This year’s World Series was truly a fall classic. However, for the fans of the other 28 teams, it was just one more week before the fun of the Hot Stove season begins.
As we saw with the St. Louis Cardinals signing Lance Berkman before this season, sometimes one signing can go a long way. With that in mind, here’s a look at the five biggest holes that need to be filled this winter, and how that can be accomplished.
San Francisco Giants: shortstop
It’s something of a minor miracle that the Giants were able to win 86 games and notch a second-place finish despite ranking 15th in the National League in wOBA. As you can imagine, that was due to a systemic failure on offense, but the most obvious need going forward is an upgrade at shortstop. Last season, Giants shortstops combined to “hit” a measly .210/.265/.299. Suffice it to say, that’s an unacceptable level of production. Since there’s little in Brandon Crawford’s minor league dossier to suggest he can hit at the highest level, an external solution is necessary.
The free-agent gold standard is, of course, Jose Reyes. While the Giants certainly have the resources to afford him, it figures to be a crowded fray of suitors. The next-best option is Jimmy Rollins, who can still provide above-average production by positional standards and plus fielding. Down-ballot options include, for the most part, Rafael Furcal. So if there’s any team that needs to be committed to paying the going rate for Reyes, it’s San Fran. This might be the best fit in term of need, resources and solution in this year’s market.
Chicago Cubs: first base
No, the Cubs are probably not going to contend in 2012, but this is more about establishing a foundation for future seasons. You can’t gauge the market for a player until after he signs, but provided conditions aren’t grossly out of whack, the Cubs should pursue Albert Pujols and/or Prince Fielder.
First and foremost, either would fill what will be a gaping hole following the departure of Carlos Pena (more on him in a moment). Second, both are excellent, established and popular players who would help build the brand in addition to helping win games. Third, either would be plucked directly from a division rival.
Concerns? Certainly. Pujols is aging and could potentially command a contract that extends beyond the bounds of his usefulness. And Fielder’s body type doesn’t lend itself to productivity deep into one’s 30s, though he has played at least 157 games in every season since 2006. Still, both are going to be top-tier performers for at least the next handful of seasons, and that matters to the Cubs. The buy-in for contention in the NL Central is relatively low, particularly when you consider two things: The Cubs’ resources are so much greater than those of their label-mates, and the Central will probably soon be a five-team division.
For Cubs fans, it would be a rousing way to begin the Age of Theo.
Cleveland Indians: first base
The Tribe, garrisoned with a solid lineup, underrated rotation and strong bullpen, could challenge in the AL Central next season. They could also, however, use an upgrade at first base.
Obviously, Cleveland doesn’t have the revenue to sign Pujols or Fielder. The Indians should, however, be able to afford a Carlos Pena. Last season, Pena tallied 28 homers and 101 walks for the Cubs, and he hit .255/.388/.504 against right-handed pitching. The Indians could use Pena to forge a platoon with the heretofore disappointing Matt LaPorta, and they could continue, for at least one more season, deploying Carlos Santana as their regular catcher.
Washington Nationals: center field
It’s absolutely possible the Nats will contend for a playoff berth in 2012. They went 80-81 this past season, and in 2012 they’ll enjoy (one assumes) a full season of Stephen Strasburg. Additionally, young core contributors like Ryan Zimmerman, Ian Desmond, Danny Espinosa, and Wilson Ramos will be another year closer to what should be their prime seasons.
One glaring weakness, however, is center field. In 2011, Nats center fielders ranked near the bottom of the league in WAR. Chief placeholder Roger Bernardina can be a useful fourth outfielder in the majors, but as a regular center fielder he’s stretched, both with the bat and the glove.
Fortunately, the Nats have some options. They tried to trade for Denard Span before the trade deadline in July, and that remains a possible (if not optimal) outcome. Some more intriguing options can be found on the market. Provided he can still handle the physical rigors of the position, Carlos Beltran would be an excellent fit. He’d give the Nats a whopping upgrade offensively, and even in decline Beltran’s a better fielder than what they trotted out last season. In the “calculated risk” category, there’s Grady Sizemore, who might be on his way out of Cleveland thanks to his injury history and pricey option for 2012. When healthy, Sizemore is an elite talent, but the rub, of course, is staying healthy. Nonetheless, he’s the sort of high-upside, risky addition that can distinguish a mid-market squad trying to surmount an established behemoth like the Phillies. Elsewhere, Coco Crisp, while not much of a hitter these days, would provide a lower-cost upgrade over the incumbents.
New York Yankees: starting rotation
The Yankees’ offense can forgive many a pitching sin, and, despite its age, that offense should again be potent in 2012. With that said, the Yanks will have rotation concerns, and that will be the case even if they’re able to retain CC Sabathia.
They can hope A.J. Burnett achieves tolerability, and they can hope that Phil Hughes is able to stay healthy. They can also hope that pups like Dellin Betances and Manny Banuelos can contribute. Even so, they’re still likely to need established help behind Sabathia and Ivan Nova. So long as Sabathia is back, they can lower their aim a bit. A veteran capable of 180 to 200 innings and league-average-ish ERA will suffice given the front end and given the likely run support. To that end, possibilities include Edwin Jackson, Paul Maholm or, best of all, Hiroki Kuroda.
In the absence of Sabathia? Then the Yankees will need to make at least one splash addition. Unfortunately for their purposes, this year’s free-agent crop is light on such hurlers. C.J. Wilson leads all comers, and then there’s Mark Buehrle or perhaps the tantalizing promise of Japanese phenom Yu Darvish. It’s obvious the Yankees will add an arm; the question is how much they will spend. If they go all in, Darvish is probably the play.