Theo Epstein is not a reductive thinker. He does not oversimplify. He considers courses carefully and looks first at the long term when making decisions. That's crucial to his new role as president of baseball operations for the Chicago Cubs.
The Cubs, Kansas City Royals and Pittsburgh Pirates are teams undergoing complex processes of prolonged building. Player-development systems do not return the same sort of immediate return as do free-agent signings, and it takes a big-picture thinker to make them work.
Fans, though, don't take the same sort of solace that Epstein finds in complexity and process. Brevity lends clarity. It's as true today as it was when Yogi Berra was at the height of his aphoristic power.
Here are power rankings of all 30 teams heading into the winter, along with a single phrase that describes each club's approach to this period of movement and progress.
The phrases that follow merely encapsulate where each team stands and what its goals ought to be as the Hot Stove warms. They are less important than the rankings assigned to each team, which rank MLB's franchises by their overall health heading into these months of important change.
Here are the criteria by which the rankings were formulated.
Does the team have a solid group of decision-makers in place—the kind who will evaluate success and failure based on process (not results) and who will lend voice to both old and new ideas about how to develop players and teams? Are their front offices stable and centralized, such that those good decisions can trickle down efficiently to the lowest rungs of the organization?
Talent in Place
Obviously, for instance, the Chicago Cubs have Theo Epstein at the top of their organizational flow chart. That's a good thing. Bad things: They have Carlos Marmol under contract for over $16 million the next two seasons. They owe Alfonso Soriano $54 million. Their best player is a very raw 21-year-old, and their pitching staff is thinner than Bud Selig's real hair.
That negates much of the value, at least this winter, of having Epstein around. What you have to work with has a lot to do with what you can do.
This is about more than whether a team can spend money on players. Can it adequately scout and vet its acquisitions? Does it have expendable pieces to make important trades? What ballpark revenues might be left unexploited that lend the team payroll upside?
This is about the long term as much as the short term and as such plays the smallest role in differentiating teams. In cases of near-ties, though, it is good to keep in mind which club is in better position to replace chaff with homegrown wheat.
The Twins and White Sox each had disappointing seasons: Both seem to face an immediate revenue crunch, have bad contracts on the books and need to cut payroll. The Twins might be in a slightly better position, though, because their farm system is not as barren as that of Chicago.
It's hard to imagine a worse season than the Astros had in 2011, but they might just manage it in 2012. They have a long winter ahead, one in which they expect (but cannot yet confirm) an ownership change. GM Ed Wade might be fired before the new year.
Even if Wade is gone, though, his stated expectation that the team will avoid spending big money on any free agents seems likely to remain. The Astros are a bad team with an improved, but still poor, farm system, and this season could see them trade Carlos Lee and/or Wandy Rodriguez, their best current pieces, just to shed their bad contracts.
Another 56-win season might well be on the horizon for the Astros in 2012.
The Sox made a critical decision in 2011. They elected to spend substantially beyond their means. The goal was to win big by both acquiring Adam Dunn and retaining Paul Konerko.
Not only did they fail, but the White Sox were a bottom-tier team in all of baseball. They were in pseudo-contention for two-thirds of the season but predictably fell from the pack.
Now they have an utterly bereft farm system, a rookie manager gotten on the cheap in Robin Ventura, a collection of bad contracts and a real struggle to generate revenue over the next three seasons.
They could be the new Astros by the end of 2012.
In the meantime, though, off-field issues are suddenly taking precedence. The A's want to move into a new home park in San Jose. That is technically San Francisco Giants market terrain, but the league is considering a dispensation to allow a move.
If it happens, don't expect the A's to even try to retain Josh Willingham, Coco Crisp or David DeJesus. Instead, they will save their money, move into a full rebuild and prepare to contend seriously the year they open their new home.
One season into Joe Mauer's mega-deal to stay in Minnesota, it's fair to wonder whether he has any hope of living up to it. Meanwhile, the Twins spent a bunch of money bringing in talent to surround Mauer after opening their new ballpark to great reviews and great success in 2010.
