Each MLB Team's Biggest Obstacle to Becoming an Offseason Winner
It will be several months before the big winners of Major League Baseball's 2018-2019 offseason are crowned. Every team has obstacles in its way to such an honor.
We focused on the biggest obstacle for each of MLB's 30 teams. For buyers, these cover payroll and farm system constraints, as well as more general difficulties. For everyone else, it's more about a shortage of valuable trade chips or an overall lack of direction.
We'll go in alphabetical order by city.
Arizona Diamondbacks: Uncertain Markets for Paul Goldschmidt and Zack Greinke
According to Jon Heyman of Fancred, the Arizona Diamondbacks are willing to listen to trade offers for everyone, including first baseman Paul Goldschmidt and starting pitcher Zack Greinke. In theory, either or both could fetch a haul on the trade market.
It's not that straightforward, however.
Greinke is still a fantastic pitcher, but he's also 35 years old and only halfway through his $206.5 million contract. Per Heyman, one executive believes the D-backs would have to eat a third of the $104.5 million Greinke is still owed to move him. And that might be for a mere salary dump.
Goldschmidt is plenty fantastic in his own right, yet he's 31 and only a year from free agency. That limits his market to win-now teams. Not all of them have a glaring need at first base.
In short, the D-backs' two best players don't double as ideal trade chips. That could make it difficult for them to make the pivot they apparently desire.
Atlanta Braves: They May Be Out on Bryce Harper and Manny Machado
They may have some self-imposed limits, however. Specifically, ones that preclude them from handing out a megadeal to Bryce Harper or Manny Machado.
"We can be in on any player. We certainly have the dollars to do that," general manager Alex Anthopoulos said on MLB Network Radio on Nov. 4. "That said, I don't know that it makes a lot of sense … to do deals that are 10 years in length and longer at significant dollars with the payroll that we have."
Anthopoulos seemed to be alluding to the fact that the franchise has never had a payroll north of $125 million. Evidently, there's a hesitation to stretch those limits.
Which is a shame, given that the Braves have an opening for Harper in right field and a place for Machado at third base.
Baltimore Orioles: They Lack Shiny Trade Chips
According to Bob Nightengale of USA Today, the Baltimore Orioles are set to hire Mike Elias as their new general manager.
Elias' experience with the Houston Astros taught him a thing or two about how to pull off a top-to-bottom rebuild. That will serve him well in Baltimore, where a rebuild is already underway.
And yet, it won't be easy for Elias to accelerate it.
He would need to cash in as many veterans for prospects and/or long-term payroll flexibility as possible. Unfortunately for him, the team's best trade chip is probably right-handed reliever Mychal Givens. After him, it's a bunch of sell-low candidates (Dylan Bundy) and immovable contracts (Chris Davis, Mark Trumbo and Alex Cobb).
The Orioles almost certainly can't make like the 2016 Chicago White Sox, who made a killing in trades of Chris Sale and Adam Eaton. Their rebuild may plod along accordingly.
Boston Red Sox: Harsh Luxury-Tax Penalties May Await
The Boston Red Sox are still glowing from one of the most dominant seasons in MLB history. But they also have needs to fill, and their payroll situation isn't conducive to filling them.
Boston is one of two teams to finish 2018 over the luxury-tax threshold. And according to Alex Speier of the Boston Globe, the Red Sox's projected commitments for 2019 are already over the $206 million threshold.
At best, the Red Sox would be hit with a 30 percent tax on overages if they spend between $206 million and $226 million. At worst, they'd be hit with an 87 percent tax and draft penalties if they go over $246 million.
This could force them to try to fill their needs (relievers, especially) on the cheap rather than doubling down on their 2018 success. If so, a repeat could be harder to come by.
Chicago Cubs: To Add, They May Have to Subtract
The Chicago Cubs are in a similar position to the Red Sox, minus the post-World Series glow.
