The Teams That Will Run the Off-Season

Today, the off-season begins in earnest, as free agents become eligible to sign with new teams at 5 pm eastern. And given the number of interesting players on the market and which teams look like buyers, it should be a more active free agent atmosphere than we’ve seen in past years. Toss in a number of high-profile trade targets, and we could be in for a pretty interesting winter.

But every year, it seems, a few teams end up driving the off-season action. Last year, White Sox GM Rick Hahn became the most popular guy in town, as he shopped Chris Sale and Adam Eaton around at the winter meetings, eventually making blockbuster trades for both. The Dodgers were the big spenders, bringing back their trio of top-tier free agents, though at rates that proved to be bargains in every case.

Of course, in prior years, teams like the Diamondbacks, Padres, and Tigers have dominated the off-seasons with their aggressive attempts to get better, only to see those moves push the franchise in the wrong direction. So being the hot stove kingpin isn’t always a good thing, and with a particularly risky set of premium free agents, there’s a decent chance that whoever makes the most big moves this winter will also end up wishing they had been a bit more cautious. But as we head into the time when a few teams are looking to remake their franchises in significant ways, let’s take a look at which teams might end up being the ones who have the most impact — one way or the other — on their clubs this winter.

The Marlins

Derek Jeter’s first off-season in charge of a front office probably won’t be a low key affair. Reports suggest that the new ownership group wants to cut roughly $60 million off their payroll, and that means the Marlins are going to be the most obvious sellers of the off-season. Giancarlo Stanton seems like a lock to be traded, and then some combination of Dee Gordon, Christian Yelich, Marcell Ozuna, Martin Prado, Dan Straily, and the veteran relievers they signed last winter are probably headed out as well.

The preferred plan is apparently trading Stanton/Gordon/Prado, though unless they are willing to eat some salary, they won’t get much in return for that trio. If the goal is to get legitimate talent in return, they’ll likely have to part with one of their better players on a team-friendly contract, which means teams won’t stop calling about Yelich and Ozuna just because trading them doesn’t appear to be Plan A. And with so many players potentially available, plus the uncertainty of how Jeter’s group will value the offers they receive, I’d expect nearly every team looking to upgrade this winter to have some conversations with Miami’s front office.

The Cardinals

Perhaps the team most often suggested as Jeter’s first trade partner, the Cardinals interest in Stanton has been well reported, and John Mozeliak has admitted that they’re going to try to make a substantial trade before November 20th, when 40 man rosters have to be set in preparation for the Rule 5 draft. The Cardinals want to make a consolidation trade, moving multiple guys for one impact player, so in addition to Stanton, they’ll probably call on every big name player that could theoretically be available.

That probably includes guys like Josh Donaldson and Manny Machado, both of whom could be free agents next winter; the Cardinals do have a history of trading for impending free agents and then convincing them to stick around St. Louis long-term, after all. And with a number of interesting young players — especially outfielders — to dangle, the Cardinals will probably be having trade discussions with a bunch of teams even after they figure out which impact player they can most reasonably acquire. If their big bat acquisition ends up being Stanton (or another outfielder), they’ll probably have a few more trades to make after that, and could end up being the center of the OF market for the next couple of months.

As a buyer who will also potentially be moving some low-cost upside hitters, the Cardinals could be a trade match for every one of the other 29 teams, and that could put them in a position to be the team the off-season revolves around.

The Red Sox

Dave Dombrowski’s M.O. is pretty well established at this point, as he believes in targeting high-end players and paying whatever it takes to get them. While he’s had some misses along the way, his plan has brought his new team Chris Sale and Craig Kimbrel the last few years, and with the Yankees breathing down their necks in the A.L. East, it’s a pretty good bet that he’ll be looking to add another high-profile free agent this winter.

Most of the talk centers around signing either J.D. Martinez or Eric Hosmer to improve the line-up, which ranked 27th in home runs last year, and Dombrowski almost certainly will do what he can to add power to his offense. But I wouldn’t rule them out of other pursuits either, especially with the young core starting to get into their arbitration years, and the reality that the franchise likely won’t keep all their young core position players long-term.

If there’s a winter where a guy like Jackie Bradley Jr. or Xander Bogaerts could be on the block, it’s probably this one; trading a guy like that next winter, when everyone’s focus will be on a few elite free agents, could be a harder task. So while Dombrowski probably will outbid everyone else for one of the big free agent bats, I wouldn’t be shocked if he also made a significant trade to try and make his roster a bit more Dombrowski-like, then signed another free agent to fill the just-created hole. Either way, Boston will likely be quite busy this winter.

Shohei Otani

Okay, he’s not a team, but assuming MLB and NPB get a posting agreement squared away, Otani will complicate every team’s winter plans. Because of his unique situation, every team in baseball should be planning some sort of recruitment pitch, and if he actually does come over and sign a standard minor league contract, he’ll instantly become the kind of value that could change the direction of an organization.

But because the process seems to be moving fairly slowly — reportedly, Otani still hasn’t picked an MLBPA-certified agent — it seems unlikely that he’ll have signed with an MLB club before the end of the year. And most teams try to get their heavy lifting done before Christmas, so everyone will have to come up with an off-season plan that involves not having Otani on their roster next year, but many will also want to leave room for him to have a place if he does pick them as the winner of this weird lottery.

So there’s a needle to be threaded here, and a bunch of teams will probably be trying to figure out how to make it clear that they have a spot waiting for Otani without putting themselves in a bad situation if he ends up not signing with them. The timing of Otani’s decision could end up having a pretty significant impact on the pitching market, and I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw a few high-end free agent pitchers wait out his decision, hoping to sell themselves as the fall-back plan to the teams who had hoped to add Otani but ended up on the outside looking in. Due to Otani’s presence, we might see more arms sign in January than we’re used to.

Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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4 years ago

I’m rooting for #TeamOtani

Luke I am your Father
4 years ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

Perhaps a little less enthusiastically, once it becomes #TeamBoras

4 years ago

Good news for those of us who are annoyed by Boras: Otani hired CAA.

Jason Bmember
4 years ago
Reply to  beckyknight877

650 a week, all from home? And all I need is a PayPal account?! Damn, I’d be a fool NOT to look into it. HOW IS ANYONE UNEMPLOYED WITH OPPORTUNITIES LIKE THIS

4 years ago
Reply to  Jason B

Haven’t you found out that all the country’s problems are due to lazy poor people? Why work for $650/week when you can collect welfare and food stamps and feast on lobster and caviar every day? And all on the backs of hard-workin’ ‘Mericans! THANKS OBAMA

4 years ago
Reply to  TheOnlyNolan

Tongue in cheek, I’m pretty sure. Tho’ apparently that went ‘whoosh’ on 13 of you.