doesn't hit enough to be a plus first baseman. Chris Davis is a converted first baseman who doesn't get on base, now trying to cover third. Luke Scott is a non-tender candidate given his injuries, age, and likely arbitration price. Nolan Reimold might be adequate in left field if everything breaks right. Second base is the most muddled position of all, with Brian Roberts due to make $20 million over the final two years of his ill-advised contract, and concussions threatening to keep him off the field entirely. Duquette's most intriguing offseason move was a quiet one: giving minor league veteran and former top prospect Matt Antonelli a major league contract. The 26-year-old infielder hit .297/.393/.460 in 86 Triple-A games last season. If he can stay healthy, the O's may have found a cheap and effective solution to one lineup hole.
The starting rotation is an even bigger mess, one that underscores the team's biggest challenge. The top five right now, in approximate order, are probably Jeremy Guthrie, Zach Britton, Jake Arrieta, Brian Matusz, and Chris Tillman. Arrieta, Matusz, and Tillman were all once top pitching prospects. But injuries and/or loss of velocity have turned all three into arsonists, ready to get destroyed by the AL East's top sluggers. Tillman's reportedly on the trading block, as is Guthrie, who is the most reliable starter of the five, but no bargain with a career 4.68 FIP, a $5.75 million salary last season, and arbitration on the way. The good news is Guthrie has topped 200 innings pitched in three straight seasons, and with a thin market for starting pitching, he'd still likely fetch some interest in trade. Still, the O's need time to develop a new generation of starters, or else pray that Britton takes a step forward and the three near-busts bounce back.
Get ready for a 15th straight losing season, O's fans. And hope that Peter Angelos has the patience to let Duquette ride out a few more while he searches for a non-terrifying pitching staff.
BOSTON RED SOX
What They Need: 3B/DH, lefty-mashing OF, SP, RP
What They'll Likely Do: Their September collapse aside, this is still a very talented Red Sox team that new manager Bobby Valentine will inherit. But there are a few holes here that have nothing to do with video games and chicken. Josh Beckett and Jon Lester form an excellent top of the rotation, but questions remain over Clay Buchholz's health. After those three, who knows. Andrew Miller isn't the answer, and John Lackey, the de facto fourth starter, is gone for a year with Tommy John surgery. Sox fans have assumed they can prorate Alfredo Aceves' big year in long relief into 180-plus quality innings as a starter, but the next time Aceves proves himself as a quality big league starter will be the first. The market for free-agent starter C.J. Wilson seems to have cooled, which could create an opening for the Sox to pounce. Despite being two years older than Wilson, Mark Buehrle has curiously become the hotter commodity — if we're to believe the headlines, anyway. The wild card here is Yu Darvish. The chances of Darvish getting posted have tailed off amid divorce proceedings. The Sox could also feel a little skittish about ponying up nine figures for another Japanese League export after the Daisuke Matsuzaka debacle, though Darvish is a better prospect than Dice-K or any other pitcher who's made the trek from Japan.
The lineup is in better shape. Jacoby Ellsbury, Dustin Pedroia, and Adrian Gonzalez teamed up to form one of the most potent threesomes in the game last season; all three are in their prime, with a good chance to post more big numbers. David Ortiz's loss will hurt if he bolts via free agency, but the smart money is on him coming back to Boston. Kevin Youkilis' health and possible skills regression bear watching, though. Youk's missed a combined 102 games in the past two seasons, and his 2011 numbers were his worst in half a decade. Between Youkilis doubt, Jed Lowrie's perma-DL status, a needed hedge for Ortiz, and concerns over Josh Reddick's ability to produce as an everyday player and Carl Crawford's weak bat vs. lefties even in non-disaster seasons, acquiring a right-handed-hitting third baseman/DH and/or a righty-swinging corner outfielder will be likely priorities. Michael Cuddyer's asking price is said to be high; if it eases a little, he could be a great fit in Boston. Young'ns Ryan Kalish, Ryan Lavarnway, and Will Middlebrooks could also warrant some looks if the new skipper's willing to gamble on youth.
