Offseason Outlook Rumors

Offseason Outlook: Chicago White Sox

The White Sox have missed the playoffs for five consecutive years, but will continue to avoid a full-blown rebuilding effort.  This offseason will be focused on adding position players who can help in 2014 and beyond.

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With the summer trades of Jake Peavy, Alex Rios, Jesse Crain, and Matt Thornton, three of whom are controllable beyond this year, did the White Sox finally signal a willingness to take a step backward in 2014 for the greater good?  The club hasn't made the playoffs since 2008, and GM Rick Hahn stocked up on young talent partially at the expense of veterans who may have provided more value in 2014.

Behind the plate, Flowers flopped this year and could be traded or non-tendered.  Josh Phegley, 26 in February, hit .316/.368/.597 at Triple-A, though it wasn't his first time at the level.  Phegley received over 200 plate appearances in the Majors and the catcher's offensive success did not carry over.  Hahn's comments last month about the catching situation, quoted here by Chuck Garfien of CSNChicago.com, suggest they'll consider making an acquisition.  At his season-ending press conference, Hahn expressed the desire to avoid short-term fixes in free agency, instead focusing on players who can contribute several years beyond 2014.  One possible fit is Jarrod Saltalamacchia, a rare free agent who will play next year at age 29.  In theory, Saltalmacchia's greatest weakness, left-handed pitching, could be lessened by a right-handed hitting backup like Phegley.  In my free agent profile on Salty I predicted a four-year, $36MM deal, so the Sox could bring him in without committing a huge average annual value.  One impediment for the Sox would be potentially losing their second-round draft pick to sign him.

White Sox legend Paul Konerko seems likely to decide this month whether to retire or play in 2014.  The cleanest solution may be retirement, because no one wants to see him finish his career elsewhere, but the Sox might only be willing to provide a low-salary, part-time role.  Konerko told Dan Hayes of CSNChicago.com he'd only consider such a role with the White Sox, but there's still potential for awkwardness.  For now, the Sox must keep an open mind for first base.  Cuban slugger Jose Dariel Abreu checks all the boxes for the White Sox: long-term value, a contract that won't be monstrous by typical free agent standards, and no loss of a draft pick to sign him.  The White Sox have a history of signing Cuban players, and sent former GM/current VP Kenny Williams to Abreu's showcase in September.  In August, prior to the showcase, Williams said of Abreu to reporters, "If it’s big money, it’s big money.  Can we fit it into our equation? We’ve gone out and spent money before at given times. It has to fit into the current equation and our three-year look. But I need to see more video."

The White Sox have incumbent veterans in the middle infield with Beckham and Ramirez.  It's possible one could be traded to make way for Leury Garcia or Marcus Semien.  Ramirez continues to provide good value, but at age 32 has seen a dropoff in power.  With a potential three years of control, Ramirez's durability may appeal to teams scared off by Stephen Drew's injury history.

While the hot corner is a potential area for upgrade, Conor Gillaspie could be functional against right-handed pitching.  The Sox are stuck with Keppinger and might as well see if he can regain usefulness against southpaws to form the rest of the platoon.  Semien, Garcia, and Brent Morel could also contribute at third base if the team's middle infield remains locked in.  Still, I expect Hahn to be involved on any young third basemen that become available.

Avisail Garcia, the main piece acquired in the Peavy deal, is set as Rios' replacement in right field.  De Aza has been acceptable in center, and Viciedo finished strong and remains affordable.  De Aza could be pushed into the role of a good fourth outfielder, which would probably be necessary if the Sox intend to make a "hard push" for Chicago native Curtis Granderson, as reported by Daryl Van Schouwen of the Chicago Sun-Times in early October.  MLBTR's Steve Adams predicted a three-year, $45MM deal for Granderson, with the cost of a draft pick as well.  Paying good money and losing a draft pick for Granderson's age 33-35 seasons doesn't seem to fit with Hahn's plan.  A better match could be 30-year-old center fielder Chris Young, who was drafted by the White Sox in '01 and traded to the Diamondbacks in '05 for Javier Vazquez.  After an off year, Young is expected to have his $11MM club option declined by Oakland.  Though a one-year deal for Young wouldn't provide long-term value, risk would be limited and if he performs well he could become a trade chip.

After hitting .211/.326/.455 with 75 home runs over the last two seasons, is Dunn a trade candidate?  Thirty-four years old in November, Dunn is a tough fit for a lot of teams as a primary DH who whiffs a ton, struggles against left-handed pitching, and no longer posts a strong OBP due to the low batting average.  Still, in a market where Kendrys Morales is going to turn down a one-year, $14.1MM offer, Dunn could be moved if the White Sox pick up two-thirds of his salary.

Hahn said he will remain open-minded about trading young pitching, but will be careful about compromising the team's strength.  Sale and Danks seem locked in at the front and back of the rotation, respectively, while 24-year-old southpaw Jose Quintana put together a breakout year with a 3.51 ERA in 200 innings.  The remaining two spots should be filled by some combination of Hector Santiago, Erik Johnson, Andre Rienzo, and Dylan Axelrod.  While Chicago's 2014 rotation seems like a sleeper to be above average even without Peavy, I don't think they have the depth to trade Quintana unless they receive an offer they can't refuse.  One approach could be to stockpile depth though free agency, making trading a young pitcher slightly easier to stomach.

With Crain and Thornton out of the picture, Hahn might be compelled to do some bullpen tinkering.  Lindstrom wasn't bad to have around at $2.3MM, but the Sox have a tougher call with a $500K buyout or his $4MM option for '14.  Declining Lindstrom's option would leave Addison Reed and Nate Jones at the back end of the bullpen, with plenty of competition and question marks beyond the young pair.  Hahn may look at add multiple affordable veterans, one of them left-handed.   

"It's not in our nature to write off any season. I don't think that's appropriate in baseball today," Hahn told MLB.com's Scott Merkin in August.  You have to respect the White Sox for not fully punting on seasons in the name of stockpiling young players, as the Cubs and Mets have recently.  With the third overall draft pick next June, the White Sox will have their earliest pick since they took Harold Baines first overall in 1977, but at least they entered the 2013 season with the playoffs in mind.  Hahn intends to improve the team aggressively and quickly, which may be best accomplished by adding players in their 20s like Abreu and taking advantage of cheap seasons by Sale and Quintana.


Offseason Outlook: Philadelphia Phillies

The Phillies' old window of contention is closed, Jimmy Rollins acknowledges, but the team's longtime shortstop insists a new one is about to open.

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Ruben Amaro Jr. has drawn some of the harshest criticism of any GM in baseball after doubling down on his club's aging core, but he will be back and fascinating to watch again this offseason. Amaro recently told Andy Martino of the New York Daily News that he is on the hunt for impact transactions in the coming offseason, though some observers feel that the club will hunt for mid-tier value. With over $120MM guaranteed next year to eight players, around $11MM to spend on arbitration eligible players (per Tim Dierkes' prediction), and the pre-arb portion of the roster to pay, the club is already within $40MM of its highest-ever payroll ($172MM in 2012). 

On the other hand, the team may soon be flush with a big new TV deal and surely feels pressure to reverse its slide from atop the league's attendance standings. And after earning a protected top-ten pick in the 2014 draft, the Phils will have an edge on most other big market clubs in buying free agents. Will the Phillies be more aggressive this year than they were last offseason?

Amaro made it clear that the club is reloading, not rebuilding, with a series of summer moves. First and foremost, Amaro got veteran star Utley to agree to a reasonable and flexible extension that shouldn't be an albatross, though the club forewent a big trade deadline haul to do so. Then, the organization made its first major international splash, promising $48MM to 26-year-old Cuban hurler Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez. (The amount was ultimately quartered and the length halved after medical concerns cropped up.) Finally, the club shed longtime skipper Charlie Manuel for heir-apparent Ryne Sandberg, and then officially anointed the Hall-of-Fame second baseman as its 2014 manager with a three-year contract.

After posting the league's second-worst run differential in 2013, the Phils could find it difficult to add enough talent to feel confident that they have a contender, unless ownership is willing to push up against (or even over) this year's $189MM luxury tax threshold. In 2013, the Phillies put up about 17.5 WAR as a team, which is around half the total accumulated by the lowest-tallying playoff club (Cleveland). Making up that kind of gap will be expensive. Even if the money is available, moreover, there are only so many places that the club can put it.

The club is certainly not going to spend in the middle infield, where it has the longtime Rollins-to-Utley double play combo under contract. The duo has not exceeded 8 fWAR since 2009, and last year managed only around 5.5 fWAR (and under 4 rWAR). Howard remains entrenched at first, though he may get additional rest and lose at-bats against lefties to Darin Ruf, who has done nothing but hit in his 318 big league plate appearances (17 homers, 136 OPS+). Though both are defensive liabilities, their complementary power bats could make up a productive combination — if Howard can stay healthy. 

At third, Cody Asche has probably done enough in nearly 200 plate appearances to presume that he will man the position in 2013. Like Howard, Asche also has a ready platoon partner in Kevin Frandsen, assuming he is tendered a contract. And it should be remembered that top prospect Maikel Franco is demanding attention at the hot corner after mashing at Double-A as a 20-year old. 

