MLB Teams That Could Surprise with Huge 2016-17 Offseason Splashes

Seth Gruen@SethGruenFeatured ColumnistNovember 22, 2016

MLB Teams That Could Surprise with Huge 2016-17 Offseason Splashes

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    Like the action on the field, Major League Baseball doesn't always follow the offseason script outsiders anticipate.

    Big-market clubs don't always make the biggest splashes. And teams we expect to stay silent sometimes emerge as the offseason's biggest surprises. So as we embark on a winter that could see an unusual number of trades, let's take a look at which teams could come up with unexpected hot-stove moves.

    Could those clubs end up doing the same once the 2017 season ends?

Philadelphia Phillies

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    The Phillies fooled most baseball watchers with a 2016 season that started red-hot. The team was as close as a half-game back in the NL East on May 18 and took a .500 record into June.

    But then Philadelphia regressed to expectation.

    The Phillies are undergoing a rebuild, and their fourth-place finish in the NL East was more a representation of their true talent.

    While many from the Phillies' deep farm system have yet to matriculate to the major leagues, 2017 is expected to be another year in which they won't contend.

    However, the New York Post's Joel Sherman speculated (h/t Joe Giglio of NJ.com) on the club's interest in free-agent outfielder Yoenis Cespedes. 

    Should they make such a signing, it may indicate the Phillies are trying to contend for the playoffs in 2017 and accelerate their rebuild, as Cespedes is 31 and doesn't have many prime years left. 

    Given the current expectations for Philadelphia—which lags behind the Washington Nationals and New York Mets in the division—in 2017, their signing the top available free-agent position player would be surprising.

Atlanta Braves

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    One of baseball's worst teams in 2016 could be the sport's unofficial offseason champ this winter.

    The Braves are rumored to have interest in Chicago White Sox pitcher Chris Sale, according to David O'Brien of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. That would be a strange turn for an organization that appears to be rebuilding.

    Don't forget: This is the team that last offseason dealt starting pitcher Shelby Miller and left-handed pitching prospect Gabe Speier to the Arizona Diamondbacks in a trade in which shortstop Dansby Swanson, baseball's No. 4 prospect, according to MLB.com, was the centerpiece.

    The Braves should still be laughing about that deal. Miller, thought to be the piece that would help Arizona contend in 2016, was sent to Triple-A at one point last season. Swanson hit .302/.361/.442 in 38 games with Atlanta, debuting in mid-August, and is a potential franchise player for the rebuilding Braves.

    Of course Chicago's left-handed starter is one of the game's best pitchers. Given his team-friendly contract (three years of club control remaining at $12 million to $13.5 million per season) and performance over the last four years (top-five finishes in AL Cy Young voting in each of those campaigns), the price to acquire him would be steep. Quite possibly, that deal may have to include Swanson.

    However, per O'Brien: "The Braves have said they're not at a point in their rebuild where they’re ready to trade top prospects to fill in gaps, but to get an ace they seem at least willing to consider changing that plan."

Toronto Blue Jays

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    Given the organization's financial circumstances and list of free agents, it's reasonable to conclude this offseason will be a net negative for the Toronto Blue Jays.

    Sluggers Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion, part of a 2016 squad that lost to the Cleveland Indians in the American League Championship Series, are free agents and may not return to the Blue Jays, who need to prioritize signing 2015 AL MVP Josh Donaldson to a long-term extension. The third baseman is signed through 2017, is arbitration-eligible prior to 2018 and is set to become a free agent thereafter.

    But the Blue Jays have been the center of early offseason rumors. Jon Morosi of MLB Network is reporting the club is interested in acquiring outfielders Dexter Fowler and Adam Eaton.

    Fowler, a center fielder, led off for the Chicago Cubs last season and is a free agent. Eaton is a right fielder whom the White Sox have under contract and could be under club control until 2021 if his employer picks up a pair of team options. So Toronto would need to orchestrate a trade for Eaton.

    But both would be notable moves that would help the Blue Jays compete in the AL East.

    According to FanGraphs, Eaton's 18.0 defensive runs saved ranked second among all outfielders. Fowler's 2.7 ranked 13th. Eaton would likely replace Bautista in right and be a significant upgrade over the 36-year-old's minus-eight DRS. Fowler, who improved as a fielder in 2016 and thus helped his free-agent stock, would slot into a corner outfield spot as well, as the Jays have Kevin Pillar in center.

    Both Fowler and Eaton are solid on-base guys. Fowler had a .393 OBP in 2016 and Eaton posted a .362 mark. That would be an asset in the Rogers Centre, which already plays as one of the baseball's most hitter-friendly stadiums, according to ESPN's Park Factors.

Cleveland Indians

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    Anyone calling the Indians a sleeper in 2017 should be laughed at. With its stellar pitching staff returning, Cleveland should be among the favorites to win the AL crown and return to the World Series for the second straight season.

    This mid-market team, however, is considered an underdog as far as offseason acquisitions are concerned.

    But eying another World Series, the organization could look to extend itself.

    First baseman Mike Napoli and outfielder Rajai Davis are free agents who may not return. That could leave open the possibility of signing a player like Ian Desmond.

    Desmond had a bounce-back season in 2016 after signing a one-year deal with the Texas Rangers. He hit .285/.335/.446 with 22 homers and 86 RBI and was a huge factor in Texas' repeating as AL West champs.

    Most notable, however, was that Desmond moved from his natural shortstop position to the outfield. He began the campaign in left field and moved to center, where he played well enough to allow his bat to thrive. Cleveland manager Terry Francona is likely to gush over his multiple-position versatility.

    He would offer the Indians an all-around upgrade from Davis, though his signing would be a surprise due to the fact that the Indians would have to cough up their first-round draft pick for him. In addition, Dave Cameron of FanGraphs projects him for a three-year, $51 million pact, a number that encompasses $10 million more projected dollars than Davis.

Los Angeles Angels

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    It's difficult to conceptualize that the game's best player, Los Angeles Angels center fielder Mike Trout, played on one of MLB's worst teams in 2016.

    But that was a product of the lack of talent around the 2016 AL MVP, save Albert Pujols. The team also suffered a spate of injuries to its pitching staff, most notably Garrett Richards. Given that Trout has either won the MVP or finished second in each of the last five seasons, the Angels might figure they are just one or two big acquisitions away from competing in the AL West.

    Kristie Ackert of the New York Daily News asserts that the Angels are "in the hunt" for free-agent outfielder Yoenis Cespedes. He is one of the biggest names of the offseason and would fill in a big hole next to Trout and Kole Calhoun in the Angels outfield.

    The team could also look to trade for Cincinnati Reds second baseman Brandon Phillips, who, even at 0.9 WAR, would represent a solid option for a team that was 28th in the majors in FanGraphs WAR (minus-0.6) at the position.

    The key in such a deal would be getting Phillips to waive his no-trade clause, which has been an issue when the Reds have tried to shop him in the past.

    The Angels have two choices: rebuild their farm system by trading Pujols and Trout or build around the game's best player by being aggressive this winter.

    Odds are, given Trout's otherworldly talent, the latter is the likelier direction.

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