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On to the offseason

by Matt Smith

MlbHlSqAfter the 2014 MLB season was brought to a close by the San Francisco Giants enjoying a title-celebrating parade for the third time in five years, attention immediately switches to the offseason and the hopes of players, managers and teams eager to put themselves into a situation where they could be spraying the champagne at this time next year.

Recent history suggests the Giants will take 2015 off to give the other teams a chance and offseason activities could have a strong bearing on which team takes the opportunity before handing the trophy back to San Francisco in 2016.

Scherzer leads the pitching class

This year’s pitching free agent market is topped by Max Scherzer, Jon Lester and James Shields. Scherzer will be the most important domino to fall as, rightly or wrongly, it’s assumed that Lester is most likely to head back to Boston after a brief spell in Oakland, whilst Shields – a very good starting pitcher – doesn’t quite have the elite-level performance of the other two pitchers.

Talks of a contract extension between the Tigers and Scherzer ended prior to the 2014 season with a proposed six-year, $144m deal not being agreeable to one or both parties. From the pitcher’s perspective that’s likely to be the lower end of his expectations now, meaning that whoever wants the dominant right-hander is going to have to make an enormous investment.

Whilst the usual suspects (Dodgers, Tigers, Yankees, Red Sox) will be in the mix, the Mariners’ signing of Robinson Cano last year showed that other teams can emerge ready to spend big to take advantage of an increasingly rare opportunity to sign a premium player.

Hitters hitting free agency

As for position players, the list is led by two Venezuelans (Pablo Sandoval and Victor Martinez) and an infielder from the Dominican Republic (Hanley Ramirez).

There are doubts about Ramirez’s abilities at shortstop, yet his contributions at the plate are there for all to see and he will be in demand by any team wanting to upgrade the left-side of their infield. Sandoval also comes into that equation too. He is understandably a fan favourite in San Francisco and you would expect his offseason to begin with talks on a potential new contract to remain a Giant. If that doesn’t come to fruition then plenty of teams will be quick to act.

As for Martinez, he will be in much demand after an exceptional 2014 season and would be a welcome addition to any lineup, although you would expect him to land with an American League team where he can spend a good proportion of his time as a Designated Hitter.

Trade targets

The starting point with potential trade targets is always players who are currently scheduled to become free agents after the upcoming season. Outfielder Yoenis Cespedes is on that list and, if the rumours are to be believed, he could be on the move again only a few months after being traded from the A’s to the Red Sox.

In contrast, Jason Heyward has known nothing else than playing for Atlanta so far in his Major League career; however his status as one of the few Braves players that hasn’t signed a contract extension in the past 18 months puts his future with the team in question. The Braves will see what offers are on the table for Heyward if they aren’t confident of being able to keep hold of him beyond 2015.

On the pitching side, the key team may be the Cincinnati Reds would had a disappointing 2014 season and will need to assess what their plan should be over the next few years before deciding what to do with Johnny Cueto and Mat Latos, who both have one year left under contract.

Away from those candidates, the most exciting name that keeps cropping up is the Miami Marlins slugger Giancarlo Stanton. We all know the Marlins are a team that trades players away and Stanton is exactly the sort of talent that a team would be prepared to part with a bundle of valuable prospects for. Whether there is any real possibility of him changing teams this offseason, or if it’s just reporters and fans having fun dreaming up potential blockbuster trades, will be one of the key storylines over the next couple of months.

Cubs on the up?

The 2014 season was the Chicago Cubs’ fifth consecutive losing year, but there were signs that the rebuilding project set in motion by Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer is starting to have a positive – rather than depressingly negative – effect on the Major League team. Top prospects Jorge Soler, Javier Baez and Arodys Vizcaino all got some Big League playing time and others will soon be joining them, not least third baseman Kris Bryant (arguably the best prospect across all 30 teams) and shortstop Addison Russell.

So, there was already reason for optimism when looking ahead to 2015, but the confirmation on Friday that Joe Maddon has been installed as their new manager will raise expectations even further. It says a lot about the Cubs’ ambitions that they weren’t going to let the fact that they already had a manager, Rick Renteria, get in the way of grabbing one of the most high-profile managers in the Majors.

It will be interesting to see if the Cubs continue that aggressive approach and decide to jump into the free agent market to add a few experienced players to help jump-start their return to being contenders.

Motor City moves

Recent offseasons would suggest the Detroit Tigers will be one of the more active teams. The presence of two of their best players now sitting at the top of the free agent lists makes that a certainty, whether that’s in spending large sums to bring Scherzer and/or Martinez back or in replacing them.

David Price was acquired at the trade deadline in July and they may look to sign him to a large contract extension if Scherzer looks like he will be out of reach. Torii Hunter is also a free agent so another outfielder will be on the shopping list as well as a few more darts being thrown at the reliever dartboard in the hope that they might finally hit a bullseye (or even a double) after too many years of failing bullpens in the Motor City.

Opportunities for all

Whilst the Cubs and Tigers will be two teams worth watching in particular, in truth every team must be looking at the current MLB landscape and weighing up the increased odds of having a successful season. The Giants and Kansas City Royals proved that coming through the Wild Card route doesn’t put you at a significant disadvantage against the division winners.

San Francisco’s success may suggest they have a winning formula, but it feels more like we’re now moving into a climate where there aren’t any truly dominant regular season teams on a consistent basis and, with a few exceptions (Colorado being the most obvious), there is genuine reason to believe that a team can make a playoff bid and then go all the way.

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