We've weighed in on the game plan for American League teams heading into next week's winter meetings in Nashville. Time to check in on the National League.
Notable free agents: Edwin Jackson
Biggest needs: CF, 3B, C, RP
The upshot: The Braves are in the midst of a massive rebuilding project, even if they don't like using the T word. That makes any near-term roster holes mostly incidental, given their timeline for contention probably doesn't start until at least 2017. They're off to a good start, given the huge collection of young pitching talent they've already assembled via trades. In between aggressive deals for such scarce commodities, new GM John Coppolella figures to soften the edges of this rough roster a bit, with relief pitching the top item on the agenda in Nashville.
Beyond that, the Braves will make do with placeholders like A.J. Pierzynski and Michael Bourn for now, then try to find more high-upside talent via the draft. If highly-coveted right-hander Shelby Miller gets traded this winter as has been widely rumored, that could speed up the rebuild even more.
Biggest needs: 2B, SP, RP
The upshot: Few teams in all of baseball boasted a better pair of position players last season than the D-backs duo of Paul Goldschmidt and A.J. Pollock. Add surprising contributions from David Peralta and Ender Inciarte, and the top of Arizona's order was a bear to handle for opposing pitchers. Problem is, the lineup gets thin from there, with arguably the least potent middle infield in the majors turning the Diamondbacks into a mere middle-of-the-pack offense. Hanging onto Nick Ahmed's premium defense probably makes sense, but second base should be a top shopping priority, which could make Ben Zobrist, Howie Kendrick, or Daniel Murphy a high priority.
The sexier moves might come on the pitching front, though. The Diamondbacks reportedly offered free agent Johnny Cueto a six-year, $120 million contract, only to get turned down. They could get creative with their Plan B, up to and including making a run at prized Japanese right-hander and potential free agent Kenta Maeda.
Biggest needs: SP, CF
The upshot: The beauty of having a roster this young (seven of the eight current projected lineup regulars will be 26 or younger on Opening Day) is that you don't lose many impact players to free agency or excessive cost. Fowler was a valuable catalyst at the top of the lineup, so finding a jack-of-all-trades outfielder who can catch the ball and also ignite the offense is a top priority. In the luxury aisle that's Jason Heyward, while in the discount aisle that's Gerardo Parra -- assuming the Cubs believe either could handle playing center field (Heyward every day, Parra as the most often-used half of a platoon).
On the pitching side, Joe Maddon's ability to turn every playoff game not started by Jake Arrieta or Jon Lester into a bullpen game was impressive ... but it's also a strategy fraught with risk. David Price seemed like a prime target, but he's now a member of the Red Sox; Zack Greinke, Johnny Cueto, Yovani Gallardo, and others could make sense instead. Several useful 2015 relievers filed for free agency, but with newly acquired Rex Brothers joining Hector Rondon, Pedro Strop, Justin Grimm, and Travis Wood (assuming the Cubs land another starter and Wood is free to pitch in relief), the Cubs become one of the very few teams in baseball without any pressing bullpen needs.
Biggest needs: SP, SP, SP!
The upshot: Last season, the Reds shattered an all-time record for most consecutive starts by rookie pitchers. GM Walt Jocketty and manager Bryan Price both talked up the value of giving all those young pitchers prolonged exposure in key roles, as a way to get a better feel for their ability to handle the job, and to expedite Cincinnati's rebuilding process. Still, when we talked in September, both Jocketty and Price admitted they'll need some veteran innings eaters to complement the young arms and to avoid burning out both those kids, and the veterans who'll work out of the bullpen. Whether that's a quality pitcher like Ian Kennedy or a lesser type like Kyle Kendrick, expect the Reds to be active on that front.
Pitching aside, we could see Cincinnati get more aggressive about shipping key players out, rather than bringing in new ones. Jay Bruce was linked to trade rumors for much of last season, and All-Star third baseman Todd Frazier now looks like a candidate to be dealt, too.
Notable free agents: Justin Morneau
Biggest needs: SP, RP, 1B
The upshot: Adjust for park factors all you want. The bottom line is the Rockies had terrible pitching last season, same as they've had for the past several years. Since the great Mike Hampton-Denny Neagle debacle of 2000, the Rockies haven't signed big-ticket free-agent starting pitchers ... no surprise, since none of them want to play in Denver. GM Jeff Bridich did acquire some intriguing young pitching talent from the Toronto Blue Jays in the Troy Tulowitzki trade, and we should expect the Rockies to target quality pitchers in the draft, with high draft picks in the offing as long as the team keeps losing. Still, Colorado's ability to develop quality homegrown pitchers remains very much in doubt. The two top pitching prospects who recently came through the system, Eddie Butler and Jon Gray, have done little to impress in their short time in the majors.
The Rockies will pursue a reliever or two, and there's talk of Colorado eyeing options to complement Ben Paulsen at first base. Still, all of that is just window dressing until they can build something resembling a competent rotation.
