The 1 Area Every MLB Team Must Improve Before 2014 Season
With pitchers and catchers set to report to spring training in just over a month, the bulk of this offseason's action is already behind us. That's not to say there is not still plenty to be done between now and Opening Day, though, as a number of impact players remain on the free-agent market.
Whether it's adding a complementary piece to the bench or the bullpen or making a splash to fill out the top of the starting rotation or the middle of the lineup, every team still has something left to address before the start of the season.
So here is a look at the one area every MLB team must improve before the start of the 2014 season and some suggestions as to how it can improve said area.
Baltimore Orioles: Starting Pitching
Last season, Baltimore Orioles starters posted a combined 4.57 ERA, tied for 26th in the MLB. As things stand right now, the team has yet to make a significant addition to the staff, and the rotation looks as though it will be a weakness once again.
Chris Tillman and Wei-Yin Chen were consistent atop the staff last year, but neither profiles as a legitimate staff ace. Behind them, deadline acquisition Bud Norris and Miguel Gonzalez figure to have spots locked up.
The No. 5 starter spot is up for grabs, with Zach Britton out of options and perhaps the front-runner at this point. Top prospects Kevin Gausman and Dylan Bundy remain the X-factors, but the team will likely still look to add another arm.
Boston Red Sox: Infield Depth
The Red Sox will have a legitimate chance to defend their AL East title this coming season as they look to repeat as World Series champs, but they are not without some areas of concern.
If the season were to start today, the left side of their infield would be made up of Xander Bogaerts at shortstop and Will Middlebrooks at third base.
Bogaerts has a grand total of 71 big league at-bats under his belt, including the postseason, while Middlebrooks followed up a terrific rookie season in 2012 with a disappointing 2013 that saw him demoted to the minors for roughly a month.
The team remains interested in a reunion with free agent Stephen Drew, according to Gordon Edes of ESPNBoston. That would likely mean Bogaerts shifting to third base and Middlebrooks heading to the bench or minors, but adding that depth may be a good move for Boston.
New York Yankees: Starting Pitching
It's been a big offseason already for the New York Yankees, thanks to the big-money signings of Brian McCann, Jacoby Ellsbury and Carlos Beltran, among others additions on the offensive side of things.
Right-hander Hiroki Kuroda was re-signed to a one-year deal, but the starting rotation is still a work in progress at this point, as the team could use at least one more reliable starter.
CC Sabathia and Ivan Nova will be back alongside Kuroda, and Michael Pineda is expected to finally be healthy after missing all of 2012 and most of 2013 following his acquisition from the Mariners. For a team looking to contend for a title, though, at least one more high-end starter will be needed.
Japanese right-hander Masahiro Tanaka remains the team's top target, while the likes of Ubaldo Jimenez, Ervin Santana, Matt Garza and Bronson Arroyo are all still available in free agency as well.
Tampa Bay Rays: Bullpen
Far be it from me to question the Tampa Bay Rays bullpen construction, as they have pieced things together time and again with less-than-attractive names and made it work, but it looks like the team's biggest area of need at this point.
Heath Bell was acquired from the Arizona Diamondbacks in a three-team trade and is currently slated to be the Rays' closer. After three straight 40-plus save seasons with the San Diego Padres, he is just 34-of-49 on save chances the past two seasons.
Alex Torres, Juan Carlos Oviedo, Joel Peralta and Jake McGee makes up the rest of the late-inning relief corps, and while that's a solid group, none profile as plus ninth-inning options should Bell falter.
Oviedo has some closer experience from his days with the Miami Marlins when he was still known as Leo Nunez, but he has not pitched in the majors since 2011. McGee would likely get the first crack at the job, and he has the stuff to close, but moving him to the ninth inning would weaken the bullpen as a whole.
Toronto Blue Jays: Front-of-the-Rotation Starting Pitching
It's been a substantially quieter offseason for the Toronto Blue Jays this time around, with the signing of catcher Dioner Navarro marking their only significant addition.
If they hope to reverse their fortunes after a disappointing 2013 season, they'll likely need to add at least one more starter to a rotation that will be fronted by R.A. Dickey and Mark Buehrle but is chock-full of question marks behind them.
