On Baseball: As Spring Training Nears, a Look at Baseball’s Window Treatment
Maybe they’re kidding themselves, but the Angels haven’t acted like a team in retreat. With Albert Pujols still slugging and Mike Trout still sublime, they have quietly improved the lineup with Danny Espinosa, Cameron Maybin and Luis Valbuena, players whose defense should prop up a shaky pitching staff. It’s a long shot, but with Trout in his prime and few top prospects coming, the Angels are going for it.
The Astros are 46 games over .500 the last two seasons … when not playing the Rangers. They’re 10-28 against Texas, a string of futility that has probably kept them from winning the American League West. They’ll have another good chance this season, with an impressive blend of youth and veterans. One more solid starter and they might win the first World Series in franchise history.
It’s startling how little the A’s have gotten from their farm system, especially for a team that relies on low-cost talent. As they wait to develop their own stars, they’ll continue to patch with castoffs and make the best deals they can. They badly need Sonny Gray to regain his All-Star status, if only to rebuild his trade value.
Blue Jays: CLOSING
The Blue Jays lost their top run producer, Edwin Encarnacion, to the Cleveland Indians — the team that just beat them in the American League Championship Series. It was the second A.L.C.S. loss in a row for Toronto, and another of their sluggers, Jose Bautista, will be 37 by the World Series. With Donaldson, their star third baseman, under control for just two more years, the Blue Jays are running out of chances with this core.
Twenty-three years after his Cleveland team opened a new ballpark ready to contend, John Hart is doing something similar in Atlanta. Hart, the president of baseball operations, doesn’t have as much high-impact young talent now as he did then. But the Braves’ veterans should keep the team mildly competitive as they race the Phillies to see who can rise quickest from the depths of the National League East.
The Brewers fell two games shy of the World Series in 2011, then tried to stay relevant by spending big for mid-level free agent pitching. It was a noble effort, but now they’re back on their best path, collecting as many prospects as possible. It seems to be working: Last month, ESPN’s Keith Law ranked Milwaukee sixth in the majors in farm system talent.
In St. Louis, the window never closes. In the first 17 seasons of the 2000s, the Cardinals have had 16 winning seasons, 12 playoff appearances, four pennants and two World Series titles. They poached Dexter Fowler from the champion Cubs, and if Alex Reyes emerges as a star, they may have the pitching to challenge in the National League Central.
The Cubs, newly crowned as World Series champions, do have a few potential free agents: Jake Arrieta, John Lackey, the new closer Wade Davis. But they’re so flush with cash and prospects, and their front office makes such sound decisions, that they should easily fill any hole. With so many players in their primes, another pennant or two seems almost inevitable before this group breaks up.
Their window was open last season, but Arizona still found a way to crash through plate glass. After overpaying in dollars for Zack Greinke and players for Shelby Miller, they stumbled to 93 losses and fired their general manager and manager. But as the team tries desperately to win with Paul Goldschmidt, who is under its control through 2019, the window is still open.
The record for consecutive division titles without reaching a World Series is six, by the Braves from 2000 to 2005, so there’s precedent for the Dodgers’ current streak of four. At least they have the talent and money to keep trying. After bringing back Kenley Jansen, Justin Turner and Rich Hill and trading for Logan Forsythe, the Dodgers should someday give Clayton Kershaw the World Series spotlight he deserves. But the wait seems interminable.
With three championships and just one losing season in the last eight years, the Giants have earned this distinction; they’re a perennial contender until proven otherwise. But there’s reason for mild concern, since Johnny Cueto can opt for free agency this fall and Buster Posey, who turns 30 next month, just caught a career-high 123 games. Signing a solid backup catcher, the veteran Nick Hundley, was a subtle and wise move.
After losing to the Cubs in Game 7 of the World Series, Cleveland has the sport’s longest title drought, at 69 years. The good thing is that no team understands windows as do the Indians, who know they won’t get many chances like this. With sturdier pitching and Encarnacion in the middle of the lineup — joined, they hope, by a healthy Michael Brantley — the Indians are doing all they can for that elusive final victory.
Imagine a city with four soaring skyscrapers – and the rest of downtown constantly under construction. That’s the Mariners, who have Robinson Cano, Nelson Cruz, Kyle Seager, Felix Hernandez and a supporting cast in a feverish state of flux. Has Jerry Dipoto, their creative and free-wheeling general manager, built something to last? We know he’ll keep trying.
With the Marlins, plans often change without notice. Their 13-year playoff drought is the longest in the National League and the front office could turn impatient if the team slumps past the All-Star Game, which will be played in Miami. For now the Marlins plan to win, adding depth to the pitching staff – Edinson Volquez, Dan Straily, Junichi Tazawa, Brad Ziegler – in hopes of replacing the irreplaceable: Jose Fernandez, who died in a boating accident last September.
The Mets still seem rather tentative, retaining Yoenis Cespedes but mostly just hoping to win with the same group of mismatched position players and star-crossed pitchers that captured a wild card last year. If the starters stay healthy, the Mets have a good chance to reclaim the National League East. The hard part comes when those pitchers start to get too expensive. That hasn’t happened yet, so enjoy this while it lasts.