Catcher is quite a different story, as the stalwart Ruiz will hit free agency going into his age-35 season. With the organization's younger options like Tommy Joseph and Sebastian Valle fizzling, an internal replacement seems unlikely. Cameron Rupp earned a September call-up after putting together a solid campaign in the high minors, but he is a more likely candidate for Erik Kratz's backup job given his lack of a compelling ceiling. Having enjoyed cut-rate production from Chooch for years, Philly will need to spend just to hold serve behind the dish. 

A return for Ruiz could make sense, and he seemingly hopes to do just that. Dierkes pegs his open-market value at a reasonable two years and $14MM. But it has been suggested that Ruiz can only handle 100 games as a receiver at this point, and the club could want a more full-time, long-term solution. The leading catchers on the market – Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Brian McCann – may not be perfect fits. Both would further tilt the team's lineup towards the left side since Salty is a switch-hitter who struggles against lefties. And Philly does not figure to have first base (or, of course, DH) at-bats available to keep the latter fresh as he ages.

The Phils joined just the Astros and Twins with an aggregate sub-replacement-level performance from their outfielders in 2013. According to Fangraphs, the club had only three players who made positive contributions: a redeemed Brown, 26, whose stellar offensive output was partially offset by awful defense metrics; center fielder Revere, 25, who was trending upward when he broke his foot; and the lumbering Ruf. Many were also impressed by the debut of young Cesar Hernandez, who hit and reached base at an impressive clip while learning on the job in center. Brown and Revere are locks for regular jobs. But the club apparently does not view Ruf as an everyday option in the corner outfield, and the light-hitting Hernandez is most likely to join Freddy Galvis as cheap, versatile bench options.

It is little surprise, then, that the Phillies are said to desire a right-handed hitting corner outfielder. On the free agent market, the premier options are Nelson Cruz and the switch-hitting Carlos Beltran (recently compared by MLBTR's Charlie Wilmoth). Otherwise, the club would be looking at older players like Marlon Byrd or bounceback candidates like Chris Young, Corey Hart, or Michael Morse. It is, of course, still possible that the club could instead go after a left-handed bat and/or center fielder if it finds better value there.

If Amaro explores the trade market, he figures to be competing with many other motivated buyers. The GM has reportedly made repeated efforts to acquire young stud Giancarlo Stanton from the Marlins, but probably lacks the chips to get one of the game's most valuable commodities. Other possible targets include Michael Cuddyer, Mark Trumbo, and Yoenis Cespedes, but none of these players seem likely to be dealt unless their current employer is overwhelmed by an offer.

Meanwhile, the once-imposing rotation turned out baseball's sixth-worst ERA in spite of typically excellent seasons from Lee and Hamels, both of whom return. Gonzalez is a "mystery" even to his new manager, having never pitched in the bigs and coming with elbow concerns, but he will certainly take a rotation slot. Kendrick, who projects to earn $6.6MM in arbitration, looks like a possible non-tender candidate after a below-average season, but Amaro has said rather emphatically that he will be retained.

With Jesse Biddle still working to reign in his command and Adam Morgan stalling out with injury, internal promotion is not a likely avenue for the fifth spot. The spot could be entrusted to Jonathan Pettibone, who was solid in his first MLB season (4.04 ERA in 100 1/3 innings), or he could be the first man up in an injury situation. Ethan Martin is also a possibility. Though he was hit hard in his first big league go-round and may not stick in the rotation, it may be worth another shot given his upside.

Amaro has said he remains open to bringing back former ace Halladay, presumably on an incentive-laden contract. His performance and injury struggles during 2012-13 make him anything but a certainty, however. Alternatively, the Phillies could see the last starting slot as an opportunity to make a significant upgrade. There are a few strong starting options among Dierkes's list of the ten best overall free agents, along with several other mid-level options, and the Phils have never hesitated to load up on arms.

The bullpen was even more troublesome for the 2013 Phils. Despite two high-priced arms in Papelbon and Adams, the group's collective 4.19 ERA was the fourth-highest in baseball. Looking ahead, Philadelphia will hope that Papelbon's declining strikeout numbers do not foretell a like decline in his effectiveness, and that Adams is able to return from injury. Bastardo will be called on to return from his PED suspension to be a reasonably-priced late-inning lefty.

Otherwise, Sandberg will likely be looking at a series of less-established hurlers when he marches out of the dugout and taps his arm. Though he says that the club still needs "long guys, swing men, [and] depth in the bullpen," Ryno previously indicated that "some of the question marks in the bullpen could have been answered" with the work of pitchers like B.J. Rosenberg, Jake Diekman, and Justin De Fratus. Also looking to entrench themselves in the bigs are Phillippe Aumont, Jeremy Horst, and Michael Stutes, none of whom has performed consistently. Martin figures to earn a spot if he is not slotted into the rotation.

While the in-house options may have the potential to form a solid core, ample uncertainty surrounds most of the pieces. A team intent on contention would surely look to buttress its collection with at least one reliable arm. The organization already moved on from two marginal options by allowing Tyler Cloyd and Raul Valdes to be claimed off of waivers, which supports the idea that Amaro is looking to improve, not just get by.

The top of the free agent market includes several current and former closers, though convincing one of them to set up Papelbon could be pricey. The market for reliable options probably hovers between the $3.5MM we might expect the injured-but-excellent Jesse Crain to pull down and the $20MM+ that relatively youthful closer Edward Mujica could garner. Amaro has largely struck out on his past free agent relief pick-ups; it will be interesting to watch whether he'll trust the system's young arms or risk funds in open-market bidding.

Barring another high-stakes, multi-part trade maneuver, the Phillies seem unlikely to make a major addition to the infield or overhaul the rotation. That leaves a relatively straightforward series of targets: corner outfielder, catcher, starter, and perhaps setup man. But unless it is willing to part with important pieces from an improving but still-below-average farm, the team will have to spend quite a lot of money to ensure true upgrades. 

Last year's strategy – adding supplemental pieces and hoping for a big year from the team's aging core — was an evident failure. One year later, it seems even more clear that, if not an aggressive buyer or an aggressive seller (or both), Philly could be caught in the middle with an expensive, injury-prone, low-ceiling ballclub. The organization faces a non-negligible risk of something like baseball's version of stagflation: a bloated payroll, declining attendance, and eroded leverage in TV rights negotiations. That possibility — along with the presence of the always-creative Amaro, who could be on thin ice if he can't produce a winner — makes the Phillies a major wild card over the coming offseason.


Offseason Outlook: Minnesota Twins

The Twins spent nearly a decade at or near the top of the AL Central, but 2013 marked their third straight 90-loss season.

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The Twins have already cleared up one of their first orders of offseason business by issuing manager Ron Gardenhire a two-year extension and retaining the entire coaching staff. While many fans anticipated a change following the team's run of 90-loss seasons, ownership and GM Terry Ryan recognized they hadn't given Gardenhire much of a chance to succeed with the players they'd provided in recent years. They'll look to change that this offseason, as owner Jim Pohlad publicly voiced that he has had enough when he called the team's play "embarrassing." Pohlad said that he would provide Ryan with the necessary funds to sign free agents this winter, adding that he's not adverse to three- and four-year deals, which the Twins have typically shied away from in the past.

One of the biggest Twins narratives of the offseason will be "What to do with Joe Mauer?" Perennially one of the league's best catchers, Mauer missed the end of the season with a concussion. The Twins have invested more in him, financially speaking, than any other player in history. Many in the Twin Cities media and Twins fanbase are calling for Mauer to move to first base to protect his health, now that Justin Morneau has departed. However, Ryan and Mauer himself have maintained that he will catch in 2014. The Twins do have a potentially viable alternative, as rookie backstop Josmil Pinto burst onto the scene in September after a dominant minor league showing and hit .342/.398/.566 with four homers in an admittedly small sample size of 83 plate appearances.

Turning to the infield, the Twins lack an heir apparent to the now-departed Morneau. Former first-round pick Chris Parmelee has failed to repeat his brilliant production from September 2011 or his big numbers from Triple-A Rochester in 2012. Chris Colabello is among the game's best stories, as the Independent League lifer caught on with the Twins at age 28 last season and mashed his way through the minors. However, upon reaching the Majors, his tremendous opposite-field power has been overshadowed by his alarming strikeout rate. The team could look to re-sign longtime cornerstone Morneau, or they could buy low on an upside candidate like Corey Hart with Parmelee and Colabello as fall-back options.

The Twins' middle-infield corps, led by Brian Dozier and Pedro Florimon, was the best defensive group in the Majors, according to DRS (as I noted last month over at SB Nation's Twinkie Town). Though neither is a big offensive threat, Dozier was able to produce a roughly league-average line with the bat at least (100 OPS+, 101 wRC+). The switch-hitting Florimon batted just .180/.229/.230 from the right side, so one wonders if he could take a step forward simply by switching to the left side permanently. Even with Florimon's weak bat, the pair combined for four to six WAR, depending on your preferred version of the metric. The middle infield probably won't be a high priority, though one name to keep an eye on could be Cuban shortstop Aledmys Diaz. The Twins were said to have interest (despite a high price tag), and he should be able to sign in February.

Trevor Plouffe earned a nod as the team's third baseman when he mashed 24 homers in just 465 PAs in 2012, but the former first-rounder's power regressed in 2013, and he's a poor defender at the hot corner. The Twins figure to bring in some form of competition to push Plouffe at third base, perhaps just a minor league free agent or two. Casey McGehee, who hopes to return to the Majors after a big season in Japan, could merit consideration given the team's problems at corner infield.