That stretched them pretty thin financially, and they reaped no reward for that risk in a 99-loss campaign in 2011. Now they face a long, cold Minnesota winter, and the money coming off their ledgers (Michael Cuddyer, Jason Kubel and Joe Nathan all are free agents) is actually most of their good money.
If the organization could trust GM Bill Smith to make good decisions, it would be no problem. It cannot.
Frank McCourt will finally be done digging into the Dodgers' pockets before the year is out. Unfortunately for the team, it will still have some money problems, and this winter the men coming to them with outstretched hands will be fully deserving players ready for contract extensions.
Matt Kemp is a fortnight from being named NL MVP and a year from free agency. If the Dodgers don't pony up to keep him for three or four years, they will still have to fork over eight figures via arbitration. Meanwhile, Clayton Kershaw qualifies for that process this winter too and is a candidate for a five- or six-year extension himself.
The Orioles have a solid quartet of very good positional assets. Nick Markakis, Adam Jones, Matt Wieters and J.J. Hardy are a good core around which to build.
The Orioles should trade at least two of them anyway.
Baltimore is a long way from contention. It's years away. Its pitching prospects have fallen apart, and it suddenly faces not two but four Goliaths in the AL East. The Orioles could get some solid pieces in deals for two or three of those guys who could be a part of the team when shortstop stud Manny Machado is finally ready to join the parent club and rally it back toward contention.
The Mets fit this description in too many ways for their tastes. Financially, the baseball operation is technically unhindered but functionally mitigated by Bernie Madoff and the trouble in which the Wilpons remain embroiled.
Competitively, it's even worse. The Mets are not awful, but they're not great. Their farm system is weak but has improved in the past 18 months. Unfortunately, they suddenly play in a division as chock-full of juggernauts as its AL counterpart.
The Phillies you know about, but the Braves' barrage of arms and the Nationals' stunning expenditures on talent over the past few years in every market have left the Mets staring at three teams both better off right now and better stocked for the future.
GM Sandy Alderson might make his top priority simply trading away David Wright and getting useful prospects in return.
Andrew McCutchen does not care that the Pirates last had a winning year in 1992, and neither should you.
Pittsburgh took its first halting steps toward a turnaround in 2011, staying competitive up to the trade deadline despite some seriously lacking areas. It's an exciting time to be a Pittsburgh baseball fan, and the Pirates should be proud of what they are building.
At the same time, if it's important to avoid dwelling on 1993-2010, it's even more crucial not to overestimate 2011. The team had more flaws than strengths, more liabilities than assets, and though it's time to pay McCutchen to stick around a while, there's no reason for the Pirates to overpay a Bruce Chen or Mark Buehrle this winter in what would be an empty effort to suddenly win in 2012.
Trading Joel Hanrahan would be a wiser course.
The Mariners cannot afford to get discouraged by the consistent failure of players in whom they have invested over the past half decade offensively. They need to keep searching for offensive assets. It's just time to stop chasing right-handed power hitters to put at Safeco Field.
Seattle need not limit itself, by the way, by refusing to consider right fielders. Ichiro is officially in severe decline, and acting as though he will be back as a regular in 2012 is a bad baseball idea, regardless of the business benefits.
Ozzie Guillen kick-started the Miami Marlins era in a huge way when he was named their manager in September. That is not the only change Florida will make, though.
Logan Morrison could be shopped. Stray reports have linked the team to James Shields and similarly available pitchers. Aramis Ramirez would make an abundance of sense for the team, which needs more offense out of third base.
One way or another, the Marlins are going to turn over this roster in the hope of filling their new home as often as possible in 2012.
The Royals continue to block Lorenzo Cain with unnecessary expenditures, like Jeff Francoeur's extension. Otherwise, though, every young player worth a long look has gotten it over the past year in Kansas City, and the trend will continue in 2012.
Could the Royals still sign a top-flight starting pitcher like C.J. Wilson and chase something next year? Sure. The good money, though, says they continue to patiently develop Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Alcides Escobar and others and wait one more season before supplementing their homegrown talent with outside help.
