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The Biggest Remaining Needs for Last Season’s MLB Playoff Teams

As the hot stove remains frigid this offseason, it’s time to spark some activity by playing MLB matchmaker. If 2018’s playoff clubs want to return to October in 2019, these are the holes they need to fill.

Manny Machado, Bryce Harper, and Robbie Ray Elias Stein/Getty Images

Even in an era of baseball superteams and little parity, no franchise is assured of a playoff spot before a season begins. Superteams fail on occasion; they slump, suffer from fluke injuries, and prove unable to translate dominance from the projection systems to the field. Just last season, the Nationals went from preseason favorite to summer seller by the trade deadline, and chances are some unfortunate teams with 2019 aspirations will follow that downward direction this season.

The best way to hedge against those concerns is to bolster the roster as much as possible, and with free agency once again progressing at a glacial pace, teams still have ample opportunity to make meaningful upgrades before spring training. Now that the calendar has flipped to 2019 and the offseason is about halfway over, here is the greatest remaining need for each reigning playoff team, and how it might best fill that hole before the season starts if it wants to return to October.

Red Sox: Bullpen

Boston’s rotation projects as the second-best in the majors, with its four most-used pitchers from 2018 returning along with a full season of World Series hero Nathan Eovaldi. Its lineup returns its top nine players in 2018 value (according to FanGraphs WAR). And those players helped Boston win 108 games and the World Series last season. The roster looks just fine in Fenway.

The one area of concern is the bullpen, where Joe Kelly has departed for the Dodgers and Craig Kimbrel lingers in free agency. Pen problems don’t stop Boston from projecting as the best team in baseball, but Heath Hembree probably shouldn’t be a key part of a contender’s plans, either.

Possible Fits: Kimbrel’s return would make the most sense, but if Boston doesn’t want to commit to a record or near-record contract for its erstwhile closer, a bevy of capable relievers remain available. David Robertson could join after a second successful stint with the Yankees, Zach Britton could continue his AL East carousel ride, and Adam Ottavino appears to be a prized arm for basically every contending club in the majors. That the Yankees are interested in adding relievers of their own perhaps increases Boston’s urgency to add a top arm or two—and take them away from the closest division rival.

Yankees: Manny Machado

This section header initially read “middle infield,” but then the Yankees agreed to a minimum-salary deal with Troy Tulowitzki. Don’t be fooled: New York could still use—and perhaps needs—Machado, with incumbent shortstop Didi Gregorius out until midseason after undergoing Tommy John surgery in October.

Even beyond his apparent personal preference for the Yankees, Machado is an ideal fit for New York. He can play shortstop while Gregorius rehabs (and after 2019, if Gregorius leaves then in free agency); he can slide to third base and move Miguel Andújar—an accomplished hitter but lousy defender—if Tulowitzki plays well enough to earn a starting spot, or once Gregorius returns; and he can give the lineup yet another elite hitter in his mid-20s to take aim at Yankee Stadium’s short fences. No pairing on this whole list is more obvious, and turning instead to Tulo, who hasn’t played since 2017 or played well since a year before that, won’t cut it as New York tries to chase down Boston.

Possible Fits: For the middle infield, it’s just Machado at this point. The Yankees already completed their backup plan, but they still have the opportunity to achieve a primary goal too.

Indians: Outfield

By FanGraphs’ 2019 projections, Cleveland boasts the best shortstop in baseball. It boasts the best third baseman in baseball. And absent a trade that sacrifices a strength, it boasts by a good margin the best starting rotation in baseball. Combined with playing in the majors’ worst division, Cleveland seems the easiest bet of any team to coast to the 2019 playoffs.

Yet across all three positions, the outfield doesn’t fit with the rest of the roster. Cleveland’s outfielders project to produce just 3.5 WAR combined in 2019, placing them in a tie for 28th in the majors. By this measure, they’re tied with the Royals and one spot behind the Marlins—not great company for an ostensible World Series contender! And while Cleveland has gestured at improvements this winter by trading for youngsters Jake Bauers (from Tampa Bay), Jordan Luplow (from Pittsburgh), and Daniel Johnson (from Washington), only Bauers from that group is a definite 2019 contributor, and he’s likely to split his time between the outfield and first base. More help—and ideally lots of it—is needed.

Possible Fits: Cleveland might have to settle for lower-upside veterans in free agency, where the likes of Nick Markakis and Adam Jones are still looking for a suitor. It’s possible that the team will shuffle MLB talent by trading one of its pitching aces for a position player of equal value, though such rumors have lost momentum in recent weeks.

