Monday, 23 November 2015

A Winter of Dreaming and Scheming: MLB Offseason Preview

This winter, there is more talent available, via trade and free agency, than ever before. There is also a wider swathe of teams with the means and desire to spend money than at any stage of the modern era. At the confluence of those two trends, a record-breaking offseason is about to unfurl, and it has the ability to dramatically alter the baseball landscape for years to come.

So, let's take a deeper look at the main offseason protagonists.

Red Sox Reconstruction
Every winter, one team overshadows the rest in terms of aggression and desperation to upgrade its roster. This year, that honour falls to the Boston Red Sox, who hunger for elite pitching to rebalance their lopsided depth chart.

Under the aegis of Dave Dombrowski, an overhaul has already begun on fabled Yawkey Way. Craig Kimbrel, one of the game's premier closers, was prised from San Diego in a trade that reverberated throughout the industry. Boston's newfound willingness to sacrifice the homegrown prospects of tomorrow in order to acquire elite performers for today amounted to a signal of intent. The Red Sox mean business, and they're heading straight for the jugular.

Following two successive last-place finishes, and one postseason berth in six years, Dombrowski was drafted in as an agent of change. The Theo Epstein bloodline of considered intellectualism ran dry in Boston, and a shift in philosophy was needed. Rather than merely accumulating materials, the Red Sox needed to build something, so they hired one of baseball's most proven architects. Dombrowski surveyed the landscape in 2015, discovering what needed to be addressed. Now, at long last, he has been granted planning permission, and construction on the next Fenway monster is well underway.

All major building projects need a cornerstone, a platform on which to build. In the Red Sox' case, that central nucleus will need to be a genuine ace pitcher, something Beantown has lacked since Jon Lester was traded midway through 2014. Last winter, Ben Cherington took an outrageous gamble when electing to construct a starting rotation of distinctly average pitchers, with Clay Buchholz being the de facto ace and various shades of mediocre following. Despite atrocious seasons from Hanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval, Red Sox were dynamic and often explosive offensively, as Mookie Betts, Xander Bogaerts and Blake Swihart formed an exciting new core. Undoubtedly, pitching was Boston's Achilles heel, which makes it Dombrowski's number one priority this winter.

Fortunately for the Red Sox, this is arguably the greatest free agent pitching class of all-time. David Price and Zack Greinke, Cy Young Award finalists in their respective leagues, are the headline-grabbing names, but Johnny Cueto and Jordan Zimmermann lurk in a strong second tier, and Doug Fister, Scott Kazmir, Mike Leake and Jeff Samardzija round out an intriguing pool of talent.

Dombrowski has already indicated that the Sox will be heavily involved in the ace market, with Price seeming to fit Boston immaculately. Regardless of who they eventually chose, the Red Sox are potentially one big acquisition away from boosting their failing rotation and surging back into immediate World Series contention.

Anaheim Rejuvenation
When Jerry Dipoto resigned as Angels GM amid chronic infighting last year, the outcry was vociferous. A narrative was spawned that few executives would willingly work between meddlesome owner Arte Moreno and taciturn manager Mike Scioscia, who wields more power than any field general in the game.

However, this is a mammoth oversimplification. Yes, the win-now environment created by Moreno can be tough, and yes, Scioscia's traditional style can grate, but the road to glory is rarely smooth. Contrary to popular belief, the Angels are a tantalising prospect to many within the game, not least because they possess, in Mike Trout, one of the most talented players in baseball history.

Earlier this winter, Billy Eppler was hired as Dipoto's successor and, more importantly, was tasked with enacting a vision and building a team around Trout, the greatest of all building blocks. A longtime assistant to Brian Cashman with the Yankees, Eppler has a strong reputation, and it will be interesting to see his simultaneous belief in advanced analytics and traditional scouting come to fruition in Anaheim.

Eppler has wasted little time this offseason, already trading for uber-talented Braves shortstop Andrelton Simmons, who will team with Trout and Albert Pujols to create an irresistible core. However, while such additions allow Angels fans to easily dream of their team becoming a superpower, the prospective 2016 roster does have plenty of holes, most notably at catcher, third base, left field and the starting rotation.

Nonetheless, if Moreno loosens the pursestrings for his new GM, and the Angels compete in the elite free agent market, plus maybe swing another trade, Anaheim could become a perennial contender pretty fast.

Tweaking in Seattle
After leaving the Angels, Dipoto spent some time in the Red Sox' front office, before succeeding Jack Zduriencik as the Mariners' GM. He inherits a talented roster, but also the longest active postseason drought in Major League Baseball. Seattle hasn't been to the playoffs since 2001, and last year's capitulation when heavily favoured was a familiar story.

