A year ago at this time, the Houston Astros were embarking upon a November that very much paved the way to October (and, notably, Nov. 1, 2017). In rapid succession, the Astros signed Josh Reddick, Brian McCann and Carlos Beltran. The vast majority of their Hot Stove activity was complete by the time the Winter Meetings began in early December and, looking back, we can safely say the aggressive pursuit of offseason targets was a strategy that worked out quite well for Jeff Luhnow and Co.
We'll see if others follow that formula now that the 2017-18 offseason is officially upon us. The free-agent market opened for business earlier this week, and it will be interesting to see how the proliferation of power and the emphasis on bullpens shifts the strategies and price tags in a business that is always evolving.
As we wait for the first dominoes to fall, what follows is one man's opinion on the offseason's most interesting team in each division.
American League East: Red Sox
The Red Sox edged the Yankees in the East last year, but it doesn't really feel that way, does it? The Yankees gathered clear -- and, from the outside, unexpected -- organizational momentum that propelled them into the seventh game of the AL Championship Series, while the Red Sox struggled to meet the lofty expectations put upon them and were a quick exit from October. Both clubs dismissed their managers because, well, anything goes in the AL East. But as we head toward 2018, it certainly seems the Dave Dombrowski-led Boston front office is under the most pressure to deliver in this renewed rivalry.
Dombrowski is not a man of inaction, and he's not a man generally prone to moves on a small scale, either. Alex Cora has all the attributes you want in a modern manager, but he can't improve what was the AL's lowest home run total and second-lowest slugging percentage in '17. The Red Sox might have to pay for pop, and Eric Hosmer, Carlos Santana and J.D. Martinez are among the options in the open market. Dombrowski has said the luxury tax is not a concern for 2018, which opens up a wealth of possibilities on the free-agent front. But the trade market is also interesting here, as the Red Sox could get creative in the bidding for Giancarlo Stanton or perhaps Andrew McCutchen.
National League East: Mets
Could just as easily go with the Braves here, as they await word on whatever punishments or restrictions will be put in place after apparent international signing violations upended their front office and left them searching for a new GM. Still, the Mets are more clearly in some semblance of win-now mode, even if they didn't win often in 2017. New manager Mickey Callaway promised to watch every game from 2017 to learn more about the club he inherited, and, once he receives his Medal of Valor for that arduous endeavor, there will be plenty of work to be done here if the Mets are really, truly going to make any waves.
The Mets can't rely purely on Callaway's pitching acumen and improved health from the likes of Noah Syndergaard, Steven Matz, Zack Wheeler, et al. The injury risk evident in their rotation means it would be wise to add some sort of stabilizing, innings-eating presence (hey, Bartolo Colon wants to keep pitching … just saying). And the Mets also need stability in what was a walk-prone bullpen last year. Oh, and the infield's a bit of a mess with David Wright frustratingly a non-factor and Dominic Smith not yet ready for prime time, and Michael Conforto's shoulder surgery hurts the outfield. All of this must be addressed within the Mets' typically tight budget. Callaway brings a lot of insight and enthusiasm to the dugout, but the roster needs more pieces to be enthusiastic about.
AL Central: Twins
The Indians have a ton of question marks with Carlos Santana, Jay Bruce and Bryan Shaw in free agency and Jason Kipnis currently a man without a position. But with the Royals, Tigers and White Sox all in rebuild mode, there's no realistic scenario in which the Tribe doesn't enter 2018 as the division favorite yet again.
The Twins, having won 85 games and a Wild Card spot despite a summer sell-off, are the team in the best position to push the Indians. There's a lot to like about a position player group featuring Brian Dozier, Byron Buxton, Miguel Sano (even coming off leg surgery), Eddie Rosario and Jorge Polanco. Heck, even Joe Mauer looked revitalized in the second half of '17, during which the Twins led the Majors in runs. But there's a ton of uncertainty in the rotation, as well as a bullpen that currently lacks a closer. Derek Falvey and Thad Levine focused on incremental upgrades in their first winter at the helm (and the addition of Jason Castro had a big impact on the pitching staff), but this year it might take a little more aggression to dispel the notion that the Twins are underachievers who advanced ahead of schedule in '17.
NL Central: Cubs
What will the Brewers do to keep their surprising momentum going? Will the Cardinals add a big bat like that of Giancarlo Stanton or J.D. Martinez? These are big questions. But the Central's biggest question is how the Cubs turn the annoyance of an off-kilter (and yet still, by most clubs' standards, successful) 2017 season into activity. Remember: This wasn't supposed to be a once-every-108-years kind of thing on the North Side. This was supposed to be a developing dynasty, and the expectations are evident in the way the Cubs shook up Joe Maddon's coaching staff after the NLCS exit.
Now, the focus is on the pitching staff. Do they bring back Jake Arrieta and/or Wade Davis? Do they target Yu Darvish (this Cubs front office finished a distant second in the Darvish sweepstakes when he first came to the States)? Do they reunite Alex Cobb with Maddon and his old pitching coach Jim Hickey? Do they deal from their surplus of position-player talents (Kyle Schwarber? Ian Happ?) to improve the pitching?
AL West: Angels
How this team came within a win of .500 -- in a year in which Mike Trout missed more than six weeks, no less - remains one of life's great mysteries. It also inspires some hope that perhaps, with the right offseason investments and, of course, a full season of Trout, it can seriously challenge the defending champion Astros in 2018. Re-upping with Justin Upton was helpful, and one key to the deal was the way Upton's salary is backloaded. That, combined with the financial freedom finally afforded by Josh Hamilton's expired contract, gives the Angels the ability to do more. And do more they must. Third base and second base are basically black holes (in-season acquisition Brandon Phillips is now a free agent), and first base ain't no picnic, either.
With all of the above taken into account, perhaps it's no surprise that the Angels go into the offseason expecting to prioritize the position player group (Mike Moustakas, Neil Walker or Eric Hosmer would all be fine fits here) while largely betting on better health in their rotation. Billy Eppler has been at the helm for two years and has mostly had to do his club construction through the trade market. But this looks like his first opportunity with some money to burn.
NL West: Giants
You can pick any NL West club other than the Padres here, and I won't fight you. But there's something captivating about a star-laden squad with high standards trying to dig itself out of a bad season. The Giants tied for the worst record in baseball. They had their worst record in more than 30 years. In a year in which seemingly everybody -- even, perhaps, you -- hit at least 20 home runs, their home-run leader hit … 18. Their RBI leader had 77. Their highest individual slugging percentage was .469 (the Astros, for the sake of comparison, slugged .478 as a team). I could go on, but you get the point. The 2017 Giants: They Might Not Be Giants, and it led to the first major coaching shakeup in San Francisco in years.
So where do they go from here? Johnny Cueto opted to come back, and they've got Buster Posey, Madison Bumgarner, Brandon Crawford and Jeff Samardzija. This is not a totally desolate situation. But it is a situation screaming for an outfield upgrade, a third-base solution some bullpen pieces and a better bench. And the Giants have to do it despite already bumping up against the luxury tax threshold (Cueto, having wisely decided not to opt out, will make $22 million in 2018), which they've exceeded each of the past three seasons. This situation is no San Francisco treat.
* * *
Anthony Castrovince is a Sports on Earth contributor, MLB.com columnist and MLB Network contributor. Follow him on Twitter @Castrovince.