Friday, March 31 2023

When the calendar turns to October, the deficiencies on the best teams in baseball become more pronounced. A dearth of top-line talent is detrimental in the postseason. Weaknesses get exploited.

Now is the chance for the top MLB contenders to fix any areas of weakness, build on their success and retain the players who gave them the opportunity to make a run at a title. 

As free agency begins, here’s one position of need for every playoff team.

Related: Ranking the top 30 MLB free agents

Los Angeles Dodgers: Shortstop

In a rich free-agent shortstop class, Trea Turner will be one of the most coveted — and expensive — of the group. The Dodgers will have to break the bank to keep the speedy 29-year-old, who just became the first shortstop in franchise history to record 100 runs, 100 RBIs, 20 homers and 20 stolen bases in a season. His 6.3 fWAR ranked third among all major-league shortstops, making him one of the most valuable players at his position in the sport.

Shortstop and starting pitching — hello, Clayton Kershaw — will be among the Dodgers’ top priorities this offseason. A wave of Dodgers prospects will soon make an impact at the major-league level, but not at shortstop. If Turner leaves, free agency will likely provide the answer unless the Dodgers feel comfortable bumping Gavin Lux from second base back to shortstop, where he started 50 games in 2021. Extension talks with Turner were tabled once the regular season began, but the East Coast native hasn’t ruled out the possibility of staying in Los Angeles.

“Who the heck knows what’s going to happen, but I would love to be here,” Turner told FOX Sports in August. “That’s step one, is wanting to be here, and I definitely could see myself playing here.”

Atlanta Braves: Shortstop

The Braves find themselves in a similar situation, with their premier shortstop hitting free agency. Dansby Swanson enjoyed a career year at 28 years old, not only slashing .277/.329/.447 with 25 home runs but also leading all shortstops defensively with 21 outs above average. He earned his first All-Star nod and a Gold Glove Award in the process. The local product could very well return to Atlanta.

If he doesn’t, the Braves could continue their youth movement if they feel rookie Vaughn Grissom is ready. The 21-year-old middle infielder caught fire out of the gate in his debut season — one that began at High-A — while playing mostly second base for the injured Ozzie Albies. Grissom was primarily a shortstop coming up through the system, though it would be a significant gamble and a defensive downgrade for the Braves to put all their eggs in the basket of the 2019 11th-round pick.

Philadelphia Phillies: Shortstop 

Considering the breadth of options available at the position, let’s stick here for a moment. The Phillies will look to build on their thrilling postseason by adding to the pieces in place, and it would come as no surprise to see them get involved in the shortstop free-agent frenzy. They declined their $17 million team option on second baseman Jean Segura, and while they could still sign the 32-year-old veteran to a lesser deal, it opens space for another middle infielder.

Bringing in a superstar shortstop could allow rookie Bryson Stott to bump over to second base, where he made 41 of his 118 starts this year and graded out better than he did at shortstop, both in outs above average and defensive runs saved.

Another area of focus should be the same one they tried to address at the deadline — their bullpen. Deadline acquisition David Robertson is now a free agent along with Corey KnebelBrad Hand and Zach Eflin, who declined his mutual option. A lot of that money could go toward lengthening the lineup, but after a postseason run in which José Alvarado and Seranthony Dominguez were forced to shoulder a heavy burden, the Phillies duo should get some … relief this offseason. 

“MLB on FOX” crew discusses Bryce Harper’s postseason

Alex Rodriguez, Frank Thomas, David Ortiz and Kevin Burkhardt discuss Phillies outfielder Bryce Harper’s dominant postseason.

St. Louis Cardinals: Catcher

For the first time in nearly 20 years, the Cardinals have some decisions to make behind the plate. Yadier Molina just wrapped up his extraordinary 19-year career, and after a season in which the Cardinals finished the year below replacement level at the position (-0.7 fWAR), it seems likely they will explore free agency to find an immediate answer behind the plate. 

St. Louis does have internal options in 2016 seventh-round pick Andrew Knizner and 22-year-old prospect Iván Herrera, but the former has a .579 OPS over parts of four major-league seasons and the latter might not be ready to take the reins just yet after making his major-league debut in limited action. 

San Diego Padres: First base 

As postseason bullpen standout Robert Suarez and relievers Craig Stammen and Pierce Johnson (and possibly Nick Martinez, who has a player option) hit the market, San Diego will also have to replace a veteran and two midseason acquisitions at first base. 

Wil Myers, the longest-tenured Padre, whose club option was recently declined, will enter free agency. So will Josh Bell and Brandon Drury. After a season in which National League MVP candidate Manny Machado carried the Padres offense into the playoffs, adding pop at first base should help ease the burden on Machado and Juan Soto.

