MLB Teams Still a Move Away from Being True 2014 Contenders
While a number of general managers have made substantial improvements to their respective rosters this winter, there's still work to be done to turn their teams into contenders this upcoming season.
In some cases, it's adding another potent bat to the middle of the lineup, while others still need that one starting pitcher to round out their rotation.
With a number of quality players still available via free agency and trade—and things on the precipice of exploding once the Masahiro Tanaka sweepstakes comes to an end later this week—here's a look at the move these pretenders need to make to complete the transformation into legitimate contenders.
*Unless otherwise noted, all statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com.
Atlanta Braves: Trade for a Front-Line Starting Pitcher
Atlanta doesn't have the payroll flexibility to make a play for any of the best free-agent pitching available, leaving the team only one avenue to improve its starting rotation—make a deal with another club.
Fortunately for the Braves, the team's farm system is heavily stocked with a plethora of intriguing pitching prospects with upside. Even without making top prospects Mauricio Cabrera and Lucas Sims available in a deal, Atlanta has plenty of trade chips that are always attractive to teams looking to unload a veteran arm.
The likes of David Hale, Aaron Northcraft and even 2013 first-round pick Jason Hursh could all be used as part of a package to pry an experienced arm from another club.
Chicago's Jeff Samardzija, whom The Atlanta Journal Constitution's David O'Brien reported the Braves had interest in earlier this winter, would be an ideal target. Not only is the 28-year-old under team control for another two years, but he's just reaching the prime of his career.
A rotation of Samardzija, Mike Minor, Kris Medlen, Julio Teheran and either Brandon Beachy or Alex Wood would put the Braves in excellent shape to defend their 2013 NL East crown.
Arizona Diamondbacks: Sign a Front-Line Starting Pitcher
Aside from Patrick Corbin, none of the pitchers penciled into Arizona's 2014 rotation are the kind of front-line starters that a team needs at least a pair of if it hopes to contend for a playoff spot in 2014.
While prospect Archie Bradley projects to be that stud, the 20-year-old figures to start the season, if not spend the bulk of the 2014 campaign with Triple-A Reno. Dealing for the likes of Chicago's Jeff Samardzija or Tampa Bay's David Price would surely cost them Bradley, so signing a free agent arm is the only option.
Last month, Fox Sports' Ken Rosenthal tweeted that Masahiro Tanaka was the team's top target. Per a report from Japan's Nikkan Sports, via Alex Williams of arizonasports.com, the Diamondbacks were among the teams to submit an offer to the free-agent hurler of at least six years and $100 million.
Should the team's bid for Tanaka fall short, Matt Garza would likely be the team's fallback option, having had conversations with his representatives in December, per CBS Sports' Jon Heyman.
Baltimore Orioles: Sign Bronson Arroyo
Baltimore has a number of holes that it still needs to fill, none more important than finding a durable, reliable veteran starter who can be counted on for 200-plus innings a year.
With a tight budget in a market that has seen the price for decent pitchers skyrocket (see the three-year, $30 million deal that former Oriole Scott Feldman got from Houston), landing that starter has become increasingly difficult.
But it's not impossible, and the arm that the Orioles need, attached to Bronson Arroyo's right shoulder, remains available. One of baseball's most consistent and durable starters, the 36-year-old right-hander has averaged 33 starts and 207 innings of work a season since 2004, pitching to a 4.10 ERA and 1.27 WHIP.
With experience pitching in the AL East and for perennial contenders for the past decade in Boston and Cincinnati, Arroyo, widely regarded as a fantastic teammate, is the kind of veteran that the Orioles need to lead a relatively young rotation.
Cleveland Indians: Re-Sign Ubaldo Jimenez
Justin Masterson can't do it alone in Cleveland, and after losing Scott Kazmir from last year's rotation, the Indians have a gaping hole in their starting rotation that needs to be filled.
As luck would have it, Ubaldo Jimenez, the team's best pitcher a year ago, continues to wait for his market to develop. While the Masahiro Tanaka saga has played a major role in that, so too has Jimenez's inconsistent performance over his career and the first-round draft pick that a team would lose by signing him.
A top three in the rotation of Masterson, Jimenez and Danny Salazar, along with Zach McAllister and Corey Kluber filling things out, would make for a formidable rotation, one that could exceed the performance of last year's group.
Los Angeles Angels: Sign Matt Garza
Adding Hector Santiago and Tyler Skaggs was a step in the right direction for the Angels, but the team needs another front-line pitcher to plug in between Jered Weaver and C.J. Wilson atop the rotation to contend in an improved AL West next season.
While Masahiro Tanaka would be ideal, he's going to command a nine-figure deal and, with owner Arte Moreno having to hand Mike Trout a record-breaking deal sooner rather than later, he's not an ideal candidate for the Halos.
With one of the worst farm systems in baseball, the Angels can't afford to sign the likes of Ubaldo Jimenez or Ervin Santana, who both have draft-pick compensation attached to them.
Matt Garza doesn't come with that surcharge.
