Who is going to be the club brave enough to “win the winter”?
It’s a notoriously tricky title -- one that all too often goes unrewarded in the summer and fall. But one of the deeper free-agent classes in recent memory deserves a deep pool of teams who look ready to pounce on the available options.
We have that this year. Not only are there established superpowers with big needs to fill, but a number of non-contenders from 2021 have telegraphed their intention to think big in this Hot Stove season.
We’ll likely need resolution on the Collective Bargaining Agreement front before things really get going. But here’s a look at 10 teams around whom this winter’s acquisitions will likely revolve.
Between the strides taken in a surprise 2021, the ongoing October drought that dates all the way back to 2001 and a payroll forecast relatively clear of big commitments, the Mariners are as obvious a candidate to get aggressive in this Hot Stove season as any in baseball.
“We do have payroll flexibility, and we’re going to use it to make the team better,” president of baseball operations Jerry Dipoto told reporters.
The Mariners figure to be on the hunt for an impact bat and multiple starting pitchers. They’ll have to figure out the best way to replace Kyle Seager, whose $20 million option was turned down.
The Giants re-established themselves as a behemoth on the field in a 107-win 2021, and they have the financial muscle to be a behemoth in the Hot Stove market, too. They only have about $48 million guaranteed to six players in 2022. And while re-signing some of their own free agents (Kris Bryant, Brandon Belt, Kevin Gausman and Anthony DeSclafani are among those eligible) would be significant on its own, the Giants are in a position where they could really shape the market for starting pitching, which will be their top priority.
A 2021 season of particular disappointment and a 12-year World Series drought have the Yankees on the hunt for a more athletic club that can more realistically go the distance. The Yanks reset their luxury tax penalty in 2021, so they could be ready to exceed the threshold (depending, of course, on how the new CBA shakes out) in 2022. With Gleyber Torres having shifted to second base late this past season, the Yankees figure to be in the mix for the premium shortstops in this free-agent class, and that’s reason enough to list them here. But they also could meaningfully address the pitching staff and perhaps catcher.
The Dodgers figure to be busy by default. They have 13 free agents overall, and Corey Seager, Max Scherzer, Clayton Kershaw, Kenley Jansen and Chris Taylor are among the more prominent players available in this class. So re-signing or replacing any or all of those guys would qualify as significant activity (the Dodgers already got the market started with the signing of starter Andrew Heaney to a one-year, $8.5 million deal). It’s a fascinating juncture for a perennial power that still has a ton of starpower and depth but will have to determine whether to pay the price for stability to take a different tack.
Whoever is tapped to lead the front office in the second winter of the Steve Cohen era figures to have financial resources at his or her disposal to improve a team that greatly underperformed in 2021. The injury issues affecting Jacob deGrom and Carlos Carrasco will make the rotation an area of focus, and the outfield and third base are also areas of need in which the Mets could make a play for a big name like Kris Bryant. Bottom line: It’s the Mets. So it’s bound to be interesting.
President of baseball operations Jon Daniels has used the phrase “active and aggressive” to describe the Rangers’ plans for this winter, and that’s music to the ears of Texas fans after the club posted a .369 winning percentage over the last two seasons. This is the biggest blank slate in this market. The Rangers have needs all around the diamond, so you can consider them a potential “mystery team” (if not a known team) for just about anybody. They might not come out of the Hot Stove with a clear, contention-ready roster, but, if what Daniels and general manager Chris Young have said publicly proves true, they do figure to come out of it with a lot more credibility.
Very little was expected of the Tigers in 2021, and a 77-win record didn’t exactly put them in the playoff hunt. But they were three games over .500 from May 1 forward, and they are at the stage of their rebuild period where their top prospects are ready to graduate to the big leagues and it’s time to turn the corner. The Tigers are already a highly cited potential pursuer of the top end of the shortstop market, but they also have plenty of opportunity in the rotation and at catcher. Overall, this could be a winter similar to the one prior to 2004, when the Tigers signaled they were ready to roar and kicked off what became a highly successful era with the signing of Ivan Rodriguez.
8. Blue Jays
With potential AL Cy Young winner Robbie Ray and MVP finalist Marcus Semien both reaching free agency, the Blue Jays will have big holes to fill in the rotation and in the infield. Team president Mark Shapiro has indicated Toronto intends to spend more in 2022 than it did in '21, and this would certainly seem to be a moment to go all-in on a good, young core that is ready to contend for the AL East title. The frustration of falling short of October in a 91-win 2021 will only add to the incentive for the Blue Jays to shore up their weaknesses this winter.
This is not exactly a subtle storyline: The Angels need pitching. They have needed pitching for years. It is the uncrossable canyon most responsible for keeping Mike Trout (and, now, Shohei Ohtani) from crossing into October, and the Angels will once again feel the urgency to address it. The Halos need at least two starters and a closer. Addressing those needs while working around the gargantuan contractual commitments to Trout and Anthony Rendon (and keeping Ohtani’s 2023 arbitration and '24 free agency in mind) will be a challenge, but you can count the Angels as a team in pursuit of any of the top arms in this market.
No team tore it down more at the 2021 Trade Deadline than the Cubs, who dealt away nine players, including several of the core members of their 2016 championship team. But this might not be the type of teardown in which the Cubs go into hibernation for years on end. President of baseball operations Jed Hoyer has talked about using the Cubs’ newfound financial flexibility to build a competitive club as soon as '22, and that would have to involve rotation and shortstop help. The only question is whether the Cubs will bid at the top end of the market or make more subtle moves. Their financial capability is such that we’ll include them here for now.