The Tenth Inning
 The Tenth Inning Blog
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5 Hot Topics for the Hot Stove Season

For some baseball fans, the baseball season ended with the last out of Game 7 of the World Series.  Cubs fans will particularly take time to savor the offseason with their team’s dramatic win over the Cleveland Indians.  They waited 108 years for a World Series title and figure they can take a few months off before starting to think about the 2017 season.

However, for other die-hard fans the season never ends--it just rolls into the next, particularly for those whose teams didn’t fare so well during this past campaign and are already anxiously looking forward to the next season.

As the Hot Stove season gets under way, major league teams are looking for value at a reasonable price as they try to re-shape their rosters.  Some will be looking for the premier player who can make a speedy impact, at whatever cost in dollars or prospects, to help put them into immediate contention for a playoff berth.  Teams who were on the fringe of making the playoffs in 2016 are trying to decide whether their current rosters are close enough to make a run at the playoffs in 2017, or will require fundamental roster changes to be able to effectively compete a few years later.

Here are my top five topics for the offseason.

1.  Will the Cubs repeat in 2017?

Prognosticators are already making the Chicago Cubs the favorites for next year.  We know they can, but will they?  After all, no team has won back-to-back World Series since the 1999-2000 New York Yankees.

The consensus among baseball analysts is that the Cubs are built for the long-term.  They have a core of position players who will be under contract control for the next 4-5 years.  Their current starting pitching staff, comprised of veteran players, will remain intact because they are also under control for the next couple of years.

The Cubs stand to lose ace reliever Aroldis Chapman and outfielder Dexter Fowler in free agency.  It could be argued that Chapman’s acquisition at the July trade deadline last year was the move that cinched their chances for a World Series title.  The Cubs would serve themselves well by re-signing Chapman.  Otherwise, they need to go after Kenley Jansen or Mark Melancon, other top relievers on the market.

The Cubs have a crowded outfield with their young prospects, but not necessarily ones who can replace Fowler, one of the better leadoff batters in the league.  The Cubs need to answer where slugger Kyle Schwarber fits in the makeup of lineup and whether under-performing outfielder Jacob Heyward continues to be part of the starting lineup, even though they paid dearly to get him for the 2016 season.

If the Cubs decide to replace Fowler or Chapman outside of free agency, they have a bevy of minor-league prospects and young major leaguers to offer in a trade.  But don’t be surprised if Schwarber, one of the unexpected heroes of the World Series, is one of those young players.

The Cubs’ strongest competition will likely come from the St. Louis Cardinals within their division.  The Cards missed the playoffs this year for the first time in six seasons.  But expect them to bounce back in 2017, since they have a solidly built organization that largely refreshes itself from within its strong player development system.  2016 playoff teams, including the Washington Nationals, New York Mets, and Los Angeles Dodgers, should continue to compete for the pennant, as well as the San Francisco Giants.

2.  Who’s going to replace Big Papi in the Red Sox lineup?

In reality, no one will ever replace the beloved Ortiz, who retired at the end of the season.  He’s right up there with Ted Williams and Carl Yastrzemski as being among the all-time great Red Sox players.

David Ortiz served the Red Sox well for fourteen season as a feared designated hitter who delivered seemingly countless wins with his clutch hitting.  What are the Red Sox thinking about in replacing him?

There are several “big bopper” sluggers on the free agent market, including Blue Jays hitters Jose Batista and Edwin Encarnacion, the Orioles’ Mark Trumbo, and the Mets’ Yoenis Cespedes.  However, none of them are left-handed hitters like Ortiz, and each of them would come at a relatively steep price.  The Red Sox had Cespedes for part of the 2014 season and decided not to re-sign him after that season.  Would they take another shot at him?  Bautista may be on the down-side of this career at 36 years of age.  With Trumbo, who led the American League with 47 home runs in 2016, you also get a lot of strikeouts.  Encarnacion is probably the most attractive of these candidates as Big Papi’s replacement.

Another approach is to move first baseman Hanley Ramirez to the DH spot.  Ramirez had a spectacular comeback season this year, and first base is not his natural position anyway.  So finding a replacement for Ramirez at first base might be easier than acquiring a DH of the caliber of Ortiz.

