Teams that need to go for it in 2018
— -- Baseball's winter meetings are far from the only time to make trades and signings, but like turkey on Thanksgiving Day, it's the best time to get the choice portions rather than waiting for the leftovers. The signing of Shohei Ohtani by the Los Angeles Angels and the earth-shattering acquisition of Giancarlo Stanton by the New York Yankees makes this even more urgent for some teams, with two possibilities off the table and two contending teams getting stronger.
The rather thin free-agent market, a common sight in recent years, makes urgency an imperative for the teams that are trying to "go for it" in 2018. Have the dough for a genuine-star starting pitcher? Once Yu Darvish and Jake Arrieta (and maybe Alex Cobb) sign, that's it. There's no shopping elsewhere, no free-agent store that has a couple of extra Darvishes hiding in the back room, and no fat guy in a red suit is going to bring you one in exchange for milk and cookies.
The teams that should be the most motivated to go all-out for next season generally fall into two categories: those with the largest increase in playoff odds by adding X number of wins and those teams facing a shrinking window. Below are my picks for which teams have the most to lose through inaction this week. Included is their playoff probability if they make moves that add up to five additional projected wins to their record, along with how much those five added wins boost their playoff odds.
In courting the Marlins and Giancarlo Stanton, the Cardinals did something they usually shy away from in taking a huge risk to take a big step forward. The team's usual modus operandi, being smart and careful, isn't a bad one, and it has served them well for a long time. But with the Cubs well past their rebuilding stage, aggressive and better-run than they ever have been, it's much harder to just take the division every year with 86 to 90 wins. Sometimes you gotta gamble.
I believe the team realizes it, as well, which is why it was interested in Stanton in the first place. If it was willing to risk nearly $300 million, it can surely afford to bring in either of the top free-agent pitchers, Jake Arrieta or Yu Darvish. With wild cards having a play-in game these days, having a serious divisional shot in more important than it has been since the introduction of the wild card.
Boston's window remains open past 2018, so the imperative to do something right now isn't quite as urgent as the next team on this list. The club's young core will remain together for years to come and of the significant contributors, just Craig Kimbrel, Drew Pomeranz?and Hanl... OK, just Kimbrel and Pomeranz are potentially painful free-agent losses after 2018. But for a team that already wanted to make significant improvements this winter, being rebuffed by both Ohtani and Stanton and seeing its Bronx rivals pick up the latter just increases the challenge in keeping pace at the top of its division.
The Red Sox have been linked to Eric Hosmer, but Hosmer himself is projected at below 50 percent to be worth even half of Stanton's WAR, leaving the team still behind where it stood in the division in the event it signs him. First base remains a priority, but an upgrade at designated hitter would be a nice to have -- and another solid starting pitcher, as well. And it would be prudent to add another infielder as insurance for Dustin Pedroia's knee.
The Rockies were a terrific story in 2017, even if a late-season slump almost cost them their first playoff appearance since 2009. But it remains a team with serious issues. The pitching staff was excellent last season, with both Colorado's rotation and bullpen in the top 10 in ERA in 2017. The rotation remains in good shape, but the Rockies will need to replace the losses of Greg Holland and Jake McGee, which the team is fully aware of.
But what's forgotten is just how lousy the position players were, largely masked by the increase in league offense the past few years and the characteristics of Coors Field. Even with two legitimate MVP candidates in Charlie Blackmon and Nolan Arenado, the offense ranked 25th in team OPS . Add in DJ LeMahieu and that trio combined for 16.1 WAR (baseball-reference) in 2017, with the rest of the position players contributing ... zero -- 0.0 WAR to be precise. Replacement-level is set so a team at 0.0 WAR would win 47 to 48 games a year, so that's how the offense played outside its big names.
The Rockies have done some great player development, but it's time to spend in free agency -- and I don't mean hilarious overpays for Gerardo Parra or to play Ian Desmond at first base. It's hard to sell pitchers on Coors Field, but the Rockies need hitters, and bringing in a real solution like a Carlos Santana should be in the team's plans.
