The Top MLB Offseason Target Still Available at Each Position
It's been one of the more bizarre winters in recent memory, with an unprecedented number of impact players still available via free agency and trade this late into the offseason.
With few exceptions, general managers can find a major upgrade for their roster at nearly every position on the field, and they are looking to acquire the best of what's left—and outmaneuver their counterparts— as spring training approaches.
Let's take a look at the best available option at each position, those players sure to receive significant interest from multiple teams between now and Opening Day.
*Unless otherwise noted, all statistics courtesy of FanGraphs.
Catcher: Jose Lobaton, Trade Candidate
Age on Opening Day: 29
2013 Stats: 100 G, .249/.320/.394, 24 XBH (7 HR), 32 RBI, 103 wRC+
After re-signing Jose Molina and trading for Ryan Hanigan, postseason hero Jose Lobaton became the odd man out behind the plate in Tampa Bay.
Solid defensively but inept when it comes to controlling the opposition's running game, the switch-hitting Lobaton has some pop in his bat and offers more at the plate than the likes of Kelly Shoppach and Yorvit Torrealba, veterans that are still available as free agents.
Teams looking to upgrade their backup catching spot—or at least replace a fading veteran with a younger option—Lobaton is the best option available, one that isn't likely to command a high price in a trade.
First Base: Kendrys Morales, Free Agent
Age on Opening Day: 30
2013 Stats: 156 G, .277/.336/.449, 57 XBH (23 HR), 80 RBI, 116 wRC+
Two things have conspired to work against Kendrys Morales this winter: the draft-pick compensation that is attached to the free agent and the belief among some that Morales isn't a first baseman at all, but a full-time designated hitter.
While he hasn't started more than 50 games at first base since 2010, Morales grades out as an above-average fielder, with 16 DRS and a 7.7 UZR/150 over his seven-year career. A switch-hitter with some pop in his bat, Morales hits right-handed pitching well, posting a 117 wRC+ against righties over the past two years.
This late in the winter, Morales is going to have to settle for a short-term, below-market deal. For teams that are still in need of an upgrade at first base or the designated hitter spot, Morales could be one of the real bargains left available.
Second Base: Brandon Phillips, Trade Candidate
Age on Opening Day: 30
2013 Stats: 151 G, .261/.310/.396, 44 XBH (18 HR), 103 RBI, 91 wRC+
While Fox Sports' Ken Rosenthal reported last month that the Cincinnati Reds were unlikely to trade Brandon Phillips, there's no denying that, in the right deal, they'd gladly move him—along with the four years and $50 million left on his deal.
Cincinnati offered Phillips to the New York Yankees in exchange for outfielder Brett Gardner but was turned down, as reported by CBS Sports' Jon Heyman. The Reds also discussed a Phillips deal with the Los Angeles Dodgers, one that would have bought outfielder Matt Kemp back to Cincinnati, but those talks never got serious, according to Joel Sherman of The New York Post.
It's true that Phillips' numbers at the plate have been on a downward spiral over the past few years, but he remains one of the premier defensive second basemen in the game and would be a major upgrade at the position for nearly every team in the game.
Shortstop: Stephen Drew, Free Agent
Age on Opening Day: 31
2013 Stats: 124 G, .253/.333/.443, 50 XBH (13 HR), 67 RBI, 109 wRC+
Peter Gammons reports that Scott Boras, Stephen Drew's agent, is marketing his client as a super-utility player to drum up more interest from other teams, despite the fact that Drew has never played anywhere besides short over his eight-year career.
Advanced metrics rate Drew as an average fielder, but his glove saved Boston more than once in the World Series against St. Louis this past October. At the plate, he had one of his best seasons in years, ranking fourth among shortstops with at least 500 plate appearances in wRC+ (109) and OPS (.777).
Back in November, Boras balked at the idea of a three-year deal for Drew, pointing to the eight-year, $120 million extension that Elvis Andrus signed with Texas last April as the kind of deal he was seeking for Drew.
Obviously, that was never going to happen—and at this point, Drew might have to settle for a short-term deal and test the free-agent waters once again in a year or two. But for a team in need of an upgrade at shortstop or a veteran that is seemingly willing to become the next Michael Young, he's the best option available.
Third Base: Michael Young, Free Agent
Age on Opening Day: 37
2013 Stats: 147 G, .279/.335/.395, 39 XBH (8 HR), 46 RBI, 102 wRC+
He's more of a utility player than a full-time third baseman, but full-time help simply isn't available at this point in the offseason, making Michael Young the best option for teams looking for an upgrade at the hot corner.
No longer the player who made seven All-Star teams and hit .311 with an .819 OPS for the Texas Rangers from 2003-2011, Young can still be a productive member of a team's lineup, though his defense, which was never great, has gone downhill as he's gotten older.
Steve Dilbeck from The Los Angeles Times reports that the Los Angeles Dodgers, with whom Young hit .314 over 21 games down the stretch last season, have kept in contact with him and could look to bring him back as the team's primary utility player.
Earlier this month, Fox Sports' Ken Rosenthal tweeted that Young was giving serious consideration to retiring so that he could spend more time with his family. But he's never won a World Series ring, and the chance to do so could bring him back to a contender, whether it be the Dodgers or another club, for one more season.