Or Cleveland could turn to A.J. Pollock, the best center fielder available, who might be too pricey for a front office that has been desperate to cut salary this winter but would also be a perfect addition to a rather humdrum lineup outside Francisco Lindor and José Ramírez. The greatest hesitation with Pollock—his health; he’s batted 500 times in a season just once—is less of a concern for Cleveland than any other team because of its divisional leeway; it will matter less if he misses all of June with a calf strain as long as he’s ready to play come October. Plus, the club has netted about $25 million in savings this winter by jettisoning Yan Gomes, Yonder Alonso, and Edwin Encarnación in trades and letting the likes of Andrew Miller, Cody Allen, and Michael Brantley leave in free agency. Cleveland might find the pennies for Pollock if it actually tries to look for them.

Astros: Starting Rotation

Houston’s dynamite 2018 rotation is down three members, with Dallas Keuchel and Charlie Morton leaving in free agency and Lance McCullers Jr. out all of next season after Tommy John surgery. Even after those departures, Houston’s rotation projects as a top-five unit with Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole (who finished second and fifth, respectively, in AL Cy Young voting) leading the group, Collin McHugh slated to return to the rotation after a stellar bullpen stint, and a talented crop of youngsters like Josh James and best-pitching-prospect-in-the-world Forrest Whitley behind them.

Still, while the rotation isn’t a red-alert problem for Houston like it is for other AL West teams, the Astros’ three missing starters combined for exactly 500 innings last year, and that’s a lot to ask any team to replace entirely internally. James and Whitley flash tremendous potential, but the Astros could use an arm with a known respectable floor, too, as a hedge against the volatility of youth. Verlander, Cole, and McHugh will also all become free agents after the 2019 season, meaning Houston management might desire upgrades for both the present and future.

Possible Fits: Free-agent pickings are slim, as Houston already showed interest in but missed out on Eovaldi and J.A. Happ, and reports suggest a happy reunion with Keuchel is unlikely. None of the other remaining starters provide advantages over Houston’s extant options. That leaves the trade market; they’ve reportedly expressed interest in Diamondbacks lefty Robbie Ray, for instance, who could do for Houston in 2019 what Cole did after an offseason trade last season. If the league has another surprise January trade in store this year, Houston is a prime candidate to bring it to fruition.

Athletics: Starting Rotation

Speaking of red-alert problems for other AL West teams! Here is Oakland’s current depth chart for starting pitchers, according to MLB.com:

  1. Sean Manaea, out until at least the All-Star break after undergoing shoulder surgery in September
  2. Andrew Triggs, underwent thoracic outlet surgery in September
  3. Mike Fiers, currently in possession of a fully functional throwing arm
  4. Paul Blackburn, missed most of 2018 with arm injuries and collected a 7.16 ERA when he was able to pitch

There is no no. 5. So yes, Oakland could use a fleet of starters, at least to bridge the gap until prospects Jesus Luzardo and A.J. Puk (who himself needed Tommy John surgery last year) are ready to contribute.

Possible Fits: Billy Beane pieced together a rotation of journeymen, cast-offs, and broken things in 2018, squeezing 54 solid starts out of Trevor Cahill, Edwin Jackson, and Brett Anderson as Oakland won 97 games without a single pitcher qualifying for the ERA title. This next season might not be any different, as Beane said recently of his approach to adding rotation help, “Waiting it out is probably the way we’re going to look at it.” Once he’s done practicing patience, he might turn to free agents like Gio González, who pitched for Oakland from 2008 to 2011, or Ervin Santana and/or Drew Pomeranz, who combined for 6.1 WAR in 2017 but minus-0.8 in 2018 and both profile as the kind of bounceback veteran Beane adores.

Braves: Corner Outfield

Markakis faded in the second half in 2018 after receiving his first career All-Star nod, but his free agency still leaves a hole in Atlanta’s outfield. Former third baseman Johan Camargo could take that spot, with Josh Donaldson now occupying the hot corner in Atlanta, but Camargo fits best as a super-utility man capable of plugging holes all around the diamond rather than as an everyday corner outfielder. Camargo has also played just one career inning in the outfield in his professional career; he’d probably be fine there, but there’s no excuse not to invest in a different plan too.

Possible Fits: The glut in Atlanta’s farm system, generally hailed as the best or second-best in the sport, affords the front office plenty of flexibility if it wants to fill this hole via trade. Atlanta has asked about high-upside talents like Seattle’s Mitch Haniger and Arizona’s David Peralta this winter, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the team go this route. That’s because, outside one man, the remaining free-agent corner outfielders don’t offer any especially lofty ceilings.

But why not make a play for that one man? This is pure fantasy, as Bryce Harper hasn’t been connected to Atlanta at any point this winter, but with the Nationals signing Patrick Corbin, the Mets adding Edwin Díaz and others in significant win-now moves, and the Phillies angling for Machado, Harper, or both, Atlanta should throw its muscle around the NL East too. Moreover, the Braves spent just 40 percent of their 2017 revenue (as estimated by Forbes) on their 2018 payroll. That mark ranked just 25th in the majors, against an average of 49 percent.

