2014 MLB Free Agency: Every MLB Team's Biggest Sleeper Target

Ely SussmanCorrespondent INovember 11, 2013

2014 MLB Free Agency: Every MLB Team's Biggest Sleeper Target

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    Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY

    It's downright impossible to predict where the top MLB free agents will sign. That's because only a limited number of teams confess their interest or "make sense" for a certain player, based upon roster composition and financial resources.

    In this article, we attempt to anticipate the inevitable surprises of the offseason by linking each franchise to a prominent sleeper target.

    Bleacher Report's free-agent tracker is your go-to destination for the obvious connections; this task, however, requires us to read between the insider tweets. Shock would reverberate across the baseball industry if these pairings were consummated, but there's rationale behind them all.

     

    Note: Some players appear multiple times. All statistics provided by Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs, unless otherwise noted.

Arizona Diamondbacks: Josh Johnson

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    The Arizona Diamondbacks do not expect to be active in free agency, as the vast majority of their 2013 team is under control for another year.

    That doesn't mean their roster will remain intact, however.

    The D-Backs employ plenty of major-league starting pitchers, but none with true ace potential. This tweet from ESPN's Buster Olney about Arizona's ongoing efforts to acquire Jeff Samardzija from the Chicago Cubs reveals the club's underlying dissatisfaction with its rotation.

    Taking a flier on Josh Johnson assumes that the front office couldn't find a reasonable blockbuster trade. The right-hander dominated in his only two career starts at Chase Field, and despite his All-Star potential, a gruesome 6.20 ERA last season will force him to accept a steep discount this winter.

    The Toronto Blue Jays did not extend a qualifying offer to Johnson, so the D-Backs can sign him without losing a future draft pick.

Atlanta Braves: Bartolo Colon

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    There's just too much competition for the Atlanta Braves to re-sign Tim Hudson. 

    David O'Brien of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports that the modest contract the team has offered him was "worth far less than what he made last season." That isn't going to get it done when one-third of the league is pursuing Hudson, and Jeff Passan of Yahoo! Sports tweets that he's in line for a hefty multi-year deal.

    Bartolo Colon would be a fine candidate to consume those lost innings.

    His advanced age and involvement in the Biogenesis scandal have executives "running in the other direction," explains Buster Olney. That's despite completing a fantastic 2013 campaign: 2.65 ERA, 1.17 WHIP, 4.03 K/BB in 190.1 IP.

    Regardless, here's what Steve Adams of MLB Trade Rumors has to say about his intangibles:

    Colon comes with a bit of baggage in the form of his PED suspension, but that hasn't changed how he's viewed by teammates, managers and front office officials. Colon is very well-regarded and well-liked in clubhouses, as evidenced by the fact that Oakland welcomed him back with open arms following last year's suspension.

    He fits well into the "lone veteran in the rotation" role that Hudson embraced for portions of his Braves tenure.

Baltimore Orioles: Ubaldo Jimenez

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    The Baltimore Orioles will be eternally stuck in pseudo-contender mode if they don't make a substantial investment in their starting rotation.

    Bleacher Report's Drew Reynolds understands that. The issue is that, according to Roch Kubatko of MASNsports.com, decision-maker Dan Duquette "won't spend big on it or trade away their top prospects for it."

    Masahiro Tanaka is clearly out of Baltimore's price range. The same is certainly true of Ervin Santana, who Ken Rosenthal of FOX Sports says will aim for $100 million.

    However, once you get further down the list to Ubaldo Jimenez, we cannot automatically scoff at the possibility. Nick Cafardo of The Boston Globe is convinced that the O's will pursue the erratic 29-year-old.

    Excluding the train wreck that was his 2012 season, Jimenez has posted respectable ground-ball rates. That makes him a better fit for Camden Yards than Santana, Dan Haren or Bronson Arroyo. His strikeout ability is also coveted by a team that was overly reliant on its defense last year.

Boston Red Sox: Jarrod Saltalamacchia

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    Multiple reports suggest that the Boston Red Sox could scoop up both Brian McCann and Carlos Beltran during the offseason. George A. King III of The New York Post even suggests that they're early favorites for the latter.

    Meanwhile, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, their primary catcher since 2011, is much closer to his physical prime and expected to cost much less annually on his next contract.