In the outfield, Josh Willingham will man left field. One would think that top prospect Oswaldo Arcia's .251/.304/.430 batting line and 14 homers in a half-season of big league PAs as a 22-year-old have earned him a look as 2014's right fielder. Fellow top prospect Aaron Hicks flopped in his initial center field tryout, but Hicks has typically developed at a slow pace throughout the minors and skipped Triple-A entirely to jump to Minneapolis on Opening Day. While his strikeout rate was sky-high, Hicks showed better power than expected and possesses one of baseball's best arms in center field, so he should have a chance again in 2014. Alex Presley, acquired in the Morneau trade, could start in center if the team wants Hicks to open his age-24 season in Triple-A.

Pitching remains the Twins' biggest problem, and perhaps no stat is more telling than the league-worst 5.26 ERA turned in by Twins' starters. No team was even close to that bad, as the Blue Jays finished 29th at 4.81. The 871 innings turned in by the Twins' starters was also the lowest total of any team. Kevin Correia pitched better than most expected in his first season with the Twins, and journeyman Samuel Deduno's surprising 4.09 ERA in 187 innings for the Twins from 2012-13 is likely enough to earn him a rotation spot as well. Beyond that, things are murky. Scott Diamond was the team's best arm in 2012, but his contact-oriented arsenal caught up to him in 2013. Mike Pelfrey posted a nice FIP, but his 5.19 ERA and inability to work deep into games should keep the Twins away, though he did express interest in returning. Andrew Albers was another independent league gem found by the Twins, but with just 3.8 K/9 in 60 innings, it's fair to wonder if he can repeat his 4.05 ERA over a full season. FIP liked him at 3.96, but xFIP (4.42) and SIERA (4.71) weren't so optimistic. Top prospect Kyle Gibson struggled tremendously in his first taste of the bigs, but the 2009 first-rounder will be two full years removed from Tommy John surgery next Spring. With a respectable Spring Training showing, he should crack the big league roster.

If Pohlad's word is true, the Twins need to prioritize adding higher-upside arms than they did last winter. Ervin Santana, Matt Garza and Masahiro Tanaka are probably too expensive, but the next tier of starting pitchers could be realistic targets. Ubaldo Jimenez, Scott Kazmir and Phil Hughes are all relatively young and all carry more upside than arms the Twins have targeted in past seasons. Ricky Nolasco and Scott Feldman could make sense as innings eaters with more upside than Correia as well. If they want to think outside the box, Randy Messenger could be a Colby Lewis-style addition after three very strong years in Japan (Darren Wolfson of 1500 ESPN reported last year that the Twins had interest).

The bullpen is the team's strong point, anchored by Glen Perkins, who has emerged as one of baseball's best closers. Beyond Perkins, Jared Burton and Casey Fien are solid options in the seventh and eighth innings, though Fien seemed to wear down a bit in August, allowing 10 of his 27 runs in a seven-game span before a strong September. Brian Duensing is tough on lefties, and rookie southpaw Caleb Thielbar was a revelation (1.76 ERA in 46 innings). Anthony Swarzak led Major League relievers with 96 innings pitched, and he did so with a 2.91 ERA and 3.28 FIP. Josh Roenicke spent a whole season in the team's bullpen but has already been outrighted. He could be replaced by Michael Tonkin, who had a nice season between Double-A and Triple-A.

This could be one of the most important offseasons in Twins history, as the team is rich in prospects that could comprise the Twins' core for their next sustained run of success. Byron Buxton is the consensus top prospect in the Majors, and Miguel Sano is right there with him in the Top 5. Eddie Rosario could be in Triple-A early in 2014. Alex Meyer is among the game's best starting pitching prospects, and Gibson, who was a Top 50 prospect himself prior to 2013, can't be written off just yet. That Meyer/Gibson tandem isn't far off, and it's not too late for Trevor May to take a step forward or forgotten man Vance Worley to experience a turnaround. Further away are 2013 first-rounder Kohl Stewart and 2012 first-rounder Jose Berrios, both of whom have lofty ceilings.

However, the Twins need to bridge the gap to that wealth of minor league talent, much of which figures to work its way onto the big league roster over the next two seasons. If they're able to do so by adding veteran rotation pieces with upside that will still be effective in 2015-16, and perhaps a corner bat, the future looks bright in Minnesota.



Offseason Outlook: Toronto Blue Jays

After a very disappointing 2013 season, the Blue Jays will try to fix the remaining holes in their roster and finally get back into contention.

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The Blue Jays were the talk of the 2012-13 offseason after two major trades with the Marlins and Mets added Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle, Josh Johnson, Emilio Bonifacio, R.A. Dickey and Josh Thole to the fold.  These trades (and the free agent signings of Melky Cabrera and Maicer Izturis) left the Jays and their fans expecting to challenge for the World Series, let alone an end to the club's 20-year playoff drought.

Instead, almost everything went wrong.  Aside from Buehrle, all of Toronto's major acquisitions ended up badly regressing from their 2012 performance or were limited by injuries (or both).  On top of this, some core players already on the roster also failed to live up to expectations or took steps backwards in their development.  A season that looked so promising in Spring Training ended with a 74-88 record and a last-place finish in the AL East.

The Jays have over $110MM committed to 13 players for 2014, not counting contract options or arbitration salaries that could push the payroll to around $134MM.  While general manager Alex Anthopoulos has said that the team won't be cutting spending, another big payroll boost seems unlikely, though one more notable salary could be added.  Trading will be more difficult since the farm system was thinned by the Marlins/Mets deals.

In short, don't expect any major overhaul of the roster — the Jays believe they already have the nucleus of a winning team.  It may sound odd to say that a last-place club is just looking to fine-tune the roster, but the Blue Jays may not be as far away from contention as they seem if they get some good health luck (after two injury-ravaged seasons in a row) and if the underachievers return to form.

MLBTR's Matt Swartz projects Toronto will spend $11.2MM on their four arbitration-eligible players, presuming all are tendered contracts.  J.P. Arencibia's stock plummeted after he hit .194/.227/.365 with 148 strikeouts over 497 PA and struggled defensively, to boot.  A non-tender wouldn't be surprising, yet I'd guess the Jays will keep Arencibia either on a short leash as a platoon player, send him to Triple-A to revamp his batting approach or perhaps trade him to another team interested in trying to fix him.

There isn't much suspense with contract options, as Anthopoulos has already hinted that Adam Lind, Casey Janssen and Mark DeRosa are all likely to have their 2014 options exercised.  Lind enjoyed his first healthy and productive season since 2009, getting his career back on track by hitting .288/.357/.497 with 23 homers in 523 PA, though he still can't hit left-handed pitching.  Janssen's option is a no-brainer after he posted a 2.56 ERA and recorded 34 saves in his first full year as Toronto's closer.  The Jays like DeRosa's veteran clubhouse presence and versatility off the bench, so they'll leave the door open for him to return if he wishes to keep playing.  That leaves fan favorite Munenori Kawasaki, who could be back as minor league depth.

The Jays are set (with some reservations) at most positions around the diamond, except for catcher and second base.  While Arencibia may not be non-tendered, his days as a starter are assuredly over.  Brian McCann is easily the top catcher available in free agency and one of the top free agents overall this offseason, so he could command a deal that is too rich for the Jays to match, as much as he would check a lot of boxes for the team.  If not McCann, expect Toronto to explore several free agent catchers and all possible trade options (such as Wilson Ramos) to improve behind the plate.

Late-season callup Ryan Goins wowed the Jays with his glove at second base, and since improvement on defense is one of Anthopoulos' stated goals, Goins may have worked himself into the Jays' plans despite his .609 OPS in 121 PA.  The Blue Jays could focus on upgrading their other weak areas and get away with a Goins/Izturis platoon at second next season, given the thin second base free agent market.  Robinson Cano isn't signing with Toronto, and even a second-tier option like Omar Infante would be in line to receive a contract in the neighborhood of three years/$25MM.  While the Jays will at least check in on Infante or Kelly Johnson, I'd guess the club will look to trade for second base help.

Beyond second base and catcher, the Jays will look to add some outfield depth.  Cabrera recently had a benign tumor removed from his spinal cord, a condition that explains the leg and back injuries that ruined his season and left him barely able to run.  Even though Cabrera is expected to be fit, it wouldn't hurt the Jays to have a backup option ready given that Cabrera and Jose Bautista are both coming off injury-shortened years. 

Rajai Davis provided strong base-stealing ability and a quality bat against southpaws over the last three seasons, but he'll sign elsewhere in search of an everyday job.  Anthony Gose can replace Davis' speed and is a better fielder, though he has only a .655 OPS in 342 career PA.  The Blue Jays may want Gose to get more seasoning at Triple-A rather than spend most of his time on a Major League bench.  Toronto could look to replace Davis with another right-handed hitting outfielder that can also spell Lind at DH against lefty starters.

Edwin Encarnacion, Bautista and Reyes are all over 30 years old, the Jays are feeling some urgency to contend before any of their cornerstone hitters start declining.  Encarnacion has posted two elite slugging seasons in a row and the three-year, $29MM extension signed midway through his breakout 2012 campaign is looking like one of Anthopoulos' cannier moves.  The Jays have to be concerned that Bautista hasn't played a September game since 2011, having been shut down with wrist and hip injuries, respectively, in each of the last two seasons.  Bautista was still a force when healthy, hitting 28 homers with an .856 OPS in 528 PA.

