Albert Pujols is about to become a very inefficient investment. As the St. Louis Cardinals slugger heads toward free agency, he does so with a fury, having gotten so hot over the past few weeks that his nearly-dead team is now very much alive in the NL Wild Card race.
Yet paying $25 million or more per season for the next decade or so, as Pujols heads into his mid-30s, is far from ideal. Even the Cardinals, for whom Pujols is an icon who is nearly worth his salary in marketing power and goodwill, might ought to think twice about it.
Every team has decisions like these to make, even if those choices look very different from the one the Cards face. All 30 team's will sign one or more free agents this winter, so the task at hand for each is to determine which move is best. Here are the ideal signings for each team this winter, however unlikely some of them may be.
Kevin Towers stuck his neck out for Hill in acquiring him from Toronto. Clearly, Towers believes Hill is as good or better investment than Kelly Johnson going forward. It's very unlikely the team will pick up Hill's $8-million option for next year, but they are the incumbents and the top candidates to sign him even on the free market.
The Braves certainly do not need pitching help, and assuming they can afford to keep the club they have in place, they have few positional needs.
If Tyler Pastornicky can suitably fill in for Alex Gonzalez at shortstop, they need only a utility player like Betemit, who can fake it around the horn defensively and can hit enough to help off the bench.
Beltran will hear from another AL East team, so the O's had better prepare to pony up if the want him, but he is the one piece that they lack right now: a steady, well-rounded hitter who can fill a corner outfield spot and stay out of the young guys' way.
This slide could be about Beltran, too. He makes all the sense in the world for the Sox.
Because Ortiz is so much a part of the team fabric, though, and because he is a better and more durable hitter, re-signing him must be the front office's top priority.
Pitching is also an issue, of course, but the Red Sox figure to add more of an Edwin Jackson caliber pitcher than a CJ Wilson.
Right now, the widespread sentiment around the team and throughout interested media outlets is that Tom Ricketts will hire a GM interested in undertaking a rebuilding effort that might not include a long-term contract this winter.
Carlos Peña's return looks more likely than either Fielder or Albert Pujols coming aboard. Still, in an ideal world, someone would recognize that the Cubs have resources, and that adding Fielder—while unlikely to make the team competitive next season—could make them better in the long run.
Buehrle is as clear a candidate to be a lifetime member of his franchise as any free agent. Chicago will not be spending big to fill their current holes this winter, given the calamitous outcome of their all-in gambit in 2011. Keeping Buehrle, though, ensures the team will continue to get 200-plus mid-rotation innings while they work to rebuild and move forward.
Shortstop was a sinkhole for Cincinnati last season. Paul Janish and Edgar Renteria flopped sensationally, and prospect Zack Cosart was injured within 10 days of arriving in town.
The Reds envision Cosart as part of their future, so spending the big bucks on Jose Reyes or Jimmy Rollins looks awfully unlikely. Fortunately then, there is Scutaro, a better version of Renteria both with the glove and with the bat.
Unimpressed by Matt LaPorta, Cleveland seems sure to pursue some help at first base this winter. Peña fits their mold precisely. He bats left-handed, so he could take a seat against southpaw pitching and help get Carlos Santana out from behind the plate.
Peña also has a terrific track record as a patient power hitter, a glove wizard and a very solid clubhouse presence. For a team just ready to move from rebuilding to serious contention next season, Peña is the perfect target.
Troy Tulowitzki notwithstanding, the Rockies lack right-handed thump in their lineup and need to add depth at third base, in the outfield and at first base.
Cuddyer kills all those birds with one stone, though his defense at third base is seriously suspect and that may not be a viable spot for him any longer.
Still, Cuddyer could easily find 500-plus plate appearances in the mix in Colorado, and has 30-homer power given that kind of playing time in Coors Field.
Johnson is the best second baseman available this winter, and that is a position of marked need for the Tigers going forward.
Johnson doesn't fit perfectly, because the Tigers do not want for left-handed batters, but he could continue to round out a lineup that already rates as the AL Central's best.
