Offseason breakdown: AL Central
Editor's Note: This is part of a three-day series that assesses each of baseball's 30 teams in a division-by-division format. Teams are listed according to the order in which they finished the regular season in their division in 2013.
Pegged by many to return to the World Series and win it this time around means there's a lot of room for disappointment, and getting eliminated in the American League Championship Series by the Red Sox was definitely a disappointment. Miguel Cabrera's injury down the stretch hobbled an offense charged with producing runs to support the league's best rotation. With Jim Leyland retiring from dugout duties, one of general manager Dave Dombrowski's first tasks will be selecting a replacement -- perhaps even a rookie skipper -- who can handle the ongoing expectation that another AL Central title from this star-laden roster is the team's minimum goal for 2014.
Shopping in the unpredictable relief market is a must, because between the Detroit bullpen's woeful postseason performance and a fairly large group of free agents to choose from, the Tigers have an opportunity to use this winter's turnover in their pen as a way to shore it up. Offense may not seem to be a problem for the team that finished second in the league in runs scored behind Boston, but they do need a left fielder who can live up to the position's offensive responsibilities. A starting second baseman is also a must on Dombrowski's shopping list, starting from the assumption that Jose Iglesias takes over permanently for Jhonny Peralta at shortstop in 2014.
You can bet that most of Leyland's veteran bit parts -- guys like Dotel, Santiago and Laird -- will not be back, especially if the new manager gets any kind of input on who he wants on the back end of his roster. Retaining Benoit after his part in the Tigers' late-game meltdowns in October also seems unlikely. If there's any chance that Peralta sticks around on a short-term deal -- perhaps as their full-time left fielder after he played there in the postseason upon returning from his PED suspension -- it won't be to play shortstop, which may affect his willingness to sign for any dollar amount.
The biggest potential loss, however, would be Max Scherzer if there's any truth to the rumors that Dombrowski might decide to cash in on his co-ace's last year under contract before free agency to address some of the team's other needs. As incredible as that might seem, Dombrowski is trying to keep payroll under control on a roster that already has eight players making eight-figure salaries as well eight potential arbitration cases (and raises) to deal with beyond Scherzer's. Trading Scherzer would help put money back in the till, allowing the Tigers to shop the market that much more aggressively to address whatever needs dealing him didn't meet.
As Dombrowski demonstrated back in 2010 by giving Jose Valverde a two-year-plus-option deal that paid Papa Grande $23 million, the GM isn't afraid to throw a big-money, multi-year deal at a free-agent reliever. Detroit would have to top that average annual value to get in on Joe Nathan or Grant Balfour.
If the Tigers can't go that far, want to avoid a guaranteed deal for three years or more, or would rather sign someone to keep the seat warm for a year or two until they give Bruce Rondon the job, they may settle for riskier options like Brian Wilson or even a return engagement for Fernando Rodney.
Long-term, left field isn't the only corner question mark, because Torii Hunter's a free agent after 2014. Top prospect Nick Castellanos might be ready to take over one corner at some point during the next season, but Hunter's eventual departure could put the Tigers in the market for another veteran outfielder right now.
Bringing Curtis Granderson back to the Motor City would be popular and potentially affordable after his injury-marred 2013, but he might be one big contract too many for the big-budget Tigers. Re-signing Infante would probably be the best-case scenario for second base.
Much depends on how serious they are about dealing Scherzer, because as a Scott Boras client he's a lock to explore the market after 2014. They could use him to land a multi-year solution in left field (ideally a lefty bat with some power) or at second base, determining their subsequent course of action at either position while giving Dombrowski greater financial freedom to sign a veteran to cover the club's need. It would also leave them better able to sign some help in the bullpen, which would need additional help with the expectation that Drew Smyly would move into the rotation to take Scherzer's place. It really all starts with what they do with Scherzer, with every subsequent decision branching off that main trunk in their decision tree.
A 92-win season under manager Terry Francona in his first season was unexpected, especially from a club short of anything you might consider a huge breakout performance. (Unless you want to talk about supersub Ryan Raburn off the bench.) But Tito played a lot of matchups to help the lineup crank out 4.6 runs per game that tied for fourth in the league.
He also milked a deep relief crew for a great unit-wide season (including a 500-199 ratio of strikeouts to unintentional walks), which was crucial to help cover for a rotation that averaged just 5.7 innings pitched per start (11th in the AL) and 73 quality starts (13th).