Biggest needs: SP, RP, 2B
The upshot: Greinke's a free agent, and the Dodgers might prefer to avoid paying him $30 million a year into his late 30s, even coming off a monster season. Brett Anderson's back in the fold after accepting the team's qualifying offer, but neither he nor Hyun-Jin Ryu has the kind of health track record that makes you confident the Dodgers will reap 400 innings from those two lefties. Even if fellow southpaw Alex Wood improves on his 2015 showing, it's hard to see a team that's willing to shell out $300 million a year on payroll suddenly scale back for 2016. That makes any free-agent starter (including Greinke) a candidate. Don't be surprised if the Dodgers aggressively mine the trade market for arms, too.
Elsewhere, count on the Dodgers pursuing relievers on the open market, even with Andrew Friedman being a known skeptic when it comes to predicting year-to-year bullpen results. Kike Hernandez is probably good enough to take over for the hole that'd be left behind if Kendrick signs elsewhere, but signing someone like Ben Zobrist and letting Hernandez fill the very Zobrist-like role of multiposition wizard might be a better bet.
Notable free agents: None
Biggest needs: SP
The upshot: Even if the Marlins did little to no shopping this winter, this could actually be a decent team if things were to break right. The problem lies in the high variance of the roster. Giancarlo Stanton might hit the ball harder and further than anyone in the game when he's at 100 percent, but he has played in 123 or fewer games in three of the past four seasons, including only 74 in 2015. Marcell Ozuna would be a solid bounce-back candidate if left to his own devices ... but owner Jeffrey Loria appears hellbent on shipping him out of town. When even Jose Fernandez briefly becomes the subject of trade rumors (well-founded or not), you know you're dealing with a franchise that has its share of uncertainty.
Whether Ozuna is dealt or any of the team's top players get hurt, starting pitching remains a real problem. After Fernandez, there are four pitchers who rate as below average by virtually any advanced or traditional stat (Henderson Alvarez was non-tendered by the Marlins after he made only four starts and underwent shoulder surgery last season). Kendry Flores, a 24-year-old right-hander heisted from the San Francisco Giants last winter for Casey McGehee, could be a rotation candidate next season, but he has exactly one major league start to his credit and is far from a sure thing. If the Marlins want to do more than merely flirt with relevance next season, they could really use a competent veteran or two to stabilize that rotation.
Notable free agents: Kyle Lohse
Biggest needs: CF, 3B, SS, SP
The upshot: The Brewers were one of the worst teams in baseball last season, and it would behoove new GM David Stearns to take his time with the rebuilding process -- doubly so given how formidable the St. Louis Cardinals, Chicago Cubs and Pittsburgh Pirates are in the same division. Teams often cite the importance of being strong up the middle, and Milwaukee's a bad team on that front once you get past Jonathan Lucroy behind the plate; they'll need to find long-term replacements for Carlos Gomez (traded) and Jean Segura (bad at baseball), then hope that Scooter Gennett can recapture his 2014 form, rather than the lousy results he put up in 2015. Beyond those two moves, and finding a third baseman, there should be no huge rush to spend a ton of money. The team's two best starters next season might both end up being homegrown arms making the league minimum, and rebuilding a farm system that doesn't have much more to offer at the higher levels should be the Brewers' top priority.
Biggest needs: SS, RP
The upshot: Cespedes was a beast in the final two months of the regular season and Murphy set the world on fire for much of the postseason, creating some consternation over how the Mets plan to replace both. Thing is, doing both might be easier than you'd think. Plan A could be simply throwing a bunch of money at two of the best free agents out there. As ESPN's Buster Olney reported, the Mets are pursuing Ben Zobrist (to replace Murphy) and Dexter Fowler (to ostensibly replace Cespedes).
But even a Plan B could work out fine. In the outfield, the Mets are in great shape in two spots with Curtis Granderson entrenched in right and talented young slugger Michael Conforto in left. A healthy Juan Lagares projects as both an excellent gloveman in center and a hitter who can handle left-handed pitching. Thus making a run at, say, someone like Gerardo Parra could allow the Mets to field strong options every day at all three outfield spots, without having to spend a fortune to re-up Cespedes (not happening) or sign an even more expensive option like Jason Heyward (not happening). As for replacing Murphy, keep in mind we're talking about a player who outside of last October was a good but not great hitter and also a subpar defender. Find a viable shortstop (Asdrubal Cabrera?), slide Wilmer Flores over to second, and the Mets could be fine.
Beyond those moves, relief pitching should be the priority. Pick your favorite names -- Shawn Kelley, Darren O'Day, Ryan Madson, re-signing Clippard -- whichever way the Mets go, the priority should be building a deep and talented bullpen to buttress the team's very good and very young rotation.
Biggest needs: LF, 1B, C, SP
The upshot: This might be the most talent-starved team in baseball at the major league level. But help might be on the way in the next couple of years. Aaron Nola has already made it to the big leagues, and the Phillies have some promising pitching depth in their system. J.P. Crawford projects as a future All-Star at shortstop, and could crack the major league lineup as soon as next season. The top priority might then become finding big bats at traditional power positions like left field and first base, while also keeping an eye on the trade market for starting pitching. One rumor had the Houston Astros interested in hard-throwing young closer Ken Giles, and the Phillies inquiring about Lance McCullers and Vincent Velasquez in return. That's a long shot all things considered, but at least the Phils are thinking big.
