In the Hot Stove season, even the level-headed or even-keeled among us can get swept up in the storylines and scoops, the rampant rumors and the instant assumptions that come with player movement. Every year, we remind ourselves of the dubious value of "winning the winter" and yet we still get caught up in conversation about the improvements made by the clubs that did just that, virtually ignoring those on the silent or low-profile end of the spectrum.
So here's a shout out to five teams that probably won't be touted much in the weeks leading up to Spring Training but that, one way or another, took the Hot Stove steps they needed to take.
The first FanGraphs projection for the 2016 standings came out earlier this week, and it has the Indians on top in the American League Central with 85 wins. I'll consider buying into the notion that 85 wins takes the Central, because it appears to be a competitive division, top to bottom. No way I'm buying the Indians as outright division favorites, because their vaunted starting staff thins out considerably after the top three (Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar), for my money their best player (Michael Brantley) is out for the foreseeable future, and they've only made marginal upgrades to an offense that ranked near the bottom in the AL.
But I want to say something about the Indians' offseason: They have done precisely what a team in their position ought to be doing.
This club's signature strength is cost-controlled starting pitching, and, while it would be nice to see the Tribe take advantage of that luxury (made all the more luxurious by the inflation of the price tags of this year's free-agent arms) and spend big elsewhere, there is little evidence to suggest a club on the low rung of attendance totals ought to be operating that way and just as little evidence that big spending leads to success. The Providence Journal has done great work explaining the diminishing correlation between wins and payroll in recent years.
As the Indians painfully demonstrated in the winter before an otherwise successful 2013 season, in-between spending (in that case, it was a one-time spree on Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn, who were top-of-the-market players only as a function of a weak market) doesn't work.
No, a team in the Tribe's position ought to ride its prospects and cost-controlled talents as long as possible, handling the arbitration years, maybe buying out some free-agent years where possible (and the Indians have done this with Jason Kipnis, Brantley, Kluber, Carrasco and others) and then just rounding out the roster with free agents in the $5-10 million range (which is precisely what they've done with Mike Napoli and Rajai Davis). With little evidence to demonstrate that in-between spending is going to have a dramatic impact on performance or attendance -- and with inefficient, top-of-the-market spending little more than a fever dream in a market of this size and strength -- this is the only sensible strategy. (The Indians also made the sensible, baseball-specific move to cut Chris Johnson, regardless of the $17.5 million they still owe him.)
I was an advocate for the Indians dealing one of their starting arms for some offensive help before the Hot Stove season really got going, but I think many people in this industry, myself included, were taken aback by how rapidly prices escalated for free-agent pitching. It made it that much more difficult to obtain an acceptable return value, and the only club, to date, that has gone all-in on a cost-controlled arm in the trade market (the D-backs) simply preferred Shelby Miller over Salazar, dubious though that position may turn out to be.
One thing to remember: Despite finishing 81-80, the Indians had the third-best third-order winning percentage in the AL last season. (No word on whether they'll have T-shirts printed to commemorate that fact.)
Before signing Wei-Yin Chen to a five-year, $80 million deal earlier this week and reaching a five-year, $50 million extension with second baseman Dee Gordon on Wednesday, the Marlins had done nothing of substance to their roster. Their inclusion here is not a celebration of the Chen signing (though I do think a pitcher who has generally held his own in the AL East should live comfortably in the National League version).
No, this is a celebration of the Marlins -- to this point, at least -- not doing anything dramatic and drastic, on either end of the spectrum.
The Fish kept the asking price on staff ace Jose Fernandez so unrealistically high that there's little accuracy in saying he was "on the market" in the first place. And why not set the bar high? Fernandez will -- or at least should -- be on an innings cap in 2016 in his first full season following Tommy John surgery, but he's still very much on the upward escalator when it comes to establishing himself as a legitimate ace in this game, and dealing him three years in advance of his free-agent date ought to come with a truly overwhelming return. The Marlins have not let any potential consternation with Fernandez or his agent, Scott Boras, compel them to make a less-than-satisfactory swap.
