We are less than 2 weeks away until the Athletics and Angels kick off the Pitchers and Catchers report on February 19th. As the major sprees of the off-season are behind us, and arbitration settlements slowly shrinking within every clubhouse, now is the time we recap the big moves and questionable calls that have etched the foundations of an exciting 2015 regular season. Edward Overend wrote a stellar piece recently upon the Top 20 moves of the baseball off-season; I follow up this write up with an outlook of all 30 teams’ individual off-season performances.
Big contract signings, key arbitration agreements, crushing departures via free agency and monumental trades shall all be summarised within a single grade. Who do I think struck gold and orchestrated the A-grade winter; who succumbed to the pressure and withered in the corner for a D-grade disaster; we break down each team by division, offering an early look at the state of each division heading into Spring training. (Note: statistics in brackets denotes 2014 regular season; batting average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage; pitching win-loss record, earned run average)
American League Central:
Chicago White Sox: A You’d be walking on thin ice in the Windy City if you thought the North-side Cubs were the winners of the offseason. Down south, GM Rick Hahn made some incredible, shrewd moves that not only filled major needs but instantly put the Sox in contention for the divisional title. Producing the third-worst run differential in the majors last year; pitching was the biggest red flag. They nailed that need, twice, at different angles.
SP Jeff Samardija (7-13, 2.99 ERA) returns to Chicago after being traded for by the White Sox, shortly after signing their future closer David Robertson (3.08 ERA, 39 SV) on a 4-year, $46 million deal. Robertson excelled as the set-up man in the Bronx both before and after the retirement of Mariano Rivera. Last season, he stepped up and excelled as their closer, and will be called upon to duplicate his 2014 campaign in the slightly (barely) pitcher-friendly confines of U.S. Cellular Field. Samardija slots in as the #2 guy in the rotation behind ace Chris Sale, holding an excellent WHIP of 1.07 from last year. Jose Quintana and John Danks shore up the first 4 spots of an instantly improved, impressive pitching staff for the Sox.
OF Melky Cabrera (301/351/458) completed the trifecta of big splashes on the South side, being signed for a 3-year, $42 million deal. Cabrera stellar base-hitting and solid defense will take pressure off rookie sensation Joe Abreu, possibly leading to a greater impact from the DH slot or at 1B for Abreu.
Beyond the big-money deals, Chicago added a tonne of depth behind their young starting line-up. Versatile UT Emilion Bonafacio (259/305/345) enters the fray as a guy who can cover the middle infield and the entire outfield. Adam LaRoche (259/362/455) comes in as either their go-to 1B or DH. 2B Gordon Beckham (226/271/348) was also re-signed by the club, retaining one of their most inconsistent yet talented infielders. Finally; intriguing low-key signing to watch out for, former Marlins prospect C Rob Brantly (255/291/341) who spent 2014 in the minor leagues in Triple-A New Orleans. He shows flashes of talent off the bat as a contact hitter, and has a solid glove behind the plate.
The White Sox miss out on the A+ mark by failing to add any depth behind Robertson in the bullpen. Their relief arms still remain very much similar from their less-than-stellar 2014 campaign, despite it predominantly consisting of younger pitchers like Javy Guerra and Nate Jones.
Cleveland Indians: C-
Despite the departure of SS Asdrubal last summer, it was a very quiet offseason for the Indians, who literally locked up its doors for the winter; keeping everybody else inside in the process. There actually isn’t much to touch on in regards to the Indians this offseason, barring the very important addition of 1B Brandon Moss (234/334/438).
Moss shone in Oakland since 2012, swatting 76 home runs in the last 3 seasons. He became the figure-head of Billy Bean’s “money ball” philosophy since the release of Bennett Miller’s 2011 motion picture revolving on that very narrative of baseball. He enters Cleveland as possibly their starting RF, but could start at either 1B or DH depending on the defensive performances by Carlos Santana and Nick Swisher.