Colby Rasmus was limited to 118 games due to injury himself but it was still a big year for the 27-year-old.  Rasmus hit .276/.338/.501 with 22 homers in 458 PA (while boosted by a .356 BABIP) and was one of the sport's better defensive center fielders, posting a +15.2 UZR/150.  A repeat of that performance will make Rasmus arguably the top free agent outfielder on the market next offseason, though it's a good bet that the Jays will discuss a long-term extension with Rasmus this winter.

The bullpen was one of the few bright spots for the team in 2013 and it'll require little-to-no tinkering.  Toronto has more than enough bullpen depth to make up for the loss of Darren Oliver, who is retiring after 20 years in the Show.

Toronto's rotation posted the second-worst starters' ERA (4.81) in baseball last season, so it's no surprise that starting pitching is by far the Jays' biggest offseason need.  Dickey and Buehrle return as the projected top two starters having delivered fairly similar numbers in 2013, though Dickey was perceived as having the more disappointing campaign given the dropoff from his 2012 Cy Young Award-winning stats.  The Jays need Brandon Morrow to rebound from a negative WAR season that saw him post a 5.63 ERA in 10 starts and spend most of his time on the DL due to a nerve injury in his right forearm.

The last two spots in the rotation are completely up in the air.  Josh Johnson could've set himself up for a nine-figure contract in free agency with a strong 2013 season, but instead the right-hander posted a 6.20 ERA over 16 starts and now might not even receive as much as a qualifying offer from the Jays. While Anthopoulos says the club hasn't made up its mind about Johnson's future, agent Matt Sosnick recently told MLBTR that his client enjoyed his time with the Jays and would like to return.  Johnson was yet another player affected by injuries last year, so if the Jays can re-sign him to a cheap, one-year deal, he could go from bust to bargain in a hurry if the Josh Johnson from 2008-12 shows up.

Internal rotation candidates include J.A. Happ, swingmen Rogers, Todd Redmond and Chad Jenkins, prospects Sean Nolin and Marcus Stroman, plus Kyle Drabek and Drew Hutchison will both be back after undergoing Tommy John surgeries in 2012.  There's also Ricky Romero, but he isn't even 40-man roster material for the Jays at this point, and the team isn't counting on their former ace for anything in 2014.

As Anthopoulos has said, however, those arms are only seen as the depth options.  The Jays will look to acquire at least one front-of-the-rotation pitcher, whether that's pursuing a trade or such top free agents as Matt Garza, Ervin Santana, Ricky Nolasco or Tim Lincecum.  Toronto has scouted Masahiro Tanaka and will likely bid on the Japanese righty, though the Jays are but one of many teams interested in Tanaka.

The Jays may have to overpay to attract a free agent pitcher to the AL East, so a trade is probably the preferable option.  With the minor league system light on premium talent, Toronto could use pieces from their Major League roster as bait.  Janssen or other relievers could be moved as part of a package for a quality starter, as the Blue Jays could dip into their deep bullpen and promote Brett Cecil, Sergio Santos or Steve Delabar to the closer's job.  Lind has regained enough trade value to be shipped to a team in need of first base or DH help.

Even Rasmus could be shopped in a sell-high move, especially if the Jays can't work out a contract extension.  The Jays aren't going to move Encarnacion or Bautista unless they receive a knockout of an offer, so Rasmus could be the best and most realistic trade chip they have amongst the position players.

It's easy to write off the 2013 Blue Jays as victims of injuries and bad luck, but 2014 is a pivotal year for this era of the franchise.  Another disappointing season could cost Anthopoulos his job and spur yet another rebuilding phase in Toronto.  The Jays are hoping that their big moves from the 2012-13 offseason will start paying dividends and that they are indeed just a second baseman, catcher and couple of arms away from finally getting back to the postseason.


Offseason Outlook: Seattle Mariners

The Mariners could add a piece or two, but they're more than just a trade or free agent signing away from contention. Breakout performances from young players hold the key to the team's success in 2014.

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Arbitration Eligible Players

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Free Agents

The 2013 Seattle Mariners struggled at both run production and run prevention. While those are common characteristics of bad teams, this year’s Mariners squad was perhaps doubly disappointing in that many of the high-upside players the team expected to take steps forward failed to do so. GM Jack Zduriencik, who quietly signed a one-year extension that wasn't reported until much later in the season, will likely focus his offseason evaluations on which of his young players have earned a spot on the 2014 Opening Day roster. That roster will be led by a new manager, as Eric Wedge has said he will not return to the team.

If there’s a common thread to the Mariners’ struggles under Zduriencik, it’s an inability to score runs, and 2013 was no different. The club’s much-discussed decision to move in the outfield fences before the season didn’t produce the expected offensive gains, as Seattle’s total of 624 runs barely surpassed its 619-run tally from 2012. When Zduriencik sits down this winter to examine his roster for weak links on offense, first baseman Justin Smoak is likely to jump out as being part of the problem. It’s tempting to call his .238/.334/.412 line a step forward, but Smoak hit just .203/.294/.392 in the second half, results that are more in line with his career numbers. Put simply, Smoak’s upside is waning. He’ll turn 27 in December, and he’s approaching the 2,000 plate appearance mark with just a .227/.314/.386 career line. He likely gets another shot in 2014, if only because penciling Smoak in at first and hoping he can deliver on his promise probably gives the club a better shot at contention than what could be expected from a one-year stopgap solution. However, if the Mariners are hanging around near the bottom of the AL in runs scored at the All-Star break next year, continued underperformance from Smoak may be one reason why.

Dustin Ackley disappointed again, hitting just .253/.319/.341, but he came on strong in the second half with a .304/.374/.435 triple slash. That’s much more like the player the Mariners thought they were getting when they selected Ackley second overall in 2009. He also showed the ability to play a competent second base, and may vie with Nick Franklin for the starting job in spring training.  Ackley’s likely to continue to get plate appearances next year regardless, as the Mariners could also use him in the utility-type role that he took on for much of 2013.

Zduriencik was brought in with a reputation as a player development guru, and though the Mariners have yet to develop a superstar under his tenure, Brad Miller’s 2013 performance is reason for optimism. His .265/.318/.418 line in a half-season of play is downright impressive for a shortstop in today’s game. Franklin was another bright spot. The 2009 first-rounder posted a strong 10.2% walk rate and .157 isolated power in his first taste of the majors, though he cooled off after a hot June. If Miller and Franklin can build on their 2013 performances, the team’s woeful offensive projection improves considerably. Elsewhere around the infield, Kyle Seager has nailed down the third-base job after posting a total of 7 fWAR between 2012 and 2013. The Mariners may need to look outside the organization for catching help, as Mike Zunino struggled after his June callup and could likely use more time in the minors. If so, a one-year deal for a glove-first backstop may be in order.

Zduriencik has already indicated he plans to extend Kendrys Morales a qualifying offer, but Jon Heyman of CBS Sports reported recently that Morales is likely to reject the offer in search of a multi-year deal. That doesn't mean Morales won't end up with the Mariners anyway, as the team apparently isn't ruling out going beyond one year for him. In fact, the Mariners may still be the most likely landing spot for Morales, as it doesn't seem likely that another club would be willing to forgo its first-round draft pick to sign him. His .277/.336/.449 line in 2013 is solid but underwhelming for a player likely limited to a full-time DH role.

Projecting Morales as Seattle's 2014 DH means Jesus Montero no longer has a viable path to the Opening Day roster. The Mariners appear to have given up on him as a catcher, and Smoak is likely to retain the first base job. While we’d be remiss to write him off entirely, he’ll likely have to play his way onto the big league club after a 2013 campaign marred by poor performance, injury and a suspension in connection with the Biogenesis scandal.

Zduriencik can add by subtracting in the outfield. Raul Ibanez helped prop up the Mariners’ flailing attack in 2013, belting 29 home runs, but his -17.1 UZR suggests that he’s a major defensive liability in left field. He ended the year at exactly zero fWAR despite all those homers. If the team commits to Morales at DH, there likely isn’t room on the roster for another all-bat, no-glove type. Improving on the 2013 Mariners’ MLB-worst -73 team UZR should be a major priority for the front office this winter.

Michael Saunders should return to the outfield despite taking a step back this year, while Franklin Gutierrez's future with the club is less certain. After missing significant time again in 2013, Gutierrez completed the guaranteed portion of the four-year, $20.25MM deal he signed with Seattle in 2010 having played in just 325 games. The club may choose to decline his $7.5MM option for 2014 and try to negotiate a deal with a lower salary. Overall, the outfield stands out as the area with the largest potential for improvement for the Mariners. The team was crippled in 2013 by below-replacement-level performances from veterans like Jason Bay (236 PA, -0.2 fWAR), Mike Morse (307 PA, -1.2 fWAR) and Endy Chavez (279 PA, -1.3 fWAR). If ownership is willing to spend – and the Mariners’ reported pursuit of Josh Hamilton last winter suggests that they might be – Scott Boras beckons with Jacoby Ellsbury and Shin-Soo Choo. Otherwise, Curtis Granderson isn’t likely to require as steep of a commitment after sitting out much of 2013 with injuries, while Nate McLouth would come cheap and could provide defense and walks from a corner outfield spot.