Nor have the Marlins moved Marcell Ozuna, another Boras guy, despite the decidedly icy relationship caused by the Marlins' manipulation of his service time last season. Despite the big league struggles that prompted his surprise demotion to Triple-A last summer, a 25-year-old center fielder with power is tremendous currency in this game, and the Marlins -- again, to this point -- haven't moved him for the sake of moving him. Rather, they brought in Barry Bonds -- whose knowledge has a value that far exceeds any unnecessary hand-wringing over his PED past -- to help Ozuna reach his full potential.
Basically, what I'm saying here is that the Marlins haven't done anything crazy with a club that has a lot of good young talent. There has not been an ill-fated, 2012-like splurge, nor has there been a rebuild-signaling series of swaps. Having addressed some instability in their front office and in their dugout, where Don Mattingly now reigns, the Marlins have made moves and non-moves purely on their baseball merits. What a concept.
The Marlins probably still need to do more. Their rotation is full of uncertainty beyond Fernandez and Chen. The NL East figures to be a forgiving division this year, but you can hardly label the Fish a favorite at this juncture.
What you can say, however, is that they haven't been noisemakers or newsmakers on the Hot Stove scene. And given recent organizational history in this area, that's probably a good thing.
So much of the Mariners' fate for 2016 will continue to rest in the very things that dictated their fate in 2015. Robinson Cano didn't get any younger this offseason, and coming back from sports hernia surgery can compromise a player's explosiveness in the near term. Nelson Cruz has seen his OPS+ climb each of the last three seasons, and it's an open question whether a 35-year-old can make it a fourth. Felix Hernandez had a statistical setback last season and, nearing 30, has already thrown 2,262 1/3 innings in the big leagues. And oh by the way, the farm system simply hasn't developed enough tangible big league talent (though there is deserved optimism that Ketel Marte is going to more than satisfy the shortstop needs for the long, long haul).
This is the situation general manager Jerry Dipoto inherited in replacing Jack Zduriencik, and, while it's impossible to know what the end result will be, I like the work Dipoto has done to make this roster more multi-dimensional despite the budget limitations in place.
For starters, two of the M's offseason pickups -- Wade Miley and Adam Lind -- made my All-Underrated roster earlier this week, with Miley in particular profiling as a clear bounce-back candidate, aided by the shift to Safeco Field. As noted within that piece, we have statistical evidence to demonstrate Miley has been one of the unluckiest pitchers in the bigs the last two years.
Maybe Leonys Martin and Chris Iannetta have been similarly unlucky, if their recent batting averages on balls in play are to be believed. And between Iannetta's pitch-framing skills and the improved athleticism Martin brings to the outfield, there's reason for optimism about those additions. Nori Aoki also adds that athletic element, to go with a patient bat that can satisfy the leadoff needs. And bringing back Franklin Gutierrez, an amazing comeback story who displayed enticing power in a small sample last season, was also a good move.
New closer Steve Cishek was a 2015 member of the All-Underrated team before his luck, control and velocity all suffered a dip. We'll label him a potential buy-low bargain for now, if only because his 2012-14 performance -- to say nothing of his reputation -- was so strong. The bullpen has been further reformed with the acquisitions of Joaquin Benoit, Evan Scribner, Justin De Fratus and Ryan Cook. Beyond Miley, the rotation was further aided by Dipoto's ability to get Hisashi Iwakuma at a bargain rate after his bigger deal with the Dodgers fell through. Nathan Karns has also been added to a unit in which Taijuan Walker and James Paxton have clear breakout potential.
Sometimes a rash of activity -- or the simple practice of "looking busy" -- has a way of overinflating optimism that real strides are being made. Maybe that's the case here. But on the heels of the Royals' great success, I like Dipoto's binge-on-bounce-back-candidates approach.
And for whatever it's worth, FanGraphs pegs the M's for 84 wins, second in the AL West.