With back-to-back disappointing seasons in their rearview, there's pressure on the 2016 champs to make changes this winter. However, the North Siders are already projected ($220.8 million) north of their 2018 payroll ($196 million) in 2019. To boot, they have MLB's No. 29 farm system to trade from.
Hence the speculation (mainly fueled by ESPN.com's Buster Olney) that the Cubs may have to trade from their major league roster to make substantial upgrades. A Kris Bryant trade is the nuclear option. Lesser options include deals of players such as Kyle Schwarber or Ian Happ.
To be fair, the Cubs could find ways to work their situation to their advantage. But if it was up to them, they'd surely just as soon have a ton of money and/or prospects with which to augment their roster.
Chicago White Sox: Their Money May Not Be Good Enough
The White Sox are still rebuilding, but they're ready to stop walking and start running.
"While we are not yet in a position realistically to be adding so-called finishing pieces, we are in a position where we need to be opportunistic with regards to the free-agent market," GM Rick Hahn told reporters Sept. 26.
The challenge they face, however, is in convincing free agents that it will be worth their while to join a team that's fresh off a 100-loss season.
That may not be difficult if the money is right. But if the money is equal and a player has a chance to join a legit win-now team instead of the White Sox, that player may prefer the easy choice.
Cincinnati Reds: A Stable Rotation May Be Out of Reach
The Cincinnati Reds are another team that's ready to start pushing its way out of a rebuild.
Though they're already projected to increase their payroll in 2019, even more spending is in order. Per Paul Daugherty of the Cincinnati Enquirer, the Reds may have as much as $30 million to spend this winter.
Their top targets are starting pitchers who can help rescue a rotation that put up a 5.02 ERA in 2018. According to Jon Heyman, they're willing to consider Patrick Corbin and Dallas Keuchel, as well as a reunion with Matt Harvey.
If they splurge for Corbin or Keuchel, however, there won't be a ton of money left over for additional starters. That's a complication, given that the Reds are certainly not one starter away from a functional rotation.
Moreover, it won't be easy for the Reds to sell pitchers on joining them. It would, after all, mean signing on with a 95-loss team that plays in a notorious bandbox.
Cleveland Indians: They May Struggle to Subtract, Add *and* Get Better
The Cleveland Indians have gone from losing to the Cubs in the 2016 World Series to kinda-sorta feeling their pain this winter.
Cleveland opened 2018 with a franchise-record $134.9 million payroll, and its costs are projected to balloon further in 2019. That's despite losing Michael Brantley, Josh Donaldson, Andrew Miller and Cody Allen to free agency.
Rather than escalate their expenses, it sounds like the Indians prefer to make moves without raising their payroll. Per Buster Olney, the Tribe are willing to listen to offers on everyone from Edwin Encarnacion to Carlos Carrasco and even Corey Kluber.
The question isn't so much whether the Indians can subtract from their roster and cut payroll, but whether they can do those things and get better than they were in 2018. They must do that, given that they were clearly inferior to the American League's three superteams: Boston, Houston and the New York Yankees.
Colorado Rockies: There May Not Be Enough Money to Fill All Their Needs
The Colorado Rockies, who won 91 games and made the playoffs in 2018, are obvious contenders for 2019. But perhaps more than any other, they have needs to fill.
Adam Ottavino's free agency opened a big hole in their bullpen. They also have a dire need for bats in their outfield and/or at second base and first base. An upgrade at catcher would be a good idea.
Trouble is, the Rockies may not be able to satisfy all or even most of their needs without going beyond their comfort zone with their payroll. Their payrolls have been trending upward, peaking at $137 million in 2018. Another step up is already in the cards for 2019, as the club's commitments are projected at $142.7 million.
This points to a limited budget for free agents, which is to say nothing of a possible extension for superstar third baseman Nolan Arenado.
Detroit Tigers: They Can't Sell High on Michael Fulmer
The Detroit Tigers' rebuild is progressing, and it should be aided by trades of Nicholas Castellanos, Shane Greene and/or Justin Wilson this winter.
