As the Cold Stove League slowly, finally turns into the Hot Stove League, there are seven teams that right now clearly look like the seven best teams in baseball. That doesn’t mean they’ll be the best, but all seven made the playoffs last season, and FanGraphs currently projects them all to win 90-plus games. Plus, there’s still time for all seven to get even better this winter. Let’s look at those seven teams and what final big moves they still can -- or should -- make.
What they should do next: If you watched the postseason, it’s no surprise that the Astros have made two significant bullpen additions. Smith and Rondon both have closing experience in case Ken Giles falters at any point, with Smith coming off an interesting season in which his strikeout rate suddenly skyrocketed from a career rate of 7.5 per nine innings to 11.8. Sam Miller has pointed out that World Series winners generally make fewer moves than World Series losers, but the Astros shouldn't stand pat with two relievers. They still should add a left-handed DH/first baseman. That would help balance a lineup that leans to the right side and give the team a better DH option than Evan Gattis, who doubles as the backup catcher. Lucas Duda fits on a short-term deal. They could also use a lefty in the pen, but that might be more of a trade-deadline-type acquisition.
Of course, these are all small moves. Let’s think bigger. The Astros might be doing just that, reportedly meeting with Yu Darvish’s representatives. They don’t need a starter with a rotation that would currently have Brad Peacock and Collin McHugh as the fifth and sixth starters, but Dallas Keuchel and Charlie Morton are both free agents after 2018, so signing Darvish would be as much about 2019 and beyond as 2018.
What they should do next: The only significant move they’ve made is the luxury tax readjustment deal that brought Kemp over from the Braves, and he has roughly a zero percent chance of starting the season on the Dodgers' roster. They’ll look to find a taker for at least a small chunk of his salary; if not, he’ll be cut. The rotation depth is a little thinner without McCarthy and Kazmir (who missed all of 2017 anyway), but they still have Walker Buehler, Brock Stewart, Ross Stripling and now Koehler in reserve as a bullpen piece, and the main priority is remaining under the $197 million tax threshold. Cot’s Contracts estimates that the Dodgers are at about $188 million right now, so that makes their re-signing Darvish unlikely.
More likely, we’ll see only a minor move or two -- maybe a reliever to replace Morrow, maybe re-signing Utley. I’d be worried about the bullpen behind Kenley Jansen as it looks right now, but the Dodgers' roster is strong enough that they easily project as the best team in the NL West, so they might simply look to add bullpen reinforcements at the trade deadline. None of these is a headline move, but remaining under the threshold is the right decision.
Additions: 1B Yonder Alonso
What they should do next: The signing of Alonso is a low-cost replacement for Santana, although his production severely dipped after slamming 10 home runs in May. I'd love to see the Indians make a blockbuster for Manny Machado to add to an offense that still feels a little light compared to the Astros or Yankees. A one-year addition of about $20 million shouldn't be a roadblock; while the current payroll projects to about $134 million after the Alonso deal, compared to an Opening Day payroll of $124 million in 2017, remember that each franchise will get a $50 million cash infusion from the sale of MLB Advanced Media to Disney. Factor in projected revenue gains from higher attendance, and the Indians can afford Machado's salary.
Given that no team can match Cleveland's pitch depth, this might be the best opportunity for the Indians to win a title. The Yankees are loading up and will only be better in the future, and the Astros, while still a powerhouse, could suffer from championship fatigue. Plus, you never know if this staff will remain healthy. If the Orioles want major-league-ready starting pitching, as reports have indicated, the Indians could offer Danny Salazar or Mike Clevinger and still have the best rotation in the league. Get Machado and go all in for the franchise’s first title since 1948.
Lost: RHP Hector Rondon
What they should do next: The Cubs are relatively set with the exception of a No. 5 starter (Smyly is coming off Tommy John surgery and probably won't be a factor until 2019) or maybe a closer if they want to bring Davis back. They’ve been in talks with Darvish, and reports suggest that they’ve discussed Machado as well. The budget has room to make one significant addition and re-sign Davis as well.