Because of significant salary deferrals, the Nationals will be paying their aces for many, many years — Max Scherzer through 2028 and Stephen Strasburg through 2030. Will they have a ring to show for it, or at least a playoff series victory? Time may be running out. Bryce Harper and Daniel Murphy, who anchor the middle of the lineup, are eligible for free agency after 2018.
The Orioles have the most victories in the American League over the last five seasons, yet have not won a game beyond the division series. Their best player (Manny Machado), their leader (Adam Jones) and the game’s best closer (Zach Britton) can all hit free agency after 2018 — and they still haven’t found an ace for the rotation.
The Padres might be as bland and uninspired as their navy-and-white uniforms. O.K., that’s hyperbole – nothing could be that boring. Now the only team in town, the Padres have a sickly roster but are doing what General Manager A.J. Preller does best: aggressively cultivating young talent. Someday it might pay off, but that day won’t come in 2017.
It’s open, but only by the Pirates’ standards. Their creativity has been admirable, building a contender without ever guaranteeing a player more than McCutchen’s $51.5 million. But while they have years of control on their core position players, the Pirates have been unable — or unwilling — to find long-term dependability in their rotation. Without big strides by their homegrown starters, they seem destined to keep falling just short.
The Phillies were great for five years, then bad for five years. So if their window isn’t opening yet, it really should be. They just committed more than $60 million to six veterans — Joaquin Benoit, Clay Buchholz, Howie Kendrick, Pat Neshek, Michael Saunders and the returning Jeremy Hellickson – so they’d like to be respectable. But since all are unsigned past this season, they’re also prime trade bait as the Phillies continue to seek long-term assets.
For the sixth time in seven seasons, the Rangers played beyond Game 162. They went home empty yet again, swept in the division series when Toronto flattened their aces, Cole Hamels and Yu Darvish. Both are back, but Darvish is facing free agency and Adrian Beltre, the team’s heartbeat, will soon be 38. They could win this year, but maybe not much longer.
From 2008 through 2013, Tampa Bay averaged almost 92 victories per season. They’ve had three losing records since, but the fun thing about the Rays is that they never fully retreat. While they did trade two veterans (Drew Smyly and Logan Forsythe), they have a dynamic young rotation and hit for enough power to scare you. They just might threaten for the playoffs again.
Red Sox: OPEN
No team has as many young, high-impact position players as the Red Sox, with Mookie Betts, Xander Bogarts, Jackie Bradley Jr. and Andrew Benintendi. Their rotation has two Cy Young Award winners (David Price and Rick Porcello) and three 2016 All-Stars (Chris Sale, Steven Wright, Drew Pomeranz). So, yes, even without David Ortiz, this team is poised to win now, and for years to come.
The Reds need to find out what they have in the young infielders Jose Peraza and Dilson Herrera, but for now they are blocked by the veterans Zack Cozart and Brandon Philips. Joey Votto is elite, but he’s signed for seven more years at an average of $22.5 million per season. The Reds might contend by the end of his deal, but this team will take a long time to fix.
After their sixth losing season in a row, the Rockies showed what they think of themselves by splurging for Ian Desmond, giving him $70 million for five years to shift to first base. They spent another $26 million on bullpen help in Greg Holland and Mike Dunn, supporting a young but talented rotation. There’s not much pitching depth, but if the Rockies stay healthy, their offense will lift them to contention.
The Royals have always known when to strike and when to hold back. Their discipline to cultivate a certain style of play — and their patience to grow the right players to implement it — led to a title in 2015, boosted by bold deadline deals. They’re clinging to contention now, trading veterans (Wade Davis, Jarrod Dyson) but getting major leaguers, not prospects, in return. The death of Yordano Ventura in a car crash last month was devastating, but this is a resilient group that wants to win again before Lorenzo Cain, Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas test free agency next winter.
It’s still amazing that the Tigers could not win a championship from 2011 to 2014, when their roster was loaded with superstars. They’re not as strong anymore, but instead of breaking up their veterans, they basically sat out the winter and decided to give it another try. Few of their players will be much better than we’ve already seen, but with more elite performances from Miguel Cabrera and Justin Verlander, there’s always a chance.
If you’re reading this despite last year’s regrettable prediction of a wild-card spot, thanks for the second chance. The Twins’ winning record in 2015 was a mirage, and the team sank to 103 losses, the most since moving to Minnesota in 1961. Their raw young hitters have promise, but until the Twins improve on their American League-worst earned run average (5.08), it’s hard to have much hope.
White Sox: CLOSED
After pushing forward futilely for years, the White Sox showed a sudden skill for the teardown. By trading Chris Sale to Boston and Adam Eaton to Washington at the winter meetings, they scored a deep haul of talented prospects who should start contributing this season. Still, this is a roster in major transition, with several more moves to come.
If the Yankees were serious about winning this season, they would have bolstered their thin rotation. Instead they welcomed back closer Aroldis Chapman, gave designated hitter Matt Holliday a one-year deal, and left it at that. They’re still gathering as much young talent as possible before those starry free agents hit the market after next season. The plan is working – their prospect collection really is impressive – but it’s all just a waiting game now.
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