Hoping for a swift retool, Dipoto hired a new manager, Scott Servais, and has already pulled the trigger on trades for Nate Karns, Leonys Martin, JoaquĆ­n Benoit and Luis Sardinas, filling a number of gaps on his roster.

While these new additions, plus a fresh manager setting a different tone, may enable the Mariners to rebound in 2016, a free agent pitcher or everyday left fielder would go even further to restoring optimism. After all, the Mariners have a very strong core, namely Felix Hernandez, Robinson Cano and Nelson Cruz, but the complementary pieces have all too often been unbalanced and inconsistent. Perhaps another elite performer, and another veteran leader, could push Seattle over the edge and force the Mariners to finally deliver on their enormous potential.

Giant Ambition
In 2016, the Giants will aim to secure their fourth straight even-year world championship. However, the roster that sets off on such a quest may have a distinctly different feel to recent times, as San Francisco seeks new blood and fresh impetus. Brian Sabean will have more payroll flexibility this winter, following the departure of Tim Lincecum, Tim Hudson, Mike Leake, Marlon Byrd, Jeremy Affeldt, Ryan Vogelsong and others. Accordingly, the Giants may play a major role in setting the free agent weather this offseason, which should be refreshing to watch.

Most notably, San Francisco yearns for an elite starting pitcher to pair with Madison Bumgarner in the creation of a deadly one-two punch. Thus, many within the industry expect the Giants to be heavily involved in the David Price sweepstakes, while Greinke of the rival Dodgers remains a fascinating possibility. If those aces ultimately become too expensive for San Francisco, they'll likely wade into the market for Cueto, Zimmermann, Leake or maybe even Samardzija.

In addition to a top-of-the-rotation arm, the Giants will also add starting pitching depth, while the need for a power bat in left field is glaringly obvious. In this regard, Justin Upton may be a possibility, and Yoenis Cespedes appears to fit San Francisco's preferred profile of strong contact hitting and impressive defence.

With two or three key additions, on the mound and in the field, Sabean may once again equip the Giants to compete deep into October. The difficult part will be inserting new players into the clubhouse without compromising the tremendous culture that has underscored the team's success in recent years.

Dodger Decisions
Last year, the Los Angeles Dodgers crashed through the $300 million payroll plateau, spending more money than any North American sports team ever has in a single season. Yet, quite disturbingly, Don Mattingly could only steer the Dodgers to defeat in the National League Division Series, a third straight failure that cost him his job.

Now, Andrew Friedman, Farhan Zaidi and Josh Byrnes, otherwise known as the most intelligent and trailblazing think tank in the Major Leagues, are faced with making difficult decisions that will have serious ramifications for the Dodgers' future. After spending astronomically to mitigate the parsimony of previous owner Frank McCourt, the Guggenheim group now wishes to transition away from boom-or-bust economics and towards a more sustainable model centred around younger players. Amid those overarching parameters, the front office will hope to provide a nimbler, more versatile team for incoming manager Dave Roberts.

Accordingly, it's difficult to tell whether Friedman will spend shamelessly to keep Greinke in Dodger Blue. Los Angeles likely needs to fill two or three slots in the starting rotation, so how those funds are distributed by ownership will go a long way to setting the tone for this offseason, in Chavez Ravine and far beyond.

The Dodgers would also like to perform surgery on a schizophrenic bullpen, while second base is currently vacant following the departure of Howie Kendrick and Chase Utley. Thus, all things considered, we may see the Dodgers be more active on the trade scene rather than the free agent market. Friedman certainly has a stash of tantalising assets, ranging from Yasiel Puig to Andre Ethier to Alex Guerrero, from which to potentially deal, meaning there is little restriction to his creativity in upgrading the most expensive team in history.

Captivating times lie ahead for the Dodgers, and thus for the baseball universe they so freely dominate these days.

Cardinal Crossroads
For generations, the St Louis Cardinals have been held aloft as the great paragon of consistency in Major League Baseball. The Redbirds have only missed the playoffs four times in the last sixteen years, and have reached nine National League Championship Series' in that span, all in a relatively small market, all with a fairly middling budget.

However, change appears to be on the horizon within the Cardinals' unique ecosystem, as the club generates more money from ventures such as the marvellous Ballpark Village, and prepares to benefit from a new $1 billion television rights deal that comes into effect in 2018. Furthermore, St Louis now operates in an ultra competitive division alongside the Chicago Cubs and Pittsburgh Pirates, two brainy organisations geared for long-term success.

