AL East Hot Stove Preview
I've put together my predictions and suggestions on the general direction that each team is going to take, which can range from a "strong buy" (trading in cash and long-term assets to win in 2008) to a "strong sell" (just the opposite).
For each club, I've provided both a recommended and a predicted course of action; the latter is generally based on a top-level read of a team's behavior rather than any sort of insider information. There's also an abundance of information on long-term contracts, most of which is borrowed from the invaluable
One quick note: the category for "key ready-now youngsters" is generally limited to players who have not yet broken into their team's everyday lineup, or who only did so in the middle of the 2007 season. The series starts with the AL East:
Doing something drastic like going after Alex Rodriguez, on the other hand, is neither particularly defensible nor particularly likely. The Red Sox do well enough on the field, at the gate, and in player development that they have little reason to overpay for someone when there are palatable alternatives, and this is the one environment where I think concerns about A-Rod's clubhouse and media distractions are tangible enough to weigh into your decision.
Let's say that the Yankees part ways with all their free agents. That would imply going with Wilson Betemit at 3B, and probably Duncan at 1B. It would mean being willing to tolerate a year of Kyle Farnsworth as your closer, or perhaps hoping to get big things out of Edwar Ramirez, who struck out 15.4 batters per nine innings (!) between three professional levels this year. There's nothing at all at catcher, so we would allow the Yankees to sign a middling free agent along the lines of Michael Barrett at that position.
How bad would that team be? Not as bad as you might think. It looks like about an 86-88 win team from here, although with a high degree of variance on either side of that estimate because so much of the talent is either very young or very old. I should pause here to note that I'm a fairly big fan of all three of Chamberlain, Kennedy and Hughes -- not just in the long-term but also in the near-term -- and a believer that players like Betemit, Cabrera, Duncan and Ramirez are better than they're given credit for, albeit probably below league average relative to their positions. It's a group that would reach the playoffs -- I don't know -- 30 percent of the time, and occasionally back into 98 wins, making Joe Girardi the biggest hero in New York since Fiorello LaGuardia.
But, it wouldn't be the juggernaut that Yankees fans are used to, and so what the club needs to ask itself is whether it's willing to tolerate being merely decent for a year instead of being dominant. Of course, there is a lot of middle ground between this "worst case" scenario and the Yankees throwing money at any player who will take it. In evaluating these alternatives, the Yankees ought to abide by two guiding principles:
This would rule out going after a player like Torii Hunter, who is likely to be overpaid, and for that matter Mariano Rivera, who isn't going to cut the Yankees any bargain. It would imply providing players like Cabrera, the three young starters, and perhaps Betemit with the benefit of the doubt as they try and entrench themselves in the lineup. Here is one riff on that strategy:
I would still term this a "weak sell," because it implies that we're going to be cutting payroll back down to the $150 million range (see table below). But we're still going to have something between a very good team and a great team, and there will be plenty of personalities to keep fans and media engaged all season.
The mishandling of the Joe Torre situation has Hank & Hal's fingerprints all over it, and it could lead one to a couple of different conclusions about their way of doing business. In particular, they are impatient, penny wise and pound foolish, and not particularly competent baseball men. That would imply the Yankees running around like headless chickens, in on the bidding on just about everyone, and sort of reverse-arbitraging their way to some bad decisions where the Winner's Curse kicks in.
In contrast to the "firing" of Joe Torre, the hiring of Joe Girardi looks more like Cashman's work. Don Mattingly's calling card was the continuity he implied. He was an internal hire with nearly as much stature within the organization as Torre, and he has a more deferential personality than Girardi. Mattingly was the business-as-usual hire. On the other hand, one could imagine him becoming crestfallen if the Yankees failed to meet expectations. Girardi, by contrast, has a reputation for working with young players, and under ambiguous objectives from the front office. That is more the hire to make if you're prepared to move on to Yankees v2.0, perhaps with 2008 serving as the beta test. This would imply that Cashman would prefer something more along the lines of my strategy.
I don't know, and since the situation has been so fluid, I don't know that anyone else does either. But one noteworthy factor is that Cashman is on the last year of his contract, which would suggest that he might need to be more concerned about keeping Hank & Hal happy than the long-term fitness of the organization.
