Sunday, December 21, 2014
Winter Meetings Recap
The 2014-15 offseason has been a busy one. Jon Lester, Nelson Cruz, Pablo Sandoval, and Hanley Ramirez have all signed new long term deals in what has been a overall weak free agent class. Max Scherzer and James Shields remain on the market. The theme this offseason has been trades. The Athletics, Rays, and Braves have all been sellers; with Oakland most radically shaking up their roster. The Padres and Marlins have been known for their thriftiness in the past, but have been buyers this offseason. Both Chicago teams have made some major moves, while both Los Angeles teams have made some changes.
Below is a look at the active teams this offseason
Marlins Make a Big Splash
Miami raised some eyebrows when it gave Giancarlo Stanton a record 13 year, $ 325 million contract. This organization has a history of fire sales in the past, most recently after the 2012 season. Besides Stanton, the Marlins have emerging talents like outfielders Marcell Ozuna and Christian Yelich, shorstop Adeiny Hechaverria, and pitchers Jose Fernandez and Henderson Alvarez. The Marlins have a promising young core of players, but still had some holes coming into the offseason.
The Marlins struck a deal with the Dodgers to acquire second baseman Dee Gordon and pitcher Dan Haren. In return, they dealt away several prospects, including pitcher Andrew Heaney. Haren has hinted at retirement if he was traded, but hasn't indicated what his plans are. Gordon led the National League in steals last year, and will be the Marlins new leadoff hitter. Later, Miami struck a deal for Reds pitcher Mat Latos to beef up the rotation. Michael Morse was signed to take over first base, and Martin Prado will take over at third after coming over in a trade from the Yankees. With the Braves looking toward the future, the Marlins could be the Nationals main competition for the division crown next season.
Cubs Open the Checkbook
The Cubs hired Theo Epstein to run their baseball operations three years ago to rebuild their organization. Epstein had previously ran the Red Sox, and they ended a 86 year championship drought during his time there. There were big expectations despite that the Cubs were in horrible shape, and the new ownership was reluctant to spend money early on. Epstein focused his efforts on the farm system, and now the Cubs have several highly ranked offensive prospects. At the major league level, things haven't gone too well. Joe Maddon will be Epstein's third manager after two straight last place seasons.
Maddon is considered to be one of the best managers in baseball, and led the Rays to the playoffs four times. Managing the Cubs is a tough job, and frustrated prominent managers like Lou Piniella, Dusty Baker, Don Zimmer, and Leo Durocher in the past. There is a stigma on a Cubs franchise that hasn't won a World Series since Theodore Roosevelt was President, and not played in a World Series since World War II. Maddon will be the 50th different Cubs manager since their 1908 World Series championship.
Epstein was familiar with left hander Jon Lester from his Boston days, and lured Lester to Chicago by giving him a six year, $ 150 million deal. Lester gives the Cubs a big game pitcher and an ace, although a very expensive one. Right before the Lester deal, the Cubs worked out a deal with Arizona for catcher Miguel Montero. Chicago has also picked up Jason Motte and Jason Hammel. Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo both made the All Star team last year, and the Cubs will see what prospects Javier Baez, Aridsemy Alcantara, Jorge Soler, and Kris Bryant can do next season. The future looks better than it has in years for the Cubs, but they should temper their expectations. It's hard to take the World Series talk seriously. For a team that hasn't had a winning season since 2008, they should set realistic goals.
Who is A.J. Preller? Padres Make Big Moves
New GM A.J. Preller was a virtual unknown, but has made a name for himself in the past couple of weeks. Preller came from the Rangers organization with a player development background. The Padres have one of the game's better farm systems. At the major league level, they struggled to score runs, finishing dead last in the majors. Despite that, Bud Black's squad won 77 games, mostly due to their pitching. Preller has decided to aggressively address the Padres lack of offense with a series of deals.
The Padres unsuccessfully tried to lure Pablo Sandoval to San Diego early on in the offseason, but after he signed with Boston, Preller remained determined to make changes. Preller's first move was to acquire Matt Kemp from the Dodgers for Yasmani Grandal, Joe Weiland, and a prospect. The Dodgers had a logjam in the outfield and were looking to move the oft-injured Kemp and the remainder of his contract. Kemp has five years and $ 108 million left on his contract, and the Dodgers picked up $ 30 million in the deal. That would be the first of many moves.
