- Will the Mets bring back Yoenis Cespedes? Will the Pirates trade Andrew McCutchen? Those are just some of the key decisions NL teams must make 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. Last week we looked at all 15 American League teams; today we'll turn our attention to the National League clubs.
Teams are presented alphabetically by city. Unless otherwise noted, all Wins Above Replacement figures (WAR) are from Baseball-Reference.com.
After driving the organization backward during his 2 1/2 years in charge, Tony La Russa is out of power, and both general manager Dave Stewart and manager Chip Hale are gone, replaced by Mike Hazen and Torey Lovullo. No area needs the new regime's attention more than a pitching staff that was last in the Natioanl League in run prevention. Hazen has already indicated that he won't trade Zack Greinke, the only pitcher to make more than 10 starts with the team while posting an ERA better than 4.90.
The problem for Hazen is that it's too early to give up on Archie Bradley, Patrick Corbin, Shelby Miller, Robbie Ray and Braden Shipley, all of whom are 27 or younger; Corbin, Miller and Ray have known major league success while the other two were both well-regarded prospects. Selling low on any of them isn't advisable, but another veteran arm to stabilize the staff, such as Jason Hammel or Colby Lewis, could help. One way to upgrade would be to get a catcher with better framing skills than Welington Castillo, who at -10 runs was one of the majors' worst. Free agent Jason Castro and the Cubs' Miguel Montero, a former Diamondback who is apparently expendable in Chicago, were third and fourth in the majors via Baseball Prospectus’ metrics. For the bullpen makeover, it's worth bringing in a former closer or two from among Joaquin Benoit, Santiago Casilla, Fernando Rodney, Sergio Romo, Drew Storen and Koji Uehara, building up their value and then flipping them at the deadline for prospects.
Two years into rebuilding, the Braves are still far from contending. They've gotten a jump on the off-season by signing 43-year-old Bartolo Colon ($12.5 million) and 42-year-old R.A. Dickey ($8 million) to one-year deals in the hopes that both can eat innings. Atlanta's 2016 rotation had just one significantly above-average contributor (Julio Teheran, 129 ERA+), one who was essentially average (Mike Foltynewicz, 96 ERA+) and several youngsters who struggled, including Aaron Blair (55 ERA+), Tyrell Jenkins (71 ERA+), Williams Perez (69 ERA+), Robert Whalen (64 ERA+) and Matt Wisler (83 ERA+).
The Braves are thinking bigger, with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution's David O'Brien reporting that the team has inquired about trading for the Rays' Chris Archer, the White Sox' Chris Sale and the A's Sonny Gray. Between their well-stocked farm system and club-controlled pitchers (including Teheran), the Braves could assemble a considerable trade package while adding a pitcher who's got years of control remaining himself. Archer has three more guaranteed seasons plus club options in '20 and '21 that bring the total value to $38.5 million; Sale has one guaranteed year, plus his 2018 and '19 club options, and could make a total of $39.5 million; and Gray is just entering his arbitration years, making him controllable through 2019.
If Atlanta does make such a move, don't be surprised if it dips into the free agent market to accelerate its rebuild. Jason Castro and Matt Wieters could be options at catcher, and Jose Bautista might be a possibility in the outfield, though Nick Markakis and Matt Kemp are under contract through 2018 and '19, respectively.
The World Series champions have three free agents of note in closer Aroldis Chapman, centerfielder Dexter Fowler and starting pitcher Jason Hammel. It appears quite possible that they can cover for the losses of the last two from within, with Mike Montgomery stepping into the rotation and either Jason Heyward or Albert Almora Jr. covering centerfield. Heyward, of course, is an elite defender who was slated to be Chicago's centerfielder until Fowler fell back into their laps a year ago. If he shifts over, that would allow the team to have a base set-up of Kyle Schwarber in leftfield, Heyward in center and Ben Zobrist in right and still have Almora on the bench.
