- Are Edwin Encarnacion and Jose Bautista done in Toronto? How will the Red Sox replace David Ortiz? Will the Tigers deal Justin Verlander? All those burning questions and more that must be answered this off-season.
It’s hot stove season—a time for trades, free-agent chases and chances for each team to set itself up for 2017 and beyond, whether they fancy themselves contenders or rebuilders (or alas, can’t yet make up their minds). In our team-by-team roundup, I've chosen to focus on one key question each club faces going forward, offering potential answers where we can, though those teams will have to come up with more concrete solutions over the next few months. Today, we'll take a look at all 15 American League teams; we'll turn our attention to the National League next Monday.
Teams are presented alphabetically by city. Unless otherwise noted, all Wins Above Replacement figures (WAR) are the Baseball-Reference.com version.
General manager Dan Duquette has his hands full this winter, though you can check shopping for rotation upgrades off his to-do list. While his starters finished third-to-last in the AL in ERA, Duquette reportedly plans to fill out the rotation from within. His top task will instead be to re-stock an outfield that has openings in both corners, focusing primarily on rightfield, where Mark Trumbo turned down a qualifying offer and is now a free agent. While his 47 home runs led the majors, his low on-base percentage (.316), woes against lefties (.173/.223/.385 in 166 plate appearances) and poor second half (.214/.284/.470) make a long-term entanglement ill advised.
Jose Bautista and Yoenis Cespedes are both too old and too expensive (even before factoring in the loss of a compensation pick) to be good fits here. Among players with qualifying offers, Ian Desmond and Dexter Fowler (who nearly signed a three-year deal with the O's last winter) make more sense. Baltimore could also go the trade route, with the Yankees' Brett Gardner and the Braves' Ender Inciarte fitting the bill as lefties who would be defensive upgrades as well.
The Red Sox' offense was the majors' most potent last year, but they're losing their biggest bat in Ortiz, who has retired after one of the best final seasons on record: .315/.401/.620 with 38 homers and a 162 OPS+; all of those numbers except the batting average were team highs. The obvious solution would be to sign Edwin Encarnacion, but Boston doesn't appear inclined to pursue him due to his cost (both contract and the draft pick they'd have to give up).
The Sox have less expensive options on hand. One is handing first and third base to Travis Shaw and Pablo Sandoval, who's set to return from a season lost to shoulder surgery, and moving Hanley Ramirez to his natural position at DH. Ramirez was below average at first, ranking 11th out of 12 regulars via the SABR Defensive Index, and while putting him at DH doesn't guarantee anything close to comparable offense (especially given the mediocre bats of Shaw and Sandoval), a run saved is as good as a run scored.
A simpler plan would be to sign Carlos Beltran, who is coming off a strong age-39 season in which he posted a 122 OPS+ with the Yankees and Rangers and presumably prefers to play for a contender. Other alternatives include Mike Napoli, who was on Boston's 2013 world championship team and hit 34 homers for the Indians this past year; the versatile (and likely inexpensive) Steve Pearce, who hit .288/.374/.492 for the Rays and Orioles; and, if Boston is willing to give up a first-round pick, Jose Bautista, who is coming off a relatively subpar season and will be less expensive than Encarnacion but carries greater risk given his age (36) and injury history.
2016 marked the White Sox' fourth consecutive year below .500, and the success of their crosstown rivals in rebuilding all the way to a world championship appears to have spurred the Sox to shift their own focus to the long term, though team vice president Kenny Williams won't say how thorough a teardown is in order.
If they're going all in, the Sox have plenty of trade options, including Jose Abreu, Melky Cabrera, Adam Eaton, Todd Frazier and David Robertson. But in the current environment, nothing would kick-start a remake more than trading not just Chris Sale but also Jose Quintana. Both southpaws, who will turn 28 before Opening Day, rank among the majors' top seven in WAR since 2013 and are signed to extremely team-friendly deals with two club options at the end—Sale could make $39.5 million through 2019, Quintana will collect $36.85 million through '20. At those prices, expect contenders and rebuilders to flood general manager Rick Hahn with offers.