The next move would be a deal to acquire 2013 AL Rookie of the Year Wil Myers from the Rays in a 3 team, 11 player trade that also included the Nationals. Myers had a sophomore slump, and the Rays have soured on him. Then, Preller traded for Athletics catcher Derek Norris to replace Grandal. The following day, Preller worked out a deal with the Braves for Justin Upton, and with Boston for third baseman Will Middlebrooks. The Padres have also worked out deals for pitchers Brandon Morrow and Josh Johnson.
The Padres dealt away 9 out of their 21 top prospects, but should have a much stronger offense next year. Despite that, Preller was able to hang on to the Padres top three prospects. Kemp, Myers, and Upton may not be the best defensive outfield, but the team hopes the offensive improvement will outweigh the defensive risk. The Padres still have outfielders Cameron Maybin, Max Venable, and Seth Smith on the roster, and will likely move at least one of them. Smith could also move to first base to replace Yonder Alonso, who had a really bad year in 2014. San Diego is betting that a change of scenery will help Myers and Middlebrooks.
These moves may or may not pay off. Still, this is a much needed jolt for what had been a very bland team. This should boost fan support for the team. This looks to be one of the weaker divisions in baseball, especially the Diamondbacks and Rockies. The Dodgers have won the division the past two seasons, and have re-tooled this offseason. The Giants won the wild card and continued their pattern of winning the World Series and missing the playoffs. Losing Pablo Sandoval to free agency is a big loss, and 2015 looks like an off year for the Giants. There is an opening in the NL West, and the Padres are trying to capitalize on that.
Dodgers Re-Tool a Flawed Roster
The Dodgers employ the game's best pitcher in Clayton Kershaw, and perhaps the best trio of starting pitchers along with Zack Greinke and Hyun-Jin Ryu. Despite that, they lost to the Cardinals in October the second season in a row. After the season, GM Ned Colletti was re-assigned, and former Rays GM Andrew Friedman took over baseball operations.
One of Friedman's first tasks was to clear up an outfield logjam that has caused some clubhouse friction. Cuban phenom Yasiel Puig has earned a spot, although his game needs some work and could use some maturity. This left two spots for three players, all of who were signed to expensive long term contracts. The team also felt comfortable with Scott Van Slyke as a reserve outfielder, and wanted to make room for prospect Joc Pederson in center field. Carl Crawford, Andre Ethier, and Matt Kemp were no long the star players they were in the past, and it would be tough to move these contracts.
Kemp had finished second to Ryan Braun in the 2011 season, and was awarded with a eight year contract afterwards. Kemp has had several injury problems since then, which has limited his playing time and effectiveness. After a injury plagued 2013, Kemp rebounded to hit 25 home runs in 2014. Kemp is no longer a viable option for center field, and is a corner outfielder at this point of his career now. Friedman was able to work out a deal with the Padres to acquire Yasmani Grandal, who will take over for A.J. Ellis as the team's everyday catcher. Ellis will remain as a backup.
The Kemp trade leaves Ethier and Crawford to platoon in left field, with the Dodgers intending to start Pederson in center, and Puig in right. Ethier and Crawford have had their fair share of injury problems, and Ethier slumped in 2014. Ethier has stated he wants more playing time next year, and the Dodgers could still trade one of them.
The team's middle infield will be different next year. The Dodgers decided that Hanley Ramirez wasn't worth the money, and let him depart. Ramirez is a dynamic offensive talent, but there were concerns about his defense at shortstop, injury history, and negative clubhouse influence. Friedman worked out a deal with the Phillies for Jimmy Rollins for a couple of mid level prospects. Rollins is 36, but a good short term fix until Corey Seager is ready. Second baseman Dee Gordon was traded to the Marlins, and Friedman then worked out a deal for for the Angels Howie Kendrick. Adrian Gonzalez, Juan Uribe, Puig, and Crawford(in a platoon) will be the Dodgers only returning starting position players next year.
These deals shed some payroll, and added a few prospects. It also cleared up some clubhouse problems caused by competition for playing time by big name veterans. Dan Haren was dealt away in the Gordon deal that netted several prospects. Friedman also parted ways with Brian Wilson, who was no longer the pitcher he was with the Giants. With these moves freeing up money, the team added Brandon McCarthy and Brett Anderson for pitching depth. Despite losing some big name players, this will be a less flawed roster in 2015 than it has the past couple of years.