The Tigers might also move Michael Fulmer. But if they do, it won't be for anything close to what he was worth at his peak.
Fulmer broke in as the AL's Rookie of the Year in 2016 and followed up his breakout with an All-Star campaign in 2017. Despite an elbow operation, he entered last winter as a golden trade chip with talent, youth (24 at the time) and controllability through 2022.
The Tigers might eventually cash Fulmer in. But it probably won't be this winter, which bars them from making their biggest possible splash.
Houston Astros: They Have Much to Offer but Also Many Needs to Fill
Coming off a 103-win season, the Astros have both money and prospects at their disposal this winter.
Their 2019 payroll is projected at $134.9 million, well below where they ended 2018 ($163 million). They also have MLB's No. 7 farm system to pull from in potential trades. These things should lead to an active winter, which in turn should keep them atop the AL West.
But more so than staying atop the division, Houston's goal is competing with the Red Sox and Yankees in 2019. The Astros need to be as strong as possible for that mission, which means filling as many needs as they can.
They have many of those. Free agency has opened up holes at catcher, in left field and, most especially, in their rotation. They must either re-sign or replace Keuchel and Charlie Morton, not to mention Lance McCullers Jr., who's out with Tommy John surgery.
The Astros might not check all these boxes without also exhausting their resources.
Kansas City Royals: They Don't Want to Commit to a Full Rebuild
The Kansas City Royals are rebuilding, but their preference is not to lean into it.
"When you say 'rebuild,' it creates the mindset or it builds in that it's OK to lose ballgames. Major league players are paid to win baseball games," GM Dayton Moore told reporters Oct. 18.
However, this doesn't necessarily mean the Royals will be spending this winter. According to Jon Heyman, their objective is to cut payroll by as much as $35 million.
Nor does it mean the Royals will cash in veteran assets for young talent. More than anyone else, they could do so with underrated star Whit Merrifield. But the Royals have been reluctant to trade him, and Sam Mellinger of the Kansas City Star doubts that will change this winter.
Add it all up, and it seems like Kansas City's plan for the winter includes a whole lot of...well, nothing.
Los Angeles Angels: A New Deal for Mike Trout May Be Out of Reach
Because they have more money and prospects to part with than people might think, the Los Angeles Angels are a sleeper bet for a splashy offseason.
The biggest move they can make would be to extend resident super-superstar Mike Trout. Though they've already done so once, his six-year, $144.5 million contract is due to end in 2020. As Jon Heyman reported in September, they've considered the idea of a "lifetime" contract for the 27-year-old.
This won't be easy.
Such a deal would almost certainly cost the Angels upward of $500 million, which is the kind of figure that could make their feet cold.
There's also the question of whether Trout wants to stick around. With free agency just two years away, he's bound to need convincing to stick with a franchise that hasn't won a playoff game during his eight-year tenure.
Los Angeles Dodgers: They May Have a Spending Cap
In addition to going to a second straight World Series, the Los Angeles Dodgers succeeded in getting under the luxury-tax threshold in 2018. So far this winter, they've already spent on Clayton Kershaw, Hyun-Jin Ryu and David Freese.
But how much more spending is in order?
It's a lot in theory, but perhaps less in reality. According to Bill Shaikin of the Los Angeles Times, a document prepared for potential investors contained a plan to stay under the luxury tax on a regular basis.
The Dodgers aren't legally bound to do so, of course. But if that is indeed their plan, further splashes may not be forthcoming this winter. The Dodgers are already set to spend $198.8 million in 2019. That doesn't leave room for, say, Bryce Harper.
As such, the Dodgers would be limiting their potential along with their payroll.
Miami Marlins: J.T. Realmuto May Have Hurt Their Trade Leverage
The Miami Marlins didn't reap much from last winter's trades of Giancarlo Stanton, Christian Yelich, Marcell Ozuna and Dee Gordon. It's imperative for their rebuild that they cash in big on J.T. Realmuto.