Looking to capitalize on the opening of their new ballpark and draw some fans to the joint, the Marlins seem poised to get aggressive in the pursuit of a high-profile free agent or two.
They have already expressed their interest in Ramirez, and one can only assume Ramirez would be interested as well if the team offered a multi-year deal.
Third base might be Florida's (soon to be Miami's) biggest positional problem, and adding a slugger at that spot would be huge for them.
Ramirez could also slide across the diamond on occasion and play some first base if and when all-glove hot corner prospect Matt Dominguez is ready.
Even after disposing of expensive assets Roy Oswalt, Hunter Pence and Michael Bourn, the Astros do not figure to get heavily involved in any bidding wars this winter. They will try to develop some prospects at the positional spots. They hope Jason Castro can return at full strength at catcher, and that Jose Altuve can lock in as the starting second baseman.
On the pitching side, the Astros might be a bit more willing to make a minor signing. Wandy Rodriguez, Bud Norris and Jordan Lyles are a solid trio, but both Norris and Lyles could learn a good deal from a hurler like Penny, and anyway, Houston does not have any other arms knocking down the door to the big leagues. A trade of Rodriguez would make Penny an even smarter pick-up.
It might be a pipe dream, as Vazquez is rumored to be pondering retirement, but Kansas City could use a sturdy, durable workhorse to head their weak rotation and take pressure off the young arms all around their staff.
Vazquez consistently eats innings, strikes batters out and keeps walks under control.
After a miserable 2010 and a lousy first half in 2011, Vazquez has rebounded to post a 1.54 ERA, with 71 strikeouts, 50 hits and 13 walks allowed in 76 innings over his last 11 starts. He would fit perfectly in Kansas City.
Vernon Wells and Jeff Mathis have combined for 791 plate appearances this season. In those appearances, they have amassed an OPS of .591. Their performances have cost the Angels 30.1 runs this year, relative to average players.
Mark Trumbo, who mans first base for the Angels right now, has not been able to make up for that massive drain, adding just six runs to the Angels' ledger in his 562 plate appearances.
Meanwhile, Fielder has been worth 42.5 runs to the Brewers over 667 plate appearances. He is the Angels' best target because he can best fix what's wrong with this team: They did not score enough runs to support one of the American League's top three pitching staffs.
Note: The run values above reflect data drawn from statcorner.com, and is based on run-expectancy frameworks that assign run values to every outcome a batter achieves. Read more about the process here.
The Dodgers might have more flexibility this winter than initially expected, but they still will not be able to go out and sign a major impact guy. They would do better to focus on extending Matt Kemp and solidifying a few spots at which they are singularly weak.
One such position is catcher, where they have primarily used ancient, immobile Rod Barajas and punchless Dioner Navarro this year.
Barajas has said he would like to finish his career in Los Angeles, which is no surprise, because the alternative may be finishing it on Wednesday.
The Dodgers, though, should look at a better version of Barajas. Hernandez is expendable in Cincinnati and will not return there. He's better behind the dish and with the bat.
After missing time at the beginning of the year on the disabled list, Barmes has come back to play essentially the way he has always played. He's a very good defensive shortstop, but only an average hitter. He has some power, but little in the way of on-base skills.
Ultimately, then, he is Yuniesky Betancourt, but with good defense. That is a heck of a player, a substantially better one than Betancourt himself. The Brewers hold a $6-million option on Betancourt for next season. If they pick pit up, they deserve to crumble back into irrelevance, and they will.
If, however, they let Betancourt go and add Barmes to their payroll (for about that same $6 million per year), they will be much better at that key position and could well repeat as NL Central champions even without Prince Fielder.
This is where we get to have some fun. Buehrle will never pitch for the Twins. His long tenure in Chicago has forced him to hardily embrace the rivalry between the White Sox and Twins. He would not want to pitch from the other side of that rubber. Some reports have suggested he will even ponder retirement after this season.
