Big moves may be on tap for these 6 clubs

September 3rd, 2021

As the 2021 Mets, Cardinals and Padres can all tell you, making a big offseason move doesn’t guarantee you the top spot in the division standings.

But that won't stop fans from clamoring for awe-inspiring acquisitions or teams from looking for ways to meaningfully improve in the upcoming winter. The Hot Stove might seem far away at the moment, but it won’t be long before we’re connecting dots and spreading rumors again.

The pact we'll all be tracking is the Collective Bargaining Agreement, which expires after this season. But once the 2021-22 offseason gets going in earnest, these are six clubs -- one from each division -- capable of making a splash.

Some are obvious, and some -- in the spirit of the always surprising Hot Stove -- are wild cards.

AL East: Blue Jays
In the AL East, the Yankees and Red Sox are always capable of doing something significant (subject to their tolerance of the luxury-tax threshold). The Rays are always capable of shaking up the winter due to their willingness to shake up their squad. And one of these years, the Orioles will deem themselves ready to turn the corner.

But the Blue Jays are in an interesting situation only amplified by the in-season addition of , who is a free agent after 2022. Their roster is going to get a lot more expensive in a hurry beginning in 2023, when , and others reach salary arbitration. In the meantime, though, Toronto projects to have a 2022 payroll of about $120 million, still well south of the '17 peak of around $163 million, per Cot's Contracts.

The Blue Jays' 2021 season has been frustrating, in no small part because of the difficulty of keeping on the field. Perhaps, as a result, Toronto will shy away from a similarly big-ticket acquisition this winter. But this club is awfully close to being capable of winning the loaded East. And whether it's re-signing after his late-season leap into the AL Cy Young conversation or delving elsewhere into the pitching market, the Jays should have the means and motivation to do something bold.

NL East: Marlins
There will be no shortage of intrigue in the NL East as its clubs navigate the aftermath of a strange 2021 in which none of them performed to internal expectations. Big questions loom. Will the Braves do much beyond re-signing ? Will the Mets shy away from a splash given how poorly the era has begun? Are the Nationals ready to dive back into aggressive acquisitions so soon after dismantling the 2021 club? Do the Phillies have the financial flexibility to address their concerns?

Against this backdrop, the Marlins are sneaky interesting. No, they're probably not ready to vie for the East title. But they do have the seeds of a competitive club. They've methodically assembled a load of young, cost-controlled starting pitching (, the No. 30 prospect in the game per MLB Pipeline, debuted last week), and that could give them the capability to make impact additions elsewhere on the roster.

Having secured a new local television rights pact just prior to the 2021 season and stripped down a payroll that was already among the lowest in the game, there is plenty of room for general manager Kim Ng to maneuver here and get help for the lineup. Perhaps the Fish could deal from their pitching depth to make that happen.

AL Central: Guardians
It's hard to imagine any offseason scenario in which the White Sox don't remain the favorites going into 2022. But the other clubs can certainly make an effort to push them. I wrote recently about why the Tigers are closer to contention than you might think. They could and should get involved in a deep and attractive shortstop market in which , , , and will all be available. And bringing back old pal sure would be fun, too.

But because we've already covered the Tigers at length, let's toss the soon-to-be-Guardians into the mix here, too. They entered 2021 with a payroll around $50 million -- the lowest in the sport. And yet they have again demonstrated some intriguing organizational depth on the pitching front, with the possibility of vast improvement next season, assuming and are back to full health.

Cleveland management insists the payroll will increase next season. To what degree, we do not yet know. It is always pretty safe to assume that Cleveland will not be vying for the absolute top-end free agents. But with hardly any significant money on the books for 2022 and the rotation seemingly set, the Guards (we’ll get used to typing that eventually) should be in a decent position to meaningfully address their lineup. That could be in free agency, where and are among the more interesting options, or it could be in an impact trade.

NL Central: Cardinals
The Brewers will have to navigate a substantial salary increase for and the arbitration raises coming to , and others. The Reds have never carried more than a $127 million payroll and already have about $86 million committed just to , , , , and (unless Castellanos opts out, which becomes a whole other issue). The Cubs will have loads of payroll flexibility but might not deem their roster yet worthy of aggressive reinforcement.

But when you look at the Cardinals, they’re kind of out of excuses. They let the acquisition stand as their only serious improvement for 2021 and the division appears to be out of reach. Because of the way the Arenado deal is structured, their payroll actually went down this season, and they should have the room to make an impact addition to a roster that -- with definitely coming back, likely to come back and Arenado and on the infield corners -- isn’t getting any younger.

The Cardinals could restructure their infield by getting into the shortstop market (pairing Arenado and Story again would be fun). They could bring back home. However the Cards choose to go about it, they should be making every effort to try to return this team to the top of the division.

AL West: Mariners
It's time for the Mariners to make a serious push for the postseason.

Hey, maybe that push happens this month, as Seattle is still, surprisingly, mathematically alive in the AL Wild Card race. But with top talent graduating to the big league level and the Mariners now 20 years removed from their last division title, Jerry Dipoto must use this offseason to round out the Major League roster in meaningful ways. The West looks winnable as the Astros might be dealing with another departure of a cornerstone player if Carlos Correa walks, the Angels' top-heavy payroll makes their pitching need difficult to address and the A's deal with their perennial budget limitations. With the young talent the Mariners have assembled, you don't have to squint too hard to see them commanding this division in the not-too-distant future.

As far as 2022 is concerned, the Mariners will need help in the rotation and at second base. Marcus Semien would be a fantastic fit here. Of course, this won’t be an easy -- or cheap -- winter to address pitching concerns. But when Dipoto is involved, you can always count on trade talks transpiring.

NL West: Giants
The Padres have already vastly exceeded their franchise payroll record, and the Dodgers will have some difficult decisions to make as Max Scherzer, , , Corey Seager and reach free agency and reaches his final year of arbitration.

The Giants, meanwhile, have already shaken up the West this season and are really just getting started when it comes to the procurement of impact talent. Their 25-man Opening Day payroll for 2021, per Cot’s Contracts, was $149.5 million, south of the Padres ($174.1M) and far south of the Dodgers ($247.7M). The Farhan Zaidi-led front office has proved adept at identifying bargains on the waiver wire and in free agency. But the midseason trade for felt like the first step toward more obvious acquisitions for a team with the market size and resources to be among MLB's biggest spenders.

Just re-signing Bryant would qualify as a major splash, and it would surprise nobody if that happens. But the Giants have the capability to play in the deep end of the free-agent pool at any position.