Boston Adds the Kung Fu Panda and Misses Out on Lester
Part of Ben Cherington's strategy last July when trading Jon Lester was to try to get him back this offseason. Lester wanted to stay, but turned down a four year, $ 70 million extension in spring training. Boston figured they could add Yoenis Cespesdes from Oakland for a two month rental of Lester. Lester wound up getting over twice as much money from the Cubs as Cherington offered him earlier in the year. Lester would not be making a return to Boston, but the team made several big moves.
The Red Sox were determined to add offense, and added two big name free agents. The first was Hanley Ramirez, formerly of the Dodgers, and originally drafted by the Red Sox. Ramirez had been the key piece in the Josh Beckett trade nine years ago. Ramirez has primarily been a shortstop and third baseman in the majors, but Boston is planning to play him in left field. Ramirez has never played left field, and resisted a move to third base while with the Marlins. Ramirez' days as a shortstop were thought to be close to over, especially with the presence of Xander Bogaerts, but no one profiled him as a left fielder before.
One of the main reasons Ramirez is slotted for left field and not third base is because Boston made another big addition. Right after the Ramirez signing, Cherington signed former Giants third baseman Pablo Sandoval. Sandoval is a two time All Star, three time World Series champion, and won the 2012 World Series MVP. David Ortiz played a big role in recruiting Sandoval and Ramirez. Sandoval's weight has been a concern, but in the American League he has the option of moving to DH when Ortiz retires. Sandoval has been known as a clutch hitter, and his power numbers should improve in Fenway Park.
While Cherington upgraded the offense, the pitching staff needed work. Only Clay Buchholz and Joe Kelly were penciled in for the 2015 rotation, and both missed time because of injury last year. Missing out on Lester, and unwilling to meet Max Scherzer's demands, he had to look in different avenues for starters. Cherington worked out a deal with Arizona that brought left hander Wade Miley over for Rubby de la Rosa and Allen Webster. He then dealt Cespesdes to Detroit for Rick Porcello, and worked out a deal with the Cubs for Felix Doubront. Justin Masterson was signed to a one year deal, with hopes of a rebound. Boston has also been rumored to be seeking a trade for Phillies left hander Cole Hamels.
Boston went from last place in 2012 to World Series champions in 2013 to last place again in 2014. The Red Sox made a similar splash after 2012 when it added Mike Napoli, Shane Victorino, Stephen Drew, Ryan Dempster, and Koji Uehara. The Sox should be much improved in 2015, but I don't think they're World Series contenders yet. Their starting pitching remains a weak spot, but the AL East is weaker than in year's past. The Orioles lost Nelson Cruz and Nick Markakis this offseason, the Rays have entered a rebuilding phase, and the Yankees aren't the Yankees anymore. Luckily for the Red Sox, they still have enough pieces to contend in this division.
The Noise from the North
The Blue Jays haven't made the playoffs since they won the World Series back in 1993. The Jays haven't been terrible in that stretch, and have had many winning seasons since then. Toronto just hasn't been good enough to get over the hump since then. The second wild card was supposed to help teams like the Blue Jays, who were usually buried by the Red Sox and Yankees. With the AL East weaker than it has been in years, Toronto has made some moves this offseason to make a run at the division crown.
Toronto actually held first place early on in 2014, but the Orioles ran away with the division in the second half. Injuries to Edwin Encarnacion, Jose Reyes, and other key contributors put them in a hole they couldn't overcome. The pitching faded in the second half. Blue Jays management hopes that the addition of catcher Russell Martin will help with the pitchers, especially the young ones. Martin had a big year with the bat in 2014, and had a .402 OBP. Pirates manager Clint Hurdle considered Martin to be his most important player after Andrew McCutchen. Martin is a native of Ontario and should provide leadership to this Jays squad.
Another big addition was acquiring third baseman Josh Donaldson, who has been a MVP candidate the last two years. The Jays traded Brett Lawrie and three pitching prospects to Oakland to get him. Donaldson adds another big bat to go along with Encarnacion and Jose Bautista. Lawrie was a much hyped prospect, but hasn't lived up to his full potential, partly due to injuries. Melky Cabrera left as a free agent, and the Jays traded away pitcher J.A. Happ to the Mariners for Michael Saunders to fill the void. The club decided not to re-sign Colby Rasmus, and will instead hand center field to 22 year old Ontario native Dalton Pompey.