Healthy seasons from Brandon Morrow, J.A. Happ and Kyle Drabek would certainly help, but relying on all three of them to make 30 starts could be a risky proposition after they combined for just 31 appearances last season.
They Blue Jays have depth, as Todd Redmond, Drew Hutchinson, Sean Nolin and Chad Jenkins all have starting experience as well. However, signing one of the top arms still on the market or pulling off a trade would definitely make for more stability in the rotation.
Chicago White Sox: Late-Inning Relief
It's been a terrific offseason for the Chicago White Sox to this point, as they have continued to add young talent with the acquisitions of Matt Davidson and Adam Eaton in separate trades with the Diamondbacks and the signing of Jose Abreu.
That said, the Davidson trade cost them young closer Addison Reed, and they could look to add another late-inning relief arm as a result.
Nate Jones (70 G, 4.15 ERA, 10.3 K/9) is currently slated to step into the ninth inning, and he has the stuff to thrive as a closer. He is as unproven as any player currently penciled into close, though, and was not exactly lights-out in the eighth inning last year.
The team has also added Ronald Belisario and Scott Downs to join Matt Lindstrom at the back end of the bullpen, but it could still look to add another arm to the mix.
Cleveland Indians: Starting Pitching
A year after their starting pitchers combined for a 5.25 ERA to rank 28th in the MLB, the Cleveland Indians rotation turned things around in a big way this past season, lowering that mark to 3.92 to rank 14th in the MLB.
A bounce-back campaign from Ubaldo Jimenez and the surprise return of Scott Kazmir were big reasons for that turnaround, but Kazmir is now with the Oakland A's and it looks as though Jimenez will sign elsewhere as well, according to Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports.
Justin Masterson will be back to front the staff, and Danny Salazar looks like a potential breakout candidate after a strong finish to 2013. Corey Kluber and Zach McAllister are solid options behind them, but they don't have the longest track record of success and could be in for some regression.
The No. 5 starter spot would ideally go to Trevor Bauer, but he has been a Quadruple-A player to this point in his young career. If the Indians hope to return to the playoffs, adding at least one more starter looks like a necessity.
Detroit Tigers: Left Field
Heading into the offseason, it looked as though top prospect Nick Castellanos was destined to take over as the Detroit Tigers' everyday left fielder in 2014. However, with Prince Fielder traded and Miguel Cabrera moving back to first base, Castellanos is now ticketed to return to his natural position of third base.
Andy Dirks saw the bulk of the playing time in left field last season after hitting .322/.370/.487 over 314 at-bats in 2012, but he failed to even approach those numbers in 2013, batting just .256/.323/.363 in 438 at-bats.
Rajai Davis was signed to a two-year, $10 million deal in free agency; he could see some at-bats in left, but adding an impact bat to replace Fielder in the middle of the lineup and play left field would be big.
Nelson Cruz is the only remaining free agent that fits that description, but it remains to be seen if the Tigers will want to shell out the money it will take to sign him after working to free up some payroll earlier in the offseason.
Kansas City Royals: Starting Pitching Depth
The Kansas City Royals filled a pair of huge needs with the signing of second baseman Omar Infante and the acquisition of right fielder Norichika Aoki, leaving their starting rotation as the biggest question mark at this point.
Veteran left-hander Jason Vargas was signed to a four-year, $32 million deal to replace the departed Ervin Santana in the rotation, but how exactly the rotation shapes up will be determined in spring training.
James Shields and Jeremy Guthrie will join Vargas at the front of the rotation, but behind them the final two spots are up for grabs.
Wade Davis and Danny Duffy look like the likely candidates at this point, but neither is a sure thing to earn a spot and adding another low-cost veteran to that mix to compete for one of those spots would make sense. The X-factor is the continued progress of Yordano Ventura and Kyle Zimmer, as they both profile as front-line starters once they arrive.
Minnesota Twins: Starting Pitching?
After getting an MLB-worst 5.26 ERA from their starting rotation last season, the Minnesota Twins have moved aggressively to improve their staff this offseason with the additions of Ricky Nolasco and Phil Hughes, as well as the re-signing of Mike Pelfrey.
As things stand now, those three will join Kevin Correia and someone from the group of Scott Diamond, Vance Worley, Samuel Deduno, Andrew Albers and Kyle Gibson this coming season.
