MLB Teams Quietly Having Strong 2016 Offseasons
Winter isn't only a time for trades and free-agent signings but a chance for speculation.
Attention goes to those who write the biggest checks or complete the most notable deals. Teams can win by spending money or selling off prospects. It's not always a guarantee, though.
Smaller deals are made, and smaller-market teams receive less attention—and sometimes, a combination of the two pays the biggest dividends in an upcoming season.
They just don't get noticed until the season starts, if not later.
Let's change that by recognizing the unrecognized—under-the-radar teams that have had strong offseasons.
No team has been more active this offseason than the Houston Astros, who were among the American League West favorites prior to the 2016 season but finished third. Their response has been to try to upgrade the talent around MLB's best middle infield—shortstop Carlos Correa and second baseman Jose Altuve.
It seems, though, that teams in the AL West oft go unnoticed. This despite the fact the Astros came out of nowhere to sign designated hitter Carlos Beltran (.295/.337/.513 with 29 homers and 93 RBI in 2016) to a one-year, $16 million contract—edging out the Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees.
Houston also signed outfielder Josh Reddick to a four-year deal. Reddick hit .281/.345/.405 in 2016 with the Oakland Athletics and Los Angeles Dodgers.
Both hitters should upgrade an Astros lineup that ranked 15th in runs scored and 24th in batting average last season. Beltran is a switch-hitter; Reddick bats from the left side. Houston badly needed capable left-handed hitting.
Correa and Altuve are right-handed hitters, and Beltran could hit between them in the lineup.
Chicago White Sox
Teams that better themselves for the upcoming season are typically rewarded with offseason accolades. Everyone loves immediate gratification.
That's why the Chicago White Sox haven't gotten the fanfare they deserve in national baseball circles. Baseball fans in Chicago recognize what the organization accomplished during this past week's winter meetings, but it has been talked about less outside MLB's third-largest market.
When general manager Rick Hahn boarded a plan to head for the winter meetings in Washington, D.C., he owned one of baseball's poorest minor league systems. He returned to Chicago not only with one of its best, but also with the possibility of improving his group of prospects even more.
The White Sox dealt starting pitcher Chris Sale in a trade that netted them Yoan Moncada, the best prospect in baseball, among others. Then they shocked the baseball world by getting an unexpected haul from the Washington Nationals for Adam Eaton—one that included Lucas Giolito, the top pitching prospect in the game.
With interest in several players remaining on Chicago's roster, the White Sox could continue adding to their already impressive group of prospects.
The Chicago Cubs can't do much these days without receiving attention. President of baseball operations Theo Epstein can sneeze and it might earn a headline.
But the Cubs have sufficiently managed to blend in with the rest of baseball this winter, namely targeting an area that has little sex appeal: the bullpen.
Chicago dealt outfielder Jorge Soler, who wouldn't have had an everyday spot in the 2017 lineup, to the Kansas City Royals in exchange for closer Wade Davis. Yes, Davis is a big-time closer.
But this offseason, people didn't mention him in the same breath as free-agent closers Mark Melancon (signed with the San Francisco Giants), Aroldis Chapman (signed with the New York Yankees) and Kenley Jansen (yet to sign).
It appeared the Cubs might pursue one of the three, especially after sending a boatload of prospects to the Yankees for Chapman at the trade deadline last season.
Still, the Cubs managed to vastly improve their bullpen, perhaps more so than any team so far this winter. In addition to the Davis trade, the Cubs acquired left-handed relievers Brian Duensing (free agency) and Caleb Smith (trade with the Milwaukee Brewers). Evan Drellich of the Boston Herald reported Thursday that 41-year-old Koji Uehara was close to signing a one-year deal with Chicago.
By acquiring the aforementioned lefties, the team can move Mike Montgomery, who pitched out of the bullpen after the Cubs traded for him near the deadline last season and earned the final out in Game 7 of the World Series, into the fifth spot in the starting rotation. Jason Hammel vacated that spot, as the club bought out his contract.
San Francisco Giants
No team had a more critical task to accomplish this offseason than the Giants, who desperately needed to add a closer to their detrimental bullpen.
San Francisco led baseball in blown saves last season, but its problems went on national display in the NLDS when the bullpen blew a number of late-inning leads against the Cubs.
A blown save in Game 4 allowed the Cubs to clinch the series in San Francisco. A Giants win would have sent the series back to Chicago for a decisive fifth game.
So the team went out and signed Mark Melancon, who saved 131 games over the last three seasons.
The Giants have made no other notable moves this offseason, which is likely why they've remained in the periphery of talk this winter. But it's possible no singular signing will do more for a team's World Series aspirations.
With a capable closer, the Giants might have beaten the Cubs in the NLDS. San Francisco, with its starting duo of Madison Bumgarner and Johnny Cueto, would have been favored in the NLCS over the division rival Dodgers.
And then who knows? We might still be talking about even-year magic. As such, Melancon may have flipped the script. We should now consider San Francisco a serious contender in 2017.
Toronto Blue Jays
With the three-headed monster of Josh Donaldson, Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion, Toronto Blue Jays fans were used to watching the team win with overwhelming power.
Each of those three has 40-homer potential, and the trio was the catalyst to back-to-back playoff appearances over the last two seasons.
With Encarnacion and Bautista both free agents and unlikely to re-sign, Toronto's roster will sport a different look in 2017. But nonetheless, it's one that should excite fans.
The Blue Jays signed first basemen Kendrys Morales and Steve Pearce. Both figure to slot as the team's designated hitter as well.
Morales is a switch-hitter who hit .330/.369/.560 against lefties from the right side of the plate in 2016. Pearce is a right-handed hitter who slashed .309/.411/.617 against southpaws last season. In an AL East division that boasts more dominant left-handed pitchers than any other in baseball, both players could play a huge role in Toronto's attempt to contend for the division crown.
David Price, Drew Pomeranz and Chris Sale are all left-handed pitchers who will be in Boston's starting rotation. The Yankees (Chapman) and Orioles (Zach Britton) both will use left-handed closers. New York's CC Sabathia and Baltimore's Wade Miley are less coveted left-handers who figure into each respective team's starting rotation in 2017.