When the Ricketts family bought the Cubs, the change was vastly overrated. Inexplicably, the commentariat in Chicago waxed poetic about the way Ricketts would change the culture and the process of building a team. For two years, it was blatant hogwash.
For the last three weeks, it has been clear as day that those people were right from the beginning. Ricketts has done that which will turn the Cubs around best and most meaningfully, rather than fastest.
He brought in Theo Epstein, whose quotes since his hiring would have been rejected out of hand if handed over as a wish list by a Cubs fan in late September. Epstein now takes over the operation, and he will make the Cubs winners soon enough. It will not happen this winter, but it will begin this winter.
Rather than fighting for elite talent and ending up walking away from the table, the Padres under Jed Hoyer collected as many talented assets as they could over the past 18 months.
Hoyer is gone, but his legacy is nearly an entire starting rotation (Casey Kelly, Robbie Erlin and Joe Wieland); first-division futures at two positions (center fielder Cameron Maybin and first baseman Anthony Rizzo); and a top-six farm system that was barren a mere two years ago.
It's a formula for long-term success.
The Angels have a dynamic rotation duo in Jered Weaver and Dan Haren. They have a pair of excellent young outfielders in Mike Trout and Peter Bourjos. They have a supporting cast including Jordan Walden, Ervin Santana, Howie Kendrick and Torii Hunter of whom many teams might be jealous.
Unfortunately, that's about it, and the lack of depth either on the big-league roster or in the minors puts the Angels at a huge competitive disadvantage in a matchup with the Texas Rangers. Texas is the deepest, best organization in the game, and without the secondary talent to back up those top-tier players, the Angels just can't match them.
Mike Napoli sure would help.
For reasons surpassing understanding, the Rockies decided sometime in July that Ubaldo Jimenez was an untenable investment at the rate of roughly $18 million through 2014—two-thirds of that tied to club options the last two years of the contract.
They worked hard to find a trading partner, haggled to the deadline with the Indians and ended up getting two overrated pitching prospects for their sometime ace. Jimenez now is in Cleveland, where they can keep him only through 2013.
Colorado has Drew Pomeranz and Alex White to show for its endeavor—hardly sufficient return. It can hope and dream on these two all it wants, but the upside is basically that Pomeranz is someday as good as Jimenez and White fills out the back end of the rotation. The Rockies need to put forth more efficient, productive effort this winter.
Jimenez is in the fold. Jason Kipnis and Lonnie Chisenhall got big old tastes of the big leagues in 2011. Chris Perez anchors an increasingly talented, multi-faceted bullpen. By declining Grady Sizemore's 2012 option, Cleveland could get the outfielder back for half as much money.
The Tigers punched out the Tribe emphatically in August, but this team's window to win is still very much ajar.
Jose Reyes should not top the Giants' offseason shopping list. He should be the list.
Power hitters will not return their full value at AT&T Park. The Giants need no more pitchers. What they need is a middle infielder who can at least field and preferably add to their crummy offense a modicum of dynamism.
Reyes fits that bill unlike any other player to hit the market the past five years. He is perfect for the Giants, who clearly intend to go big this year and seek another pennant.
Quoting poetry pushes the bounds of the premise, but this is the task Brewers GM Doug Melvin faces over the coming months. Prince Fielder is as good as gone. Milwaukee wisely opted not to pay Yuniesky Betancourt $6 million for next season's work but now needs to find a suitable shortstop.
The Brewers have just one season left in their realistic competitive window before Shaun Marcum and Zack Greinke could be gone, and the farm system will be taxed far beyond its abilities. They might seem to be lunging if they go after certain free agents this winter, but ultimately it will be the right thing to do.
The Nationals do not have to win in 2012. They took a huge forward step in 2011, coming one canceled game from finishing .500 for the first time since their move from Montreal.
The focus should be on building on that success, but that does not mean the same thing as improving upon it. Bryce Harper had a terrific debut season in pro baseball but still has growing and improvement to do before he is big-league-ready.
Stephen Strasburg need not be pushed past carefully prescribed limits in 2012. The Nationals can pursue Prince Fielder or a player with similar high-impact potential, but settling for a second-tier free agent who would still tie them up at all beyond next year would be folly.