However, according to a tweet from Darren Wolfson of 1500 ESPN, the team is still "kicking the tires" on right-hander Matt Garza and could look to add a fourth starter this offseason before all is said and done.
Houston Astros: Shortstop
The Houston Astros have made some nice additions this offseason as they continue to rebuild from the ground up. Dexter Fowler was acquired from the Colorado Rockies, Scott Feldman was signed to bolster the starting rotation and a trio of veteran relievers in Jesse Crain, Chad Qualls and Matt Albers were signed to improve the bullpen.
Top prospects Jonathan Singleton and George Springer are expected to give the offense a further boost at some point in 2014, and while the lineup is still a work in progress, one area that could be a major hole is shortstop.
The team will likely give 22-year-old Jonathan Villar every chance to hold on to the job this coming season after he finished the season as the starter last year. In 210 at-bats, he hit .243/.321/.319 and stole 18 bases.
With just a .260/.333/.387 career minor league line, his offensive upside is limited. His defense was nothing special last year either, as he posted a minus-8.1 UZR and minus-5 defensive runs saved, according to FanGraphs. For lack of a better option the job is his, but it's an area that could be improved moving forward.
Los Angeles Angels: Starting Pitching
Last offseason, the Los Angeles Angels attempted to patch together the back end of their rotation by signing Joe Blanton and trading for Jason Vargas and Tommy Hanson.
Vargas was solid before going down with an injury, but the other two were nothing short of terrible, and it was back to the drawing board this offseason. Luckily, Garrett Richards emerged as a viable No. 3 option behind Jered Weaver and C.J. Wilson, so the team only needs two starters this time around.
A three-team deal at the winter meetings brought the Angels left-handers Hector Santiago (White Sox) and Tyler Skaggs (Diamondbacks) in exchange for slugger Mark Trumbo.
While they could very well enter the season with those two manning the final two rotation spots, adding another starter to the mix remains a possibility. Skaggs has a ton of upside, but has struggled to a 5.43 ERA in 13 big league starts the past two years. Allowing him to open the season in the minors may be in the team's best interest.
Oakland Athletics: Left Field/Designated Hitter
The Oakland A's have been as busy on the trade market this offseason as anyone, and one of the pieces they've picked up is outfielder Craig Gentry from the Texas Rangers.
Gentry hit a solid .280/.373/.386 with 24 steals over a career-high 246 at-bats for the Rangers this past season, and with some solid defense, his season was good for a 3.6 WAR, according to Baseball-Reference.
As of now, it looks like he'll get the majority of the at-bats in left field, with Yoenis Cespedes serving as the team's primary DH, but counting on him over 500 at-bats comes with some risk.
Gentry is already 30 and has just 669 career big-league at-bats under his belt over the course of his five years in the majors. He's been terrific in a reserve role the past two seasons, but expanding his role could expose him. Adding another bat to the outfield/DH mix for insurance looks like a good move for an A's team that shuffles lineups better than anyone.
Seattle Mariners: Closer
After Brandon League faltered in 2012, the Seattle Mariners turned closing duties over to Tom Wilhelmsen, who finished the year with 29 saves and a 2.50 ERA as one of the bigger out-of-nowhere contributors of the season.
Wilhelmsen himself struggled in 2013, though, going 24-of-29 on save chances with a 4.37 ERA through Aug. 1 before being demoted to Triple-A.
Hard-throwing Danny Farquhar took over closer duties from there, going 16-of-18 on save chances with a 2.38 ERA and 29 strikeouts in 22.2 innings of work. But the team could still look to bolster their bullpen by signing a more experienced closer and moving Farquhar back to a setup role.
Texas Rangers: Infield Depth
The Texas Rangers finally freed up their infield logjam this offseason, trading Ian Kinsler to the Detroit Tigers for slugger Prince Fielder. That will allow the highly regarded Jurickson Profar to step in to an everyday role at second base alongside Elvis Andrus.
With Kinsler gone and Jeff Baker still sitting on the free-agent market, Adam Rosales is the leading candidate to serve as the team's utility infielder at this point.
Rosales is a decent fielder capable of playing a number of positions, but he's hit just .219/.287/.335 over 821 career at-bats. Bringing back Baker is one option, but one way or another, the team should look to add an infielder to its bench before the offseason is over.
