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December 22, 2012

Overthinking It

The Winter's Quietest Contenders

by Ben Lindbergh

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With only 50 days remaining until the first February report dates—and 100 until Opening Day—most teams have already crossed off the majority of the items on their winter to-do lists, and only a handful of the top 20 free agents are still looking for work. But while many of baseball’s best clubs have stayed busy bringing in new players or bringing back old ones, a few of the teams that made (or came close to making) the playoffs last season have been quiet. Here’s a look at four teams with more tumbleweeds than transactions this winter:

Baltimore Orioles
Biggest move they’ve made:
Re-signing Nate McLouth to a one-year contract
Why they haven’t been busier: The Orioles went from last place to the playoffs without making many major moves last winter, and they didn’t stop tinkering after Opening Day. Unlike the Yankees, who’ve spent much of the winter trying to keep or replace free agents, the O’s entered the offseason with most of their important players under team control for 2013. However, they will have to pony up for arbitration raises, which restricts their financial flexibility.
Will they wish they’d done more? The Orioles’ run differential didn’t prevent them from making the playoffs last season, but the odds aren’t good that they’ll be able to replicate their 29-9 regular-season record in one-run games. Balitmore can hope for better health and better production from their young players, but with their division rivals all active since October, the O’s run a real risk of falling prey to the Plexiglas Principle and losing ground to the teams they leapfrogged last season.
What might they still do? Last winter, Dan Duquette waited until January to sign Wei-Yin Chen and February to trade for Jason Hammel, so it wouldn’t be surprising if he took the patient approach again. This year, Joe Saunders is the most likely late entry to the rotation. It’s a long shot, but the O’s have also been linked to Adam LaRoche, who’d fit in nicely at first with Mark Reynolds off the roster.

Texas Rangers
Biggest move they’ve made:
Signing A.J. Pierzynski to a one-year contract
Why they haven’t done more: The Rangers have been linked to almost every major free agent on both sides of the ball, but they were outbid by the Dodgers for Zack Greinke and have been reluctant to make long-term commitments to the other players in whom they’ve expressed interest. Before inking A.J. Pierzynski—whom PECOTA projects to decline steeply in his age-36 season—on Thursday, they hadn’t sealed the deal with anyone but backup catcher Geovany Soto and former Royals closer Joakim Soria, who missed the 2012 season due to Tommy John surgery.
Will they wish they’d done more? The Rangers weren’t wrong to draw the line for Josh Hamilton at four years, but they can’t have been happy to see him end up elsewhere in the AL West. Texas still has plenty of productive players, but they’ve lost a lot of power and will find it tough to return to 90 wins with their current collection of talent. Barring a big surprise move, the Angels look like the team to beat, but they might regret some of their spending in the long run.
What might they still do? The Rangers will miss Mike Adams and Koji Uehara, but they’ll probably add another arm or two to their bullpen, with Joel Hanrahan and J.P. Howell reportedly possible fits. It’s not out of the question that Texas could land one of the few remaining high-profile free agents, but their interest in Michael Bourn, Nick Swisher, Adam LaRoche, Kyle Lohse, and Rafael Soriano—all of whom require draft-pick compensation—has been lukewarm at best.

St. Louis Cardinals
Biggest move they’ve made:
Signing Randy Choate to a three-year contract
Why they haven’t done more: The Cardinals simply haven’t had many holes to fill. The 2012 team had just three free agents—Lohse, Lance Berkman, and Brian Fuentes (who retired). Choate replaced Fuentes, Ty Wigginton replaced the traded Skip Schumaker, and Allen Craig’s performance last season made Berkman expendable. Even without Lohse, St. Louis has a full rotation’s worth of veteran starters, with Joe Kelly, Trevor Rosenthal, and Shelby Miller waiting in the wings. The Cards had a better run differential than the first-place Reds last season, so they might also be hoping that they’ll benefit from better luck in 2013.
Will they wish they’d done more? St. Louis will face stiff competition from Cincinnati, but if they finish second in the Central again, it won’t be because they wasted their winter. The Cardinals’ inactivity is a sign of their strength: even with few new faces, they’d look like a potential playoff team if the season started today.
What might they still do? The Cards are still in the market for some middle-infield help, but if Rafael Furcal’s elbow is truly intact, they won’t need to make a move until Furcal hits free agency 2013. It’s unlikely that St. Louis will make any significant acquisitions between now and the start of the season, though they will spend spring training trying to extend Adam Wainwright, whose current contract expires at the end of next year.

Milwaukee Brewers
Biggest move they’ve made:
Signing Tom Gorzelanny to a two-year contract
Why they haven’t done more: Despite reports early this offseason that tied Josh Hamilton to Milwaukee, the Brewers were always unlikely to be a big player for prominent free agents. Saddled with the smallest market in baseball, the Brewers reportedly lost money when a franchise-record payroll failed to produce a playoff team or increased attendance last season. Owner Mark Attanasio has reportedly lowered the ceiling to $80 million for 2013, leaving Milwaukee without the cash to compete on the open market. The Brewers were outbid by the Red Sox for Ryan Dempster, and the team isn’t interested in going to three years for any free-agent starter.
Will they wish they’d done more? If wishes were free agents, GM Doug Melvin would’ve made a move more exciting than signing a southpaw swingman. It’s not that the Brewers didn’t want to do more, it’s that their budget wasn’t big enough.
What might they still do? The Brewers’ 4.66 relief ERA was the highest in baseball last season; a better bullpen might have made their September surge much more interesting. Fortunately for them, bullpens can get good as quickly as they go bad, and historically, teams with bullpens as bad as the 2012 Brewers’ have improved significantly in the following season. The additions of Gorzelanny and Burke Badenhop should help, but Milwaukee is still looking for arms, with Melvin naming Jon Rauch, Kyle Farnsworth, Mike Gonzalez, and Jason Frasor as potential targets. The Brewers might bring back free agent Alex Gonzalez to back up shortstop Jean Segura if Gonzalez can’t secure a starting somewhere else.

A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider Insider.

Ben Lindbergh is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Ben's other articles. You can contact Ben by clicking here

Related Content:  Orioles,  Trades,  Free Agents,  Rangers,  Transactions,  Brewers,  Cardinals,  Offseason,  Signings,  Winter

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