These 13 teams could define the offseason

November 12th, 2023

The Texas Rangers bought a World Series title.

Some people will read that and see it as an insult. It’s not. The Rangers had some intriguing core pieces in or nearing the big leagues, and they spent gobs of money to support them and accelerate the path to championship contention.

That’s how free agency is supposed to work! And it worked for the Rangers.

So which clubs might demonstrate similar aggressiveness this offseason? Though we are always open and amenable to surprises, these are the clubs best positioned to make a major splash, ranked in order of anticipated impact.

1. Giants

Baseball operations head Farhan Zaidi just had his contract extended. But when the manager you hired (in this case, Gabe Kapler) is sacked, it’s a clear indication that things are not going to plan. Under Zaidi, the Giants have done a good job building quality depth and finding undervalued assets, but the bottom line is they have been basically a league-average team the past two years and are still short on star power.

San Francisco famously tried to alter that equation last year with its pursuits of Aaron Judge and Carlos Correa. So obviously, there is money to spend here. And with a big need for a big bat and Shohei Ohtani available (the Giants were one of seven finalists for Ohtani in 2017), it’s not hard to connect the dots. Cody Bellinger would be an excellent backup plan or addition to Ohtani. The Giants also will be in search of rotation stability. It’s not hard to see San Francisco, with new manager Bob Melvin in place, being the team that goes bananas this winter.

2. Dodgers

Another team with a clear argument to be No. 1 on this list. The Dodgers went the low-profile route with regard to free agency last year, perhaps saving themselves for Ohtani. It didn’t prevent them from winning the NL West yet again, but it did come back to bite them when they basically ran out of starting arms.

With a current projected payroll around $125 million and recent payrolls in the mid-$200 million range, Los Angeles is primed to pounce on this market. The Dodgers are widely seen as Ohtani’s most likely landing spot, and that alone would qualify them as “winter winners.” But Ohtani or not, Los Angeles will need to replace some booming bats if J.D. Martinez departs, and the starting rotation, which will have Clayton Kershaw returning from left shoulder surgery (if he returns to L.A. at all) and has Dustin May and Tony Gonsolin on the surgery shelf, is going to be a big, big focus. A nine-figure deal with Yoshinobu Yamamoto, Blake Snell, Jordan Montgomery or Aaron Nola could happen here, or the Dodgers have the farm system strength to make a major trade.

3. Rangers

The newly crowned champs are obviously no strangers to what a free-agent spending spree can accomplish when you add the right players. After the run to World Series paydirt, they might continue to be aggressive in the pursuit of a dynasty.

Retaining Montgomery would itself be a significant signing in this market. But the Rangers will also be players for Ohtani. They’ve got Jose Leclerc, of course, but might explore the top end of a relief market (fronted by Josh Hader) in pursuit of a super 'pen. There’s already a ton of money on the books, of course, but Texas isn't expected to leave any stone unturned right now.

4. Cubs

It was a weird 2023 for the Cubbies. They looked like summer sellers, only to go bonkers before the Trade Deadline, only to blow their shot at a playoff spot in the season’s final days.

But having seen what strong defense and improved pitching can do for a club in the wide-open NL Central -- a division that looks even more winnable with Brandon Woodruff on the shelf for the reigning division champion Brewers -- the Cubs have no reason not to be bold this offseason. Bellinger, Jeimer Candelario and Marcus Stroman are all free agents, so Chicago will have its work cut out for it in ensuring it can not only maintain its 2023 level of performance but improve upon it. Their big, surprising investment in manager Craig Counsell is a potential window into their aggressiveness this winter.

5. Yankees

Though the Yankees managed to finish with a winning record for the 31st consecutive season, they don’t have the look of a club that’s one major move away from returning to the top of the heap in the AL East.

But New York does have the resources to make a major move, be it signing Ohtani or trading for Juan Soto or something else of significance. The Yanks would be a fit for Bellinger, Jung Hoo Lee, Lourdes Gurriel Jr. and other outfielders. They could dangle Gleyber Torres in a trade. Overall, they’re going to need to make multiple moves to get younger, more balanced and more agile, and that means they’ll be active in this market.

6. Red Sox

New chief baseball officer Craig Breslow inherits a last-place club that, thanks to the emergence of Triston Casas, Jarren Duran, Ceddanne Rafaela and Brayan Bello and the return to health for Trevor Story, might not be far from October.

We’ve heard those rumblings about how much Ohtani likes Fenway Park (really, everybody should). A Soto trade, Bellinger signing or major rotation move for Snell, Yamamoto or Nola are all possibilities for a Boston ballclub that might be ready to open the checkbook back up to support the young core.