    Salty went on The Bradford Files after not receiving a qualifying offer from the Red Sox, and still expressed a desire to return to Beantown. Shortly after that, MLB Trade Rumors' Tim Dierkes learned that the team contacted him about the opportunity to re-sign.

    Boston knows that a catching tandem of David Ross and Ryan Lavarnway will impede its chances of repeating as world champs. Don't rule out a new, long-term deal with their free-agent switch-hitter.

Chicago Cubs: Dan Haren

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    Chicago Cubs fans cannot be pleased with this brief, deflating interview that Gordon Wittenmyer of The Chicago Sun-Times conducted with team president Theo Epstein:

    "We’re realistic about where we are and the need to get better,” team president Theo Epstein said as he prepared for this week’s general managers meetings, the traditional opening of the hot-stove league. "But we’re also realistic about where we are and about where the market is likely to go."

    Wittenmyer translates this vague baseball executive dialect into English:

    In other words, with the managerial hiring complete and coaching interviews on the front burner, the Cubs might not be making any exciting acquisitions this winter. Until the club sees significant revenue increases from planned stadium changes and what they expect will be a better local TV deal, the competitive focus remains on the top prospects and a vision for a return to big-market-spending status at some point in the future.

    Although it's shaping up to be a quiet winter by North Side standards, bet on the Cubs investing in a veteran pitcher. If they're as serious about trading Jeff Samardzija as Buster Olney leads us to believe, then a reputable outsider will need to come in and pick up most of those innings.

    Dan Haren finished 2013 with a flourish upon returning from the disabled list. You may also recall that the Cubs nearly traded for Haren a year ago in exchange for Carlos Marmol.

    He's once again a buy-low candidate.

Chicago White Sox: Jesse Crain

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    Putting together this slide was a challenge, as Chicago White Sox general manager Rick Hahn seems disinterested with the free-agent market, MLB.com's Scott Merkin reports.

    Paul Konerko is the only available player that the team has been linked to. The longtime captain appears headed for retirement, but if he continues his career, it's bound to happen in the Windy City.

    Steve Adams of MLB Trade Rumors envisions reliever Jesse Crain settling for a one-year, incentive-laden deal to boost his value, then searching for something more substantial after the 2014 season.

    Pennant contention typically isn't a high priority for players coming off injuries. So long as that applies to Crain, he could definitely return to the White Sox bullpen. After all, he chose to sign with them during his previous free-agent experience.

Cincinnati Reds: Omar Infante

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    Shortly after their postseason elimination, the Cincinnati Reds began shopping longtime second baseman Brandon Phillips. His hefty contract, declining production and distracting comments all factor in to the front office's desire to move him.

    Not only is he on the trading block, but an MLB executive assures Jeff Passan of Yahoo! Sports that Phillips will definitely depart this offseason.

    That would leave a vacancy at second base and a substantial amount of cash to allocate toward a replacement. Although bidding for Robinson Cano isn't realistic for the Reds, the next-best free-agent second baseman, Omar Infante, seems like an ideal fit.

    Infante thoroughly out-hit Phillips in 2013—117 wRC+ to 91 wRC+—and boasts a near-identical batting line over the past three years. A high contact rate protects him from prolonged slumps. That's particularly important for a Cincinnati team that is coming off of a campaign where the lineup posted dramatic platoon splits and all too frequently finished games with one run or fewer.

Cleveland Indians: Ubaldo Jimenez

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    Cleveland Indians general manager Chris Antonetti is trying to get his fans excited about the club's internal rotation options, as noted by Paul Hoynes of The Plain Dealer.

    I am not sure if that's working, though.

    Returning to the postseason in 2014 is going to be a pipe dream if your No. 4 and No. 5 starters are Carlos Carrasco—5.29 earned run average and .297 batting average against in 48 MLB appearances—and Josh Tomlin, who pitched only two major-league innings last season and performed below replacement level the year before.

    Antonetti will almost certainly ink a veteran between now and opening day, but of course, he'll need more than Freddy Garcia or Barry Zito to significantly improve the staff.

    Ubaldo Jimenez remains an unlikely-yet-plausible target, despite the consensus that he'll reject Cleveland's qualifying offer.

    The attachment to draft-pick compensation can be a strong deterrent for teams pursuing good-but-not-great free agents. There's a chance that Jimenez doesn't receive acceptable offers and settles for a one-year pillow contract with the Tribe before testing the waters again next winter.

