With free agency underway, the offseason is going to pick up steam. What are the big questions facing all 30 teams? We continue our division-by-division series with a look at the American League West.
Houston Astros: Who starts the other 100 games?
2018 record: 103-59
2019 World Series odds: 6-1
Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole will top the rotation, just like they did in 2018, when Houston starters led the majors in in ERA (3.16). But aside from those two righties, the rest of the Astros’ fantastic front five is suddenly an enormous unknown. Lefty Dallas Keuchel is a free agent and doesn’t seem likely to return. Lance McCullers Jr. just had Tommy John surgery and will miss the entire 2019 season. Veteran Charlie Morton also is a free agent, so his future with Houston is uncertain.
Top prospect Forrest Whitley is on the horizon, but he’s only 21 and missed significant time last year due to a performance-enhancing drug suspension. Flamethrower Josh James turned heads after a September call-up and even cracked the postseason roster, but he has only three big league starts on his résumé. Swingman Collin McHugh, bumped to the bullpen when Houston signed Cole last winter, could rejoin the rotation, but that would deprive manager A.J. Hinch of a guy who turned out to be one of the top relievers in the National League last season. In other words, there are question marks. Lots of ’em. So don’t be surprised if general manager Jeff Luhnow dips into the free-agent pitching pool once again. — Eddie Matz
Oakland Athletics: Can they acquire enough starting pitching to win the AL West?
2018 record: 97-65
2019 World Series odds: 30-1
The A’s surprised a lot of people in 2018, getting the second AL wild-card berth in a season in which most didn’t pick them to make the playoffs. They became the first team since payroll has been tracked to rank last in Opening Day payroll and make the postseason. But along the way, they saw every pitcher who was in their rotation to start the year get injured and miss significant time, headlined by Sean Manaea, who threw a no-hitter against the eventual World Series champion Boston Red Sox in April. He had shoulder surgery late in the year and is expected to miss all of 2019.
That brings us to the biggest question the A’s will face: Can they acquire enough starting pitching to win the AL West? The division is likely to be weaker heading into 2019. The Astros won’t have Lance McCullers all year, and we don’t know yet if they’ll re-sign free agents Charlie Morton or Dallas Keuchel.
The Oakland offense will be there — with Matt Olson, Khris Davis, Matt Chapman, Stephen Piscotty and others. But perhaps Oakland will seek to trade someone for a pitcher. Don’t expect them to break the bank on a free agent. But they could be active in the trade market, which could have a number of names available. One floated already is Sonny Gray, whom the Yankees have said they want to trade in the offseason. Gray began his career with the A’s and had his best seasons in Oakland, including a third-place Cy Young finish in 2015. — Sarah Langs
Seattle Mariners: Whom will Jerry Dipoto find to provide some offense?
2018 record: 89-73
2019 World Series odds: 50-1
For an 89-win team, the Mariners enter the offseason with some serious concerns. On the offensive side, Seattle finished 11th in the AL in runs, and Nelson Cruz, the team’s top home run hitter with 37, is a free agent. The Mariners likely will attempt to re-sign Cruz, but that would still leave some holes, especially in the outfield. Dee Gordon gave it his all in center field, but that transition didn’t really take (minus-8 defensive runs saved in 435 innings), plus he became a liability at the plate with just nine walks and a .288 OBP. The Mariners now list him as an infielder — at least he’s a solid defender at second base. Of course, that’s Robinson Cano‘s position and Cano still has enough range to play there even as he enters his age-36 season.
The best option is probably sliding Cano over to a first base/DH role, displacing the awful Ryon Healy (minus-0.6 WAR). If Cruz signs elsewhere, Dan Vogelbach could suck up some DH at-bats. That leaves an outfield of All-Star Mitch Haniger, plus Ben Gamel and Guillermo Heredia, both best suited to backup roles. Haniger can handle center but is best in right field, so the Mariners could be in on a free agent like A.J. Pollock. Mariners center fielders were a combined minus-25 DRS, so adding a true center fielder is a must. They also could use more offense in left field. We know Dipoto loves to wheel and deal, but the Mariners’ farm system is the worst in the game, so the options there are more likely to be an older vet such as Adam Jones or re-signing Denard Span than adding someone via trade. — David Schoenfield
2018 record: 80-82
2019 World Series odds: 40-1
Really, that’s all this is about. But appeasing Trout — with two seasons remaining on his extension, unless somehow the Angels can sign him to another one before then — is a convoluted undertaking. They have to contend now, but also be set up to do so in the future. And the Angels have failed to walk that tightrope for basically the entirety of Trout’s seven-year career.
Angels general manager Billy Eppler laid out what appears to be a simple plan from the GM meetings earlier this week. He plans to look outside for a starting catcher and lots of pitching for both his rotation and his bullpen. And he’ll cross his fingers that at least two of his five most major-league-ready young players (David Fletcher, Taylor Ward, Luis Rengifo, Matt Thaiss and Jared Walsh) can claim two open spots in the lineup (a first-base complement to Albert Pujols and second or third base, depending on where Zack Cozart plays).
