The Weakness Every MLB Contender Must Still Improve Before the Season

Jacob Shafer@@jacobshaferFeatured ColumnistJanuary 16, 2018

The Weakness Every MLB Contender Must Still Improve Before the Season

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    Mid-January is upon us, and many of MLB's top free agents and trade targets remain on the board. It's no surprise that every club has at least one essential item left unchecked on its offseason shopping list.

    Let's take a look at the biggest weakness each contending team must improve before the season begins. For our purposes, we're defining "contender" as a team that's projected to finish .500 or better, according to FanGraphs' most recent prognostication, with a few exceptions:

    • We've subtracted the Pittsburgh Pirates (81-81 projection) after they signaled their intent to be sellers by shipping right-hander Gerrit Cole to the Houston Astros and outfielder Andrew McCutchen to the San Francisco Giants, per Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic.
    • We've added the Colorado Rockies (80-82 projection) and Milwaukee Brewers (73-89 projection). Colorado has already signed closer Wade Davis for three years and $52 million and snagged a National League wild-card slot in 2017. The Brewers, meanwhile, are getting no love from the projections but are coming off a season in which they finished 86-76 and are in the market for elite talent.

American League West

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    Houston Astros: A lack of left-handed relievers

    The Astros bolstered their starting rotation with the addition of Cole, but they still have an obvious need for a left-handed reliever.

    Overall, 'Stros relievers ranked 17th in baseball with a 4.27 ERA last season and that figure swelled to 5.40 in the postseason. Houston has added sidearming setup man Joe Smith and Hector Rondon, but both are right-handed.

    The only viable lefty options are Tony Sipp, who posted a 5.79 ERA in 2017, and converted outfielder Anthony Gose.

    To fix this southpaw deficiency, the Astros could pursue someone like All-Star Brad Hand. The 27-year-old recently signed a three-year, $19.75 million extension with the San Diego Padres, per Dennis Lin of the San Diego Union-Tribune, but that relatively affordable deal might make him an even more attractive trade target.

            

    Los Angeles Angels: Outfield depth

    The Los Angeles Angels re-signed left fielder Justin Upton to a five-year, $106 million pact in November. They have Kole Calhoun slotted into right field and a fellow by the name of Mike Trout manning center.

    After that...insert shrugging emoji.

    The Halos won't be in on any big-name free agents such as J.D. Martinez or even a bounce-back candidate like Carlos Gonzalez. They can't offer enough playing time and don't have the budget. 

    But someone like Ben Revere, who hit .275 with 21 stolen bases in 109 games for the Angels last season, should be brought on to add depth and injury insurance.

            

    Seattle Mariners: The starting rotation

    The Seattle Mariners' starting rotation crumbled into a heap of injuries and underperformance in 2017, as the M's sent 17 different starters to the mound.

    King Felix Hernandez has tumbled from his throne, Mike Leake is a mid-rotation option and 29-year-old James Paxton has never thrown 150 innings in a season. 

    If Seattle is going to end its 16-year postseason drought, general manager Jerry Dipoto has to wade into the admittedly muddled free-agent pitching market and come out with an ace (Jake Arrieta, Yu Darvish) or something close (Lance Lynn, Alex Cobb).

            

    Non contender(s): Texas Rangers, Oakland Athletics

American League Central

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    Kathy Willens/Associated Press

    Cleveland Indians: Outfield depth

    The Cleveland Indians lost power-hitting corner outfielder Jay Bruce to free agency. Two-time All-Star Michael Brantley is coming off major ankle surgery. Lonnie Chisenhall and Bradley Zimmer are nice ancillary pieces but no one's idea of stars.

    That means the Tribe should be in the market for more outfield help, even in the weak American League Central. Someone like veteran Cameron Maybin wouldn't push the Indians over the championship hump, but he would add needed depth and the ability to play all three outfield positions.

                 

    Minnesota Twins: The starting rotation

    After losing 103 games in 2016, the Minnesota Twins rebounded to grab an AL wild-card spot in 2017. They can build on that success, but they need more arms.

    The bullpen got a boost when Addison Reed inked a two-year, $17 million deal. The rotation, which posted a ho-hum 4.73 ERA last season, is a mishmash of youngsters and question marks after right-hander Ervin Santana.

    Minnesota is on the short list of six teams in the running for Darvish, per Jeff Wilson of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, which tells you all you need to know about the small-market Twinkies' desire to remain in the Junior Circuit playoff mix.