Colorado Rockies: Brian McCann

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    Wooing Brian McCann would require the largest contract that the Colorado Rockies have offered to any free agent since Mike Hampton in December 2000. In terms of average annual value, the 29-year-old will likely demand even more than Hampton did.

    Although such heavy spending from this franchise would come as a huge surprise, it's already been made clear that the Rockies want a veteran catcher. Troy Renck of The Denver Post suggests that current backstop Wilin Rosario can succeed the retired Todd Helton at first base, or move to right field with Michael Cuddyer occupying first, to make it work.

    Jon Heyman of CBS Sports identifies Colorado as one of McCann's six known suitors (there are reportedly nine in total).

Detroit Tigers: Jacoby Ellsbury

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    The likely departure of Omar Infante in free agency and the recent trend of huge offseason spending from the Detroit Tigers make Robinson Cano an obvious target for the team.

    Jacoby Ellsbury, on the other hand, is better suited for the "sleeper" label.

    Bringing him in to patrol center field would mean shifting or trading Austin Jackson, who has quietly emerged as one of baseball's top 10 players at the position. Zachary D. Rymer slots him seventh in Bleacher Report's MLB 500 series.

    It's also hard to imagine the Tigers out-bidding the Philadelphia Phillies or Seattle Mariners. Both non-playoff teams are more than desperate for an elite offensive player, especially one that can bolster their outfield.

    On the other hand, the relationship between agent Scott Boras and Detroit owner Mike Ilitch led to Prince Fielder's enormous contract not so long ago. Also, the search for a competent closer may not cost Ilitch as much as initially expected considering how many experienced ninth-inning options have reached free agency (more supply than demand).

Houston Astros: Shin-Soo Choo

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    The Houston Astros set a few humiliating franchise records in 2013, such as the most single-season losses (111) and the worst run differential (minus-238).

    Of course, that's because they weren't really trying. Patiently waiting for stars to emerge from their deep farm system, the Astros barely spent a dime on veteran talent last offseason, and most of the experienced players that they signed were released or traded during the summer.

    That culture is expected to gradually change, though, according to Jon Heyman.

    Although Houston has no intention of splurging in free agency, the club prioritizes on-base skills. No available player is better than Choo in that regard, who batted .285/.423/.462 with 112 free passes last year.

Kansas City Royals: Ricky Nolasco

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    The Kansas City Royals will absolutely prioritize starting pitching again this offseason with Bruce Chen and Ervin Santana becoming free agents.

    However, expect general manager Dayton Moore to go about the search differently than he did last winter, as they won't sacrifice more top prospects in a trade for another James Shields-caliber pitcher.

    Santana appears to be a completely unrealistic target. Ken Rosenthal of FOX Sports reports that he is seeking a mega-deal in the neighborhood of five years, $100 million, while Moore admits that payroll will remain "about the same" in 2014, according to Bob Dutton of The Kansas City Star.

    Rosenthal goes on to say that fellow right-hander Ricky Nolasco is aiming for $80 million spread over five years. That's much more manageable, especially if Kansas City unloads Billy Butler's contract, as ESPN's Buster Olney tweeted that they might.

    One key to K.C.'s future success will be keeping the dominant bullpen arms fresh. Nolasco can certainly contribute to that as someone who averaged nearly 200 innings per season from 2011-2013.

Los Angeles Angels: Masahiro Tanaka

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    Humongous free-agent contracts that the Los Angeles Angels recently negotiated with Josh Hamilton and Albert Pujols have started off horribly.

    With that said, they shouldn't serve as deterrents as the Halos consider Masahiro Tanaka.

    Not only does he satisfy a completely different role, but he's at a much earlier stage of his career. Tanaka just turned 25 years old, so there's little reason to expect any deterioration in terms of his pure stuff or durability.

    Coming from overseas, the Japanese right-hander was not eligible to receive an MLB qualifying offer, and therefore, signing him will not require L.A. to surrender a future draft pick.

    Although Jeff Passan reports that Tanaka's price tag will shatter the previous record for an international player, the majority of that comes from the posting fee paid to his former team. Only his actual contract—the annual average value of which should wind up significantly less than those of elite domestic free agents—will count against the Angels payroll. That's an important consideration for a franchise pushing dangerously close to the luxury-tax threshold.

    Once you get past Jered Weaver and C.J. Wilson, the Angels rotation is very shaky. Adding Tanaka would not only provide much-needed depth; it would keep him away from the crosstown Los Angeles Dodgers, who reportedly have serious interest in him too, per Peter Gammons.

