AL Central Hot Stove Preview: Royals, Indians look to end Tigers' reign
This week, SI.com is breaking down the off-season plans for all 30 teams. Teams are presented in order of finish from 2014.
Results: 90-72 (.556), lost Division Series to Orioles
Third-Order Record: 87-75 (.539)
The Tigers' bullpen failed them yet again in 2014, and none of the four relievers who could be departing would be much missed. The same cannot be said for Martinez and Scherzer. Martinez should get some MVP votes after a sensational offensive season in which he batted .335 with 32 home runs and 103 RBI, striking out a mere 42 times. Scherzer turned down the Tigers' offer of a $144 million extension last March, betting on his health and his performance. After another elite season (18-5, 3.15 ERA, 252 strikeouts in 220 1/3 innings), he is the best free agent available on the market and will surely receive a contract that will not only surpass the Tigers' offer but also Zack Greinke's record for a free-agent pitcher (six years and $147 million).
Targets: Starting pitching, relief pitching, DH, outfielder
Why did Detroit's generally excellent general manager, Dave Dombrowski, trade Doug Fister to the Nationals last winter? It seemed like a bad idea at the time, and that perception only increased as the season wore on, as the dependable Fister went 16-6 with a 2.41 ERA and the Tigers were forced to give 16 starts to the uninspiring quintet of Buck Farmer, Kyle Lobstein, Robbie Ray, Kyle Ryan and Drew VerHagen.
Should Scherzer leave, Dombrowski will need a veteran free agent to slot into the rotation with the excellent David Price, the again healthy Anibal Sanchez, the declining Justin Verlander and the improving Rick Porcello. He'll likely look to a second tier that included names such as Ervin Santana, Brandon McCarthy and Francisco Liriano.
The bullpen, quite obviously, remains a concern, even after Dombrowski picked up Joakim Soria's $7.5 million option, and it would be no surprise if one of his primary off-season targets were the market's best available reliever: the lefthanded Andrew Miller. Miller was simply dominant last year, finishing with a 2.02 ERA and 103 strikeouts in just 62 1/3 innings. While the 29-year-old has just one career save, he'd be an obvious closing option should the incumbent Joe Nathan continue to falter.
Replacing Martinez would be difficult, but Detroit's lineup could stand to get a little more versatile and athletic. A second-tier hitter like Adam LaRoche makes sense, as he would be able to rotate between first base and DH with Miguel Cabrera, thereby saving wear on both. The outfield, too, will need buttressing with Hunter a free agent, and the ideal player would be one who is strong defensively (Detroit was the league's third worst-fielding team in the league, according to Ultimate Zone Rating) and also bats lefthanded, as virtually all of the lineup's locks — Cabrera, Nick Castellanos, Rajai Davis, Jose Iglesias, Ian Kinsler, and J.D. Martinez — are righties. Nori Aoki, formerly of the Royals, would check both boxes.
Bottom line: This might seem like a painful winter for the Tigers, who could lose two of their premier players and remain ringless despite four straight AL Central crowns. There is, however, no reason to despair; a big bullpen arm, a few versatile lineup pieces and a single starter to round out what remains among the game's best rotations could make them the division's favorite once again.
Kansas City Royals
Results: 89-73 (.549), won first AL wild card, lost World Series to Giants
Third-Order Record: 79-83 (.485)
One minute, you've got the tying run standing 90 feet from home in Game 7 of your club's first World Series in 29 years. The next thing you know, you've not only lost, but you're also about to be forced to move forward without at least three core members of your finally resurgent club. Such is the business, particularly for a small market club like the Royals.
Despite his playoff struggles, Shields was on the whole exactly what the Royals imagined he would be during his two seasons in Kansas City. He worked 455 2/3 innings, more than anyone in the majors except for Adam Wainwright, and went 27-16 with a 3.18 ERA. Aoki, meanwhile, provided excellent contact hitting and on-base skills (he had 49 strikeouts against 43 walks) while playing solid, if sometimes adventurous, outfield defense. Both are likely to move on.
Butler's future is a bit hazier. He and Alex Gordon were long intended to be the cornerstones of a contender, and finally they were. But the 28-year-old's power faded badly over the past two seasons, as his home runs dropped from 29 to nine, his RBI total from 107 to 66, and his OPS from .882 to .702. As he has little to offer by way of speed or defense, it was no surprise whatsoever that the Royals declined his $12.5 million option for 2015, buying him out for $1 million. Butler says he'd welcome a return, even so.
Targets: Starting pitcher, designated hitter
The Royals likely won't spend much on replacing Aoki — the returning Jarrod Dyson started over him in three of the seven World Series games, anyway — but they'll have to devote some attention to filling the holes left by Shields and Butler. While they will not play for the free-agent market's aces, and hope that Yordano Ventura can step into the No. 1 role, they'll likely be in on a number of the market's mid-level veterans.