There are issues with the bullpen, too. Papelbon's departure pushes Daniel Bard to the closer role, which creates a void for the setup job. The Sox hope Bobby Jenks can return to full strength after delivering next to no value in Year 1 of his two-year, free-agent contract. Aceves could assume a higher-leverage role in next year's pen, but such a move might require the Sox to land two starters, and for the new manager to choose a different role for Aceves than the one he held in 2011. The market's flooded with decent-to-very-good relief options, so the Sox should be able to find help pretty easily.
CHICAGO WHITE SOX
What They Need: Good returns on trades, Adam Dunn to not put up one of the worst seasons in the history of organized sports nay, in the history of Western civilization
What They'll Likely Do: Make a hell of a lot of trades. Few GMs have been more aggressive in reshaping their ball clubs over the past few years than Kenny Williams. Rumors out of the South Side have him shopping one of his top starters (John Danks or Gavin Floyd) despite Buehrle's likely departure, while also dangling slugging right fielder and solid lefty setup man Matt Thornton. That doesn't necessarily mean a rebuilding job, as Williams might opt to trade those players for major league-ready pieces. There's talent already on hand, with Paul Konerko continuing to defy Father Time, Alexei Ramirez emerging as a top-tier shortstop, and the pitching staff remaining deep with the emergence of Sergio Santos as closer, Chris Sale as future starter, and Zach Stewart and others waiting in the wings.
What the ChiSox really need, though, is some positive regression toward the mean. Dunn's unimaginable .159/.292/.277 batting line combined with his nonexistent/negative defensive and baserunning contributions combined to make him worth -2.9 Wins Above Replacement last season. In other words, if Dunn merely performs as well as your generic benchwarmer, the White Sox stand to win three more games in 2012 than they did in 2011. Alex Rios was just as bad offensively as Dunn last season (identical .259 wOBAs), while Gordon Beckham (.284 wOBA) and Brent Morel (.286 wOBA) were brutal in their own right. Just about everything that could have gone wrong for Chicago's offense in 2011 did go wrong. Selling high on some of last season's better performers and hoping for bouncebacks from the lineup's gruesome foursome actually makes a lot of sense.
What They Need: A lot less than you think
What They'll Likely Do: Looking for a sub-.500 team that could break through and make the playoffs next year? The Indians are that team. Lonnie Chisenhall and Jason Kipnis broke into a lineup that already featured multiple potent bats. Carlos Santana and Asdrubal Cabrera offer All Star-quality offense at the two toughest positions to fill on the diamond, while Shin-Soo Choo and recently re-signed Grady Sizemore offer major rebound potential coming off injury-plagued seasons. The pitching staff could be even more intriguing, thanks to one of the most groundball-dominant rotations baseball has seen in years. The bullpen's loaded with good, cheap talent, with Vinnie Pestano, Joe Smith, and Rafael Perez leading the way for a group whose closer (Chris Perez) was one of its worst members last season. The Indians' $49.2 million payroll was its lowest in six years and the fifth-lowest of any team in 2011. If ownership starts writing checks this offseason (they've already started, with $5 million due to newly acquired Derek Lowe), the Tribe could become serious contenders for an AL Central crown.
Priority no. 1 should be finding a thumper at first base. Santana caught 95 games last season and played first 66 times. But his value is much greater to the team behind the plate, given how much harder it is to find a catcher who can hit than a first baseman who can swing. Carlos Pena would make an excellent target on a one-year deal, after posting a .354 wOBA and 2.6 WAR on a one-year, $10 million pact with the Cubs. Pena showed his usual sharp platoon split, with a .383 wOBA vs. righties, .266 vs. lefties. Spotting Lou Marson behind the plate against tough lefties while moving Santana to first and giving Pena the day off could be a way to keep everyone fresh and defray some of those platoon issues. If the Indians wanted to get really aggressive, they could seek an upgrade over Michael Brantley (career .265/.316/.359) in left, especially with Sizemore's health a big question mark. Pursuing, say, David DeJesus on another short-term deal could add another solid platoon bat against right-handed pitching, and a good glove to boot.
