AL East Hot Stove Preview: Can Orioles stay ahead of Yankees, Red Sox?
This week, SI.com is breaking down the off-season plans for all 30 teams. Teams are presented in order of finish from 2014.
Results: 96-66 (.593), lost ALCS to Royals
Third-Order Record: 91-71 (.562)
The Orioles have a handful of key free agents who helped them to their best season since 1997. Cruz, who led the majors with 40 homers, could have his market again slowed by a qualifying offer, but it's noteworthy that the team's contract talks with him didn't result in a longer-term deal. Markakis had his steep $17.5 million option declined, and while his power isn't what it once was, Baltimore is likely to retain him given his on-base skills and manager Buck Showalter's favorable opinion of the 31-year-old. Miller was dominant out of the bullpen after coming over on July 31; the O's would love to bring him back, but his 2.02 ERA, 1.51 FIP and 14.9 K/9 (all including his time with the Red Sox) open the door to big money and perhaps an opportunity to close, which could price him out of Baltimore's range.
Of the rest, Showalter put Young to better use than any manager ever has but the team can probably do better than the enigmatic 29-year-old. Hundley, who shared catching duties with Caleb Joseph after Matt Wieters went down, is a light hitter and average-at-best defender who had his $5 million option declined; the team is working to re-sign him to a less expensive deal while hoping that Wieters can return sooner rather than later. Santana, who was nearing a return to the majors for the first time since August 2012 before rupturing his left Achilles tendon, will get another minor league deal — somewhere, if not from the Orioles — as could Saunders, who put up a 6.70 ERA in 43 innings with Texas and Baltimore. Johnson and Casilla are utilitymen who don’t figure to stick around.
Targets: Catcher, leftfield/designated hitter, rotation
Wieters underwent Tommy John surgery in mid-June, and while a nine-month recovery period would have him ready for Opening Day, the reality is that the O's won't have a great idea of his progress until January. Given that he's in his final year before free agency and isn't likely to stay if he is healthy, the team could try a low-cost multi-year deal with Hundley to complement Joseph. That said, free agents such as Gerald Laird, A.J. Pierzynski, David Ross and Geovany Soto offer plenty of short-term alternatives, and general manager Dan Duquette could also explore trade avenues.
If Cruz departs, the Orioles could go into 2015 with Stephen Pearce in leftfield and Chris Davis (who has one more game to serve on his PED suspension) at first, leaving them in need of a DH. If Cruz is too expensive, the market is flush with alternatives such as Billy Butler, Victor Martinez and Kendrys Morales. Another name to keep in mind is that of Michael Morse, whom Duquette traded for in late 2013, though a bone spur in his wrist (since removed) diminished his effectiveness with the O's. Melky Cabrera, who received a qualifying offer from the Blue Jays after a strong rebound season in 2014, offers a capable outfield alternative who could figure in the mix if Cruz and Markakis both depart.
At this writing, the team has six candidates (Wei-Yin Chen, Kevin Gausman, Miguel Gonzalez, Ubaldo Jimenez, Bud Norris and Chris Tillman) for five rotation spots, but with three of them — Gonzalez, Norris and Tillman — due raises via arbitration, Duquette could move one to save money while pursuing an upgrade.
Bottom line: After a pair of playoff appearances in the last three years, it's clear that Baltimore is for real, particularly in an AL East where the Rays, Red Sox and Yankees are all regrouping. The Orioles will boost their payroll, though they aren't likely to blow far past their 2014 figure ($107.5 million), and much of the increase will be taken up by arbitration-driven raises, but expect Duquette to show creativity in shoring up his roster.
New York Yankees
Results: 84-78 (.519)
Third-Order Record: 77-85 (.478)
General manager Brian Cashman's midseason roster makeover swelled the ranks of the team's free agents, some of whom New York is looking to keep. The team has expressed considerable interest in the 30-year-old Headley because the front office rightly has doubts about whether the going-on-40-year-old Alex Rodriguez will be capable of handling the hot corner after a full year's suspension and just 27 games there in 2013. The Yankees may also want to bring back the 31-year-old McCarthy, who stayed healthy enough to reach the 200-inning plateau for the first time in his career, to provide some mid-rotation stability. McCarthy pitched to a 2.89 ERA and 3.22 FIP after coming to the Bronx, validating Cashman's pursuit of a pitcher who was getting bombed in Arizona.
Drew could be a candidate for either second base or the unenviable job of succeeding Derek Jeter at shortstop, but after hitting a miserable .162/.237/.299 in 300 PA between the Red Sox and Yankees, he'll have to come considerably cheaper than the $10.1 million he made last year. Young hit .282/.354/.521 in 79 PA with the Yankees after fizzling with the Mets, and could have some appeal as a reserve, albeit on a much cheaper deal than the $7.25 million he made this past year.