Staying above 90 wins won't prove easy with a big chunk of the pitching staff headed to free agency. Adding multiple relief arms is a must, but unless the Tribe decides to get in on one of the big-name closers to replace the recently released Chris Perez, that isn't where the Indians have to make an impact this winter.
Instead, they should get in on starting pitching. While youngsters Danny Salazar, Corey Kluber and Zach McAllister -- and eventually Trevor Bauer -- make for a strong, young and improving group in the rotation behind Justin Masterson, adding a top-shelf starter would help keep the Tribe from being outgunned by the Tigers and Royals.
On offense, they need someone who can add power at a corner, more likely in the outfield, but possibly at first base. If first is going to continue to be manned by Nick Swisher and Carlos Santana alternating, then the outfield is where GM Chris Antonetti needs to help himself. Right fielder Drew Stubbs' sub-.700 OPS wasn't a surprise, it's exactly what he's capable of when he has to play every day; he needs to be shunted into a reserve role or dealt to a team looking for a starting center fielder.
Deciding if Lonnie Chisenhall is ever going to turn the corner and merit an everyday job at third base is another tough call to make.
Jimenez expects to get a multi-year deal and has already rejected the team's offer to pick up an option on 2014; they may re-sign him after extending a qualifying offer to guarantee themselves draft compensation. While there are no guarantees that Jimenez wants to stay in Cleveland, it's important to remember that Jimenez's performance after coming over from the Rockies at the trade deadline in 2011 hasn't been epic: 26-30, a 4.45 ERA, while failing to reach 200 innings in both of his full seasons in Cleveland.
Smith and Albers should be gone after solid seasons, but Giambi will be back. Giambi, who turns 43 in January, signed a minor league deal with an invitation to spring training.
The really tough call to make is over Kazmir after his remarkable comeback season. How much faith do you invest in his second-half 3.38 ERA and 82-17 K-BB ratio in 72 innings after the break? Incredible as it might seem, Kazmir isn't even 30 years old yet, but durability remains a problem after he dealt with some dead-arm issues in August. If the Indians want more innings from their rotation in 2014, retaining Kazmir might not be the best way of getting them.
If the Indians want to take themselves seriously, they'll get in on the best potential arms available among the starting pitchers, and be willing to absorb some risk. They may have to wait until late December to see if Josh Johnson's recovered from elbow surgery to remove bone spurs, but the upside value would be a true No. 1 starter. Matt Garza's similarly checkered health record might make signing him a roll of the dice, but it might also put his price in Cleveland's range for a four-year deal or three-plus-option offer. If the Indians are forced to settle for Ricky Nolasco, that wouldn't be the end of the world.
To help them in the outfield and provide the right-handed power they could use, they should be looking at Nelson Cruz or Marlon Byrd, but a heavily discounted Mike Morse as he comes back from injury might be a perfect fit.
How the Indians behave on the market this winter will tell us a lot about whether they see the 90-win season as something to build off of, or a happy accident. If they sign a big-name starting pitcher and a big bat, they're going after the Tigers with a very good chance of catching them. If they don't, they might be satisfied with slipping back into 78- to 84-win mediocrity. They may not be financially able to simultaneously spring for Garza and Cruz, but if they land one and settle for one of the upside plays (say, Cruz plus Johnson), that works.
It's hard to complain about the Royals having their first winning season since 2003 and just their second in the past 20 years. Still, the final 86-76 record was a little bittersweet with the Royals staying in the wild-card race until the final week of the season.
The pitching improved dramatically with James Shields and Ervin Santana having big seasons, helping the Royals cut 145 runs off their runs allowed total. The Royals went from 10th in the AL in runs allowed to first. The bullpen was also a big part of that, leading the AL in ERA and strikeout percentage.
On the other hand, the Royals were counting on the young hitters to improve, but the offense scored 28 fewer runs. Eric Hosmer at least rebounded from a terrible start to hit .302 with 17 home runs but Mike Moustakas and Alcides Escobar were awful, with OBPs of .287 and .259, respectively. Ned Yost once again didn't do the club any favors from the bench, highlighted by the questionable decision to pinch hit a rusty Carlos Pena in one key game late in September.
Second base was a problem most of 2013 with the likes of Chris Getz and Elliot Johnson. Emilio Bonifacio came over from the Blue Jays in August and played well the final six weeks, but he'd been terrible with Toronto before that and his defense at second is questionable.
Power in the outfield is a problem, as the Royals got just 38 home runs from their outfielders; only the Diamondbacks had fewer. With Santana a free agent and likely to get a big, multi-year offer, the Royals may have to replace his 32 starts and 211 innings.