If I'm Chris Antonetti, I make a run at those two players (or similar commodities) and take a shot in 2012, given how weak the division remains behind the defending-champion Tigers.
What They Need: 3B, 2B, LF (unless you believe Delmon Young's playoff mashing is somehow sustainable)
What They'll Likely Do: Almost certainly get one of the two, and maybe both. Brandon Inge's playoff heroics were fun to watch, but the Tigers know he's not a viable everyday player, which is why they acquired defensively inept righty-masher Wilson Betemit in the first place. Re-signing Betemit and having Inge serve as a platoon mate and late-inning defensive replacement would be a reasonable move. There's also some buzz around a possible Aramis Ramirez signing, and we know Dave Dombrowski isn't shy about spending big when his team has a chance (or even a couple of years beforehand). Second base is open for debate, with Ryan Raburn showing enough bat to play there, but his glove over 162 games is much less certain. An offense/defense time-share similar to a Betemit/Inge arrangement could make sense, and acquiring a glove-first backup is a lot cheaper than getting a big-bat starter. Rumors surfaced of a potential Young-for-Martin Prado deal, with Prado moving to second and Raburn presumably shifted to left. That deal never materialized, but there's enough flexibility and cash here to make upgrades.
One more surprising rumor had the Tigers kicking tires on Buehrle. There are so many teams hurting for starting pitching that it's tough to imagine Detroit emerging as high bidder, especially with Doug Fister putting up huge numbers (albeit against weak competition) last season and Max Scherzer and Rick Porcello looking like solid no. 3 and no. 4 options. That would still leave the Tigers with four righty starters, though, and a no. 5 spot that top prospect Jacob Turner (also a righty) might not be ready to claim. Had the Royals not re-signed Bruce Chen, he might have been a good, inexpensive fit at the back of the rotation. An incentive-laden, low-risk, medium-reward deal for Erik Bedard could be a great complement to the Tigers' likely infield upgrades.
KANSAS CITY ROYALS
What They Need: Time
What They'll Likely Do: More than perhaps any other team, they've already done whatever it is they planned to do. Since the World Series ended a month ago, the Royals have: traded 200-hit outfielder Melky Cabrera for erratic but talented lefty starter Jonathan Sanchez; re-signed surprisingly effective rotation mainstay Bruce Chen; and inked Jonathan Broxton to a one-year deal, giving Broxton the setup role in front of Joakim Soria and Aaron Crow a chance to compete for a starter's job.
The Royals hope those moves help a team that allowed more runs last season than any AL team save for the Twins and Orioles. They've already got the defense to pull it off, with slick-fielding shortstop Alcides Escobar and third baseman-turned-left fielder Alex Gordon leading the way for a club that finished a solid 10th in Ultimate Zone Rating in 2011. Cabrera was miscast as a center fielder, and his departure could lead to further run-prevention help with Lorenzo Cain poised to win the job. Recent buzz had the Royals sniffing around on Colby Rasmus, though, which could make an intriguing gamble but could also cost a pretty penny with Alex Anthopoulos and the Jays on the other end of any Rasmus deal.
Even if Dayton Moore stands pat from here, though, there's reason for optimism in Kansas City. Pundits are often too quick to anoint young teams as super-sleepers, so let's keep it modest: The Royals could crack .500 for just the second time in two decades. Give Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Wil Myers, and the Royals' other top prospects another couple of years to grow up, and things could get a lot more interesting.