Within these parameters, GM John Mozeliak also faces concerns about the tremendous core that has set the cultural temperature and delivered the statistical goods at Busch Stadium for so long. Matt Holliday will turn 36 before the 2016 season begins; Yadier Molina underwent thumb surgery this winter and has rarely played at peak physical condition in the past three years; and Adam Wainwright may struggle to carry an ace's burden moving forward. Furthermore, glaring holes exist in right field and first base for St Louis, while upgrades at shortstop and centre field wouldn't hurt.

Therefore, the Cardinals may be set to spend more money than ever before, as they seek to replenish an ailing core and extend their window of contention to match that of Chicago and Pittsburgh. Naturally, Jason Heyward makes perfect sense to satisfy St Louis' desires, while a run at one of the elite starting pitchers may be advisable.

Ultimately, these are the St Louis Cardinals. They always find a way, always concoct some kind of magic potion down on the farm that turns average prospects into elite performers. Nonetheless, some new energy may be needed if Mozeliak wishes to keep up with the player development juggernauts spawned by his division counterparts.

Theo in Transition
Last year was an untethered delight for the Chicago Cubs. Jake Arrieta dazzled en route to winning the Cy Young Award; Kris Bryant sparkled as Rookie of the Year; and Joe Maddon cajoled a 24-win improvement from his mercurial team to claim Manager of the Year. Throughout the strenuous rebuilding plan, Cubs fans dreamed of such days, but the rapidity with which they arrived was a pleasant surprise.

In 2015, the Cubs played postseason baseball for the first time in six years. However, they were swept by New York in the NLCS without so much as holding a lead in any of the games, bringing about a 107th straight fruitless fall on the North Side, which is sure to disappoint Theo Epstein, whose sole objective is to build a powerhouse capable of quenching sports' most fabled thirst.

So, where do the Cubs go from here? The Plan, to cram as much homegrown, cost-controlled talent onto a roster as possible, is already ahead of schedule. Bryant is testament to that, as are Kyle Schwarber and Addison Russell. Furthermore, the next phase of the systematic rebuild, calling for external supplementation, began in earnest last winter with the acquisition of Jon Lester, Miguel Montero and Dexter Fowler. Now, having demolished and rebuilt, it's time for Theo to furnish his mansion. It's time to transition to a new level. It's time to go all-in.

In 2015, the Cubs spent only $82.4 million, placing them fourteenth in baseball. Of course, they play in one of the league's largest markets, while the commercial rebuild to enhance revenue streams at Wrigley Field and through television rights is also coming on apace. Epstein has already said the Cubs may need to get "creative" this winter rather than simply throwing money around, but it would be logical to conclude that Chicago will feature heavily in the free agent market, seeking to compliment its prized core with pieces that may turn a swept NLCS team into a pennant-winning one.

Dreams in the Desert
To many baseball analysts, it feels like the Arizona Diamondbacks have spluttered and stumbled through an accidental rebuild in recent years, suffering an identity crisis but somehow tripping unconsciously into a window of opportunity. Even now, I'm not entirely sure if Dave Stewart and Tony La Russa know what they want to do with this franchise, but it appears to be cycling towards something big, if industry whispers are to be believed.

In Paul Goldschmidt, Arizona has a generational building block, the first homegrown superstar to help make the Diamondbacks marketable in the mainstream. The present team also has some pretty competent outfielders, but right now, the pitching just isn't good enough to enable competition with the richer Dodgers and Giants. Therefore, one wonders whether Arizona may swallow hard and become a stealth contender in the elite free agent pitching market this winter.

We already know that the Diamondbacks really like Aroldis Chapman, Cincinnati's flame throwing closer, so a game-changing trade may also materialise. Certainly, there appears to be sentiment within the Arizona offices to alter the landscape, change the outlook, and finally try to narrow the gap to San Francisco and Los Angeles in the chaotic NL West. What that looks like, and who that nets them, remains to be seen, but watch out for the Diamondbacks this offseason. They could be poised to strike, consciously or not.

Planning in Purgatory
As is the new norm in this age of two Wildcards from each league, many teams are still undecided as to their philosophical constitution heading into the key winter months.

In the Bronx, Hal Steinbrenner has taken it upon himself to impose relative austerity on the New York Yankees, which seems fairly egregious given the astronomical revenue their global brand continues to generate. It's perhaps understandable that Brian Cashman will look to implement a new core of Greg Bird, Luis Severino, Rob Refsnyder, Gary Sanchez and Aaron Judge while the humongous contracts of Alex Rodriguez, CC Sabathia and Mark Teixeira run down, but willingly refusing to spend from their endless resources represents a departure from Yankee tradition that should be cause for concern.

