MLB Teams That Can Pull off Full Offseason Makeovers, Contend in 2017
MLB's offseason represents an opportunity for every team to start fresh.
Bloated contracts and payroll limitations often hinder franchises from living out fantasies of total transformations. Others are hamstrung by fear of the status quo.
The key is winning the offseason without being the team obsessed with winning the offseason. Last year, that dubious honor went to the Arizona Diamondbacks, who went backward in an eager attempt to contend.
Meanwhile, the Chicago Cubs, San Francisco Giants and Boston Red Sox orchestrated playoff bids with major free-agent signings. None of them needed a complete overhaul, but the upgrades went a long way.
Some organizations need a minor tweak via a signing or trade. Others call for more intense makeovers. No squad will burn the entire roster to the ground; a few noteworthy maneuvers mark major change in the grand scheme of things.
Due to shedding salary or storing an overlooked bounty of talent, these teams have the opportunity to contend after missing the playoffs in 2016. Some are close. Others will need everything to fall in line with brilliant front-office planning and a sprinkle of luck.
Arizona had a splashy, yet awful offseason last year. If new management steers it to a smarter path, it has the talent to jump back into contention.
Hired to replace Dave Stewart, general manager Mike Hazen acknowledged that he has inherited some prominent pieces, per John Marshall of the Associated Press.
"There are some great players here, and my job is to help bring this franchise to the next level," Hazen said during his introductory news conference. "It's an enormous responsibility, and we're here to make a commitment to the fans. First and foremost, we're here to win a championship."
He has a luxury not every club possesses: a bona fide superstar in first baseman Paul Goldschmidt. Even if the old regime overpaid Zack Greinke, the veteran starter should improve the worst ERA of his career (4.37) since 2005.
The Diamondbacks' deep offense is also a great problem most teams will envy. If A.J. Pollock and David Peralta return healthy, they'd join Yasmany Tomas, Peter O'Brien and utility man Brandon Drury in a crowded outfield.
Trading one—preferably Tomas if his 31 homers cover his horrible defense—or more could help the Diamondbacks fortify their middle infield or pitching staff. Selling high on third baseman Jake Lamb also merits consideration.
Getting Dansby Swanson, Ender Inciarte and a talented young arm like Aaron Blair would solve a lot of their problems. But what kind of front office would give those guys away?
Shelby Miler isn't the ace Stewart and Co. foolishly anticipated, but he can at least recover into a solid mid-rotation starter. Southpaw Robbie Ray, meanwhile, is the real breakout candidate after accruing 218 strikeouts in 2016.
Welcoming back Pollock and acquiring some pitching (starters and relievers) at more reasonable prices could complete the club's original plan to fortify its mound presence.
Good news for those not patient enough to wait another year: Sports Illustrated already declared the Houston Astros 2017 champions on a 2014 cover. Two years later, the premature prediction doesn't seem far-fetched.
Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa and George Springer give Houston's offense an elite young nucleus. After a rough welcoming, Alex Bregman showed signs of joining them as another future star. An upgraded supporting cast and bounce-back season from Dallas Keuchel would bolster the Astros back into the title hunt.
With Houston's fortunes rising, management has shown an increased willingness to spend. The Astros' Opening Day payroll has spiked by over $20 million in each of the last three years.
Following years of frugality, the Cubs splurged on Ben Zobrist, John Lackey and Jason Heyward last winter. The Astros reside in a similar situation where they can accompany young, cost-effective studs with meaningful veteran additions.
Unfortunately for them, their biggest need is starting pitching, and options are limited. As Doug Fister's contract expires, Rich Hill, Jeremy Hellickson, Ivan Nova or Bartolo Colon would represent a notable upgrade.
Last year's highest-paid player by a significant margin, Colby Rasmus is probably on the way out as well. Perhaps they can poach Ian Desmond from the Texas Rangers and/or acquire a corner-outfield slugger (Brandon Moss, Mark Trumbo, Josh Reddick, Michael Saunders).
Even after promoting several top prospects over the past two seasons, the Astros still boast a deep farm system to leverage into one or two major league contributors. Expect them to approach spring as one of baseball's top contenders.
Los Angeles Angels
This is a stretch, as the Los Angeles Angels are barren besides Mike Trout. This renovation does not include plans to trade the superstar outfielder, a transcendent talent who has delivered MVP-caliber production in all five seasons of his brilliant career.
Despite Trout leading baseball in WAR (9.4), the team finished 74-88 with an American League-worst 4.62 fielding independent pitching (FIP). They certainly need another bat, but pitching ruined any chance of a decent season.
