It's tough to evaluate where each team stands prior to free agency. Luckily here at The Hottest Stove, we've got you covered. Before the opinions of fans and owners are skewed by the hype of agents, the whiskey of the winter meetings and the warm tidings of Christmas, let's take a look at each team's overall position moving forward. For this stock watch we've considered a variety of factors including payroll space, current production of returning players, age of the roster, and any big time prospects climbing through the system.
Braves -Stable. The Braves should expect a bounce back from Heyward this year, and they have some incredible young talent. Beachy, Hanson, Kimbrel, Venters, and Tejeran are all excellent young pitchers, and I think the only thing to watch will be their offensive production. The division will be much tougher this year as the Marlins and Nationals are expected to spend wads of cash to make a run in 2012.
Marlins -Rising. See above. I have heard rumors connecting the Marlins to big bats, ace pitchers, and about everything else. Everyone expects them to make two or three big splashes this winter, and if that happens it will put them pretty close to the Braves and Phillies. Hanley Ramirez and Mike Stanton are just waiting for reinforcements.
Mets -Falling fast and switching to full rebuilding mode. Not only is their pitching terrible even in a pitcher's park, they have expressed pessimism about their ability to retain Jose Reyes. David Wright, essentially their only impact player left, has a monster contract compared to his actual production over the last few years. Even Wright has been rumored to be on the trading block. Lucas Duda, we're gonna need a big year out of you buddy....
Nationals -Rising fast. The Nationals will return a pitching staff including Stephen Strasburg, break out stud Jordan Zimmerman, and lefty Ross Detwiler. They also feature a great bullpen with Tyler Clippard and Drew Storen at the back end. If they spend the money for a few big bats, this roster might be ready to overtake the Phillies and Braves as soon as this year.
Phillies - Falling/Aging. Their roster still looks good on paper, and we'll see if they pay to keep Jimmy Rollins. Their pitching will again make them a contender in 2012, as long as Doc and Cliff Lee remain healthy. However, their offense no longer is the juggernaut we remember. Injuries have cut Chase Utley down to only about 60% of the production from the glory days, and Ryan Howard has declined significantly in each of the last three seasons. They will rely on him more than ever, and let's hope he lives up to his fresh, new contract that starts this year. (The Phillies front office is going to be addressing criticisms about this deal for the next five years, so get used to hearing it.)
Astros - Rebuilding. In an amazing feat, the Astros managed to give up Hunter Pence and Michael Bourn without getting much value in return. Such is life in a fallen world.... Kidding aside, I do like some of the Houston pitching. Rodriguez, Norris and some young ones stepping forward could make the pitching the high point of the 2012 season. If I were Ed Wade, I would shop Norris and Rodriguez this winter since the team won't compete while they are in their prime anyway. As Rays VP of Baseball Operations Andrew Friedman would say, "Never pay for a fourth or fifth place finish." That's not a real quote...but it makes a lot of sense.
Brewers - Falling slightly. The Brewers still have good pitching, but also will be losing a very "hefty" bat from their lineup. With the fact that their lineup was already pretty thin once opponents got past the fifth spot in their order, it will be interesting to see how they move forward. They probably would have enough money to make an offer to Reyes, but that would leave dramatic holes in the rest of their roster. It's tough to fill the spots from the 6-8 players departing with one big signing.
Cardinals - Stable. The Cardinals will most likely return a very competitive roster regardless of what happens in the Pujols derby. They return a very good lineup, and will add to their starting rotation a 20-game winner in Adam Wainwright. Their incredibly effective and young bullpen will return largely intact as well. If Pujols leaves, the Cards will be able to target a premier middle infielder, additional pitching, or trade for a premier player with a large contract. It's tough not to like their position moving forward. Don't forget that the Cards also have two future aces brewing in the minors should any of their starters take a step backward.
Cubs - Falling. Optimism abounds in Chicago, as it does every year. Bringing in Theo Epstein will inject life into a stalling franchise, and they will have a large amount of money to spend. The problem is that they have an incredible number of needs. "If we add a right fielder, first baseman, third baseman, a few bullpen arms and a few starting pitchers, we're going to be in BUSINESS." This scarcity of quality ballplayers is the primary reason why you won't see Prince Fielder or Albert Pujols wearing the little bear next spring.
