Washington Nationals (96-66)
Biggest free agent: Asdrubal Cabrera
Biggest contract decision: Should they try to reach an extension with Jordan Zimmermann or Doug Fister?
Bleeding need: Second base, where Asdrubal Cabrera leaves behind a void too big for Danny Espinosa to fill.
The Nationals put together perhaps the most complete team in baseball, supplementing the National League's best pitching staff with its third most prolific offense. Alas, none of that helped them get past the eventual world champion Giants in the Division Series. This is an exquisite roster, and one that should again cruise to the NL East crown barring something unforeseen. However, it's also a team that is living on borrowed time. Jordan Zimmermann, Doug Fister, Ian Desmond, and Denard Span will all be free agents after 2015. Stephen Strasburg and Wilson Ramos are free the year after that. Bryce Harper and Anthony Rendon will continue to get more expensive because that is the nature of things. Very soon, the Nationals will have some difficult decisions to make. They still have this one more year where they will be at full strength, though. They are set at every position except second base and shouldn't have to make major moves to remain the National League's best club in 2015.
Los Angeles Dodgers (94-68)
Biggest free agent: Hanley Ramirez
Biggest contract decision: How much are they willing to pay to make Andre Ethier somebody else's problem?
Bleeding need: For Yasiel Puig to figure out what went wrong in the second half of 2014, when he hit just .274/.366/.414. Then he should stop doing whatever that thing is.
Ned Colletti paid the price for the Dodgers' inability to get past the Cardinals in the Division Series, and has been replaced by Rays' wunderkind Andrew Friedman. Friedman has had his hands tied by Tampa's ungodly financial realities, and now that those shackles are off, it's going to be interesting to see how he reshapes a club who has massive long-term commitments to Ethier, Carl Crawford, Matt Kemp, and Adrian Gonzalez, players who should be into or about to begin their declines. How Friedman addresses those commitments, and how many of them he dishes out going forward, is going to differentiate him from his predecessor, whose ability to hit on the international market covered for an awful lot of his inability to find undervalued targets at home.
St. Louis Cardinals (90-72)
Biggest free agent: Pat Neshek
Biggest contract decision: Should they save John Lackey from his awful vesting option and sign him to a multi-year extension?
Offseason Must Reads
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Your team by team guide to each AL club's biggest contract hurdles, potential free-agent defections, and desperate, aching, bleeding needs.
Offseason Must Reads
Bleeding need: The Cardinals could use another bat, as they never did get to replacing Carlos Beltran's lost production from 2013.
This offseason has already started out awfully for the Cardinals, with the death of their best young talent, Oscar Tavares. There's simply no getting around talking about it. St. Louis will need to upgrade in right field over Randal Grichuk, who played every postseason game for the Cards in place of the benched Tavares. They haven't gone big after Cuban defectors previously, but maybe this gaping need pushes them toward Yasmany Tomas. If not, Melky Cabrera might also fit their needs -- their signing of Jhonny Peralta a year ago tells you they aren't shy about those with PED suspension histories. Beyond that, the Cardinals are strong pretty much everywhere, with Adam Wainwright heading up a complete staff and Trevor Rosenthal at the back end of a strong bullpen that probably will weather the loss of Neshek. They have the potential for seven above-average players in the starting lineup, assuming that Kolten Wong continues to develop.
Pittsburgh Pirates (88-74)
Biggest free agent: Russell Martin
Biggest contract decision: How much money should they give to Russell Martin? Most of the money or all of the money?
Bleeding need: Russell Martin. Or another catcher who can post an OBP in the high .300s and practically lead the universe in pitch framing while also drawing rave reviews for his leadership with a pitching staff of Gerrit Cole and the Retreads.
You may have noticed I have a lot of affection for Russell Martin. Perhaps no one in the game has received less mainstream credit for his contribution to his team's on-field success than Martin, who many (myself included) considered an overpay two years ago. We know a lot better now, but so do other clubs, which is why Martin's skills are going to be in exceptionally high demand this offseason. He is, by leaps and bounds, the best backstop available this year over the likes of Geovany Soto, A.J. Pierzynski, and J.P. Arencibia. The Pirates need him badly to help them get the most out of the next Edinson Volquez or Francisco Liriano, both of whom are also free agents, that they pick up. Otherwise, the Pirates' return to respectability may last shorter than any of us wanted it to.