Really, if you're going to rebuild, rebuild. Sell, sell, sell. Rip out the cabinets, roll up the carpet, find a buyer for the scrap copper. Lower yourself to the unmistakably desperate standard that is hosting a garage sale.
Unlike the parity-rich (on paper, anyway) AL, the Senior Circuit has a few rebuilding teams right now. While I applaud new Phillies GM Matt Klentak for doing the right thing with Ken Giles, the bottom line is that no club has done a better job removing all unnecessary emotion from the equation and just doing what must be done better than these Atlanta Braves. They are going to stink beyond belief in 2016, but, as the Astros and Cubs can attest, there's more value in pure putridity than mere mediocrity, especially when you've got new stadium revenues looming up the road.
You don't need me to sit here and celebrate the Miller haul. Braves officials celebrated it enough the night the deal was consummated at the Winter Meetings. It was, to put it succinctly, an impressive package led by Georgia boy Dansby Swanson (the top pick in the 2015 Draft), five team-controlled years of center fielder Ender Inciarte (who could be flipped for more talent before long) and starting prospect Aaron Blair. In the big picture, the Braves got all that -- as well as one standout season from Miller -- in exchange for one year of Jason Heyward.
But I'm totally in favor of the much-less-popular Andrelton Simmons swap with the Angels, too. Maybe Simmons becomes the late-blooming offensive threat that Brandon Crawford has become for the Giants. But if not, he's a potentially depreciating asset -- a player whose defensive value will begin to be offset, in some measure, by his rising price tag. Erick Aybar, a one-year addition, is a fine shortstop himself, but the big adds in that trade were Sean Newcomb, a big lefty with front-end potential, and right-hander Chris Ellis. And of course, the since-acquired Swanson could emerge as the long-term answer at Simmons' vacated position.
Because they are obligated, by league rule, to fill every position on the field, the Braves have brought back the likes of A.J. Pierzynski, Tyler Flowers, Kelly Johnson, Jim Johnson, Gordon Beckham and Emilio Bonifacio. Whatevs, as the kids say. But the Flowers/Pierzynski tandem should help the Braves' unusually robust assortment of young arms make progress at this level.
I'd be surprised if the Braves don't make a more earnest effort to move Julio Teheran and/or Freddie Freeman eventually, but doing so now -- with both players coming off a down year -- made little sense.
As for predicting what happens with prospects, well, it's only slightly more possible than predicting Powerball numbers. But the Braves have bought themselves a ton of tickets these last two years, and their rebuild reads as more productive than any other in the game right now.
In 2015, the A's were a 68-win team that, on the basis of the aforementioned third-order winning percentage available through Baseball Prospectus, woulda/shoulda/coulda been an 80-win team. That's because their bullpen stunk beyond belief.
Naturally, Billy Beane, who simply never punts, has done a bunch of stuff related to the bullpen.
By this point, two things are abundantly clear in baseball analysis:
1. Don't make any assumptions, good or bad, about a Billy Beane-constructed team.
2. Don't make any assumptions, good or bad, about a bullpen.
So I don't know what to tell you about the additions of Liam Hendriks, Ryan Madson, John Axford and a healthy Sean Doolittle. I just know that the bullpen can't possibly be much worse than it was in '15, and there is evidence to suggest the A's were a better club than they let on. The infield defense should be better with Yonder Alonso and Jed Lowrie, and the rotation -- plagued by injuries in '15 -- could be sturdier behind Sonny Gray with the continued development of some young arms brought aboard in recent trades and the signing of Rich Hill.
A team whose biggest expenditures are to Coco Crisp and Billy Butler has no business contending, and I'm not here to tell you the A's will contend in a complex division.
I'm just here to tell you they'll probably be more competitive than they were last year. And I feel compelled to say something positive about them now, so that, when they surprisingly march to 93 wins and an AL West title and everybody's wondering what the heck just happened, I can at least refer to this link and say I offered cautious optimism.
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Anthony Castrovince is a Sports on Earth contributor and an MLB.com columnist. Follow him on Twitter @Castrovince.