Meanwhile, in Toronto, the exit of Alex Anthopoulos and arrival of Mark Shapiro throws fresh doubt onto the plans of an organisation that was reborn in a flurry of stupendous bat flips last year. Will Shapiro take his customary cautious approach when Toronto is clearly geared for immediate gambling, or will he grasp the opportunity and continue striving for rapid success?

In Detroit, Al Avila and the Tigers are also teetering on the brink of a massive decision, as their window for continual contention narrows considerably. Will they continue to push for that long-awaited title, or begin transitioning to a nimbler, more cost-effective plan now that Dombrowski has left town?

Similarly, the White Sox, Twins, Rays, Orioles, Marlins and Padres find themselves in the annual quandary of whether to stick or twist. Each of those teams has finite resources and a tentative view of where they want to be in a few years' time. How they get to the Promised Land remains an eternal mystery.

Bottoming Out
Finally, we come to those teams who will likely feed the trade market with what valuable pieces remain under their control. The current Collective Bargaining Agreement has created an environment where it's actually profitable for certain teams to shed assets and 'tank' in the hope of amassing a poor record and securing high draft picks with which to build a new core. The Astros and Cubs took this route, and many other teams are trending that way.

Most notably, Atlanta is selling anybody with a pulse. In the space of twelve months, the Braves have traded away Evan Gattis, Justin Upton, Jason Heyward, Alex Wood, Bronson Arroyo, Chris Johnson, and Andrelton Simmons. In 2015, that group produced 13.4 WAR, which should raise eyebrows around the league. It's understandable that the Braves are looking to retool ready for the opening of their new stadium in 2017, but at what point does their persistent scrapping of Major League talent become anti-competitive?

Similarly, Cincinnati and Milwaukee look set to tear things down and start over again in the daunting NL Central; Colorado and Philadelphia are about to hit rock bottom as the farm system becomes a priority; and Oakland and Miami must seriously consider their future after fairly disastrous seasons.

Conclusions
Thus, it becomes apparent that Major League Baseball is set for an offseason that could rock its core. Who will bite the bullet and sign Price, floating into almost immediate World Series contention? Who will pull the trigger and pay Greinke or Cueto or Upton or Cespedes? Who will swallow hard in this age of prospect paranoia and execute a deal for Chapman or Sonny Gray or Jay Bruce or Carlos Gonzalez, should those players become available?

Like always in baseball, we have only the merest of inklings. Unpredictability will reign and dominos will gradually fall, revealing a little of the picture that will become the 2016 season. Many teams have expanded budgets and obvious needs. A few teams have a clear goal to lose now for glory tomorrow, and will thus supplement a trade market that shall bubble along nicely.

Essentially, we're set for another offseason of undulating momentum, another winter of dreaming and scheming. The discussion has reached fever pitch. Let the building begin.

Monday, 2 November 2015

Royal Atonement: 2015 World Series Review

Then, just like that, baseball had a new reigning monarch.

With one last rally, one final deluge of hits and heart and hustle, the Kansas City Royals blew the Mets aside and secured their first World Series title in thirty years.

Royal Joy. (Photo credit: AP)
On a fateful night in Queens, Matt Harvey, the embattled hometown ace, dominated for eight frames in Game 5 before coughing up a ninth inning run that sparked yet another Kansas comeback. Eric Hosmer forced extra innings with a daring dash for home on a groundout to third base, then the floodgates opened as the Royals scored five times in the twelfth inning to complete their emotional quest for glory.

In many respects, this World Series was a battle of the bridesmaids, as two perennial underdogs jostled on the biggest stage, beneath the brightest lights. Together, the Mets and Royals have just 99 years of history, most of which has been spent in the cellar. Yet, on this grandest of occasions, that's were the similarities ended. In every facet of the game, Kansas City was firmer, sharper and more confident. Indeed, the Royals were just explicitly better than the Mets, when all was said and done. They were deserving winners.

The tone of this Series was set on its very first pitch, as a drizzle besmirched Kauffman Stadium. Harvey uncorked a fastball to Alcides Escobar, who swatted the first offering deep into the left-centre field gap, where it was booted by Yoenis Cespedes. A breathing embodiment of the Royals' aggressive ethos, Escobar surged around the bases like a prize gazelle, flying across the dish in just fifteen seconds with a stunning inside-the-park home run, a feat unseen in the World Series since 1929. The pattern was set.