As for the bullpen, the Cubs can certainly afford a top-of-the-market solution such as Chapman or Kenley Jansen, but even so, general manager Jed Hoyer recently suggested that the team could instead try to find the next great reliever, citing Wade Davis and Andrew Miller as examples. If that's the case, the Cubs do have live arms to start with in Hector Rondon, Pedro Strop and Carl Edwards Jr., the last of whom became one of Joe Maddon's go-tos during the postseason. Don't be surprised if the Chicago trades for somebody else's setup man or struggling starter with the idea that he can work his way past the other in-house options to become the closer.
Over the past two seasons, the Reds have traded away big names like starting pitchers Johnny Cueto and Mike Leake, closer Aroldis Chapman, third baseman Todd Frazier and outfielder Jay Bruce. The next major item on their list is to make room for their up-and-coming double play combination of Dilson Herrera and Jose Peraza, both of whom are entering their age-23 seasons. going on 23 years old.
Herrera was a top-100 prospect before the 2015 season who came to Cincinnati in exchange for Bruce at the Aug. 1 deadline. He hit .215/.308/.383 in 169 major league plate appearances over the 2014 and '15 seasons but spent all of 2016 at two Triple A stops, batting .274/.335/.456 with 15 homers; those numbers are inflated by hitter-friendly Las Vegas, but he does have impressive raw power as well as the tools to play second base. He's blocked at the big league level by 35-year-old Brandon Phillips, who hit .291/.320/.416 with 11 homers and 14 steals but had just a 94 OPS+ and negative defensive value (-7 Ultimate Zone Rating), knocking his overall WAR to 0.8. He'll make $14 million and sounds more willing than ever to waive his 10-and-5 rights to block any trade. After years of trying to move him, the Reds should do what it takes to turn the page. The Angels could be a possibility for Phillips.
Peraza, acquired from the Dodgers in the three-team deal that sent Frazier to the White Sox last December, provided strong offense in a 72-game trial in 2016, batting .234/.352/.411 and stealing 21 bases in 31 attempts. Though he drew high marks for his defense at shortstop in the minors, his value was neutralized by his struggles as a superutilityman in the majors, en route to a combined -8 DRS and 0.1 WAR. Incumbent Zack Cozart, who's 31, is coming off a solid season (.252/.308/.425 with 16 homers, a 92 OPS+, 8 DRS and 2.0 WAR) and is a year from free agency after making just $2.95 million in 2016. He’d bring back value in trade, particularly given the dire free agent market for shortstops.
Thus far in the off-season, Colorado has hired Bud Black to manage, indicated plans to increase payroll above last year's franchise record $112.6 million (with much of that increase going to arbitration raises and said it is not looking to trade either Carlos Gonzalez or Charlie Blackmon, despite the price tags ($20 million and possibly $9 million via arbitration, respectively) for those All-Star outfielders. The Rockies have a hole at first base, and one name that's been floated is a familiar one: Matt Holliday, who was drafted by the organization in 1998, debuted with the club in 2004 and helped Colorado reach its only World Series in '07—a year in which he was the runner-up for NL MVP—before being traded to Oakland after the 2008 season.
Holliday, who turns 37 on Jan. 15, was limited to 110 games for the Cardinals in 2016 due to a recurrent right quad strain, and while he hit 20 homers, his .246/.322/.461 line and 107 OPS+ were far below his career marks. He did get his feet wet at first base, playing in 10 games there, and the bar for the Rockies to improve at the position is low given that the departed Mark Reynolds and six other players combined to hit just .264/.332/.412 with 18 homers despite the hitter-friendly conditions at Coors Field. Holliday is interested in a return, but money could be an obstacle. With Mike Napoli likely bound for a contender, other free agent options include Adam Lind, Mitch Moreland, Logan Morrison, Brandon Moss and Steve Pearce, with Matt Adams, a longtime teammate of Holliday's in St. Louis, a trade candidate.
