Next week, the baseball world will descend on Nashville, Tennessee, for the annual winter meetings. If you've never been, here's a CliffsNotes explainer:
The baseball operations departments for all 30 teams will hole up in their own suites, feverishly debating the pros and cons of various restaurants proposed for dinner (the only time they ever leave said suites).
At some point over the course of the four-day event, Scott Boras will emerge Randy Orton-style, attracting hordes of sportswriters to hear him bemoan the state of Major League Baseball (he will be 100 percent right about teams claiming a bigger share of the industry's revenue than we've seen in many years).
Jim Leyland will be seated at a bar drinking scotch and telling the most amazing stories you've ever heard. If you don't pull up a chair next to him, you have failed at the winter meetings.
Oh, and there will be some actual baseball moves, too. If this year's meetings hold to form, expect relative quiet on Monday, followed by a flurry of activity starting Tuesday night and ending right before Thursday's Rule 5 draft.
Making any predictions more specific than that one is a futile exercise, given all the Hot Stove madness that happens every December. What we can do is examine all 30 MLB teams to see what their existing rosters look like, what their biggest needs are and how aggressive they might be, given everything from payroll considerations to how likely they are to try to contend in 2016.
With all of that in mind, today we'll break down American League teams' winter meetings wish lists. Tomorrow, we'll hit the National League.
Biggest needs: LF, RF, 1B, DH, SP
The upshot: The Orioles have ranked in the middle of the pack or lower in team payroll for the past decade; the combination of Dan Duquette's past success as a bargain hunter and Peter Angelos' attempt to preserve his MASN war chest makes that unlikely to change this winter. With the five players above filing for free agency, there is some wiggle room for the O's to shop. But with nearly $58 million committed to just four players (including Matt Wieters, who accepted Baltimore's one-year, $15.8 million qualifying offer) and 11 more players eligible for arbitration (including Chris Tillman and Miguel Gonzalez, plus Manny Machado, who would be a worthy extension candidate if the O's were truly willing to break the bank), plus the need to actually replace the free agents they stand to lose, this won't be easy.
Baltimore will need to find viable options for four lineup spots. The Orioles moved quickly to try to fill the hole left by likely-to-leave free agent Chris Davis, acquiring Mark Trumbo in a trade with Seattle. Pray for an OBP above .310.
The potential loss of Chen threatens a weak rotation that ranked just 23rd in park-adjusted ERA with him last season.
With top-of-the-market talent like Jason Heyward almost certainly not in the cards, landing viable second-tier options like Dexter Fowler and Doug Fister could make sense. The Orioles are certainly not flush with top prospects who'll immediately thrive in the big leagues or serve as trade bait for win-now talent.
Notable free agents: None
The upshot: The Red Sox were a popular pick to win the AL East in 2015. The theory behind that pick was that rising up-the-middle talent like Xander Bogaerts and Mookie Betts -- combined with veterans Dustin Pedroia, David Ortiz, Sandoval and Ramirez -- would form one of the league's best lineups. Bogaerts and Betts evolved into two of the best players in the AL. But most of the rest of the roster fell short of expectations. The bullpen ranked last in the majors in park-adjusted fielding-independent pitching, and the Sox have already taken one aggressive step to address that weakness, trading multiple premium prospects for Craig Kimbrel. Expect more bullpen reinforcements soon. The starting pitching wasn't as bad as expected, as Clay Buchholz and Eduardo Rodriguez showed flashes of excellence and others showed moments of competence. Still, the loss of Jon Lester left a hole. The Sox addressed that need by signing free agent David Price to a seven-year, $217 million deal on Tuesday.
The bigger issue will be trying to coax tangible contributions out of Ramirez and Sandoval. Boston's huge, high-risk November 2014 signings failed spectacularly in Year 1 of their megadeals, with the duo ranking as the second- and third-worst regulars in all of baseball. Even after the Kimbrel deal, the Red Sox farm system is still loaded, giving the team multiple options when it comes to promoting from within -- or hitting the trade market again.