                

    Non-contender(s): Detroit Tigers, Kansas City Royals, Chicago White Sox

American League East

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    New York Yankees: The infield

    The New York Yankees have already added reigning NL MVP Giancarlo Stanton to their formidable lineup. They've got a stout bullpen and a starting rotation plenty good enough after they re-upped veteran southpaw CC Sabathia.

    The Yanks have some questions in the infield, however, where they jettisoned third baseman Chase Headley and second baseman Starlin Castro in trades.

    Top prospect Gleyber Torres is probably ready to man one of those spots, but New York should target another proven infielder. A reunion with power-hitting third baseman Todd Frazier is a possibility, even at his current ask of three years, per Brendan Kuty of NJ Advanced Media. 

            

    Boston Red Sox: A power hitter

    The Boston Red Sox won the AL East in 2017 despite finishing dead last in the AL in home runs. They require thump, plain and simple.

    The best fit at this point looks like J.D. Martinez, who clubbed 45 homers last season between the Detroit Tigers and Arizona Diamondbacks. 

    The 30-year-old will command an overpay and Boston will have to find a place for him by either trading an outfielder or relieving expensive, broken-down Hanley Ramirez of designated hitter duties.

    Either way, the win-now Sox can't afford to stand pat with the powerful young Yankees charging hard.

            

    Toronto Blue Jays: A corner outfielder

    The Toronto Blue Jays have apparently decided to keep third baseman Josh Donaldson for his final season of club control and make a run in the top-heavy AL East. They inked him to a record-setting $23 million one-year deal to avoid arbitration, per USA Today

    Toronto could use help in the rotation and bullpen, but its biggest hole is in right field. Franchise icon Jose Bautista is almost surely gone after a dreadful farewell season. Teoscar Hernandez impressed during a 26-game look after coming over from the Astros at the 2017 trade deadline deadline, but he's untested.

    One interesting option: Carlos Gonzalez, who could be had on a shorter-term deal after a down year with the Colorado Rockies but would bring an All-Star pedigree north of the border.

                 

    Non-contender(s): Tampa Bay Rays, Baltimore Orioles

National League West

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    Los Angeles Dodgers: Outfield depth

    The Los Angeles Dodgers are a pretty darn complete team. The rotation and bullpen are set, and the infield is among the best in baseball.

    The Dodgers have plenty of options in the outfield, but a lot of question marks. Chris Taylor was a breakout performer in 2017, but the 27-year-old lacks a track record. Yasiel Puig appears to have gotten things on track, but the mercurial right fielder is always a candidate to go off the rails.

    Joc Pederson has big power, but he took a big step back last season as he hit a scant .212 with 11 homers. After that, it's a jumble of unproven youngsters (Trayce Thompson, Alex Verdugo), journeymen (Kike Hernandez, Andrew Toles) and fading former stars (Matt Kemp).

    A capable outfield could emerge from that mix, but L.A. would be wise to add an insurance piece or two to protect against regression and injury.

            

    Arizona Diamondbacks: The bullpen

    The Arizona Diamondbacks have options to replace free-agent closer Fernando Rodney, including Archie Bradley, Brad Boxberger and recently signed Japanese reliever Yoshihisa Hirano. 

    Bradley and Boxberger recorded one save between them last season, however, and it remains to be seen how the 33-year-old Hirano's success in Japan will translate stateside.

    An expensive closer such as Greg Holland may not be in the cards, but the D-backs could use bullpen depth and another arm to throw into the ninth-inning competition as they look to maintain contact with Los Angeles atop the NL West.

            

    San Francisco Giants: A center fielder

    Even after acquiring Andrew McCutchen, the Giants need outfield help.

    After dumping center fielder Denard Span's contract on the Tampa Bay Rays as part of the deal that brought third baseman Evan Longoria to San Francisco, they have McCutchen, Hunter Pence and a whole lot of nothing.

    Pence is far from a guarantee. He turns 35 in April and was worth 0.7 fWAR last season. McCutchen enjoyed a comeback with the bat in 2017, but posted minus-16 defensive runs saved in center field.

    Free agent Lorenzo Cain makes a lot of sense, and San Francisco has been linked in trade talks with speedy Cincinnati Reds center fielder Billy Hamilton. 

