The AL Central went about as expected in 2013. Now-perennial contenders Detroit took first in the division and went deep into the playoffs, while Cleveland's offseason exploitation of the new compensation pick rules, plus some savvy scrapheap pickups and trade returns, were good enough to get them second place and a wild card berth. Kansas City's win-now James Shields trade yielded them just third place, because despite a fantastic rotation, the Royals were unable to score runs, something that doesn't look to change anytime soon. Pulling up the rear, the White Sox and Twins both had forgettable years best seen as steps towards the future.
Every team in the division was left unsatisfied this year (except perhaps the Indians, for whom a wild card is fairly substantial accomplishment after their dismal 2012), and every team will make moves in the offseason to build on recent gains.
Needs: 2B, LF, RP
The Tigers are essentially a complete team for 2014 already, regardless of what some people would have you think about how they need to trade Prince Fielder or sign a flashy, expensive, veteran closer. The oldest pieces of the team's core -- Miguel Cabrera, Justin Verlander and Fielder -- will all be 30 years old or just over, and considering Fielder's body of work so far in the majors, it should take a lot more than one merely above-average season of hitting to get people worried about his future. Following Jim Leyland's resignation at the end of the Tigers' postseason run, Detroit will have to hire a new manager, and then it has three big items on its to-do list: Decide whether they want to re-sign Omar Infante, decide if they think Nick Castellanos is ready to play left field full time, and shore up their bullpen.
Infante returned to Detroit from the Miami Marlins in 2012 as part of the trade that netted the Tigers Anibal Sanchez, and while Infante was somewhat underwhelming for the remainder of 2012, he put up a very respectable 2013 at a position where a lot of teams are scrambling to find an everyday player. Infante was a bit less durable than Detroit might have hoped, with a number of minor lower body and back injuries limiting him to only 118 games this year. He's also turning 32 this offseason, prompting a number of old concerns about how quickly second basemen in their early thirties can drop off.
Realistically, Detroit is going to kick the tires on every big second baseman hitting the market this offseason, and that means not just talking with Infante about coming back, but talking with Mark Ellis (should the Dodgers decline his option) and at least doing due diligence with the belle of this offseason's ball, Robinson Cano. How fiercely the Tigers pursue Cano will depend on how much budgetary freedom owner Mike Ilitch gives the front office; Ilitch has shown little concern in the past about authorizing large, long-term expenditures on free agents, so long as he's convinced the player in question will bring his team one step closer to a title. That said, the Tigers do have centerfielder Austin Jackson, catcher Alex Avila, starting pitchers Max Scherzer and Doug Fister and a number of bullpen arms set to get raises in arbitration, so it's possible the Tigers don't do much more than have a few conversations with Cano's representation, before focusing their efforts on retaining Infante. Still, given New York's budgetary concerns, and the Dodgers' public announcement that they won't be pursuing Cano, it's conceivable that the market for him collapses, and the Tigers get him in a costly but not exorbitant deal. Conceivable -- but not likely.
Regardless of the Tigers' true interests at second, the prudent move is to make a qualifying offer to Infante before he can leave for free agency. The qualifying offer this year is a one-year, $14.1 million contract, and if Infante declines to sign it and tests the market, then any team who does sign him must surrender a draft pick, while the Tigers would receive a compensatory pick. Infante is the most realistic, quality option for many teams, at a position that is weak across the sport, so it is unlikely he will accept the offer -- which is fine. Attaching draft pick compensation to Infante makes it more likely that he'll still be on the market, should the Tigers go after Cano but fail to land him.
Both center and right field are locked up for 2014, with Austin Jackson under team control for another two years and veteran Torii Hunter under contract through the end of next season. Left field is a place where the team can stand pat, as Andy Dirks is just entering the arbitration process, and top prospect Nick Castellanos moved from third base to left field on a full-time basis in 2013. If the Detroit does turn to free agency for a left fielder, they'll be looking for another guy like Hunter -- a veteran who fits in on a team expected to contend, but who won't demand a lot of years on his contract. Carlos Beltran woud be an ideal candidate, but the Tigers could also look at Marlon Byrd or David Murphy, while Shin-Soo Choo and Nelson Cruz likely will want too many years to interest the Tigers (unless they've completely lost faith in Castellanos). A Dirks/Don Kelly platoon to open the year, followed by a Castellanos call-up midseason, seems most likely.
