Justin, my friend, baseball season is nearly back! Pitchers and catchers are reporting, and, since nobody has played a game yet, everyone feels hopeful!
Astros fans want to have a word with you out back, Derick.
Well... maybe not everyone. While this offseason kept the baseball world as a whole on its toes, several teams underwhelmed and left their fan bases out to dry as a result.
Here are the five teams that, to me, left themselves least prepared for the next beautiful 162-game grind.
5. Chicago Cubs
Derick Hutchinson: Every October, North-siders have to feel relieved that another difficult campaign is in the books for the lovable losers. The Chicago Cubs set the bar for futility in the MLB with a century-long World Series drought, and this offseason did little to right the ship.
A farm system loaded with talent seemingly equipped Theo Epstein with the ammunition he needed to make a few moves and put the Cubs back in contention. His biggest offseason addition: Justin Ruggiano, whose .222 batting average from last season should fit nicely into the 7th or 8th slot of an underwhelming Chicago lineup.
Chicago's biggest pitching change comes in the form of a closer, where veteran Kevin Gregg surrenders the 9th inning to Jose Veras. Veras hardly figures to be much of an upgrade over Gregg, as he blew four saves in just 25 chances last season (84%) while Gregg saved 28/33 (85%).
Justin Lee: I can’t agree on the fact that the Cubs have done “little to right the ship,” in that they have built up a farm system which puts them in prime position to contend...one to two years from now. Theo Epstein is being exceedingly patient, taking a less Adderall-addled Moneyball approach to roster construction than he did with the Boston Red Sox from 2002-2011.
J.P. Breen did a study for FanGraphs back in 2012, calculating the WAR that each major league team had received from home-grown, farm talent over that same 2002-2011, and lo and behold, Theo Epstein’s Red Sox outpaced the entire field by garnering 100.3 Wins Above Replacement from homegrown talent.
In contrast, the Chicago Cubs (whose talent void Epstein inherited in late 2011) received just 19.3 Wins Above Replacement from their farm system over the same time period, averaging to just under two wins (or less than 20% of a 2013 Mike Trout) a season.
Acquiring OF Justin Ruggiano for OF Brian Bogusevic does smack as trading limitations for another set of limitations, and bumping Gregg down for Veras does little metrically except maybe add a strikeout or two per nine innings of service.
However, this isn’t the year for the Cubs to assess what they have, and wheel and deal accordingly. That comes next year, when Epstein’s nuclear stockpile of awesome young talent starts to define itself—giving him the tools he needs to assess who fits and who becomes trade bait.
4. Philadelphia Phillies
Derick: A team considered a serious World Series contender just two years ago turned into the proverbial punching bag of the National League in 2013 when the Philadelphia Phillies finished with the worst run differential (-139) in the league (yes, that includes the Marlins).
Philly's feeble attempt to regain their footing in the NL East didn't exactly impress. The team added Marlon Byrd to the middle of an aging lineup that becomes even older (and, thus, less intimidating) with every passing Spring. Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley and Ryan Howard can't play forever, and the organization's insistence on keeping those "big names" in the lineup holds back a team that plays in a hitter's heaven.
On the mound, they added Roberto Hernandez, who was better as Fausto Carmona in the first place but also arrives in the wake of Roy Halladay's retirement. Though Halladay retired with less than his best stuff, his official absence left a bigger hole than Hernandez's abilities can fill.
Philadelphia finished nine games ahead of Miami last season, but the Marlins' additions of Rafael Furcal, Garrett Jones and Jarrod Saltalamacchia around Giancarlo Stanton could leave the City of Brotherly Love in the MLB cellar in 2014.
Justin: I was with you until you mentioned Furcal, who lost 2013 to Tommy John surgery and will need a minor miracle to return to his prime production at 36.
However, Philadelphia has been an unequivocal wreck, and now the wreck is starting to attract barnacles, seagulls, and Disney screenwriters with a Johnny Depp fetish.
According to David Schoenfield of ESPN.com, there have only been four teams in MLB history to have five position players aged 34 or older bat 400 times in a season: the 1945 Chicago White Sox, the 1985 California Angels, and the 2002 and 2007 San Francisco Giants.
It sure seemed to work for the 2002 Giants, but STEROID THE GREAT was drawing walks faster than this aging Phillies’ team can hobble and hop to first base...and that's a major problem in and of itself.
Roberto Hernandez is here to save the day...wait, probably not. I would have the Phillies number one on this list, with a BB pellet.
3. Toronto Blue Jays
Derick: Okay, what could the Toronto Blue Jays really do just one year after the mega-deals sent Jose Reyes, Josh Johnson, R.A. Dickey, Mark Buehrle and Melky Cabrera north of the boarder? More than just grabbing Dioner Navarro, that's for sure.
Despite all the flashy pickups, Toronto's 2013 offseason ranks as the worst in the entire league. The Blue Jays traded prospects and spent big bucks to construct their dream team, and all it resulted in a disappointing last-place finish.
Baseball's best division sent two teams to the playoffs, including the World Series champion Red Sox, and boasted four teams with 85 or more wins. The two teams closest to Toronto in the AL East standings made big offseason moves to improve their squads (the Yankees signed Jacoby Ellsbury, Brian McCann and Masahiro Tanaka, and the Orioles signed Ubaldo Jimenez), so the 2014 season promises little hope for more than a last-place finish for the poor Blue Jays.
Justin: Here’s my problem with the 2013 Blue Jays-- I want to give them a mulligan for being injury-riddled and unlucky. I want to believe that the 2014 Blue Jays will right the ship and coalesce the wealth of collected talent on this squad into a legitimate threat to the Bostons and Tampa Bays of the world.