Atlanta Braves: Starting Pitching Depth
Even with the departure of Tim Hudson and Paul Maholm in free agency, the Atlanta Braves rotation looks solid heading into the 2014 season.
The trio of Kris Medlen, Mike Minor and Julio Teheran will be back atop the staff, with a healthy Brandon Beachy and left-hander Alex Wood expected to round it out.
That group is strong, but depth is an issue should injury strike, as prospects David Hale and Aaron Northcraft are the only other starters on the 40-man roster and they have a combined 11 big league innings under their belt.
Freddy Garcia provided the team with a much-needed boost down the stretch last season, and finding a similar low-cost veteran starter to provide some depth looks like their biggest remaining need.
Miami Marlins: Veteran Starting Pitching
The Marlins have assembled a promising young rotation, led by breakout star Jose Fernandez (21) and also featuring Jacob Turner (22), Nathan Eovaldi (23) and Henderson Alvarez (23) as the Marlins look to improve on last year's NL-worst finish.
Tom Koehler is currently the front-runner to win the No. 5 starter spot, and the 27-year-old would be the elder statesman of the rotation. He was 5-10 with a 4.41 ERA in 29 games (23 starts) last season, and while he's a decent option to fill out the staff, some insurance behind him is necessary.
Top prospects Andrew Heaney, Justin Nicolino and Brian Flynn are all nearing big league-ready, but signing a stopgap option to provide some competition for Koehler and help bridge the gap to those prospects would make a good staff even better.
New York Mets: Shortstop
The New York Mets have already improved their offense with the additions of Curtis Granderson and Chris Young. And they helped ease the loss of the injured Matt Harvey in the rotation with the signing of Bartolo Colon. But they still have a clear hole at the shortstop position.
Last season, Mets shortstops hit a combined .215/.285/.276 with three home runs, as Omar Quintanilla and Ruben Tejada saw the bulk of the playing time. Prospect Gavin Cecchini has a bright future, but he's still at least a few years from making an impact at the big league level.
Tejada is the starting shortstop as of now; he showed some offensive potential back in 2012 when he hit .289/.333/.351 over 464 at-bats. Those numbers fell to just .202/.259/.260 this past season, though, and relying on the 24-year-old to bounce back is risky.
Signing Stephen Drew is one option, but according to Adam Rubin of ESPN New York, the front office is divided on whether or not signing him would be worth the cost. If the Mets don't land Drew, chances are Tejada will open the season manning the position.
Philadelphia Phillies: Relief Pitching
Last season, the Philadelphia Phillies had one of the worst bullpens in baseball, as their collective 4.19 ERA was good for 27th best in the MLB.
Mike Adams and Antonio Bastardo, the team's top two setup men entering the season, missed significant time due to injury and suspension, respectively. Meanwhile, closer Jonathan Papelbon converted just 29 of his 37 save chances and saw his peripheral numbers decline across the board.
The team has added Brad Lincoln in a trade with the Toronto Blue Jays and could also give Rule 5 pick Kevin Munson a look for a bullpen spot. But adding another veteran reliever to serve in a setup role looks like a must, especially with Adams' return still up in the air.
Washington Nationals: Infield Depth
The Washington Nationals' biggest need heading into the season is to simply play up to their potential, as they will again enter the year with arguably the most complete roster in baseball top to bottom after the offseason additions of Doug Fister, Nate McLouth and Jerry Blevins.
Blevins filled their biggest need as the left-handed veteran reliever the team lacked out of the bullpen last season. Meanwhile, Fister is a significant upgrade over the departed Dan Haren as the No. 4 starter, and McLouth gives the team some insurance should an outfielder go down with injury.
Losing Steve Lombardozzi in the Fister trade does leave a hole at the utility infield spot, with strikeout artist Danny Espinosa (.456 OPS in 2013) currently slated as the only viable backup infield option.
The team could wait until late in the spring, when roster cuts are made, to find someone, but adding a versatile infielder for cheap to fill out its bench looks like its biggest remaining need.
Chicago Cubs: Staff Ace
This offseason marks the third winter Theo Epstein and Co. have been at the helm for the Chicago Cubs. It has been a relatively quiet one to this point as the team continues to rebuild and waits on the continued development of one of the game's best farm systems.