The Tigers bullpen was a whipping boy for much of the 2013 season, but it has fewer flaws than the uproar over it indicated. All Detroit needs to do to "fix" its pen is bring back Joaquin Benoit, pick up Jose Veras's $3.25 million option, non-tender Phil Coke and replace him with another middle reliever (like Luis Ayala), and bring back most of the younger guys in the pen (like Drew Smyly, Al Alburquerque and Luke Putkonen). Benoit likely will try to turn his performance this season into a big closer contract, which is a place the Tigers can afford to spend if they really want to. If they want other options at closer, Brian Wilson appears to have recovered fully from his second Tommy John surgery, and Fernando Rodney should be affordable on a short deal. The Tigers could hand the job to Bruce Rondon, who proved unprepared to handle it early in 2013. More than any other part of the roster, Detroit's decision here will hinge heavily on who they hire to manage the team and what he's comfortable with in the bullpen.
Needs: 1B, SP, RP
The Indians were the team that had the best offseason a year ago, signing Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn to reasonable free agent deals by taking advantage of their protected first-round pick and the new qualifying offer rules, while picking up important secondary pieces like Ryan Raburn, Scott Kazmir and Yan Gomes through trade or free agency. There were two duds in the bunch -- Brett Myers' return to the starting rotation was a disaster, and Mark Reynolds was released before the end of the season -- but overall, it was a very, very strong showing.
This time around, however, Cleveland won't be able to leverage a protected pick or other clubs' qualifying offers. In fact, they might be the qualifying offerers this time, as Ubaldo Jimenez could void his $8 million option for 2014 and pursue free agency. There's little reason for him not to do so, since the going rate for a league average starter is about $13-15 million a year. Even if the Indians immediately hit him with a qualifying offer, that would still be a substantial raise, for basically the same outcome as picking up the option.
While it might be worthwhile to bring Jimenez back for another season, the Indians have gotten their money's worth out of Kazmir and would be best served to let some other team find out if he can sustain the comeback he made in 2013. The problem is that if Jimenez and Kazmir leave, even after penciling late-season surprise Danny Salazar into the rotation, Cleveland is left with at least one hole. Justin Masterson and Zach McAllister are steady if unremarkable hands. Corey Kluber showed enough promise to get another shot in the rotation, and Salazar has a chance to be very good in this league. But neither Carlos Carrasco nor Trevor Bauer showed any indication in 2013 that they're ready to step up and join the major-league team full-time.
Given that the Indians' $80 million payroll in 2013 was the second-highest it's been since their $93 million squad in 2001 -- and given that Masterson, closer Chris Perez, outfielder Drew Stubbs and about half the bullpen are all due arbitration raises -- it's unrealistic to expect the team to make the expenditure necessary to lock up Matt Garza, or to go after Masahiro Tanaka when he's posted. The first thing they should do, of course, is non-tender Perez, Stubbs, starting pitcher Josh Tomlin and perhaps even catcher Lou Marson, to free up some money. Vinnie Pestano had a bad 2013, but he was great the previous two seasons, and the bad year last year might depress the cost to sign him to a one-year deal to avoid arbitration. With the savings, the Indians will need to address the rotation, first base (or right field) and the bullpen, in that order.
Even if Garza and Tanaka are out of the picture, there are pitchers the Indians can pursue that would constitute clear upgrades. Both A.J. Burnett and Bartolo Colon would slot in at the head of the Cleveland rotation were the Indians to sign them. Burnett is in his late thirties and has been rumored to want to play only for Pittsburgh, and Colon is over 40 and flagged late in the season. Tim Hudson is still slated to be a free agent, and there's the usual slate of buy-low injury guys like Josh Johnson, Dan Haren and Colby Lewis. The most provocative move would be to try to trade for Tampa Bay starter David Price, with a package centered around top Cleveland shortstop prospect Francisco Lindor, and then extend him. Lindor would be a heavy price to pay, but the return would be one of the best pitchers in the American League and a long-term solution to Cleveland's problems at the top of the rotation. The issue would be whether Price is interested in signing an extension at this point with the Indians, or with anyone -- some players just want to hit the market.
