1. Pittsburgh Pirates: Mid-rotation starter/Bring back A.J. Burnett
Last year was, by any metric, a magical season for the Pittsburgh Pirates. They had stars, they had character, and most importantly, they finally had the record to contend with the perennially, annoyingly great Cardinals. But if they want their romance with the MLB postseason to last more than one frustrating date, they need to do something about their rotation, and fast.
A.J. Burnett was the team’s rock last year, eating up 191 innings with All-Star caliber pitching. But the 37-year-old Burnett, a free agent this offseason, has wavered between resigning with the Bucs and calling it quits altogether. Contract talks have gone silent of late, so there’s no telling when this issue will get resolved. If Burnett does decide to retire, the Pirates’ options are severely limited: Masahiro Tanaka is now off the market, and the best remaining arms—Ervin Santana and Ubaldo Jimenez—both cost a compensatory draft pick. (With the team’s recent track record of developing talent, that pick figures to be a huge obstacle to any potential deal.)
Without Burnett or a veteran to replace him, the 3-5 spots in the Pirates rotation are filled with land mines. Wandy Rodriguez is capable when healthy, but after turning 35 last week and making just 12 starts in 2013, his durability is far from guaranteed. Edinson Volquez is alternatingly electric and out of control, with recent history indicating that the latter description is more apt. Charlie Morton and Jeff Locke are both back-end starters who will suddenly be asked to perform way above their means. Asking any of these guys to throw lots of meaningful innings is a dangerous proposition, especially in the NL Central.
At this point, Pittsburgh’s interest in Santana and Jimenez is barely perceptible, if it even exists. There is some talent on the farm, but neither Jameson Taillon nor Tyler Glasnow is ready for a heavy workload on a playoff-bound team. Burnett, then, seems like the team’s best hope, which means general manager Neal Huntington better pull out all the stops. May we suggest making #STFD the team slogan? —Nick Bacarella
2. New York Yankees: Right-handed-hitting second and/or third baseman/Trade for Trevor Plouffe
After committing $283 million to three of the top positional players on the open market in Brian McCann, Jacoby Ellsbury, and Carlos Beltran this offseason, the Yankees offense is definitely much improved coming into the 2014 season. At the same time, however, the 2014 Yankees offense could perform well below expectations, specifically against left-handed pitching. All three of the aforementioned acquisitions possess significant platoon splits, with their weakness coming against southpaws. Right now, the team is relying on Derek Jeter and Mark Teixeira to have rebound seasons after both missed essentially the entire 2013 campaign while dealing with injuries and setbacks. Jeter, unfortunately, isn't getting any younger and will be playing one of the most physically taxing positions on the diamond. The other right-handed bat the Yankees can put out there is Alfonso Soriano, who has always raked against southpaws, but he will be playing this upcoming year as a 38-year-old.
The Yankees will need to find a way to acquire a player that can hit left-handed pitching, preferably at second or third base—their only two positions without an everyday player. Of course, the team may not be looking to spend much more than they already have and the farm system isn't exactly filled with assets. So, without getting too ambitious in this search, one non-sexy name to consider is Minnesota Twins third baseman Trevor Plouffe, who has done well against southpaws and could be the platoon partner with Kelly Johnson at third base. Plouffe's availability may depend on Minnesota's belief in top prospect Miguel Sano's ability to stick at third base, though. —Ronit Shah
3. Cleveland Indians: Veteran third baseman and a good luck charm
If the plan is to play Carlos Santana over at the hot corner during Lonnie Chisenhall's slumps, then let's just declare Santana the everyday third baseman. The usefulness of Mike Aviles is wasted in one spot. Last year, sneaking Mark Reynolds into the lineup until his bat turned to sand effectively concealed the Chisenhall dilemma for most of the year. Now all they need is *someone* who can play the position well enough to produce and/or motivate Chisenhall into a passable third baseman. We're talking Wilson Betemit or better. This isn't asking for much.