Obviously the Royals would like to bring back Santana, who thrived in Kansas City after rediscovering his slider. He's still homer-prone (26) so pitching in a big park like Kansas City helps him, although he did post a 3.20 ERA on the road. Veteran lefty Chen is another free agent who provided valuable rotation depth. He's a better fit for the KC budget.
This could also be the offseason the Royals trade designated hitter Billy Butler. His power dropped off in 2013 but he still led the team in OBP and there isn't an obvious replacement for him. Plus, DHs who can't play the field don't have a huge demand in the trade market.
Robinson Cano would be a nice fit. Unfortunately, GM Dayton Moore has said the Royals' payroll will remain about the same (despite the influx of about $25 more million in national TV money). So, theoretically the Royals could afford Cano, but we all know that's a pipe dream. Omar Infante or Kelly Johnson would be lower-cost free agents for second base, but the Royals may think Bonifacio is the answer unless Butler can bring a second baseman in trade (the Mariners have Dustin Ackley and Nick Franklin and could use bullpen help or a DH if they lose free agent Kendrys Morales).
There is potential here, but the Royals have to shore up some obvious holes and either bring Santana back or figure out another option for the rotation. They could count on a youngster like Yordano Ventura, Danny Duffy or Kyle Zimmer or even try Luke Hochevar again in the rotation, but they'll need multiple options in case the kids don't work out. But the real is key is getting some of the bats to grow up. The leash on Moustakas is starting to run out and they need Hosmer to hit for an entire season. The Royals were last in the AL in home runs and 13th in walks, so they need big improvement from the offense to grow from an 86-win team to a legit playoff contender.
The good news is that the Twins didn't finish in last place.
Unfortunately, that had everything to do with the White Sox cratering, not with any success on their own terms. The worst rotation in the league added to an offense that struggled to plate 3.8 runs per game (12th in the AL).
For feel-good news, Justin Morneau finally had a strong enough run at the plate to answer questions about his recovery from the concussion that derailed his career, which was enough to get him dealt to the Pirates before he could leave as a free agent.
What little actual good news there was involved the development of a few prospects: Brian Dozier at second base, Oswaldo Arcia in the outfield and Andrew Albers in the rotation. But far more prospects struggled badly, with starting pitchers Liam Hendriks and Kyle Gibson, center fielder Aaron Hicks, outfielder Chris Parmelee and shortstop Pedro Florimon looking especially overmatched.
Considering the Twins should be focused on opening up opportunities for youngsters Miguel Sano and Josmil Pinto, they shouldn't be especially aggressive this winter where free agents are concerned.
If there's a real strategic need, it's making a decision on Joe Mauer's position for 2014. Now that Morneau is gone, the Twins need to decide if there's no time like the present to move Mauer to first base. Chris Colabello is not enough of a prospect to represent a reason to keep Mauer in catcher's gear. Mauer's recovery from a concussion is an additional factor, but with five more years to run on a deal that runs $23 million per annum, they may as well make the move now to create an opportunity for Pinto behind the plate.
Beyond that, Terry Ryan's goal this winter should be focused on adding more talent to the organization any way he can: Rule 5, minor league free agency, trades, you name it, the Twins need it. Because they're intent on retaining closer Glen Perkins, they don't have much they can shop, but don't be surprised when they start dangling left fielder Josh Willingham in trade talks this winter.
For a win-now contender, Willingham's $7 million salary and impending free agency after 2014 looks very tantalizing compared to much of what's on the market, and put in a park more friendly to right-handed sluggers, he could provide an outsized benefit.
• RHP Mike Pelfrey
The Twins can almost certainly afford to keep Pelfrey if they decide that he's an important part of a quest to stay in fourth place.
If Ryan wants to pursue more free agents in the Kevin Correia or Pelfrey class to provide solid citizenship and fairly regular attendance in the rotation, they're always out there. Considering the weakness of the rotation and the struggles of so many of their kids, if Vance Worley's shoulder is still giving him trouble this winter, you can bet they'll be looking for another mid-rotation innings-eater.