Following their trade of Justin Masterson last summer, Cleveland was lacking depth and competition for the middle rotation and the back-end, but signed SP Gavin Floyd (2-2, 2.65 ERA) to bolster their pitching staff. Floyd only had 9 starts last year after having elbow surgery last year. Floyd has the chance to once again be a solid #3 starter in the rotation, behind stellar SP Cory Kluber and Danny Salazar, as well as compete with youngsters Carlos Carrasco and Trevor Baeur. Zac McAllister (4-7, 5.23 ERA) will also be in the hunt for a starting role, but is coming off a sophmore slump last season.
Failing to add a big name to the infield does create the window for top prospect SP Francisco Lindor to enter as a full-time starter at some point this season. While depth is there underneath Cabrera to fill his departure in the middle infield, notably through Mike Aviles and Joes Ramirez, the lack of a talent upgrade makes Cleveland’s offseason unspectacular but adequate.
Their biggest strengths still remain in their rotation and in the Outfield, notably through the emerging stardom of LF Michael Brantley, and the Indians did a great job in retaining the majority of their contributors for 2014; hence why this quiet winter wasn’t a disaster.
Detroit Tigers: B
Detroit were involved in quite a number of offseason trades that landed some very important contributors for the upcoming season, with the big star of the winter being OF Yeonis Cespedes (260/301/450).
After his brief 3 month tenure at Fenway, Cespedes was traded to Detroit in exchange for stellar SP Rick Porcello. LF was a big concern for the Tigers through the entire 2014 season, and now has arguably the biggest arm from the outfield in the entire major leagues at their disposal in Cespedes. With 22 HR and 100 RBI, you could slot Cespedes in either the 5 or 6 spot in the batting order, most likely right after breakout OF J.D. Martinez.
Speaking of the outfield, Anthony Gose (226/311/293) was bought in via trade with Toronto, which gives the Tigers a possible lead-off hitter (15 SB) or impact player off the bench, dependent on how they value Rajai Davis as their full-time starter in CF.
As stated before, Rick Porcello was traded to Boston, which leaves a hole in the rotation behind Price, Verlander and Sanchez. Prospect SP Robbie Ray was traded away as part of a three-team deal that landed Detroit with Yankees rookie stand-out SP Shane Greene (5-4, 3.78 ERA). Add that with the trade that landed SP Alfredo Simon (15-10, 3.44 ERA) from Cincinnati (with the expense of prospect Jonathon Crawford), and Detroit has a full rotation ready to go to open up the Spring.
But arguably their biggest move of the winter was resigning All-Star, Silver Slugger DH Victor Martinez (335/409/565) to a 4-year, $68 million deal. V-Mart led the majors in on-base percentage and OPS, and was one of the leading hitters in slugging to boot. His 28 intentional walks earned from opposing pitchers in 2014 reflects the amount of respect he has earned as a hitter since recovering from his season-ending injury in 2012.
Many will point to 3B Miguel Cabrera as the cog in the Tigers’ line-up, and that is a valid statement when looking at him as an all-round third-baseman. But Martinez’s immense talent in discipline and plate coverage (70 BB/42 Strikeouts), as well as his surge in power in 2014 (32 HR), deservedly names him as the major factor of Detroit’s offense. None-so-more reflected by his major league-leading Offensive Winning Percentage of .776.
The bullpen got Detroit in a lot of trouble during the midseason last year, yet there is yet to be an impact signing to bolster the bullpen. Pitchers Alex Wilson (Boston) and Josh Zeid (Houston) were bought in to fight for a mid-innings role following the departure of Joba Chamberlin, but that’s not enough to add security to their bullpen. One must question the decision to go ahead with trusting the unreliable, unpredictable arms of Joe Nathan, Al Alburquerque, Joakim Soria and Bruce Rondon that will undoubtedly dominate the major relief roles.
Despite that glaring flaw, the Tigers pulled together a good offseason; adding both talent and depth through the bat and through the starting rotation, they become contenders for the AL Central once more.