Through the entire five-game series, Kansas City pushed the boundaries and asked innumerable questions of New York, which all too frequently was devoid of answers. The Royals out-hit the Mets 47-35; stole seven bases compared to the Mets' one; and took the extra base at almost every available opportunity. The aggression of Kansas City put New York on the back foot. It made the Mets reactive rather than proactive, and reduced their existence to a mere teeth-gnashing fight for survival. A fight they eventually lost, somewhat inevitably.

One of baseball's great truisms is that, in a long series, the team which makes the fewest mistakes will win. In this often bewildering Fall Classic, we saw that play out before our very eyes, as the Mets held a lead in all five games, but were able to win just one of them. New York made six errors; Kansas City made two. While the Royals got almost flawlessly defence from infielders like Mike Moustakas and Escobar, the Mets kicked the ball around mercilessly, with critical errors from David Wright and Daniel Murphy costing them games, and, ultimately, a legitimate shot at the championship.

In the end, the Mets were just a little too satisfied with winning a pennant; just a little too content with enjoying their moment in the sun. By contrast, the Royals were famished for conclusive success. After losing to the Giants in seven excruciating games last year, Kansas City vowed to go one better this time. The pursuit of a world championship, and the banishment of those dark memories, came to define this city and its team. After watching the masters celebrate on their own turf last year, the Royals learnt how to comport themselves, and how to pull the final trigger. This season, they were consumed by a deep determination and a ferocious force of will. Kansas City was hellbent on winning, and the Mets were but a small block in the road, mangled and tossed aside as the Royal juggernaut rolled on through.

In the postseason, Kansas City produced eight come-from-behind victories, a Major League record. The Royals beat Houston in the ALDS and trumped Toronto to capture a second successive pennant. The Astros had more swagger, the Blue Jays more power, but no team had as much singleminded resolve as the Kansas City Royals, who united as one cohesive family behind a common goal: winning the World Series, and ending so many years of hurt.

This win was for Edinson Volquez, who pitched so bravely in the wake of his father's tragic death. This win was for Moustakas and Chris Young, who suffered similar heartache earlier in the year. And this win was for Ned Yost, who is a fitting patriarch for this team, and who finally has a crowning moment to validate forty years of blind baseball devotion.

This win was also for Salvador Perez, who couldn't get the tying run home from third base last year, but who returned to become World Series MVP this time around. No catcher since 1914 has caught more games in consecutive seasons than Perez, who earned his moment the hard way.

In retrospect, the only surprise from this Series was the Royals dropping Game 3. The disparity between the two teams, in terms of experience, readiness and command of emotion, was vast and awkward. Wright, Murphy and Cespedes, the heart of the Mets' lineup, went a combined 11-for-64 in the Series, while the entire offence mustered just seven extra-base hits in five games. When it really mattered, beneath the searing microscope of World Series baseball, New York just didn't have enough. They were an imperfect team that ran out of pixie dust at the worst possible time.

Meanwhile, the Royals had all the required pieces, and Ned Yost finally finished his jigsaw before the midnight bells tolled. It's worth taking a moment to comprehend the sheer improbability of that achievement just five or ten years ago. In the 2000s, Kansas City was a baseball wasteland, cast adrift by fan indifference and consigned to obscurity by a starkly unfair financial system. The Royals didn't have any money, so they were essentially doomed to a life of subservience to the alpha Yankees, Red Sox and Tigers. 

Between 1986 and 2013, there was no postseason baseball in Kansas City. Between 1995 and 2012, the Royals finished 25 games out of first place on average. The team lost more than 90 games in eight of the eleven seasons between 2002 and 2012, and nobody was interested in its plight. At one stage, to watch the Kansas City Royals was to submit oneself to three hours of morbid torture. They were that bad, that boring.

Yet, with such ineptitude came a slew of high draft picks, with which Dayton Moore slowly constructed a winner. Alex Gordon became a Royal that way, as did Hosmer and Moustakas. Young international talent was also acquired cheaply, with Perez and Yordano Ventura, the firebrand ace, coming aboard as teenagers. And so, while the Royals stunk at the Major League level for so many years, this new core, this new monster, was being assembled down on the farm. 

This homegrown team was tutored in a relentless, almost grating brand of small ball, with emphasis on contact hitting, aggressive baserunning and altruistic sacrifice that, hundreds of games later, congealed into a World Series-winning effort on the expansive terrain of Citi Field, New York. 

From the wreckage of constant despair and repeated failure, every single member of the Kansas City Royals organisation bought into one philosophy, united behind one dream. Last night, that philosophy finally delivered, and that dream finally came true. And when it was all over, and the dust of another season settled, the baseball kingdom had been turned on its head, and the most unlikely prince finally occupied the throne.