It didn't cost Los Angeles the NL West title, but Clayton Kershaw's absence and uneven postseason performance underscored the Dodgers' shortage of frontline pitching. They never fully replaced Zack Greinke after he defected to the Diamondbacks as a free-agent last winter. Rich Hill, acquired at the trade deadline from Oakland and now a free agent, pitched admirably when available but totaled just 47 1/3 innings in three months, including the postseason, due to blisters and workload concerns. Hill may be the top starter in a weak free agent market, but his lack of durability makes him an imperfect solution for Los Angeles, because Scot Kazmir, Brandon McCarthy, Hyun-Jin Ryu and Alex Wood will have the same injury- and performance-related concerns that dogged them in 2016, and up-and-comers like Jose DeLeon, Ross Stripling and Julio Urias will face workload limitations.
All of which means that the Dodgers need to find a trade partner. With a strong system, they should be able to make a run at the Rays' Chris Archer, the Tigers' Justin Verlander or the White Sox' duo of Chris Sale or Jose Quintana, as all of those teams are rebuilding. Los Angeles was connected to Archer around the trade deadline, and many in the industry view the club as the most likely partners for a blockbuster with Chicago. In fact, the White Sox might also deal third baseman Todd Frazier and closer David Robertson, who could in turn fill potential vacancies if free agents Justin Turner and Kenley Jansen leave the Dodgers (though they have interest in retaining both).
There's no question that the shocking death of the 24-year-old Fernandez is far more hurtful to the Marlins and their fans on a personal level than his absence on the mound will be, and there's also no telling how long it will take the emotional scars caused by his tragic loss in a September boating accident to heal. Nevertheless, Miami has to find a way to move on. As it stands, the team's rotation consists of Wei-Yin Chen, Adam Conley, Tom Koehler, Justin Nicolino and David Phelps, but if they intend to be competitive, the Marlins need to improve, as only Conley posted an ERA better than league average as a starter, and Phelps has proven a better late-inning reliever than a starter.
With their free agent attention focused on closer Kenley Jansen—who would be reunited with his former manager for the Dodgers, Don Mattingly, who is now in the same position in Miami—the Marlins' most likely route of improvement is by trade, with second baseman Dee Gordon, shortstop Adeiny Hechavarria and outfielders Derek Dietrich and Marcell Ozuna their top chips. All but Gordon are arbitration-eligible for the first time, though getting value for the speedy second baseman, who's owed $47 million for the next four seasons, will be tough in light of his 80-game PED suspension last year and a dreadful half-season (.268/.305/.335 for a 76 OPS+). Hechavarria's bat regressed as well, from a 92 OPS+ in 2015 to 63 in '16. Dietrich, a Super Two with four years of control remaining, has potential as a multi-position regular; he spent time at all three bases plus leftfield last year while hitting .279/.374/.425 for a 119 OPS+. The player who would likely fetch the best return is the 26-year-old Ozuna, who rebounded from a tough 2015 that included service time manipulation to make the NL All-Star team and hit .266/.321/.452 with 23 homers and 2.5 WAR.
Like their division foes in Cincinnati, the rebuilding Brewers have dealt a number of familiar faces in the past two years, including outfielders Carlos Gomez (to the Astros) and Khris Davis (to the A's), shortstop Jean Segura (to the Diamondbacks) and catcher Jonathan Lucroy (to the Rangers). Thus it seems like it's only a matter of time before Milwaukee trades Braun, the face of its franchise. Though he’ll never be viewed the same as he was before his 2013 PED suspension, the 33-year-old slugger and former NL MVP is coming off his strongest season since 2012, having hit .305/.365/.538 with 30 homers, a 136 OPS+ and 4.4 WAR. After the trade of Davis, Braun's move back to leftfield paid off as he went from -1 DRS (but a still-solid 3.8 WAR) in 2015 to +6 DRS in 2016.