The 27-year-old catcher went into the offseason with plenty of trade value following his All-Star breakout. For their part, the Marlins may have been trying to pump up their leverage by going public with their desire to sign him to a contract extension.
Well, two can play that game. As Realmuto's agent, Jeff Berry, said on MLB Network Radio, Realmuto has no plans to sign an extension with Miami. Berry's expectation is that he "will definitely be wearing a different uniform" come 2019.
Because there are so many contenders with needs at catcher, the Marlins should still have enough leverage to swap Realmuto for a basket of prospects. Still, he didn't do their leverage any favors by effectively demanding a trade.
Milwaukee Brewers: Slim Avenues to Blockbusters
The Milwaukee Brewers proved that a team can indeed turn an offseason win into a huge season. Their double-whammy additions of Christian Yelich and Lorenzo Cain were pivotal for their 96-win 2018.
Because most of that team is due back for 2019, the Brewers don't have much on their shopping list this winter. They're in a position to be opportunistic instead, be it for starting pitchers or a catching upgrade.
But on the chance the Brewers feel compelled to do something big, that's where they could run into problems.
They're yet another team that's already projected to surpass its 2018 payroll in 2019. Indeed, their $117.5 million payroll would be the highest in the team's history. On top of that, their farm system has thinned out so much that it now checks in at No. 26 in MLB.
This doesn't bar the Brewers from going all-in again. But they're bound to think twice about it.
Minnesota Twins: Many Moves Lie Between Them and Contention
The Minnesota Twins didn't come up with much to show for their activity on last winter's market. They lost 84 games and missed the playoffs.
The foundation for a turnaround is in place. Rocco Baldelli was an inspired choice to replace Paul Molitor in the manager's chair. Perhaps just as important, the Twins have a ton of money to spend now, as well as zero guaranteed dollars on their books past 2019.
But Minnesota's list of needs runs long.
The Twins offense could use a few upgrades to ensure they don't rely too much on bouncebacks from Byron Buxton and Miguel Sano. They'd also be wise to revamp their bullpen.
Even if the Twins check all these boxes, they may only be good enough to contend with the Indians in the AL Central. Going up against Boston, Houston and New York is a whole 'nother matter.
New York Mets: Their New GM Needs a Blank Check from the Wilpons
Former agent Brodie Van Wagenen is the New York Mets' new general manager, and he wants to win now.
This will involve engineering an immediate turnaround from the club's 85-loss 2018. For that, the Mets could use a new catcher and/or an impact hitter, plus a starter and plenty of bullpen help.
To this end, Van Wagenen is aware that he can only do so much. He told reporters at his introductory press conference, "No GM or president of baseball operations has the ability to write the checks."
That's up to the Wilpons, who haven't been known as free-spending owners in recent years. And this wouldn't appear to be an opportune time for them to change. The team's projected costs for 2019 aren't that far below what it spent in 2018.
If a blank check isn't forthcoming, it may be bargain shopping for Van Wagenen and another disappointing year for the Mets.
New York Yankees: Fear of the Luxury Tax
The New York Yankees have the assets to do pretty much whatever they want this winter.
Their farm system still has enough in it for a blockbuster trade or two. There's also a lot of space between their projected 2019 payroll ($156.4 million) and where they ended 2018 ($181 million). And having gotten under the luxury tax for the first time, they face lighter penalties if they go over again.
However, GM Brian Cashman would prefer not to. The benefit, he says, is "to not line the pockets of opponents to use that [revenue] against us," per Sportsnet's Arash Madani.
More recently, Cashman clarified that he doesn't have a mandate to stay under the $206 million tax. But it seems that he and the Yankees are in the same boat as the Dodgers, in that the luxury tax is something to approach with caution rather than reckless abandon.
It's possible this will lead to restraint in what could otherwise be a wild offseason.
Oakland Athletics: They May Not Be Able to Double Down
Fresh off their surprise 97-win season, the Oakland A's plan to double down for 2019.