And while we're already not asking for much, let's find a better good luck charm other than the "rally chicken." Don't ask Nick Swisher for ideas either, because the answer will be sideburns, and the entire team will have sideburns, and you will only have yourself to blame. —Matt Sussman
4. Chicago Cubs: Free-agent starting pitcher/Maybe bring back Paul Maholm
The Cubs might have finished second in the Masahiro Tanaka sweepstakes, but the team fell well short of the New York Yankees' final bid of seven years and $155 million, reportedly offering six years and $120 million for the 25-year-old right-hander. It’s the second offseason in a row that Theo Epstein and co. have failed to reel in their top target; last offseason, the team successfully upped the asking price for free-agent RHP Anibal Sanchez, who ultimately landed on his feet in Detroit. The Cubs panicked and signed Edwin Jackson to a four-year, $52 million contract and watched as their free-agent prize lost more games than Joe Saunders. The team is now hampered with a starting five of Jeff Samardzija, Jackson, Travis Wood, Jake Arrieta, and Chris Rusin; while Jackson has to improve, Wood probably overachieved and Arrieta is a boom-or-bust candidate.
Matt Garza’s four-year, $50 million deal with the Brewers is a good sign for teams in need of starting pitching, including the Cubs. The remaining “Big Two”—Ubaldo Jimenez and Ervin Santana—don’t fit the Cubs’ plan, but the team’s public image is reeling after striking out on Tanaka. If the price were right, would Theo strike? It’s possible, but Epstein isn’t going to placate unhappy fans by making a move just to make a move. The Cubs likeliest action is signing a pitcher below the level of Jimenez and Santana. Bronson Arroyo is certainly attractive enough; he brings both durability and leadership, but the soon-to-be 37-year-old is reportedly looking for a three-year deal and the Cubs wouldn’t go there, would they? That leaves the “bargain binners," Jason Hammel and Paul Maholm. Hammel regressed in a big way in 2013, giving up 22 home runs in 23 starts in Baltimore. And while bringing back Maholm might be viewed as the ultimate slap-in-the-face to fans hoping for something big, the lefty has pitched effectively in Chicago before. Of course, the urgency to sign a free-agent starter could fall to the back burner should Samardzija’s name ever re-surface in trade talks. Right now, the team simply needs a fifth starter capable of giving them innings—Clark the Cub would do it, but MLB’s pants' policy forbids it. —Alex Kantecki
5. Baltimore Orioles: Sign A.J. Burnett
With news of RHP A.J. Burnett leaning toward playing this coming season, even if it's not for the Pittsburgh Pirates, the maxim "happy wife, happy life" could play a role in bringing Burnett to Baltimore. With an offseason home in the Old Line State and his wife a Maryland native, Burnett wouldn't have to travel far to secure a job in an Orioles starting rotation in need of a reliable innings-eating arm to go with the likes of breakout righty Chris Tillman and ace-in-waiting Kevin Gausman. Leading all NL starters in ground-ball rate in 2013 with a two-seamer/knuckle-curve combo, Burnett has the potential to avoid some of the perils of pitching in Camden Yards by keeping the ball out of the air, with his repertoire pairing well with the outstanding defensive Orioles infield. While the team does appear to be reaching the limit of their budget, it would be money well spent to bring Burnett to the Charm City. —Stuart Wallace
6. Toronto Blue Jays: Add a starting pitcher/Maybe A.J. Burnett?
The Blue Jays’ rotation appears to project something like this: Mark Buehrle, R.A. Dickey, J.A. Happ, Brandon Morrow (healthy? really?), and… maybe 2013 stopgap Todd Redmond, or perhaps Sean Nolin, who made his big-league debut last year (he pitched in one game)? How about Esmil Rogers again? No? Let’s see… Kyle Drabek and Drew Hutchison are both in post-Tommy John reboot. Hot prospects Aaron Sanchez and Marcus Stroman aren’t quite ready. Do we dare even mention Ricky Romero?