While the Cubs are stocked with potential impact bats in Javier Baez, Kris Bryant, Albert Almora, Jorge Soler, Dan Vogelbach and Arismendy Alcantara, the team remains thin on high-end pitching.
It has some useful arms like Pierce Johnson and C.J. Edwards who should be able to help out in the rotation, but it lacks a true ace-caliber starter at this point.
Signing one of the market's top free agents to front the staff short-term would be a waste of money for a team not expected to contend, but a serious run at 25-year-old Japanese right-hander Masahiro Tanaka would definitely make sense. The Cubs will no doubt be among the teams in on him once he's finally posted.
Cincinnati Reds: Center Field Depth
With the departure of Shin-Soo Choo after one terrific season hitting atop the lineup, the Cincinnati Reds will now turn starting center field duties and the leadoff spot in the lineup over to speedy prospect Billy Hamilton.
"Speedy" may not do Hamilton justice, as he stole a ridiculous 155 bases in 2012 and another 75 this past season before earning a late-season call-up. He then swiped another 13 in 13 games for the Reds.
His speed will no doubt be a weapon, but there are legitimate concerns as to whether or not Hamilton will get on base enough to hit atop the lineup. He hit just .256/.308/.343 at Triple-A last season, striking out 102 times and walking just 38 in 504 at-bats.
He'll get every chance to prove he can handle the job, but the Reds would be wise to have a fall-back option in place, and as of now, they do not. The team has reportedly talked to Grady Sizemore this offseason, according to Mark Sheldon of MLB.com; he could be an intriguing low-cost option to provide some depth.
Milwaukee Brewers: First Base
With Corey Hart on the shelf all season, the Milwaukee Brewers got a combined .206/.259/.370 line from their first basemen in 2013. They did manage 21 home runs and 86 RBI, but that hardly offsets the horrendous batting line.
Juan Francisco saw the bulk of the playing time after coming over from the Atlanta Braves, hitting .221/.300/.433 with 13 home runs in 240 at-bats. He's a solid bat with some pop to have off the bench, but he's by no means an everyday first baseman.
The team has been linked to Michael Young on the free-agent market, according to Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports. It could also turn to the trade market, where Ike Davis and Justin Smoak are both very much available and have some upside.
Pittsburgh Pirates: First Base
The Pittsburgh Pirates made a pair of moves last August to add right fielder Marlon Byrd and first baseman Justin Morneau. But with both of those players gone in free agency those positions look to be a weakness once again entering the season.
Right field will likely be manned by Jose Tabata until top prospect Gregory Polanco arrives in Pittsburgh, but first base is an area that still needs to be addressed.
Gaby Sanchez hit .333/.448/.539 against left-handed pitching last season and is a great platoon option, but it's hard to envision him in an everyday role after he hit just .204/.304/.315 against right-handed pitching.
Andrew Lambo could get a look after hitting 32 home runs between Double-A and Triple-A, but the 25-year-old also struck out 127 times in 444 at-bats and better profiles as a power bat off the bench. Expect the Pirates to continue to work the trade market for someone like Ike Davis, Justin Smoak or Mitch Moreland.
St. Louis Cardinals: Right-Handed Setup Relief?
It's hard to say a team has no weakness, as there are seemingly always ways to improve a 25-man roster of players. However, as things stand right now, there is really nothing the St. Louis Cardinals can do between now and Opening Day to put themselves in a better position.
Jhonny Peralta was signed to shore up a hole at shortstop, Peter Bourjos was acquired to provide outfield depth and Mark Ellis was signed as an insurance policy to top prospect Kolten Wong.
Jaime Garcia returns to a starting rotation picture that already includes Adam Wainwright, Shelby Miller, Michael Wacha, Joe Kelly, Lance Lynn and perhaps Carlos Martinez, and the bullpen has a wealth of talented arms.
Should Martinez wind up winning a spot or being sent down to stretch out as a starter, the team could be in the market for a right-handed setup man. But that's a role that could easily be filled with the return of Jason Motte or with a move of Lance Lynn to the bullpen.
Arizona Diamondbacks: Front-of-the-Rotation Starting Pitching
The Diamondbacks filled one big need with the acquisition of Mark Trumbo, but they still need another starting pitcher to solidify the front end of their rotation.
