The Harried Eight: These teams under pressure to win - or else
GMs, managers and players are already staring at win-or-else ultimatums as the baseball season opens.
Ron Washington and the Rangers have enjoyed success, but cracks are showing.
Joe Camporeale / USA TODAY Sports
By Ken Rosenthal
First off, let's define our terms.
Every club eventually faces pressure to win, even rebuilding clubs like the Astros, who plan to grace us by attempting to re-enter the competitive universe this season.
It's just that for some teams, in some years, the pressure is greater than others.
The threat of a manager and/or GM losing his job could be one reason. The potential loss of free agent(s) could be another. Declining attendance/TV ratings, a third.
Below is my list of eight teams that most need to win in 2014, and I'm not going to pretend that it is all-encompassing.
I could have included the big-money Yankees and Dodgers, particularly with Yankees GM Brian Cashman in the final year of his contract and Dodgers GM Ned Colletti in the middle of a deal with an unspecified term.
I could have included the Tigers, who are built to win now; the Mets, who appear to stand little chance of meeting management's goal of 90 wins; the Brewers, one of 17 teams headed for a record payroll, according to their owner, Mark Attanasio; and even the Rays, who likely are entering their last season with left-hander David Price.
Heck, I could have included all 30 teams, but I've settled on the Harried Eight, for reasons that I will now explain:
A scout texted me a week into Grapefruit League play predicting that Phils GM Ruben Amaro Jr. would be in trouble by late May.
John Weber, the team's vice-president of sales and ticket operations, recently told The Philadelphia Inquirer that the number of season-ticket holders will decline from 24,000 last season to 18,000 or 19,000 this season.
With the Phillies 7-15 this spring -- and a decidedly uninspiring 7-15 at that -- perhaps the only remaining question is, "When will Cliff Lee become available?"
Oh, and one other question: Will Amaro last long enough to trade Lee and anyone else whom the Phillies want to move?
Phillies owner David Montgomery is famously loyal and known to be fond of Amaro. The Phils might continue to balk at rebuilding, fearing a further erosion in attendance and lackluster kickoff to their new multi-billion 25-year deal with Comcast SportsNet in 2016.
A rival executive mused the other day that the Jays' farm system would be one of the two or three best in baseball if they had not made their blockbuster with the Marlins and a separate trade for right-hander R.A. Dickey last offseason.
Instead, the Jays seemingly went for broke, acquiring a slew of expensive veterans while parting with players who are now three of the Marlins' top five prospects and the Mets' 1-2, according to Baseball America.
Both deals look short-sighted, and as Fox Sports' Jon Paul Morosi pointed out in a recent column, the Jays' greater mistake was a failure (refusal?) to spend on free agents this winter in an attempt to max out.
The team's party line is that its injured players are now healthy, and that its offensive talent is still immense. Still, the rotation's 4.81 ERA was the second highest in the majors last season and GM Alex Anthopoulos did not make a single upgrade in that area.
Manager John Gibbons is signed through 2015. The end date of Anthopoulos' contract is not known.
It's difficult to imagine that the Jays will maintain the status quo if the team does not show progress in perhaps the game's most taxing division, the AL East.
The Mariners signed free-agent second baseman Robinson Cano to a 10-year, $240 million contract, but that essentially is where their offseason party ended.
The additions of infielder Willie Bloomquist, outfielder Corey Hart, first baseman Logan Morrison and even closer Fernando Rodney are much more complementary, and Cano and others in the organization have said that more offensive help is needed.
The stakes rise when a team invests $240 million in a hitter like Cano and $175 million in a pitcher like Felix Hernandez over a 10-month period. Then again, the M's should be in a strong financial position; their new TV deal with DirecTV reportedly is worth $2 billion over 17 years.
In October 2012, GM Jack Zduriencik received a one-year extension through '14, as previously reported by others and confirmed by a source. The front-office dynamics since have shifted, with Kevin Mather replacing Chuck Armstrong as team president. A fifth straight losing season only would increase fan frustration, and almost certainly prompt further change.
Many with this club are quietly confident. The group of position players is healthy and deep. The starting pitching could be relatively strong, if left-hander Brett Anderson avoids injury and righty Eddie Butler, who will open in the minors, emerges as this year's Gerrit Cole.
A fourth straight losing season, though, might change the Rockies' perspective -- and perhaps persuade owner Dick Monfort to relent and trade shortstop Troy Tulowitzki and/or left fielder Carlos Gonzalez.
Such a strategy actually might be the best thing for the Rockies, who are assembling an impressive array of young talent, from Butler and fellow right-handers Jonathan Gray and Tyler Chatwood to third baseman Nolan Arenado, catcher Wilin Rosario and outfielder Corey Dickerson -- and beyond.
