Biggest questions facing MLB’s eliminated division series teams

Biggest questions facing MLB's eliminated division series teams

The playoff field has once again halved as four more teams fell in the LDS and now turn their attention to the offseason. Here are the biggest questions facing the Atlanta Braves, Baltimore Orioles, Los Angeles Dodgers, and Minnesota Twins this winter.

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Atlanta Braves

The best team in baseball – armed with two MVP candidates and a historic offense – managed to win just one playoff game. Atlanta was dominated in almost every facet by the Philadelphia Phillies in what was a second straight division series exit at the hands of its rivals.

President of baseball operations Alex Anthopoulos has built an elite offense. The core of Austin Riley, Matt Olson, Ronald Acuña Jr., Sean Murphy, and Michael Harris II are all under team control through at least the 2028 season – with no player set to earn more than $22 million a year. Meanwhile, Ozzie Albies is signed through 2025. It’s really been a masterclass from Anthopoulos in long-term roster construction. If there’s room for an upgrade on the offense, the club could look to beef up the bench.

The focus, though, should be on the pitching staff. Atlanta’s starters ranked 17th in ERA and 19th in WHIP during the regular season, with injuries playing a big role. The Braves have a lot of intriguing young arms, but adding a top-tier starter to slide in alongside Spencer Strider and Max Fried should be the priority. However, it’s uncertain if the ownership is willing to commit to the dollars some of these starters will command. Charlie Morton is a candidate to return, though the team is unlikely to exercise his $20-million club option. There should be money to spend there, as the team can shed future payroll by declining the options of Brad Hand and potentially Collin McHugh. With so many relievers hitting free agency, the bullpen will need a number of additions.

The heavy lifting for Anthopoulos is already done. The Braves are unlikely to change their core despite two disappointing postseason runs, but a shakeup in the clubhouse may be needed.

Icon Sportswire / Icon Sportswire / Getty

Los Angeles Dodgers

The Dodgers tried to thread the needle this season by trimming payroll and giving their younger players more playing time. They paid for it when it mattered most as the club just didn’t have enough depth when it reached the postseason.

Los Angeles was swept in the division series by the Arizona Diamondbacks and has gone 1-6 over its last two postseason trips. Despite three consecutive 100-plus win seasons, the Dodgers haven’t reached the World Series since the 2020 COVID season.

Part of the reason the Dodgers took a step back in payroll is supposedly so they can take a run at Shohei Ohtani this winter. Ohtani won’t be able to help the pitching staff next season, but he’d still fit in nicely alongside Freddie Freeman and Mookie Betts in the lineup.

It’d be a big blow to the fan base if Los Angeles didn’t land Ohtani – especially considering the amount of salary coming off the books. The Dodgers, however, have a significant amount of holes to fill, and with Betts and Freeman already owed $418 million, adding another big-ticket signing like Ohtani may not be in the cards.

Manager Dave Roberts’ job is likely safe. He’s won 63% of his games with the Dodgers in eight seasons and somehow helped guide arguably one of the worst teams he’s had to 100 wins this year. Still, he took responsibility for another early exit and said he’s “got to do a better job of figuring out a way to get our guys prepared for the postseason.” Was he being a good manager and taking the bullet for his team, or was he acknowledging real shortcomings?

One thing that wasn’t Roberts’ fault was the fact that injuries torpedoed the rotation. Walker Buehler, Tony Gonsolin, and Dustin May were all sidelined during the postseason. Julio Urías was placed on administrative leave Sept. 6 and never made another start. Pitching will need to be the priority heading into the offseason.

Clayton Kershaw’s future will need to be decided first. The three-time Cy Young winner was once again excellent during the regular season, but he can no longer be counted on to be the ace he once was. The team will likely continue to welcome him back as long as he wishes to keep going, but he’ll be entering his age-36 season and hasn’t thrown more than 140 innings since 2019. Buehler is slated to be ready for the start of the year, but May and Gonsolin are each expected to miss the majority – if not all – of next season. It’s safe to assume Lance Lynn’s and Urías’ time in L.A. is also over. Youngsters Bobby Miller, Ryan Pepiot, and Emmet Sheehan will all play a role for the club in 2024, unless the front office looks to make a trade for more veteran players.

G Fiume / Getty Images Sport / Getty

Baltimore Orioles

Baltimore’s quick postseason exit isn’t enough to put a damper on an incredible season in which the Orioles shattered expectations with 101 wins and claimed an AL East title for the first time since 2014.

Is it now time to spend?

Of course it is. But will owner Peter Angelos do it is another question.

Angelos made some potentially troubling comments in August that may have revealed how he’ll proceed this winter and beyond.

“The hardest thing to do in sports is be a small-market team in baseball and be competitive, because everything is stacked against you – everything,” Angelos said.

“Let’s say we sat down and showed you the financials for the Orioles. You will quickly see that when people talk about giving this player $200 million, that player $150 million, we would be so financially underwater that you’d have to raise the prices massively.”