    No matter what, if the Giants want to improve on 2017's embarrassing 98-loss showing, they need a center fielder to capably traverse the spacious confines of AT&T Park.

              

    Colorado Rockies: First base

    The Rockies aren't getting enough love from the projection systems after adding closer Wade Davis to a team that made the playoffs in 2017.

    They do have a hole to fill at first base, assuming Ian Desmond mainly patrols the outfield. 

    Fortunately, there are options on the market, including Logan Morrison, who smacked 38 home runs last season for the Rays and could match or exceed that tally playing half his games at dinger-friendly Coors Field.

            

    Non-contender(s): San Diego Padres

National League Central

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    Chicago Cubs: The starting rotation

    Both 2015 NL Cy Young Award winner Jake Arrieta and postseason horse John Lackey are free agents. The Chicago Cubs signed Tyler Chatwood and retain Jon Lester and Jose Quintana.

    That's not enough to regain their status as NL favorites.

    Darvish is an obvious target but may be too rich for Chicago's blood. Instead, the Cubbies could lock up Alex Cobb, to whom they were connected in December, per Bruce Levine of CBS Chicago.

    The 27-year-old posted a 3.66 ERA in 179.1 innings last season for Tampa Bay in his first full year back from Tommy John surgery and would markedly upgrade Chicago's starting five.

          

    St. Louis Cardinals: A big hitter

    The St. Louis Cardinals made a play for Stanton before he agreed to waive his no-trade clause and head to the Big Apple.

    The Cards could still reel in a big bat to bolster an offense that's balanced but lacks a true anchor. Hence the persistent rumors linking St. Louis to Baltimore Orioles third baseman Manny Machado.

    Machado would be a one-year rentals unless St. Louis could convince them to sign an extension. That said, he would greatly improve the Redbirds' chances of catching the archrival Cubs in the NL Central.

                

    Milwaukee Brewers: The starting rotation

    The Brewers gave the Cubs a surprise challenge in 2017 and could shoot for a wild-card spot in 2018.

    The offense ought to be fine, provided key contributors such as third baseman Travis Shaw and first baseman Eric Thames—who cracked a combined 62 home runs—don't take a big step back.

    The rotation, on the other hand, needs another top-shelf arm to pair with Chase Anderson (who has never reached 155 innings in a season) and Jimmy Nelson (who is recovering from shoulder surgery). 

    Milwaukee is in on Arrieta, per Jim Bowden of The Athletic. The ace right-hander comes with warts, including declining velocity, but signing him away from Chicago would be a coup for the Brew Crew.

          

    Non-contender(s): Pittsburgh Pirates, Cincinnati Reds

National League East

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    Washington Nationals: The bullpen

    The Washington Nationals are entering what will likely be their final season with Bryce Harper in right field. They have never advanced past the division series, despite winning four of the last six NL East titles.

    There is no MLB franchise more locked into a win-now mindset.

    The Nats don't have a lot of glaring flaws, but they could use bullpen reinforcements behind the troika of Sean Doolittle, Ryan Madson and Brandon Kintzler. 

    Greg Holland, who came back from Tommy John to post a 3.61 ERA with 41 saves and 70 strikeouts in 57.1 innings for the Rockies, will be expensive. His stellar late-inning credentials would also nudge the Nationals closer to the top of the Senior Circuit pecking order.

               

    New York Mets: The bullpen

    The New York Mets are hoping for better health in their once-vaunted rotation. It couldn't get much worse after a snakebitten 2017. Noah Syndergaard, Steven Matz and Zack Wheeler all battled injuries, and Matt Harvey has gone from Dark Knight to opaque enigma.

    The Mets are also hoping an offense boosted by the return of Jay Bruce will be enough to support those (fingers crossed) healthy starters.

    Now, they need to improve a 'pen that ranked 29th in baseball with a 4.82 ERA last season and is shaky beyond A.J. Ramos, Jeurys Familia and Jerry Blevins.

    Two good options—Pat Neshek and Kintzler—were snapped up by the Nats and Philadelphia Phillies, respectively. A reunion with Addison Reed is off the table after he signed with Minnesota. Still, New York needs to find a way to add relief if it hopes to return to the October stage.

            

    Non-contender(s): Philadelphia Phillies, Atlanta Braves, Miami Marlins

          

    All statistics courtesy of FanGraphs and Baseball Reference unless otherwise noted.