Among the longer-tenured, the team issued a $15.3 million qualifying offer to Robertson, who took over from Mariano Rivera and saved 39 games with a 3.08 ERA and 13.4 strikeouts per nine. New York could try to retain him via a three- or four-year deal, but with at least six teams reportedly interested in his services and Dellin Betances waiting in the wings, it's no guarantee the 29-year-old righty returns. The team did not extend a qualifying offer to Kuroda, and while it will consider retaining him, he will turn 40 in February and has considered retiring or at least returning to Japan. Speaking of aging Japanese players, the 41-year-old Suzuki isn't likely to be back in pinstripes after a rocky year in a reserve role. If he wants to chase 3,000 hits (he's at 2,844), he'll need to find more playing time elsewhere.
Targets: Rotation, shortstop, second base, bullpen
With so many starters coming back from injury — including Ivan Nova, whose Tommy John surgery will likely keep him out until midseason, and Masahiro Tanaka, who missed nearly half the season with a small UCL tear — the Yankees will need starting pitching. Their two-year absence from the playoff picture suggests they'd go big-game hunting, but they reportedly won't pursue Jon Lester, Max Scherzer or James Shields, the market's top three starters. Nor do they plan to go after Pablo Sandoval; instead, they’re aggressively trying to retain both McCarthy and Headley.
Shoring up those areas won't solve all of New York's problems. It will still need to sort out the middle infield, particularly shortstop. Among the free agent alternatives, Hanley Ramirez could provide a jolt of much-needed offense, but he lacks durability, averaging just 116 games a year over his last four seasons, and his defense suggests a move to third base will be in order before the end of his next deal. Jed Lowrie will cost less, but deliver less; notably, his defense is in a league with Ramirez and Jeter, which is to say that it won't help. A trade for the White Sox' Alexei Ramirez may make more sense because he's a much better defender who offers a bit of pop (.273/.305/.408 with 15 homers in 2014).
As for second base, while Martin Prado and prospect Rob Refsnyder (.318/.387/.497 split between Double A and Triple A) offer a pair of alternatives, the Yankees value the former's versatility and aren't sold on the latter's defense at the keystone. One avenue that could make sense is a trade for the Angels' Howie Kendrick, who's 31 and will make $9.5 million in his final year before free agency, but odds are they swing at most one trade to fill their middle infield need.
In the bullpen, if Robertson departs, the team could look to Betances, who whiffed an eye-opening 135 in 90 innings as a rookie, as their closer. That said, the 26-year-old righty’s ability to pitch multiple innings in a setup role gives him considerable value, just as it did Robertston in front of Rivera. The saves are only going to accelerate his increasing price tag, so the team could opt for a more experienced reliever in that role, at least for the short term. A lefty reliever and an upgrade on Shawn Kelley as a setup man are on the shopping list as well.
Bottom line: With $168.8 million committed to just 10 players, New York is going to need to spend considerable money to round out its roster. Still, after committing some $450 million to Tanaka, Carlos Beltran, Jacoby Ellsbury and Brian McCann last winter, the Yankees are less likely to make big splashes and will instead try to stretch their dollars further while retaining flexibility for the future.
Toronto Blue Jays
Results: 83-79 (.512)
Third-Order Record: 84-78 (.516)
After struggling in the first year of his post-suspension deal in 2013, Cabrera put up good numbers in '14 (.301/.351/.458, 16 homers, 3.1 WAR) that will help him find a more lucrative payday. The Blue Jays extended a qualifying offer to the 30-year-old switch-hitter, and while they'd like to keep him, the two sides are reportedly far apart in negotiations. The 28-year-old Rasmus, on the other hand, hits the market at the wrong time given that his 2014 performance represented a huge drop from 2013; manager John Gibbons started him just once in September, signaling his exit.
Meanwhile, a bullpen that ranked 12th in the league in ERA (4.09) and WAR (3.3) appears headed for a major makeover. The 33-year-old Janssen has notched 81 saves over the past three seasons but missed more than six weeks due to lower back issues, and a bad second half (6.46 ERA) shot his season ERA to 3.94 as his peripherals eroded. Morrow ($10 million), Santos ($6 million) and McGowan ($4 million) all had their options declined in favor of minimal buyouts.
