By Cliff Corcoran
Earlier this week I identified the biggest offseason needs of this year's 10 playoff teams. Below is a look at the biggest needs of the next 10 teams: The non-playoff teams with the best records this past season (using run differential as a tie-breaker) whose ability to properly identify and satisfy their biggest need this winter could put them in position to make it to the postseason in 2018.
Milwaukee Brewers: Starting pitcher
The Brewers improved by 13 wins in 2017 and finished just one game behind the Rockies for the National League's second Wild Card. That sudden surge has arguably accelerated the final stage of their rebuild, but just because they are ahead of schedule doesn't mean they won't show patience with their top prospects and young, team-controlled players. That's particularly relevant in center field and at second base, two positions where the Brewers struggled in 2017. At the former, 24-year-olds Lewis Brinson and Brett Philips are competing to push out Keon Broxton. At the latter, the Brewers are hoping for a rebound by 27-year-old Jonathan Villar, who has three team-controlled years remaining, but they have brought back utility man Eric Sogard just in case.
With the team taking a patient approach in the lineup, their best chance not only to sustain their 2017 improvement but to add the extra few wins that could put them in the postseason is adding a front-end arm to their rotation. That's particularly true given the fact that Jimmy Nelson had surgery to repair the labrum in is pitching shoulder in September, which put his ability to make a meaningful contribution to the 2018 Brewers in doubt. Indeed, the Brewers are reportedly showing significant interest in the top free-agent starters on the market, and given that Ryan Braun is the only Brewer guaranteed to make more than $5 million in 2018, they should have the financial flexibility to land at least one of them.
St. Louis Cardinals: Starting pitcher
The Cardinals haven't missed the postseason in three consecutive years since 1997-99, but their last playoff berth came in 2015, and the pipeline of talent that helped them make five straight postseasons prior to that has slowed significantly. St. Louis has been rumored to be one of the teams most aggressively pursuing Giancarlo Stanton, but it needs pitching much more than another outfielder or the middle-of-the-order bat, the latter of which seems to be its priority.
As things stand, the Cardinals do not have a playoff-quality rotation. They traded Mike Leake in August. Lance Lynn is a free agent. Adam Wainwright is 36, entering his walk year and hasn't been an above-average starting pitcher since tearing his Achilles tendon in April 2015. Alex Reyes will spend the early part of the season try to reestablish himself after his February 2016 Tommy John surgery. Thus, things are mighty thin behind ace Carlos Martinez. Heading in to 2017, Michael Wacha and Luke Weaver were expected to battle Reyes for the final spot in the St. Louis rotation. As things stand, they are the Cardinals' No. 2 and 3 starters. That's despite Wacha having never thrown more than 181 1/3 innings in a Major League season and having posted a 91 ERA+ over the past two seasons and Weaver having made only 18 career starts in the Majors and having set a career-high with 138 innings pitched between the Majors and Minors last year.
Los Angeles Angels: Infielders
The Angels did well to nab Justin Upton via an August waiver trade, then extend his contract by a year to prevent him from opting out of his contract, but they have more work to do to build their lineup around Mike Trout. Of particular concern are the infield spots surrounding star shortstop Andrelton Simmons. In 2017, the Angels' first, second, and third basemen combined to be more than six and a half wins below replacement, according to Baseball-Reference (bWAR). Better luck at the plate for Luis Valbuena, who can play all three positions but saw his production tank this year in part because of .210 average on balls in play, would certainly help, but Valbuena is just one man, and early reports have the Angels projecting him as their third baseman in 2018. Fortunately for the Halos, this offseason offers a deep class of free-agent first baseman. Perhaps as a result, second base has reportedly been the Angels' first focus this offseason, with free agent Neil Walker their most obvious target.
Kansas City Royals: Prospects (or a time machine)
With the Trade Deadline approaching this summer, the Royals had a tough choice to make. They could cash in their many impending free agents to restock a farm system that Baseball Prospectus ranked 27th in the Majors coming into the season, or they could buy into the team's midseason surge in the hope of making one more postseason run with those players. The catch was that, as I wrote at the time, win or lose, the latter scenario "could push the Royals' hopes of returning to sustained relevance into the latter part of the next decade or beyond."
Kansas City made the wrong choice. The Royals further weakened their farm system by trading for additional impending free agents (Melky Cabrera, Trevor Cahill) only to play .357 ball in August and finish with an 80-82 record. Now, more than half of their post-Deadline starting lineup has declared free agency, and the Royals are staring directly into a solid decade of long-term rebuilding from the draft up. Rather than attempt to fill their many vacancies this offseason, the Royals should consider doing what they failed to do in July: Trade their few remaining players of value for near-ready prospects who might accelerate their return to relevance. Even then, they're already years behind the division-rival White Sox on that front.
