MLB

MLB free agency: Five fringe contenders who should go for it this offseason, including Orioles and Cubs

Thanksgiving is in the rearview mirror and the annual winter meetings are next week. We’re moving into prime territory for a flurry of moves in free agency — at least let’s hope so, since it’s been pretty slow thus far. 

In this space, it’s time to have a little fun in looking beyond the obvious contenders at who should be flexing their financial clout this offseason. What do I mean about “beyond the obvious?” Well, everyone knows the Yankees, Dodgers and Mets types should be spending. The Blue Jays and Braves types should be spending what they can in order to remain strong contenders as well. 

So who’s left? Let’s talk about so-called “fringe” contenders that should be active. 

Wait, what? The Phillies just won the National League pennant! How could you possibly say they are “fringe” contenders. 

Well, as was made abundantly clear to me from many fans on social media (mostly Braves fans, for whatever reason), the Phillies were a “THIRD-PLACE TEAM” last season (gasp!). They were 87-75 and had the worst record among all playoff teams and it was an expanded field. They finished 14 games out of first place. They only won the third NL wild card by one game over a team that appears to be tearing down this offseason. Bryce Harper is out until at least mid-June and maybe later, too. 

So, yes, the defending NL champs look like fringe playoff contenders for 2023. That playoff run also should have both positioned them financially and motivated them to go hard this offseason. 

I think they will, too. It shouldn’t be just one big name, such as Trea Turner or Xander Bogaerts to take over at shortstop, as they can fill out some pitching depth, too. A decent fill-in for Harper until he’s back? Yes, that should be on the list as well. 

This is no time to be shy. The Phillies are nearly $60 million under the luxury tax threshold and if it comes to it, they can easily afford to pay the tax for the second straight year now with that glorious World Series run paying financial dividends in 2023. 

This was probably cheating a bit. I firmly believe it’s intellectually honest to call the Phillies “fringe” contenders, but after a World Series run, of course they should be aggressive. Since I said “beyond the obvious” in the introduction, you could argue the Phillies are obviously an aggressive buyer this offseason. That’s fine. I just wanted to point out that they are indeed simply a fringe contender and that they should be going hard to add. 

After a shocking 107-win season ended with a heartbreaking NLDS loss to the Dodgers in 2021, the Giants followed it up with a thoroughly mediocre 81-win season in 2022. The roster looks a bit stale and even boring, right? 

It is not bad, though. Given the penchant club president Farhan Zaidi has shown to find talent and, with the help of his scouting department and coaching staff, get the most out of those players, it doesn’t seem like they need to pull off the ol’ teardown-and-rebuild. 

If ownership is worried about the luxury tax, the Giants are nearly $100 million away from it for 2023. There are only two salaried players for a touch over $20 million for 2024. No one is salaried for 2025 or beyond. 

Are we getting the picture yet? The Giants could go absolutely bonkers this offseason with multiple elite free agents (Aaron Judge and an ace? Sure!) and a good number of mid-tier supporting-cast types. They once signed prime Barry Bonds in free agency and the goal here should be to make an even bigger splash. 

The Orioles were still in “laughingstock” territory at the big-league level in 2021, going 52-110. It would’ve been the worst season in Baltimore Orioles history, but they went 47-115 in 2018. 

And yet, the Orioles busted through expectations to win 83 games in 2022, despite having lost their ace, John Means, early in the season and playing in the toughest division in baseball. In catcher Adley Rutschman and infielder Gunnar Henderson, they have two cornerstone prospects at the big-league level around which to build a foundation. There’s a lot more help on the way, too, as the Orioles still have a very strong farm system even after those graduations. 

General manager Mike Elias showed his stuff last season in his ability to discover big-league bargains, especially on the pitching side, too. 

There comes a time, however, when a rebuild is over and moves into the next phase. At that point, the prospect “hugging” needs to stop and the team needs to start supplementing the young talent with established big-league stars. There are can’t-miss prospects, sure, and they have those. Prospects ranked a bit lower have a pretty decent chance to bust at the MLB level. That brings us to the other reason to stockpile prospects, aside from the hope that they’ll help you themselves at the MLB level eventually: they’re currency to trade for big-league stars. 

Between adding stars via trade and free agency, the Orioles have a prime opportunity here to make a huge leap toward 2023. It’s up to Elias on how to approach the shape of the 2023 roster, but there’s plenty of room to add payroll. Right now, baseball-reference.com estimates the Orioles for $33.8 million in 2023 and that’s Means’ $2.98 million plus arbitration and pre-arbitration players only. There are no other free-agency-year salaried players moving forward. 

Simply, there’s room to go crazy. Even crazier than I said the Giants can go, should the Orioles be so inclined. What’s most fun about this is we’ve never seen Elias operate as the boss in a situation like this (as opposed to, say, Dave Dombrowski with the Phillies). 

The Brewers appear to be in teardown mode. The Reds and Pirates aren’t ready to contend again yet. The Cardinals are good, but not on level with the Dodgers where the Cubs should be too intimidated to try and make a run at the Central division crown. The Cubs went 39-31 after the All-Star break last season and club president Jed Hoyer has restocked the farm system to a point that it’s respectable again for the first time in a while. 

Oh, and the Cubs are around an estimated payroll of $115.7 million right now, per baseball-reference.com. The luxury tax threshold for 2023 is $233 million. It shouldn’t be a concern for owners as rich as the Ricketts family, but even if it is, the Cubs are miles away from it. 

The Cubs have far too many holes right now to believe they are one or even two superstars away from contending. The thing is, they could sign two superstars and still have plenty of money to fill around them with mid-tier free agents or add salary via trading prospects for established big-league talent. 

Another “go crazy” entry? Yeah, I think they should. I’m not sure they will, though. Hoyer seems a lot more conservative than his predecessor Theo Epstein. 

The Royals aren’t likely to be very good in 2023, the Tigers are a mess and the White Sox are actually kind of a mess as well (even if far more talented and a lot closer to winning than the Tigers). If there’s any belief the Guardians overachieved and will take a step back in 2023, that means the Twins are the ones best positioned with an opening to grab the division. 

Now, this is a pretty flawed 40-man roster right now and the farm system isn’t very good. Also, baseball-reference.com estimates the Twins right now at $94.2 million for next season and the highest they’ve ever gone with the big-league payroll is $134 million and change last season. 

That means this isn’t quite “go crazy” territory like we said with the Giants and Orioles. 

The Twins also only have Byron Buxton’s $15.14 million per year on the books from 2024-28 (unless we’re counting the less than $3 million per year due Randy Dobnak on his club-friendly deal through 2025), so they could backload deals and get creative in spending on long-term deals this offseason. 

It’s not quite as easy as just writing checks from the owner, but the Twins have room to be plenty aggressive this offseason and they should do so. It probably starts with Carlos Correa, but they’ve got to figure out something with the starting pitching. Dumpster diving every offseason just isn’t working. 



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