Despite their World Series loss, the Indians are set up well for another run next year, as nearly all of their key players are under contract and affordable. Though Michael Brantley's health is a question mark, the eventual arrival of centerfield prospect Bradley Zimmer means they're amply stocked in the outfield. Right now, their biggest hole is the one created by the free-agent departure of first baseman/DH Mike Napoli.
Napoli tied Carlos Santana (who shared DH/1B responsibilities) for the team lead with 34 homers but posted a modest 104 OPS+; when accompanied by -4 DRS in 98 games at first, that added up to just 1.0 WAR. An upgrade wouldn't hurt, and the team could use Santana's ability to play first base to cast a wider net that includes the likes of Carlos Beltran, Michael Saunders, Pedro Alvarez and Steve Pearce. The Cardinals’ Matt Adams, who after hitting .249/.309/.471 with 16 homers is being supplanted by Matt Carpenter at first in St. Louis, is a potential trade target who could fit into some kind of platoon arrangement.
Though the Tigers fell just short of a playoff spot, general manager Al Avila apparently has orders to cut payroll well below last year’s Opening Day mark of $198.6 million. With 11 players under contract for a combined $173 million in 2017, he'll have to start dealing, though Avila has conceded that this could be a multi-year remake.
Verlander is owed $84 million over the next three seasons and has a no-trade clause, but he is one player who is well-timed to move, as there are no ace-caliber pitchers on the free-agent market. He finished 2016 with a 3.04 ERA and 3.48 FIP and lead the league in strikeouts (254), quality starts (27) and WAR (6.6), finishing second to Rick Porcello in a very close Cy Young race. Rumors of a potential deal with the Dodgers swirled last week, and other teams are sure to be in on Verlander as well; Boston comes to mind, and perhaps the Cubs, who may not be able to re-sign Jake Arrieta, could view Verander as a more sensible long-term alternative. Whether any team truly has the appetite to take on the payroll and surrender a boatload of prospects—as well as the ability to convince Verlander to move—remains to be seen.
They made the playoffs in 2015 but missed out in '16, and as '17 is supposed to be their year, few teams appear as poised to make a splash this winter as the Astros. Even after trading for Brian McCann and reportedly signing Josh Reddick, Houston has just four players under contract for 2018 and the payroll space to go much higher than last year's Opening Day mark of $96.9 million. The team still has holes to fill, including first base, third base and centerfield, though Yulieski Gurriel and Alex Bregman will both presumably play somewhere.
Though the Astros have been connected to Tigers first baseman Miguel Cabrera, a trade appears farfetched. Given their general preference for going the free-agent route instead of trading away core players, pursuits of either Jose Bautista or especially Edwin Encarnacion make sense. The youngsters they've tried at first in recent years (Jonathan Singleton, A.J. Reed and Tyler White) have struggled; Encarnacion could fill that role and transition to DH if one pans out. If it’s a centerfielder they want, a reunion with Dexter Fowler—who spent 2014 in Houston—makes sense.
The 2015 champions slipped back to .500 thanks in large part to their offense, which ranked 13th in the AL in scoring (4.17 runs per game) and dead last in OPS+ (88); just two players—departed DH Kendrys Morales and first baseman Eric Hosmer—finished with an OPS+ of at least 100. Mike Moustakas's return from a torn ACL will help, but there's no guarantee that Alex Gordon (84 OPS+, down from 119 in 2015) and Lorenzo Cain (98, down from 125) will rebound from injury-plagued campaigns or that defensive-minded Salvador Perez (89 OPS+) will ever develop any plate patience.
General manager Dayton Moore will have to bring in help from outside. Adam Lind, Mike Napoli and Carlos Beltran are all DH options who wouldn’t cost a draft pick or break the bank. Michael Saunders would need a more substantial commitment, and likewise for Mark Trumbo. Free agents Dexter Fowler and Ian Desmond would cost a pick but allow the team to trade Cain, who will make a modest $11 million in his final year before free agency. With Cain, Hosmer, Moustakas, Danny Duffy and Wade Davis all in their final season under contract, Moore may need to bite the bullet and deal somebody from that core to give the rest another shot to at a championship.