7. Orioles

Putting the traditionally low-spending O’s this high is admittedly an iffy proposition, especially after general manager Mike Elias’ “ready for liftoff” proclamation going into last winter resulted in only modest moves. But this is the quintessential example of a team that can and ought to use the free-agent and trade markets to put the finishing touches on a title-worthy team. That makes them very interesting this offseason.

Baltimore just won 101 games despite a variety of pitching concerns that only became more complicated with the elbow injury that will continue to rob them of ace closer Félix Bautista. Those concerns haven’t gone away. In fact, they’ve only been amplified by the early exit from the postseason. Though the O’s financial picture could be complicated by potential extensions with members of their exciting young position player core, for now, they have a projected payroll a little north of $60 million with few guaranteed dollars on the books for 2024. They also remain at the top of MLB Pipeline’s farm system rankings, meaning they have the pieces to make a blockbuster trade, should they choose to do so.

8. Phillies

Philadelphia already has a lot of major commitments on the books, but the sting of falling short in Game 7 of the NLCS on the heels of the 2022 World Series loss will only strengthen the all-in mentality that has defined the Bryce Harper era, with owner John Middleton blessing the front office with big budgets.

President of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski has called re-signing Nola a “priority.” Should that fall through, as extension talks did, then the Phillies could pivot to one of the other top starters on the market. The bullpen will also need some help with closer Craig Kimbrel reaching free agency on the heels of his October blowups. And though Ohtani is an imperfect positional fit, the Phils will probably show him some love.

9. Cardinals

St. Louis had a stunning season. Obviously, not in a good way. It was the kind of year that can send a club down Rebuild Road.

But because the Cards have given no indication that they plan to retreat (a process that would involve trading Paul Goldschmidt and/or Nolan Arenado), it stands to reason that they will instead try to get back in the thick of things in what is -- again -- a winnable NL Central. That would mean significantly upgrading the rotation with dudes who can strike out other dudes. St. Louis figures to be involved in the talks for Snell, Nola, Montgomery, Sonny Gray, Lucas Giolito and any other viable starting help available in free agency or trade.

10. Mets

On the one hand, the Mets might need to cool it with the free-agent stuff after the way their wild winter blew up in their face this past season. Newly named president of baseball operations David Stearns will be working with a big payroll for the first time, but that doesn’t mean he’ll stray from his established success as a builder of ballclubs through scouting, analytics and development. That stuff takes time.

That said, does anyone really think Steve Cohen is just going to let the Ohtani market -- or, for that matter, the Yamamoto market -- move along without him? Nah. Maybe the Mets, who aren’t far away at all from being a good ballclub again, won’t actually land one of this market’s big fish, but they’re bound to at least be involved in the bidding in some capacity.

11. Mariners

Jerry Dipoto’s comments about the Mariners not being the type of club to go all-in for a particular, short-term time period -- on the heels of a 2022-23 winter in which Seattle was much quieter than fans hoped or anticipated -- temper enthusiasm for a big splash.

But the Mariners belong on this list because of their clear and pressing need for a lineup upgrade. Dipoto is always active in trade talks, and Seattle has Major League pieces (such as Jarred Kelenic or Bryan Woo) it could conceivably utilize in a Soto swap. The team also figures to make some sort of offer to Ohtani, given the Ichiro connection and his strong sentiment toward Seattle. Again, we’ve learned not to go overboard with expectations when it comes to this club, but with an excellent rotation intact and a near-miss in the 2023 playoff push, the Mariners clearly need to try to take this team to the next level.

12. Reds

We’ll list the Reds as a wild-card club here. Cincinnati is obviously not known to spend extravagantly and didn’t force the issue at the Trade Deadline but proved to have the seeds of an NL Central contender this past season.

With the Joey Votto contract off the books, a nice nucleus of young players in place and needs in the starting rotation and, possibly, the outfield, the Reds could be a sleeper spender this offseason -- probably not in the top of the market but perhaps with multiple mid-level pieces. They could also explore an impact trade involving second baseman Jonathan India.

13. D-backs

It will be interesting to see how Arizona responds to the surprise NL pennant run that invigorated the fan base and provided additional revenues. As demonstrated in October, there’s a lot to love about this club, but it ultimately fell short on the World Series stage, in part due to a power outage and a shortage of starters.

With Corbin Carroll and Ketel Marte inked to affordable extensions, the D-backs might have some flexibility in their pursuit of more starting stability. And with Lourdes Gurriel Jr., Tommy Pham and Evan Longoria all reaching free agency, there’s work to do in the lineup, as well.