Braun is guaranteed a minimum of $76 million over the next four years, which isn't unreasonable for that level of production, and $14 million of it is deferred, which lessens the hit. But he's aging and has had trouble staying healthy, averaging 137 games over the last three seasons. What's more, he's got a 23-team no-trade clause, with the Diamondbacks, Marlins and the four California teams the exceptions (he winters in the Los Angeles area). The Dodgers are said to have discussed him in a Yasiel Puig-centered trade in August. The Giants have a hole in leftfield with Angel Pagan's free agency and the Angels could use an upgrade at just about any place Mike Trout's not playing. The Diamondbacks and Padres are in rebuilding mode, however, and the Marlins have Christian Yelich and Giancarlo Stanton at the corners. All of which suggests that moving Braun won't be that easy, but his name will surely come up this winter.
After signing a three-year, $75 million deal with the Mets last off-season, Cespedes batted .280/.354/.530 with 31 homers and a 133 OPS+, then opted out of the final two years and rejected New York's qualifying offer. The team has expressed interest in retaining the 31-year-old slugger, but as of last week, at least three other clubs are vying for his services; the Yankees are known to be one, and the Nationals, who made a run at him last year, have a vacancy to fill in centerfield.
As a fan favorite who carries himself with a certain swagger, Cespedes has understandable appeal to the Mets, but with Jay Bruce, Michael Conforto and Curtis Granderson on the roster, the team has a mismatched collection of outfield parts. While Cespedes has been game enough to play centerfield, doing so hasn’t been great for his legs; he played just 132 games in 2016, his third year out of five with 135 or fewer. What's more, his defensive numbers in center (-7 DRS in 63 games in 2016, -24 in 178 major league games in his career) take a bite out of his offense.
If he doesn't stay in Queens, free agent Ian Desmond was passable at the position for the Rangers, and the Cubs' Dexter Fowler was very good; the first-round pick either would cost New York would essentially be offset by the compensation pick it will get if Cespedes leaves. The Mets could also make a run at a trade for an established player. One such option is Pirates star Andrew McCutchen, who is coming off a down year (103 OPS+, -28 DRS) and is guaranteed just $15 million including a 2018 option buyout; another is the Royals' Lorenzo Cain, who is owed $11 million for 2017, his final year before free agency and is also coming off a subpar season but is a much better defender. A less glittering trade option could be Cain's Kansas City teammate Jarrod Dyson, who's less of a hitter but could fit in New York as part of a defensively elite platoon in center with Juan Lagares.
After improving from 63 wins in 2015 (Ruben Amaro Jr.'s final year as general manager) to 71 in 2016 (Matt Klentak's first), the Phillies have several promising players in place in both their lineup and their rotation, plus obvious placeholders in shortstop Freddy Galvis (until prized prospect J.P Crawford arrives) and starting pitcher Jeremy Hellickson. Still, after ranking last in the league in scoring (3.77 runs per game) and 12th in run prevention (4.91 runs per game) en route to a 71-91 record this past season, Philadelphia remains a long way from contending.
One place where the club needs help is at the outfield corners. The Phillies acquired Howie Kendrick from the Dodgers on Nov. 11 and intends to play him in leftfield, where his declining bat is a bigger liability than his glovework would be at second base, the position he manned for most of his career until 2016. With Kendrick a free agent after 2017 and top-100 prospect Nick Williams having endured a less-than-stellar year at Triple A in '16, a corner outfielder with multiple years of control would make some sense, although that player would be more likely to arrive in a trade than through free agency.
Another focus should be the bullpen, where Jeanmar Gomez saved 37 games but was lit up for a 4.85 ERA and whiffed just 6.2 per nine. Philadelphia doesn't need to chase down a premier free agent like Aroldis Chapman or Kenley Jansen; instead it would do well to cultivate a new closer or recycle an old one, somebody who can miss bats and be flipped at the deadline (Neftali Feliz perhaps? A reunion with Joe Blanton?). The Phils also need to find a setup man to take the 72 1/3 innings David Hernandez threw for them in 2016 if they don't retain him. A swingman such as Scott Feldman, who could step into the rotation when injuries and innings limits rear their heads, would help as well.