If you’re wondering how a team with both Hisashi Iwakuma and Felix Hernandez on staff managed to allow the fifth-most runs among MLB clubs, look no further than the struggles of Aaron Harang (5.76 ERA, 120 1/3 IP) and Joe Saunders (5.26 ERA, 183 IP). As is the case with Bay and other veterans in the outfield, replacing those innings with merely average performances would make the Mariners a significantly better team in 2014. Those may be found among the litany of pitchers potentially available on one-year deals – Phil Hughes, for instance, would be a bounceback candidate away from the short porch in Yankee Stadium. Brandon Maurer also dragged down the staff with his 6.30 ERA in 90 innings, but he’s just 23 years old and posted relatively strong peripheral numbers, so he’s likely to remain in the conversation. Taijuan Walker and James Paxton showed signs that they may be able to give the club a boost in 2014.

Zduriencik will look to make major upgrades to the bullpen after the unit posted a 4.58 ERA in 2013, good for 29th in the majors. A full season of the good version of Danny Farquhar – the one who posted a 2.23 ERA in 32 1/3 second-half innings – in the back of the bullpen will go a long way toward achieving that goal. Charlie Furbush should also be back with his big strikeout totals and strong numbers against lefties. The Mariners will have to decide if they want to try to re-up with Oliver Perez, who could be in line for a raise from his $1.5MM 2013 salary after posting a 3.74 ERA in 53 innings. With a 5.49 ERA in 59 innings, Carter Capps looks to be headed for a minor league assignment, but his 18.8% HR/FB ratio suggests he was victimized by bad luck. Tom Wilhelmsen may hang around given his past success in the team’s closer role, but should be on a short leash after walking more than five batters per nine innings in 2013.

Despite a disappointing year, expect the Mariners’ Opening Day lineup in 2014 to look much like the one that closed out the 2013 season. Ownership could approve a big splash in free agency, but if the Mariners climb into contention in 2014, it will be the blossoming of young players like Walker, Ackley and Miller that pushes them there.


Offseason Outlook: New York Mets

The Mets had hoped to build off of a strong finish to become a sleeper contender in 2014, but an injury to young ace Matt Harvey could change the team’s outlook.

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Arbitration Eligible Players (service time in parentheses)

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Former Players Still Entitled To Salary

With high-caliber young pitching, a franchise cornerstone in Wright, and several turnaround candidates, the Mets had reason to believe that 2014 would be the year in which the organization began to emerge from a five-year downturn. While the team’s financial doldrums appear to be clearing, Harvey’s arm injury has thrown a major wrench into the club’s offseason plans. Manager Terry Collins will reprise his role after agreeing to a two-year extension.

The Mets opened 2011 with a $142.8MM payroll, only to drop into the low-$90MM level over the last two years. The team has the capacity for a big budget (at least in the long run), particularly now that it can finally pay Santana and Bay the last money owed on their ill-fated deals. And with the fallout from owner Fred Wilpon’s involvement in the Bernie Madoff scandal apparently easing — Wilpon said earlier this year that his family’s financial distress was “all in the rearview mirror” — it could be time to rev up the spending. On the other hand, the team’s poor performance of late has driven down revenues, and things could be less rosy than Wilpon has suggested. A recent look by Howard Megdal suggests that the long-promised wallet opening may still be restrained.

All eyes will be on GM Sandy Alderson, who is entering the last year of his contract, to see how aggressively he pursues impact free agents. Alderson has estimated that the club has around $55MM committed next year (including arbitration-eligible and pre-arb players), and says it could add something in the realm of $40MM more, though Megdal has questioned those estimates and the potential impact that much room could have. The Harvey injury — which will have an impact on the team’s shopping list — could either provide reason for a conservative approach or a ready excuse for the same. Either way, Alderson has indicated that the Mets will be even more disinclined to deal from their young pitching and will likely be forced to open the wallet for a free agent starter.


Niese, Gee, and Zack Wheeler are safe bets for the 2014 rotation, but the club’s other options all come with question marks. Internal possibilities range from Jenrry Mejia, who is coming off bone spur surgery, to spot starter Carlos Torres, to minor leaguers Rafael Montero, Jacob deGrom, and (perhaps less likely) Noah Syndergaard. There is enough youth and uncertainty in that group to make a veteran acquisition a likelihood.

The club could look at another incentive-laden, one-year deal for a veteran hoping to re-establish value, as the club did last time around with Shaun Marcum, and hope for better results. (Roberto Hernandez, recently profiled by MLBTR’s Tim Dierkes, could fit that description.) Or the Mets could look for more of a sure thing at a higher cost; for instance, rumor has it that a Bronson Arroyo signing could make sense for both club and player. Of course, even a limited-upside pitcher like Arroyo will command a substantial commitment; Dierkes recently pegged his market value at two years and $24MM. In addition to Arroyo, MLBTR has recently profiled several other starters — Scott Feldman (link), Scott Kazmir (link), and Paul Maholm (link) — who could make sense for the Mets.

Any dollars spent on starting pitching will eat into the payroll space that the Mets hoped to utilize on an impact bat. After reportedly trying and failing to land Wil Myers and Justin Upton last year, the club is said to covet Shin-Soo Choo. Though Alderson managed to cobble together a surprisingly effective outfield unit this year, the club already traded its best performer, Marlon Byrd, who was set to hit the open market at age 36. The fielding exploits of 24-year-old Juan Lagares made the Mets especially happy to have missed on Michael Bourn, suggesting that Lagares a solid bet to man center. New York seems to like the midseason pickup of Young, but hopes to use him in a reserve role. They could also move him to second base in the event of a Murphy trade. Duda has had success at times at the plate but is a defensive liability in the outfield. Other options, too, lack appeal: Kirk Nieuwenhuis has hit in the minors but not the bigs; Mike Baxter has always been viewed as a reserve; the tumultuous Jordany Valdespin may not even see Spring Training after his PED suspension; and Cesar Puello seemed to be applying his tools in Double-A until he, too, sat out 50 games after the Biogenesis scandal.

A deal for an on-base machine like Choo makes sense, but the Mets don’t wish to exceed four years, which will likely make Choo too pricey. There are other established slugging corner outfielders on the market, of course, including Curtis Granderson and former Met Carlos Beltran. Then, there is the PED-tainted Nelson Cruz, who could be a budget target of multiple teams hunting for pop. But each of these players is 33 or older, has defense or injury concerns, and will benefit to some degree by the market-setting $90MM extension just inked by Hunter Pence. If the Mets do decide to chase after top talent, the team will not have to sacrifice its first-round pick to sign free agents who declined qualifying offers.

At catcher, the Amazin’s figure to give high-end prospect Travis d’Arnaud every chance to earn the regular job in 2014. Though he struggled in his first go at the majors, d’Arnaud is healthy and has nothing left to prove in the minors. A recent report suggests that the club will pursue a free agent alternative to Anthony Recker for the backup role. 

In the infield, Wright is a certainty at third base. Murphy is likely to man second base again, though the team will reportedly listen to trade offers for him. Despite shaky defense, Murphy doubled his 2012 home run and stolen base output this year. With two years of control remaining, he could be an extension candidate, though his net production has been marginal enough that he probably does not profile as a sure thing beyond 2015. The most interesting potential replacement at the keystone — Wilmer Flores, who only recently turned 22 — may not be suited for the position. And despite mashing in his first go at Triple-A, Flores has struggled mightily in his first taste of big league action.

That leaves shortstop and first base, both of which pose interesting dilemmas. The aforementioned Duda received a late-season chance to stake a claim on first base duties, but early promise gave way to a late-season swoon. If Duda cannot earn a starting gig, his remaining option does leave the team with some space to develop him further before making an all-or-nothing call. Davis’ huge promise faded this year with performance and injury issues. Entering his second year of arbitration eligibility, the 26-year-old isn’t likely to be non-tendered, but he or Duda could be traded this winter.
 
Josh Satin hit lefties well enough to make him a platoon option for whichever lefty swinger earns the bulk of the playing time at first. It would be somewhat surprising to see the Mets play in the free agent market at first, but the club could always elect to change course if it fell in love with a player like Cuban first bagger Jose Dariel Abreu.

At short, the Mets have two highly questionable in-house options coming off of sub-.600 OPS years. Quintanilla is a non-tender candidate after failing to grasp his chance at a starting role this year. And Tejada will now work back from a broken fibula after an already-poor campaign. Collins says that the job is Tejada’s to lose going into the spring, but Alderson has cast doubt publicly on Tejada’s work ethic, saying that the team “need[s] to see a commitment to improvement.” Turner has provided consistently average offensive production and defensive flexibility at a low cost, but is not an everyday option at short. 

This presents a serious void that could be fixed via free agency or trade. Jhonny Peralta and Stephen Drew are probably the most promising options; of course, the former carries the scarlet letter of Biogenesis while the latter should be in a position to get multiple years after a roughly 3-win season at age 30. Alexei Ramirez is an obvious trade candidate, but his bat is declining at age 32, making the $20.5MM left on his deal look risky. Another possibility, Asdrubal Cabrera, has youth on his side and finished strong in 2013, but he has just one year of team control remaining at $10MM. And though it is popular to speculate on the Rangers’ Elvis Andrus and Jurickson Profar, there is no indication that either could be had for less than a major haul, and Andrus is guaranteed $15MM annually for the foreseeable future.
  