Los Angeles Dodgers: Jacoby Ellsbury

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    The Los Angeles Dodgers already seemingly have a surplus of starting outfielders. That's why Ken Rosenthal reports that they're willing to trade Carl Crawford, Andre Ethier or Matt Kemp.

    The only movable member of that trio appears to be Ethier, who has the most reasonable contract and most consistent track record.

    So let's assume that the Dodgers find somewhere to ship him to. That would leave them dependent upon two injury-prone outfielders and a third who hasn't yet experienced a full season in the majors (Yasiel Puig).

    Signing Jacoby Ellsbury to be their semi-regular center fielder would obviously give the Dodgers some peace of mind. The spending patterns we've witnessed from the club's new ownership suggest that meeting Scott Boras' lofty contract demands won't be an obstacle.

Miami Marlins: Juan Uribe

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    Every reputable MLB free agent is an unlikely target for the Miami Marlins. They're trusting their deep farm system and are focused on the future rather than contending in 2014.

    Within reason, however, the Fish can pursue available veterans to ensure that this upcoming season isn't another 100-loss embarrassment. Team president Michael Hill says that the payroll will fall within a certain range, with the ultimate total depending on "if there is something that we feel is mandatory for this club," according to Joe Frisaro of MLB.com.

    Upgrading at third base is about as "mandatory" as anything could possibly be.

    The two players primarily used at the hot corner by Miami in 2013, Ed Lucas and Placido Polanco, combined for only five home runs in 800 plate appearances. Contrast that with Juan Uribe, who went deep three times on his own for the Los Angeles Dodgers on Sept. 9.

    Bringing in legitimate lineup protection might be the best way to improve the mood of disgruntled outfielder Giancarlo Stanton. Investing a couple of dollars and years in Uribe would be worthwhile if it convinces Stanton to consent to a long-term contract extension.

Milwaukee Brewers: Grant Balfour

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    Despite very little spending money, the Milwaukee Brewers will feel pressured to bolster the back end of their bullpen, writes MLB.com Adam McCalvy. The club traded John Axford and Francisco Rodriguez midway through the 2013 campaign, and Mike Gonzalez is likely to depart as a free agent.

    Joe Nathan appears to be too pricey, but every other free-agent closer deserves Milwaukee's consideration.

    Among those second-tier options, Grant Balfour makes the most sense. He's remarkably consistent and is coming off four-straight seasons of a sub-2.60 ERA and a 2.50 strikeout-to-walk ratio.

    The fiery right-hander may also have an affinity for the Brewers. Balfour missed the entire 2005 season with injury, then struggled mightily in the Cincinnati Reds organization in 2006. Milwaukee signed him the following year, when few other teams would, and allowed him to make a long-awaited return to the majors.

Minnesota Twins: Ervin Santana

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    Dating back to 2011, the Minnesota Twins have been the least competitive team in the American League. Their passive approach toward acquiring pitching via free agency is largely to blame.

    Perhaps general manager Terry Ryan has learned his lesson. In an interview with Darren Wolfson of 1500 ESPN, he admitted that Minnesota's rotation was unacceptable in 2013, particularly because the starters were "not getting deep enough into games."

    That's where Ervin Santana comes in. As Steve Adams of MLB Trade Rumors observed, the lanky right-hander has averaged about 6.5 innings per outing since 2011, the most of any notable free agent. He has fared extraordinarily well against the Twins in that span (4-0, 2.17 ERA, 28 K in 37.1 IP).

    Minnesota has never spent more than $21 million on a free agent before. Although Santana is assured several times that amount, Wolfson tweets that the team is expressing interest.

New York Mets: Shin-Soo Choo

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    The New York Mets are glaringly vulnerable at the outfield corners. They dealt rebounding veteran Marlon Byrd in August and don't seem convinced that Lucas Duda's power can offset his dreadful defense.

    David Lennon of Newsday has tweeted that the Mets see Shin-Soo Choo as a potential solution. Club executives plan to meet with Scott Boras to discuss his contract expectations.

    The Mets set out last winter with some interest in bolstering their outfield. They ultimately passed on another Boras client, Michael Bourn, because signing him would have required them to surrender their 2013 first-round draft pick. No such deterrent this time, though, as New York's top 2014 selection is protected due to the fact that they finished with one of baseball's 10 worst records.