LOS ANGELES ANGELS OF ANAHEIM
What They Need: Back-end starting pitching, guys who can actually get on base
What They'll Likely Do: Depends on the condition of Arte Moreno's stomach. The Angels' payroll checked in just shy of $142 million last season, the largest in team history by more than $20 million. Vernon Wells alone accounted for that surge, making $23 million and playing like Vernon Dursley. Wells can't help but do better than the .248 on-base percentage he posted last season, but that regression alone won't be enough. Kendrys Morales could help if he's healthy, but that's anyone's guess. If Morales can find his way back, the Angels could be better positioned to trade for the help they need rather than adding to their swollen payroll, trading from their first-base depth, as well as a crop of pitching prospects that includes Tyler Chatwood and Garrett Richards. They've reportedly considered a deal for Chris Iannetta, the Rockies catcher with power and patience who'd be a huge offensive upgrade over Jeff Mathis and Hank Conger a poor man's Mike Napoli, if you will.1
Chatwood and Jerome Williams are the best current bets to take up the nos. 4 and 5 slots in the rotation, creating one of the biggest gulfs between a team's top three (Jered Weaver, Dan Haren, and Ervin Santana) and bottom two. Lacking the money or lineup space to radically reconstruct the offense (catcher aside) and committed to waiting for top prospect Mike Trout to grab an everyday job, finding a couple of 2-3 WAR starters to round out the rotation could be the cheapest, easiest path to improvement. Even with a flawed roster, though, the Angels can't be counted out. Joe Maddon earned his Manager of the Year award given the Rays' continued success, but Mike Scioscia deserved a nod for keeping the Angels in the race longer than their talent might have suggested. They could be in the mix again in 2012.
What They Need: Health
What They'll Likely Do: It was a nightmarish season for the Twins, who went from division winners to 99-game losers in the span of one year, driving Bill Smith out and Terry Ryan back into the GM's chair. Injuries were the biggest culprit, as the team's two best players, Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau, played 151 games combined. Morneau's ongoing concussion symptoms remain frightening, and bode ill for getting back to everyday duty, let alone his MVP form of old. Mauer's ailing legs could be an even bigger problem, given that the Twins committed $184 million to their franchise catcher, a figure even the Yankees couldn't easily slough off, let alone the mid-market Twins. Those two huge question marks, along with the departure of Joe Nathan and potential departures of Michael Cuddyer and Jason Kubel, signal a transition period for a team that won five out of nine AL Central crowns before 2011's meltdown.
So if the Twins are smart, they'll accelerate the rebuilding process and trade some starting pitching. Francisco Liriano is streaky and injury-prone, but also talented enough to fetch plenty of interest from other teams. Carl Pavano has gone from Mister Glass to a horse who made 98 starts in the past three seasons. Jamey Carroll and Ryan Doumit were fine, low-cost free-agent additions, but neither signing should preclude the Twins from cashing in their biggest trade chits, restocking their farm system, and giving themselves a chance to contend again down the road. Morneau almost certainly won't be part of the next Twins playoff team. But Mauer should. Might as well speed things up to make that happen.
NEW YORK YANKEES
What They Need: Less than any other team in baseball
What They'll Likely Do: Let's get this out of the way first: Given the insane profits thrown off by YES Network every year, the Yankees could probably carry a $400 million payroll and come out ahead. But while Brian Cashman may not have a rigid budget in any given year, he does get rough guidelines. That means the Yankees can't — or more precisely, won't — spend unlimited money. With an incredible $173 million already committed before the team's arbitration bills come due, it's no wonder rumors have the Yankees not even looking at C.J. Wilson, the lefty starter likely to fetch the biggest free-agent payday this offseason. That's a shame, because if the Yankees have one glaring potential weakness, it's the starting rotation.
Still, the situation is hardly dire. CC Sabathia was a lot closer to Justin Verlander last season than mainstream coverage would have you believe, and remains one of the most reliable arms in the game. Ivan Nova's peripherals suggest that his 16-4 record is unsustainable going forward, but you can still pencil him in as a viable starter. Freddy Garcia showed he can still pitch and came back cheap to try to do it again. Phil Hughes still has upside if he can ever stay healthy enough to make 30-plus starts. And if A.J. Burnett is your fifth-best starter, that's perfectly fine, his sky-high contract be damned.
Elsewhere, it's another loaded Yankees roster, with the graying temples of Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter offset by Robinson Cano and Curtis Granderson taking their place among the game's superstars, and Jesus Montero ready to fulfill his promise, if not as a catcher than as an unlikely rookie DH. The bullpen looks strong with Mariano Rivera defying Father Time as he passes his 42nd birthday, and an able supporting cast led by David Robertson providing the needed bridge to the Sandman. Cashman's big offseason shopping goals might revolve around finding another Andruw Jones and Eric Chavez to fortify the bench. Boring stuff, maybe. But when you've outspent every other team with just 11 players' salaries, you sure as hell better not need much more.
