â€‹1. Tigers: Closer
A couple of things became very apparent about the Tigers during the postseason. First, the Giants had them well-scouted, and a big hat tip goes to former left fielder Pat Burrell for a job well done in his first year as a scout. Giants pitchers locked up Tigers hitters throughout San Francisco's four-game sweep in the World Series; Detroit scored just six runs. Secondly, the Tigers need a closer. Jose Valverde melted down in Game Four of the American League Division Series, and again in Game One of the American League Championship Series, then never threw another pitch in an even remotely high-leverage situation. Valverde filed for free agency, and the Tigers have made it clear that Papa Grande is Papa Gone-day.
So where do the Tigers go from here? As the early-line favorites to repeat as AL champs, and with an old-school manager in Jim Leyland, who prefers a set closer, it is safe to say that the Tigers are going to go after someone established in that role this offseason. If I'm the Tigers, I would put Rafael Soriano at the top of my free-agent list. Soriano stepped into a very difficult situation when the Yankees asked to him to replace all-time saves leader Mariano Rivera, who was lost for the season in early May after suffering a severe knee injury. He thrived as the closer, converting 42 of 46 save opportunities while pitching to a 2.26 ERA and 3.27 FIP. Old Blue Eyes once sang "If I can make it there, I can make it anywhere." In other words, if Soriano could thrive in New York, he can do the same in Detroit. —John Perrotto
2. Rays: Designated Hitter
After discovering a way to draft and develop pitcher after pitcher, and finding diamonds in the rough on the relief-pitcher markets, the Rays have yet to consistently field a decent designated hitter. They've also historically had holes at catcher and in the middle infield, but those are positions prone to scarcity; designated hitter should be one of the easiest positions to fill capably. An endless parade of the likes of Luke Scott, Johnny Damon, Willy Aybar, Pat Burrell, Cliff Floyd, and Greg Norton (actual players with most PA at DH for the Rays the past six years), have left a tortured fan base celebrating Jeff Keppinger's .301/.329/.370 slash line at DH and left hoping for more from their enlightened front office.
If they turn to the free-agent market, there are two hitters that they should be familiar with—B.J. Upton has been patrolling center field in Tampa for the last six years, and Josh Hamilton is the MVP that got away through a well-known series of unfortunate events and personal turmoil. Playing DH might be the cure for Hamilton's ongoing injury issues, and a return to Tampa would make for an exciting chapter in his personal interest story. There are some other free-agent possibilities—Nick Swisher, Mike Napoli, Adam LaRoche, and Kevin Youkilis amongst them–but the Rays typically do not like to pony up much money for their DH. The other external possibility is to make a trade from the plethora of capable starting pitchers in their stable for a capable designated hitter.
With such brilliance housed in the front office, the series of hitters playing DH for the Rays seems like an organizational choice to avoid investing resources–financial or otherwise—in the DH position. Given that the Rays have been at or near the bottom of the league in DH production and have missed the playoffs or struggled to break through again since 2008 despite a strong lineup core and top flight pitching, perhaps that mindset will change in the coming months. —Ben Murphy
3. Orioles: Rotation
The Orioles' march to the postseason may have been composed mostly of special effects, but they sure were fun to watch. That good mojo will probably get them a nice bump in revenue in the offseason. The Birds weren't really a 93-win team on paper and will probably regress heavily next year if they keep the same roster. But, with a few well-placed acquisitions, they could end up improving themselves enough to where, with another visit from the extra-innings fairy, they could stay in the picture for a wild card. An area where they would benefit would be an upgrade to their starting rotation, if only for the fact that all baseball teams everywhere need starting pitching. Also, Joe Saunders. Yesterday, BP's own Ben Lindbergh suggested that teams might benefit from looking at off-brand versions of famous free agents. Shaun Marcum and former Oriole Jeremy Guthrie were mentioned as cheaper alternatives that teams might check out, and it might behoove the Orioles to do so. Neither one is Zack Greinke, but does a team that could find itself with a sour fan base (if regression to the mean hits them particularly hard) want to be saddled with that contract? —Russell A. Carleton
4. Angels: Bullpen
The Angels struggled all season to hold leads and stay in games. Untimely injuries and underperformance plagued the club’s bullpen. In May, Jerry Dipoto and company acquired Ernesto Frieri, who had an amazing run through the beginning of July but struggled to get outs as the season came to a close. Kevin Jepsen emerged as a legitimate option for Mike Scioscia later in the year, as Scott Downs fell apart (6.86 ERA from after the start of July).