Left Field: Alejandro De Aza, Trade Candidate
Age on Opening Day: 29
2013 Stats: 153 G, .264/.323/.405, 48 XBH (17 HR), 62 RBI, 97 wRC+
Pushed into left field after Chicago acquired center fielder Adam Eaton from the Arizona Diamondbacks, Alejandro De Aza has become expendable for the White Sox.
Coming off a down season both in the field and at the plate, De Aza has some pop in his bat and speed to cause problems when he gets on base, successful on 70 percent of his stolen-base attempts over his six-year career.
With Chicago's catching situation far from settled, De Aza could be the piece that GM Rick Hahn looks to move to land the upgrade behind the plate that his team desperately needs.
Center Field: Andres Torres, Free Agent
Age on Opening Day: 36
2013 Stats: 103 G, .250/.302/.342, 20 XBH (2 HR), 21 RBI, 83 wRC+
While the aforementioned Alejandro De Aza has primarily played center field, his defensive shortcomings make him a better fit in a corner outfield spot. That leaves a pretty large void among available players in center field, where nine-year veteran Andres Torres is the best of what's left.
Torres struggles to produce with any consistency at the plate, but he's an above-average fielder, one capable of playing all three outfield spots. He's lost a step or two since breaking into the big leagues, but he still has enough speed to cover wide swaths of ground and the athleticism to make difficult plays in the field.
At a minimal salary on a one-year deal, there's little risk for a team that needs a solid fourth outfielder in signing Torres, who has averaged 102 games played and a .709 OPS over the past four years.
Right Field: Nelson Cruz, Free Agent
Age on Opening Day: 33
2013 Stats: 109 G, .266/.327/.506, 45 XBH (27 HR), 76 RBI, 122 wRC+
It seems like Nelson Cruz's contract demands—and not his horrid defense, questions about his production after serving a 50-game suspension for being linked to the Biogenesis scandal or the draft pick compensation attached to him—is the reason the slugger is still looking for a home in 2014.
He's been looking for a four-year, $75 million deal, as reported by The Boston Globe's Nick Cafardo in December, and, according to a new report from Cafardo, Cruz's asking price simply hasn't dropped enough for teams to begin seriously thinking about adding him to their rosters.
More than a few clubs could use Cruz's right-handed power in their lineups, and power is always in demand. That said, Cruz needs to swallow his pride at this point and take less than he believes he's worth to avoid becoming this winter's Kyle Lohse, who didn't sign with Milwaukee last winter until March 25—a week before Opening Day.
Left-Handed Starter: David Price, Trade Candidate
Age on Opening Day: 28
2013 Stats: 27 GS, 10-8, 3.33 ERA, 1.10 WHIP, 186.2 IP, 1.3 BB/9, 7.3 K/9
The worst-kept secret in baseball is that the Tampa Bay Rays simply can't afford to re-sign David Price once his contract expires in two years—and that at some point between now and then, he's going to be traded.
While Price told The Tampa Bay Times' Marc Topkin that he'd like to stay with the Rays in 2014, he realizes that a trade is a possibility.
One of the premier starting pitchers in baseball, teams that lose the bidding for Masahiro Tanaka will surely turn their attention to Price, especially if they aren't in love with the pitchers that the free-agent market has to offer.
Despite many clubs believing that Tampa Bay's asking price is too high, per Fox Sports' Ken Rosenthal, any GM worth his salary is going to engage Rays GM Andrew Friedman about the 2012 AL Cy Young Award winner.
Whether the Price is right, however, remains to be seen.
Right-Handed Starter: Jeff Samardzija, Trade Candidate
Age on Opening Day: 28
2013 Stats: 33 GS, 8-13, 4.34 ERA, 1.35 WHIP, 213.2 IP, 3.3 BB/9, 9.0 K/9
Earlier this month, Jeff Samardzija told the Chicago Tribune's Mark Gonzales that he was tired of pitching on a team stuck in constant rebuilding mode, but that should the Chicago Cubs sign Masahiro Tanaka, he would be more inclined to sign an extension to stay with the club.
Well, Tanaka is now a member of the New York Yankees and the chances of Samardzija agreeing to an extension with the Cubs have become slim. While moving Samardzija would leave the Cubs without a legitimate front-end starter, now is the time for the club to maximize his value.
Why would teams look to Samardzija instead of free agents like Matt Garza, Ubaldo Jimenez and Ervin Santana? With two years of team control and fewer innings on his arm than your typical 28-year-old starter thanks to spending the first few years of his career as a reliever, he comes with fewer questions and concerns as his counterparts on the free agent market.
Closer: Grant Balfour, Free Agent
Age on Opening Day: 36
2013 Stats: 65 G, 1-3, 2.59 ERA, 1.20 WHIP, 62.2 IP, 3.9 BB/9, 10.3 K/9, 38-for-41 SV
Teams in need of a closer need look no further than to veteran hurler Grant Balfour, who remains on the market after Baltimore walked away from a two-year, $15 million deal, citing concerns about his physical results.
Balfour's agent, Seth Levinson, enlisted a pair of doctors, including Tampa Bay orthopedic team physician Dr. Koco Eaton, to dispute Baltimore's findings and proclaim Balfour completely healthy, per a report from ESPN's Jerry Crasnick.
He spent the past three years in Oakland, pitching to a 2.53 ERA and 1.04 WHIP with 64 saves, and he's appeared in at least 50 games a seasons since 2008. Durable and reliable, Balfour's value has taken a hit thanks to the Baltimore fiasco, which lends itself to a team getting a great deal this winter.
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