Biggest needs: Upgrades at every lineup spot except CF and 1B
The upshot: Those big gains much of the baseball world thought might happen after a surprisingly aggressive player-acquisition binge last winter? Never happened. Melky Cabrera, Adam LaRoche and Samardzija were busts. And while the bullpen improved with the acquisitions of free agents David Robertson and Zach Duke, the roster was riddled with too many holes to approach any kind of success. With the AL Central looking deeper thanks to the emergence of the Royals and Twins (plus the Indians' sleeper potential) and the South Siders' lineup a vast wasteland beyond Adam Eaton and Jose Abreu, the best moves this time around might be incremental ones.
The good news? No other team sports anything like the three southpaws the White Sox have at their top of their rotation. Start with Chris Sale, Jose Quintana and Carlos Rodon; target capable-but-affordable options elsewhere on the diamond (Asdrubal Cabrera? Howie Kendrick? Trade for Brett Lawrie?); and hope for a few breaks.
Biggest needs: CF, DH, RF
The upshot: The Indians were a raging disaster on defense for the first two months of the 2015 regular season. Then they called up Giovanny Urshela and Francisco Lindor within a span of five days in June. Just like that, one of baseball's worst defensive teams became one of its best. With center field looming as the team's biggest hole, Cleveland has a chance to complete its dramatic defensive turnaround by reeling in a vacuum cleaner at that crucial up-the-middle position. A deal that would send, say, Jackie Bradley Jr. (and more) to the Indians for one of their talented, 20-something right-handers could make sense for both sides.
Cleveland went 52-47 after Lindor's promotion, and this is a team with lots of core players (Jason Kipnis, Carlos Santana, Michael Brantley, Yan Gomes, Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, Danny Salazar) in their prime years. Find a strong glove for center field, a potent bat to DH and maybe some help at either right field or third base (depending on what you think of Urshela and Lonnie Chisenhall), and 2016 could be the year the "watch out for these guys" predictions finally pan out.
Biggest needs: SP, RP, LF
The upshot: Here's what I wrote on Saturday:
"Once the envy of all of baseball, Detroit's starting rotation now badly needs front-line arms. Even if Justin Verlander's revival is for real, he'll likely never be the world-beater he once was. After that, you have Anibal Sanchez coming off a miserable season, and then a passel of young arms with question marks -- including Daniel Norris and Matt Boyd, two promising lefties acquired from the Jays in last summer's David Price trade. Still, Verlander no longer being the best right-hander on the planet, combined with losing rotation mainstays like Max Scherzer and Doug Fister in recent years, created a hole that, say, Jordan Zimmermann would be well suited to fill."
So much for that. The Tigers gave Zimmermann a five-year, $110 million contract the next day.
Elsewhere, the Tigers could still use one more reliable starter, even with Zimmermann on board. They also would benefit from at least one more viable bat in the outfield to complement J.D. Martinez and bullpen help to go with recently acquired closer Francisco Rodriguez.
Biggest needs: RP, 1B, 3B
The upshot: The Astros' bullpen was absolutely awful in 2014, which prompted GM Jeff Luhnow to go on a reliever buying binge. Luke Gregerson and Pat Neshek were his two most expensive pickups. Houston's pen then started the 2015 season on fire, getting big contributions from less-heralded arms like Will Harris and Sipp. But after defying huge odds to make it to the playoffs, Astros relievers collapsed against the Royals' relentless lineup, wiping out what seemed like a probable American League Division Series win.
Coming off that disappointment, and with Sipp, Qualls and Thatcher all free agents, expect the Astros to double down on their relief pitcher shopping. And while Houston has semi-adequate options at the corner infield spots, don't be surprised if Luhnow looks to upgrade on Chris Carter and Luis Valbuena. As tough as the road was from terrible to good, the path from good to great can be even tougher. Unless the Astros plan to spend big on bats, they'll have to become creative to find the lineup upgrades they crave. You wonder if they might grow to regret letting slugging first baseman Byung Ho Park sign with an AL rival.
