As we inch closer to the Fall Classic, just two teams will remain standing while 28 others watch with envy.
Now more than ever, in the age of revenue sharing/TV money/draft structure etc., all 28 of these clubs know they're a successful offseason and a few lucky breaks away from their shot at postseason glory.
While some clubs are breaking in new regimes and will be afforded time to execute a rebuild, other front offices may be compelled to act aggressively during the winter offseason in order to ease restlessness from both owners and fans alike. After all, for the two GMs detailed below, their jobs may depend on it.
Washington Nationals - Mike Rizzo
Perhaps no team had higher expectations than the Nats coming into 2015, as they were pegged by PECOTA to win 92 games and 7:1 odds to win the World Series. Perhaps no club flopped as dramatically; despite MVP performances from Bryce Harper and Max Scherzer, the Nats battled a myriad of offensive injuries and watched the rival Mets comfortably cruise to the NL East crown. Adding insult to infamy, the D.C. club's season ended amidst an ugly dugout incident and the firing of their entire coaching staff.
Left to pick up the pieces is GM Mike Rizzo, who has been with the team since '06 and is the man most responsible for assembling an impressive array of talent in the nation's capital. While Rizzo is well-regarded in the industry and seems to have the trust of his bosses, the catch is that 2016 is the final year of his contract with Washington brass holding a club option for his services in '17. If one were in the business of dot-connecting, another disappointing season for the Nationals would likely see ownership looking for a new front office leader.
Let's examine how Rizzo and his lieutenants might get to work, with the offseason action set to begin almost immediately after the Fall Classic ends. While knee-deep in their managerial search, the team will turn their attention to core free agents Ian Desmond, Doug Fister, Jordan Zimmermann, and Denard Span. Along with the Orioles, the Nationals have one of the more impressive groups of impending free agents and the route they go in retaining any or all of these players will be one of the storylines of the offseason.
A big part of the puzzle here is what Washington will be able to add in terms of payroll. It seems conceivable that Max Scherzer's heavily-backloaded contract was designed with this offseason in mind; with the big Scherzer money not kicking in until 2019 (when his annual salary jumps from $22M to $37M), Rizzo may still have financial flexibility to add pieces and extend the Nats' window.
Re-signing Zimmermann will surely be the priority - despite a down year by his standards, the homegrown product has been a fixture on the staff since 2011 and hasn't missed a turn in the rotation since. With 'J-Zimm' likely to command a nine-figure contract, it's hard to see the team retaining Desmond knowing young shortstop Trea Turner is waiting in the wings. Desmond has struck out 180+ times in consecutive years and in '15 led the NL with 27 errors. Turner has blitzed through every level of the minors in just two seasons and looks to be ready for an everyday job.
It's at this point where things could get tricky for Rizzo, as further adding to a payroll that already includes ugly deals for Jayson Werth, Ryan Zimmerman, and Jonathan Papelbon is a dicey proposition. With enviable rotation depth that includes Joe Ross and Tanner Roark as possible no. 5 or 6 starters, Rizzo's task will be juicing an aging, slow, righthanded-dominant lineup and doing so on a budget.
Finally feeling heat, one way Rizzo could look to navigate the problem is dipping into the farm system to acquire cheap, MLB-ready talent - a skill in which the team showed a deft touch last winter in their heist of Joe Ross and shortstop Turner in the same trade. Holding perhaps the games' top pitching prospect in Lucas Giolito and knowing the rotation looks strong for years to come, the Nats could dangle a couple of their less-heralded arms on the trade market in an effort to spark the offense and balance out the club. RHP Austin Voth makes sense as a starting point - Washington's preseason #11 prospect raised his stock with a strong showing at AA Harrisburg this year but doesn't project as more than a back-end starter. Considering the money invested on the major league roster, it wouldn't be surprising to see Rizzo raise the stakes and add A.J. Cole to the mix and maximize the return. Cole may have taken a step back in '15 after posting the lowest K/9 of his career and perhaps being aided by an unsustainable .256 BABIP in his second turn through AAA. As is noted in the Nationals' midseason prospect review on these electronic pages, Cole likely needs major-league innings in order to realize his ceiling as a mid-rotation starter - something the Nats will be unable to give him in a make-or-break season.