The Jays pitching is led by two pitchers in their late 30's in R.A. Dickey and Mark Buehrle. Both were solid pitchers last year, and Buehrle even made the All Star team. It's not ideal to rely solely on older pitchers. Toronto will need to see progress from promising young pitchers Drew Hutchison and Marco Stroman. If that happens, then the Jays will be in good shape. The bullpen also has some question marks if closer Casey Janssen isn't re-signed.
After the Royals ended their stretch of futility last October, the Blue Jays now have baseball's longest active playoff drought. Many commentators consider Toronto to be division favorites in a weakened AL East. The same thing was said prior to 2013 after several big additions, and the season was a disaster. The upcoming season is a golden opportunity for Toronto to make a playoff run.
The other Chicago team Makes Some Big Changes
The White Sox have endured two losing seasons in a row after Robin Ventura led the club to a winning record in his first season in 2012. Paul Konerko played his final season in 2014, and will go down as one of the best players in franchise history. The White Sox found a heir apparent to Konerko and Frank Thomas with Cuban slugger Jose Abreu. Abreu won the Rookie of the Year in 2014, hit 36 home runs, and led the American League in slugging pct. Another bright spot for Chicago is Chris Sale, one of the best pitchers in baseball.
In a matter of weeks, White Sox management signed Zack Duke, Adam LaRoche, David Robertson, and Melky Cabrera. A trade for Jeff Samardzija for spare parts was also made. The pitching staff had been a weakness after Chris Sale and Jose Quintana last year, especially the bullpen. Robertson and Duke should greatly improve the bullpen. Division rival Kansas City proved how important the bullpen can be for a team. Samardzija gives the team a dominant right handed pitcher to go with lefties Sale, Quintana, and John Danks.
Offensively, the White Sox are built around Abreu. LaRoche and Cabrera should give Abreu some protection in 2015. Alexei Ramirez has been a quietly underrated shortstop, and made his first All Star team last year. Promising young players like Adam Eaton and Avasail Garcia look to take a step up in 2014. There are a couple of holes at second and third base, but this is a much better team than it was a couple of months ago. The AL Central race should be interesting next year.
Tigers Change Their Stripes
Detroit entered the offseason with Max Scherzer, Torii Hunter, and Victor Martinez entering free agency. Dave Dombrowski decided that Martinez was his biggest priority, and signed him to a four year contract. Hunter left for the Twins, and Scherzer will not be re-signing with the Tigers. Rick Porcello was also traded for outfielder Yoenis Cespesdes. Anthony Gose was acquired from the Blue Jays, and will take over center field.
The rotation will look vastly different next season. Only Justin Verlander, Anibal Sanchez, and David Price will be returning. Alfredo Simon was acquired from Cincinnati to take one of the spots vacated. Shane Greene was acquired in a three way deal that sent Robbie Ray to Arizona. The bullpen is still a problem spot. Cespesdes will add a bat to go with Martinez, Miguel Cabrera, and Ian Kinsler.
The Tigers have won the AL Central four times in a row. There will be much more competition for the division crown in 2015. The Royals are coming off a World Series appearance, and the White Sox made some major improvements this offseason. The Indians are also a solid club, and the Twins are decent. The division title will not be a cake walk next year. The Tigers are still a leading contender, but it is not a certainty in 2015.
Trader Billy Beane
The Athletics will have a drastically different roster than they did when they lost the AL Wild Card Game. Beane, who has never been afraid to make a trade, has outdid himself this offseason. Derek Norris, Brandon Moss, Jed Lowrie, Jonny Gomes, Jon Lester, Jeff Samardzija, Jason Hammel, Luke Gregerson, Nick Punto, and Adam Dunn are all ex-Athletics. Beane has traded many of his best players for prospects, and even Beane isn't sure on who will make up his roster next season.
The group of players who made three straight postseason appearances is mostly gone. Beane has stocked up on pitchers, catchers, middle infielders, and designated hitters, and his team will have plenty of options next season. That said, no one knows how good these players will be in the majors. Among the new faces includes Brett Lawrie and Billy Butler. Beane's team will also retain a good bullpen led by Sean Doolittle and Ryan Cook.
This is somewhat similar to what Beane did during the 2011-12 offseason. Beane faced similar criticism when he traded off Gio Gonzalez, Trevor Cahill, and Andrew Bailey for prospects. Those moves paid off, but will it again this time? The A's are a team in flux, and look to be behind teams like the Angels and Mariners in 2015. Beane's all-in attempt did not work in 2014, and he decided to make major changes. I wouldn't completely write off Oakland, but I don't expect them to be in the playoff mix for 2015.