General manager Billy Eppler has already added swingman Jesse Chavez, reliever Andrew Bailey and leftfielder Cameron Maybin. He's probably crossing his fingers extra-hard in hopes that Garrett Richards can return from a torn ulnar collateral ligament without Tommy John surgery, and he's not trading AL MVP Mike Trout. The big to-do on his list is second base, where Johnny Giavotella, Cliff Pennington and two other players combined to hit an abysmal .235/.275/.345 last season.
The free-agent market isn't bursting with options. Chase Utley was solid for the Dodgers but is heading into his age-38 season. Stephen Drew was productive in spot duty for the Nationals (.266/.339/.524, 1.0 WAR) but was dreadful with more playing time in 2014-15. A trade for the Twins' Brian Dozier, who's owed just $15 million for 2017–18, would require more young talent than the Angels can spare (or even muster, given their weak farm system). Acquiring the Diamondbacks' Chris Owings—who hit .277/.315/.416, put up 1.6 WAR and split 2016 between shortstop and centerfield—may be more their speed. The flashiest solution would be to sign third baseman Justin Turner and shift Yunel Escobar to second base, but Turner will be pricey and cost a draft pick, something this team can hardly afford.
The Twins backslid drastically this past season, particularly in the rotation. The unit's ERA rose from 4.14 in 2015 to 5.39 in '16, and of the 12 starters that took a turn, only Ervin Santana posted an ERA below 5.07. Fixing that mess is the top priority for incoming Chief Baseball Officer Derek Falvey and new general manager Thad Levine.
Against the backdrop of a bleak free-agent market, trading Santana—who posted a 3.30 ERA and 3.81 FIP in 181 1/3 innings and is owed $27 million for 2017–18—could be fruitful. Dealing Brian Dozier, who bopped 42 homers and is owed just $15 million for the next two years, could help as well. But moving either creates other voids that need to be filled.
An easier route of improvement is at catcher. Free agent Jason Castro hit only .210/.307/.377 for an 88 OPS+ but ranked third in the majors in pitch framing (+17 runs); the departing Kurt Suzuki, by comparison, was seven runs below average. The lefty-swinging Castro and righty John Ryan Murphy (+1 in framing) would fit together in a platoon that would help everyone on staff. The Twins have already expressed interest, but they'll have competition for his services.
After selling at the trade deadline for the first time in a generation, the Yankees enter the 2016 off-season controlling seven of Baseball America's Midseason Top 100 Prospects. Gary Sanchez's 20 homers in 53 games after being recalled helped keep the team's faint wild-card hopes alive, but the danger is that belated run obscured the level of work necessary to change the franchise's direction.
Even after trading Brian McCann to the Astros, the Yankees have more than $102.5 million committed to just five players (CC Sabathia, Masahiro Tanaka, Jacoby Ellsbury, Brett Gardner and Chase Headley) in 2017, and all but Sabathia have at least one more year under contract. All produced at least 2.6 WAR last year, however, so they're not value-less. Rather than try to stitch together another squad with outside hopes of contending, general manager Brian Cashman should flip some of those players to trim payroll and bring in less expensive youngsters with years of club control ahead. Gardner is probably the easiest to deal: He's owed $23 million over the next two seasons and should draw interest given his defense and table-setting abilities.
Coming off their first stretch of back-to-back sub-70-win seasons since 1977–78, the obvious answer is "up … eventually." But at the moment, there are no quick fixes. Sonny Gray's trade value is depressed after a miserable, injury-shortened season, and there's little reason to sell low. Khris Davis, who's coming off a 42-homer breakout season but hit a lopsided .247/.307/.524, may have more trade value now than he ever will otherwise, but that isn't to say that dealing him would be a game changer.
While the A's could be active traders, it's more likely they'll add a few buy-low free agents who could be useful pieces to somebody at the trade deadline or next winter. Carlos Gomez, who hit .231/.298 /.384 last year but was much stronger in a season-ending 33-game stint with the Rangers, is an option for centerfield. Adam Lind, who hit for a 131 OPS+ from 2013 to '15 before slipping to 94 in Seattle, is a reasonable bounceback candidate at first base. Chase Utley could fit into a second base platoon with incumbent Jed Lowrie. Meanwhile, the team's first-round pick is protected, so signing a qualifying offer free agent would only cost a second-rounder and would come at a time when Oakland's spending relative to its revenue-sharing checks is under scrutiny amid negotiations for the new collective bargaining agreement.