However, the numbers don’t fully back up the “injury-riddled” rhetoric surrounding the Jays.
According to mangameslost.com, the Toronto Blue Jays lost 1548 “man games” due to everything from injuries to players getting benched for farting during a team meeting. That number seems too large, until you realize it only ranked
15th out of all 30 MLB teams in 2013 (the San Diego Padres led the majors with 1883 “man games” lost.)
This might be a little misleading, though, as the games lost were spread over the entirety of the roster, and the Jays only had three regular position players who appeared in at least 120 games in 2013.
I don’t necessarily think that a healthy Blue Jays team in 2014 will compete for a World Series championship—the odd mishmash of talent and inexperience seems too jagged and haphazard. However, I think that the Blue Jays could definitely surprise a lot of naysayers if things break in the right direction.
2. Atlanta Braves
Derick: Perhaps the most dazzling headline of the 2013 offseason belonged to the Atlanta Braves, when they brought the talented Upton brothers together in what would surely become a 'team of destiny.' Despite struggles from older brother B.J., the season transpired even better than the Braves could have planned, as they finished just one win from the best record in the league and cruised to a 10-game division championship.
This offseason featured two losses that haven't commanded as much attention, but loom even larger than the bats that joined Atlanta a year ago. Brian McCann signing with the Yankees marked the first blow, as the lifetime Brave and seven-time All-star took his six consecutive seasons of 20+ home runs to the Bronx.
Then 200-game winner Tim Hudson flew west to San Francisco, leaving a talented starting rotation with a glaring lack of veteran leadership. Hudson solidified the starting rotation in Atlanta for much of the past nine years, and pawning the label of "ace" onto 22-year old Mike Minor could be a rockier transition than his 3.21 ERA from 2013 suggests.
Justin: If, and it’s a big if, McCann can stay healthy in New York...his Gold Glove-caliber work behind the plate and park-adjusted power inflation at Yankee Stadium could make him the biggest signing of the 2014 offseason in retrospect two years from now.
Yet, the Yankees’ gain doesn’t necessarily translate to a brutal loss for the Braves, as I believe Evan Gattis can swing the bat well enough to almost make up for McCann’s absence in the lineup. However, losing McCann’s leadership behind the dish isn’t the best-case scenario for an emerging young starting rotation. Losing Huddy puts the onus on Kris Medlen, Mike Minor, and a healthy Brandon Beachy to grow up...and grow up quickly, without a veteran backstop to ease the growing pains.
Taking this all into account, the Atlanta Braves are probably the easiest division champion to pick for a regression-filled 2014, but I wouldn’t undersell the 7-year, $58 million extension handed out to the Wizard of Dre, Andreton Simmons (I’ll work on a better nickname. I promise.) Simmons had some bad luck on balls batted in play last season, and that along with his batting average should rise in 2014. Add that to his jaw-dropping Matrix work at the hardest defensive position in the game, and that’s enough for a positive spin to a meh offseason for the Braves.
1. Cleveland Indians
Derick: The Cleveland Indians were the cream of the crop during the 2013 offseason, picking up decent pieces like Michael Bourn, Nick Swisher and Scott Kazmir and getting excellent production from them. This season, Cleveland stayed silent while the Tigers and Royals strengthened in the AL Central.
Detroit redefined itself in the middle of its success, shearing the nonathletic reputation with additions like Ian Kinsler and Rajai Davis. Meanwhile, Kansas City added a much-needed rotation piece in Jason Vargas and secured the dominant top-of-the-order combination of Norichika Aoki and Omar Infante.
While the other two winning teams from last season's AL Central made major splashes, Cleveland settled for David Murphy, who hit .220 in 142 games for Texas last season. More importantly, the Indians allowed 23 wins and over 340 innings walk away without a fight, as Ubaldo Jimenez signed in Baltimore and Scott Kazmir left for Oakland.
Cleveland leaves the starting rotation in the hands of Justin Masterson, whose performance towards the end of the season led to his demotion to the bullpen down the stretch in 2013. Young star Danny Salazar is a breakout candidate for the Tribe, but it lacks a definitive ace who can replace what Jimenez brought to the table during the second half of last season. When the Indians need to beat Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer, Anibal Sanchez, James Shields and Jeremy Guthrie next season, who do they turn to? Corey Kluber?
Terry Francona's incredible coaching resume keeps teams from completely writing off the Indians, but this offseason crushed the momentum Cleveland built up during an incredible stretch run that finally put the Tribe back in the postseason.
Justin: Well put on all accounts.
I am more okay than most people with the John Axford signing, as I still think he has the stuff to replicate his stellar 2011 campaign with the Brewers. However, the people who jumped on previous closer Chris Perez for giving up 11 long balls in just 54 innings pitched aren’t going to be much happier with Axford. Axford has given up double digit bombs in each of the past two seasons, and he also racked up an “uh-oh” inducing 1.523 WHIP splitting time between the Brewers and Cardinals last season.
Everything about this offseason for the Tribe comes down to a boatload of “if’s” which will need to become realities if the Tribe wants to make a run at the Robo-Tigers in Motown.
If Michael Brantley takes the next step in his maturation process...if Lonnie Chisenhall can seize the moment and fulfill his upper-tier potential at third base...if Trevor Bauer and Zach McAllister are the answers for a starting rotation bereft of a true veteran presence...if, if, if...
Wait, I just talked myself out of hope.
God doesn’t exactly hate this Cleveland team...but he won’t exactly be raining unicorns and daises on Progressive Field anytime soon.
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