That said, there may be no more quintessentially Twins hurler in baseball today than Buehrle. He pitches to contact; he works quickly; he keeps the ball on the ground; and he walks virtually no one. He also gobbles innings and never gets hurt, which would be a nice sort of security to feel after a season of nearly unfathomable bad luck with injuries in Minnesota.
Having dealt Carlos Beltran and staring at a tough decision over whether to tender a contract to Angel Pagan this winter, the Mets could think very hard about adding a center fielder who can get on base and defend much better than has the awful Pagan.
Crisp is the only available guy who fits the bill, but he fits it well, and if/when the team loses Jose Reyes to free agency, Crisp is the one who could stand in as a leadoff replacement for Reyes.
The Yankees certainly hope and probably expect to both keep Sabathia and add C.J. Wilson this winter. They have a serious dearth of pitching depth and need to address it aggressively.
That said, Wilson has to be a secondary concern. Sabathia is better (although just barely, this season) and more established. Everyone knows that. What many have failed to acknowledge, though, is that Sabathia is just five months older than Wilson.
As a veteran true ace in the AL East, Sabathia deserves well over $100 million in total value this winter, and the Yankees need to make retaining him the most important part of their winter game plan.
Rumor has it that the A's may not be in a mode to spend any significant money at all this winter. If they do, though, it figures to be on an outfielder who can get on base.
After all, for all the changes they have undergone since the era of Moneyball (not a great movie, by the way), the A's still know as well as anyone in baseball the value of getting on base.
Fukudome, an underappreciated hitter with a .362 career OBP, would fit brilliantly in right field as a replacement for David DeJesus or left as a filler for Josh Willingham. He could even cover center, if he were really needed and Coco Crisp really left.
Far from the reckless adventurer he has been in recent seasons, Ruben Amaro figures to be a conservative budget hound this year. He cannot afford to pursue big-name free agents; he will have to settle for retaining the ones he lets loose at season's end.
Among those will be Rollins, the most iconic Phillies position player and a sparkling defensive shortstop.
Eight figures in annual average salary would not be out of line for Rollins. Still, the Phils will pony up, because no other outcome permits them to enter 2012 as NL favorites.
Pittsburgh needs pitching help. Is that refrain familiar to anyone?
Despite being better off in terms of run prevention than in terms of run scoring (they rate 11th in the NL in runs allowed, 14th in runs scored) this year, the Pirates want badly for a starting hurler who can miss some bats.
Kuroda's 156 strikeouts in 2011 are more than Paul Maholm and Kevin Correia have between them, and those two have about 115 innings of work on Kuroda.
Adding a guy like Kuroda will not make the Pirates 2012 contenders any more than adding Correia made them 2011 contenders, but it would put them in position to challenge for a .500 record, and it would help the team focus on developing, rather than simply using, their young arms.
As usual, the Padres enter the offseason with many holes, and few resources with which to plug them. As usual, pitching is not the problem. San Diego seemingly constructs a solid staff every year, often from castoffs like Aaron Harang, Mike Adams and Kevin Correia.
Therefore, the ideal signing would not be another pitcher, but a position player who can help the Padres climb out of the cellar in run-scoring next season. Even after adjusting for their cavernous home park, San Diego hitters have been 16 percent worse than league average, the worst figure in the National League.
DeJesus is a great fit for three reasons:
- He will come cheaply. San Diego has, as usual, no money to spend, so a guy like Carlos Beltran is out of the question.
- DeJesus does not derive his value from power. It's important to find batters who succeed without relying on fly balls and home runs, because PETCO Park does not permit those kinds of hitters to succeed as well as others.
- DeJesus has the range to play the spacious outfield in San Diego, a crucial consideration.
Offense is the issue in San Francisco, no question about it. The Giants, though, have to at least give Aubrey Huff, Brandon Belt and others a chance at the corner positions of the diamond. Besides, acquiring a power-based star is a risk in AT&T Park.