In other words, the Blue Jays need a starter. Alex Anthopoulos knows it, you know it, and the agents for Ubaldo Jimenez and Ervin Santana know it. Yet the Jays have not signed either of those free agents, coming as they do with compensation-pick strings attached. Someone who can bring some velocity would be nice, given the soft-serve ways of Buehrle and Dickey; maybe a free agent veteran just looking for a comfortable place with a short-term deal. Hey, what about A.J. Burnett? He knows the territory, he’s 37, he can still throw 93 miles an hour. Plus, he would give the Jays a rotation with an R.A., an A.J. and a J.A. O.K.? —Adam Sobsey
7. Atlanta Braves: Sign Wilson Betemit to compete for a bench job
If the season started today, manager Fredi Gonzalez's roster would look a tad unbalanced. Of the catchers and infielders currently on the Braves' 40-man squad, only Freddie Freeman bats solely from the left side, and only Ryan Doumit and Ramiro Pena—both switch-hitters—sometimes do. Evan Gattis, Dan Uggla, Andrelton Simmons, and Chris Johnson, the four starters around the horn excluding Freeman, all bat right-handed. Tyler Pastornicky, a candidate to serve as the team's utility infielder, is also a righty swinger. Besides the decline in overall production and pitch framing behind the plate, this imbalance is one area in which the departure of the left-handed-hitting Brian McCann could hurt the Braves.
Doumit, whom the Braves acquired from the Twins earlier this offseason, hit better from the right side in 2013, though his career splits are about even. Pena thumped right-handed pitching in 2013, but his .308 True Average was compiled over 87 plate appearances—hardly a sample on which general manager Frank Wren could confidently rest his case.
That's where Betemit, who broke into the majors with the Braves in 2004, before he was traded to the Dodgers in July 2006, comes in. A fellow switch-hitter, Betemit owns a .289 career TAv when facing right-handers, and he likely won't cost much coming off of a season largely lost to a PCL sprain in his right knee. The 32-year-old's skills are limited—he lacks the versatility that Pastronicky and Pena bring, and offers no defensive value at any position—but the Braves could use another candidate to bop righties off the bench. If Doumit's 2013 splits persist or Pena comes back down to earth, they would risk being one Jason Heyward injury away from a badly skewed lineup. Adding Betemit to compete with Pastornicky (who is also coming back from a knee inury) and prospects Todd Cunningham and Joey Terdoslavich would mitigate that gamble. —Daniel Rathman
8. Kansas City Royals: Sign Bronson Arroyo
Arroyo is neither an impact arm nor a potential front-of-the-rotation starter; however, he is an innings sponge who, were it not for three pesky outs in 2011, would have nine consecutive 200-inning seasons. The junk-balling righty might be underrated through the lenses of fielding-independent pitching as well, since his run averages have beaten his FIP in seven of those nine years. The Royals have a few high-variance options to fill out their rotation, but none as dependable as Arroyo. Given the seemingly non-existent market for Arroyo's services, Dayton Moore and crew could be able to fit him into their already worn-thin budget. —R.J. Anderson
9. New York Mets: Sign Stephen Drew
Yesterday, Mets GM Sandy Alderson wrote off the idea of signing free agent shortstop Stephen Drew for the 47th time this winter. And analysts of every stripe have already spelled out all of the reasons that the Mets shouldn’t sign Drew. But even if Drew isn’t the missing piece of the puzzle that will push the Mets into the postseason in 2014, that doesn’t mean he wouldn’t be a good fit in New York. If money is the issue for both sides, a backloaded contract giving Drew a low base salary in 2014 would be a way to remedy this problem. Another idea is a one-year, make-good deal, which would allow the Mets to flip Drew in July for something if as expected they don’t make a playoff run. However the Mets can make this work, they should attempt to do so. Adding a 3-4-win shortstop to the fold on top of the strong moves New York made this winter could definitely make more of a difference than the nattering nabobs of negativity are suggesting. —Mike Gianella