December 18, 2015
The Best Position To Buy
So, the Cubs have won the winter, and are probably the best team in baseball. That’s one thing we have pretty well nailed down. It’s easy to talk about the Cubs, but you’re exhausted by talk about the Cubs by now. Surely, you can’t stand just one more minute of Cubs talk. You want to hear about your team. You want to know who’s going to sign the next big free agent. You want to know what the teams who aren’t anywhere near done are going to do between now and spring training, not how pretty the Cubs (who probably, though not certainly, are done) are sitting.
That’s an invitation to be titillated, misled, and left wanting, but okay. It’s worth doing. For all the talk about how this winter would be bonkers, we’re hurtling toward Christmas without anything quite like what happened over the same span last winter. Shelby Miller was traded again; so was Craig Kimbrel. A ton of starting and relief pitchers have gotten paid wild sums. A couple of trades (though only a couple, like Wednesday’s Todd Frazier not-quite-blockbuster) have snuck up on us and grabbed our interest. In large part, though, the market remains unresolved.
Last winter, trades came at us steadily until Opening Day (remember the Kimbrel deal hours before the Sunday Night seal-breaker?), but the major free agents were off the block by this point. The biggest names who signed after this were Max Scherzer, James Shields, Colby Rasmus, and Edinson Volquez—not an inconsequential group, but a small slice of the market. This year, the remaining free agents include, but are not limited to: Justin Upton, Yoenis Cespedes, Alex Gordon, Chris Davis, Dexter Fowler, Daniel Murphy, Ian Desmond, Howie Kendrick, Wei-Yin Chen, Scott Kazmir, Yovani Gallardo, Mike Leake, Ian Kennedy, and Tyler Clippard. Maybe the sheer number of options has gummed up the market. We saw evidence of that when, hours after the White Sox landed Frazier in trade, the Indians added two second-tier positional free agents, in Mike Napoli and Rajai Davis, though one anecdote certainly doesn’t constitute proof of concept.
One way or another, though, a lot of wins still lurk on the free-agent market, waiting to be claimed, and history tells us that once that market begins to dry up, there will be trades that move even more wins around. My purpose here is to wrestle with the question of which teams should be pursuing all those wins most ardently—that is, who sit at the key points along the win curve that make their next addition most valuable. Along the way, maybe we can also identify the teams who should back off, or accelerate rebuilding projects, based on the way things stand.
If the season were to begin tomorrow, here’s how I project that it would go:
Loose 2016 Projected Standings
Obviously, though, laying out the two leagues in the same, simple divisional standings formats is misleading. They couldn’t project to shape up much more differently than they do. The NL includes seven teams (the bottom two in each of the Central and West, and the bottom three in the East) who not only have no shot at the playoffs, but are openly giving up on the idea in advance. (That might be a bit too heavy a brushstroke with which to paint the Marlins and Padres, but go with me here.)
In the AL, there is no team apparently willing to trade the present for the future, save maybe the Rays. It’s a free-for-all, without any team that looks all that good, and without any team that looks all that bad. The fascinating dilemma, as we search for the January Cubs, the next winner of the winter, is where to begin to look. Any AL team is within at least striking distance of a playoff spot, which is how the Indians justified shelling out almost $13 million total to the likes of Napoli and Davis, even on their tight budget: if those guys each buy them a win, the reward could be a Wild Card berth.
On the other hand, the NL teams who are in it have stiffer competition. While the Indians’ front-office types who wanted Davis and Napoli had the argument above going for them, someone arguing against those moves might have pointed out that the Indians also had a chance to reach October without them. Standing pat is a viable option, if you consider yourself either indistinguishable from the pack, or narrowly ahead of it. The NL contenders have reason to shoot higher and never stop adding, because the odds are that the NL will shake out similarly in 2016 to the way it did in 2015—when the 90-win Mets were the low men on the totem pole.
For my money, the teams in the best position to benefit from marginal wins are the ones at the front of the pack in the AL, and the trailers in the NL. Specifically, the Red Sox, Astros, Nationals, Dodgers, and Pirates seem to be in good positions to really change their statuses, so let’s look at what specific actions each could take, and why they ought to do so.
It’s already been a busy winter for the Sox, whose bullpen is pretty stacked now (at least from the right side), and who finally have an ace again, at however high a cost. They also have the Killer B’s, one last season of David Ortiz, and depth everywhere—including perhaps the best farm system in baseball. What they don’t have, of course, is a whole lot of confidence in their solutions to either corner-infield spot, nor a formidable middle of the rotation. At this point, they’d have to find a trade partner for one of Hanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval to solve the former problem (without creating one of those famous, poisonous AL East media circuses), but the latter one only requires the willingness to invest. There’s no reason why the Red Sox should go into 2016 without a better third starter, and if they do find a good one, they become pretty clear favorites in the AL East.
