8 'mystery teams' that could make a surprise signing
By Anthony Castrovince | @castrovince
December 10, 2019
SAN DIEGO -- Oh, how we do so love the "mystery team." It livens up our winters -- and our Winter Meetings -- by lurking in the background, negotiating monstrous free-agent contracts behind our backs.
Alas, it's getting harder to maintain an air of mystery in this social-media-savvy age. It's no secret which clubs entered this offseason best positioned to pull off blockbuster acquisitions in free agency. The Yankees, Dodgers, Nationals, Phillies, Angels and Rangers all came in with motivation and money, which is always a fun combo. And the Nats and Yanks have obviously flexed their monetary muscles this week with the Stephen Strasburg and Gerrit Cole pacts.
But there are plenty other teams still capable of eye-opening acquisitions that might not be obvious. Let's explore them here.
1. Blue Jays
Beneath the surface, this has been one of the more interesting teams at these Winter Meetings. Toronto is not billed as a 2020 contender, but contention might not be far off if the young pieces who infiltrated the lineup in 2019 begin to gel. The Blue Jays undoubtedly need pitching help, and next year's crop of free-agent starters looks to be a bit on the weak side.
So there would be value to this club pursuing multiyear pacts now to get out in front of that market and also increase its chances of getting frisky in the New Year. The Blue Jays have poked around the free-agent and trade markets for virtually every starter in the so-called second tier. Could that mean Hyun-Jin Ryu or Dallas Keuchel or somebody else of note heading north? Stay tuned.
With around $140 million already committed to next year's roster, the Cardinals are not the greatest bet to sign a free agent to a blockbuster deal.
But president of baseball operations John Mozeliak told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch recently that he is not handcuffed from making a significant expenditure, and, in addition to looking around for a bat (which perhaps could lead to a reunion with outfielder Marcell Ozuna), the Cardinals are rumored to be involved in the Madison Bumgarner market. It's not hard to imagine the left-hander continuing the pitching culture that Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright helped craft. So let's put St. Louis here, juuuust in case.
Minnesota got really good really fast last season, but it didn't do it by doling out big dollars. The one-year, $14.3 million guarantee to Nelson Cruz (since expanded to a second year) was the biggest expenditure. And we simply don't associate the Twins with the free-agent megadeal.
But because chief baseball officer Derek Falvey and general manager Thad Levine have been able to fill two of their rotation vacancies affordably (Jake Odorizzi accepted the $17.8 million qualifying offer, and Michael Pineda returned on a two-year, $20 million deal), the Twins have enough elbow room to make a big deal. They are in on both Bumgarner and Ryu, and neither of those contracts will come cheap in light of the major money being spent on starters this winter. The Twins have a slight competitive disadvantage with the highest state income tax of any MLB team other than the California clubs, but coming off a 101-win season helps with the sell.
While it did splurge for Lorenzo Cain two years ago, the David Stearns-led front office excels on the margins and in the bargains, and that's what we're still expecting to happen here.
Still, Milwaukee has shed a lot of money with some recent moves, to the point where only 12 of the 25 players from its National League Wild Card Game roster remain. The Brewers are currently projected by Cot's Baseball Contracts to be about $50 million shy of their 2019 Opening Day payroll, and some execs from other clubs are wondering whether Milwaukee might be in the market for a surprise splash. The Brewers need pitching help, so the aforementioned names in that market might apply. But they also need some thump and infield help. Hey, Josh Donaldson, any chance you like cheese and beer?
5. and 6. White Sox and Reds
These two clubs aren't as eye-opening as others on this list, because they've both already done big deals -- Yasmani Grandal with Chicago, Mike Moustakas with Cincinnati.
But you know how this sort of thing typically goes. Usually when a team coming off a sub-.500 season makes a big splash, that splash serves as its lone, signature splurge of the offseason. Chicago's five-year, $125 million offer to Zack Wheeler (who ultimately signed with the Phillies) is confirmation that the club still has plenty of room in the budget for another big commitment, and a rotation piece remains a pressing need if the White Sox are going to make good on the 2020 breakout forecasts.
The Reds have made it very clear to anybody who asks that they have money to spend this winter, even after making those Moose tracks. Given the Reds' obvious corner-outfield need, Ozuna has looked like a natural fit from the beginning of the winter, though we can't rule out Cincinnati making a splash for a starter to further amplify an already robust rotation. Great American Bumgarner, anybody?
They've been busy this winter, certainly. But not necessarily in the way we expected. The Padres sure seem like a team in need of a stabilizing veteran presence in their rotation, and many of us thought they'd be far more aggressive in trying to add one than they have been. But general manager A.J. Preller has publicly expressed how much he likes the Padres' young group and distanced himself not just from the Gerrit Cole sweepstakes but even the next tier of starters like Bumgarner, Ryu and Keuchel. Considering how much the Friars dropped on Eric Hosmer and Manny Machado over the last two winters, that's probably more than just public posturing, making the Padres more likely to pull off an impact trade than an impact signing.
Having said all that, we're going to list the Padres here anyway, because despite all the heavy lifting to date, the rotation is still a need, and there are a lot of good starting pitchers available. And this club has certainly surprised us before.
A team in the throes of a rebuild doesn't ordinarily hand out big contracts. But the Giants are listed here because ...
A. The prospect of them actually bringing back Bumgarner, while undeniably faint, does still exist.
B. They are very much in on free-agent outfielder Nick Castellanos, whose deal won't be a blockbuster in the ilk of, say, third baseman Anthony Rendon, but Castellanos could command the largest contract given to any outfielder in this market. At 27, he's young enough to conceivably be a member of the next great Giants team.