Tampa Bay Rays: First baseman
Most rumors regarding the Rays thus far this offseason have been about them trading away arbitration-eligible players in an attempt to cut payroll. That process appears to have started with them sending righty reliever Brad Boxberger to the D-backs on Thursday morning. The extent of their dealings remains to be seen, however, and no matter how deep the cuts, they are going to need a first baseman with both Logan Morrison and deadline addition Lucas Duda now free agents. That said, don't look for Tampa Bay to make a big splash. This year's class of free-agent first basemen is deep, and the Rays will likely settle for a one- or two-year deal for someone like Mark Reynolds, Mitch Moreland, Mike Napoli or Adam Lind.
Seattle Mariners: Starting pitcher
Mariners' general manager Jerry Dipoto continues to live up to his reputation as a busybody. In an otherwise slow-to-develop offseason, he has already added four outside players to his 40-man roster, most notably filling his vacancy at first base by trading for A's slugger Ryon Healy. Dipoto has also retained veteran righty Hisashi Iwakuma on a Minor League deal, entering him into a crowded competition for the back of the Mariners' 2018 rotation. However, while the Mariners have a lot arms to compete for those last couple of spots, there's not much cause for enthusiasm among that bunch. Meanwhile, Felix Hernandez is well into his decline, leaving James Paxton, a 29-year-old who has never thrown 140 innings in a Major League season, as the ace.
The rumor mill currently has the Mariners focused on outfield help, such as centerfielder Jon Jay or corner man Jay Bruce, and crossing their fingers for Shohei Ohtani, but they'd be better served by targeting the top of the domestic starting pitching market.
Texas Rangers: Pitching
The Rangers are thus far the only team to add a Major League starting pitcher this offseason, inking veteran righty Doug Fister to a one-year, $4 million deal with a club option for 2019. However, they have far more work to do to bolster a staff that allowed 5.04 runs per game in 2017, posted a 4.76 ERA in relief (the third-worst mark in the Majors), traded Yu Darvish at the non-waiver Deadline and is losing Andrew Cashner to free agency. With Cole Hamels heading into his age-34 season and in apparent decline, their already thin rotation lacks an ace, and A.J. Griffin and Nick Martinez are not satisfactory solutions for the fourth and fifth spots. Indeed, despite the Fister signing, the Rangers remain interested in free agents such as Jake Arrieta, Alex Cobb, Lance Lynn and Tyler Chatwood. However, it seems unlikely they can afford to re-sign Darvish, which is one reason that they traded him in the first place.
Miami Marlins: Pitching or prospects
It's no secret that the Marlins are looking to manage their payroll, starting with a trade of the defending National League MVP, Giancarlo Stanton. It's unfortunate, because the Marlins actually outscored the pennant-winning Dodgers during the 2017 regular season and could be contenders in 2018 if they invest in pitching rather than break up what was the fifth-best offense in the National League this year. And while the Marlins' depleted farm system could use an infusion of prospects, the more salary relief they get in a trade, the fewer (and lesser) prospects they'll receive, which will make a quick turnaround more difficult in Miami.
Toronto Blue Jays: Middle infielder
After consecutive playoff berths in 2015 and '16, their first since the early '90s, the Blue Jays shed 13 wins in 2017 as injuries tore through their roster and franchise icon Jose Bautista's production collapsed. Toronto could rebound in the coming season with better health, a little luck and a strong sophomore season from Deadline addition and potential Bautista replacement Teoscar Hernandez. What the Blue Jays can't do, however, is continue to expect middle infielders Devon Travis and Troy Tulowitzki to contribute full seasons. What they need most is high-end backup in the middle infield, a utility man who can start at second base or shortstop for a month or more and keep that position comfortably above replacement level. Free agent Edwardo Nuñez is the obvious option, though he's not a great fielder and his legs may not hold up on the Rogers Centre turf. General manager Ross Atkins has confirmed that such a player is a top priority for the team.
Pittsburgh Pirates: Relief pitching
After three straight Wild Card berths from 2013-15, the Pirates have had two straight losing seasons. However, as with the Blue Jays, there's some reason for optimism given some of the Pirates' bad breaks this past season. Chief among those were Starling Marte's 81-game performance-enhancing drug suspension and Gregory Polanco's chronic hamstring issues and struggles at the plate. Simply getting those two to return to form would do a great deal to improve the Pirates' outlook in 2018. Further maturation from first baseman Josh Bell and starting pitchers Jameson Taillon and Tyler Glasnow would also be welcome. Absent improvements from at least four of those five, the Pirates likely won't be contenders. However, if those in-house corrections do occur, the best thing the Pirates can do to strengthen the team around them is to stock their bullpen, which shed impending free agents Tony Watson and Juan Nicasio down the stretch.
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Cliff Corcoran is a Sports on Earth contributor and a regular guest analyst on MLB Network. An editor or contributor to 13 books about baseball, including seven Baseball Prospectus annuals, he spent the last 10 seasons covering baseball for SI.com and has also written for USA Today and SB Nation, among others.