- Nationals re-sign Jordan Zimmermann for $110M
- Ian Desmond rejects QO and walks
- Nationals trade RHP Austin Voth, RHP A.J. Cole, and 2B/OF Chris Bostick to Athletics for OF Josh Reddick, marking the 10th trade Mike Rizzo has consummated with the A's, most of any club.
Chicago White Sox - Rick Hahn
Hahn and the White Sox came out swinging during last years' Winter Meetings, swiftly addressing multiple areas of need by inking Melky Cabrera, Adam LaRoche, and closer David Robertson to reasonable market-value deals. Punctuating the signings was a surprise trade with Oakland for SP Jeff Samardzija - a statement to the rest of the American League that the 'Pale Hose' were fully intent on being contenders.
As is often the case in this great game of ours, things did not go according to plan for the Southsiders. LaRoche had the worst season of his career and could already be a sunk cost, Melky didn't show anything until July, and Samardzija led the majors in earned runs and hits allowed - cementing his departure in free agency this winter. The great equalizer in the Sox' offseason equation is how much payroll can be added in light of last season's (so-far) disastrous impulse buys. The Jerry Reinsdorf-owned club had just the 16th highest payroll in MLB this year despite playing in one of its' largest markets and while it's likely the front office will have some wiggle room in adding salary, Reinsdorf is not known to flash the cash with the largest contract in team history being Jose Abreu's $68 million back in 2013.
While contract info for White Sox executives has vanished from the interwebs, it stands to reason that this is a make-or-break year for GM Rick Hahn regardless of the years left on his deal. Hahn's three years in charge have coincided with the only Sox team ever to lose more than 85 games in three consecutive seasons. After recently retaining manager Robin Ventura for one more go-round, another poor season on the South Side would probably entail new leadership in the dugout and the front office in Chicago.
Knowing he may not get clearance from ownership to add any five-year or nine-figure contracts, Hahn's only option to acquire a high-end bat may be going the trade route. The farm system has been inching closer to respectability after ranking dead last on minorleagueball's inaugural 2012 rankings, as they were most recently slotted at 23rd before the season with the arrow pointing up on several key players. Though top shortstop prospect Tim Anderson is surely off the table, the Sox have an interesting allotment of arms to deal from. They also have the comfort of knowing that the lefty trio of Sale, Rodon, and Jose Quintana are locked into well-below market rate deals until at least 2019. The time seems right for Hahn to consider dealing some of the excess pitching for a veteran hitter on a reasonable contract.
RHP Spencer Adams is a quality starting point for a deal. While many outlets may have bulldog-righty Tyler Danish and Vandy-bred Carson Fulmer higher in their rankings, the 44th pick from the 2014 draft may have the highest upside. 6'4" and armed with a four-pitch mix including a fastball that tops out at 96, the former HS basketball star went out and turned heads this year as the second-youngest pitcher in the Sally league, pitching to the tune of a 3.24 ERA and only 11 walks in 100 innings. Adams' strikeout rate with Kannapolis (6.57 K/9) is a tick down from what you'd expect, but at just 19 he has time to add velocity and strength to his 170-pound frame, giving him the ceiling of a no. 2 starter if everything breaks right.
If the ChiSox are serious about landing an impact player, RHP Frankie Montas has a power arm that would add serious pizzazz to their prospect package. The 21-year old has been a revelation since coming over from the Red Sox in the Jake Peavy deal, flashing a triple-digit fastball to go along with a wipeout slider and workable change. Coming into 2015, there were questions about Montas' durability and control but he seems to have allayed those concerns with a 2.97 ERA in 27 starts for AA Birmingham. While it's seen as a coin flip whether his explosive stuff will ultimately end up in the bullpen, the Sox' continued excellence in developing young pitchers has Montas' stock surging. Possible trade partners will dream on the young Dominican Republic product as a no. 2 or 3 starter, with a high-impact reliever being his worst-case scenario.
Unsubstantiated, unseemly, and downright unfounded predictions:
- White Sox trade RHP Spencer Adams, RHP Frankie Montas, and LHP Jordan Guerrero to Colorado for OF Carlos Gonzalez (2 yrs/$38 million left on his deal)
- White Sox sign free agent 2B/3B Daniel Murphy for 4 years, $62 million