By: Blake Tarrants, KCOU Sports
The offseason started two days ago and there are many questions that are mere weeks, or maybe even days, from being answered in a big way. Each fall, when the Hot Stove heats up for another round of free agency, wild speculations and desperate attempts to snag the biggest name out there are sure to come. This offseason is no exception. The question will be: What teams will be the most active on the free agent market?
Teams like the Royals and Orioles will be keen to add that final, crucial piece to their ball club. However, it is never that simple. Money always trumps simple plans. Baltimore has multiple key players on the free agent market, including two major pieces of their lineup and outfield. Nick Markakis, whose club option the Orioles declined in the hopes of retaining him long-term for less money, and Nelson Cruz, who will no doubt seek a major contract after slugging 40 home runs on a one year deal just before 2014 spring training began. Baltimore will have a tough time affording any big free agents if they want to keep what they previously had, but they need an arm in their rotation. Although Tillman, Chen, and Norris are all serviceable, they need a number one, but it is unlikely that they could afford Max Scherzer, James Shields, or any other marquee arm.
The same problem faces the Royals. Despite the fact that James Shields is all but guaranteed to sign a multi-year contract well out of Kansas City’s budget, the Royals will receive a first round pick as compensation because of the QO they offered him, and the up-and-coming arms in their rotation are plentiful, with Danny Duffy, Yordano Ventura, and Brandon Finnegan possessing potentially ace-level stuff. Jason Vargas and Jeremy Guthrie provide the veteran, dependable stability at the back of the rotation as well, so the Royals should be more or less set for several years in terms of their rotation. The hitting is a different story. With Billy Butler and Nori Aoki both hitting free agency, the Royals now have gaping holes at DH and in right field, and need to find a way to break their streak of being the least powerful team in the majors. However, this will not be easy. Although players at both of those positions are plentiful on the market, the Royals must first deal with all of their arbitration-eligible players, of which there are a shocking 12. Some of these players, such as Luke Hochevar and Tim Collins will demand little salary increase, but key position players like Eric Hosmer, Lorenzo Cain, and Mike Moustakas will be demanding significant raises which the Royals are more or less forced to meet to retain their thin core of serviceable hitters and gold glove defenders.
This does not leave much space for the signing of a big free agent. Although a player like Nick Markakis fits the Royals system well, a high-average, occasionally powerful bat that could replace Aoki at the top of the lineup, and a right fielder that would make the Royals outfield by far the best in the big leagues, his price is likely to be well beyond the Royal’s budget. With $53 million to spend this offseason, most of the available money is likely to be spent on retaining home-grown talent.
To complicate things even further, you count out the teams who struggled in the 2014 campaign as contenders for big free agents. Both Chicago teams are first to come to mind. Everybody, naturally, has their eyes on Boston, who will undoubtedly retool heavily as well, but the Cubs and White Sox might be surprises. The Cubs showed throughout last season that they are close to breaking through. They have countless bats coming up through their farm system and now, with the addition of Joe Maddon as manager, and the surprise emergence of Jake Arrieta and Jacob Turner, they could be just one big acquisition away from being a complete team. If they can pony up the dough to go get a marquee pitcher like Scherzer or John Lester, they might just be an NL Central contender in 2015.
The same could be said for the White Sox. If they could add one decent arm to the rotation to give Chris Sale and Jose Quintana somebody to lean on, and sure up their defense just a bit, they could use their power style to make an AL Central run next season. This seems even more likely with the Tigers likely declining sharply next year and the Royals tendencies to start the year cold.
Regardless of who spends the most money over the winter, it is common knowledge that the majors are as even as they have been in a long time. Whichever team spends the most wisely, ensures that all of their holes are filled, and sets team-friendly deals that allow them to make future transactions will ultimately prevail.