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These teams will fire up the Hot Stove

November 10, 2018

Now that the General Managers Meetings are over, now that the offseason objectives have been clearly (or vaguely) stated by the various people in charge of Major League Baseball's 30 clubs, now that the Hot Stove season is evolving into something a little more true and tangible, we can make

Now that the General Managers Meetings are over, now that the offseason objectives have been clearly (or vaguely) stated by the various people in charge of Major League Baseball's 30 clubs, now that the Hot Stove season is evolving into something a little more true and tangible, we can make some reasonable assessments of what's in store.
With that in mind, here's my annual list of the team from each division with the most interesting Hot Stove situation.
AL East: Yankees
Of course we want to see what the defending champion Red Sox do with some key expiring contracts. And of course we know better than to ignore the Rays, who have already added Mike Zunino.
But c'mon. The Yankees have just one World Series title to boast in the 21st century (going by the strictest definition of "century," which insists it began in 2001 and not 2000, but you didn't come here for a discussion of the Gregorian calendar, did you?). Their bitter rivals just bounced them in October, en route to their fourth title in 15 seasons. They did that whole monetary makeover routine to reset their luxury tax penalty. And they need help on the pitching staff and in the infield, where there are big names available in the free-agent and trade markets.
So yes, the Yankees could sign Manny Machado or Bryce Harper (and why does all the emphatic talk that they won't sign Harper perversely make it feel more possible?). But even if they don't, they're at the forefront of the pitching market, which includes Patrick Corbin and Dallas Keuchel and trade target Corey Kluber, among others.

Last time the Red Sox won it all, the Yankees (who had missed the playoffs entirely) responded by adding Jacoby Ellsbury, Masahiro Tanaka, Brian McCann and Carlos Beltran, among others. Will it be that kind of wild winter?
NL East: Phillies
The Braves will add to a core that stormed its way to a surprise division title, new Mets GM Brodie Van Wagenen could take any number of paths and the Nationals have to dig out from the awful disappointment of '18.
But the 2018-19 Hot Stove season was scripted to be the Phillies' domain years ago, and nothing has changed. They are the Vegas favorites to sign Harper and Machado, for whatever that's worth. And if they don't sign either guy, how much do you want to bet their famously fervent fan base, which is already worked up over a second-half slide of not-quite-1964-but-not-far-off proportions, won't take it well?

Harper or no Harper, Machado or no Machado, there will be action in the Phillies' universe this winter, because they have enough needs, enough resources and enough incentive to get better.
AL Central: Indians
The Twins had more money come off the books after '18 than any other club, and the White Sox have a ton of financial wiggle room to work with on a team trending upward.
But until further notice (such as a generational talent like Harper locking arms with a 100-loss club that recently lost its No. 1 pitching prospect to Tommy John surgery), the needle-threading going on in Cleveland right now rates as the most interesting thing going on in a rebuild-heavy division. The Indians might try to improve by trading away a 2018 Cy Young finalist in Kluber, which sounds absolutely insane. But when you dig into the particulars, it's kind of… not?

This club has reached the limits of the granted budget after franchise-record payrolls in both '17 and '18 netted next to nothing on the postseason stage. And dealing Kluber, who might be on the backside of his peak, and all or most of the $17 million he'll make in '19 (with equally expensive options for '20 and '21) might be the best way to free up the financial space needed to plug other holes while also adding impact young talent.
The Indians will be prohibitive favorites in the Central again in '19, but it's hard to imagine them as favorites to advance deep into October. So it might be time to shake things up a bit. It might (gulp) be time to trade Corey Kluber.
NL Central: Reds
With the Cubs trying to navigate around last year's free-agent foibles and the increasing expense of their core, the Brewers likely to have a much quieter winter than the one that brought in Lorenzo Cain and Christian Yelich on the same January day, and the Pirates likely to target low-profile acquisitions, I'm torn here between the Reds and Cardinals.
While the Cards are downplaying the likelihood of them signing Harper, there's little reason to think they can't, especially if he's willing to play some first base. So that's fun. At worst, the Cardinals are a perfect fit for Josh Donaldson.
But the Reds, who have already swooped in on two respected National League Championship Series coaches in Dodgers hitting coach Turner Ward and Brewers pitching coach Derek Johnson, are itching to spend. And whether or not that works or amounts to much, it figures to make this the most interesting winter in Cincinnati since the pre-2013 acquisition of Shin-Soo Choo. The Reds had a middle-of-the-pack position group last season (in terms of FanGraphs' Wins Above Replacement mark), with an especially productive infield featuring Joey Votto, Scooter Gennett and Eugenio Suarez. They've drafted well, and top prospect Nick Senzel could be ready for the bigs early in 2019.

What they need is pitching, pitching and more pitching. It's a dangerous area to try to fix in free agency (especially when you play your home games at Great American Ball Park), but the Reds are going to try to turn the corner by doling out dollars.
AL West: Angels
Some spoilers: Whatever the Astros do this winter, they're going to be pretty darn good. The A's won't go on a headline-grabbing spending spree. Mariners GM Jerry Dipoto will make a bunch of trades. And the Rangers' rebuild will keep them relatively quiet on the free-agent front.
Oh, another spoiler: The Angels won't trade Michael Trout. And that continued, stubborn refusal to move a once-in-a-generation player who is bound for Cooperstown (the nerve, I tell ya) makes the Halos interesting again this winter.
Last year, the Angels "won" the winter in the minds of many with their acquisitions of Shohei Ohtani, Zack Cozart and Ian Kinsler… and finished with the exact same record as 2017. That doesn't inspire a lot of confidence for '19, especially with Ohtani's pitching on the shelf for the season.

But GM Billy Eppler does have some financial wiggle room to address the catching situation as well as the starting and relief pitching staff, and he's on the clock and under the gun to put this team in a realistic position to contend before Trout hits free agency after 2020. The Angels' hopes are perhaps more dependent on young guys like David Fletcher and Taylor Ward asserting themselves in '19 than any major outside expenditure, because we know how major outside expenditures too often turn out. But this club definitely needs some external help.
NL West: Dodgers
Hate going the obvious route here. Honestly, I do. But the D-backs are retooling (possibly moving Paul Goldschmidt from a roster already likely to lose A.J. Pollock and Corbin in free agency), the Giants are restructuring under Farhan Zaidi (and a Madison Bumgarner trade appears more likely in July than in December), and the Rockies have to figure out how the heck they're going to afford Nolan Arenado beyond 2019.
So in terms of teams positioned to make major impact acquisitions in the NL West, that likely just leaves the Padres and Dodgers. The Padres have a ton of payroll room, but they went backward after signing Eric Hosmer last year, and that could inspire a level of caution for a club that has to be realistic about its competitive timetable, which is pointing more toward 2020 than 2019.
That leaves us with the two-time defending NL champs. The Los Angeles Times obtained a 2017 document that indicates the Dodgers' plan to stay under the luxury tax threshold for several more seasons. Does that pull them out of the Harper sweepstakes? Or do consecutive World Series defeats inspire a revision and an aggression that might not otherwise have existed?

Either way, the Dodgers, even after figuring out the Clayton Kershaw conundrum, have to address the fact that their front office and coaching staffs were poached, and they need help at catcher and in the bullpen. Away we go.