Instead, the team should sign Reyes, who would boost their offense and become their best shortstop since Rich Aurilia.
Given the succession of guys San Francisco has trotted out this season—Miguel Tejada, Brandon Crawford, Orlando Cabrera and Mike Fontenot—Reyes might be worth as much as eight or nine wins relative to this year's production from that position.
Seattle appears to have given up a better pitcher than anyone suspected when they traded Doug Fister to Detroit in July. It's not a huge problem, since they still have Michael Pineda and Felix Hernandez, and since Danny Hultzen is on a fast track to the parent club.
Still, Seattle would be best served to pursue more pitching this winter.
Second base, first base, third base and left field are filled for next season by prospects the Mariners will not want to block.
Nick Franklin could arrive any time to play shortstop, so Seattle will not want to clog that slot.
Ichiro is not going anywhere in right field.
That would leave only catcher and center field as possible areas for the M's to upgrade, but don't bet on those possibilities.
Therefore, Seattle must examine the pitching market and find the right place to allocate their resources this winter. Darvish is the ideal choice, because:
- He is young, having turned 25 only last month.
- He has dominated Japanese baseball the last five years, with the most American delivery and approach in the history of Japanese pitchers interested in coming Stateside.
- Unlike many other clubs, the Mariners (owners of Felix Hernandez, the most heavily used young starter in the last 10 years) will not shy away from Darvish based on concerns about the hurler's workload prior to age 25.
There would be no sense in getting bogged down pursuing pitching this winter, since St. Louis will get Adam Wainwright back in 2012 anyway. The team also need not worry about whether or not they lose Pujols, since they may well have to overpay to keep him and since they already have Lance Berkman in the fold.
Around their infield, though, they do need some help.
Third base is fine; David Freese will be backed by prospect Matt Carpenter there.
Shortstop should work itself out between Rafael Furcal, Ryan Theriot and young Tyler Greene.
Second base, however, is a nearly irreconcilable mess.
Theriot should be non-tendered, and doesn't have enough value beyond position to play second.
Skip Schumaker is ghastly on defense there and has been too much a lightweight at the plate over the last two years.
Hill would be an upgrade in both phases, but would not cost the Cards so much as to interfere with their efforts to keep Pujols. That's a major consideration.
If they can afford him, the Rays would do stunningly well to add Willingham. He is essentially a right-hitting version of Matt Joyce, a marginal fielder even in the corner outfield spots but a great asset on offense.
Assuming success moving B.J. Upton, Tampa could slot Desmond Jennings into center field and start Joyce in right; Willingham in left; and Ben Zobrist at second base every day.
While the Rangers have as much organizational depth as any franchise in baseball, they can still ill afford to lose their ace this winter and hope to win the AL West again in 2012.
Wilson is a rare bird, a Californian by birth who has found a home in the heart of Texas. He's also a rare talent, and although the market will get him more money than he actually deserves, the Rangers have the resources to keep him around.
Call it a reunion: Jackson has about 12 hours of experience as a Blue Jay already.
Toronto needs to strengthen their starting rotation in order to be more serious contenders next season, and the best path to that destination is not to overextend themselves by chasing Sabathia or Wilson, but to take a middle road and grab the underrated Jackson.
Why will Prince Fielder hit the biggest jackpot this offseason? For the same reason that he appears three times on this list: No one, not even Pujols, is in demand the way Fielder is entering the offseason.
Washington does not need to wait longer, and it may no longer be true that they need to overpay just to get the top-tier free agents interested.
Stephen Strasburg and Jordan Zimmermann are ready for next season. So are Ryan Zimmerman, Jayson Werth, Wilson Ramos, Mike Morse, Danny Espinosa and Ian Desmond.
The Nats might not be as good as the Braves or Phillies next season, but you know what? If they snag Fielder, they actually could be.
It's not hard to envision the Nationals' twin aces being only marginally worse than those of the Braves and Phillies, and their lineup with Fielder would outscore both rival teams by 50-plus runs.