Pirates - Falling. While they had a good run last year and still boast some good players, they will not return enough talent unless they spend major bucks in free agency. Keep in mind this is not their modus operandi over the past.....20 years or so. In an increasingly challenging NL central, the Pirates will need to step up their game, and hope for Pedro Alvarez to do the same.
Reds - Rising. If the Reds can straighten out their pitching woes, they will challenge the Cardinals for a playoff spot next year. Unfortunately, what they thought to be a position of strength has now turned into an achilles heel as a number of their young starters have failed to pan out thus far. Votto, Bruce, Heisey, Stubbs and Yonder Alonso make up a solid mix of inexpensive offensive production. If a few young arms step forward and they convince Bronson Arroyo to put down the guitar, this could be a dangerous team.
Diamondbacks - Rising. Gibson orchestrated a playoff berth without the assistance of starting shortstop Stephen Drew. If they can fill out the back end of their rotation, they will be set up for another solid year. Impact players Ian Kennedy, Daniel Hudson, Justin Upton and the aforementioned Drew form a core that is going to be good for years to come.
Dodgers - Selling/Divorcing. The ownership situation likely will put a stranglehold on any big moves, which is a shame. Any team returning a Cy Young candidate (Kershaw) and MVP candidate (Kemp) deserves better than what we will see from the Dodgers in 2012.
Giants - Falling slightly. The Giants still have a very good roster when you consider their pitching depth. They recently traded Sanchez to bring in Melky Cabrera, but the offense will need a bigger boost than he can offer for them to return to their 2010 glory. The return of Buster Posey will help, but they need to add about two additional bats to make their lineup decent. The combination of aging position players and dead money on the payroll does not bode well for them acquiring the bats they need. With pitching alone, this team may have enough firepower to contend, but their margin for error is razor-thin at this point.
Padres - Falling. They have money to spend, but no one's quite sure who they'll choose to spend it on, given their numerous needs. It is tough to attract premier bats to a place that will cost them production due to the monstrous ballpark. They overachieved and put up decent offensive numbers toward the end of last year, but I'm calling it fool's gold.
Rockies - Who knows-ing. The loss of Jiminez will be felt severely this year. Pitchers with live fastballs are the only ones that can succeed in Coors Field, so of course they sent one of the best fastballs in the league off to Cleveland.... That being said, they should have a respectable amount of money to spend, and if they spend it wisely they could make the West a three team race. Check back here in a few weeks as I'm planning to do a post about how Park Effects at Coors might impact some of this year's free agents.
Blue Jays -Rising like crazy. I'm buying like crazy. They are rumored to be targeting a premier closer for this off-season, and that says a lot about their plans for this coming year. No one spends money on a closer unless they plan on contending, so watch out Red Sox and Yankees! I'm not sure that any other team has the combination of young, dynamic players and money to spend that the Blue Jays are boasting right now. Their pitching might hold them back, but I expect them to end up with at least one big-time arm before next year begins. They also have one of the most respected GMs in the game in Alex Anthopoulos, so I would guess they will spend their resources wisely.
Orioles - Stable. It honestly depends on what the Orioles choose to spend their money on, but the fact that the O's couldn't even swindle someone into taking their GM position for several weeks is a bad omen for the future. Look for a big step forward from Matt Wieters, who hopes to build on his strong second-half in 2011. J.J. Hardy is also a nice piece, but they don't have nearly enough pitching unless they do something drastic. They will need about thee times as many good arms as they have on the roster now, so the new GM Dan Duquette has some work cut out for him.
Rays - Stable. If they can conjure up enough offense, their pitching is going to be driving rival teams crazy. It's remarkable that teams like Boston and New York with huge payrolls are struggling to fill out a rotation...and resorting to dumpster dives while the Rays are deciding what to do with their wealth of pitching depth. (The answer: Keep it and use them all!!!) Look at this.... Price, Shields, Matt Moore, Jeremy Hellickson and Wade Davis. Young, dirt cheap, and more effective than almost every other rotation in baseball. If you live anywhere near them, go watch them play!!!