Biggest needs: SP, RP, 1B
The upshot: The Pirates have flawed players manning a couple of positions, and they decided to let go one of those players when they non-tendered first baseman Pedro Alvarez. That being said, assuming Jung Ho Kang is healthy enough to be ready by Opening Day, we might see very few changes when it comes to position players getting notable playing time.
That leaves the pitching staff as the most logical element to address, especially with so many quality pitchers headed elsewhere via free agency. The equalizer here is highly respected pitching coach Ray Searage, who has worked his magic with multiple pitchers, some of whom have capitalized on those gains to sign rich deals elsewhere (hi there, J.A. Happ!). Allen Webster, once a top prospect who already has cycled through the Dodgers, Red Sox, and Diamondbacks systems, could be the latest talented but erratic pitcher to find success in Pittsburgh. Even with Webster as an intriguing reclamation project, though, there's room for a mid-market starting pitcher, plus maybe one more reliever to cover for the potential departure of 2015 trade deadline pickup Soria.
Biggest needs: SP
The upshot: The Cardinals' biggest problem last season, by a mile, was health. It didn't seem to have much of an effect during the regular season, when St. Louis stormed to 100 wins and the NL Central crown -- but it did during the NLDS, when the undermanned Cards got beat by their archrival in Chicago. Still, if Matt Holliday and Matt Adams heal as expected, the return of those two big bats, combined with the emergence of Randal Grichuk and Stephen Piscotty, could allow the Cardinals to field a strong lineup without even lifting a finger to replace free agent Jason Heyward.
Instead, starting pitching is the clear focus. The Cards reportedly made a big run at David Price before falling short to Boston's $217 million bonanza. With Zack Greinke, Johnny Cueto, Yovani Gallardo, Wei-Yin Chen, Hisashi Iwakuma and others still on the market, there are plenty of other options on the table. And if the Cards do lose out on the marquee arms, offering contract extensions to dynamic young talents like Michael Wacha, Carlos Martinez or Kolten Wong could be a solid consolation prize.
Biggest needs: LF, CF, RP
The upshot: Last winter, Padres GM A.J. Preller showed he was willing to be hyperaggressive in building the roster to his specifications, going on a buying spree that trumped just about anything else we'd seen in the past few years. So far this offseason, Preller has shown similarly grand ambitions on the selling side. Craig Kimbrel is now a member of the Red Sox, with the Padres reaping a handsome return for the All-Star closer. Yonder Alonso is now an Athletic, dealt along with reliever Marc Rzepczynski to Oakland for young lefties Drew Pomeranz and Jose Torres. A few weeks earlier, Joaquin Benoit went to the Mariners for two lesser prospects.
At some point, you have to figure the Padres will start adding, too. They'll need a viable option to replace Justin Upton in the lineup, whether in left field or at first base if Wil Myers plays the outfield. They might owe Melvin Upton Jr. a bunch of money, but settling for him as the everyday center fielder wouldn't make much sense. The bullpen could also use some new blood now that Kimbrel and Benoit are gone, though the Padres' commitment to filling those holes will depend on whether or not Preller sees enough potential to trigger another strong push for contention in 2016.
Biggest needs: SP, RP, LF
The upshot: It's an even year, which means the Giants are presumably going to win the World Series. For that to happen, though, they'll need to find some ambulatory humans who can chuck baseballs in the vicinity of home plate, ideally with some juice behind it. The money could be there for San Francisco to go big too, given how some of the team's top players (Madison Bumgarner, Joe Panik, Matt Duffy, etc.) are such monumental bargains, and finding an effective No. 2 starter to slot in behind Bumgarner is the Giants' biggest offseason pursuit. Snatching Zack Greinke away from the archrival Dodgers would be a particularly delicious move.
Other players who'd make sense for San Francisco: gap-hitting, stellar-gloved Alex Gordon to slot into that spacious AT&T Park outfield, and at least one more quality reliever who'll enable all-world bullpen handler Bruce Bochy to properly work his magic.
Biggest needs: CF, LF, RP
The upshot: Hey look, it's yet another team likely to be in on Ben Zobrist right down to the wire. Beyond that pursuit, and a likely run at a center fielder, the Nats will have to swallow hard and hope incumbents can address some of the weaknesses that plagued the 2015 club. Desmond struggled last year at short, and the hope now is that 21-year-old Trea Turner can step right in and replace him. Jayson Werth has two years and $43 million left on his megacontract, or else the Nats might be even more aggressive about diminishing the role of a 36-year-old who looks as if he might be nearing the end of the line.
And just to say it one more time: If you plan to compete in modern baseball, you'd better have a deep bullpen, and the Nationals don't have that. Whatever becomes of the Jonathan Papelbon saga, the combination of Washington's multibillionaire owners, a plethora of available free-agent options, and the need to surround the league's best player with a better supporting cast should make a reliever blitz an obvious path to take.