The biggest issue in 2012 was depth. Injuries to top pen arms stretched the healthy pitchers thin and probably affected their performance down the stretch. The Angels probably won’t find significantly better late-inning options without digging deep into Arte Moreno’s wallet, so the front office should be on the lookout for depth. Ryan Madson could be a low-risk, high-reward option. —Hudson Belinsky
5. Blue Jays: Rotation
In a season derailed by injury and pretty uniform disappointment, no aspect of the Blue Jays’ 2012 campaign evoked more morbid amusement than the rotation. Ricky Romero’s massive regression (5.77 ERA, 5.22 BB/9), Henderson Alvarez’s developmental stagnation (4.85 ERA, .812 OPS), two Tommy John surgeries, and one oblique injury all conspired toward one spectacularly miserable year for Toronto hurlers.
In 2012, Toronto starters combined for a 4.82 ERA, sixth-worst in the bigs, and surrendered more HR/9 (1.32) than all but two teams. For the record, one of those two teams was the Colorado Rockies, who play half their games in a hitter’s environment that makes the Pacific Coast League look like Petco.
The lone bright spot in Toronto’s rotation was Brandon Morrow, who went 7-3 with a 2.90 ERA through the first two months of the season. The right-hander appeared destined for the breakout many scouts anticipated he was capable of before an oblique injury sustained on June 11 sidelined him for more than six weeks.
Only three Toronto pitchers made more than 20 starts in 2012, and when the curtains finally (mercifully) descended, the Jays had used 12 different starters. That includes Jesse Chavez. No, really.
With the probable departure of Carlos Villanueva, and Kyle Drabek and Drew Hutchison both recovering from TJ surgery for a substantial part of 2013, it’s an understatement to say the Jays’ rotation for the upcoming season is in a state of flux. Consequently, general manager Alex Anthopoulos will be exploring every avenue to upgrade his team’s rotation in 2013. Of the returning starters, only Romero and Morrow are guaranteed rotation spots, and frankly, even those guys represent pretty big questions marks.
While Zack Greinke seems like an unlikely candidate to join the Blue Jays, don’t be surprised to see Toronto pursue other notable free-agent hurlers like Anibal Sanchez, Ryan Dempster, and Edwin Jackson. Anthopoulos will also scour the trade market for pitching help; the Jays were rumored to be interested in Cubs starter Matt Garza at last year’s deadline, and will probably inquire on his availability. —Jonah Birenbaum
6. Cubs: The Next Paul Maholm
When explaining the free agent needs of a team coming off their first 100-loss season in nearly a half-century, it's tempting to say "nearly everything." While it's true there are very few places where the Cubs wouldn't benefit from an on-field upgrade (shortstop, first base, ummmm… Darwin Barney's glove is a nice thing to have…), the fact is the most important box scores for Cubs fans to follow next year can be found on milb.com. The North Siders aren't going to be competitive in 2012 without a major infusion of top-line starting pitching, but free-agent starters are so risky and expensive that the Cubs’ brain trust might as well assume they're made of 100 percent unobtainium.
No, what the Cubs need to do is find this year’s Paul Maholm. Chicago signed the veteran lefty last winter to a low-cost, low-risk contract, watched him take 20 successful spins through rotation, then dealt him to the Braves (along with working-class hero Reed Johnson) for Arodys Vizcaino and Jaye Chapman. Even while rehabbing from Tommy John surgery, the 21-year-old Vizcaino instantly became Chicago’s top pitching prospect. At virtually no cost to the franchise, the Cubs were able to add Vizcaino to a list of players including Javier Baez (19 years old), Jorge Soler (20), and Albert Almora (18) who may someday form an organization core that competes for a championship. If they dip into the free-agent pool at all, the Cubs should focus on signing mid-priced players that the market has undervalued, regardless of position, who can be flipped at the trade deadline this summer. —Ken Funck
7. Pirates: First Base
For the second year in a row, the Pirates teased their fans by hanging around the playoff race most of the season, only to collapse and finish under .500. According to our compensation page, the Pirates had the second-lowest payroll in 2012. Their financial restrictions make it unlikely that they'll spend big on a marquee player in free agency, so getting creative is a must.