San Francisco Giants (88-74)
Biggest free agent: Literally and figuratively, Pablo Sandoval
Biggest contract decision: Do they re-sign Jake Peavy and try to keep enough of the band together to go for a fourth title in six years?
Photo credit: Peter G. Aiken-USA TODAY Sports
Bleeding need: As much as the world champs need anything, bubble wrap for Matt Cain, who hit the DL three times in 2014 with a cut to his index finger, a strained hamstring, and surgery to remove bone chips in his elbow that had been there for a decade.
Ho hum, another world championship for the Giants, who have gotten everything out of this excellent core of players that you could possibly expect. And yet, they will be back in 2015 with much of the same cast, and it could work yet again. As much as they will miss Pablo Sandoval if he heads elsewhere, the key to the Giants success is going to be a pitching staff that could show its age in a hurry. Madison Bumgarner is coming off of 270 total innings between the regular and post-seasons, Tim Hudson is already 39, Jake Peavy will be 34, Cain is coming off of elbow and ankle surgeries, and Tim Lincecum hasn't been Tim Lincecum in three years. They could really use an upgrade like James Shields, who would allow them to move Timmy to the bullpen, where he's been effective in the playoffs, and give them some additional depth in case one or more of the other starters falters.
Milwaukee Brewers (82-80)
Biggest free agent: Francisco Rodriguez (though that will change if Aramis Ramirez refuses his half of the $14 mutual option the Brewers have already accepted)
Biggest contract decision: Picking up Yovani Gallardo's option is a no-brainer, but do you offer him a contract extension as well? He's only 28 and, with a good season will pass Mike Caldwell, Bill Wegman, and Chris Bosio in rWAR to for the third-most in Brewers team history.
Bleeding need: Well, it was first base, but they just traded for Adam Lind in a cagey pickup. Maybe a good sports psychologist to work with the other infielders who will have to throw to Adam Lind.
Despite the spending restrictions that come with playing in one of baseball's smallest markets, the Brewers have put together an impressive roster if they can manage to get Ryan Braun back at something close to his previous level. Thanks to a debilitating thumb injury, Braun contributed roughly the same value in 135 games in 2014 as he did in 61 games when he was suspended for PED use the year before. Wily Peralta leads an underappreciated rotation that will benefit from more Mike Fiers and another year of development from Jimmy Nelson. With Lind on board, the team's biggest hole is filled, but they could use some additional help to shore up the bullpen before pitchers and catchers report.
Atlanta Braves (79-83)
Biggest free agent: Ervin Santana
Biggest contract decision: Coming into the final year of his contract, they can't just let Justin Upton play out the string and leave, can they?
Bleeding need: Some direction. The Braves fired Frank Wren, promoted John Hart into a role as team President of Baseball Operations, and will have him essentially acting as general manager with John Coppolella remaining in his Assistant GM role. Whether that shakeup works or not is what remains to be seen.
The Braves were 11 games above .500 on July 5, the second best record in the National League. They went 30-45 the rest of the way, just a game better than the Diamondbacks, who finished worst because they were truly awful. It's hard to see what the Braves have to build on at the moment. Justin Upton and Jason Heyward are both free agents after this year. Brandon Beachy and Kris Medlen both had their second Tommy John surgeries. Ervin Santana and Aaron Harang are likely leaving. Chris Johnson and B.J. Upton are both awful and signed for the next three years for a combined $70 million. Evan Gattis seems to have settled in at catcher, but he's not a good defender and Christian Bethancourt is ready to take over. And then there's Fredi Gonzalez, one of the most overmatched managers in the game. It may take so long for whoever the Braves hire to take the GM role to sort this mess out that they don't actually do much, but they're desperate for some starting pitching.
New York Mets (79-83)
Biggest free agent: Daisuke Matsuzaka
Biggest contract decision: With Jenrry Mejia entering the arbitration process, and with him lined up to collect saves for the Mets from here on out, they would be smart to explore a contract extension with him now to buy some cost certainty.
