Nats, Angels, Blue Jays aim to rebound
GMs have work to do to turn around fortunes after highly disappointing seasons
We know that any predictions about the 2014 season made in this space or others will hold about as much value going forward as Joe Mauer's catcher's mitt. But we'll all make them and read them and debate them, because it's all in good fun.
For three teams, however, the fruitlessness of this year's preseason predictions was downright painful, and that only serves to make their offseason exploits all the more interesting.
We expected big, bold things from the Nationals, Angels and Blue Jays in 2013 because they had done big, bold business beforehand.
Oh, how wrong we were.
The Nats had the best record in the Major Leagues in 2012 and positioned themselves as a popular World Series pick by adding center fielder and leadoff man Denard Span, beefing up their bullpen with Rafael Soriano and taking what seemed a worthy rotation gamble on Dan Haren. "World Series or bust," Davey Johnson proclaimed.
With an 86-76 record that left them four games out of a Wild Card spot and 10 behind the first-place Braves, bust was the verdict.
The Angels, meanwhile, made the acquisition of the open market's top available hitter an annual event, following up their pre-2012 signing of Albert Pujols with a five-year, $125 million marriage to Josh Hamilton.
Both of the above regressed, and so did the Halos. Pujols and Hamilton each had the worst year of their careers, the Angels' thin pitching (no doubt a result of all those resources directed toward the offense) was exposed, and another year of greatness by Mike Trout went to waste in a 78-84 finish.
Toronto's trauma might have been the worst of all, because the Blue Jays' out-of-the-ordinary offseason aggression -- trading for Jose Reyes, Josh Johnson, Mark Buehrle and reigning National League Cy Young winner R.A. Dickey and signing Melky Cabrera -- had folks believing they were ready to be players in the American League East, which began passing them by some 20 years ago.
Instead, the Blue Jays went backward, from fourth place to fifth, with an 88-loss season. Reyes, Cabrera, Jose Bautista and Brett Lawrie all got hurt, and the supposedly improved starting pitching posted a 4.81 ERA that ranked 29th in the Majors.
Those of us who picked these clubs to advance to October (and my hand is sheepishly raised here) can laugh it off and cite the unpredictability of baseball.
But the men who run these clubs have serious questions dogging them as they try to dig out from their frustrations, and they'll each have to rebound in their own unique way.
Nationals: As troublesome as 2013 turned out to be, the Nats are in no position to panic. In fact, first-year skipper Matt Williams takes over a club that's well-positioned to prove that it was the disjointed effort of this past season that was more of a fluke than the 98-win campaign that preceded it.
At 34-20, the Nats had the game's best record over the final two months of the season, behind a scorching second half from Jayson Werth. And when you look up and down the Nats' roster, you see the sort of young, cost-controlled, prime-year talent around which a club can build a championship, provided Bryce Harper doesn't spend his winter running into walls and Stephen Strasburg makes the expected swift recovery from having bone chips removed from his throwing elbow.
"If you like what kind of club you have," said general manager Mike Rizzo, "you trust that and stay with it. If you feel there are changes to be made, you look to make those changes. The changes you make have to make sense."
Indeed, the primary goal of the Nats' offseason ought to be to avoid overreacting and overreaching. Primarily, that means avoiding the Robinson Cano free-agent derby, temping as it might be, because, in 23-year-old Anthony Rendon, the Nats have a lower-cost option with higher long-term upside who has proven he's ready for the rigors of the big leagues. It also means stopping short of selling low on Adam LaRoche and Danny Espinosa in the wake of their miserable seasons and dangling Span in a year in which the open availability of Jacoby Ellsbury and Shin-Soo Choo might hurt his trade value.
Aside from the usual bullpen and bench tinkering that all teams accomplish this time of year, the only area Rizzo and Co. would be wise to impact would be the rotation, which, while loaded with some emerging young options, could certainly stand to benefit from another layer of veteran stability. Here, David Price is obviously the most appealing possibility, but giving up Rendon as part of a package to land him might not be appealing at all. Because of the costs, Jeff Samardzija would be a more attractive trade target than either Price or Max Scherzer (who's likely unavailable, anyway), much like Gio Gonzalez was two years ago.
