Heading into each baseball season, there are essentially three different types of teams – those who are legitimate contenders (I count about 12 for 2016 as of now), fringe teams (another nine), and those with almost no chance (about nine). While teams with even the lowest of expectations can surprise any season (think Houston last year), that kind of contention is rare and is often a team that has been rebuilding and is just contending ahead of schedule. The elder teams on the wrong side of the playoff window are rarely such a team.
Learning from their mistakes, a few teams are already deep into the rebuilding process, abandoning the 2016 season and moving on, with the Phillies being the greatest example. There are some others, however, who for some reason or another simply won’t admit that their run is over and rather than blow things up, continue to hold onto veteran players who could be traded for the next generation of stars or even have added salary going into next year. This is their wake-up call.
A little different than the other teams, the Reds have admitted that they have no chance at contention during the 2016 and have stated that all players are on the trading block. But to this point, they have done little to actually move them.
Going into the trade deadline in 2015, there were rumors abound about Aroldis Chapman, Jay Bruce, and even Todd Frazier, but Cincinnati generally stood pat, moving only current free agent Johnny Cueto to Kansas City for most of their AAA pitching staff and sending Marlon Byrd’s salary to San Francisco. While they tried to send Chapman to Los Angeles during the Winter Meetings, domestic abuse allegations put a hold on the deal.
The fact is that they should have traded Chapman at his peak value, during the 2015 season to a team who thought they were a closer away from the World Series. Now, not only does he have less time under team control (just 2016), he may be suspended for part of that and is considered questionable goods. In similar fashion, the price never would have been higher for Frazier than after he won the 2015 Home Run Derby, yet for the sake of not alienating their fan base, they held on to him and only now are trying to move him (Cleveland and Kansas City have been rumored destinations) after a dire second half.
The Reds only have $80.03 million in contract guarantees for 2016, but that amount is owed to only seven players, three of which will only be with the team for 2016 (Bruce) or 2017 (Brandon Phillips and Frazier). Given the current state of the NL Central and the lack of young talent on the Reds, there is very little chance of contention for Cincinnati before 2018 and less reason to keep these three players in particular. It would be almost impossible to find a taker or a fair deal for the mega contracts of Joey Votto and Homer Bailey, but at least these three veterans (four counting Chapman) could be moved in an effort to make a real run in a few years. There are plenty of teams with bursting minor league systems who are ready to contend right now and would certainly love the addition of Bruce, Phillips or Frazier in exchange for a high profile AA player or mid-level AAA. It’s just up to the Reds now to get the process started.
A team possibly in an even worse position than the Reds in all but divisional competition, the Braves have been active in the trade market in the past year, but their moves have not been as one sided as would be expected. Instead of dropping salary and aging players, they actually made a two for one deal in August, bringing in the albatrosses that are Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn for Chris Johnson. They were able to drop some salary in a three team deal at the deadline with Miami and Los Angeles, but still have $74.63 million on the books already for 2016.
While some of this is due to younger players who could be a part of the future, $29 million is for Swisher and Bourn (free agents after the 2016 season) and $12.4 million is due to Freddie Freeman in a contract that escalates to $20.9 million next year and goes on through 2021. Much like the Marlins (who are not included as I don’t believe they need to fully rebuild to contend) with Marcell Ozuna and Jose Fernandez, there have been conflicting rumors coming from the Braves all off-season about Freeman, ranging from them wanting to trade him immediately to others saying they never will.
Unlike Cincinnati, where their veterans still have value, no team is going to give up a legitimate prospect for Swisher or Bourn and since they are off the books after 2016 anyway (and Cleveland gave Atlanta around $14 million to offset their salaries) there is no incentive to trade them. But there is reason to move players like Freeman and Nick Markakis, who could bring value back in return. Moves like these aren’t usually popular, but for a team that isn’t planning on winning right now, there is no better move than to clean the slate and pick up as many near ready prospects as possible in the process.
The last of the obvious rebuilders is Colorado. The fervor surrounding the recent free agent starting pitcher signings has almost all been in the National League West, as an arms race of epic proportions is taking place between the established Dodgers and Giants along with the up and coming Diamondbacks. Even the Padres are spending like they think they can compete somehow, but in all of this, the Rockies have been left behind. Already sending the face of the franchise, Troy Tulowitzki, to Toronto, they have little choice but to finish the remodel and set their focus upon the future.
