Playing 'Contender or Pretender' with MLB's Most Active Offseason Teams
The heavy lifting of the MLB offseason is done, with just a few marquee names still available on the free-agent market.
While the trading block can always shake things up, most of the groundwork for the 2014 season has been laid. It's certainly been a busy one, with Jeff Passan of Yahoo! Sports reporting the league is on pace to spend more than $2 billion this winter.
Big-time players have also swapped jerseys since the World Series ended, creating a new, exciting landscape for baseball. Here's a look at the contenders and pretenders of baseball's most active offseason teams so far heading into 2014.
Contender: Texas Rangers
Texas general manager Jon Daniels has been feeling bullish this offseason, as the Rangers have been big players in both the free-agent and trade markets.
The acquisition of first baseman Prince Fielder from the Detroit Tigers for infielder Ian Kinsler and cash considerations still stands as the biggest trade of the winter so far.
Not only did the Rangers acquire a premier slugging left-handed hitter in his prime, but they opened up a spot for top prospect Jurickson Profar to play every day at second base. With Fielder's power bat and the jet stream out to right field at the Ballpark in Arlington, expect the 29-year-old first baseman to put up big numbers for the next few years with the Rangers.
In mid-December, Texas also broke out the checkbook to sign free-agent outfielder Shin-Soo Choo to a seven-year, $130 million deal. With some depth still needed in the rotation, don't be surprised if the Rangers sign another free-agent starter at some point before spring training, too.
As far as losses go, the Rangers certainly had some major ones but did a nice job of filling the holes.
Catcher A.J. Pierzynski left for the Boston Red Sox, but the team signed Geovany Soto and J.P. Arencibia to split duties behind home plate. Outfielder Nelson Cruz is still out testing the open market, and David Murphy signed with the Cleveland Indians, but the team signed Choo and acquired top Oakland A's prospect Michael Choice for Craig Gentry via trade. Closer Joe Nathan signed a two-year deal with the Detroit Tigers, but Neftali Feliz is expected to take over the role.
The Rangers finished 91-72 in 2013 and missed the playoffs after losing a play-in game to the Tampa Bay Rays. By Adding Choo and Fielder to a lineup that already features top hitters like Elvis Andrus and Adrian Beltre, Texas figures to add to its win total in 2014 and be one of the top teams in baseball. The rotation is already solid with Yu Darvish, Derek Holland and Martin Perez leading the way, while the team retained most of the bullpen, which finished fourth with a 2.91 ERA in 2013.
Pretender: Seattle Mariners
Robinson Cano has a beard now, so you know he doesn't play for the New York Yankees.
The second baseman entered the offseason as the prime candidate to receive the biggest contract for any free agent, and he's done that by securing a 10-year, $240 million deal from the Seattle Mariners. Now that he's in the Pacific Northwest, Cano is away from the facial hair-free Bronx Bombers.
Cano joins starting pitchers Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma as the team's top players, an impressive nucleus, for sure. But there isn't much depth behind Cano in the lineup, and it will be tough for them to compete in a division where the Oakland A's and Texas Rangers each possess talented pitching staffs.
The offseason isn't over yet and the team still has time to sign a slugger like outfielder Nelson Cruz, re-sign Kendrys Morales or make a trade for an impact bat like Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder Andre Ethier. For now, the offense doesn't have much firepower.
Other than Cano, the team's top returning hitters are third baseman Kyle Seager (.260/.338/.426, 22 HR, 69 RBI) and first baseman Justin Smoak (.238/.334/.412, 20 HR, 50 RBI). Cano will certainly have an impact in Seattle, but he can't make up for the production lost by Morales and Raul Ibanez by himself.
Though Hernandez and Iwakuma form a solid one-two punch in the rotation, the team has done little so far to improve a staff that finished with a 4.31 team ERA in 2013, which ranked 26th in MLB. Unless the Mariners make more drastic moves in the coming weeks, this roster doesn't look built for success in a star-studded AL West.
Contender: New York Yankees
The Yankees were wise to let Robinson Cano walk away without ceding to his big contract demands.
For the $240 million it cost the Mariners to sign the second baseman, the Yankees were able to add Jacoby Ellsbury (seven years, $153 million) and catcher Brian McCann (five years, $85 million), while the team also signed Carlos Beltran (three years, $45 million) and Hiroki Kuroda (one year, $16 million) to deals this offseason.