I’ll make the same pitch as with the Indians: Go get Machado. Yes, trading four years of Addison Russell for one year of Machado is a steep price, and you’re gambling that Machado can handle shortstop, but I love the idea of adding Machado to Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo and Kyle Schwarber (who hit .255/.338/.565 after returning from the minors). That would allow Joe Maddon to play Jason Heyward and Albert Almora in the outfield without worrying about their offense. The Cubs were second in NL runs in 2017, and adding Machado could make this an offensive powerhouse -- and avoid a risky long-term investment in Darvish. Plus, bringing in Machado gives you a leg up on re-signing him as a free agent.
Additions: Re-signed 1B Mitch Moreland
Lost: RHP Doug Fister
What they should do next: Bringing back Moreland isn’t the sexy move, but I’d much rather have him at two years and $13 million than Eric Hosmer at $160 million. Consider the past three seasons:
Moreland: .252/.319/.449, 4.9 WAR
Hosmer: .294/.359/.463, 8.7 WAR
Moreland isn’t as good as Hosmer, but Hosmer isn’t so much better that the asking price warrants signing him. That leaves the Red Sox still needing a big bat, and it seems inevitable that J.D. Martinez ends up in Boston. I would not, however, trade Jackie Bradley Jr. to clear room in left field by shifting Andrew Benintendi to center. Between Benintendi, Bradley, Betts, Martinez, Moreland and Hanley Ramirez, there are plenty of at-bats to go around as you rotate six players into five positions. Plus, considering that Ramirez has been below average with the bat two of the past three seasons, he might not warrant regular playing time anyway.
What they should do next: The FanGraphs projection has the Yankees at 91 wins, the same as the Red Sox. The estimated payroll is about $166 million, so there’s room to make an addition or two without going over the $197 million tax threshold. Brian Cashman has traded away his starting second baseman from last season, and the starter at third right now would be rookie Miguel Andujar. As much as everyone is calling for the Yankees to add another starting pitcher, I’d add a veteran third baseman or second baseman to the roster.
I loved Buster Olney’s idea of adding Mike Moustakas on a one-year contract. His pull swing is perfect for the Little League porch at Yankee Stadium, and Buster’s suggestion that the lack of a market for third basemen (which was made smaller by the Evan Longoria trade to the Giants) means Moustakas might take a one-year contract. He could mash 35 to 40 home runs in the Bronx and return to free agency. Frazier is another option, and as much as he loved playing in New York, maybe he takes a one-year deal as well. The advantage to the one-year deals is that it wouldn’t affect the 2019 payroll and give top prospect Gleyber Torres a year in Triple-A (as he comes off Tommy John surgery).
Signing a starter such as Darvish or Jake Arrieta to a long-term deal will push that payroll close to the tax threshold and limit the team’s flexibility in 2019. I’m not sure either pitcher is worth that risk. The Yankees' staff – thanks to the bullpen depth – ranks fourth in projected WAR in the majors, via FanGraphs. Remember, the Yankees allowed the second-fewest runs in the AL in 2017. If you still want to add another starter, look at the second tier of guys such as Garcia, Lance Lynn and Jason Vargas.
Lost: Nobody yet
What they should do next: They added Adams to replace Lind as the top lefty bat off the bench, a reasonable signing, especially if Ryan Zimmerman can't replicate his 2017 numbers and Adams gets time at first base.
The Nationals don’t have a glaring hole – oh, wait, they do. Matt Wieters is the starting catcher, and he’s terrible. He’s a bad pitch framer, and his bat was anemic in 2017, hitting .225/.288/.344. He hurts the team on offense and defense. The trouble is, he’ll make $10.5 million in 2018. That’s an expensive backup catcher. Still, the Nationals should find a better backup than Pedro Severino to at least split time with Wieters. Maybe Alex Avila, who had a nice season in 2017 and owns a career .351 OBP.
The biggest question for the Nationals: Do they go all in for what could be Bryce Harper’s final year in Washington? As the roster looks now, they’re still the heavy favorites in a terrible NL East. They could add a couple depth pieces. Boring. What about making a pitch for Rays righty Chris Archer? After trading Longoria, the Rays might be more likely to deal Archer, though any trade with the Nationals would probably have to include prized outfield prospect Victor Robles. Another rumor had the Nationals talking with J.D. Martinez, which would mean moving Adam Eaton to center and trading Michael Taylor or employing him as a fourth outfielder. This team has yet to win a playoff series. Think big, win big.