The Angels won’t have any long-term sustainability if their young players can’t step up. But they have no chance in the immediate future if they don’t get more reliable pitching. Angels relievers blew 26 saves last year, tied with the Los Angeles Dodgers for fifth most in the majors. Over the past three years, while beset by an alarming rash of serious injuries to their rotation, 18 pitchers have made at least five starts for the Angels. — Alden Gonzalez
2018 record: 67-95
2019 World Series odds: 100-1
The Rangers won just 67 games, their fewest since 2014, when they also won 67. They made the playoffs each of the next two years, losing in the division series each time. Joey Gallo had another Gallo season in 2018, with 40 home runs and 207 strikeouts. The Rangers are one year away from moving to a new ballpark, and they will want to get back on the winning side of things. There were rumors that Clayton Kershaw might consider Texas if he opted out of his contract with the Dodgers, but he did not, so Kershaw won’t be the Rangers’ marquee player headed into that season.
One question the Rangers face they can’t answer themselves: Will Adrian Beltre retire? The slugger hasn’t said anything publicly. He’s been on the Rangers since 2011, and he has a .304 batting average and .865 OPS in 1,098 games with the club. This year, at age 39, he still hit .273 with 15 HRs and 65 RBIs in 119 games. He isn’t their most important offensive player by any stretch of the imagination anymore, but he’s been a symbol there for a while and likely is a future Hall of Famer. He’s also 23 home runs shy of 500.
The Rangers likely have more pressing overall personnel questions, like deciding if they should trade one of their outfielders — Nomar Mazara, Gallo, Willie Calhoun or Shin-Soo Choo, who has two years left on his lucrative deal. But the Beltre question will be near and dear to fans’ hearts — and not just Rangers fans, but baseball fans as a whole who take joy in watching him play. — Langs
Mauer’s Hall of Fame case and more
It’s always corny when a character in a movie actually utters the theme of the script, but sometimes it’s acceptable. A good example is from “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” when the title character says, “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”
Yeah, it’s hard to read the words and not roll your eyes. But Ferris was right. Time does move awfully fast. For one thing, if they made a chronologically sound sequel to that movie, the Ferris character would now be 51 years old. For another, Joe Mauer just retired. Are you kidding me? Mauer is done? Fifteen years have gone past since he debuted as the hotshot kid making a splash in his hometown? Yep. That’s it for one of the greatest Twins, tearful farewell news conference and all.
The appropriate thing to do at times like this is to evaluate a newly retired star for his Hall of Fame worthiness. That’s exactly what we’re about to do, even though we have about five years before it really matters. One thing about that time gap we should address up front: The landscape of catching has changed, and what it will look like by the time Mauer hits the Hall ballot is impossible to say. This might skew the lens through which his career is perceived.
MLB — San Francisco Giants face the tough task of rebuilding
There is perhaps one positive way to look at the San Francisco Giants‘ 2018 season. In 2017, the team lost 98 games and finished 40 games behind the Los Angeles Dodgers in the National League West — the furthest out of first place the franchise had finished since 1943. In 2018, the Giants finished just 18½ games behind the Dodgers. Improvement!
If you really want to spin things, you can even point out that the team was 68-68 entering September, just 6½ games out of first place. OK, so the Giants lost 11 games in a row and torpedoed the final month with a 5-21 record to finish 73-89, concluding the franchise’s worst two-year stretch since they lost 196 games in 1984-85. Hey, they were just one great month from a playoff spot!
The reality, of course, is that the Giants weren’t close to making the playoffs and were outscored by 96 runs. They were an old, expensive and bad team. It cost general manager Bobby Evans his job with a week left in the season, although former longtime GM and current executive VP Brian Sabean kept his, as did manager Bruce Bochy, who has one season remaining on his contract.
Last week, the Giants hired Dodgers GM Farhan Zaidi, who was Billy Beane’s lieutenant in Oakland and then part of the multiheaded chain of command in Los Angeles under Andrew Friedman. Team president and CEO Larry Baer said Zaidi will have full authority to run baseball operations.
The question without an easy answer: Where do Zaidi and the Giants turn this offseason? At his introductory news conference, he didn’t give away any immediate game plan. “I’m eager to get opinions from a wide range of people on what they think makes sense in terms of a broader direction, and I think where we are, everything has to be on the table in terms of how we move this team and roster forward,” he said.
The lack of clarity is understandable. Rebuilding isn’t an easy option when you’ve drawn 3 million fans nine seasons in a row, and winning is expected after claiming three World Series titles from 2010 to 2014. Plus, the team lacks the kind of players who could bring in a nice haul of prospects anyway. Even franchise icon Madison Bumgarner, who has one season left before free agency, would appear to have limited value at this point.
As Buster Olney pointed out a couple of days ago, Bumgarner’s average fastball velocity has dipped from 92.1 mph in 2014 to 90.9 mph in 2018, and while Bumgarner has never relied on high-octane velocity, his four-seam fastball was tagged hard in 2018, as opponents produced a .954 OPS against it — up from .785 in 2017 and .619 in 2014. His overall strikeout rate, which peaked at 27.5 percent in 2016, dropped to 19.8 percent, his lowest rate since his rookie season in 2010.