They would be wise to take a page out of the playbook of the only team with a lower payroll in 2012, the A's. The A's routinely platooned players, maximizing the value of players such as Seth Smith and Jonny Gomes by minimizing their exposure to their same-handed pitching counterparts. As Derek Carty has noted in the past, most players don't need to be platooned. It takes time to build a sample large enough to conclusively say a player should be platooned. That said, in over 500 career plate appearances against southpaws Garrett Jones has been awful. There is a huge discrepancy in his walk, strikeout, and batted-ball rates against left-handed pitching and right-handed pitching. Pedro Alvarez has also struggled against left-handed pitching in his young career, but his batted-ball data is nearly identical against pitchers of each handedness. Alvarez also has significantly fewer plate appearances against southpaws than Jones.
With that in mind, a first baseman capable of hitting left-handed pitching at a high level would probably be a sufficient upgrade. That makes someone like Juan Rivera an attractive, cheap option for the Buccos. However, the player they should have the most interest in is Jeff Keppinger. His stellar season with the Rays might convince a team to overpay him and play him as an everyday player, but if it doesn't, his ability to hit left-handed pitching hard and field multiple positions in the infield would be welcome in Pittsburgh. The position versatility alone makes him a substantially more valuable player to them than Rivera. Adding a player like Keppinger isn't as sexy as bringing in Zack Greinke to head a rotation, but it might be enough to help the Pirates inch closer to eclipsing a .500 record for the first time since 1992. —Josh Shepardson
8. Yankees: Catcher
It's hard to believe that the Yankees might have more questions at catcher this offseason than last. Last year, the debate was whether Jesus Montero could stick behind the plate, or if he'd have to DH and let Russell Martin handle the staff. Obviously, the Yankees chose option C, and traded Montero to Seattle. Martin had a relatively okay season with the bat, but he won rave reviews from the pitchers.
With the rest of the hitters not getting any younger (or any healthier), finding a catcher who provides a modicum of offensive value would be helpful. Possible options include bringing back Martin, or seeing if the Braves will sell low on Brian McCann. The choice may determine whether the Yankees make the playoffs next season, as the AL East and the wild-card races look pretty open. —Dan Turkenkopf
9. Atlanta Braves: Chipper Jones
On this election night, one’s thoughts turn to figureheads, leaders, the face of a nation. Larry Jones is the last surviving member of the Braves dynasty that, for all its failure to win multiple World Series, has nonetheless been perhaps the most formidable of my lifetime. With Jones' retirement, Braves Nation (perhaps better to call it a reservation?) loses the last of its Rushmorean heroes. He was not only the long-serving FDR to his shorter-lived cohort; he was also the most daily, the most present of them. The other greats (I’m thinking primarily of Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux, and John Smoltz) were starting pitchers, and you saw them only every fifth day. They were like Supreme Court justices to Jones’ everyday presidential steadiness. He was both spokesman and critic, diplomat and warrior. Even when he missed significant time with injury, his shadow cast itself over the team in absentia.
If Atlanta is to rise again as a perennial power in the NL East, they’ll probably be able to do it only by riding another wave of long-tenured talent. And they’ll need a new Chief Executive. Whether that’s Freddie Freeman, Jason Heyward, or another player remains to be seen. To be honest, I wouldn’t particularly mind if Pastornicky became a household word, beamed into living rooms across America every single night. Tyler Pastornicky has got a venerable honorific built right into his last name, after all. —Adam Sobsey
10. Athletics: Shortstop
For a smooth $10 million, Billy Beane could have locked Stephen Drew in as his shortstop for another year. Instead, the A’s declined their half of the mutual option on Drew, which is understandable given he has been more of a pedigree than producer the last few years. After Beane traded Cliff Pennington in a surprising move (that is no longer so surprising), the A’s have an obvious hole at shortstop.
There are many ways for the A’s to fill this hole: internally, via trade, and also by simply re-signing Drew to a multi-year deal. While I’m sure the A’s wouldn’t mind the last of those three options, given the dearth state of available shortstops, you can bet Drew is being ogled like an attractive girl in a college physics class by a plethora of teams. Very quickly, the bidding could surpass what Beane is comfortable in giving. Looking internally, the options of Adam Rosales, Eric Sogard, and Brandon Hicks are, well, underwhelming.