Patrick Corbin had a great season on paper, going 14-8 with a 3.41 ERA, but he was just 3-7 with a 5.19 ERA in the second half. He's joined by Wade Miley and Trevor Cahill atop the rotation, but all three of those guys are best suited as a No. 3 starter on a contender.
Randall Delgado and Brandon McCarthy will get the first crack at rounding out the rotation, but after trading Ian Kennedy and Tyler Skaggs, the team is relatively thin behind them.
The X-factor will be top prospect Archie Bradley, who will get every chance to crack the roster out of spring training and could be the ace of the staff by the end of the season if everything breaks right. Still, as of now, the team looks to be entering 2014 with a relatively weak staff.
Colorado Rockies: Left Field/Leadoff Hitter
The trade of Dexter Fowler to the Houston Astros brought a pair of solid young players in Brandon Barnes and Jordan Lyles to the Colorado Rockies, but it left a hole of sorts in the team's outfield and atop the lineup.
Carlos Gonzalez will slide from left field to center field defensively with Fowler gone, but there is still something of a question as to who will man the vacated outfield spot and hit leadoff.
Corey Dickerson looks like he'll get the first crack at the job, with Barnes, Drew Stubbs and Charlie Blackmon also in the mix for at-bats.
Dickerson hit .263/.316/.459 over 194 at-bats in his first taste of big league action last year, but he also hit .374/.414/.632 in 315 at-bats in Triple-A before being called up. He certainly has the most upside of the group.
Los Angeles Dodgers: Infield Depth
The Los Angeles Dodgers are set to open the season with Cuban defector Alex Guerrero as their everyday second baseman. While all signs point to his skills translating to the MLB, the transition is always something of a question mark and a backup plan needs to be in place.
As of now, speedy Dee Gordon figures to be their utility infielder. Once viewed as a future star, Gordon spent much of 2013 in the minors. He has hit just .229/.289/.285 over 397 at-bats the past two years following a terrific rookie season. He'll be 26 in April, so he's quickly running out of time to put it all together.
Third baseman Juan Uribe also has to be considered at least a minor question mark. He had a nice season in 2013, but it's hard to forget the fact that he hit a combined .199/.262/.289 in his first two seasons with the Dodgers.
Acquiring someone capable of stepping in to regular at-bats should one of those players falter seems like a better bet than relying on Gordon to turn things around.
San Diego Padres: Relief Pitching
The San Diego Padres made one of the biggest surprise signings of the offseason when the small-market club handed out a two-year, $15.5 million contract to Joaquin Benoit. He'll set up Huston Street and replace Luke Gregerson, who was traded to the Oakland A's for Seth Smith.
The team also added left-hander Patrick Schuster in a trade with the Houston Astros, who selected him with the No. 1 pick in the Rule 5 draft. He's yet to pitch above High-A, though, and likely won't be counted on for anything more than middle relief work if he does make the roster.
Assuming Eric Stults earns a rotation spot, Schuster currently profiles as the only southpaw in the Padres bullpen. As such, Corey Brock of MLB.com reported following the Benoit signing that the team is still in the market for a bullpen arm and could target a LOOGY.
Oliver Perez, Mike Gonzalez, Eric O'Flaherty and Jose Mijares make up what's left of the left-handed relief market, and the team could wait until late spring to see if a better option puts up following roster cuts.
San Francisco Giants: Starting Pitching Depth
Terrific starting pitching was a hallmark of the San Francisco Giants' recent run of success, and it was also the biggest reason they struggled this past season just to avoid a last-place finish in the NL West.
The team is finally out from under the contract of Barry Zito, replacing him with free-agent signing Tim Hudson. However, the rotation is not without some injury concerns heading into the 2014 season.
Hudson is coming off of a broken ankle, and while he is expected to be ready for Opening Day, the fact that he's 38 years old can't be ignored. Ryan Vogelsong was re-signed after making just 19 starts in 2013 due to injury, but even when he was healthy, he was just 4-6 with a 5.73 ERA.
Chad Gaudin was signed to a minor league deal last offseason, and he wound up making 12 starts and pitching 97 innings. The team has Yusmeiro Petit, who nearly threw a perfect game last year, set to assume the role of swingman in the bullpen. Beyond him, however, the options are slim and adding another cheap starter makes sense.