No AL Central team is really projectable as a powerhouse going forward. The division was hideously bad in 2011. The Tigers, though, could settle in and win within their vacuum four or five times in the next six or seven years. They simply need to commit.
Miguel Cabrera is under contract for a long time; so is Justin Verlander. The Tigers have three more years of Victor Martinez and team control over (among others) Austin Jackson, Alex Avila, Max Scherzer, Doug Fister, Rick Porcello and Jacob Turner. That nucleus will not vault Detroit into the World Series absent some good luck, but it can consistently get the Tigers close within their current environment.
GM Dave Dombrowski should spend his winter pondering a move to strengthen third base or a corner outfield position. Aramis Ramirez plays poor defense at the hot corner but would solidify the middle of the Tigers order nicely.
Fan disinterest and poor support have left the Rays the unenviable task of competing in the modern MLB without sufficient resources to do so. It has not yet caught up to them. Since 2008, the Rays have been a bastion of player development, acquisition savvy, process and comparative advantage. They believe in their model, and it has worked three times in four years.
It won't work much longer. No more are they getting elite talent from the draft, as they have not drafted within the top 10 since 2008. Their farm system is getting shallower, and not just because they are graduating prospects. The team disappointed some observers by not being more aggressive with the record number of picks it held in the 2011 draft. It cannot afford to do even that, it seems.
The Rays are a group run by very smart people and will remain competitive as long as external factors allow. The question now is whether those external forces are closing in faster than Andrew Friedman, Gerry Hunsicker and company can fend them off.
Alex Anthopoulos was brilliant to lock Jose Bautista up as affordably as he did prior to Bautista's superstar season in 2011. That helps Toronto have both cost certainty and flexibility as it moves into the next phase of its long rebuild.
Now, it's time to flash a little more cash. The Jays have Bautista, Yunel Escobar, Brett Lawrie, Colby Rasmus and J.P. Arencibia in place. They have Ricky Romero. But they will need much more pitching depth and even a bit more offensive punch to compete with the titans of their division.
They have the cash to do so. Rogers Communications owns the Jays, and they have a world of money to spend. They simply need to see sufficient reason to open their pocketbooks. Anthopoulos can provide it. He has his eye on Yu Darvish, Prince Fielder and/or David Ortiz this offseason and could push to make those dreams reality. If he does, the Jays are contenders overnight.
The Cardinals just won the World Series. They did it. On a wild gambit, they pushed Chris Carpenter harder than any pitcher has been pushed since 2001. He faced more batters this season than anyone since Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling that year. He faced more in World Series play than anyone since Jack Morris in the 1991 World Series.
The Cardinals got a huge game from Albert Pujols when it counted. They got terrific performances from a bullpen they assembled with this moment in mind.
Now comes the hard part. If anything, the urgency the organization showed in pursuing a championship puts the Cardinal futures of Pujols and Tony La Russa in further doubt. The team has that fine bullpen for a while but gave up dynamic center fielder Colby Rasmus to get it.
They will get Adam Wainwright back, but statistically, the odds are that Carpenter will break down after such an immense workload this year. It hardly matters. The honeymoon of winning it all this way will carry them through 2012 and onward. But this team has some questions to answer this winter, to be sure.
Because Arizona surprised people with its 2011 emergence and improbable playoff appearance, the feeling has been that it was somehow a fluke, a shooting star destined to fall as fast as it rose.
That's a laugh.
Arizona has a solid GM in Kevin Towers, a man with a long and impressive track record of winning without excessive resources at his disposal. It has Justin Upton locked into a long-term deal. Ditto shortstop Stephen Drew, who (lest we forget) was injured midseason and lost for the year in 2011. Chris Young is under contract, and so is J.J. Putz.
Ian Kennedy, Daniel Hudson, Ryan Roberts, Gerardo Parra and Miguel Montero all remain under team control, although a few will become more expensive this winter. Arizona has even more help on the way, with pitching prospect Jarrod Parker nearly ready and 2011 top pick Trevor Bauer already being discussed as a candidate for its starting rotation next season.