Biggest needs: SP, LF, RF, 2B
The upshot: No team faces a more painful set of departures this winter than the Royals do. With two-fifths of Kansas City's starting rotation, two-thirds of its outfield and an All-Star second baseman free to jump to any other club, GM Dayton Moore will have his hands full trying to repatch the roster. Then again, the projection systems doubted the Royals' chances in 2015 after James Shields, Nori Aoki, Billy Butler and others flew the coop, and Moore scored big with low-price pickups such as Edinson Volquez, Kendrys Morales, Ryan Madson and Young. If you're a Royals fan looking for more reasons to be optimistic, remember that K.C. was already firmly in control of the AL Central when Moore acquired Cueto and Zobrist before the trade deadline. That and, you know, the whole winning the World Series thing.
Even with an influx of cash from that October run -- and the bump in attendance and other revenue streams sure to follow in the coming months -- don't expect the Royals to drop nine figures on Zack Greinke or Heyward. Re-signing Gordon could be a possibility, given that he turns 32 in February and will thus command a more modest payday. Landing one mid-level starter to complement the upside of Danny Duffy and Kris Medlen could allow the Royals to succeed with a star-free rotation. Add a loaded bullpen and a still-young lineup and K.C. could be right back in the mix without doing anything drastic this winter.
Biggest needs: 3B, LF, 2B, RP
The upshot: The Angels narrowly missed the playoffs in 2015 after storming to a 98-win effort in 2014. For that, they could thank a top-heavy offense that wasn't all that good beyond Mike Trout and Albert Pujols, and one of the weakest defensive middle infields in the game. New general manager Billy Eppler & Co. have already started addressing those weaknesses, nabbing arguably the most valuable gloveman in the game in Andrelton Simmons to take over at short.
Making a big run at Yoenis Cespedes wouldn't be a shock given owner Arte Moreno's history of making big splashes on the free-agent market. But Gordon could be a better fit, given his left-handed bat (the Angels are a righty-heavy team), superior defense and what might also be a lower price tag. Considering the large number of quality relievers on the market, upgrading the bullpen could be a doable last step for a team that could have a good shot at returning to the top of the AL West next year.
Biggest needs: RF, SP, RP
The upshot: The Twins might not have the most superstars in baseball, but coming off a Cinderella season in which they nearly made the playoffs, they have fewer holes to fill than nearly any other team. Torii Hunter's retirement opens a hole in right field, but Hunter was a replacement-level player who by definition won't be tough to replace. The starting rotation could use someone better than the panoply of No. 4 starters already in its ranks, but 21-year-old superprospect Jose Berrios could be that guy, and he could be ready to jump to the majors right out of spring training. The bullpen could use a replacement for free agent Boyer (especially with stellar-when-healthy closer Glen Perkins coming off his second consecutive season-ending injury), but no commodity will be easier to find this winter than competent bullpen arms. Add more experience for the hypertalented duo of Miguel Sano and Byron Buxton, and the Twins could be even more dangerous in 2016.
Notable free agents: Stephen Drew
Biggest needs: 2B, Jacoby Ellsbury's missing talent
The upshot: The Yankees surprised everyone by squeaking their way into a wild-card berth last season, with Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira putting up big seasons. Expecting anything close to 64 more bombs from the two of them is asking a lot this late in their careers, though, and that's before we talk about the ancient Carlos Beltran being the biggest defensive sieve in the league and a threat for offensive regression in his own right. Manager Joe Girardi will have some impressive young talent to work with, as Greg Bird and Luis Severino look to build on impressive 2015 debuts. But the additional downside of bloated deals for older veterans is finding a lineup spot for an up-and-comer like Bird, short of a major injury chopping down Rodriguez or Teixeira. If adding another 30-something doesn't faze GM Brian Cashman, Ben Zobrist could fill the second-base hole perfectly. Add him, and maybe another starting pitcher to a rotation that could already improve with a full season of Severino, and another playoff berth could be doable.