    Even so, Mike Puma of The New York Post reports that the Mets don't want to guarantee anything close to the $100-plus million that Boras intends to procure for Choo.

    Then again, general manager Sandy Alderson may loosen the grip on his wallet as the bidding heats up. New York received a hideous .233/.293/.315 batting line from the leadoff spot in 2013.

    For what it's worth, the Big Apple's metropolitan area has the second-largest Korean population in the U.S, as noted by Tyler Kepner of The New York Times. Choo might consider a lesser offer from the Mets if it brings him closer to his countrymen.

New York Yankees: Stephen Drew

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    "The Yankees remain committed to using [Derek Jeter] at shortstop," according to Andy McCullough of The Star-Ledger. They demonstrated this by inking him to a new $12-million contract.

    Jeter undoubtedly has excellent offensive potential. In 2012, his most recent full season, the longtime team captain led the majors in hits.

    However, even McCullough admits that his awful defense and recent rash of injuries could encourage the Yankees to consider alternatives for the left side of their infield.

    Stephen Drew offers a much more reliable throwing arm and superior range. Also, signing him would ensure that he doesn't return to the rival Boston Red Sox.

Oakland Athletics: Tim Hudson

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    We know how Billy Beane assembles his teams, and it usually doesn't involve eight-figure investments in elderly free agents.

    It's worth wondering, though, whether a familiar face will lead him to deviate from his frugal mindset.

    Courtesy of David O' Brien, we know that there's been contact between Tim Hudson and the Oakland Athletics, who he signed with out of high school and pitched for through the 2004 season. Even at age 38, he can be trusted to pound the strike zone and frequently generate ground balls.

    Joe Stiglich of CSNBayArea.com notes that the A's could fit Hudson within their payroll constraints by trading Brett Anderson, whose $8-million club option has been exercised.

Philadelphia Phillies: Matt Garza

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    You can bet that Scott Freedman—who the Philadelphia Phillies are borrowing this winter to help them grasp advanced metrics, according to Todd Zolecki of MLB.com—is going to push for them to pursue Matt Garza.

    Freedman will tell the front office to focus on Garza's steady results in categories like Fielder Independent Pitching and strikeout-to-walk ratio. He'll also explain that Ervin Santana's solid rebound in 2013 was somewhat distorted by an outstanding Kansas City Royals defense.

    Regardless of this nerd's input, general manager Ruben Amaro, Jr. understands that he must add rotation depth. Ken Rosenthal's discovery that Garza has completely overcome past elbow issues should further convince Amaro to direct his attention toward the coveted right-hander.

Pittsburgh Pirates: Nelson Cruz

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    The Pittsburgh Pirates were basically average in 2013 with a .395 slugging percentage from their right-handed batters.

    Of course, it's scary to think how far that number would tumble if you removed NL MVP candidate Andrew McCutchen. The next-best offensive player that the Bucs utilized from that side of the plate was Marlon Byrd, and he's going to be a popular target in free agency.

    Pittsburgh must make a serious effort to add power and deepen its lineup this offseason, because the starting rotation is likely headed for regression.

    General manager Neal Huntington told David Todd of ESPN 970 that the cost of extending A.J. Burnett a qualifying offer was prohibitive. "We felt that $14 million in one player was a bit steep for us," he admitted. The veteran right-hander has been considering retirement.

    Then there's Francisco Liriano. Although the Bucs should benefit from keeping him in their rotation, it's unrealistic to ask the NL Comeback Player of the Year to replicate his 0.50 HR/9 while limiting left-handed batters to a .130/.175/.146 batting line again.

    Like Burnett, Nelson Cruz is in line for a salary akin to the qualifying offer, but he meets such an important need for the Pirates. Moreover, his presence would allow them to trade or non-tender Garrett Jones prior to his next trip through arbitration.

San Diego Padres: Dan Haren

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    The San Diego Padres actually appeared to be the most likely landing spot for Dan Haren last year. Not only did the Southern California native express a preference for pitching on the West Coast, but the Padres seemingly had the opportunity to buy low on a former rotation leader.

    Ultimately, they passed on Haren due to the injury concerns. Plus, widespread interest put him in the position to demand a hearty, eight-figure salary.

    MLB.com's Corey Brock doubts that San Diego will invest much in free-agent starters this offseason considering the club's abundance of major league-ready prospects.