New York Mets: Starting pitching 

The Mets could use more slug beyond the power of Pete AlonsoFrancisco Lindor and Eduardo Escobar, but their immediate need is in the rotation. Beyond Max Scherzer, there’s not much certainty with their starting pitching, as Jacob deGromChris Bassitt and Taijuan Walker all hit free agency. 

The Mets have the financial backing to return most or all of that group should ownership choose to do so. Steve Cohen wasted no time starting the process of bringing back his priority free agents, already reportedly inking closer Edwin Díaz to a five-year, $102 million deal. 

Jacob deGrom may be one of the most dominant pitchers in MLB history, but he has pitched only a combined 156.1 innings in the past two seasons due to injuries. (Getty Images)

Houston Astros: First base

The Astros won’t have much time to clean up the final pieces of confetti before turning their attention to free agency. As they demonstrated in the postseason, there aren’t many deficiencies on the roster, particularly with their pitching staff. Offensively, they’ll still have Yordan Alvarez, Jeremy PeñaKyle TuckerJose AltuveAlex Bregman & Co. to continue lifting their powerful offense in 2023. But they could stand to add more pop at first base, where they ranked last in the American League in WAR in 2022.

Veteran Yuli Gurriel occupied the position for much of the year, posting a below-average 84 OPS+ for the season before upping his game in October. He’s set to become a free agent, while deadline acquisition Trey Mancini — who struggled in his brief Astros tenure — has a mutual option for 2023.

Cleveland Guardians: Power 

No, “power” is not a position. But really, it’s less about which position the slugging comes from and more about finding a way to add it to the lineup. The Guardians built their offense on a high contact rate, ranking seventh in batting average and 29th in home runs with the fewest strikeouts in baseball. Outside of José RamírezJosh Naylor and Andrés Giménez, no other Guardians player had more than 11 homers. As they found, that’s a difficult way to navigate through October. 

Specifically, the Guardians could stand to add more pop behind the plate or to complement Naylor at first base. Despite Cleveland’s high average as a team, its catchers combined to post a dismal .178/.265/.265 slash line as a group. It seems likely Josh’s brother, highly regarded prospect Bo Naylor, will be ready to help behind the dish at some point in 2023 after mashing 22 homers between Double-A and Triple-A this year. Still, the Guardians will want to add more proven power in free agency to carry the momentum from their first division title in four years. 

New York YankeesAaron Judge

Again, correct, a person is not a position. But there’s no player entering free agency who meant more to his team’s success than the 62-homer man. Bringing him back has to be the Yankees’ top priority. They tried to extend Judge back in the spring, offering a seven-year, $213.5 million deal that the superstar outfielder turned down. The extension was proposed before he posted one of the greatest offensive seasons in baseball history.

The asking price has shot up, and the Yankees’ focus should be on fulfilling the 30-year-old’s requests, particularly considering how he carried the offense to a division title down the stretch. Judge, the only Yankees position player to finish in baseball’s top 50 in fWAR, and midseason acquisition Andrew Benintendi are both free agents, highlighting the Yankees’ need to bolster their outfield.

Seattle Mariners: Second base

After making their first playoff appearance in 21 years, the Mariners need only look to their final game of the postseason to figure out where to spend their money this offseason. Seattle’s season ended in an 18-inning marathon in which the Mariners failed to score a run. Their tremendous pitching carried them through a magical season, and Luis Castillo‘s extension should bolster the rotation for years to come, but their offense ranked 28th in the majors in batting average, 16th in on-base percentage and 17th in slugging percentage.

The Mariners could look to upgrade at second base — where they ranked 28th in WAR this season — as veteran Adam Frazier hits free agency, though there aren’t as many obvious options available at the position as there are at shortstop, which is occupied by J.P. Crawford. Jean Segura and Kolten Wong are among the top free-agent second basemen. Jurickson Profar also has experience at the position, though he hasn’t played full-time at the spot since 2019.

Tampa Bay Rays: First base 

Like the Mariners, the Rays rode their pitching to a postseason berth. They ranked 17th in batting average, 20th in on-base percentage and 25th in slugging percentage. They simply didn’t have the offense to make a deep October run and could use some extra pop in free agency, particularly from the left side of the plate — their left-handers had a .630 OPS this year — and at the corner infield spots. 

Toronto Blue Jays: Starting pitching and a left-handed bat

Speaking of lefty hitters, the Blue Jays don’t have them. For as potent an offense as they possessed, it was extremely right-handed-heavy. Raimel Tapia and Cavan Biggio were the only left-handed-hitting batters to play in more than 50 games, and each had an OPS under .700. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Blue Jays grab another in free agency while also bolstering a rotation with considerable uncertainty behind aces Kevin Gausman and Alek Manoah.

Rowan Kavner covers the Dodgers and NL West for FOX Sports. He previously was the Dodgers’ editor of digital and print publications. Follow him on Twitter at @RowanKavner.

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Source: FOX Sports


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