The Orioles are coming off a 75-87 season and now come face-to-face with the event that will give the organization its hardest decision in some time: The Manny Machado Walk Year. Unless Machado chooses to give Baltimore a significant "home team" discount, his next contract is likely to approach Stantonian levels.
The team expressed interested in Tyler Chatwood?but lost out to the Cubs. Signing a Chatwood type to shore up the rotation isn't just necessary, it's also not sufficient in itself. With what the Orioles have in-house, the mantra would be "Gausman, Bundy, and pray for an active volcano to erupt in the Inner Harbor." None of Wade Miley, Ubaldo Jimenez, Chris Tillman or Jeremy Hellickson were non-terrible for the Orioles in 2017, but some combination of Gabriel Ynoa, Alec Asher, Mike Wright and maybe Miguel Castro doesn't actually project any better. The ZiPS mean projection for the O's rotation as of right now is 5.1 fWAR. That awesome 2017 rotation with the 5.70 ERA was "good" for 5.5 fWAR.
If the O's aren't both willing and able to make multiple, significant rotation signings, they might as well pack it up and start the rebuilding process while they still have a whole year of Machado to offer.
Bringing in Shohei Ohtani was a major coup for the Angels, something they and their fans should be incredibly excited about. But the team still features larger holes than the plot of an Uwe Boll movie, with question marks up and down the injury-filled rotation, and likely to be below-average overall at catcher, first base, designated hitter, second base and third base. That's not a situation Ohtani's bat can fix, even if the Angels played him in the field surprisingly often.
Some of the holes can be solved with money rather than tough decisions. Neil Walker or Zack Cozart would be significant upgrades at second base, and given Cozart's Gold Glove-level performances at short, he ought to do a great job at second if he's willing. A Cozart-Simmons middle infield would make signing a ground-ball pitcher such as Arrieta highly interesting.
But any significant upgrade at 1B/DH is going to need to involve a hard choice, and I'm not talking about C.J. Cron. Albert Pujols was one of the worst players in the majors last year, getting way too much playing time for a sub-.700 OPS DH. The Angels can value nostalgia and pretending that good Pujols (let alone great Pujols) is coming back, or they can choose to value winning games and taking advantage of the prime years of the best player in franchise history. Their choice.
The good news for the Blue Jays is that ZiPS is more optimistic about their bounce back from the bottom of the division than it is for the Orioles, and about their in-house pitching situation, as well, with Marcus Stroman and J.A. Happ returning and the hope that Aaron Sanchez pitches more than 36 innings in 2018. But time is equally dangerous, with most of the team's offense now on the wrong side of 30 and the team's best player, Josh Donaldson, a year away from free agency.
ZiPS ranks both the team's left-field and right-field options as among the bottom of serious playoff contenders in 2018. One thing that this market does have is hitters, so there's little excuse for the team going into the year with Teoscar Hernandez, Steve Pearce and Ezequiel Carrera in the corners, especially with Kendrys Morales not likely to make up the deficit at DH.
One has to feel for the Giants. First, they had a far worse 2017 season than anyone could have reasonably expected with the talent they had available. Then, after being one of the seven finalists for Ohtani, they saw him end up with the Angels. And after essentially closing a deal for Stanton that just needed Stanton's signature, the team instead got stiff-armed by the star slugger.
Striking out both times, the Giants' road to one last run or two before their core starts to age out of relevance became a lot more rocky. After all, not only is the team in a worse position now than it appeared to be a year ago today, every other team in the NL West is arguably in better spot.
ZiPS projects enough bounce-backs from various underperformers, such as Johnny Cueto, to get the Giants back up to 75 wins. That's a tough number to support any playoff ambitions, though, and even five additional wins on top of that wouldn't do it. Ideally, to get the 10 wins the team needs to get back to relevance, it will need to close multiple big deals. Landing Marcell Ozuna or Christian Yelich in a trade with the Marlins is a good place to start -- I prefer the latter, as I think he'd hit a million doubles at AT&T Park -- but the Giants will still need to land another top outfielder and, ideally, a top starting pitcher, as well.