There’s been some news around the Astros, not just when they made the convoluted seven-player deal to land Ken Giles, but as they shuffled Jed Lowrie and Chris Carter out the door to make room for their younger, higher-ceiling depth pieces. Still, this winter will be incomplete, and frankly maddening, if they don’t make a bigger splash and improve their two obvious weak points. One of those is the outfield, where depending on Colby Rasmus’s assignment on a given day, they’re relying on either Preston Tucker or Jake Marisnick to masquerade as a fully qualified big-league contributor. The other is the rotation, where Kazmir was a stabilizing force after coming over via trade, but where they’re still awfully thin. Honestly, there’s no good reason why the team shouldn’t be able to address both, but the bad (and probably very real) reason is that they underwent their rebuilding a bit indelicately, took a long time to get it done, and cut off the blood flow to some of their key revenue centers for so long that there’s been permanent (or at least significant and lasting) damage to them. For that reason, I’ll recommend that the team lean on its depth options on the mound and make surprising people with a boost in the outfield their priority. It doesn’t hurt that that market still teems with potential helpers. The AL West is up for grabs at the moment, but the other teams out there seem to be a bit stuck. If the Astros can take one more large stride ahead of the field, it feels like no one will be able to keep pace.
It looks ever more like the Nationals will have just one more year of Harper and Strasburg, two generational talents on one roster. You know how people keep muttering about the Dodgers wasting Kershaw’s prime? That’s really stupid. The Dodgers have won three straight division titles. They’ve done plenty for Clayton Kershaw. The Nationals, though, are in actual danger of wasting the prime seasons (and more importantly, the only seasons they’ll control) of Harper and Strasburg. We must note that, at times, those two have made things more difficult, but the waste is very real here.
It’s not too late to prevent that. With their organizational depth, the Nationals have some options with regard to their (presumptive) efforts to upgrade the roster that should have won the NL East last year, but fell apart instead. They could add an outfielder, bolster the back of the rotation, find someone for the bullpen who makes it easier to trade Jonathan Papelbon, or shore up the infield they weakened by dealing away Yunel Escobar. The Lerners were ready to spend big on Jason Heyward, and now that they’ve missed out, they need to stay aggressive. Mike Rizzo is good at the big moves, and he needs to make at least two more to reassert Washington’s primacy in the NL East.
Neal Huntington’s crying poor notwithstanding, the Pirates need to wade into the starting pitching market and flash some cash right now, before their good options dry up. If Pittsburgh, a revenue-sharing receiver with three straight playoff berths to juice fans, can’t afford to make a modest upgrade in their rotation as a response to the loss of the retired A.J. Burnett, they’re thoroughly doomed in the NL Central. The powerhouses of the division are too rich, too deep, and too smart to be beaten without opening a checkbook.
Ideally, the Pirates might also upgrade on the infield, but if they could afford to do so, they probably would have kept Neil Walker, and so, they wouldn’t need to. It seems they need to triage their weaknesses and address only the most critical. Right now, that most glaring breach is the fact that Jon Niese is their third starter. They have no chance to catch up to the Cubs, but they can ensure that the Clint Hurdle Invitational ($1, Joe Sheehan) survives for another year if they get real and pay up for Kazmir or Leake.
The Giants have certainly crept out ahead of the Dodgers by signing both Jeff Samardzija and Johnny Cueto, but though it seems to be really high, San Francisco does have a limit on its credit card. The Dodgers don’t, and (also unlike the Giants) they have a dizzying assortment of prospects they might offer up in trades to go racing back to the front of the herd. The Pirates and Astros aren’t being terribly forthright when they claim to be hamstrung by budgetary constraints, but there’s a kernel of truth to it. In the Dodgers’ case, there’s no reason any asset should be off-limits, unless it’s guarded by a team with a lunatic notion of its value (as is the case with the Marlins and Jose Fernandez). There’s a lot of talk ongoing about their rotation, but to me, their infield still feels hideously thin, given all their money and prospect capital. If Justin Turner and Chase Utley (or Kike Hernandez) are starting on either side of a rookie on Opening Day, however talented the rookie, that’s somewhat unbecoming of the Best Team Money Can Buy. Frankly, if the Reds wanted the Dodgers’ prospect package for Todd Frazier, it’s bizarre that the Dodgers didn’t simply take him and call it a deal. They had better have an ace up their sleeve here, because for once, the blowhards aren’t wrong about the rich team making a huge gaffe by sitting out the free-agent market. The Dodgers could still cruise back to favorite status; they just have to get off their collective ass.