Bleeding need: Mets left fielders hit a combined .219/.306/.309 in 2014. I'll save you some math: That's bad.
If ever there was a team that needed to jump in on Nelson Cruz, Melky Cabrera, or Yasmany Tomas, this is it. But, of course, they won't because to do that would require the kind of cash that the Wilpons simply can't seem to lay their hands on. The owners' financial woes still seem to be hamstringing what should be a tremendously profitable franchise. Even so, there's no excuse for the woeful performance the club got out of left field. Yes, David Wright was pretty bad too, but at least he was hurt. This team has a surprisingly strong core with Travis d'Arnaud's development, Lucas Duda's breakout, Ruben Tejada's respectability, Juan Lagares's emergence, and a pitching staff consisting of Matt Harvey, Zach Wheeler, Jacob deGrom, and Jon Niese. Upgrading to put the Mets in the position to at least compete for the Wild Card should be an easy thing, but we're going to find that nothing is easy with the Wilpons still around.
San Diego Padres (77-85)
Biggest free agent: Josh Johnson
Biggest contract decision: The Padres had Anthony Rizzo and Yonder Alonso and they chose...poorly. At this point, they have be wondering if it's going to be worth it to pay Alonso's raises in salary arbitration when they can hand first base to Yasmani Grandal and catcher to Rene Rivera.
Bleeding need: A transfusion. Get it? Bleeding need? It's a pun. Anyway, a lot of this team is awful and just needs to be replaced.
Our only photographic evidence that Josh Johnson was on the Padres. (Photo credit: Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports)
What's worth salvaging? The starting rotation is surprisingly decent, led by Ian Kennedy, Tyson Ross, and Andrew Cashner. Jedd Gyorko and Seth Smith are both excellent, of course. Grandal and Rivera have been effective as well. Everybody else should be considered available and expendable as new GM A.J. Preller starts to work in prospects like Rymer Liriano, Taylor Lindsey, Jace Peterson, and Jose Rondon. The Padres aren't close to being competitive, and might benefit from doing an Astros-light level teardown.
Miami Marlins (77-85)
Biggest free agent: Kevin Gregg (double ha!)
Biggest contract decision: Of course they should try to extend Giancarlo Stanton, so I'll go with "trade Steve Cishek," the dominant closer who is going to earn several millions through arbitration and who might bring back a young, cheap middle infielder.
Bleeding need: A team hypnotist to "convince" Stanton to stick around. The Marlins actually have a deceptively good pitching staff (especially once Jose Fernandez comes back), and three incredible outfielders under 25. Keeping the club's biggest remaining attraction in the fold may finally be the first step toward building continuity in Miami.
The only thing I can't stand about the Marlins is their leadership, but there's no doubt that they've made smart trades to rebuild quickly after their failed spending spree in 2012. Christian Yelich, Marcell Ozuna, and Stanton form the best young outfield in the game. Jarred Cosart may be a knucklehead, but he's a knucklehead with a 121 ERA+ over 40 career starts. Nathan Eovaldi, Tom Koehler, and Henderson Alvarez also are deceptively good starters, and the bullpen is strong as well. Taken individually, the only trade they've made over the past three years I would take back is the one that sent away Matt Dominguez for Carlos Lee. The Marlins' baseball operations have proven to be exceptional at identifying talent then developing those players into cheap, quality options to fill out their roster. Now they need to do the same with Steve Cishek, and use the money they free up to buy off Stanton's understandable trust issues.
Cincinnati Reds (76-86)
Biggest free agent: Ryan Ludwick
Biggest contract decision: Is Johnny Cueto durable enough to risk a contract extension on?
Bleeding need: A map to first base for a team who walked just 415 times and whose .296 OBP was second worst in the National League.