Just based on revenue alone, Atlanta should be able to run a payroll in the tens of millions higher than it currently does. There’s no financial reason not to try for Harper. And there certainly isn’t a baseball reason—how does a lineup that starts with Acuña, Harper, Freeman, Donaldson, and Albies sound?

Brewers: Second Base

In 2018, the Brewers started Jonathan Villar 64 times at second base; he was such a poor hitter that they traded him to Baltimore in July. They started Jonathan Schoop, for whom they traded Villar, 18 times at second base; he was such a poor hitter that they non-tendered him just a few months later. They were forced to start natural third baseman Travis Shaw 36 times at second base, and then in most of their playoff games; he will move back to third next season with Mike Moustakas gone.

That leaves a bunch of unappealing second-base options for Milwaukee in 2019, with the combination of Hernán Pérez, Cory Spangenberg, and assorted others giving the Brewers the majors’ second-worst outlook at the position. Top prospect Keston Hiura is a future All-Star at second base, but he has also played just half a season above Single-A and likely won’t be ready by Opening Day. Even if he’s ready by midseason, every fraction of a win will matter in the competitive NL Central, so Milwaukee needs an upgrade in the meantime.

Possible Fits: Plenty of serviceable veterans—DJ LeMahieu, Brian Dozier, Josh Harrison—crowd the market, but the Brewers could also dream a little bigger with a target like Jed Lowrie, as the 34-year-old comes off a career year in Oakland. Milwaukee has reportedly reached out to the free agent, and that would prove a swell dream—across the past two years, only José Altuve has produced more value at second base than Lowrie.

Cubs: Pitching Depth

Chicago doesn’t have many holes in its initial 25-man roster, but the Cubs lack support beyond their core in the event of injury or underperformance. That demerit is especially true of the pitching—both rotation and bullpen. In the former, Jon Lester’s fielding-independent pitching numbers have worsened in five consecutive seasons; José Quintana’s 2018 was his worst-ever campaign; and Yu Darvish threw just 40 poor innings last year while suffering through various maladies. And in the latter, Chicago is depending a whole lot on closer Brandon Morrow, who missed the second half of the season and won’t be ready for Opening Day after requiring surgery to clean up his elbow in November.

Possible Fits: Any of the aforementioned free-agent pitchers would help; any free-agent pitcher, period, could be of assistance. The Cubs’ oddly timed, self-imposed financial restraints this winter might get in the way, but the team needs to do something to shore up the roster as its divisional competition improves across the board.

Dodgers: An “Impact” Hitter

The most striking whiplash of the offseason thus far began when L.A. traded Yasiel Puig and culminated almost immediately thereafter, when reports emerged that the Dodgers sought an “impact” hitter for their lineup. They had just traded one! (Or two, if anyone thinks Matt Kemp will repeat his resurgent 2018.) But with Puig gone, the Dodgers actually need another hitter, especially if they want to carry over their prized depth—necessary for platoons, their extreme DL use, and so on—for another season; If not, they’d be relying on prospect Alex Verdugo to produce immediately, Max Muncy to exhibit no regression after a surprisingly monstrous 2018, and scant injuries for a lineup that has been hurt a bunch in recent years.

Possible Fits: Harper is the best candidate. He’s also the obvious candidate, after the Puig trade cleared some payroll space and right field in Dodger Stadium for him. But L.A. could also use a catcher, with Yasmani Grandal now a free agent—perhaps he’d return on a short, high-salaried deal as the club waits for its top catching prospects to mature?—and maybe one of the many second basemen available too. At the very least, it’s apparent the Puig trade was just the first in a series of related moves—or at least, it had better be, for the sake of Dodgers fans hoping their front office cares more about winning games than saving money.

Rockies: A Stabilizing Force for the Lineup

The 2019 Rockies will feature a fun group of young players taking on more prominent roles. But while it will be encouraging to see Ryan McMahon, Garrett Hampson, and David Dahl receive chances, the Rockies shouldn’t count on those players without a backup plan. Odds are one of them (at least) will struggle in the majors, meaning the lineup will feature one hole (at least) in need of filling. The same caution should apply to the Rockies’ treatment of a veteran, too, as Ian Desmond projects to earn a starting spot by virtue of his contract and not his production, which has amounted to negative WAR in each of his first two seasons in Colorado.

Possible Fits: Every good team could use Marwin González, but he offers a tantalizing fit in Colorado. The former Astro’s multipositional utility would allow him to spell any slumping starter, his powerful bat would play in Coors Field, and he’d bring wonderful late-game flexibility to a National League game that might contain double switches or pinch hitters. Josh Harrison would offer a lesser version of these attributes, and Pollock or Harper would obviously make Colorado better next season, but González offers the exact mix that would both keep Colorado in contention next season and allow the team to develop its youth with one eye on the future.