After Ketel Marte's promising debut as a 21-year-old in 2015, general manager Jerry DiPoto was confident enough in his ability to handle full-time shortstop abilities to trade away Brad Miller. Alas, Marte struggled last season, hitting .259/.287/.323 for a 68 OPS+, and his glove didn't make up for it (-2 DRS, -10 UZR).
Marte may be too young to give up on completely, but if the Mariners intend to contend again, they'll need some insurance. Picking up last summer's near-trade with the Reds to acquire Zack Cozart is one option; the 31-year-old shortstop hit .252/.308/.425 with 16 homers, a 92 OPS+, +8 DRS and 2.0 WAR. Low-end–free-agent alternatives Erick Aybar and Alexei Ramirez may be no better than Marte at this stage, but on the other side, Ian Desmond could handle shortstop initially and move to the outfield if/when Marte comes around.
Though the Rays are coming off the franchise's worst season since 2006, they're deep in starters with years of club control ahead—ones who offer less expensive (and perhaps less risky) alternatives to a weak free-agent market—and dealing one or two could spur the team's rebuilding effort, filling needs at catcher and outfield/DH. Chris Archer is coming off a rough season (4.02 ERA, 3.81 FIP) but has the most trade value; the 27-year-old righty is owed just $18.5 million over the next three seasons, with $20 million worth of options for the two years after that. Righty Jake Odorizzi, coming off arguably the best season of the bunch (3.69 ERA, 4.31 FIP), will turn 27 in March and is only headed into his first year of arbitration eligibility.
Righty Alex Cobb and lefty Drew Smyly both carry more risk and less control but can fill mid-rotation needs. Cobb was roughed up in a five-start return from Tommy John surgery but owns a career 3.44 ERA (and 3.52 FIP); he's 29, a year away from free agency and made just $4 million in 2016. Smyly, 27, did not have a great year (4.88 ERA, 4.49 FIP) but is only in his second year of arbitration eligibility and coming off a $3.75 million salary.
With the retirement of Prince Fielder and the free-agent departure of Mitch Moreland, the Rangers have a chance to improve their offense significantly. Even with the strong work of Carlos Beltran (also a free agent), the Rangers managed just a .699 OPS from their first basemen and a .701 OPS from their designated hitters last season.
While top prospect Joey Gallo offers one in-house solution, it's clear that despite his light-tower power, the organization has its reservations about his ability to make contact: Gallo hit 24 homers at Triple A but went 1-for-25 with 19 strikeouts in the majors. As he is for many other teams, Edwin Encarnacion is the high-end solution who could fill either spot. Mike Napoli, who's already done two stints in Texas, is a more affordable solution. If the White Sox are tearing things down, Jose Abreu would be an appealing trade target. After a slow start, he hit .293/.353/.468 with 25 homers and opted out of a $34 million guarantee over the next three years to enter the arbitration system, which might push his total pay over that span to $40–45 million. The Cardinals’ Matt Adams is a lower-upside trade target who won’t cost nearly as much in blood and treasure.
Bautista's 249 home runs since the start of the 2010 season are the most in the majors; Encarnacion's 231 rank third. That kind of production can't easily be replaced, but after an initial round of negotiations with Encarnacion, the Jays turned around and signed designated hitter Kendrys Morales to a three-year, $33 million deal even before either slugger could reject their qualifying offers. Though he bopped 30 homers in 2016, Morales's 118 OPS+ over the past two seasons is a step down from both Encarnacion (140) and Bautista (133).
Morales's minimal defensive footprint suggests that Toronto would keep just one of Bautista (who spent virtually his entire Blue Jays career in right) or Encarnacion (who alternated between first base and DH). With Justin Smoak sucking up roster space and payroll, first base is particularly crowded. Ironically, Bautista, who had a contentious back-and-forth with the team about his contract in the spring, may now be the most affordable. His defense has become something of a liability (-18 DRS over the last three years), however, and he just turned 36. Still, it's much easier to see how the team could find a way to bring him back.