It would be nice to see the Twins take a chance on a young veteran with some upside who could thrive with a change of scenery -- here's looking at you, Phil Hughes -- but we'll see if they go there. Pursuing a veteran outfielder to alternate with the kids -- because finding someone better than Clete Thomas really isn't rocket science -- would be nice. Especially if the Twins deal Willingham, they'll need someone to pick up the at-bats, which might put them in the market for someone like David Murphy or David DeJesus. A solid catch-and-throw veteran to caddy for Pinto and potentially absorb the bulk of the playing time in case of injury would help make moving Mauer to first base stick; Jose Molina or Kurt Suzuki would fit nicely.
The Twins were bad, but they weren't especially young, with an average age just barely below league average. Anticipating that Arcia and Hicks are here to stay, and the arrival of Sano at third and Pinto behind the plate, that number should start going down. Sano has an opportunity to be a slam-dunk Rookie of the Year choice in 2014, which should help shore up the player-development program's rep while they try to restock an organization still trying to recover from the franchise's limited goals and limited achievements of the Aughties.
Nowadays, flirting with a 100 losses usually reflects an active rebuilding effort. For the White Sox, it was instead the bitter fruit harvested from trying to eke out one last bid for contention from a team that in 2012 was leading the AL Central with nine games to go. But a lineup leaning heavily on Paul Konerko, Adam Dunn and Alex Rios wound up last in the league in runs and walks and tied for 12th in homers, and it and the rotation that was supposed to sustain them were wracked by injuries.
Consistent with their aggressiveness under Kenny Williams, GM Rick Hahn started retooling quickly, dealing veterans Rios, Jake Peavy, Matt Thornton and Jesse Crain in-season, then signing Cuban defector Jose Abreu in mid-October to a six-year, $68 million deal to restock the heart of the lineup.
Offense, with the additional difficulty that -- barring any major trades -- they need to add it behind the plate, at second and third base.
At catcher, Tyler Flowers didn't pan out and Josh Phegley's bat is even worse; neither should start. Former first-rounder Gordon Beckham is heading for his fifth year as the team's regular at the keystone, but hasn't put up an OPS+ higher than 87 in the first four. Third base has been a revolving door since Joe Crede left; former Giants prospect Conor Gillaspie can't handle it defensively (and lacks the bat to start at any other corner), while Jeff Keppinger was supposed to add some pop as a super-utility infielder, but flopped badly.
The tough call to make is on Konerko, because at-bats will be hard to find for the fan favorite. Konerko is mulling retirement but doesn't seem willing to leave on the sour note of his injury-wracked 2013 season. To make room, Chicago could find a taker for the last year of Dunn's deal, but that risks exacerbating the lineup's big lean to the right side of the plate.
Floyd, an adequate No. 4 at the best of times, should be gone. His timetable for recovery from Tommy John surgery makes him a second-half factor for somebody looking for veteran depth.
The decision with Lindstrom depends on whether the Sox want to pay an additional $3.5 million to keep a hard-throwing mediocrity. They may prefer to scrape the gunk off some other struggling vet and trust that pitching coach Don Cooper can fix him as well.
Rookie Marcus Semien might be the answer at third (and with 98 walks in the minors, help on the OBP front), and they're stuck with Beckham and Keppinger. So the primary target should be a useful semi-regular backstop: On the high end, they could chase Jarrod Saltalamacchia (or even an A.J. Pierzynski return engagement), but if they're really pinching pennies someone like John Buck or Dioner Navarro would do.
A veteran right-handed starter or swing type would provide an alternative to the four lefties lined up in the rotation (and to insure against the non-Chris Sale southpaws or Andre Rienzo struggling) would help; Tim Stauffer or Scott Feldman might be good fits.
That's all fairly boring. Where the Sox could help themselves on both sides of the ball is in the outfield, where adding a center fielder would let them push Alejandro De Aza into the high-use fourth outfielder's job he's made for. On the cheap side, that might involve retreading a speedster like Nyjer Morgan, but Hahn loves taking a chance on recent disappointments with upside potential. If the A's let former Sox prospect Chris Young slip away, he'd be a great fit, but oft-injured Franklin Gutierrez could profit from Herm Schneider's incomparable training staff while also being within Hahn's price range.
Signing Abreu may be the White Sox's lone big-ticket pickup this winter. Hahn has already indicated they're more likely to address their needs through a trade, but the Sox don't have much to bargain with. If someone else thinks Beckham would profit from a change of scenery, Hahn should deal first and ask questions later. The catching situation is ludicrously awful and needs a free-agent fix. What Hahn does have going for him a highly regarded pitching coach and a great trainer, so veterans willing to take incentive-laden deals should take Hahn's call, especially right-handers to provide some veteran leavening to balance out a talented quartet of young lefties.
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