New Year's resolutions for American League teams
The first day of 2014 is the perfect time for the 30 major league teams to make their New Year's resolutions. Hope springs eternal, but as so often happens, many if not most of these resolutions will be broken upon the rocks of realization that changing a number on the calendar doesn't, in and of itself, change the fortunes of one's circumstances.
We start today with the 15 American League teams and will continue with the 15 National League teams tomorrow. Teams are presented by division based on their order of finish in 2013:
Boston Red Sox resolve to get younger.
It’s hard to find fault with a team that just won the World Series, but given that the Red Sox' six-game victory over the Cardinals was led by a 37-year-old designated hitter and a 38-year-old closer, there’s clearly one thing for Boston to work on: getting younger. By average age weighted by playing time, the Red Sox had the third-oldest pitching staff in baseball in 2013 and the fourth-oldest collection of hitters.
Fortunately for the Sox, there are two talented youths on the way who could be central to the 2014 team: 24-year-old center fielder Jackie Bradley Jr. and 21-year-old infielder Xander Bogaerts. The latter came up to the majors in August and took over the starting third base job during the postseason, hitting .296/.412/.481 for the Sox in October. Bogaerts was rated the game's eighth-best prospect by Baseball America prior to the 2013 season and is set to start on the left side of the infield in 2014 (his position will be determined by whether or not the Red Sox can re-sign shortstop Stephen Drew, a stated goal of theirs). He hit .296/.373/.489 across four minor league seasons (three of them as a teenager) and projects as a third baseman who can hit in the heart of the order at full maturity. If all goes according to plan, he’ll battle for the Rookie of the Year award in 2014 and be one of the key building blocks of Boston's next championship.
Bradley isn’t quite on Bogaerts' level, as evidenced by his age as well as his struggles in the bigs following an aggressive promotion from Double A to the majors at the start of the 2013 season. Still, he is an elite defensive centerfielder who has hit .297/.404/.471 in the minors since being drafted out of the University of South Carolina and was rated the 31st best prospect in the game by Baseball America last winter. Bradley’s presence emboldened the Red Sox to let Jacoby Ellsbury leave as a free-agent. Having now had a solid stint in Triple A (where he hit .275/.374/.469 in 374 plate appearances around several abbreviated stints with Boston) as well as a taste of the majors, he should be ready to take Ellsbury's place in Fenway Park in 2014.
Tampa Bay Rays resolve to trade David Price.
It may not happen this offseason but it seems very likely to happen before the end of 2014: The Rays are going to trade ace David Price, who is due to become a free agent after the 2015 season.
Tampa Bay has had increasing success in trading young, established starting pitchers in advance of their free agency (aided by the increasing quality of the starting pitchers they have traded). After the 2008 season they flipped Edwin Jackson to the Tigers for Matt Joyce; in August 2009 they sent Scott Kazmir to the Angels for Sean Rodriguez and Alex Torres; after the 2010 season they dealt Matt Garza for to the Cubs for Chris Archer, Sam Fuld and shortstop prospect Hak-Ju Lee, among others; and in December 2012 they moved James Shields to the Royals in a seven-player trade that netted Wil Myers and Jake Odorizzi.
The additions of Archer and Odorizzi along with the emergence of prospects Matt Moore and Alex Cobb give the Rays a rotation that can survive the loss of Price. While Price himself is irreplaceable, he's also tremendously valuable and should bring back a return that would surpass any of the others above.
Baltimore Orioles resolve to see a pitching prospect fulfill his potential.
The last half-decade of Orioles baseball is littered with failed starting pitching prospects, from Jake Arrieta and Brandon Erbe to Brian Matusz and Zach Britton. A year ago, Baltimore had two of the top pitching prospects in the game in Dylan Bundy and Kevin Gausman, but Bundy had Tommy John surgery in June and Gausman posted a 5.66 ERA in his first season, doing his best work in relief.
There's still hope, however. Gausman turns 23 next week and retains his front-of-the-rotation projection, as does the 21-year-old Bundy. Matusz thrived in relief in 2013 and could use that performance as a springboard to return to the rotation for his age-27 season. Chris Tillman has emerged as a solid member of the rotation over the last two seasons and sneaked onto the All-Star team as an injury replacement in 2013. Heading into his age-26 season, Tillman could move toward the front of the rotation if he can control his home run rate. Still, his 16-7 record and 3.71 ERA last year stands as the best performance the Orioles have received from any of the seven pitcher mentioned above, five of whom (Arrieta and Erbe being the exceptions) were projected to be aces.
The "Actual Club Payroll" upon which baseball's competitive balance tax is assessed can be confusing, but generally speaking, it is based on the average annual value of each player's contract, with any contributions from other teams deducted from that average. Using that simple approach, I have estimated the actual club payroll for the players the Yankees have under contract for 2014 at $177.16 million. That does not include salaries for the team's arbitration eligible-players (Brett Gardner, David Robertson, Ivan Nova, Shawn Kelley and Francisco Cervelli), who made nearly $8 million combined in 2014. Add that $8 million plus another $2.5 million to flesh out the roster with five players making roughly the league minimum, and the Yankees' estimated actual club payroll for 2014 jumps to $187.66 million before factoring in what are likely to be significant raises for Gardner, Nova and Robertson.