The bullpen seems to have most of its pieces already under contract. Led by Parnell, who the club hopes to have ready for 2014 after neck surgery, there are several youthful options to be called upon. Recent trade acquisition Vic Black has pitched well, while fellow live-armed youngster Jeurys Familia also has closer upside. Torres, Josh Edgin, Atchison, Gonzalez Germen, lefty Scott Rice, and several others should also be in the mix, and the team could look to bring back Hawkins or Feliciano for a final go-round. 

If, as Alderson maintains, the Metropolitans have $40MM to play with, they can make some impactful additions. But allocating that full amount to new acquisitions would have its limits, even if the team took the risk of back-loading some deals. A legitimate outfield power bat, solid starter, and reliable shortstop would likely exhaust all of those funds and still leave some areas of concern. And achieving that haul without drastically overpaying (in dollars, years, and/or prospects) will be a challenge with a thin free agent crop. Without Harvey leading the way, it is an open question whether even that magnitude of improvement would be enough to give the Mets a realistic chance to compete in 2014.


Offseason Outlook: Colorado Rockies

The Rockies were bit hard by the injury bug in 2013 and found themselves reeling after a hot start to the season.  Now, they’ll look to bolster their lineup to make that springtime success last all year long.

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On May 1st, the Rockies were in the NL West driver’s seat with a 17-11 record after a hot start to the year.  Things eventually petered out from there – the Rockies finished in fifth place at 74-88 – but it was a taste of what could be for the Rockies when they’re firing on all cylinders.  Everyone deals with injuries over the course of a 162-game season, but Colorado had some of the worst luck of anyone in 2013.  The top of their order was a mess as Carlos Gonzalez (played just 110 games), Troy Tulowitzki (126), and Dexter Fowler (119) all missed significant time.  Closer Rafael Betancourt was also out of commission for much of the year, a big letdown on the heels of a strong 2012.

The Rockies aren’t just keeping their fingers crossed for good health though.  They’ll have to go shopping this winter for upgrades in multiple areas and fixing the bullpen is at the top of the list.  Rockies relievers had a combined ERA of 4.26, the worst in the National League.  Betancourt’s health woes were certainly a factor, but far from the only one.  Wilton Lopez regressed sharply after a career year in Houston and even though one would be inclined to pin that difference on the move to Coors Field, his home/road splits in 2013 were mostly similar.  Setup man Matt Belisle (4.32 ERA, 7.6 K/9 and 1.8 BB/9 in 2013) hasn’t looked like the same guy who signed a two-year, $8.1MM deal two offseasons ago and no one would be surprised if the Rockies gave him his $250K buyout rather than bring him back for $4.25MM next year.  There are also a handful of arbitration eligible relievers with varying levels of uncertainty about their future this winter in Mitchell Boggs, Manny Corpas, and Josh Outman.

Part of the bullpen’s problem was that Colorado relievers were simply overworked.  The starting five (particularly the backend) was unreliable, forcing the pen to toss a National League high of 555 2/3 innings.  The Rockies can comfortably roll with Jhoulys Chacin, Jorge De La Rosa, and Tyler Chatwood at the top of the rotation, but they’ve got a lot of question marks beyond that.  Juan Nicasio, who is arbitration eligible as a Super Two this winter, pitched to a 5.14 ERA with 6.8 K/9 and 3.7 BB/9 in 31 starts last year.  If they open up the wallet a little bit, guys like Roberto Hernandez will be on the open market for the taking.  If they dig a little deeper and are willing to lay out a deal with plenty of incentives, they could get creative and get in the mix for Tim Hudson who, as MLBTR learned last week, is about a month away from returning to full health.  One notable caveat here – it’s impossible to say what kind of deal Hudson will fetch given all of the variables in play.  The question marks are there, but starting pitching is thin all over baseball.

The Rockies were actually decent in terms of power last season but they don’t have a lot of big bats they can count on.  Healthy seasons from Tulowitzki and CarGo are a must but Bill Geivett & Co. are going to seek another slugger.  A healthy Corey Hart would provide some pop (and versatility in the field) at a lowered price after missing all of ’13, but he wants to stay in Milwaukee and he’s willing to take a discount to make that happen.  Mike Napoli will also be out there and if the Rockies want to get creative, they could sign him and dangle Wilin Rosario on the trade block.

Hoping to see a mile-high blockbuster this winter?  Things tend to change pretty quickly when the hot stove gets warmed up, but it doesn’t sound like Colorado is going to put Gonzalez or Tulowitzki on the block.  Last month, Troy Renck of the Denver Post heard from club officials that the possibility of either one getting moved is very small and the likelihood of both getting jettisoned is nil.  

If they have a change of heart, however, those stars could bring them an awful lot in return.  Ken Rosenthal of FOX Sports sees the Rangers as a logical partner thanks to their young pitching and middle infield surplus.  In this hypothetical, Jurickson Profar would supplant DJ LeMathieu or Josh Rutledge at second base and eventually go to the other side of the bag if Tulo is shifted to a different position.  Rosenthal hears that CarGo is more likely to be moved than the shortstop and it’s worth noting that he has some serious fans in the Mets’ front office.  

Fowler could also serve as trade bait if someone is willing to roll the dice on him, but it would thin out their outfield if they don’t bring in a reinforcement there.  As it stands, right fielder Michael Cuddyer is ticketed to replace Todd Helton at first base, which likely means that either Charlie Blackmon or Corey Dickerson will get to play everyday.  It’s hard to see them starting together in 2014 – Blackmon’s defense (particularly in center) leaves much to be desired and Dickerson is entering his sophomore year.

In a recent letter to season ticket holders, owner Dick Monfort noted that Cuddyer’s move to first base opens the door for the club to go out and get a big bat in right field.  If Monfort is as serious about bringing a championship to Denver as he says, he can spend the necessary dough to get someone like Shin-Soo Choo or Carlos Beltran.  If the Rockies want to spread the cash around a little bit more, they’ll find a quieter market for Nelson Cruz.  One thing to keep in mind, however, is that they can always change course and keep Cuddyer in the outfield if they find a quality first baseman at a good value.

The Rox have a lot of holes to fill but last season’s hot start, however brief, proved they can be competitive in the NL West and have a puncher’s chance at the playoffs.  


Offseason Outlook: Houston Astros

After turning in three consecutive 100-loss seasons, the Astros will look to take a few steps forward this winter.

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The Astros haven't been to the postseason in eight years and, barring something unforeseen, that streak won't be snapped in 2014.  However, one has to imagine the Astros will feel compelled to field a team that is markedly more competitive than this year's lineup.  To call the 2013 roster bare bones would be an understatement.  The Astros opened the season with a payroll of $26.1MM, and after Bud Norris was traded in July, Erik Bedard stood as their highest paid player with a salary of $1.15MM.  Insert your own fun numbers crunch here, but here's the one we'll go with: Alex Rodriguez individually outearned the entire Astros roster in 2013 and Bedard's salary would make him the 23rd highest-paid player on the Yankees.

That should change a bit in 2014 as owner Jim Crane, who watched his club drop their final 15 games of the season, says he's impressed by the progress made by some of the club's top prospects and ready to spend to address some of the team's needs.  One area that needs attention is power, as Houston finished near the bottom of the league in slugging percentage at .375.  They could look to plug someone with pop in right field alongside Robbie Grossman in left field and George Springer in center field.  Springer, the 11th overall pick in the 2011 Draft, had an outstanding year in the minors with a .303/.411/.600 slash line and 37 homers in 135 combined Double-A and Triple-A games.  Scouts have always spoken highly of his defensive play, so he shouldn't have too much trouble in the field.  They'll have a number of young outfielders jostling for big league roster spots in camp, including L.J. Hoes, but a proven commodity is badly needed.

Houston may also go for an upgrade at designated hitter or first base.  Chris Carter and Brett Wallace project to fill those roles again but it wouldn't hurt to add someone else to the mix who can help with the Astros' power outage.  On the opposite side of the diamond, they're comfortable with Matt Dominguez and his defense, but they'll keep their fingers crossed for an uptick in offensive production.  That's not to say that he didn't deliver at the plate, however – his 21 homers were a welcome surprise in Houston.

Even though the purse strings should be loosened somewhat, the Astros still aren't expected to make a serious play for any of the winter's top free agents.  A big bat like Shin-Soo Choo (.285/.423/.462 slash line in 2013) would be a major boost, but with a price tag that could exceed $100MM, there is virtually no chance of Houston biting.  While the Astros have promising young players in the mix, they're nowhere near ready to contend, which means big checks won't be written this year.

The Astros have several areas to address, but last month General Manager Jeff Luhnow said the bullpen will be a top priority.  Houston's young relievers posted a combined 4.92 ERA in 2013, beating out the Mariners for the worst in the majors by a good margin.  The Astros will comb the open market for stronger eighth and ninth inning options while looking for improved performances from rookies Chia-Jen Lo, Josh Zeid, Kevin Chapman, and Rule 5 pickup Josh Fields.  University of Houston product Jesse Crain would be one interesting option who could be a valuable trade chip over the summer.  Ryan Madson and Joel Hanrahan will also be available and, if healthy, they could be convinced to take a relatiely low-base, incentive-laden deal with Houston if given the opportunity to show their stuff in the final inning.