Elsewhere on the option front, the Jays picked up those of pitcher J.A. Happ ($6.75 million) and DH/1B Adam Lind ($7.5 million), then turned around and traded the latter to the Brewers for Marco Estrada. They also declined a $3.65 million option on first baseman Justin Smoak, whom they added via waivers during the World Series, and who still has another year of arbitration eligibility
Targets: Catcher, second base, outfield, bullpen
The Lind/Estrada swap gives Toronto some payroll flexibility, and it could obtain even more if it deals Happ, who's drawing trade interest as a back-end starter. That could help if the team is serious about pursuing catcher Russell Martin. At 31 years old, and with penchants for both heavy workloads and injuries, he carries plenty of risk on a long-term deal and will cost a draft pick given that he received a qualifying offer. But his work behind the plate and as a clubhouse leader contributed to the Pirates' first two playoff appearances in two decades, and the Blue Jays' 21-year playoff drought is now longer than Pittsburgh's was coming into 2013.
If they do sign Martin, the Jays could trade Dioner Navarro, who delivered a .274/.317/.395 line with 12 homers and will make $5 million in 2014. That said, it's been suggested that under such a scenario, Navarro could take over DH duties instead, with Edwin Encarnacion settling in at first base.
Elsewhere, Toronto's second basemen hit just .247/.295/.340 in 2014. Brett Lawrie could fit there with Juan Francisco as the primary third baseman, but the former's lack of durability and the latter's platoon issues create additional problems. The outfield is in flux, with Anthony Gose, Kevin Pillar and Dalton Pompey likely to compete for the centerfield job vacated by Rasmus. While the team hopes to keep Cabrera, it will find other ways to spend that money if he departs, with the recently claimed Andy Dirks offering a low-cost starting point.
As noted above, the bullpen is in the midst of an overhaul, and GM Alex Anthopoulos will probably pull in a few veterans. Prospect Aaron Sanchez, who posted a 1.09 ERA in 33 relief innings for the Jays, could fit the bill as a closer candidate if the team doesn't find an opening for him in the rotation. If it wants to keep him a starter, the market offers no shortage of proven closers for every price range.
Bottom line: The Blue Jays have increased payroll by more than $50 million over the past two years, and while that hasn't produced a playoff team, they did spend around six weeks in first place and finished above .500 for the first time since 2010. President/CEO Paul Beeston recently said he expects Toronto to spend $135-$137 million, but that's not an increase given that Cot's Contracts estimated its major league payroll at $137.2 million for 2014 — unless Beeston is overlooking the $7.75 million being paid to hopelessly lost former ace Ricky Romero.
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Tampa Bay Rays
Results: 77-85 (.475)
Third-Order Record: 86-76 (.533)
Free Agents: None
That's right, the Rays don't have a single major league free agent. They recently exercised their 2015 options on Ben Zobrist ($7.5 million) and Joel Peralta ($2.5 million), both of which were no-brainers even for a team of limited payroll.
Targets: Manager, power hitting, bargains
With the aforementioned options picked up, Tampa Bay has no glaring holes on its 25-man roster, which isn't to say that new president of baseball operations Matt Silverman — who replaces the departed Andrew Friedman — won't mix things up somewhat. His first order of business, however, will be to fill the void left by manager Joe Maddon's departure for the Cubs. Longtime bench coach Dave Martinez, former Rangers interim manager Tim Bogar and perennial managerial bridesmaid Torey Lovullo are likely candidates, but it won't be until later this week that a full list is revealed.
As for the roster, Silverman will have less money to work with than the $76.8 million Friedman spent last year, but that's easier with David Price ($14 million) and Heath Bell ($5.5 million, even though he was released in May) off the books. Silverman could look to find ways of adding some sock to a team that ranked dead last in the AL in scoring and slugging percentage (.367) and 13th in home runs (117). A full, healthy season from rightfielder Wil Myers would help, as would a rebound from third baseman Evan Longoria (.253/.320/.404). But with the emergence of outfielder Kevin Kiermaier and pitcher Jake Odorizzi, the Rays have areas of surplus that can be tapped, so don't be surprised if they explore trading a cost-controlled player such as outfielders Desmond Jennings and Matt Joyce or starter Jeremy Hellickson as a means of reshaping the roster. Zobrist could even be dealt, and would fetch a considerable haul given his cost, versatility and proven track record.
Whatever the Rays do, value is the watchword. Tampa Bay has a long track record for finding low-cost players whose careers hardly appeared to be on the upswing, but delivered more than expected at a fraction of a big-name free agent's cost. Think Johnny Damon, Kyle Farnsworth and Casey Kotchman in 2011, Jeff Keppinger and Fernando Rodney in 2012 and James Loney in 2013. Is worth noting that in 2014, Loney delivered only half his value as triple the cost from the previous year, and that the team was distinctly lacking in such value finds overall. The Rays' gambles didn't pay off this past year, but they've done so more often than not.