Red Sox - Way better than you think. Regardless of the reactionary dismantling of the front office and removal of the manager following the 2011 collapse, this team is about two decent players away from being one of the most complete and scary rosters in baseball. In 2011, this team was dominant for most of the season even with numerous pitching injuries, an abysmal year from Carl Crawford, an extended DL stint for Youkilis, and a lot of beer and fried chicken. They still won 90 games in the AL east. This division will be loaded with talented teams next year, but my early pick is that the Red Sox and the Blue Jays will be battling it out down the stretch for the division title.
Yankees -Falling. We'll see how far those pockets can stretch as they already have an enormous payroll, and will have several needs to fill. The issue is cropping up is the Yankees' continued loyalty to their aging stars. This is the year that Jeter, Rivera and AROD become a glaring negative for this ball club. In addition, check out their starting rotation - CC Sabathia......(cliff). That's not Cliff Lee, it's a metaphorical cliff. The Yankees need about three starters from the free agent or trade market to compete in this division next year.
Indians - Falling. Originally, I thought Jiminez was a good addition, but in hindsight the move looks like a desperate push to win in 2011 that didn't pan out. His performance the next few years will have a lot to say about the value of this franchise. Cleveland has to be a bit nervous, and wondering if the Rockies identified his peak and sold him at just the right moment. The Tribe doesn't have much depth, so the pieces they gave up would probably have put them in a much better position for the future.
Royals - Rising. A wealth of young talent will be maturing over the next few years. I'm picking 2013 for a leap forward and a playoff run, but the Royals will be noticeably better in 2012. Butler, Hosmer, Gordon, Francouer, and Moustakas will bring plenty of thump as long as the pitching can keep up. A couple of wise free agent value plays could make this team a contender.
Tigers - Falling slightly. While Doug Fister was a great pick-up to fill out the starting rotation, I think the offense takes a step back in 2012. Austin Jackson is a leadoff hitter who can't get on base, and they will deal with the loss of Magglio Ordonez. Victor Martinez continues to battle injuries as well, so his production is never guaranteed. Unfortunately, Verlander's performance in 2011 was so incredible that even the most optimistic fans will be counting on a slight regression this year. We'll see if this is counteracted by steps forward from Porcello and Scherzer. This is still a pretty good roster, and this division looks to be up for grabs at this point.
Twins - Unfortunately stable. Morneau and Mauer both fell off the map in 2011, and Cuddyer and Kubel might depart in free agency. These losses coupled with their less than stellar rotation, and it might be another long, cold year in the outdoors. The Twins have plenty of needs with marginal or replacement players filling several spots, but they are not expected to be major players in the offseason market. I believe it was Nietzsche who wrote, "Dumpster dives and low-hanging fruit do not a playoff run make." (Again, not a real quote....)
White Sox -Falling for now. A new young manager might be a bright spot, but we'll see what they do with a lumbering, aging roster. I would like to see them add some youth and spend some money to replace the free agents who are leaving. They will need pitching in a big way....and I'm not sure they'll pay to get it this year.
Angels - Falling slightly. They have a few good pieces (Weaver, Haren, Trumbo, Bourjos) but nothing around them. Mike Trout will add some excitement, and it will be fun to watch him develop. The remaining players on the roster are either aging, light-hitting, or just aren't very good, and the Angels don't seem to have enough resources to replace the major holes they have. Also, since they will most likely be chasing the Rangers for the next few years, a rebuilding project might be in order.
Athletics - Falling. It's hard to lure free agent bats to join your team when you don't have much money and play in a tremendously difficult park to hit in. Perhaps they could sell real estate with all of that space in foul territory....and then call Prince Fielder.
Rangers - Stable. It's hard to argue with back-to-back AL championships. Not only do they have a great lineup and some good young pitching coming up, they have some money to spend in free agency courtesy of their record-setting TV deal. They might land a few decent players, or one big fish and some low cost value plays to add to their already solid roster this winter.
Seattle - Fallen? The fact that I couldn't remember who the fourth team in the AL west was, and had to look it up says more about their stock than anything I could come up with. My memory is fine.....their roster is not.