Watching the Reds waste tremendous seasons by Cueto, Devin Mesoraco, Todd Frazier and Aroldis Chapman was incredibly sad. Injuries to Joey Votto, Mat Latos and Homer Bailey took a huge toll, as did the age-related decline of Brandon Phillips and the Zack Cozart-related awfulness of Zack Cozart. What happened to Jay Bruce is something of a mystery, and Billy Hamilton understandably struggled in his first full season in the majors. If Votto can come back in something close to his previous form, the Reds are great rebound candidates, as Hamilton and Bruce should see some significant improvement. Phillips seems to be a lost cause at this point, however, and Cozart will never stop being Cozart. Anything they can do to upgrade that atrocious middle infield will be a huge gain.
Chicago Cubs (73-89)
Biggest free agent: Carlos Villanueva
Biggest contract decision: Is it worth keeping Starlin Castro around while Addison Russell, Javier Baez, and Kris Bryant all are major league ready and he could regress again?
Bleeding need: Pitching. Dear God, pitching.
The salvaging of Jake Arreita is a great story, don't get me wrong, but the utter collapse of Edwin Jackson and Travis Wood got far less attention. It's not just that they weren't good. It's that they were so very awful. With their lineup full of young, inexpensive, immensely talented position players beginning to take shape, shelling out for a Jon Lester or Joe Maddon's former stalwart James Shields might make a lot of sense.
Philadelphia Phillies (73-89)
Biggest free agent: Kyle Kendrick, I guess
Biggest contract decision: He's a bad defender and he can't hit left-handed pitching. I know the answer is no, but part of me wonders if just cutting Domonic Brown is the way to go.
Bleeding need: An outfielder and a time machine to go back and recapture lost glory.
Even Pat Gillick is admitting the Phillies aren't close to respectability. A couple years away? Cliff Lee and Chase Utley will be 37, Jonathan Papelbon 35, Marlon Byrd 38, and Jimmy Rollins gone. Ryan Howard might be dead by then at this rate. So why are they still in Philadelphia? It's well past time for Ruben Amaro to recognize reality and trade his aged core, or at least as many as he can pawn off on other clubs. 2008 is not walking through that door, but if he frees up enough money, Yasmany Tomas just might. I mean, at least there's a chance he'll still be good when the Phillies need him to be. Instead, I wouldn't be surprised to see them go after Michael Cuddyer.
Colorado Rockies (66-96)
Biggest free agent: Speaking of which, Michael Cuddyer
Biggest contract decision: He's 30, about to make $20 million a year, and has only played 130 or more games three times in nine years. If the Rockies are ever going to be able to move Troy Tulowitzki, it's probably now.
Bleeding need: What they've always needed: a plan for building a successful club at altitude. Maybe Jeff Bridich can find one.
The Rockies have torn themselves down and rebuilt themselves so many times that it's hard to suggest that they should do it again, but what's the point of keeping Tulowitzki in the fold while they're blowing as poorly as a team blowing it up? A tremendous player beyond any doubt, he just isn't on the field often enough and is about to get prohibitively expensive. The thing is, the Rockies actually have good young players to build around. Nolan Arenado and Corey Dickerson are both excellent, and Carlos Gonzalez should bounce back healthy. Jordan Lyles and Tyler Matzek have emerged behind Jorge De La Rosa in the rotation, and Jon Gray and Eddie Butler are both close to being ready to step in. The rest of the roster? Guys who won't be around by the time the ship has righted.
Arizona Diamondbacks (64-98)
Biggest free agent: None
Biggest contract decision: Is it time to cut ties with Miguel Montero? He's rumored to be on the block, and he's one of the key players who set the grit-first tone of the Kevin Towers/Kirk Gibson era.
Bleeding need: New priorities, which they seem to have with Tony LaRussa and Dave Stewart in charge. Almost literally everything went wrong for the D-Backs last year.
They lost Patrick Corbin to Tommy John surgery. A.J. Pollock, Mark Trumbo, and Chris Owings were out for huge portions of the year with injuries of their own. Bronson Arroyo got hurt for the first time in his 19-year career. The only guy who hit was Paul Goldschmidt. Perhaps not as important in the baseball sense, but in terms of the club's overall perception, it became a laughing stock for prizing grit over quality and reviled for its brutal insistence on retaliating for any affront to their honor. Now, the Diamondbacks have the chance to start fresh under the care of one of the sharpest and most innovative baseball minds in the game's history. Hopefully ,this will put the front office's focus back where it belongs.