A year ago this time, Major League Baseball settled into a lockout-induced transaction freeze that lasted more than three months. Yes, there was a rush of deals in November before the clock ran out, but the timing of the lockout generally split the offseason into two fairly even halves of transactional activity.
This year, the offseason has taken on a different tone — one of frantic free-agent matchmaking that has left far less big business on the agenda for January and February than usual. Despite there being no looming deadline to get players signed the way the lockout was treated last year, teams have already done the bulk of their Hot Stove shopping, particularly at the top of the market. Even in non-lockout winters, it’s become common to see a handful of the best free agents remain unsigned as the calendar flips to the new year. Instead, with the holidays approaching, only four of our top 30 free agents — Nathan Eovaldi, Jurickson Profar, Brandon Drury and Michael Conforto — are still available, with Eovaldi the highest remaining (No. 22). Expand it further, and you’ll find that just 11 of MLB Trade Rumors’ Top 50 free agents remain unsigned, including the aforementioned foursome plus veterans like Taylor Rogers, Corey Kluber and Jean Segura.
Add in the fact that the trade market isn’t exactly bustling with upgrades either and you’ve got a challenging landscape for the teams in the middle that are most incentivized to improve before teams report to spring training in February.
Eovaldi, Drury, Profar, Conforto — these are good players that can help teams, but none feels especially likely to swing the balance of power in a division. With fewer impact players openly available this time of year than usual — but still plenty of off-season to go — it’s time for front offices to get creative with their roster-building, whether it be through unexpected trades or deftly targeted free-agent acquisitions. With just 100 days to go until 2023 Opening Day, here’s one team from each division with the most to gain by improving their roster in the coming months:
AL East: Tampa Bay Rays
- You could make an argument for any AL East team needing to still push forward with roster improvements, but the Rays seem like the most appropriate to single out for a few reasons. They are coming off a fourth straight postseason appearance, albeit one that ended in troubling fashion, scoring just one run over 24 innings in a wild-card series against Cleveland. That seemed to underscore a severe need for offensive additions this winter, but instead they’ve since only responded by giving Zach Eflin the largest free-agent contract in franchise history. Eflin makes their rotation — now with a healthy Tyler Glasnow to go along with 2022 breakouts Shane McLanahan and Drew Rasmussen — an awfully dynamic bunch, but the lineup hasn’t been upgraded whatsoever. It’s possible Tampa Bay is banking on healthy seasons from Wander Franco and Brandon Lowe to boost its lineup back to a more reliable standard of run production, but it’d be nice to see the club add some more firepower via free agency or utilizing its wealth of upper-level prospects in a trade.
AL Central: Minnesota Twins
- It’s been a tough watch for Minnesota this winter, as shortstop Carlos Correa departed for a predictably sizable payday from a larger market after just one season, while reported pursuits of other star-level talent like Carlos Rodón and Dansby Swanson fell short. While Christian Vazquez is a solid solution at catcher and Joey Gallo could realistically return to a more productive form, these additions look meager compared to Cleveland’s addition of Josh Bell or Chicago’s signing of Andrew Benintendi. Having repeatedly affirmed an intention to compete in 2023, there’s no turning back now for this front office after a brutally disappointing 2022 — it’s just difficult to see the most obvious path forward for improvement via free agency or trade. The good news is that the healthy version of this roster could still compete for this division as it stands, but the Twins are at least a few moves away from feeling like they markedly improved this winter, especially in relation to their division rivals.
AL West: Texas Rangers
- As expected, the Rangers followed up their middle infield spending spree from a year ago with a huge investment in the rotation this winter, bringing in Jacob deGrom and Andrew Heaney while retaining Martín Pérez via the qualifying offer. Rather than slowly building the roster up the way other rebuilding teams have demonstrated in recent years, Texas has used its spending might as an attempted express lane back to contention. This is an exciting strategy, but also one that puts serious pressure on maximizing a short-term window — the likes of Marcus Semien and deGrom are still in their respective primes but also 32-plus-years-old — rather than building up a sustainable core of young talent to build around. As it stands, the bottom half of this roster is still paper thin beyond its stars, leaving many doubts about the Rangers’ ability to truly capitalize on the sudden opportunity afforded to them by adding these veteran impact players. Left field remains an obvious place to add via free agency or trade if this team has legitimate aspirations of competing for even a wild-card spot in 2023, let alone having any chance at approaching the Astros atop the division.
