The MLB offseason is upon us, which means we have to find a way to pass the interminable months until Spring Training. As tradition goes, we’ll resort to speculating about what teams might do.
To present a reductionist view of MLB strategy, I’ll say that every team falls into into one of three categories: buyers, sellers, and those who should who do close to nothing.
Buyers are teams that are looking to contend in 2018, and will pick up new players to do so. They are ones who either were successful in 2017 and can still be better, or will lose key players in free agency. Buyers also include teams who performed poorly but could play well after filling some gaps.
Sellers are usually teams that are heading into a “rebuilding” period thanks to a closing window for success. Sellers want to save money and spend the next few years building up their minor league systems. See the years preceding the Astros’ world title if you want a textbook example.
There are three reasons why a team could choose to stay the same: it is either really bad, really good, or will give their current personnel another half season to prove itself – or not. Granted, no team will remain exactly the same, but the idea is that they have a net zero loss or gain.
Coming off a season in which the majority of American League teams had a legitimate shot at one of the Wild Card spots until the final two weeks of regular-season play, and the top teams in the National League were exceptionally good, it is no surprise that half of MLB teams look to be buyers.
I’ll start with the bad teams who could be good. There was no team more perplexing in 2017 than the league-cellar Giants – they had all the pieces to win, but none of them did their job. While most of those pieces should rebound, they detrimentally lack both offensive and defensive production from their outfielders, so they’ll likely pursue a Lorenzo Cain-type and are allegedly in the Giancarlo Stanton sweepstakes (as many buyers are).
A handful of buyers are teams who likely will not top their divisions, but have a totally legitimate shot at one of the two Wild Card spots in their respective leagues. Among those in the National League: the Brewers, who gave the Cubs a scare in the first half of 2017; the Cardinals, who showed signs of life in the second half; and the Phillies, who have a strong core of position players but lack pitching depth.
In the American League lies the Twins, who outperformed all expectations last year; the Angels, who cannot in good conscience give up with baseball’s best player, Mike Trout, on their payroll; and the Rangers, who struggled to both hit and pitch, but conveniently have the most international signing money to make a run at two-way Japanese sensation Shohei Otani.
Two teams stand alone in the “everything went wrong” category: the Mets and the Mariners. For the Mets, immense injury misfortunes last year could not have been predicted, and neither could the downfall of their top starters. With a new manager in tow, the team should be able to rebound nicely with additions of another starter, a decent bat, and passable infielder.
Thanks to every starter in their pre-ordained rotation acquiring injuries, the Mariners used a near-MLB record 17 different starters last year. With a bit of good health and the addition of a productive outfielder (Lorenzo Cain is going to get paid one way or another), they can contend.
Amongst buyers, only successful but not too successful teams remain. The Rockies nabbed the second Wild Card spot, and could easily do so again with the addition of another strong bat – while we’re having fun, we might as well consider the prospect of Stanton hitting at Coors Field. Regardless, they’re going to need someone to push them past the five-time reigning NL West Champion Dodgers.
The Cubs are division favorites for the foreseeable future, but will need to fill the void left by the absence of Jake Arrieta and John Lackey’s arms. The Red Sox had a good season, undoubtedly, but as competition reignites with the formidable Yankees, they’ll need to add a bat that has a chance to rival Aaron Judge’s.
This year’s sellers are all heading into daunting but inevitable rebuilds. By trading Justin Verlander, Justin Upton, and J.D. Martinez in the final months of last season, going 17-41 after the trade deadline, the Tigers signaled that they are raising the white flag and giving up on all hopes of contending for years to come. It is not likely that any team will want to take on the contracts of any of the big but slumping names left on roster, but you can bet the front office will try to offload anything it can.
The Pirates once had one of the most elite outfields in the game, manned by Starling Marte, Andrew McCutchen, and Gregory Polanco. While only McCutchen’s contract expires imminently, all three are rapidly declining in value; it is probably wise to sell relatively high.
Under Derek Jeter’s tutelage, the Marlins are rumored to be cutting payroll by as much as 25 percent. The big name is Giancarlo Stanton – he is guaranteed almost $300 million over the next decade if he opts into his contract after the 2020 season – but other key players should be on the trading block.
As for the “stay the same” crowd, the A’s, Padres, and White Sox have dealt all they have, and are the midst of massive rebuilds. The teams have already sold everything they had to give, and will get their moments in the sun in the years to come.
Conversely, the Nationals, Dodgers, Yankees, Astros, and Indians are good enough to remain as-is and still command their divisions. While the Mets and Braves are trending upward, neither should come close to the Nationals in the division race. Even before they traded for Yu Darvish, the Dodger staff featured four pitchers who could anchor any other team’s rotation. They don’t need to sign anyone to be good, but have the funds to do so should they want.
The Yankees' rebuild paid off a year before it was slated to; the only big move could be cashing out for Otani. The Astros have Carlos Correa, George Springer, Alex Bregman, and Jose Altuve locked in through 2019, and will start Dallas Keuchel and Justin Verlander in the same rotation for another year. They could add a reliable reliever, but otherwise, the team is beyond set.
The remaining teams will wait until the July 2018 trade deadline before deciding to buy or sell, as some of them are in limbo with big changes on the horizon in 2019. The Blue Jays chose not to pick up Jose Bautista’s 2018 option, leaving them with super-star potential in only Josh Donaldson, whose contract expires in 2019. They could choose to extend or trade him this offseason, but should wait to see how the first half of 2018 plays out before making any big changes.
Likewise, the Orioles are heading into their final season under the battery of GM Dan Duquette and Manager Buck Showalter, and should let the first half play out before deciding if they will make a playoff run at by the deadline.
Needless to say, we are in for an exciting 88 days until pitchers and catchers report to Arizona or Florida for Spring Training.
But who’s counting?