Once the centerpiece of the Pirates' lineup, McCutchen fell on hard times in 2016. He hit just .256/.336/.430 en route to a career-low 103 OPS+ and posted an abysmal -28 DRS in centerfield, a package that was 0.7 wins below replacement. A right thumb injury may have been a factor but it doesn't explain his MLB-worst glovework. There have also been whispers of his unhappiness with the team regarding his contract—he has one guaranteed year left, at $14 million, as well as a $14.5 million club option for '18 with a $1 million buyout—and the departures of players he was close to.
Pittsburgh is reportedly considering switching McCutchen to rightfield, with Gregory Polanco moving from right to left and Starling Marte to center. With top prospect Austin Meadows waiting in the wings (he split 2016 between Double A and Triple A but missed a month due to a hamstring injury), the Pirates could look to deal their 30-year-old former MVP; they're known to have discussed him with the Nationals in July and the Mariners earlier this offseason. Right now, McCutchen's value is depressed, but gambling on a change of scenery and perhaps a change of position, is affordable financially for most teams, and Pittsburgh would gain multiple prospects in return.
In first baseman Wil Myers, second baseman Ryan Schimpf and third baseman Yangervis Solarte, the rebuilding Padres have three-quarters of an affordable and young-ish infield. Myers, who turns 26 in early December, and Solarte, 29, are arbitration eligible for the first time, while the 28-year-old Schimpf is a long way from that given that he's played just three and a half months in the majors.
For the second straight off-season, general manager A.J. Preller needs to find a shortstop. Before last season he signed Alexei Ramirez as a free agent, but Ramirez proved so bad that he was released in September. Luis Sardinas got a look at the position after being acquired from Seattle and hit .287/.353/.417 in 34 games; scouts, though, feel that the going-on-24-year-old switch-hitter is better suited to a utility role. Jose Rondon is going-on-23, but he hit a meager .283/.309/.386 in 96 games at Double A and 24 at Triple A, so he probably isn't ready, either.
That leaves the Padres in a grim free agent market (Erick Aybar, Daniel Descalso, Eric Sogard and Ruben Tejada are the best options) or trying to swing a trade. Preller could try to liberate former consensus top prospect Jurickson Profar from superutility hell in Texas; after missing two years with right shoulder injuries, he hit just .239/.321/.338 for 75 OPS+ in 307 PA with the Rangers in 2016, bue he is too young (24 on Feb. 20) and talented to be coming off the bench. Texas wants starting pitching in exchange for Profar, however, and the two teams may not line up. Looking elsewhere, Preller could use Solarte as a trade piece, with Schimpf shifting to third base when second base prospect Carlos Asuaje is ready.
In 2016 San Francisco's bullpen was uncharacteristically awful, leading the majors with 32 blown saves. Combine that with the fact that two of the team's closers from this past season, Santiago Casilla and Sergio Romo, are free agents and it's no surprise that the organization has stated its intention to dive into the deep end of the free agent pool, which means it will compete for Aroldis Chapman, Kenley Jansen and Mark Melancon
What's less clear is what the Giants will do in leftfield, where Angel Pagan and Gregor Blanco have both reached free agency. As a group, the team's leftfielders hit just .261/.325/.395 while playing slightly above-average defense, so an upgrade could provide real traction. In that light, pursuing Yoenis Cespedes makes sense, and he'd have more value as a leftfielder than as a centerfielder (which is how the Mets, who are trying to retain him, view him). That said, there hasn't been much to suggest the Giants are in the mix for the slugger, and they haven't been connected to either Ian Desmond or Dexter Fowler, either.
