With the winter meetings rapidly upon us and the hot stove heating up by the day, we decided to take a step back briefly to analyze offseason transactions and chart out a broad plan for all 30 MLB teams to move toward a World Series berth.
Over the next two days, we will be releasing our end of year review and plan forward for each team. The American League is being released Tuesday with the National League blurbs coming out on Wednesday.
This project is truly a site effort, with many of our writers involved in writing about one or more teams. These were all written prior to Monday, so activities from Monday onward are likely not included. Feel free to leave comments at the bottom or contact any of us on twitter.
Steven Martano, @SMartano
Kansas City Royals, 95-67, first in the AL Central. World Series Champions
Nothing of note
Well, the Royals were just in the World Series, so the future outlook is a little interesting. Other teams have a road to the World Series; the Royals see that road in the rear-view mirror.
That said, there are two schools of thought for what the Royals should do. One - capitalize on the current core by emptying the farm of prospects, signing more expensive free agents, etc. The Royals can be quite competitive for the next two or so years with this strategy.
The other school of thought is to look more toward the future. Without emptying the farm and signing free agents, the Royals can still be moderately competitive for the next two or so years. However, in order to sustain success beyond the current core, the Royals need to reload the minor league system by unloading a few veterans, which could include Wade Davis.
Really, the Royals should stay the course. Don't go all in, don't look toward the future (necessarily). Alex Gordon is likely too expensive, so the Royals should focus on signing Ben Zobrist and a starting pitcher --- re-signing Chris Young, perhaps. Maybe a mid-tier guy like Scott Kazmir. With Zobrist's flexibility, the Royals can focus on filling other areas based on the best player available rather than positional need.
Minnesota Twins, 83-79, second in the AL Central
- Traded CF Aaron Hicks to New York (AL) for C John Ryan Murphy
The recently acquired Murphy could see time behind the plate next season. The 24-year-old backstop was a league average performer at the plate in 172 plate appearances last season with New York. Twins catchers were collectively 39 percent below league average offensively last season, so even a repeat from Murphy would be a welcome improvement.
The Twins surprised virtually everyone by winning 83 games in 2015 and controlling the second wild card spot until early August. Minnesota was coming off a 70-win season and had posted their last winning season in 2010. With a wave of young talent ready to hit the majors, improvement could have been expected. However, almost no one expected the Twins to improve by 13 wins.
With the aforementioned young talent establishing themselves as MLB regulars, it is reasonable to expect the Twins to contend for a playoff spot once again in 2016, although contention for bigger prizes such as a pennant or even a World Series still looks to be two or three years away.
The Twins' stash of young, cost-controlled assets will likely be the driving force behind any run toward World Series contention. Late bloomers Trevor Plouffe and Brian Dozier are both cheap and productive, with Dozier in particular having blossomed into a quality player, leading all second basemen in ISO since 2013 at .185.
The Twins entered 2015 with two of the best prospects in baseball waiting in the wings: Byron Buxton and Miguel Sano. Buxton struggled with injuries but still projects to be a perennial All-Star in center field and should start in center from day one in 2016. Sano, meanwhile, tore up MLB pitching to the tune of a .269/.385/.530 line and had the third-highest average exit velocity in the majors at 94.9 mph.
The system remains strong behind those two, led by power arms Jose Berrios and Tyler Jay. Minnesota's rotation was solid in 2015, with Kyle Gibson and Trevor May making leaps forward. However, both project better as mid-rotation guys than front-end arms, so the Twins are hoping one or both of Berrios and/or Jay can develop into an ace.
Only a few Twins hit free agency this winter. Longtime center fielder / later right fielder Torii Hunter retired, and rotational cog Mike Pelfrey will test the market. Pelfrey could be re-signed, but it looks unlikely that the Twins would spend big on one of the myriad free agent starters. The Twins did win the posting for Korean slugger Byung-ho Park, and if they are able to sign him to a deal (as expected), he should provide yet another source of power for the lineup.
After a season marked by surprise contention, the Twins are in a position to cement themselves as contenders in the American League. If the young players develop as expected, Minnesota may be able to improve enough internally to make a run at the World Series as soon as in 2017.
Cleveland Indians, 81-80, third in the AL Central
Michael Brantley is one of the game's better, more unheralded players. As I wrote here almost three months ago, Lonnie Chisenhall's making a pretty strong argument to be next year's starting right fielder. Center field, however, is wide open - at least until Bradley Zimmer takes the job.
Abraham Almonte has done well enough in his audition this year. But could the team really open up with the minor league vagabond as their center fielder? Probably not. Someone like Alejandro De Aza or Will Venable could be incredibly attractive on a one-year deal. Or maybe even Shane Victorino.
Along with the center field job, designated hitter is the club's other big offensive weakness heading into 2016. There's no one really worthy in the upper levels of the club's minor leagues; maybe Jesus Aguilar, but his production has declined in his repeat of Class AAA. Aguilar will be entering his age-26 season while coming off a .267/.332/.439 line.