Compared to the rotation, the other holes to fill on the team are minimal. Jason Kipnis is a fixture in the lineup, and Michael Brantley is as good as penciled into left field already. Lonnie Chisenhall will get another year at the hot corner, with Mike Aviles waiting to step in should he falter. Working in their favor is a bit of positional flexibility in the C/1B/RF/DH carousel, because Nick Swisher can play first or right, and Gomes showed enough behind the plate that the Indians may want to explore moving Santana into a Victor Martinez-like role of primarily 1B/DH, with some occasional starts at catcher.
They'll need another body for the lineup, but they may already have that guy on the roster. Jason Kubel joined the squad late in the year and has a team option for 2014, though at $7.5 million, it would be wise to void it and negotiate something smaller, given his poor 2013. Otherwise, the first base market is somewhat poor this offseason. The best options at the position, Mike Napoli and Kendrys Morales, are likely to return to their 2013 clubs, while Corey Hart and Kevin Youkilis spent either most or all of 2013 sidelined by injuries. Cleveland could take a chance on James Loney, but they'd be wise not to pay too much in money or years for the privilege.
As far as the bullpen is concerned, the main points are to get rid of Perez's money and use part of it to try to re-sign Joe Smith, though he mostly likely will go to a larger-market team with a bigger payroll. That said, it's not that difficult to build a bullpen in free agency if you're looking for talent in the right places. Considering the budget is already topped out by Cleveland's standards, it seems doubtful they'll be in the market for any of this year's expensive closer options.
Kansas City Royals
Needs: 2B, RF
The Royals are another team that has more or less made its bed already. Alex Gordon, Alcides Escobar, Eric Hosmer, Salvador Perez, Mike Moustakas and Lorenzo Cain are not going anywhere, while the Kansas City bullpen had a fantastic 2013 while being full of young arms who are, at most, in their arbitration years. While Bruce Chen and Ervin Santana are set to depart in free agency, one of their spots in the rotation might as well already be taken by starting pitcher prospect Yordano Ventura, who came up at the end of last season and rattled off three solid starts showing great stuff, especially on his fastball. Santana might not even depart -- the Royals are interested enough in bringing him back that they've already publically floated their intention to extend him a qualifying offer.
Whether or not all of these jobs should be safe is another question entirely, especially on the offensive side of the ball, where Moustakas, Cain, and Escobar had terrible seasons at the plate and Hosmer's .801 OPS led all of the regulars. Regardless, the only two positions that don't have a clear returning starter are second base and right field, as both spots on the field were handled by makeshift platoons for much of the 2013 season.
The Royals' free agent market for second base begins with Omar Infante (or Mark Ellis if the Dodgers let him go). Regardless of where Cano ends up, the second place bidder on him will also be a contender in urgent need of a second baseman, and they'll probably have a whole bunch more money to throw at Infante than the Royals are willing to budget, but there's still a chance Infante slips through to the Royals -- enough of a chance that they should make him the top priority. If Infante's off the table, the next best option is Kelly Johnson, followed by some formulation of Brian or Ryan Roberts, Skip Schumaker, and Nick Punto -- all of whom are underwhelming, but all of whom are probably better than Chris Getz and Johnny Giavotella.
As for the outfield, the team could continue to fill the right field spot post-Jeff Francoeur with David Lough and a platoon partner -- though nothing remarkable, Lough certainly wasn't the worst hitter on the 2013 squad -- but they might be better served by testing the market on Marlon Byrd, or perhaps leveraging some of their great prospect depth for someone in trade. Oddly enough, however, it seems the Royals are instead looking to acquire more pitching and are dangling DH Billy Butler out there as a return. After seeing so clearly how great pitching and defense can be let down by non-existent offense, it would make little sense to double down on that strategy.
Needs: 1B, SS, SP, RP
The Twins are a team in transition at the moment, and most of their hopes right now are pinned not on who they can sign in free agency but on how the prospects at the top of their farm pan out in the big leagues. Both third baseman Miguel Sano and centerfielder Byron Buxton could make it to the majors at some point next season, or at least by 2015, and the Twins are enthusiastic enough about both of those guys that while the production from those two spots was subpar last year it's highly unlikely Minnesota is going to sign anyone to play there long-term.
With the departure of Justin Morneau, the Twins will need a new everyday first baseman, but given how uninspiring the first base market is shaping up to be this offseason, it's possible the team instead uses this opportunity to move Joe Mauer out from behind the plate to first on a more permanent basis, given the problems he's had staying healthy as a backstop in the past few years. That would in turn put Minnesota in the market for a catcher, though neither of the big names -- Brian McCann and Carlos Ruiz -- seem to be a particularly good fit. The Twins could also use a new shortstop, because Pedro Florimon, Jr., has shown he shouldn't be getting everyday playing time, but the roster is devoid of other options for manager Ron Gardenhire and none of the good, near-ready pieces in the Twins farm play the position.