Kansas City Royals: B-
After the drama of a historic postseason run and World Series in the fall of 2014, Kansas City’s offseason was a real deflater through the loss of a couple key contributors, but added solid talent in their place to rebound in decent fashion.
Even though he struggled in the postseason, the loss of SP James Shields was always going to dominate the Royals’ winter. He leaves a large hole that, realistically, only Yordano Ventura can fulfil, and that might not be until next year in regards to talent level. But to provide some security, as well as a bolstered rotation, Kansas City bought in SP Edison Volquez (13-7, 3.04 ERA) after his remarkable tenure in Pittsburgh, as well as former Braves ace SP Kris Medlen (15-12, 3.11 ERA in 2013), who missed all of 2014 due to Tommy John surgery.
But, even if they didn’t bring in extra support for Ventura behind him, he still has the dominating bullpen of 2014 in one piece; ready to become a menace once more in 2015, led by CP Greg Holland and set-up relievers Wade Davis and Kevin Herrera.
Billy Butler’s departure leaves a big hole in the DH role, as well as a leadership presence in the clubhouse. But the Royals made a sound pick for his replacement in 1B/DH Kendrys Morales (218/274/338) despite his rough 2014 campaign. The signing of OF Alex Rios (280/311/398) on a one-year, $11 million deal gives Kansas City a quality outfielder with great speed, and a great lead-off option in the batting order. Rios’ signing will avoid too much dependability on OF/DH Jarrod Dyson, which will work in their favour, for he can now be focused as a rotational player around the outfield, as well as a pinch runner.
Shields and Butler were big, impacting figures in the Royals’ historic 2014 season, but they do make up for their bitter losses with a variety of solid acquisitions to keep them as a contending ball-club.
Minnesota Twins: B+
We would be talking more about the Twins’ impressive offseason if it not for the most extravagant signings made by the Tigers and White Sox. Not many moves were made overall; similar to Cleveland’s offseason in terms of quantity of moves, but the acquisitions made have been severely overlooked.
Bringing back former home-grown star OF Tori Hunter (286/319/446) was a big move in regards of finding a leader in the outfield, a consistent glove and a great bat in any part of the batting order. His strikeout rate improved from the year before, whilst maintaining his HR (17) and RBI numbers (83). He’s a no-brainer for any of the 1,2 or 3 spots in the batting order.
Two key moves were made by the Twins to provide a stellar rotation moving into 2015, as well as in the long run. SP Ervin Santana (14-10, 3.95 ERA) was signed on a 4-year, $54 million deal; finally salvaging his long awaited long term contract after having impressive campaigns in Kansas City (2013), followed by Atlanta (2014). And after his remarkable first season in Target Field, SP Phil Hughes (16-10, 3.52 ERA) was signed to a 3-year, $42 million extension, carrying him through 2019 with the Twins.
Hughes has clearly found his comfort zone in Minnesota after his rocky tenure with the Yankees, and is set to provide good value as their ace heading forward. He achieved a career high in strikeouts (186), and his 1.13 WHIP is his lowest since 2009. What’s more, he only walked batters a staggeringly low 16 times: an incredible 0.7 walks-per-innings (BB/9) rate. And to top it off, his strikeout/walk ratio of 11.63 not only led all other starting pitcher in the majors, but blew every other front runner away (Seattle’s Hishashi Iwakuma was 2nd with 7.33). Bottom line: Phil Hughes arrived in 2014, and is their most valuable asset in making them a dark horse threat in 2015. His extension, in my eyes at least, was by far the best offseason move in the AL Central division.
Similar to the Indians with SS Francisco Lindor and their infield, the Twins avoided overhauling their outfield with journeyman signings in order to open the necessary window of opportunity for MLB’s #1 prospect CF Byron Buxton to slot into the 25-man roster once he regains his form before his injury last year. Regardless, don’t take the Twins lightly. No longer are they a deadbeat club in the American League.
Up next: American League West