Liriano initially seemed a good fit, but the Pirates' surprising qualifying offer extension to him likely takes him off Kansas City's radar. Other options could include names like Jason Hammel and Edinson Volquez, but the Royals could also show interest in the low-risk, high-reward trio of Brett Anderson, Justin Masterson and Brandon Morrow.
The Royals showed that you do not need power to be successful (they ranked last in the majors in homers), but some would be nice, especially from their DH. The ideal scenario would be to find a player who not only hits homers, but also plays good defense, allowing him to be cycled through the DH spot while taking the field at times, too. Those players, though, are few and far between this year; Alex Rios makes some sense. Otherwise, assuming Butler goes elsewhere, they could turn to a veteran like Hunter or Kendrys Morales.
The big question looming over the offseason is whether Dayton Moore has it in him to make another blockbuster trade. His most obvious chip is Gordon, who is under team control for only one more season and has great value as a fine hitter and one of the game's best outfielder. Gordon could bring back a young haul that could help ensure the Royals' rebound will continue. However, he's the face of the team, and such a move would be a bold one indeed after a single successful year.
Bottom line: Minutes after the Game 7 loss, I spoke to Shields in the Royals' somber clubhouse about the team's future — one which almost certainly won't involve him. "The talent in this clubhouse is through the roof," he said. "The pitching's there, the bullpen's there and our offense is there. The sky's the limit for this team. And the main thing is, these guys gained a lot of experience. You can't teach that. I think that they understand how to get to the promised land now." The only thing that's harder than getting there is staying there, and expect the Royals to try to do so via tweaks as opposed to broad strokes.
Results: 85-77 (.525)
Third-Order Record: 82-80 (.506)
Free Agents: DH Jason Giambi
For better or worse, the Indians figure to be one of the league's least active teams this winter. Their infield is talented and locked in, with Carlos Santana at first, Jason Kipnis at second, Jose Ramirez at short (keeping the position warm for fast-rising top prospect Francisco Lindor), Lonnie Chisenhall at third and Yan Gomes behind the plate. Nick Swisher, who had August surgery on both of his knees, will likely have to DH; the declining Michael Bourn will play center; Michael Brantley, a breakout star last year, is a fixture in left.
The bullpen, led by Cody Allen and Bryan Shaw, is effective, and the rotation is five deep, topped by Cy Young candidate Corey Kluber and running through Danny Salazar, who had an up-and-down year but still is just 24 and has excellent stuff. This year's Indians will look very much like last year's Indians, for reasons both financial and strategic. There might, however, be a few changes.
Targets: Starting pitching, rightfield
The rotation seems full, but it is by and large young — Salazar, T.J. House and Trevor Bauer are all 25 or younger — and the organization doesn't appear to have many good replacement options when one of its members inevitably falters or gets hurt. A mid-range innings eater would afford both insurance and flexibility. The pursuit of a veteran like Volquez, Jake Peavy, Ryan Vogelsong or Aaron Harang would be logical.
The one spot on offense that GM Chris Antonetti is likely to address is rightfield, a position from which his club received just 10 homers and a .636 OPS last year. Incumbent David Murphy struggles to hit lefthanded pitching (his 86 plate appearances against southpaws last year produced four extra-base hits), and he's a subpar defender.
Someone who should be very attractive to Cleveland, therefore, is Alex Rios. He hits lefties well (an .898 OPS against them last year), he's a solid defender, and his price will likely be depressed because he hit just four homers in 2014. Rios' bottom line was compromised by a mid-season sprained ankle; he hit .305 with an OPS of .773 before the All-Star break and .211 with a .528 OPS after it. He could prove an important contributor if healthy again.
Bottom line: If the Indians are to make the playoffs for the second time in three years, it will likely come as a result of breakthrough performances from players already on their roster, and not from any of the modest pieces they are likely to add over the winter.
Chicago White Sox
Results: 73-89 (.451)
Third-Order Record: 71-91 (.438)
Konerko's retirement after 16 years in Chicago represents the official end of an era that realistically closed in 2012, when the White Sox were last competitive and the longtime slugger had his last great season. GM Rick Hahn had already rid his roster of players whose contracts were due to expire (including Rios and Adam Dunn) as part of a savvy rebuilding effort that might be closer to positive results than many believe.