Perhaps not. Even with all the talent the Yankees have lost, the talent they still have on hand is relatively efficiently configured -- there are few redundant assets, and there are capable young players at the positions where they need them the most. So the risk is that Hank & Hal adopt a number of inefficient solutions, like re-upping Abreu when they could have Bonds or perhaps Adam Dunn for the same money, or signing Carlos Silva when he's actually a downgrade versus Ian Kennedy, or letting Rivera go, but replacing him with some mediocrity like Todd Jones. Even worse, they could trade away some premium young talent. With A-Rod crossed off their list, and Mike Lowell quite possibly not being available, talent at third base is very thin, and the Yankees will either have to be willing to go with a solution like Lamb/Betemit or will have to make some sort of trade. If Billy Beane pulls off some monster heist like Kennedy, Ramirez and Duncan for Eric Chavez, I would not be entirely surprised.
What all this adds up to is that the Blue Jays are damned if they do and damned if they don't. If they want to rebuild their farm system, the one really tradeable asset they have is Burnett, who could probably fetch them at least one Grade-A prospect. But that would still leave the glass of the 2010 Blue Jays no better than half-full, while ruining any hopes of contention for this year,
Faced to choose between the lesser of two evils, I would probably go the buy route and re-sign Stairs -- he should not cost them very much -- and make a play for help at the shortstop position, perhaps trading bullpen talent for someone like Jack Wilson, or seeing what Billy Beane would want for Bobby Crosby. David Eckstein also makes more sense here than he does in many places. Both the rotation and the bullpen, at least, ought to be pretty good, especially if B.J. Ryan and Brandon League get back to full strength. The Blue Jays will still need some help to reach the playoffs under this scenario -- perhaps a year where they outperform their Pythagorean record, or perhaps a flop from the Yankees -- but they'll at least nominally be in contention, and the fanbase seems to be responding more favorably to this sort of strategy than they did to J.P. Ricciardi's rebuilding days.
Nevertheless, I think you need to dispatch what assets you can. The middle infield of Miguel Tejada and Brian Roberts is the Orioles' one true strength, but those are also two contracts that ought to translate to quite a bit of trade value. The other player with some surplus value, of course, is Bedard, who might have one of the most favorable contracts in baseball over the course of the next two seasons. In theory, Bedard ought to have more trade value than Johan Santana; whether the market feels that way is an open question, but you're certainly liable to do pretty well for him. This is one case where I'm willing to let things get really ugly in 2008 and 2009, not even worrying about the surface major league talent. I'd also recognize the sunk costs of players like Payton and Mora and hope to hit the lottery with a couple of freely-available talent singings, as the Devil Rays did last year with Carlos Pena.
That, my friends, could be one hell of a baseball club. This is the rare, idyllic instance of a team with a half-dozen franchise talents that will all have the chance to grow up together. Note the inclusion of Pedro Alvarez, the likely No. 1 1 pick in the 2008 draft, whose natural position is third base but won't have the chance to play that position in this organization; either way, he could wield an Albert Pujols type of bat. I've also taken the liberty of playing B.J. Upton at second base and holding on to Rocco Baldelli through the first of several option years; Akinori Iwamura at 2B and Upton in center is the more likely alternative. Finally, I've listed Jeff Niemann as the closer because I think with his injury history he profiles well for a change of routine, but it's too early to guess at that for now.
Can this team contend in 2008? I don't think it's completely out of the question -- all of these players are talented, and all of them are close to major-league ready -- though it will depend on how quickly they're willing to promote guys like Longoria, Price, and McGee. Is that chance tangible enough to make a surgical strike in the free-agent market? What I would not do is spend any money at all on starting pitching talent, which will be considerably overpriced this winter. However, I would consider making upgrades at two positions. The first is catcher, where Dioner Navarro is the ugly duckling in this dream lineup. I'd at least give passing thought to signing Jorge Posada if he becomes available, with an eye mainly toward helping to mentor the young pitching staff. And I'd consider signing a high-upside reliever along the lines of Eric Gagne or Kerry Wood, perhaps at $3 million with two team option years priced at $6 million and $7 million respectively; they could help the starters to accumulate a few more wins while relieving any pressure on Joe Maddon to run up his pitch counts. With both signings, the strategy is mostly to make a preemptive play for 2009, but if I "accidentally" wind up helping my team to stay in the thick of things until August or September this year, that's hardly a problem.