Sure, there's concern over his past injury history and he struggled during his time with Texas at the end of last season, but Garza consistently pitches to a sub-4.00 ERA and sub-1.30 WHIP. He knows how to keep his team in games, has experience in both leagues and has playoff experience, pitching to a 3.48 ERA and 1.29 WHIP over five postseason starts.
New York Yankees: Sign Masahiro Tanaka
With a rotation full of more questions than answers, the New York Yankees desperately need a young, front-of-the-rotation starter. Without the pieces to acquire Tampa Bay's David Price or Chicago's Jeff Samardzija, free agency is the team's only option.
Luckily for the Yankees, there's a pitcher on the market that fits the bill: 25-year-old Japanese phenom Masahiro Tanaka.
With pockets as deep as any team in the game, the Yankees simply cannot afford to let the likes of the Chicago Cubs or Los Angeles Dodgers outbid them for Tanaka's services. While he's far from a sure thing, having never stepped foot on a MLB mound, overpaying for Tanaka is a risk the team needs to take.
The team has submitted their offer, per a report from Japan's Nikkan Sports, via MLB.com's Quinn Roberts. With little in the way of a viable Plan B—the team has little interest in the veteran free-agent starters available, per Anthony Rieber of Newsday—the Yankees could be in serious trouble should Tanaka sign elsewhere.
Pittsburgh Pirates: Trade for a First Baseman
Pittsburgh captured the hearts of baseball fans around the country in 2013, nearly winning the NL Central en route to ending a two-decade playoff drought. If the Pirates hope to keep that momentum going in 2014, the team must address the gaping hole that is first base.
A four-headed monster of Gaby Sanchez, Andrew Lambo, Chris McGuiness and Travis Ishikawa at the position simply isn't going to cut it, and the trade market offers two intriguing options: New York's Ike Davis and Seattle's Justin Smoak.
New York's asking price for Davis has been ridiculous—USA Today's John Perrotto reported in mid-December that the Mets asked Pittsburgh for pitching prospect Nick Kingham—but if the asking price drops, the Pirates should pounce.
Smoak, a switch-hitter, was made available by the Mariners last month after the signings of Logan Morrison and Corey Hart, per a report from USA Today's Bob Nightengale. Like Davis, Smoak would be a perfect fit for Pittsburgh.
Seattle Mariners: Add a Middle-of-the-Order Bat
After signing Robinson Cano, the team added the oft-injured Logan Morrison and Corey Hart, who missed all of 2013 with surgery on both knees, to build a lineup around the All-Star second baseman.
While Nelson Cruz might be the best free-agent bat left on the market, he's not what Seattle needs. His numbers away from Rangers Ballpark are pretty awful, and he's a terrible fielder, both things that would spell disaster in the spacious confines of Safeco Field.
Seattle's best move this winter would have been to sign Jacoby Ellsbury or Shin-Soo Choo along with Cano, but alas, that didn't happen and is no longer an option, with Ellsbury in New York and Choo in Texas.
Working out a deal to pry Matt Kemp away from the Los Angeles Dodgers would make a lot of sense for the Mariners and Dodgers. Seattle is one of the few teams that can afford Kemp—both financially and in terms of what it would cost to pry him away from the Dodgers.
Not only would Kemp be an upgrade in left field over Morrison or center field over Dustin Ackley, but the ability to use him as a designated hitter, limiting the wear-and-tear he puts on his body, could do wonders for his production.
Toronto Blue Jays: Sigh Either Bronson Arroyo or Ervin Santana
The Blue Jays need a veteran innings-eater that they can plug into the top half of their rotation, one that the team can acquire without subtracting additional pieces from its minor league system, already weakened by the team's blockbuster moves last winter.
Two free-agent pitchers fit the bill: Bronson Arroyo and Ervin Santana.
Arroyo, who will celebrate his 37th birthday before Opening Day, has been one of the more reliable starters in baseball over the past nine years, tossing at least 200 innings in all but one season—2011, when he finished one shy of the mark with 199.
Santana, 31, is coming off of an excellent 2013 that saw him pitch to a 3.24 ERA and 1.14 WHIP over 32 starts for Kansas City, striking out 161 batters in 211 innings of work—the third time over the past four seasons that he's eclipsed the 200-inning plateau.
Minnesota Twins: Sign Bronson Arroyo or Matt Garza
Minnesota GM Terry Ryan has done an excellent job in addressing his team's most glaring weakness this winter, adding Phil Hughes and Ricky Nolasco to shore up what was one of baseball's worst starting rotations.
But for the Twins to have a chance of returning to contention in 2014, the team needs one more veteran starter to count on—and either Bronson Arroyo or Matt Garza fits the bill.
The Twins have interest in both players and are willing to pay what they seek in salary, with the sticking point being the number of years they commit to in any deal. Garza wants a four-year deal; the Twins are willing to go three. Arroyo wants a three-year deal; the Twins are willing to go two.
At some point, Ryan is going to have to bite the bullet and give that one extra year. A trio of Nolasco, Arroyo/Garza and Hughes atop the rotation is far more formidable than Nolasco, Hughes and Kevin Correia.