What They Need: A whole new lineup, pretty much
What They'll Likely Do: Wheel and deal to get one. After getting snakebitten by lucrative, multiyear deals in the past, Billy Beane and the A's have leaned on short-term solutions at multiple positions in building their year-to-year rosters. The result is very high turnover, probably never higher than in this offseason. The entire starting outfield plus their DH hit the open market, and it's entirely possible that none of Josh Willingham, David DeJesus, Coco Crisp, and Hideki Matsui, all over 30, returns to Oakland. Jemile Weeks emerged as one of the team's best players last season, though his inflated batting average on balls in play and poor walk rate raise some red flags. Still, you can't be too picky with a team that saw no position player contribute more than 2.2 WAR in 2011.
What the A's really need are some impact offensive players, and the best way to get them is to make some trades. Brett Anderson's date with Dr. Andrews whacked Oakland's pitching depth, but there's enough there and enough offensive need to have Gio Gonzalez's name constantly popping up in trade rumors. The Marlins reportedly wouldn't budge on a Gonzalez-for-Logan Morrison deal, a shame since it's exactly the sort of trade that could really help both teams. The other option is to give prospects like Grant Green, Chris Carter, and Michael Taylor every chance to play, accept a lean year or two, and go from there. Then again, Beane, assistant GM David Forst, and company understand better than most how important it is to get the most out of a player before service time prices him out of your comfort zone. Waiting a couple of years to see if Oakland's young hitters can hack it could be too little, too late for keeping the now arbitration-eligible Gonzalez in-house at an affordable salary. If the A's can get a big bat for Gonzalez, or even pull off a Gonzalez deal similar to the Rays' prospect-stuffed haul for Matt Garza, they'd be well served to do it.
What They Need: Offense, and a whole lot of it
What They'll Likely Do: The drumbeat has already begun for a big-ticket free-agent signing, with reporters bombarding former Brewers scouting director and current Mariners GM Jack Zduriencik with questions about his old protégé. But while Fielder would certainly help the M's improve on last season's MLB-worst offense and 67-win campaign, there probably aren't enough other pieces here to justify shelling out something like $200 million for the slugging first baseman. We might see more tortoise than hare, then, as the M's cope with major salary commitments to Grade-A bust Chone Figgins and to franchise legend Ichiro, who gets one last $17 million salary even with his play radically diminished from superstar levels of old.
That doesn't mean the M's need to sit back and let the suck wash over them. They've already traded for John Jaso to add some much-needed on-base skills. They have enough B-level pitching prospects to potentially land another decent bat. Dustin Ackley has already emerged as the team's best position player, and it makes sense to give Kyle Seager, Trayvon Robinson, and — assuming they don't get anyone better — Justin Smoak the same opportunities to establish themselves as everyday players on the next winning Mariners team. Between Ackley, 2011 rookie sensation Michael Pineda, and every-team-in-creation-will-keep-calling-every-day-but-he's-not-for-sale-and-is-under-contract-for-three-more-years ace Felix Hernandez, Seattle has three fantastic building blocks. The other 22 pieces could fall into place over time. That just might mean some quiet times this Hot Stove season.
TAMPA BAY RAYS
What They Need: 1B, DH, C
What They'll Likely Do: GM Andrew Friedman keeps insisting the Rays won't trade from their off-the-charts starting-pitching depth to fill the three (and maybe four, if you count shortstop) major holes in their lineup, but few teams put on a better poker face than the Rays.2 The question is which pitcher(s) go, and who they can get in return. James Shields has the most market value of any Rays starter who could potentially be dealt (David Price, Jeremy Hellickson, and phenom Matt Moore likely aren't going anywhere — though you never say never with the Rays). But Shields was a beast in 2011, tossing 11 complete games and ranking among the game's elite; even for cash-strapped Tampa Bay, a pitcher like Shields at $7 million is a monumental bargain. The best-case scenario would have the Rays landing one or more hitters with that sweet spot of zero to three years of service time, with Jeff Niemann, Wade Davis, or a starter from the Chris Archer-Alex Cobb-Alex Torres-other cohort serving as bait.