Targets: Designated hitter, outfielder, relief pitching
Chicago's roster includes two of the game's very best players, and the White Sox are paying them a fraction of their market value. Jose Abreu immediately proved a terrific deal for Chicago — he batted .317 with 36 homers and 107 RBI as a 27-year-old rookie — and he's still got five years to go on his six year, $68 million contract. Chris Sale is an even better value. He's locked in as an annual Cy Young candidate at a price of $6 million in 2015, $9.15 million in '16 and $12 million in '17, and then his contract includes two club options after that. Over the next five years, the White Sox might pay Sale about a third of what he could command were he a free agent. (Jose Quintana – who signed a five year, $21 million extension last March – looks like a third bargain building block.)
In some ways, then, the White Sox have house money to spend, and can even afford to overpay slightly for a key free-agent piece. It is likely that their top target will be Victor Martinez, whom they coveted before the Tigers ultimately won his services four years ago and who would combine with Abreu to form a phenomenal three-four lineup combination. It's usually a stretch to imagine that the White Sox could outbid the Tigers for anyone, but in this case, it's a definite possibility.
With a rotation built around Sale and Quintana, and one that will soon feature top 2014 draft pick Carlos Rodon, it's unlikely Chicago will chase starting pitchers this winter. The bullpen, though, would benefit from the addition of a reliable option or two beyond Jake Petricka (2.96 ERA, 14 saves) and Zach Putnam (1.98 ERA, six saves). Luke Gregerson, an Illinois native, would look good in black and white, as might other middle relief options like Zach Duke, Pat Neshek or Craig Breslow.
Another area of focus will be the addition of a leftfielder to play next to locked-in young stalwarts Adam Eaton and Avisail Garcia. Dayan Viciedo regressed last year, and though he'll only turn 26 in March and has time to turn things around, Chicago will hope for a better option. They're unlikely to play for the best outfielders available, but someone like Aoki, Colby Rasmus or even a returning Rios could make for a nice fit.
Bottom line: The White Sox's time in the cellar could be brief, thanks in large measure to the advantage they have by signing two of the game's superstars to long-term contracts that they are all but certain to outplay. This off-season will be focused on supplementing them for a return to contention.
Results: 70-92 (.432)
Third-Order Record: 73-89 (.451)
Free Agents: RHP Jared Burton
New manager Paul Molitor will inherit a roster that will be largely unchanged from last season, and does feature promising young pieces like Kennys Vargas and Oswaldo Arcia. The big question is when Minnesota's pair of uber-prospects, Byron Buxton and Miguel Sano, will debut. Sano, a massively powerful 21-year-old third baseman, is recovering from Tommy John surgery that forced him to sit out all of 2014. Buxton, a five-tool, 20-year-old centerfielder, played in just 31 games in the minors in '14 due to a number of injuries, but he should be ready for spring training. The future has a way of coming quickly for talents like these.
Targets: Starting pitching, outfielder
The Twins spent a lot of money last winter on their biggest area of need: the rotation. They re-signed Mike Pelfrey for two years and $11 million, then added Ricky Nolasco for four years and $49 million and Phil Hughes for three years and $24 million. Pelfrey made just five starts and pitched to an ERA of 7.99: whiff. Nolasco was 6-12 with a 5.38 ERA: whiff. Hughes went 16-10 with a 3.52 ERA and displayed stunning control, walking just 16 batters all year: home run.
Hughes is now locked in at the No. 1 starter, but even if Nolasco rebounds and top pitching prospect Alex Meyer can join the rotation at some point, the Twins will still need at least one starter. They will not make plays for Scherzer, Jon Lester or Shields, but there is one pitcher just below their level who makes perfect sense: Ervin Santana.
Minnesota attempted to sign Santana during spring training last year, before he opted for the Braves, but his fly ball tendencies would still play well in Target Field and they could try again. That the Braves extended a qualifying offer to Santana will make him marginally less attractive, though; Brandon McCarthy is another possibility, as is a member of the high-upside trio of Anderson, Masterson and Morrow.
A second area of focus should be the outfield, especially as far as its fielding. Twins outfielders combined for the majors' second worst Ultimate Zone Rating, ahead of only the Indians, and that is particularly troublesome given their ballpark's large playing surface. Some type of stopgap would be useful until Buxton is ready to patrol center for the next dozen years or so.
Unfortunately, the market doesn't run deep with athletic outfielders; Rasmus is an unlikely fit, though Aoki, Chris Young or Rios could work. Another possible target is Hunter, who left as a free agent seven years ago but could return to end his career where it began. He won't help the defense — his fielding has fallen off significantly over the years — but would provide a still-potent bat and a strong clubhouse presence:
Bottom line: The Twins must get their rotation in order to have any hope of turning around four straight losing seasons. On the AL Central landscape, Minnesota is likely further from a rebound than the White Sox, but smashing debuts by Buxton and Sano could change that timeline.