If Towers goes out this winter and adds a solid second or third baseman or even nabs a Carlos Pena type to beef up first base, the Diamondbacks might well surpass their own 2011 achievements in 2012.
Can someone please explain how this team missed the playoffs but two NL Central squads made it?
The Reds had a massively disappointing follow-up to their 2010 NL Central title. Yet the pieces are all still in place for the team to win in 2012. Johnny Cueto leads a fair rotation, one that could be tremendously improved by trading Yonder Alonso or Joey Votto out of their reserve of elite first basemen.
Both Drew Stubbs and Jay Bruce underperformed in 2011; they will bounce back. Brandon Phillips and Scott Rolen will be back. Devin Mesoraco could well step in as starting catcher by Opening Day and is an asset there. The Reds are Clint Barmes and a well-timed trade for pitching away from a division title next season.
The Phillies have so focused on making room for their remarkable, historic pitching staff over the past few years that both their batting and their fielding have atrophied and declined.
This team, though filled with many of the same names, is not the same one that used to strike fear in opposing pitchers a few years ago, and it does not catch the ball as well either.
Jimmy Rollins probably should be back, but the Phillies will look long and hard at places to make upgrades elsewhere. Trading Cole Hamels has to be on the table. Still, too much turnover would be as bad as too much pitching. These Phils were the best team in the NL and need to keep that in mind.
The clubhouse situations were blown far out of proportion in Boston after their very Bostonian collapse to end the season. That kind of thing happens all over the league.
What was not blown out of proportion, though, was the team's overall hyper-aggression. In the last months of the Theo Epstein era, the Red Sox became mindless consumers, swallowing whichever big free agents or trade targets landed in their jaws. It backfired, especially with John Lackey.
The Carl Crawford deal will work itself out and wasn't such an awful decision. Still, Ben Cherington would do well to kick off his GM tenure by leading the team down a more moderate course this winter.
Maybe the Yankees could not woo Cliff Lee to New York with $150 million, but incumbency is a huge advantage, and they will be able to keep CC Sabathia for that much. After that, how much the team improves its dreadful starting rotation depends upon how much GM Brian Cashman is willing to spend.
Yu Darvish will be available. So will C.J. Wilson, Edwin Jackson and a handful of attractive trade options. The Yankees could be best-suited to one of those, ideally James Shields, although the divisional trade stigma might stand in the way of progress for both sides there.
Do the Braves need to improve in order to finish the season stronger next season and make the playoffs? Yes. Do they need to go far outside the organization to do so? Not remotely.
Atlanta has young pitchers the way Charlie Sheen has substance-abuse issues. The genre would be ill-defined without their example. Tommy Hanson, Tim Hudson, Jair Jurrjens, Brandon Beachy and Mike Minor all figure to be on the roster from Opening Day next season. Julio Teheran and Randall Delgado will be there within a month, if not immediately.
To a bullpen already stocked with Craig Kimbrel, Jonny Venters and Eric O'Flaherty, the team will be able to add Arodys Vizcaino. Kris Medlen will be back from surgery and can contribute to that corps as well.
Derek Lowe is utterly without place on that squad and could easily be traded. That might help the team address its offensive deficiency, but then Michael Bourn and Jason Heyward will each be much, much better next year, so only some improvement is necessary. The name of the game in Atlanta is stability, and if it weren't that, it would be run prevention.
The Rangers have money to spend this winter and can improve their roster. They have every right to pursue whomever they want. The only cautionary note they need to consider is this: Losing the last game of two straight seasons is not a terrible fate.
Texas is the class of MLB right now. It has the best organization in terms of current talent, leadership, process and player development. It also has huge resources, including a TV rights mega-deal that kicks in in 2014.
They have lost two consecutive World Series, as did the 1991-92 Atlanta Braves, but have the kind of core and the kind of wherewithal to do as the Braves did and simply come back in the following season as the best team again.
The Braves won the World Series, at long last, in 1995. Texas hopes it will not have to wait until 2014 to win it all, but so long as the Rangers hold their noble course and don't go ransacking the joint over this loss, they will win soon enough.