But only to an extent that suits them, as GM David Forst told reporters: "We've got a little more payroll [next] year than in the past, but I don't think we're going to shock anyone with huge deals."
As always, money is in short supply in Oakland. The A's ended last year at roughly $76 million. Already, they're projected to open 2019 at $86 million. That's about as high as the franchise has ever climbed.
The A's are better off with prospect depth, as they're sitting on MLB's No. 12 farm system. The best players within, however, are two guys they could harvest for the big club in 2019: left-hander Jesus Luzardo and catcher Sean Murphy.
All this may force the A's to do their usual thing of searching for bargains. Should they fail to find any, lightning might not strike twice.
Philadelphia Phillies: They Could Be a Tough Sell for FA Pitchers
The Philadelphia Phillies picked a good winter to have a lot of money to spend on their offense.
The club's projected commitments ($113 million) are far south of the franchise's payroll ceiling (2014's $177.7 million). There's plenty of flexibility to add free agents to an offense that finished 11th in the National League in runs.
The solution could be Harper or Machado, if not Harper and Machado. In addition to the money, either player might love the idea of hitting regularly at Citizens Bank Park.
But while all this is nice and good, the Phillies also need help on the mound. And that's where their sales pitch to prospective free agents is weaker. Their home park isn't nearly as friendly to pitchers as it is to hitters. To boot, the Phillies defense was terrible in 2018.
It may not be a huge complication, but it's a complication nonetheless.
Pittsburgh Pirates: Characteristically Limited Spending Power
If nothing else, the Pittsburgh Pirates set a solid jumping-off point for 2019 with their 82-win campaign. They just need a few pieces.
But as always, the question is what the Pirates can afford.
If they don't mind getting back to where they ended 2018 ($90 million), they have about $9 million to spend this winter. That money would be best used at shortstop and second base, where the Pirates have lost Jordy Mercer and Josh Harrison, respectively.
Alas, $9 million might not be enough to sign even DJ LeMahieu or Brian Dozier, much less somebody such as Machado. The Pirates are all but guaranteed to make bargain buys at both positions. In that case, neither spot may be better off than it was in 2018.
Considering how the Pirates need every advantage they can get in a tough NL Central, this disadvantage hurts.
San Diego Padres: The Timing Isn't Right to Go All-In
The San Diego Padres are ready to force the issue with their rebuild.
"[We're] starting to climb out of this point where it's a development mindset, where we're at the bottom part of the standings," GM A.J. Preller told reporters Sept. 30. "We have a lot of players that are starting to show they're big league-caliber players, that they're not minor league guys or prospects."
And yet, some restraint is in order. According to Dennis Lin of The Athletic, San Diego's real target for contention is 2020. That would indicate that the Padres won't try to build a contender overnight.
Besides, Preller already knows that such an effort wouldn't guarantee anything.
San Francisco Giants: They're More Than One Superstar Away
The San Francisco Giants have a new president of baseball operations in Farhan Zaidi. Scott Boras didn't waste any time before he urged him to get in on Harper.
"Certainly, Bryce is a perfect fit in a lot of cities, and San Francisco would be one of them," the agent said at the general managers meetings, according to John Shea of the San Francisco Chronicle.
The Giants are projected for a $166.1 million payroll in 2019, which is well below where they ended 2018 ($203 million). They also have a hole in right field that Harper could fill.
However, even Harper could only do so much for an offense that ranked 29th in runs per game in 2018. The Giants would need at least one more impact bat. After that, they'd need extra depth for their rotation and bullpen.
In short, a team that's lost 187 games since 2017 can't fix itself with one big splash.
Seattle Mariners: Many of Their Expensive Players Are Immovable
They don't want to tank, but the Seattle Mariners understand it's time for big changes.
"There's no reason for us to start from scratch," GM Jerry Dipoto told reporters. "But we do need to reassess where this roster is, and take a look at not just 2019 but how we catch the teams that are in front of us."
The Mariners have already dealt catcher Mike Zunino and outfielder Guillermo Heredia. Up next could be deals of James Paxton and Jean Segura, among others.