The Rockies, sources say, are not trying to extend left-hander Jorge De La Rosa, a potential free agent whom they possibly could retain through a qualifying offer next offseason. Right-hander Jhoulys Chacin, too, could face a limited future in Colorado; he has one year of arbitration remaining. Yet, if Butler and Gray are as good as the Rockies think, the team might not want to rebuild.
Monfort is more involved than most owners. Attendance at Coors Field remains strong. And even more to the point, the days of monster returns for players such as Tulowitzki and Gonzalez probably are gone.
The Cardinals discussed a trade with the Rockies involving right-hander Shelby Miller, first baseman Matt Adams and shortstop Pete Kozma for Tulowitzki before signing free-agent shortstop Jhonny Peralta last offseason, according to a source.
Presumably the Rockies also would have included significant cash in the deal; Tulowitzki, one of the game’s best players when healthy, is owed $134 million over the next seven seasons, including a $4 million buyout on a club option for 2021. Gonzalez is owed $63.5 million over the next four seasons.
GM Jerry Dipoto, a former pitcher, missed on the reconstruction of his rotation during the 2012-13 offseason. Considering the amount of money that the Angels have invested in hitters -- Albert Pujols, Josh Hamilton and soon Mike Trout -- Dipoto might not keep his job if he misses again.
Manager Mike Scioscia is signed through '18, but Dipoto is entering the last guaranteed year of a three-year deal (the Angels hold options on him for '15 and '16). So, the organization's present and future could hinge on three largely unproven pitchers -- returning righty Garrett Richards, and left-handed additions Hector Santiago and Tyler Skaggs.
Dipoto, of course, should not be held solely responsible for the Angels' pitching decisions -- owner Arte Moreno backed the monster contracts for Pujols and Hamilton, and the Angels effectively chose Hamilton over right-hander Zack Greinke.
Moreno's take-it-or-leave-it negotiating style also might have hurt the team's chances of signing free-agent righty Matt Garza. The Angels pulled their four-year offer to Garza when he did not quickly accept, and he later signed a similar contract with the Brewers.
It's not difficult to envision Moreno staying with Dipoto -- the owner kept the GM after the discord of 2012 and disappointment of '13. But if the starting pitching again falters, the long-awaited shakeup in Anaheim finally might happen.
First, ownership declined options for 2015 on GM Kevin Towers and manager Kirk Gibson. Then it signed both to extensions, but did not reveal the lengths of either.
"I'm comfortable with those guys," managing general partner Ken Kendrick said. "I think it's important for them to go out and prove themselves once again. I hope and believe they're going to be long-term Diamondback people."
Gee, welcome back, fellas!
Actually, Kendrick's reservations are understandable. The D-Backs are coming off back-to-back .500 seasons. Attendance has been flat at about 2.1 million -- below major-league average -- for five straight years. And team president Derrick Hall told The Arizona Republic that the 2014 payroll will be about $115 million, a franchise record.
The season-ending loss of left-hander Patrick Corbin to Tommy John surgery was crushing, but the D-Backs possess perhaps the game's best pitching prospect, right-hander Archie Bradley, and they've got an extra shortstop to trade.
The Dodgers pose a daunting challenge in the NL West. But somehow, the D-Backs need to take a step forward.
In this case, neither manager Ned Yost nor GM Dayton Moore appears in serious danger; both received extensions after last season, Yost through 2015, Moore through '16.
No, this season is vital to the Royals simply because it is likely to be the last one for right-hander James Shields in Kansas City, closing the referendum on the trade that sent outfielder Wil Myers to the Rays.
The Royals appear in decent shape to withstand the loss of Shields to free agency; three of their young pitchers -- righties Yordano Ventura and Kyle Zimmer and lefty Danny Duffy -- all could be in the rotation in 2015.
Meanwhile, the Tigers suddenly look vulnerable, the Indians face their own pitching questions and the Twins and White Sox are rebuilding. The Royals boast impressive talent at virtually every position, much of it in its prime.
Most teams envy the Rangers, who have averaged 91 wins the past five seasons, played in two World Series and twice exceeded 3 million in attendance. But look closer, and cracks are showing.
The Rangers have finished second to the Athletics in the AL West in the past two seasons despite carrying payrolls about twice as large. Manager Ron Washington recently received a contract extension, but only for one year, through 2015. Even Jon Daniels, the accomplished GM, could face greater scrutiny after winning his power struggle with Nolan Ryan and investing heavily in first baseman Prince Fielder and outfielder Shin-Soo Choo.
Injuries to left-handers Derek Holland and Matt Harrison and the inadequacy of former closer Neftali Feliz this spring prompted a juggling of both the rotation and bullpen.
The Rangers could be in excellent shape once Harrison and Holland return, assuming their other pitchers stay healthy. But for now, a number of their also hitters face physical issues – including catcher Geovany Soto, who is out at least 10 weeks with a torn meniscus in his left knee, and second baseman Jurickson Profar, who will be out 10 to 12 weeks with a torn right shoulder muscle.
This still looks like a very competitive team. If not, the cracks could get deeper.