With free agency about to get underway, the offseason is going to pick up steam. What are the big questions facing all 30 teams?
The Nationals are about as set as any team out there heading into the offseason. Four-fifths of the rotation is locked in, including two Cy Young finalists (Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg). The most important pieces of the bullpen remain (Sean Doolittle, Ryan Madson). With the exception of left field, where Adam Eaton will likely step in upon returning from his knee injury to replace free agent Jayson Werth, the lineup that cruised to another NL East title is completely intact.
So what does GM Mike Rizzo have to do this winter? Lock up Bryce Harper. Or at least try to. Harper is set to become a free agent after the 2018 season. Given that he’s (a) in his walk year, (b) repped by Scott Boras and (c) sitting on a gajillion-dollar jackpot, the odds of the 25-year-old Harper agreeing to a long-term extension are roughly equivalent to the odds of dress socks not falling down to your ankles within five minutes of putting them on.
Still, Rizzo and the Nats must try, and they will. Not for nothing, Strasburg (a fellow Boras client) signed a $175 million extension in May 2016, six months before he would’ve hit free agency. So anything’s possible. — Eddie Matz
The big name here is obviously Giancarlo Stanton, but reports out of Miami say the new ownership group wants to cut payroll from $115 million to $90 million, which means Dee Gordon and Martin Prado are also on the trade block. Those three will make a combined $49.3 million in 2018. This is what happens when you still owe Wei-Yin Chen $30 million the next two seasons.
Will Stanton be dealt? His contract has been much discussed. He’ll make $25, $26 and $26 million the next three seasons, and then he has an opt-out clause after 2020. He also has full no-trade protection, so if he wants to return to California (he’s from the L.A. area), that limits the Marlins’ possible trade partners. Without the opt-out, Stanton’s deal guarantees him $295 million through 2027. It all means any Stanton trade will be difficult: Given the size of the contract and Stanton’s lengthy injury history before 2017, the Marlins can’t expect a team to pick up the entirety of the deal and give them a boatload of prospects.
What’s also unclear is what Bruce Sherman and Derek Jeter are trying to build here. If they really want to rip things up and start over, they have to consider dealing Marcell Ozuna, who’s coming off a monster season and has two years remaining until free agency. If they’re trying to win with a $90 million payroll and no Stanton, well, good luck. — David Schoenfield
Atlanta Braves: Who will play in the corners?
The Braves need to spend the offseason cornering the market on corners.
First and foremost, they need to figure out who is manning the corner office vacated by John Coppolella, the former GM who resigned last month amid an MLB investigation into Atlanta’s dealings in the international market. Regardless of who replaces Coppolella following the conclusion of the still-pending probe — Royals GM Dayton Moore, Nats assistant GM Doug Harris and Blue Jays exec Ben Cherington have all been mentioned as candidates — there’s plenty of work to be done.
With the exception of first base, the Braves could use upgrades at every other corner position. Rookie Johan Camargo was a pleasant surprise at third base, but he profiles more as a utility infielder, leaving Atlanta as a likely contender for the services of blue-chip free agents such as Mike Moustakas and Todd Frazier.
The corner outfield spots are also huge question marks in Atlanta. Nineteen-year-old Ronald Acuna, who raked his way through three levels last season and is currently the fifth-rated prospect in baseball, could flank center fielder Ender Inciarte on either side come Opening Day. Unless the Braves plan on paying an eight-digit salary to a bench player, they’ll need to unload left fielder Matt Kemp or right fielder Nick Markakis between now and then. Kemp had trouble staying healthy and fit last season, and it showed: His minus-17 runs saved ranked worst among all left fielders. Finding a trade partner who is willing to take on even part of Kemp’s bloated salary — he’ll earn $43.5 million over the next two years — won’t be easy, though.
In other words, when it comes to Kemp’s contract, the Braves seem to have painted themselves into a corner. — Matz
New York Mets: How do they get the starting rotation to live up to its past hype?
At the top of the to-do list for Sandy Alderson and Mickey Callaway this offseason is figuring out how to return the Mets’ starting rotation to an elite level. Mets pitchers finished with a 5.14 ERA in 2017, a hair away from the 120-loss 1962 team’s 5.19.
From a macro perspective, that means figuring out how to lower ERAs (a defense ranking last in defensive runs saved didn’t help), reduce injuries and restore confidence.
On a micro level, among the to-dos are lowering Jacob deGrom’s suddenly skyrocketing home run rate, figuring out how Matt Harvey can thrive with a 92 mph fastball and regain the command, seemingly lost to thoracic outlet surgery, that led to his averaging nearly five walks per 9 innings, and making sure Noah Syndergaard is mature in his decision-making (in other words, don’t turn down any MRIs). Getting Steven Matz healthy enough for his first 25-start season wouldn’t hurt, either.
The Mets had a lot of money come off the books, and there will be some new faces in key spots. But for the Mets to play meaningful baseball late in the season, fixing the pitching issues should be their top priority. — Mark Simon
The Phillies had reason to be encouraged after going 16-13 to end the season and avoid the indignity of 100 losses. Rookie first baseman Rhys Hoskins hit 18 homers in 50 games, and he combines with Odubel Herrera, Aaron Altherr, Nick Williams, second-base prospect Scott Kingery and others to give the franchise a promising core of young position players.
But it isn’t going to mean much if the Phillies can’t fix the pitching. Philadelphia’s starting pitchers ranked 21st in the majors in ERA, and the 10 starters not named Aaron Nola combined for a 5.10 ERA and 1.44 WHIP. Jerad Eickhoff took a step backward in 2017, and Nick Pivetta, Ben Lively, Jake Thompson, Mark Leiter Jr., et al, have yet to prove that they are more than back-end guys.
Before being bumped upstairs to the front office, former manager Pete Mackanin said the team needs a veteran “stabilizer” at the top. But president of baseball operations Andy MacPhail indicated that the Phillies probably won’t be playing at the upper end of the free-agent market this winter. That probably rules out a run at Jake Arrieta, but Lance Lynn and Alex Cobb are out there as more reasonably priced options. Will the Phillies try to play in that realm? They can’t afford to just stand pat if they hope to take a step forward in the NL East in 2018. — Jerry Crasnick