Baltimore’s timeline accelerated this year, but the front office wasn’t willing to push the chips in at the deadline. General manager Mike Elias said Thursday that there were numerous proposals that “just didn’t happen.” To improve the roster this winter, Elias will need to be more aggressive in acquiring some big-ticket players, but aggressiveness doesn’t need to be desperation.

Asked if the Orioles can give a free agent a contract totaling $40M-$60M, Mike Elias said they “have pursued [players] in the last 12 months that we didn’t get them and were in the ranges that you’re alluding to, and those pursuits will be on the menu again. We’re trying to win.”

— Nathan Ruiz (@NathanSRuiz) October 12, 2023

The Orioles had a 40-man payroll around $74 million this season. They’ve got just $1 million in guaranteed money on the books for 2024. Should they tender all their 16 arbitration-eligible players, their payroll comes in closer to $60 million. Elias will want to keep payroll flexibility top of mind even with his star players years away from arbitration. Angelos is unlikely to ever exceed the luxury tax, and the front office will need to ensure money’s available for future extensions, but there should still be plenty available to spend in the short term with the bulk of the young core still on pre-arb deals.

If Elias isn’t comfortable spending big, trades are the next option. Gunnar Henderson, Adley Rutschman, and top prospect Jackson Holliday are the franchise pillars and have to be considered almost untouchable. Fellow top prospects like outfielder Heston Kjerstad, infielder Jordan Westburg, and outfielder Colton Cowser all made their major-league debuts this season. If there’s not a clear path for playing time at the MLB level, Elias could use any combination of prospects to acquire players in trade.

Asked if he’s thought about making room for prospects who might be blocked , Elias said “It’s all I think about every day of my life.” #orioles

— Roch Kubatko (@masnRoch) October 12, 2023

The Orioles would benefit from adding a power bat after ranking 13th in OPS and 17th in homers this season. Only Henderson and Anthony Santander hit more than 25 homers, and no qualified player finished with an OPS above .814. The top free-agent bats, Ohtani and Cody Bellinger, would be excellent fits but will likely cost much more than Elias is willing to pay. Juan Soto could be an option should the San Diego Padres opt to move the star outfielder. He only has one year remaining at a projected $33-million salary. The acquisition cost likely wouldn’t be worth it if the Orioles don’t see Soto as an extension candidate.

If Elias would rather let the kids play, the team can allocate resources to the rotation. Baltimore received solid contributions from its pitching staff this season but lacked a true ace. John Means’ return is a major boost but shouldn’t keep the team from checking in on a free-agent pitching market that boasts Blake Snell, Aaron Nola, Sonny Gray, Jordan Montgomery, Yoshinobu Yamamoto, and Eduardo Rodriguez. Second-tier options Lucas Giolito, Kenta Maeda, James Paxton, Hyun Jin Ryu, Luis Severino, and Frankie Montas are also available but come with higher risk. The back end of the bullpen will need to be addressed with Félix Bautista set to miss the season, though Yennier Cano or DL Hall could slide into the closer role.

The Orioles suffered through a long rebuild to get to this point. It’s time to build on this momentum.

David Berding / Getty Images Sport / Getty

Minnesota Twins

The Twins only reached the postseason because they reside in the AL Central – they finished with one fewer win than the Seattle Mariners, who missed the playoffs – but still managed to snap an 18-game playoff losing streak and knocked off the Toronto Blue Jays in the wild-card series.

Ownership and the front office need to decide if division titles are enough or if they want to build a roster capable of going deep into October.

One of the first decisions president of baseball operations Derek Falvey and general manager Thad Levine need to make is whether bringing Sonny Gray back is a priority. The right-hander will likely finish as a Cy Young finalist, making re-signing him expensive. He’s been great in his two years with the club but will be entering his age-34 season. With Chris Paddack returning from Tommy John surgery, the team could go in a different route.

Another priority should be either re-signing Michael A. Taylor or bringing in someone else to play center field. Byron Buxton once again missed significant time due to injury, and he didn’t even take the field defensively in 2023. With Buxton undergoing knee surgery this week, his time in center field will likely be limited.

If Carlos Correa and Buxton can stay on the field, they form a really strong core alongside youngsters Edouard Julien and Royce Lewis. Limiting injuries, though, is something the Twins really struggled with in 2023. Correa was the only player to reach 135 games, and the front office will need to look for a better process to keep players healthy.

The team carried a $155-million payroll last season – the highest in franchise history. It projects to be around $115 million in 2024 should Minnesota tender all arbitration-eligible players. That leaves plenty of money to spend despite some sizable needs if ownership is willing to operate with a similar payroll.

It’s way too early to predict 2024, but it looks as if the division will be the Twins’ to lose. After breaking through this season, it’s time to broaden the expectations.

“Now that some of our guys got their feet wet in postseason baseball, next year, I feel like we’ll be a lot better, and I know the front office will put the right pieces together for us to go out there next year and go further, all the way,” Correa said after the ALDS exit.

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