Bedard had a decent year for the Astros (4.59 ERA, 8.2 K/9 and 4.5 BB/9) and even picked up trade interest over the summer, but he may wind up signing elsewhere this winter.  With an extremely young group of starting pitchers, Houston will probably look to find a veteran pitcher who can offer the same kind of savvy, leadership, and stability as Bedard did in 2013 if they don't re-sign him.  Chad Gaudin and Tim Stauffer will be out there if Houston feels compelled to bring in a new elder statesman for the starting five.  Beyond that, they'll bank on a much better season from Lucas Harrell and an added boost from right-hander Asher Wojciechowski, who turned in a 3.32 ERA with 7.4 K/9 and 2.9 BB/9 in Double-A Corpus Christi and Triple-A Oklahoma City this season.

Internally, the Astros could look to care of in-house talent Jason Castro.  The catcher enjoyed a breakout season in 2013, slashlng .276/.350/.485 and cementing himself as one of the more promising young backstops in the game.  This week, Tim Dierkes suggested that the Astros could look into a team-friendly extension for the 26-year-old and noted that three catchers in his service class signed three-year deals in the $8-9MM range.  Two of those deals, however, were signed in 2010.

Ultimately, success for the 2014 Astros won't be measured entirely by wins and losses, but another 100-loss season won't be acceptable by any measure.  If the Astros can pull themselves out of the cellar and see even more progress from guys like Castro, they'll be in a stronger position next fall and one year closer to making some noise.  


Offseason Outlook: Chicago Cubs

After another rebuilding year in 2013, the Cubs will attempt to change the conversation with a new manager and perhaps veteran additions to fill some of the team's many weak spots until top prospects are ready.

Guaranteed Contracts

Arbitration Eligible Players (service time in parenthesis)

Free Agents

2014 Payroll Obligations For Former Players

The Cubs haven't had a .500 record since 2009, way back when Kevin Gregg was their closer (the first time).  The team's current Theo Epstein/Jed Hoyer/Jason McLeod braintrust was hired after the 2011 season.  While they would tell you every season counts, the team has yet to take a win-now approach during the Epstein regime, even with $86MM in new free agent commitments last winter.  For the second consecutive summer, the team's brass shipped out veterans with trade value, including newly-signed ones.

The new regime's record is 127-197, so recently-fired manager Dale Sveum presided over what should be the worst of times.  The Cubs will soon hire their fourth manager in five seasons, prioritizing "managerial or other on-field leadership experience" and "expertise developing young talent."  Joe Girardi, Yankees manager since 2008 and a former Cubs player and Illinois native, has a contract that expires at the end of the month.  Cubs ownership covets him and is poised to offer $4MM or more per season, reported Gordon Wittenmyer of the Chicago Sun-Times, though they've not yet been granted permission to speak to him and the Yankees made an offer to retain him.  Hiring Girardi would be a sign the team is getting serious about trying to win, as he would not likely be thrilled taking on a team lacking Major League talent.  Manny Acta, Sandy Alomar Jr., A.J. Hinch, and Dave Martinez are other possible candidates, reports Wittenmyer.

In the statement regarding Sveum's firing, Epstein acknowledged the Cubs' biggest issue as a "shortage of talent at the major league level."  This year Cubs position players accounted for just 16.9 wins above replacement, 21st in baseball.  In terms of players controlled beyond this year who provided as least two wins, the list is short: catcher Welington Castillo and part-time third baseman Luis Valbuena.

Notably absent are the Cubs' two biggest Major League building blocks, Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo.  Both players are signed through 2019.  Castro took a big step backward with the bat, hitting .245/.284/.347.  He may never draw walks, but the Cubs will need him to at least return to making better contact and showing moderate power, even if he doesn't develop into a star.  When Castro signed his $60MM extension, he had almost 1,800 big league plate appearances.  Rizzo, however, had fewer than 700.  The only other player to receive $40MM+ with that short of a big league track record is Ryan Braun in 2008.  Playing his first full season this year, Rizzo failed to reach the offensive production of an average first baseman.

The Cubs figure to show patience toward Castro and Rizzo into 2014, while hoping for continued growth from Castillo.  In Javier Baez, however, Castro has one of the game's best prospects pushing him.  Baez may be ready for Major League action by next summer, if he cleans up his defense and perhaps cuts down on his strikeouts.  The best case scenario is a Castro-Baez middle infield tandem, while third base is an option for Baez as well.  Kris Bryant, drafted second overall by the Cubs in June, could also be ready next year, and projects for third base or right field.  Furthering the Cubs' infield depth are Mike Olt, acquired in the Matt Garza trade, Christian Villanueva, acquired in the Ryan Dempster deal, and Arismendy Alcantara.  It's been a lost year for Olt, but overall, the Cubs' infield depth is strong.  Second base may be the biggest short-term need, particularly if Barney is traded or non-tendered.  I don't expect the Cubs to get involved on Robinson Cano, but Omar Infante could be a consideration.  After hitting 11 home runs in 163 plate appearances, Donnie Murphy may have earned himself a contract for 2014 and the initial crack at the hot corner.

The Cubs have a pair of premium outfield prospects in Albert Almora and Jorge Soler.  Neither is Major League ready, however, leaving only Schierholtz locked in for 2014.  Schierholtz provided cheap power against right-handed pitching this year, and perhaps the Cubs will again acquire a right-handed hitting complement like Rajai Davis, Justin Ruggiano, or Kyle Blanks.  An in-house right-handed bat, Junior Lake, could have the inside track on left field after a decent rookie showing following the trade of Alfonso Soriano.  Lake could help in center field, as could Brian Bogusevic.  Minor league signing Ryan Sweeney performed well, though he's a free agent again.  Other center field stopgaps should be explored as well, such as Davis, Ruggiano, Chris Young, and Franklin Gutierrez.  Illinois native Curtis Granderson could make some sense, but a qualifying offer and/or a three-year requirement would likely suppress interest from the Cubs.  The Cubs' long-term outfield plan seems to be in place, though that won't stop agent Scott Boras from pitching free agent Jacoby Ellsbury.  Epstein doesn't need to review Ellsbury's Boras Binder, however, after drafting him in the first round in '05 and watching him blossom into a star in Boston.

The Cubs have traded 40% of their rotation each summer under the Epstein regime, moving Paul Maholm and Dempster in 2012 and Scott Feldman and Garza this year.  Maholm was the only one not in a contract year.  The Cubs continue to wait on a potential return for Maholm, as the recovery period for Arodys Vizcaino's March 2012 Tommy John surgery has taken much longer than expected.  Jake Arrieta, a key piece in the Feldman deal with Baltimore, projects to earn a spot in next year's rotation out of spring training.  Lefty Travis Wood represented the Cubs in the All-Star game this year and has a spot locked down for 2014, as do Jeff Samardzija and Edwin Jackson.

Last winter the Cubs imported an unprecedented four free agent starters, and the depth was needed when Scott Baker's Tommy John recovery stalled and Garza and Feldman were dealt.  I don't think anyone saw the team's flirtation with Anibal Sanchez or four-year deal with Jackson coming last winter.  While Chris Rusin, Justin Grimm, or Carlos Villanueva could take the fifth starter job next year, it seems likely the Cubs will look to add pitching from outside the organization again.  That could mean another go-round with Baker, other one-year projects like Gavin Floyd, Roy Halladay, Josh Johnson, Jason Hammel, Roberto Hernandez, Dan Haren, or Phil Hughes, or multiyear commitments to Scott Kazmir, Tim Lincecum, Ubaldo Jimenez, or Masahiro Tanaka.  David Price will be the prize of the trade market, though two years of control doesn't mesh well with the Cubs' timeline.

In Samardzija, the Cubs could offer up a trade chip with a 95 mile per hour fastball, fresh off a 214 strikeout season.  With a 3.34 ERA over the season's first three months, the 28-year-old appeared to be in the midst of an ace-caliber season.  Samardzija followed that with a 5.47 ERA, however, and in the end mostly replicated his 2012 season with an additional 39 innings.  On the trade market, two years of Samardzija could bring a huge haul, exceeding the well-regarded package the Cubs extracted from the Rangers to rent Garza for a few months.  First the Cubs will explore an extension, which I think could be in the range of the $80MM deals signed by Felix Hernandez and Justin Verlander four years prior.  To date, the pitcher and agents Sam Samardzija and Mark Rodgers have not shown a willingness to take a team-friendly deal, and getting closer to free agency should only strengthen their stance.

Among the team's other arbitration eligible players, the Cubs could look to sign Schierholtz or Wood to multiyear deals.  Castillo, who has two years of service, could be a candidate for a team-friendly contract.  Despite a 3.11 ERA this year, the Cubs may be best served waiting on Wood, whose skills suggest more of a 4.50 pitcher.

Even with an out of nowhere 33-save season from Gregg, the Cubs' bullpen ranked 13th in the NL with a 4.04 ERA.  Though the Cubs' Fujikawa signing went bust due to Tommy John surgery, it showed a willingness to spend to solidify the bullpen.  Arbitration eligible lefty James Russell could be a trade candidate; otherwise he'll join holdovers Blake Parker, Strop, and perhaps Grimm and Villanueva.  Hector Rondon will likely be in the mix, and if the Cubs tender a contract to September waiver claim project Daniel Bard, he could become an option as well.  The Cubs will probably bring in a veteran reliever or two from the outside, letting Gregg walk as a free agent after nearly releasing him in September over complaints he made.

