6 Unusual Suspects Who Could Be Buyers in Free Agency This Offseason
Rob Carr/Getty Images
There's a constant struggle between the haves and the have nots in Major League Baseball. And during the offseason, the struggle tends to be one-sided.
Teams like the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox can afford whoever they want during the winter, and new television deals have allowed teams like the Los Angeles Angels and Texas Rangers to join in the party as well.
Meanwhile, teams like the Oakland A's, Kansas City Royals and Tampa Bay Rays have to make do with the money that their small markets provide. They can't afford to make it rain in free agency.
Yeah, you know the story by now. Rich teams are going to be rich, and poor teams are going to be poor. Nothing ever changes.
Still, we occasionally see some surprises. Nobody expected the A's to go out and sign Yoenis Cespedes to a $36 million contract this past offseason, and the Miami Marlins flipped their usual script by dishing out huge deals to Jose Reyes, Heath Bell and Mark Buehrle.
So which unusual suspects might make a splash in free agency this winter? The Baltimore Orioles, perhaps? The Pittsburgh Pirates? Might the A's keep loading up on expensive players?
You have questions, I have answers. Here are six small-market teams that could be unusually active in free agency this winter.
Rob Carr/Getty Images
The Orioles typically aren't one of the cheapest teams in the league, but the payroll tends to look pretty tiny compared to the payrolls amassed by the Yankees and the Red Sox.
Coincidentally, the Orioles are used to playing second fiddle to both those teams. The O's haven't finished any higher than third in the AL East since 1997.
You're probably already aware that things are different this year. The O's pulled into a tie with the Yankees for first place in the division on Tuesday, and they have less than a month to go to seal the deal.
This season is a big step forward for the Orioles franchise no matter what happens at the end of it all. They will, however, head into the offseason with holes to fill, and it's going to take some cash to fill these holes.
Team owner Peter Angelos might just be willing to spend said cash.
It wouldn't be unheard of the for the Orioles to start dishing out big paychecks. Their signing of Miguel Tejada back in 2004 was a huge surprise, and it was just a couple months ago that they signed center fielder Adam Jones to the richest contract in franchise history.
The Orioles have only $53.2 million in salaries committed for the 2013 season. If they trim some fat (i.e. Kevin Gregg and Mark Reynolds), they'll have a little extra cash to invest in free agency without having to worry about their 2013 payroll getting out of control (i.e. at or over $100 million).
The Orioles are pretty well set as far as position players go, but we could see them make a move to acquire a second baseman while also looking to add a little depth to their outfield.
Most likely, though, the Orioles will target starting pitching help. Their rotation has held together pretty well this year, but it could use a rock.
They were supposedly interested in acquiring Zack Greinke at the trade deadline, but he's probably beyond their price range. Guys like Shaun Marcum, Francisco Liriano and old friend Jeremy Guthrie, on the other hand, likely won't be beyond their price range.
The Orioles don't have the funds to start throwing mega-contracts around, but the time for them to buy is now.
Bob Levey/Getty Images
Calling the Houston Astros a Major League Baseball team is giving them too much credit. Talent-wise, they're more like a barnstorming wiffle ball team.
They're trying, though. General manager Jeff Luhnow has slashed a lot of payroll this season, adding to the team's depleted farm system in the process. I also like their decision to hire Baseball Prospectus writer Kevin Goldstein as their new Pro Scouting Coordinator.
For the time being, the Astros are pretty barren in terms of talent. The idea is to get themselves back to contention by developing talent, but they're going to have to spend some money to fill out the roster between now and then.
Well, shoot, can you name me five players on the Astros? You probably can't, and I'll wager a lot of people who once called themselves Astros fans can't either. Judging from the team's plummeting attendance, nobody cares to know any of the team's players.
It's in the organization's interest to do something to bring the fans back out to the yard, and Luhnow hinted in July that spending is in the team's immediate future.
Via the Houston Chronicle:
One of the benefits of some of the trades we’ve made in addition to getting prospects is that we’ve given ourselves some more freedom next year by freeing up some payroll space that allows us to use that to get the free-agent pieces we want to get. We’re going to be able to use that freedom to more effectively help the club next year immediately than we would have.
Luhnow isn't kidding about the club having payroll freedom. The Astros have exactly $5.5 million in salaries committed for the 2013 season.
Yes, these would be the same team that had a payroll over $100 million as recently as 2009. They won't get that high this winter, but they're bound to try to attract as many reasonably priced free agents as they can.
As for what needs they need to fill, I have one word for you:
Kansas City Royals
Jamie Squire/Getty Images
The Royals are in a tough spot financially. Their payroll jumped from $38 million in 2011 to $64 million this season, and odds are it's going to climb even higher this offseason.
The problem? According to The Kansas City Star, the Royals have a pitiful TV contract that's going to pay them less than $20 million over the next eight seasons. They'll get a little extra money from ESPN's new deal with Major League Baseball, but not a ton.
With the team's financial situation on such shaky ground at the moment, why on earth would the Royals spend money on free agents this offseason?
Simple: The timing is right.
The Royals have been something of a joke franchise for a long time, but that's changing. They have talented players in guys like Billy Butler, Alex Gordon, Mike Moustakas and Eric Hosmer, all of whom were brought up through the system. Top prospect Wil Myers will presumably be joining the party in 2013.
The Royals also have an excellent bullpen, one that is stuff to the gills with hard throwers. They thus have the pieces in place to win games with the same formula the Orioles are winning games this season, except with more offense.