Notable free agents: None
Biggest needs: RP, SP, LF
The upshot: In 2015, the A's were one of the unluckiest teams the league has seen in years, getting pummeled in one-run games like few teams ever have before. Closer Sean Doolittle's extended time on the shelf, combined with down years for multiple other relievers, created a season-long, late-inning Armageddon. Doolittle is expected to be fine next spring, the A's already landed right-hander Liam Hendriks from Toronto and we'll probably see another reliever addition or two between now and February. On the rotation front, Oakland already snapped up Rich Hill on a one-year deal, hoping the lefty's late-season surge was for real; they'll need at least one more viable option behind Sonny Gray. If the A's were willing to spend real money to bring in Gordon (or bring back Cespedes), you could envision a surge back into AL West relevance. Even without a move that bold, a bit of positive regression toward the mean could help Oakland at least creep back to .500.
Biggest needs: CF, RF, RP, SP
The upshot: New general manager Jerry Dipoto wasted no time in snagging Nathan Karns to bolster the rotation, Joaquin Benoit and Anthony Bass to fortify the bullpen, and Chris Iannetta, Leonys Martin and Luis Sardinas as inexpensive options up the middle of the diamond. There's still plenty of work to be done after an 86-loss season. Landing a corner fielder who can catch the ball and hopefully hit a little too would allow Nelson Cruz to shift to DH, where he belongs. This is another team that could be a great fit for Jackie Bradley Jr., though the M's depleted talent base might not offer enough trade chips to make that work. Safeco Field was made for someone like Jason Heyward, but you wonder if Dipoto will have anywhere close to that kind of financial latitude, especially with Felix Hernandez and Robinson Cano already raking in $50 million a year between the two of them.
Biggest needs: C, RP
The upshot: The Rays will have to rely on roster balance to have any big hopes for 2016, because the star power just isn't there. Logan Forsythe did emerge as one of the best second basemen in the league last season. But there's not much else to be excited about, with Evan Longoria's late-20s decline looking particularly ugly. He's still a plus player but not the MVP-caliber, all-around threat he once was. The Rays look like a lesser version of the Yankees, with front-line pitching their best hope. A midseason return from Tommy John surgery by Alex Cobb would give Tampa Bay one of the league's most formidable rotations -- doubly so if talented lefty Matt Moore can recapture his old form. For now, finding a real catcher should be the priority. With the free-agent market woefully thin on that front, don't be surprised if the Rays follow their multiplayer deal with the Mariners with another sizable swap for help behind the plate.
Biggest needs: SP, platoon 1B
The upshot: With Gallardo and Lewis on the open market, starting pitching becomes the most pressing need for what's otherwise one of the most complete teams in baseball. Even that supposed weakness could work out well with a couple of breaks, though. Yu Darvish will be 12-and-a-half months clear of Tommy John surgery on Opening Day, meaning a May or June return is very much in play. The rotation's top three of lefties Cole Hamels, Derek Holland and Martin Perez shapes up well (if Holland and Perez can stay healthy), and there's depth in young right-handers Nick Martinez and Chi Chi Gonzalez. Add a midrotation righty (Hisashi Iwakuma would fit well), bring back Napoli to platoon with Mitch Moreland and add some lineup balance, and the Rangers become a strong threat to repeat as AL West champs.
Biggest needs: SP, RP
The upshot: Here's another reshaped front office that moved quickly to address glaring needs. In the Blue Jays' case, it was replacing Price with J.A. Happ and re-upping Marco Estrada. Having those two starters in the fold, plus a full season of Marcus Stroman, could be enough to sufficiently complement the Jays' loaded lineup, one that includes terrifying sluggers and Gold Glove-caliber defenders alike.
The Jays could opt for one more innings-eater to fill the hole left by the retiring Mark Buehrle (and keep the combustible Drew Hutchison out of the rotation). They'll probably target a reliever or two to augment the bullpen depth they lacked in October too. But the notion that Toronto needs a brand-name ace to make another playoff run is flawed. This team is already pretty damn good.