Among the Cubs' free agents, aside from Sweeney and perhaps Baker, the team may entertain re-signing backup catcher Dioner Navarro.  Due to the stellar work of Castillo and Navarro, the Cubs ranked fourth in baseball with five wins above replacement at catcher.  They paid just $2.25MM for the pair, but the 29-year-old Navarro may have earned himself another shot at starting with another club.  The Cubs could add a veteran backup to replace him.

Cubs fans have patiently watched for two years as Epstein, Hoyer, McLeod and company rebuilt the team from the ground up.  Fans might allow for one more talent-stockpiling mulligan in 2014, perhaps with the reward of a Baez summer debut.  Expectations for 2015 will be huge, at which point Epstein will have two years remaining on his contract.


Offseason Outlook: Miami Marlins

The Marlins enter the offseason with the least guaranteed future salary obligations of any team in baseball.

Guaranteed Contracts

Arbitration Eligible Players

Contract Options

Former Players Still Owed Salary

Free Agents

After reducing its Opening Day payroll from $101.63MM in 2012 to $50.53MM in 2013, Miami shipped out pitcher Ricky Nolasco — its last remaining player with a salary over $3MM — in July. Before accounting for arbitration eligible and league-minimum players, the team has less than $8MM on the books for 2014, the majority of which will go to Bell, who has already been traded. Arbitration raises and league-minimum salaries could push their commitment just north of $30MM, which would leave the team with a bit of money to pursue some veteran free agents while still meeting the recently reported payroll target of $37MM.

Last year, the club did not hand out any extensions and gave guaranteed big league contracts to just three players, all for one-year terms: Jon Rauch ($1MM), Polanco ($2.75MM), and Pierre ($1.6MM). Of course, its activity on the trade market took primary importance. Will the club do much more than pick up a few low-cost free agents to round out the roster this time around?

The answer to that question will come from a newly shuffled front office. Loria recently canned president of baseball operations Larry Beinfest, putting an end to increasingly public turmoil within the team’s top brass. (Loria was said to have “marginalized the front office” and reportedly re-upped Greg Dobbswithout Beinfest’s awareness.) Two internal figures will be promoted to guide the club going forward, with Michael Hill taking over as president of baseball ops and Dan Jennings becoming GM.

Hill and Jennings will likely look to make up the bulk of the team with low-priced youngsters, many of whom saw big league action this season. The 2013 club was a disaster offensively, posting a league-worst 72 wRC+ (remarkably, more than ten points lower than the second-to-last White Sox). In fact, the Marlins became the first club since the 2004 Diamondbacks to receive a collective sub-replacement-level performance from its position players (by measure of fWAR).

Giancarlo Stanton figures to be the highest-paid and best player as he enters his first year of arbitration eligibility — assuming he is not traded first. That, surely, is the most momentous issue facing the organization over the coming winter. With three years of team control remaining at a price tag that will undervalue his expected contribution, the power-hitting Stanton is one of the game’s most attractive assets. Though Miami reportedly declined to entertain offers on him at this year’s trade deadline, other teams will assuredly try to pry him away once again. Of course, it is not even clear that any other club would be willing or able to offer fair value in return.

The latest report indicates that Miami will build around its star rather than deal him. The club has dabbled with the idea of pursuing an extension in the past. On the other hand, Stanton comes with some durability concerns, the Fish have other young outfielders to weigh for the future, and the team has plenty of remaining control. And, of course, it remains to be seen whether Stanton will be interested in tying himself to the franchise for the long haul.

The club will likely allow its young, in-house options to battle for starting jobs elsewhere in the outfield. Marcell OzunaJake Marisnick, and Christian Yelich all saw MLB time at age 22 or younger. Although only Yelich managed to hit at a league-average level, Ozuna and Marisnick both earned strong UZR ratings. Coghlan and Ruggiano are non-tender candidates after failing to make a lasting impression in significant roles this season.

The infield brings many question marks and no clear answers. The only Marlins infielder that checked in above replacement level in 2013 was utilityman Ed Lucas, who made his big league debut at 31 years of age after a decade in the minors. Internal options beyond the current 40-man roster are slim, with the club’s top infield prospects in the upper minors (Noah Perio and Zack Cox) hardly kicking down the door. While a trade is always possible, the alternative is a free agent market that lacks any obvious non-temporary targets.

The positions least likely to see turnover, it would seem, are up the middle. At catcher, Rob Brantly failed to match his promising 2012 and Jeff Mathis still does not really hit big league pitching. Nevertheless, it is hard to see the club spending in this area with those two returning and a solid prospect nearing the bigs in 22-year-old J.T. Realmuto.

Likewise, 24-year-old shortstop Adeiny Hechavarria should get another stint. Despite his disastrous .228/.268/.301 slash line, the Marlins love his glove. (Advanced metrics weren’t kind in 2013, though DRS has him as a roughly average defender for his career at shortstop.) And at second, the team has young, cheap options in Donovan Solano and Derek Dietrich, the latter of whom has power upside and age in his favor.

Miami has more uncertainty at the corners. The team will likely move on from the 37-year-old Polanco, this year’s regular third baseman, who continues to decline steadily and seems inclined to retire. That could leave the job to the aforementioned Lucas, who is cheap and sturdy, albeit inspiring only in his tenacious pursuit of a big league dream. Alternatively, the club could look to shift the strong-armed, range-challenged Dietrich to the hot corner. Perhaps a better option would be a stopgap like Wilson Betemit, as MLB.com’s Jonathan Mayo says that 2013 top draft pick Colin Moran could be ready as soon as the second half of 2014.

Logan Morrison will enter his first arbitration eligible offseason on the heels of a second straight season of disappointing results. Miami is rumored to have shopped him in the past, though last we heard it views him as a cornerstone piece. The 26-year-old’s production slipped below league average again in 2013, though he still holds the promise of a return to his age-23 season, when he slashed .247/.330/.468 and swatted 23 home runs in 525 plate appearances. While LoMo reached base at that level this year, he has not shown the same power. This presents a difficult choice: if Morrison is not dealt, he will become one of the team’s highest-paid players; if he is, the team has no obvious replacement and will be selling low. Then again, the one big free agent splash that has been rumored for the Marlins — an unlikely but plausible run at 26-year-old Cuban slugger Jose Dariel Abreu — would line up with a Morrison trade.

There’s more optimism when looking at the guys toeing the rubber for the Fish. Miami landed in the middle of the pack in most comprehensive metrics, led by solid-to-excellent performances from several youngsters. The team’s unquestioned ace was phenom Jose Fernandez, who didn’t turn 21 until he was much of the way through a 2.19 ERA, 172 2/3 inning rookie campaign in which he paced all starters in suppressing base hits (5.79 H/9) and was fifth in strikeout rate (9.75 K/9). Working only about half a season in the bigs, Henderson Alvarez and Nathan Eovaldi were both worth about 1.5 WAR — and you may have heard that the former tossed a no-no in his last outing. Jacob Turner, meanwhile, managed a 3.74 ERA in 118 innings, although his peripherals were not as favorable (his 5.87 K/9 and 4.12 BB/9 left him with a 4.43 FIP and 4.71 xFIP). Each of these starters is under 24 years of age.

Between Andrew Heaney, Justin Nicolino, Adam Conley, Brian Flynn, Anthony DeSclafani, Tom Koehler and Kevin Slowey (if he’s tendered), Miami has plenty of cheap, controllable candidates for the fifth spot. It’s also possible that the club will pursue a low-cost veteran arm like Chad Gaudin or Tim Stauffer to show the youngsters the ropes and ease the transition.

The more interesting thing to watch will be whether the front office looks to deal from its pitching depth for young position players. Though the club is reportedly uninterested in selling off the four current rotation members or Heaney, they still have plenty of young. Teams like the Angels and Yankees have more advanced position prospects than attractive young pitching, which could create a prospect-for-prospect opportunities (though such trades are rare).

Closer Steve Cishek, righties A.J. Ramos and Ryan Webb, and lefty Mike Dunn are all 28 or under, posted ERA figures of 3.15 or lower, and come with at least two more years of control. The 34-year-old Qualls was outstanding but figures to be worth more to another club after posting a career-low 2.61 ERA. Southpaw Dan Jennings, 26, posted a 2.68 FIP that puts a nice shine on his 3.76 ERA. Late-blooming prospect Arquimedes Caminero should have a strong argument for a slot after a solid showing in limited time, and the team has some system candidates like 22-year-old Nick Wittgren and 25-year-old Grant Dayton. Nevertheless, after hitting on a minor league deal with Qualls last year, the front office will likely look to add some low-cost veterans in 2014.

The Marlins will again be scouring the bargain bin for a few elder statesmen to fill in amongst its many young players. The club got good value out of several minor league contracts last year, as Qualls, Slowey, and Lucas were actually among the team’s more valuable secondary contributors in 2013. If ownership allows slightly more financial flexibility — which may be unlikely given the organization’s apparent revenue issues — the club could add a slightly more expensive veteran at any number of spots with the hope of getting some production and reaping youth in a trade deadline flip.