3.  How will teams upgrade their starting pitching staffs with the shortage of top-flight starters available through free agency?

Good pitchers are always in demand and major league clubs are always looking to upgrade their staffs.  However, those clubs in the hunt for new pitchers this offseason won’t find many candidates on the free agent market.

Jeremy Hellickson and Rich Hill are among the few veteran pitchers who will be on the free agent market, but they are not exactly top of the rotation type of pitchers that many teams can use.

Therefore, general managers will need to be really creative in putting together deals to acquire top-of-the-line starters, but those deals will cost some of their top prospects.  Some clubs will resort to data analytics to identify quality pitchers who are on the cusp of making a breakthrough, but won’t necessarily cost an arm and a leg to acquire.

The teams most in need of starting pitcher upgrades, in order to stay relevant in the playoff picture, include the Baltimore Orioles, Los Angeles Dodgers, New York Yankees, Pittsburgh Pirates, and the Houston Astros.

The Tampa Bay Rays, who are several years away from being one of those contending teams, have a history of developing solid, young pitchers.  The Rays are thought to be ready to part with some of them, as they look to add more offense to their roster.  Chris Archer would be the prize among those Rays’ arms.  If all of the New York Mets’ young guns are expected to be healthy for 2017, they could put one or more of them on the market to also fill some gaps in their roster.

4.  Are the Dodgers trying to win a World Series or they satisfied with just being a perennial playoff team?

For the past four seasons, the Dodgers have won the National League West Division, as well as in six of the last nine seasons.  But they seem to come up short in making the big step to the Fall Classic.  They haven’t made a World Series appearance since 1988.

The Dodgers always seem to be a few players short of being able to take them to the top.  This season they lacked middle relief pitchers and needed another big bat in the lineup.

They have the resources to re-make their roster without a complete overhaul like the Cubs and Astros have done in recent years.  It begs the question of whether the Dodgers ownership and front office management are satisfied with just getting to the big dance, but not necessarily taking home the trophy as the best dancer.  Certainly, they have the financial resources to go out and get the talent they need to win National League pennants.

So what do the Dodgers need to do over the winter?  They almost certainly face the prospect of losing third baseman Justin Turner, pitcher Rich Hill, and closer Kenley Jansen, who are all eligible for free agency.  They are not deep in those positions and thus need to retain them or find suitable replacements.  The Dodgers need a long-term solution at second base.  Current second baseman Chase Utley could be a good utility player for them, but lacks the bat as a starter to help the club.  They desperately need a formidable power hitter to augment Corey Seager, one of the best young hitters in the game.  The Dodgers made some bad decisions with pitchers Brandon Mc McCarthy and Brett Anderson and should just move on without them.  They should cut bait with controversial outfielder Yasiel Puig as well.

5. Is the Yankees’ new catcher Gary Sanchez for real?

Sanchez amazed the baseball world last season by hitting 20 home runs and 42 RBI in only 53 games, following his August 3rd call-up by the Yankees.

Is he a temporary flash in the pan, like Joe Charboneau of the Cleveland Indians in 1980, or is he a legitimate upcoming star, like a Bryce Harper or Mike Trout?  Once Sanchez plays a full season, will pitchers catch on to him and learn how to exploit his weaknesses?  How will he hold up under the stress of a full 162-game schedule?

The Yankees avoided the temptation to rush the 23-year-old Sanchez to the majors, as he has been on their top prospects list for the last five years.  The wait initially appears to have paid off.  He’s part of a youth movement by the Yankees to restore the team to its winning ways of the past.  He and his young teammates are being called the “Baby Bombers,” as a take-off of the historic Bronx Bombers of the 1920s and 1930s.

Yankees fans are hoping Sanchez will be in the mold of Bill Dickey, Yogi Berra, Elston Howard, Thurman Munson, and Jorge Posada, the long line of stellar catchers who played significant roles in the Yankees franchise’s 27 World Championships.

The player trade and free agency frenzy has already started (ageless pitcher Bartolo Colon was signed by the Atlanta Braves) and will reach its crescendo during the upcoming winter baseball meeting and the few weeks following it.  If last year is any indicator, hold on to your seats.

 


 

 

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