Both of those needs take a back seat to the remodeling that needs to be done in the Twins rotation, however. The following pitchers started games for the Minnesota Twins last year: Kevin Correia, Mike Pelfrey, Scott Diamond, Sam Deduno, Pedro Hernandez, Andrew Albers, Kyle Gibson, Vance Worley, Liam Hendriks, P.J. Walters and Cole DeVries. Out of all of them, the only ones worth keeping around for next year by their performance are Deduno and Albers, who barely managed to be on the right side of league average. As it stands, Correia will be back for the last year of his contract, Pelfrey is a free agent, and Minnesota still controls the rights to the rest. There's some help on the way -- Alex Meyer, who came back to the Twins in the Denard Span trade, has been very good since his acquisition -- but not three to four starters' worth.
The Twins' strategy for signing pitching last offseason was to plug holes with whoever was short-term, consistent and cheap, which is how the team ended up with Correia and Pelfrey. This time around, the Twins might want to try the reclamation angle instead -- perhaps, say, Josh Johnson is done, but perhaps he turns around and gives his new team a season like Francisco Liriano did, or even one like Scott Kazmir gave Cleveland. The Twins have very little to lose on that gamble, since they're already stuck waiting for the farm to come up and save them. The Twins' love of consistency in their pitchers could also make them ideal suitors for Matt Garza, as he would be under contract with the team through the opening of their window when Sano, Buxton, and Meyer all make it to the majors in late 2014 or 2015 and then a few more years into his early thirties. Otherwise, the Twins will likely be quiet this winter.
Chicago White Sox
Needs: C, 2B, SS, 3B, OF, SP
The White Sox' needs are many, and the team has already started addressing them. They acquired outfielder Avisail Garcia from the Tigers in the three-way deal that sent Jake Peavy to the Red Sox and Jose Iglesias to Detroit, and just last week they signed Cuban slugger Jose Abreu to a six-year, $68 million deal, the latest big contract given out to a Cuban League star who has had limited international exposure. Abreu is supposed to be the real deal -- one of the best power hitters in the world, though he hasn't ever faced the consistent high level of competition he'll see in the majors -- and he'll immediately take Paul Konerko's place at first base.
Chicago's woes won't be solved by two new hitters alone, however, because the problems on this roster run deep. At the very least, the White Sox need to replace Tyler Flowers and Conor Gillaspie as everyday players at catcher and third (I don't think anyone's still entertaining the notion that Jeff Keppinger is getting the third base job back) and take a very hard look at what to do about Gordon Beckham moving forward. Depending on the money they're willing to spend, that could put them in the market for Brian McCann… or Jarrod Saltalamacchia. The catcher market is rather thin outside of the top three of McCann/Ruiz/Salty, and the third base market even thinner than that.
Juan Uribe wouldn't be a terrible stopgap signing, nor would Jhonny Peralta for three or four years -- the White Sox don't need stars at these positions, but they do need players with a prayer of being above replacement level. In the outfield, the Sox could stand to upgrade from Dayan Viciedo in left, though at least both he and centerfielder Alejandro De Aza have looked like something approaching major league hitters at the plate. If Garcia, Dunn, and Abreu all hit like Chicago envisioned they would when acquiring them and the rest of the White Sox can avoid being actively detrimental both at the plate and in the field, then they'll give their pitching staff a chance to win them some games.
While Chicago does need to sign a starter or two, they've got a decent rotation planned out even with Jake Peavy's departure -- Chris Sale and Jose Quintana are returning, and Hector Santiago showed promise last year in his move from the bullpen to the rotation. That would leave them looking for back of the rotation starters, a role that guys like Scott Feldman, Jason Hammel, or even a reclamation project like Phil Hughes would fit well in. The bullpen already has its closer for the next few years in Addison Reed, and the White Sox are not in a position where they can afford to spend money on luxuries like big-name relievers -- first they've got to fix the rest of the roster. Abreu and Garcia were two good first steps, but they'll need to make a bunch more this offseason if they're going to climb out of the basement in 2014.