Dark-Horse MLB Teams That Could Make a Huge Splash at Winter Meetings

Karl Buscheck@@KarlBuscheckContributor IIIDecember 4, 2013

Dark-Horse MLB Teams That Could Make a Huge Splash at Winter Meetings

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    At the ridiculously fast rate at which MLB general managers are pulling off trades and signing free agents, there won't be any deals left to be made by the time the MLB Winter Meetings roll around next week.

    The meetings, which will take place in Orlando, Fla., from December 9-12, generally mark the high point in offseason activity. Oftentimes, it's the deals nobody sees coming that make the biggest waves.

    So, just which MLB club will swing the next surprise move this offseason? Here's a look at a handful of dark-horse MLB teams that could make a huge splash at the Winter Meetings.

Seattle Mariners

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    The Seattle Mariners have been linked with just about every big-name free-agent and trade target this offseason.

    As Greg Johns of MLB.com notes, that list includes Nelson Cruz, Robinson Cano, Matt Kemp, Matt Garza, Ervin Santana and Ubaldo Jimenez. According to Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports, Shin-Soo Choo and Mike Napoli are also possible options for the Mariners. 

    As Rosenthal explains, GM Jack Zduriencik faces a "make-or-break season" in 2014. That sets up the perfect situation for the Mariners to make some bold moves, as per Rosenthal:

    Two sources used the same word to describe the Mariners' current approach—"desperate." Desperate teams shift course. Desperate teams spend money. Desperate teams are capable of just about anything.

    Rosenthal's sources are absolutely correct. The Mariners are desperate—possibly even desperate enough to take on Kemp's mega deal or to make Cruz extremely rich. It's not often that prudent decisions arise out of desperate situations. Nonetheless, the Mariners are in prime position to make a totally unexpected move. 

San Francisco Giants

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    The San Francisco Giants' front office began building its 2014 team before the 2013 season was even over.

    Hunter Pence received a contract extension at the end of September. The team also has already re-signed Javier Lopez, Ryan Vogelsong and Tim Lincecum, while adding veteran starter Tim Hudson to the rotation. Despite the fast start to the offseason, the Giants are still clearly short at impact bat.

    In particular, left field was a gaping hole for the Giants in 2013. According to Chris Haft of MLB.com, the team's left-fielders produced just five home runs in 2013, which was the lowest total in all of baseball. The group also came in last in runs and OPS.

    On whether the club would pursue one of the premier outfielders on the market like Choo, GM Brian Sabean told Haft, "It's pretty doubtful." However, Sabean did add, "We have plenty of money to spend."

    Doling out a multi-year deal to the likes of Choo or Cruz would leave the Giants open to some major long-term exposure. However, the Giants will absolutely need to shell out some cash if they are going to keep pace with the heavy-spending Los Angeles Dodgers. 

    That set of circumstances makes the Giants serious contenders to pull off a dark-horse move at the Winter Meetings.

Kansas City Royals

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    Coming off the club's first winning season since 2003, the Kansas City Royals are ready to take the next step and prepared to open up the checkbook to do so. 

    Having already signed free-agent starter Jason Vargas, the next move could be to add an impact bat. According to Kevin Kernan of the NY Post, Beltran has traveled to Kansas City to discuss a potential reunion with his first MLB team. Buster Olney of ESPN tweets that there is a growing consensus that Beltran could end up with the Royals in 2014:

    Other teams becoming convinced that Carlos Beltran is going to land with the Royals, on a deal of 3/$48 million.

    — Buster Olney (@Buster_ESPN) December 3, 2013

    If the Royals decide that price is too steep, or if they get outbid by another team, there are still a variety of options to consider. The team could make a move for a veteran like Curtis Granderson or even opt for the trade route. GM Dayton Moore told Bob Dutton of the Kansas City Star that a trade could definitely take place:

    I think there will be some trade possibilities at the Winter Meetings. We'll be aggressive with our farm system with deals that make sense. We do feel like we've got some excess in some areas.

    That sounds like a GM who is ready to move some prospects. Even if the club misses out on Beltran, there's an excellent chance the small-market Royals could play a dark-horse role at the upcoming Winter Meetings. 

Washington Nationals

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    As Adam Kilgore of the Washington Post remarks, the idea of the Washington Nationals signing Cano isn't as absurd as it initially seems:

    Cano will cost a massive sum, and the Nationals have massive sums. The Nationals can win now, and Cano would help them do that in the near-term more than any other available player. They could do it, and it would make them a better team. And isn't that the point?

    It's a compelling line of reasoning from Kilgore. The most obvious objection, of course, is that Cano's "near-term" help would come at far too great of a long-term cost. It seems highly likely that will be the decision the Nationals' front office arrives at in regards to Cano. Still, Kilgore's logic should apply to any of the other top names on the trade and free-agent markets. 

    As Kilgore makes clear, Washington is ready to win now. That consideration coupled with ownership's ability to spend money, sets up the Nationals to be the dark-horse bidder on any number of top targets at the Winter Meetings.

Detroit Tigers

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    Something is up in Detroit.

    While the swap of Prince Fielder for Ian Kinsler saved the Detroit Tigers a large chunk of change in the long-term, it definitely didn't make the club better in 2014. 

    Of course, that's only because GM Dave Dombrowski is far from done making deals this offseason. As Richard Justice of MLB.com points out, the Fielder-for-Kinsler trade was likely only the precursor to yet another major move.

    Justice suggests the names of Choo, Beltran and Granderson as potential targets. In Justice's estimation, landing any one of those three would earn the Tigers the "Best Team in Baseball designation" entering 2014.

    If the goal is to be the best, then why not go for the best free agent in Cano? Sure, the Tigers already have Kinsler, but they could shift him to left field or even send him to a new team. There's also the exorbitant price tag to consider. As Buster Olney of ESPN (subscription required) notes, though, that's hardly deterred the Tigers in the past:

    ...Dombrowski showed that he could dump a whopper contract when he moved Fielder. It's always possible for [Tigers' owner Mike] Ilitch to sign a player now, with the expectation that a trade will be needed down the road.

    Cano to the Tigers is the longest of shots. Then again, that's exactly what makes the Tigers a dark horse in the pursuit. 



    If you want to talk baseball find me on Twitter @KarlBuscheck.