The two biggest deals the Rockies have left on the books beyond 2016 are Jose Reyes (who was the salary offset in the Tulowitzki deal) and Carlos Gonzalez, the pair being owed $81.86 million over the next two seasons (both can be free agents after 2017). That being said, Jorge De La Rosa is a more time sensitive player to move as some team could be interested in the 2.8 WAR innings eater. De La Rosa is owed $12.5 million for his final season under contract and although he will be 35, his 4.16 ERA at Coors field through more than 500 may be impressive enough to be worth a deal.
Also getting up there in years, Reyes still has obvious value to a team needing a veteran presence up the middle (but like Chapman, is staring domestic abuse allegations and a likely suspension in the face) and of course, Gonzalez is the real jewel left on the team. In addition to these, Charlie Blackmon and D.J. LeMahieu are entering their first year of arbitration and could command a fortune in minor league talent. If they were to jump into the rebuild head on, moving one of those two players along with Gonzalez could allow them to skip over years of minor league drafting and development.
Finally, a 68 win team doesn’t need a big money bullpen yet the Rockies have $6.25 million owed to LOOGY Boone Logan for 2016 and for some reason just signed Jason Motte to a $10 million two-year deal. This isn’t a particularly intelligent way to rebuild, wasting money on players who won’t be around for the winning years and who won’t make a big difference now. They would almost certainly be better off giving those innings to borderline AAA relievers and finding out who is Major League quality and who is not.
The final two teams we are looking at were last place finishers in 2015 who think they can buy their way back into first without any evidence of this being reality. The first are the Tigers, who have been surpassed in talent by the World Champion Royals as well as the Twins, Indians and White Sox. The entire AL Central is filled with great pitching (five of the top 10 AL pitchers in WAR not only play for Chicago and Cleveland, but will be there for a very long time), great defense and improving offense, none of which the Tigers have.
What Detroit does have is a ton of salary obligations that aren’t going anywhere and they added even more already this winter. It seemed they were tending towards a realistic appraisal of themselves when they traded Yoenis Cespedes and David Price before losing them to free agency, but for his efforts to save the franchise, GM Dave Dombrowski was fired and Mike Illich is currently working to spend his way out of a growing talent hole.
Unlike most the other teams on this list, Detroit can’t trade their way out of their extremely high contracts, as $240 million is owed to Miguel Cabrera alone through 2023 and $119 million to Justin Verlander through 2019. Some slightly more flexible deals have been given to Anibal Sanchez and Victor Martinez, but the Martinez other teams would be interested in is J.D. and there is little chance of the Tigers parting with their best hitter.
There is no easy answer for Detroit and they are already paying $30 million to the Rangers for the next five years for the Prince Fielder mistake. The best Detroit can do right now is to focus on the future by making the best use of their high 2016 draft pick and simply pay out their current deals, but they are refusing to even place the slightest emphasis on the future. By signing Jordan Zimmermann to a five year, $110 million deal, they cost themselves their second round pick in 2016 in addition to the option of bringing up the next generation of starting pitchers.
Boston Red Sox
Similar to Detroit, but possibly even more extreme, the Red Sox are also a last place team (two years running) that is trying to spend their way back to the top. In continuing connections to the Tigers, they brought in Dombrowski and purchased Price with one of the biggest contracts ever given to anyone in sports.
Rather than fixing problems from within, Boston made multiple bad moves last winter that are still harming them, particularly the signings of Hanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval and now have nine players signed to deals above $10 million AAV and three above $20 million AAV (including another bad signing, the extension of Rick Porcello). If any team has shown time and time again that you can’t just buy a World Series, it is the Red Sox, yet they continue to fall for the same mistakes.
Unlike some of the above teams, the Red Sox do have a healthy farm system, or at least they did prior to trading four highly thought of prospects for Craig Kimbrel. If the Red Sox were set with 24 players of the quality that could bring them back to the World Series, moving four prospects for even the best closer in baseball might make sense, but the Sox aren’t there yet. Yes, the bullpen was a major problem for Boston last year, but adding the best closer and best starter in baseball are most likely not enough to make up the 15 games they finished behind Toronto last year.
The Red Sox may have bought themselves from the bottom tier of teams into the middle, but they have spurned their best chance at long term success and are just a few years behind Detroit in feeling the effects of long term contracts given to players over 30.