Angels: On the other hand, the Angels have every reason to reconfigure their roster considerably.
With so much money tied into the bats, GM Jerry Dipoto tried to take advantage of his home park's effects by bringing aboard the likes of Jason Vargas, Joe Blanton and Tommy Hanson.
Suffice to say it didn't work. The Angels were the polar opposite of the Mike Scioscia playoff teams of old, which were built on pitching and defense. The Angels not only had one of the league's highest staff ERAs (4.23), but they also, surprisingly, had one of the worst defensive runs-saved marks (minus-61) in the game.
Because another aggressive free-agent approach could push the Angels right up against the luxury-tax threshold, the costs of their current disconnect between expectations and reality will be punitive. They're going to have to be assertive in the trade market, and they're going to have to dangle Mark Trumbo, whose power (a 32-homer average over the past three seasons) is more tantalizing a commodity than ever. Yes, the Angels will also listen to offers for Howie Kendrick, Peter Bourjos and Erick Aybar, among others, but if the Angels truly want to inject the organization with upside pitchers, Trumbo is the guy who, frustratingly, has to go.
"We're not predetermined to move any of [our hitters]," Dipoto said. "We are open to solve our needs that are more on the pitching side than the offensive side."
There's no sugar-coating the Angels' situation. If Pujols and Hamilton don't start producing at levels resembling what they once did, it won't matter how the pitching staff fares. But Dipoto has to consider every option to improve the pitching in the interim. Hopefully, in reworking the coaching staff and hashing out differences of opinion, the Halos have adequately addressed the supposed power struggle between Dipoto and Scioscia, both of whom will nonetheless be perceived to remain on something resembling a hot seat in 2014.
Blue Jays: GM Alex Anthopoulos faces a similar burden as Dipoto in that his current payroll, with more than $120 million committed to 16 players, will limit him in the open market (where many players have shied away from signing with Toronto, anyway) and his thinned farm system will limit him in making trades.
That means a similar bottom line: You have to give up something to get something.
The good news for Toronto is that you don't have to squint too hard to see a contender emerging out of the current roster. But it's going to take health (something that has famously eluded the Blue Jays the past two years) and it's going to take guys performing at levels closer to or above their career norms.
In addition to addressing second base and catcher (where Yan Gomes would have looked pret-tay, pret-tay good had the Blue Jays not dealt him), Anthopoulos certainly has to fix his leaky rotation. While a one-year deal with Johnson would be a worthy gamble, it's one the Blue Jays understandably weren't willing to fork over $14.1 million to take, and Johnson will likely land elsewhere. What the Jays really need is some semblance of certainty, which Johnson cannot provide at this point.
How will the Blue Jays find it? Well, as difficult as it is to imagine the Blue Jays actually dealing away Bautista, the hard truth is that there are worse ways to go about your business than to sell high on a 33-year-old in a market starved for the kind of power he produces. The Bautista-for-Dom Brown report that emanated out of the GM Meetings this week was utter rubbish, but that doesn't mean the prospect of a Bautista blockbuster is.
More likely -- much more likely -- is that Anthopoulos will take advantage of his bullpen depth or dip into his Minor League system (where six of Toronto's top prospects are all pitchers) to improve his club's immediate outlook via trade (the Angels, who have Chris Iannetta and Hank Conger to deal, line up as a good fit to fill the catching hole). And there could still be enough room in the budget to dabble in at least the second-tier starting market that includes guys like Scott Feldman, Phil Hughes, Ryan Vogelsong and Scott Baker.
The Blue Jays will face the daunting prospect of trying to go from worst to first in the AL East. But at least they don't have to delve far into the history books to find past precedent there.
And at least they have company in the business of trying to rebound from a drastically disappointing 2013.