In other words, with the decline in peripherals across the board, Bumgarner is more valuable to the Giants right now than another team.
The rest of the core players are essentially untradable because of their contracts in combination with their recent level of production. Look at what this group is owed over upcoming seasons:
Mark Melancon: $28 million through 2020
Jeff Samardzija: $36 million through 2020
Brandon Crawford: $45 million through 2021
Brandon Belt: $48 million through 2021
Buster Posey: $67.2 million through 2021
Johnny Cueto: $68 million through 2021
Evan Longoria: $72.5 million through 2022
That group produced 10.8 WAR in 2018, not completely useless, but not worth the drag on the payroll. Posey’s 2.9 WAR was the highest of the seven — and he underwent hip surgery in late August to repair an impingement and torn labrum. Recovery was estimated at six to eight months, but even if he returns healthy, Posey is a 32-year-old catcher coming off surgery.
Aside from that, Cueto underwent Tommy John surgery and isn’t expected back until late in the 2019 season. Samardzija didn’t pitch after July 14 and finished with a 6.25 ERA. Belt has missed significant time each of the past two seasons.
Of course, that’s what happens to old teams: They get hurt. The Giants had the oldest group of position players in 2018, at an average age of 30.5 (weighted for plate appearances), according to TheBaseballGauge.com data. Oh, and they finished 14th in the NL in runs scored with that aging lineup.
I did a quick study of old lineups, looking at all teams from 2013 to 2017 that had an average positional player age of at least 30. Those 24 teams averaged 83.2 wins in the year of the study and fell to 77.5 the following season. In the second season after the study, they averaged 80.7 wins — a figure boosted by the 104-win Dodgers of 2017 and the 100-win Yankees of 2018.
That doesn’t account for quality of the lineup, however, as even old-but-good lineups can fall apart in a hurry. The 2013 Red Sox won the World Series with an average age of 30.2, but fell to 71 and 78 wins the next two seasons. Luckily, the farm system produced Mookie Betts, Xander Bogaerts and Andrew Benintendi, and they were back in the playoffs in 2016. The 2013-14 Tigers were old and good, but fell from 93 and 90 wins to 74 and are still trying to dig out of that hole. The 2015 Blue Jays were an offensive powerhouse, leading the American League in runs scored with 891. They’ve gone from 93 wins to 89 to 76 to 73 and scored just 709 runs in 2018.
And those were the good teams, mind you (and none of that accounts for the pitching side of the ledger, of course). With no obvious impact offensive players in the minors, the road to recovery for the Giants isn’t so simple — outside of opening the wallet for Bryce Harper. Except Zaidi is obviously aware that Harper alone won’t turn the franchise into a contender.
“Baseball is about the entire 25-man roster,” he said at his news conference. “No one player and no one move is going to turn the fate of a franchise around. It takes hard work and it takes humility, taking one step forward at a time, making one good baseball move after another, and I really feel like that’s how we’re going to get where we hope and intend to go. I think when you have that attitude and aren’t too myopic about, ‘We’re rebuilding, that means we’re not going to sign free agents, that means we’re not going to acquire veteran players,’ you’re going to leave a lot of opportunities on the table. … As [an] organization right now, we have to cast as wide of a net as possible and not put too many labels on what this process is going to be other than to make smart, sound decisions.”
Here’s the thing that looms over this offseason and the immediate future: Even if Posey is healthy and Belt is a little better and Crawford is a little better, this is still a team that hasn’t won 90 games since 2012. The Giants snuck into wild-card spots in 2014 with 88 wins and 2016 with 87 wins, but what’s the likelihood of this group — in their post-peak seasons — suddenly reemerging as a 90-win team?
That’s why it will take much more than Harper.
With the A’s and Dodgers, Zaidi’s special talent was finding what I call free talent — such as acquiring Chris Taylor from the Mariners or signing Max Muncy as a minor league free agent. Indeed, Harper can’t exactly be dreaming of going to AT&T Park hitting 400-foot fly balls to the warning track in right-center, so the Giants will need plans B, C and D.
Buster’s MLB Buzz — For many players, this will be a long, cold winter
By the end of spring training this year, there was an angry undercurrent among players and in the union because of the sheer volume of established veterans who were mostly ignored in free agency. Mark Reynolds, a solid defender who was closing in on 300 career homers, would remain unsigned until after the start of the season. Matt Holliday waited for a major league deal, before eventually taking a minor-league deal in midseason and ascending to help the Rockies reach the postseason.
The frustration over the experienced players left behind would manifest in suggestions of management collusion, including one incendiary statement by an agent who, by the end of 2018, would be picked to be the general manager of the Mets.
This winter, there is bound to be more money spent on free agents than during the last offseason, as Bryce Harper, Manny Machado and a handful of others accumulate hundreds of millions of dollars in deals.
But for the rank-and-file — for players like Holliday, Reynolds and many, many relievers — it almost certainly will be a very cold winter of waiting for expected offers that never evolve.
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