The alternatives aren't fun to consider. Due to continued lousy attendance,3 a lousy local TV deal, and other depressed revenue sources, the Rays can't begin to contemplate going after Fielder or Albert Pujols, even though either player could offer huge returns for a team that has improbably made the playoffs three of the past four years and is one big bat away from being a favorite to do it again. Even most mid-tier free agents (Carlos Pena?) and potential trade acquisitions (Chris Iannetta?) might be too rich for the Rays' blood, and most of the alternatives are too hideous to contemplate. You can only turn chicken poop into delicious chicken salad so many times, even if you're the Rays. Then again, just when you think their payroll can't go any lower, just when you wonder how much longer they can keep defying the odds, this happens.4 Friedman will almost certainly pull a couple of moves out of nowhere, and there's a good chance they'll succeed.
What They Need: An upgrade at 1B, SP insurance
What They'll Likely Do: Probably not much, given how loaded the returning core is after two straight AL pennants. The lineup returns beasts like Adrian Beltre, Nelson Cruz, Ian Kinsler, Mike Napoli, and Josh Hamilton, Michael Young isn't as great as we're led to believe but he can still mash, the bullpen should be solid with Joe Nathan signed to close and Mike Adams and others back onboard, and the rotation figures to be young and talented even if C.J. Wilson leaves. But the Rangers' revenue streams continue to rise, and will hit another gear once their new TV deal starts in 2014. The beast move would be to take advantage of a limited market for Fielder and Pujols and make a real run at one of them, cementing the Rangers as the team to beat in the AL and making them front-runners to finally win it all.
The more likely scenario involves more Mitch Moreland, which isn't the end of the world when the rest of your lineup's that stacked. Between Alexi Ogando needing to prove he can throw 200 innings and soon-to-be-converted reliever Neftali Feliz joining him in the rotation, though, a veteran arm substantially below the Fielder/Pujols price range makes sense, and seems reasonably likely. Then again, even if their AL West rivals upgrade and they don't, the Rangers should be prohibitive favorites to play into October for a third straight year.
TORONTO BLUE JAYS
What They Need: SP, RP, 1B/LF
What They'll Likely Do: There's work to be done if the Jays hope to contend with the three powerhouses of the AL East, even with an extra wild-card spot on the way by 2013. But GM Alex Anthopoulos should feel good about the work he's already done, heisting Yunel Escobar from the Braves, then signing him to a below-market contract; inking Jose Bautista to a five-year deal that now looks like it could be way, way, way below market; locking up lefty ace Ricky Romero, etc. The Jays need to find at least one and preferably two more reliable starters, though. Team president Paul Beeston has already said he wants no part of Yu Darvish and his sure-to-be-exorbitant posting fee. If they pass on Buehrle and Wilson, Anthopoulos probably isn't the type to overextend on the next tier (say, Paul Maholm), meaning low-cost options likely await. The good news is a generation of rising pitching prospects led by Drew Hutchison, Deck McGuire, and Nestor Molina could be just a year or two away, so short-term deals for veterans with upside (Ontario native Erik Bedard, perhaps?) could make a lot of sense.
The offense probably looks a little better on paper than it is in reality, with Eric Thames a questionable option as an everyday player despite a playable debut season, and Adam Lind's on-base woes overshadowing his significant power. Speaking of Canadians, the Jays got linked to Joey Votto rumors earlier this offseason. It'd be a match made in heaven given Votto's Toronto roots5 and prodigious ability, but the Reds' reluctance to move him and the likely asking price of fellow Canadian Brett Lawrie (and more) make any kind of deal an extreme long shot. You get the feeling the Jays could be really scary sometime soon, but that time might not be until 2013.
Jonah Keri's new book, The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team from Worst to First, is a national best-seller. Follow him on Twitter at @JonahKeri.
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