    But they'd be wise to make an exception for Haren. He's been undone by a bloated home run rate during the past two seasons, an issue which shouldn't carry over to cavernous Petco Park.

San Francisco Giants: Brian McCann

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    "If someone was to guess which team might be the least likely to land Brian McCann," Jon Heyman wrote last month, "the [San Francisco] Giants might quickly come to mind."

    Yet he acknowledges that the team has interest in him.

    San Francisco's open-mindedness is certainly a by-product of Buster Posey's miserable second half. The then-reigning National League MVP contributed only one home run during the final 10 weeks of the summer (.624 OPS).

    The fact that this collapse was preceded by Posey's first full major-league season behind the plate likely has the Giants contemplating a shift to first base. They owe him another $159 million and cannot validate it with anything less than elite offensive production.

    Meanwhile, McCann has proven himself capable of providing power while enduring the physical challenges of catching. He has launched at least 18 home runs in each of his eight full MLB campaigns.

    The last crucial step of this plan would be moving Brandon Belt to left field, but according to Hank Schulman of The San Francisco Chronicle, he doesn't need any convincing:

    I really do believe I can be an above-average outfielder. I've got the speed to be out there. I've got to work on it, just like I've worked hard at first base over the last couple of years...I'm definitely open to it. I think you could stick me anywhere out there.

Seattle Mariners: Mike Napoli

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    It's no secret that the Seattle Mariners will hunt for impact bats this offseason. They finished only 12th in the American League in runs scored last summer after annually ranking dead-last in this category from 2009-2012.

    Seattle clearly has the money and the motivation to go after Jacoby Ellsbury and Shin-Soo Choo. Ken Rosenthal even confirms their interest.

    In that same update, however, Rosenthal dismisses the possibility of the M's getting Mike Napoli.

    Let's poke holes in that assumption.

    For one, the Mariners have a protected first-round draft pick following their frustrating 71-91 campaign. As a result, they won't be as severely penalized for signing Napoli as will most of his other non-Boston Red Sox suitors.

    Secondly, general manager Jack Zduriencik went hard after Napoli in free agency after the 2012 season, Geoff Baker of The Seattle Times reports. And it's safe to say that coming off a .482 slugging percentage and career-high in plate appearances while excelling defensively at first base only makes him more desirable.

    Arbitration-eligible Justin Smoak has been their primary first baseman for the past several seasons, but at a time when so few power hitters are available, he appears to be very movable. During 2012-2013 road games, Smoak launched 17.6 percent of all fly balls into the seats. That's a figure comparable to Andrew McCutchen, Hunter Pence and Ryan Zimmerman.

St. Louis Cardinals: Stephen Drew

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    St. Louis Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak admitted to Jim Bowden of The Front Office that he'd prefer to trade for the franchise's shortstop of the future. The alternatives include sticking with Pete Kozma at the position or overpaying for a free-agent solution.

    Unfortunately for Mozeliak, there aren't many available players who satisfy his "young controllable" criteria while serving as a significant upgrade over Kozma. Jean Segura and Andrelton Simmons will clearly stay put, and the Kansas City Royals haven't shown any willingness to shop Alcides Escobar, especially coming off a nightmarish year at the plate.

    The two most logical fits would be Elvis Andrus and Starlin Castro. Of course, the former has a monstrous contract that guarantees nearly $15 million per year beginning in 2015. Castro's extension would consume much less of the Cardinals' mid-market payroll, but it's unclear whether the Chicago Cubs feel comfortable trading a potential perennial All-Star within their own division.

    Should St. Louis whiff on all of its trade targets, why not pursue the slick fielder who helped deprive them of a World Series championship?

    Sacrificing a 2014 first-round draft pick to complete the signing of Stephen Drew shouldn't serve as a major deterrent. The Cardinals will select toward the end of that round anyway coming off a National League pennant. It's unlikely that the player chosen with that pick will pan out as well as Lance Lynn, Shelby Miller or whichever MLB-ready pitcher they would have to exchange for a starting shortstop.

Tampa Bay Rays: Josh Johnson

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    The Tampa Bay Rays typically steer clear of free-agent starting pitchers, but they're going to face extremely long odds of contending in 2014 if they don't gamble on one this winter.

    David Price is almost certainly going to be traded to a team that can afford his final two arbitration-eligible years. Even Price himself senses the transition, Roger Mooney of The Tampa Tribune reports. Although the Rays can expect an extraordinary package in return, it's bound to contain inexperienced players who are future sources of production, rather than immediate contributors.