Speculating on possible trades is where things get interesting and Beane can flex his creative talents. The A’s have movable pieces like Coco Crisp, Seth Smith, and, of course, starting pitching depth. Potential targets are Yunel Escobar, Elvis Andrus, Jimmy Rollins, and Jed Lowrie. All four are very different players with unique pros and cons that I won’t go into here. Given the Indians’ recent addition of Mike Aviles, maybe Asdrubal Cabrera is also a possibility. My guess, if the A’s don’t resign Drew, is Beane will explore every possible trade avenue in the offseason, yet he’ll also be willing to stand pat with his internal options for the first few months of the season if nothing is realized. Overall, if what actually happens come out of nowhere and renders my theorizing tonight meaningless, I, for one, won’t be surprised. —Paul Singman
11. Blue Jays: Something Other Than a Reliever
Just… stop. Okay? Look, I know you say you just need a few after work to "take the edge off" and that you can acquire a position player any time you want to. But this really can't go on any longer. You've got a manager and bench to worry about. I mean, at first, you were bringing in respectable closers and maybe we could turn a blind eye to it, but now you're straining Sterno to get a passable middle reliever. We're saying this because we love you—this needs to end, Blue Jays, for your own sake. —Colin Wyers
12. Rockies: Manager
You know how we used to complain about the recycling of major-league managers? It might be time to retire that complaint, at least temporarily. Last year, three of the five managers hired by new teams—Mike Matheny, Dale Sveum, and Robin Ventura—hadn’t managed in the big leagues before, beyond Sveum’s 12 games as a fill-in for Milwaukee in 2008. All three seemed to acquit themselves well. Meanwhile, the two veteran hires, Ozzie Guillen and Bobby Valentine, had disastrous seasons and were dismissed in October.
So far this winter, we’ve seen two more newly minted managers: Bo Porter in Houston and Mike Redmond in Miami. We’re also seen two old ones wearing new uniforms (John Farrell and Terry Francona). It’s not as if we’ll ever see the end of second- or third-time managers, nor should we: managerial experience is valuable, and getting fired from one job doesn’t necessarily make a manager unfit for another. And it’s also not as if teams have never been willing to break in an inexperienced skipper: all those retreads had to start somewhere. But whether it’s a paradigm shift, a generational changing-of-the-guard, or me making too much of a small sample, it does seem as if today’s teams might be more willing to take chances on unproven managerial prospects.
That brings me to the Rockies, who have been in need of a new manager since Jim Tracy resigned a month ago today (if not before then). Of the four candidates they’ve formally interviewed—Jason Giambi, Tom Runnells, Walt Weiss, and Matt Williams—only Runnells has managed in the majors, and not since 1992. Giambi and Weiss haven’t coached or managed in either the majors or minors. The Rockies’ search has reportedly come down to Weiss and Williams, so whichever one they pick, we’ll have another first-time manager to add to the list.
In Colorado’s case, we don’t know whether the selection of a rookie manager will be by choice or by necessity. The Rockies don’t look like short-term contenders, and their next skipper will face a possibly unprecedented level of front-office meddling. Tracy, accustomed to the relative autonomy most managers enjoy, walked away rather than submit himself to the indignity of a quasi-GM with a desk in the clubhouse. Maybe most other experienced managers would have made the same move. Whether Tracy’s successor will succeed in swallowing his pride, playing along, and establishing his authority despite frequent intervention from above might go a long way toward determining whether the Rockies slide further into dysfunction or emerge from their morass—and whether we see any further evolution in the model major-league manager. —Ben Lindbergh
13. Orioles: Outfield
The Orioles were one of the most entertaining stories of 2012, riding a myriad of circumstances and timely performances to a 93-69 record, a win in the inaugural wild-card round, and a couple of wins in the divisional series before dropping Game Five in the Bronx. While the O’s have reason to be optimistic that a measure of last year’s performance will be repeatable, the talent baseline on the team will likely need to be improved a not-insignificant amount in order for the Birds to enter 2013 as a reasonable playoff hopeful.
On the positional side, left field and second base are the two most obvious areas where impactful improvement can be made, with available outfielders offering up the most options. Without outside improvement, Baltimore would have to take a patchwork approach in relying on in-house options—each of which contain a fair amount of risk in some form: injury (Nate McLouth and Nolan Reimold), experience (Xavier Avery and LJ Hoes), and consistency (Chris Davis). Adam Jones and Nick Markakis should form two-thirds of a solid outfield, and the addition of a third player upgrading on the hodgepodge of second-division starters and fourth outfielders currently in place could go a long way toward improving Baltimore’s offensive and defensive production.
Reasonable targets in free agency could include Nick Swisher on a multi-year deal and Melky Cabrera on a one-year deal to re-establish his value following his performance enhancement-related suspension this past summer. Were Baltimore willing to slide Jones to left, Michael Bourn would be an excellent fit in center, immediately upgrading the team’s woeful baserunning production and giving a boost to the outfield’s aggregate defensive output (Adam Jones’ Gold Gloves notwithstanding). —Nick J. Faleris