Despite being riddled with injuries last year, New York still finished with a respectable 85-77 record. You can't expect Derek Jeter and Mark Teixeira to essentially miss the entire season again in 2014, and the new additions to the lineup will make Cano's departure easier to handle.
While I think Ellsbury's contract will ultimately be a burden for the Yankees down the road, he should be able to help this team out in the short term. McCann provides a great offensive presence at a key defensive position, while he and Beltran will both benefit from the opportunity to play designated hitter at times.
The rotation could still use some help behind CC Sabathia, Ivan Nova and Kuroda, but that's a solid trio to lead the the pitching staff. This aging core might not be set up for long-term success for the Bronx, but I suspect the Yankees will be a major force in the AL East again in 2014.
Pretender: New York Mets
The Mets were expected to be aggressive this offseason, and they lived up to expectations by adding nearly $90 million in contract commitments. But for a team that is coming off two straight 74-win seasons, the players they added likely won't elevate them into a playoff-caliber outfit.
Curtis Granderson signed a four-year, $60 million contract with the Mets, a year after he was limited to 61 games due to two hit by pitches. Before that, Granderson was reliable and healthy for most of his career, posting averages of 42 homers, 112 RBI and 119 runs scored while batting .247/.342/.522 for the New York Yankees in 2011-12.
But whom is he going to drive home for the Mets?
Other than franchise player David Wright and second baseman Daniel Murphy, New York's lineup doesn't have much upside, and fellow free-agent outfield addition Chris Young won't help. A year after he batted .200/.280/.379 with 12 homers and 40 RBI for the Oakland Athletics, it's surprising the Mets were willing to shell out $7.25 million for a one-year deal.
Young's teammate from 2013, former A's right-hander Bartolo Colon, should bring some stability to a rotation that desperately needs it. He's coming off two straight solid seasons in Oakland, but Colon is 41 now, so it remains to be seen if he can keep up his production and live up to his two-year, $20 million deal.
Contender: Oakland Athletics
Oakland general manager Billy Beane has carved out a reputation as being one of the boldest executives in baseball. He showed why earlier this offseason, making some big additions to the pitching staff at relatively low costs.
In a span of less than 24 hours, Beane bolstered the rotation by signing Scott Kazmir to a two-year, $22 million deal and acquiring elite closer Jim Johnson from the Baltimore Orioles for second baseman Jemile Weeks, who spent virtually the entire 2013 season in Triple-A.
Kazmir's signing was something of a surprise for the low-budget A's, but he provides an intriguing option after resurrecting his career in 2013. In 29 starts for the Cleveland Indians, Kazmir went 10-9 with a 4.04 ERA, 1.32 WHIP and 9.2 K/9 ratio, and now he's going to a pitcher-friendly park in Oakland.
Johnson, meanwhile, didn't cost much for the A's and fills the void left by free agent Grant Balfour. Oakland is willing to pay the estimated $10 million salary in 2014 it will cost to keep the arbitration-eligible Johnson, who has an MLB-best 101 saves and a combined 2.72 ERA, 1.15 WHIP and 6.3 K/9 ratio the past two seasons.
Other valuable moves that fell under the radar were the addition of reliable setup man Luke Gregerson and fourth outfielder Craig Gentry via trade, while the team retained all of the major pieces from a lineup that finished fourth in runs scored (767) in 2013.
The A's might not have the marquee names of their AL West counterparts, but they're two-time reigning division champs for a reason.
Pretender: Minnesota Twins
The Twins were very active in addressing their massive needs in the starting rotation this offseason, but the trio of arms they signed each have limited ceilings going forward.
Ricky Nolasco (four years, $49 million) earned the biggest payday from Minnesota and figures to step in and be the ace for a team that didn't have a 10-game winner in 2013. He had a solid campaign this past season, going 13-11 with a 3.70 ERA, 1.21 WHIP and 7.4 K/9 ratio, but Nolasco has a 4.37 ERA and 1.29 WHIP lifetime and would be better served as a middle-of-the-rotation-type of pitcher.
Meanwhile, the team also signed a pair of right-handers in Phil Hughes (three years, $24 million) and Mike Pelfrey (two years, $11 million), who each posted identical 5.19 ERAs in 2013. The addition of veteran catcher Kurt Suzuki should help the pitching staff, but he doesn't bring much to the lineup at this point of his career.
For the combined $84 million the Twins spent on their rotation this winter, the staff hasn't improved drastically from a year ago, when it finished with a 4.55 team ERA, which ranked 29th in baseball.