Not unlike the Orioles, the Royals need to go out and add starting pitching if they expect to compete in 2013, which is very much in their interest seeing as how they won't be able to afford their young stars forever. Starting pitching is without a doubt the team's biggest shortcoming, and it will keep them from keeping pace with the White Sox and Tigers in 2013 if they don't address it.
Their goal should be to try to pick up reclamation projects who are looking for one- or two-year contracts in which to prove themselves. To this end, pitchers like Joe Blanton, Anibal Sanchez and maybe even Ervin Santana if the Angels decline to pick up his option could be fits for the Royals.
Pitchers like these will suffice. The Royals don't need a reunion with Zack Greinke in order to put themselves in a position to compete in 2013.
Goodness knows they can't afford such a reunion anyway.
Mike McGinnis/Getty Images
The Brewers clearly made the right choice when they chose to sign Ryan Braun to an extension last April, but in the past year they've lost Prince Fielder to free agency and traded away Zack Greinke when it became apparent that he wasn't going to sign a contract extension.
In addition, it was just a couple years ago that the Brewers lost CC Sabathia to free agency as well. It's clear that unless your name is Ryan Braun, Milwaukee's not a great place to get paid.
...Or is it?
The Brewers aren't totally hopeless financially. They only have $52.4 million in salaries committed for 2014, and the bright side of letting Fielder and Greinke go is that the organization saved itself a ton of money.
Money, for the record, that it was willing to spend. As Jon Heyman of CBSSports.com pointed out in July, the Brewers were willing to sign Fielder to a $120 million contract, and they supposedly offered Greinke a $100 million extension before they traded him.
Make no mistake, Brewers owner Mark Attanasio was serious about keeping Greinke. As Danny Knobler of CBSSports.com wrote, Attanasio is "ultra-competitive" and he loves seeing Miller Park fill up on a regular basis.
He's going to have to throw the fans a bone if he wants to see them continuing to fill Miller Park. Attendance is already down, and the Brewers' current roster doesn't leave much room for optimism.
It'll take a couple signings to prop up Milwaukee's chances to contend in 2013. I'm thinking a couple bullpen pieces, a serviceable starting pitcher and perhaps a first baseman so Corey Hart can go back to playing right field.
For example, the Brewers may take a chance on Mike Napoli, and he could take a chance on them because it would mean hitting at Miller Park, a notoriously home run-friendly ballpark.
Whatever the Brewers do, they shouldn't blow their roster up completely. The team has shown signs of life since August, and these signs of life could carry over into next season with the right kind of support.
San Diego Padres
Denis Poroy/Getty Images
The Padres don't spend money. Their payroll got as high as $73 million in 2008, but it's back down to around $55 million this season. That's about par for the course.
...Under the old ownership group, that is. Ron Fowler and his troupe of investors purchased the Padres for $800 million in August, and indications are that they're going to be willing to spend to make the team better.
Fowler didn't go into specifics at a recent press conference, but he did say (via CBSSports.com) that the new ownership group is "looking forward to a payroll increase."
The Padres have already started to increase their payroll, signing Carlos Quentin and Huston Street to extensions during the season. Even after handing out those extensions, the Padres only have $26 million in salaries committed for the 2013 season.
As per usual, the Padres could use some more offense. It will be hard for them to lure free-agent hitters to San Diego seeing as how nobody is blind to what kind of ballpark the Padres play in, but they'll have little trouble attracting pitchers if they think their pitching staff could use a veteran or two.
However, from the way Fowler tried to dodge questions about what the team's plans for its payroll are going forward, one can't help but wonder if the Padres have something a lot bigger in mind than signing up a few spare arms.
What's more, Peter Seidler—nephew to former Dodgers owner Peter O'Malley and a member of Fowler's ownership group—hinted that the Padres will soon be on the same level as the Dodgers and the Red Sox.
For now, this is nothing more than big talk. Promises of great things to come tend to be prevalent whenever new owners take over a team.
I'll say this, though: This offseason will present chances for the Padres to turn big talk into big signings.
Hannah Foslien/Getty Images
You get the sense that the Mariners are still regarded as a joke team in some circles, but it's past time for people to start taking them seriously. They've been one of the best teams in baseball since the All-Star break, and they have a ton of young talent that is going to come together in the very near future.
And of course, they have Felix Hernandez, who isn't going anywhere for the next two seasons. He loves it in Seattle, and he told The Seattle Times this summer that helping the Mariners win the World Series is his primary goal.
The Mariners are trending in the right direction, but they have a ways to go before they're a World Series-caliber club. The only way they're going to get there any quicker is by spending money on free agents.
And that's a tricky proposition seeing as how the Mariners haven't done so well in free agency over the years. Richie Sexson and Adrian Beltre were both busts for them, and Chone Figgins' contract is an absolute disaster.
The bright side is that the Mariners can be rid of Figgins' contract as soon as next offseason. They could also be free of Franklin Gutierrez next offseason. If both of them are cut loose, the Mariners will have an extra $16 million lying around.
In the short term, they have just over $40 million in salaries committed for the 2013 season, and roughly half of that is going towards Hernandez. From the looks of things, the plan is to keep him and hope that the team's young players can establish themselves before King Felix decides that Seattle is a lost cause and bolts for greener pastures following the 2014 season.
Investing in the team would be a way from the Mariners to throw Hernandez a bone, not to mention the team's fanbase (which is still strong).
This doesn't mean the Mariners have to go sign Josh Hamilton. An extra starting pitcher and maybe a serviceable first baseman (i.e. a line-drive hitting defensive wiz like James Loney) would do just fine.
That's all the Mariners really need. They're that close to turning the corner.
If you want to talk baseball, hit me up on Twitter.