But as much as the Mariners may love to move Robinson Cano, Kyle Seager and Felix Hernandez, that won't happen. In sum, they have $205.4 million remaining on their contracts. That's a ton of money for three guys who are past both age 30 and their respective primes.
The Mariners can still reshape their roster. But they can't fix its biggest problem.
St. Louis Cardinals: They May Be Limited to One Blockbuster
With the Cubs seemingly stuck with their roster and the Brewers possibly content with theirs, there's an opening for the St. Louis Cardinals to make a move in the NL Central.
There are a number of plays they could make. An impact hitter such as Harper or Goldschmidt would fit well in their lineup. They could also use a relief ace or two. Or possibly something sturdy for a rotation that had durability issues in 2018.
But while the Cardinals are in a position to be aggressive, their means of doing so aren't ideal.
The Cardinals should be able to make one big-ticket addition this winter. Anything beyond that may be a stretch.
Tampa Bay Rays: Creativity Can Only Take Them so Far in the AL East
It would, however, be more like the Rays to keep looking for undervalued players they can get without sacrificing any prized assets. That's their thing in general, and it's not as if they're trying to build a contender in a day. This team won 90 games in 2018.
Bhe Rays' primary AL East competition won't let them catch up so easily. The Red Sox and Yankees were both 100-win clubs in 2018. And one way or another, both will enter 2019 as candidates to win 100 games again.
The Rays can't compete with that unless they go way out of their comfort zone and aim to reel in some big fish.
Texas Rangers: They're in No-Man's Land
Tanking involves selling off valuable veterans for valuable prospects. The Rangers are short on the former, and this may not be the best time to cash in youngsters such as Nomar Mazara, Joey Gallo and Jurickson Profar (all 25 or under).
As for the other extreme, the Rangers have payroll space to work with. But relative to their needs—pitching above all—it doesn't look like enough to solve all of their problems in the wake of a 95-loss season.
Even if the Rangers wanted to break their budget to try to build a contender for 2019, there's virtually no way they could climb to the top of the AL West power rankings. Not with the Astros, A's and Angels in their way.
In all, the Rangers aren't in a position to do much of anything this winter.
Toronto Blue Jays: They Can't Sell High on Stroman or Sanchez
When Sportsnet asked him in September, Toronto Blue Jays GM Ross Atkins didn't mind putting a number on when the team might be a playoff contender again: 2021.
Anyone who's not controlled through that season is a candidate to be traded in the meantime. That covers the majority of the Blue Jays roster, including Marcus Stroman, Aaron Sanchez, Justin Smoak, Kevin Pillar, Randal Grichuk, Ken Giles, Russell Martin and Kendrys Morales.
It wasn't long ago that Stroman and Sanchez would have been highly sought-after. Sanchez was the AL's ERA champion in 2016. Stroman was a Cy Young Award contender just last year.
Alas, times have gotten tough for both right-handers. Sanchez has put up a 4.72 ERA over only 28 starts since the beginning of 2017. Stroman made only 19 starts in 2018, and he struggled with a 5.54 ERA.
The Blue Jays might still be able to cash in both of them for big prospect packages, but it won't be this winter.
Washington Nationals: It's Not as Simple as Re-Signing Harper
According to Chelsea Janes of the Washington Post, the Washington Nationals extended a 10-year, $300 million offer to Harper in late September.
It isn't surprising that Harper chose not to accept it, but the team's point may have been to simply let him know he's wanted in Washington. The point almost certainly still stands. The Nationals are one of few clubs that can afford Harper, and his bat would still look good in the middle of their lineup.
But even if the Nats do bring Harper back, their work would be far from done. They would still need rotation depth underneath Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg, as well as a massive upgrade at catcher. A new second baseman would also be a good idea.
If anything, it might be better for the Nats to let Harper go and focus on their other needs. That could be their best avenue for keeping pace with the Braves and Phillies in the NL East.