Ryan Raburn, who bounced back after a terrible 2014, hit .301/.393/.543 in 201 plate appearances; the Indians did not pick up his option*. Look for the front office to move outside for help and target the likes of John Jaso to help form a super platoon with Raburn if they were to bring him back.
*Editor's note - Not noted in original publication
Chicago White Sox, 76-86, fourth in the AL Central
Acquired RHP Tommy Kahnle in exchange for RHP Yency Almonte
Tommy Kahnle is a control-challenged 26-year-old right-handed reliever with potential. He has some strikeout ability. Yency Almonte is a 21-year-old righty starter who made it to High A last year. He had a 2.42 ERA and 2.67 FIP in 44.2 innings. This is much more of a win-now move.
Signed Alex Avila to a 1 year, $2.5 million contract
Avila had a decent bat in the past, but injuries appear to have taken their toll. Tyler Flowers, the incumbent catcher, has not yet shown offensive ability in the majors that he showed in the minors. Avila does not have to contribute much to satisfy the value of his contract, so this is a good move (Geovany Soto, the other White Sox catcher last year, signed elsewhere).
The White Sox HAVE to improve their position players (their pitching has a solid foundation in Chris Sale, Jose Quintana, and Carlos Rodon). They have some nice building blocks in Jose Abreu, Adam Eaton, and potentially Trayce Thompson, but the cupboard is bare elsewhere. Second base, shortstop (with Alexei Ramirez's departure), and third base are all holes and Melky Cabrera is still under contract in the outfield.
Unfortunately, the White Sox don't have a super-long timeline to capitalize on their core of Abreu, Eaton, Sale, and Quintana. In order to fill multiple holes at once, the White Sox should make a run at Ben Zobrist (along with every other team, right?). He can fill a hole of the White Sox's choosing.
There are plenty of options to fill the other infield holes. Daniel Murphy, Asdrubal Cabrera, Juan Uribe, Howie Kendrick, and Ian Desmond are all out there. Zobrist plus one of those guys would go a long way to filling those infield holes. Choosing the one with the best defensive ability might not be a bad idea since the White Sox were 28th in DRS and dead last in UZR.
Detroit Tigers, 74-87, fifth in the AL Central
The Detroit Tigers have already had an active start to the offseason, dealing from their minor-league depth to augment an aging core of talent.
Traded IF Javier Betancourt and a PTBNL to Milwaukee for RHP Francisco Rodriguez
This move was an absolute no-brainer. K-Rod has been one of the league's most effective relievers for the better part of a decade. He's transformed from an elite strikeout pitcher to a pretty great strikeout pitcher who doesn't really walk anyone, from a closer to a very nice setup option. He's instantly the team's best relief option, and Detroit acquired him for a song. Great deal.
Traded LHP Ian Krol and LHP Gabe Speier to Atlanta for OF Cameron Maybin
This move was just as good as the K-Rod transaction. Maybin has been a good, if not great center fielder during several seasons and is an immediate upgrade over, well, no one in center field for Detroit! Dealing Krol and Speier, who're relatively fungible bullpen arms in order to get a slightly below-average center fielder is just fine. Someone has to fill that role, and acquiring Maybin allows the team to leverage their more valuable resources in other areas. Great deal.
Signed RHP Jordan Zimmermann to a five-year, $110 million contract
I find it somewhat unexpected, but Zimmermann was the first major free agent starter to sign, inking a long-term deal with the Tigers. Some argue that Zim's trending down, but the control artist is a talented and reliable righty who can be counted on to deliver about 200 quality innings over the next couple of years, at least. He's not a replacement for David Price -- he's simply not as good as the team's outgoing ace -- but he provides reliability for a rotation banking on wild cards like Anibal Sanchez, Daniel Norris, and Michael Fulmer.
The Tigers still have at least one major hole to fill: the team could really use another starting outfielder. With Maybin in hand, the team doesn't necessarily need another center fielder, and most other positions could use reinforcing (depth at catcher and maybe middle infield, a fourth outfielder, and more relievers), but an offensive corner outfielder who's not a zero on defense would be a nice get.
Since it's tough to imagine that the team could afford another big free agent signing after giving such big money to Zimmermann, they could try and target someone in trade, although Al Avila probably isn't interested in dealing away the few top prospects the team has raised. They're in a tough position, looking to reinforce the existing core to compete today, without bailing on the future entirely. The window is now, but it's tough to imagine they have the resources to dramatically upgrade another position.
Perhaps the next best thing they can do is find an impactful corner outfielder who's an upside play on an unfortunate contract (Ellsbury?), or maybe a platoon pair that could exceed the sum of their parts. Given the team's limitations, the best I can come up with is reuniting with two former Tigers -- Ryan Raburn and Matt Joyce -- to form a two-headed left field platoon monster. Here's hoping they can do better than that.