The Chicago Cubs seem poised to make their biggest acquisition(s) of the Theo Epstein era.
MLB free agency is usually frustrating to follow for fans of low-spending teams.
Thankfully, the class of 2014 is unique. This offseason, many of the top available players could wind up committing to under-the-radar organizations.
You'll see the New York Yankees attempt to use a ladder of cash to climb back to the playoffs, and the Detroit Tigers and Los Angeles Dodgers plan to overpay to fill their roster holes (again). The rich keep getting richer.
With that said, keep a close watch on these five struggling teams who might dig uncharacteristically deep into their pockets to improve.
*Stats provided by Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise specified.
Future Rockies first baseman Mike Napoli?
The Colorado Rockies don't typically go after pricey free agents, but Troy Renck of The Denver Post wonders if they're breaking from tradition.
The club submitted a $63 million bid for Jose Dariel Abreu that nearly reeled in the power-hitting Cuban defector. Abreu has since signed with the Chicago White Sox, while the Rockies continue to search for Todd Helton's successor at first base.
Mike Napoli would seem to be the next-best option. The 32-year-old consistently posts high home run totals and played brilliant defense at first in his only full season at the position. (Plus, fans might travel from every corner of Colorado to witness his prolific beard up close.)
Moreover, the fit makes some sense from Napoli's perspective. He's been diagnosed with avascular necrosis (AVN), a degenerative hip condition. Who better to help him manage AVN than the Rockies training staff? They kept Helton upright in 2012 as the former All-Star battled serious hip issues of his own.
On the other hand, the front office could focus on bolstering the back end of Colorado's bullpen. Declining the 2014 option on Rafael Betancourt's contract leaves the Rockies closer-less.
Targeting a trustworthy bullpen arm like Joe Nathan or Joaquin Benoit seems plausible.
Future Mariners center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury?
Last offseason, the Seattle Mariners realized they needed a more productive outfield. That's why the club entered deep trade negotiations with the Arizona Diamondbacks about Justin Upton and ultimately landed Michael Morse in a three-way deal.
Now, the M's are back at square one.
Morse battled injuries and posted an underwhelming .693 OPS prior to being dealt again during the summer. They've also given up on center fielder Franklin Gutierrez by declining his 2014 option.
Those departures leave Seattle with an enormous amount of spending money. The only substantial contracts on next summer's payroll belong to Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma, per Baseball Prospectus. Moreover, as Aaron Steen of MLB Trade Rumors illustrates, the team's class of arbitration-eligible players is merely two-deep.
Once the managerial vacancy is filled, general manager Jack Zduriencik will almost certainly turn his attention to Jacoby Ellsbury.
The second-ranked player in this free-agent class batted leadoff for the world champion Boston Red Sox and led the majors in 2013 with 52 stolen bases. That's more than the entire Mariners roster! As if the fit weren't already apparent, Ellsbury is a native of the Pacific Northwest.
For what it's worth, Fox Sports insider Ken Rosenthal predicted Seattle would sign the 30-year-old to a long-term, nine-figure contract (h/t Dennis and Callahan).
Future Cubs ace Masahiro Tanaka?
The Chicago Cubs similarly might opt to participate in a bold transaction after failing to capitalize on their previous opportunity.
Bidding for Anibal Sanchez during the 2012-2013 offseason came down to Chicago and the Detroit Tigers, according to the CSNChicago.com recap. Theo Epstein and his staff maxed out at five years and $77.5 million. By upping their offer north of $80 million, the Cubs likely would've locked up a rising star who instead re-signed with Detroit and led the American League in earned run average last season.
Masahiro Tanaka is an even riskier target.
The 25-year-old has never thrown a pitch in American professional baseball. Coming from Japan, he is only obtainable through the posting system, which requires suitors to pay both the player and his former Japanese team.
However, Tanaka just completed an otherworldly campaign—24-0, 1.27 ERA, 183 K in 212.0 IP—that has scouts convinced of his potential to anchor an MLB rotation. After watching Jeff Samardzija regress and Edwin Jackson disappoint in his Cubs debut, the franchise should feel even more desperate for outside help than it did during the Sanchez negotiations.
Baseball Prospectus shows that Chicago only ranks 18th in 2014 payroll obligations, so there's certainly room for a large investment.
A reunion between outfielder Carlos Beltran and the Mets?
Finally, the New York Mets have rid themselves of Johan Santana and Jason Bay. After paying both exorbitant 2013 salaries and receiving no production, funds can be reallocated toward available players who will actually propel the team toward relevancy.
If Bring Back Beltran is any indication, time has partially healed the wound left by Carlos Beltran's infamous strikeout in Game 7 of the 2006 NLCS. The fans just want anybody in right field who can rival Marlon Byrd's 2013 production.
Although Citi Field generally cripples power hitters, the veteran outfielder owns a respectable .284/.364/.460 batting line in 116 career games at the ballpark. Beltran returned there for July's All-Star Game, and according to Mike Puma of the New York Post, he may have taken the time to "patch up old wounds" with Mets owner Jeff Wilpon.
Since the end of the regular season, Beltran has said that he'll enter free agency with an open mind. Even if the Mets aren't necessarily odds-on favorites for his services, they cannot be ruled out.
Future Astros right fielder Shin-Soo Choo?
Jon Heyman of CBS Sports provoked plenty of eyebrow raises when he reported the Houston Astros "may consider making a run" at outfielder Shin-Soo Choo.
Absurd as that suggestion seems at first glance, Heyman deserves the benefit of the doubt after years of success in this industry. So let's play along.
Houston funded its roster on a microscopic payroll in 2013 but emphasized a desire to increase spending exponentially as prospects matured. It's unrealistic to expect contention from the franchise next summer, so any long-term contract would presumably be back-loaded (committing now to paying big bucks later this decade).
Highly sought-after Scott Boras clients like Michael Bourn and Rafael Soriano didn't mind going that route last winter. Neither did Barry Zito when he received big bucks from the San Francisco Giants all those years ago. Choo will have the same voice in his ear during contract talks.
The Astros had extraordinary turnover in right field a year ago, giving 10 different players starts at the position. None of them performed significantly above replacement level.
Although it's difficult to imagine the Astros outspending the New York Yankees or Texas Rangers—other potential Choo suitors—the Korean star may cherish the opportunity to be the face of a franchise for the first time in his career.
Ely is a national MLB Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report and a sportscaster for 90.5 WVUM in Miami. He wants to make sweet, social love with all of you on Twitter.