    Josh Johnson makes a lot of sense as a rotation stop gap in Tampa Bay because of his preference for a short-term commitment. Agent Matt Sosnick insists that the powerful right-hander aims to "rebuild his value" this coming year before exploring the open market again, according to Parker Hageman of The Star Tribune.

    The 2010 National League leader in ERA is the quintessential low-risk, high-reward player, and the Rays haven't been shy about pursuing those sort of guys in the past.

Texas Rangers: Carlos Beltran

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    You can forget about the Texas Rangers snagging either Jacoby Ellsbury or Shin-Soo Choo.

    General manager Jon Daniels has been honest about the fact that payroll will decrease in 2014, following a year in which Rangers attendance dipped, Evan Grant of The Dallas Morning News reports. Coming off monster seasons at ages 29 and 30, respectively, Ellsbury and Choo should ultimately sign for deals that guarantee each of them $17-22 million annually.

    Catcher/designated Brian McCann occupies the tier below them. The mutual interest between he and Texas has been well-documented, and Evan Grant actually believes that retaining Geovany Soto makes the Rangers more likely to sign McCann. He's the club's top priority and the antithesis of a sleeper.

    However, let's not rule out the possibility of Daniels pursuing an All-Star-caliber outfielder in addition to McCann.

    Ken Rosenthal writes that the Rangers will inevitably trade Elvis Andrus or Ian Kinsler to loosen up the logjam in their middle infield. They would save big bucks in either scenario, as both have agreed to generous, long-term contract extensions.

    Meanwhile, Tim Brown of Yahoo! Sports reports that the third-best free-agent outfielder, Carlos Beltran, has two top priorities: maximizing contract length and contending for a championship. Those preferences ought to keep the average annual value of his next deal reasonable enough to fit within the Rangers' budget.

Toronto Blue Jays: Robinson Cano

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    Alex Anthopoulos pushed all his chips to the middle of the table last year.

    The Toronto Blue Jays general manager extended Edwin Encarnacion, traded his top prospect for R.A. Dickey and took on the back-loaded contracts of Mark Buehrle and Jose Reyes. He offered an assurance that the Blue Jays would either end their brutal postseason drought, or else he'd accept responsibility.

    But the first year of this "Dream Team" revealed glaring roster holes. Toronto second basemen, for example, combined for an anemic .556 OPS.

    Anthopoulos thankfully still has the ability to maneuver. Josh Johnson's $13.75 million salary is off the books, and Nick Cafardo suggests that Adam Lind is movable coming off a strong statistical season. That would spare Toronto from paying him $7 million in 2014.

    Cafardo also emphasizes that the Blue Jays need an "attitude adjustment" to reach their potential.

    Who better to help with that than Robinson Cano? Although he gets ripped for lacking hustle, such as by Bill Baer of NBC Sports, he has also shown a fiery desire to compete by averaging 160 games per season since 2007. Cano was an integral member of the 2009 world champion New York Yankees, not to mention the fact that he has been their best player throughout this decade.

    For only a couple hundred million dollars, the 31-year-old Jay-Z client would instantly remedy this lineup's biggest weakness.

Washington Nationals: Jacoby Ellsbury

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    The Washington Nationals received widespread praise for their Denard Span trade last offseason (including from FanGraphs' Dave Cameron). For the price of only one prospect (right-hander Alex Meyer), they acquired an above-average center fielder who was under club control through 2015 under the terms of an extremely team-friendly contract.

    It turns out the Nats are ready to abort their relationship with Span after only one inconsistent summer, however. Jon Heyman reports that Washington is accepting trade offers for the former first-round draft pick, coming off a year in which he batted .279/.327/.380 and stole 20 bases.

    As Heyman shared with us previously, Jacoby Ellsbury was considered a possible fit on the Nationals after they failed to meet their offensive goals in 2013. The franchise also has ample experience negotiating with agent Scott Boras (Danny Espinosa, Bryce Harper, Rafael Soriano and Stephen Strasburg are all Boras clients).

    There's still some skepticism about whether Washington wants to make hefty the financial commitment necessary to obtain Ellsbury, as that will endanger the team's chances of locking up its terrific starting rotation.

    Regardless, this isn't about forecasting Ellsbury's landing spot; we're just acknowledging that the nation's capital remains in play.

     

    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.