Among lower-end free agents, Matt Joyce is coming off a solid year for the Pirates (.242/.403/.463 with 13 homers in 293 PA) in a platoon role, but other options such as Carlos Gomez, Jon Jay and Colby Rasmus would mean betting on bouncebacks with the bat. Trade-wise, San Francisco has reportedly discussed J.D. Martinez (.307/.373/.535 with 22 homers but -22 DRS in rightfield en route to 1.8 WAR) with the Tigers; he's owed $11.75 in 2017, his final year before free agency. Another interesting option is the Cubs' Jorge Soler, who stands to get lost in Chicago's crowded outfield now that Kyle Schwarber is back from his knee injury. Though his overall numbers weren't great, Soler hit .258/.348 /.515 in 112 PA over the final two months upon returning from a hamstring injury. He turns 25 on Feb. 25 and is guaranteed just $15 million through 2020, though he can opt into arbitration after next season.
After missing the playoffs for the first time in six years, the Cardinals are moving the furniture around in the name of greater defensive stability. Earlier this month, general manager John Mozeliak said that the team plans to use Matt Carpenter regularly at first base (where he played 45 games in 2016), leaving Kolten Wong at second base, Aledmys Diaz at shortstop and Jhonny Peralta at third base, with Jedd Gyorko, who hit a team-high 30 homers, capable of filling in at all four positions. The outfield may have a moving part as well, giving St. Louis flexibility in the free agent and trade markets.
With Matt Holliday and Brandon Moss both reaching free agency, the only outfield spot where the Cardinals are fully set is in rightfield, where Stephen Piscotty is the starter. Randal Grichuk, who made 106 starts in centerfield but hit a disappointing .240/.289/.480, albeit with 24 homers, could be shifted to leftfield. Grichuk has shown the aptitude to play center and then some, with 14 DRS in 157 games, but Mozeliak thinks the team may be better off with him in left and somebody else in centerfield. Among current free agents, Dexter Fowler is the best option, while Ian Desmond was stretched somewhat there in his first season on the job (-6 DRS in 130 games); both would cost a draft pick in compensation to their former team, in addition to the sizeable long-term financial commitment it would take to procure either player's services. The rest of the centerfielders on the market, such as Michael Bourn, Carlos Gomez, Rajai Davis and Austin Jackson and old friend Jon Jay, are more likely complementary pieces, not starters. Yoenis Cespedes and Michael Saunders head up the leftfield class, and of course, a trade is possible as well.
The defending NL East champions head into 2017 with holes at catcher (where Wilson Ramos is a free agent whose return from a torn ACL could prevent him from being any team's first choice), centerfield (where Ben Revere was a disaster and Trea Turner a godsend who will likely be returned to shortstop) and closer. After displacing Drew Storen with Jonathan Papelbon in 2015, Washington traded for Mark Melancon to replace Papelbon in 2016. Now Meloncon is a free agent, and the Nationals have to figure out the ninth inning yet again.
Splitting the year between Pittsburgh and Washington, Melancon pitched to a stellar 1.64 ERA with 47 saves in 51 chances. He should garner a sizable deal, though his age (he turns 32 next March), his velocity (92-93 mph for his fastballs and cutter) and his modest strikeout rate (8.2 per nine) place him on a lower tier than Arolids Chapman and Kenley Jansen, both of whom should surpass the record average annual value for a closer, which currently belongs to Mariano Rivera’s $15 million average. Chapman, 28, and Jansen, 29, are younger and miss more bats than Melancon, giving them more margin for error.
Therefore if the Nationals are thinking of spending significant money at the spot, they might as well go big. Chapman, who pitched for manager Dusty Baker in Cincinnati and has been a trade target of GM Mike Rizzo in the past, makes more sense in that context. Among lower-cost free agents, Greg Holland was stellar with the Royals in 2013 and '14 before undergoing Tommy John surgery in late 2015, but other options such as Storen, Santiago Casilla, Sergio Romo and Fernando Rodney have pitched their way out of closing at some point in recent years. If Washington can't get one of Chapman, Jansen or Melancon it may be better off trading for a stronger solution, such as Kansas City's Wade Davis.