Bottom line: The sudden departures of Friedman and Maddon, on the heels of the team's first losing season since 2007 — a stumble that forced the trade of Price — have dealt this franchise a blow. But don't expect Tampa Bay to spend the winter feeling sorry for itself, particularly given that even with Price's departure, it has enough cost-controlled starting pitching — Chris Archer, Matt Moore, Alex Cobb, Drew Smyly, Odorizzi and Hellickson — to be the envy of most clubs. The Rays will still do everything within their limited budget to contend in 2015.
Boston Red Sox
Results: 71-91 (.438)
Third-Order Record: 74-88 (.457)
Having traded away Jonny Gomes, John Lackey, Jon Lester, Andrew Miller and Jake Peavy back in July when it was clear there would be no repeat of their 2013 World Series win, the Red Sox did away with most of the hard choices about retaining their top free agents. They did move quickly to keep closer Koji Uehara, signing him to a two-year, $18 million deal despite his age (40 as of next April) and a late-season bout of fatigue that saw him post a 5.74 ERA over the final two months. Elsewhere, Boston declined the $4 million option of Breslow, who was rocked for a career-worst 5.96 ERA amid soaring walk and homer rates.
That leaves Badenhop and Ross, neither of whom can be ruled out for a return. The former set career bests with 70 appearances and a 2.29 ERA; the 31-year-old righty doesn't strike many batters out (a career-low 5.1 per nine this year), but he's a worm-killing machine who led the AL with 14 double plays generated. The latter hit just .184/.260/.368 in his second straight down season with the bat, and set a career worst by throwing out just 22 percent of would-be base thieves, but even at age 37, he could generate some interest as a backup.
Targets: Rotation, third base
Given a rotation where Clay Buchholz is the only incumbent who reached 20 starts, you can bet that the Red Sox are going to chase frontline pitching this winter. They'll discuss a reunion with Lester, who was traded to Oakland in the midst of a season in which he set career bests for innings (219 2/3), ERA (2.46) and FIP (2.80). But given how far apart the two sides were last spring — with the Sox reportedly offering four years and $70 million, and Lester likely seeking to better the six-year, $105 million deal the Reds gave Homer Bailey — there's a good chance the lefty lands elsewhere. If that's the case, expect Boston to go hard after either James Shields or Max Scherzer, because even with a fair bit of starting pitching in the pipeline, it needs a front-of-the-rotation type.
Beyond that, the Sox are reportedly interested in either Pablo Sandoval or Chase Headley to play third base, which is something of a headscratcher. While it's true the team received abysmal production (.211/.271/.308) at the spot, it has no shortage of in-house options even if Xander Bogaerts sticks at shortstop (recall that his problems at the plate coincided with a shift back to third when Stephen Drew returned) — namely Will Middlebrooks, utilityman Brock Holt and prospect Garin Cecchini.
Furthermore, ever since they unloaded Josh Beckett, Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez in that 2012 blockbuster with the Dodgers, the Red Sox have avoided free agent deals of longer than three years. They would almost certainly have to depart from that to sign Sandoval, who reportedly rejected a three-year, $40 million offer from the Giants back in the spring, and who, while just 28 years old, carries major questions regarding his physique and conditioning. The 28-year-old hit .279/.324/.415 this year en route to a 111 OPS+ — his third straight season of decline at the plate — and 3.3 WAR. As for the 30-year-old Headley, the Yankees are working to retain him; if he gets away, his services won't come cheap, either.
Boston could shore up one or both areas of need by drawing on its surplus of outfielders in a trade. The signing of Rusney Castillo leaves them with a pair of young centerfielders with no clear path to playing time in Mookie Betts and Jackie Bradley Jr., and they also have Yoenis Cespedes, Allen Craig and Shane Victorino under contract, with Daniel Nava under club control as well. With the exception of Betts and Castillo, none of those players are coming off a strong season — they certainly won't fetch an ace — but that's still too many flychasers for one roster, so somebody will be dealt. Cespedes, who is set to be a free agent next winter, may well be on the outbound, though on a team that had only two regulars -- David Ortiz and Mike Napoli -- slug above .400, the Sox may be hesitant to part with his bat.
Bottom line: The last time the Red Sox finished last in the AL East, in 2012, they made a handful of smart moves and won the World Series the next year. While they've got a bevy of ready and near-ready youngsters, this roster needs a whole lot more pitching than that one did, though a team with so many resources should never be counted out.