That will happen when a team lets Jered Weaver make 31 starts. With stuff making Ryan Merritt resemble a flamethrower in comparison, the 34-year-old registered a 5.06 ERA and 5.62 FIP while serving up 37 long balls. The Angels will not only move on, but also shed $20.2 million off their payroll.
C.J. Wilson's $20.5 million salary also exits the books. The southpaw didn't pitch for them all year, so that's over $40 million in dead weight an aggressive organization can spend in free agency.
Without many aces on the market, they shouldn't repeat their past mistakes and overpay a decent hurler. Instead, the Angels should hope for better health from Garrett Richards, Matt Shoemaker and Tyler Skaggs while finding another cost-effective veteran to join Ricky Nolasco.
They should buy hitting instead: Find a second baseman (Neil Walker?) and outfielder (Dexter Fowler?) and improve the pitching staff with bullpen upgrades.
Everything crumbled around Trout, but the Angels still recorded a minus-10 run differential, which yields an 80-82 expected record. A healthier pitching staff, a few key free-agent signings and a bit more luck could quietly vault them back into the playoff hunt.
New York Yankees
The New York Yankees already began their remodeling during the summer, trading several key veterans (Carlos Beltran, Aroldis Chapman and Andrew Miller) while not so gently nudging Alex Rodriguez out the door.
Yankees fans should not lament Chapman and Miller both participating prominently in playoff runs, as they received a significant return for both relievers. Due to Gary Sanchez's Babe Ruthian debut, the Evil Empire still avoided its first losing season since 1992.
Even with one eye on the future, they have enough assets to stay in the playoff hunt.
Sanchez, Aaron Judge and a returning Greg Bird—who missed all of 2016 with a torn labrum in his right shoulder—will lead the Baby Bombers into a new era. After saying farewell to Rodriguez while crossing Mark Teixeira's $23.1 million off the payroll, they have the space and money to pair those youngsters with more productive veteran mentors.
Don't put it past the Yankees to reload rather than retool. Bleacher Report's Joel Reuter graded them as baseball's best farm system after their deadline haul. They have the talent to chase premium starters who stayed put in the summer, such as Chris Sale, Jose Quintana and Sonny Gray. If that's setting the bar too high, look for them to at least ascertain one or two mid-level starters.
Shortly after general manager Brian Cashman built a world-beating bullpen, he has a chance to restore late-inning dominance by bringing back Chapman or another star reliever (Kenley Jansen or Mark Melancon).
He may also continue to have his cake and eat it, too, sustaining a competitive club while getting younger. Sanchez's emergence makes catcher Brian McCann expendable, especially with left-handed sluggers (Moss, Pedro Alvarez, Adam Lind) available to exploit Yankee Stadium's short porch in right field.
This isn't the year for a spending spree. That time could come in 2019, when Bryce Harper and Manny Machado will lead a loaded free-agent class if they don't sign extensions first. These aren't George Steinbrenner's Yankees playing for a championship or bust, but they can stay within their recent 84-87 win range without sacrificing a bright future.
Tampa Bay Rays
The Tampa Bay Rays took a major step back in 2016, accumulating their worst record (68-94) since ditching the Devil in 2008. Down year aside, they don't sound interested in a complete teardown.
Per the Tampa Bay Times' Marc Topkin, president Matt Silverman is "hellbent on getting this team back into contention":
We have a lot of the guys in house, but we're going to need to make some changes and we're going to need to bring in some new players, too. The core is intact, the core is talented, and if you listen to the players talk, if you listen to Kevin [Cash] and the coaches, they will tell you, too. There is still a lot of confidence, there is still a lot of optimism within our clubhouse, and that bodes well for next year.
So don't expect the Rays to move long-standing franchise cornerstone Evan Longoria. Rather than selling low on Chris Archer, they need to guide the ace back to 2015 form. The pitching staff betrayed them with an underwhelming 4.20 ERA, but Archer, Jake Odorizzi, Blake Snell, Drew Smyly and Alex Cobb are a far more talented crew than most contenders have cobbled together.
Tampa Bay has made a habit of pawning off emerging young pitchers and replenishing its rotation from within. That trend could continue with Smyly or Odorizzi following Matt Moore out the door. The Rays have some underrated position players in Logan Forsythe, Brad Miller and defensive whiz Kevin Kiermaier, but they can use another bat.
Barring more injuries, the Rays roster has too much talent to lose another 94 games. Based on their minus-41 run differential and 77-85 expected record, no team finished further below their Pythagorean projections.
They're also never shy to wheel and deal, and they hold few vital cornerstones outside of Longoria and Archer. If Silverman is truly "hellbent" on improvement, his club could enter 2017 with a wildly different look.