NL East: Atlanta Braves
- Though they did swing the biggest trade of the winter thus far in acquiring Sean Murphy, the Braves have barely dipped their toes into the free-agency waters, signing their first player earlier this week in outfielder Jordan Luplow. That’s not to say they haven’t made significant financial commitments recently: In the past 10 months, Atlanta has committed a combined $527 million in extensions for Matt Olson, Austin Riley, Michael Harris and Spencer Strider, not to mention previous long-term deals for Ronald Acuña Jr. and Ozzie Albies that ensured they too would be entrenched in the Braves’ lineup for years to come. Keeping the core intact is undeniably commendable and puts them in excellent shape in the long run, but the aggressive additions made this offseason by the rival Mets and Phillies suggest the Braves still may have more work to do in the here and now if they want to enter 2023 as the NL East favorite. With Swanson officially out the door, shortstop remains the biggest question mark alongside DH and left field. If even a moderate free-agent expenditure is in play, Elvis Andrus would be an excellent fit. Otherwise, look for general manager Alex Anthopolous to continue exploring the trade market, something he’s been adept at despite dealing from what is largely considered one of the weakest farm systems in the league.
NL Central: Milwaukee Brewers
- Coming off a disappointing second half, the Brewers entered this winter with many wondering if they’d reset via trading one of their more expensive stars in Willy Adames or Corbin Burnes. Instead, they’ve swung two nifty trades for bounce-back candidate Jesse Winker and All-Star catcher William Contreras that have ultimately strengthened and deepened the roster in a meaningful way. However, they still remain one of two teams alongside the Marlins that have yet to sign an MLB free agent, which further supports suggestions that cost-cutting — or at least, cost-controlling — would be a priority for Milwaukee this winter. In turn, the Cubs’ aggressive spending not only looks concerning in contrast, but also creates more competition for the Brewers in their dogged pursuit of St. Louis atop the division. Winker and Contreras should help, but this is still a lineup in sore need of offensive impact, and the bullpen looks thinner than it has in years. If free agency isn’t a viable option, let’s see if GM Matt Arnold has another clever trade up his sleeve.
NL West: San Diego Padres
- The Xander Bogaerts splash was a big one and, once Fernando Tatis Jr. returns from suspension, will punctuate one of the most explosive lineups in baseball alongside Manny Machado and Juan Soto. No matter the questions about the defensive alignment, that foursome is going to terrorize opposing pitching staffs in ways few lineups can — but the fall off after those four plus Jake Cronenworth is steep, and the bench is concerningly thin beyond that. Bringing back Profar or adding offensive upside in Conforto for left field would be a nice step, but this roster needs depth a lot more than it needs more stars. Acquiring Seth Lugo and Matt Carpenter helps, but San Diego could still use another reliable arm or two, not to mention significant upgrades to the bench. To be fair, the Dodgers’ and Giants’ benches aren’t especially impressive either, as it stands — but those organizations have a much stronger track record of producing in-season reinforcements from within on both the hitting and pitching side. It’s exceedingly rare for teams to get through 162 games, let alone October, with the team you roll out on Opening Day. As tremendous as the top-tier talent is, the Padres likely need to strengthen their roster’s underbelly if they want to compete for a division title in 2023.
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Jordan Shusterman is half of @CespedesBBQ and a baseball writer for FOX Sports. He has covered baseball for his entire adult life, most notably for MLB.com, DAZN and The Ringer. He’s a Mariners fan living in the Eastern Time Zone, which means he loves a good 10 p.m. first pitch. You can follow him on Twitter @j_shusterman_.
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