That would seem to put the Yankees over the $189 million luxury tax threshold for the coming year. If, however, the arbitrator upholds Alex Rodriguez's 211-game suspension, or a significant portion of it, it could clear as much as $27.5 million from New York's actual team payroll and put the franchise back under the threshold with room to spare. (Some of those savings would need to be used to replace Rodriguez at third base, though, given his injury history, the team should probably do that anyway).
This is important not because the Yankees want to avoid playing the tax, but because they want to reset the tax rate they do pay. Currently, they are paying a 50 percent tax on all salary above the threshold, but if they stay below it for just one year, they'll reset that tax rate to 17.5 percent, clearing the way for a spending spree in subsequent offseasons. Given the teams' aging roster and barren farm system, spending is the only way it is going to be able to restore its former glory in the near term.
Toronto Blue Jays resolve to pretend 2013 never happened.
Last offseason the Blue Jays traded for defending National League Cy Young award winner R.A. Dickey and former All-Stars Jose Reyes, Josh Johnson and Mark Buehrle and signed 2012 All-Star Game MVP Melky Cabrera as a free agent. As a result many, myself included, projected them to win their division in 2013. They didn't. They won 74 games, just one more than the year before.
This offseason Toronto's only significant moves have been to let the chronically injured Johnson, who went 2-8 with a 6.20 ERA in his lone season in as a Jay, leave as a free agent, non-tender catcher J.P. Arencibia (career on-base percentage: .258), and replace the latter with free agent journeyman Dioner Navarro (career OBP: .313). The offseason isn't over, but it seems clear that, having increased their Opening Day payroll by more than $35 million last offseason, the Blue Jays' plan for 2014 is to hope their plan for 2013 works better on the second try.
Detroit Tigers resolve to play better defense.
Over the last three seasons, the Tigers have won their division three times, reaching the American League Championship Series each time and the World Series once. They did all of that despite dreadful team defense. In each of the last two seasons, Detroit was the second-worst defensive team in the American League, according to park-adjusted defensive efficiency (the rate of turning balls in play into outs, adjusted for ballpark).
That should change in 2014. By trading Prince Fielder to Texas for slick-fielding second baseman Ian Kinsler the Tigers improved their defense at three infield positions in one move. Kinsler is an upgrade on departed free agent Omar Infante at the keystone, the vacated first base spot allows the team to move Miguel Cabrera off third base, and top prospect Nick Castellanos should be an easy improvement over Cabrera at the hot corner. Oh, and the Tigers will also enjoy a full season of defensive wiz Jose Iglesias at shortstop.
Add in the speedy Rajai Davis in a platoon role in leftfield and Detroit has drastically improved its defense, which should make its already dominant pitching staff all the more effective. Unfortunately for the Tigers, the pitcher who would have benefitted most from the improvement in the team's infield defense, groundballer Doug Fister, was dumped on the Nationals in a still-inexplicable trade.
Swiped from the Blue Jays in a minor trade last offseason, 25-year-old Brazil native Yan Gomes hit .294/.345/.481 in 322 plate appearances for the Indians in 2013 while throwing out 41 percent of opposing basestealers and effectively stealing the starting catching job from Carlos Santana, the team's best hitter. Santana, who is a year and a half older than Gomes, had already seen significant time at first base in 2011 and 2012, and with the emergence of Gomes and the struggles of third base prospect Lonnie Chisenhall (.244/.284/.411 career after 682 major league plate appearances), the Indians have asked Santana to try to relearn the hot corner. It was his primary position in rookie ball in 2005, but he hasn't played it at any level since fielding two chances there in High-A ball in 2008.
Putting Santana at third base would maximize his value as a non-catcher, allow Nick Swisher to start at first base and clear an outfield corner for free agent addition David Murphy, likely in a platoon with Ryan Raburn. That would still leave a large hole at designated hitter, however, so Cleveland doesn't need to force Santana into a position he can't play. Still it seems increasingly clear that he won't be the Indians' primary catcher in 2014.
Kansas City Royals resolve to snap the major leagues' longest active playoff drought.
The Royals haven't been to the postseason since they won their only World Series in 1985. They have, however, improved their record in each of the last four seasons. In 2013 Kansas City turned in its first winning season since 2003 and just its second since the strike-shortened 1994, when its best hitter was Rookie of the Year Bob Hamelin. With the extra wild card in play, the 86-win 2013 Royals weren't eliminated until their 158th game of the season as they fell just six wins shy of a postseason berth.
This offseason, Kansas City has filled two glaring holes in its lineup with solid, underrated veterans in second baseman Omar Infante and rightfielder Norichika Aoki and added depth to its starting rotation with lefty Jason Vargas. Factor in further growth from the likes of Eric Hosmer and Salvador Perez and the potential rotation contributions of Yordano Ventura and Danny Duffy and the Royals just might get those six extra wins in 2014.
Minnesota Twins resolve to make their games watchable prior to the sixth inning.
The 2013 Twins had the worst starting rotation in baseball, by a lot. They were dead last in the majors in starters' ERA (5.26), WHIP (1.54), strikeout rate (4.9 K/9 compared to a league average of 7.2), strikeout-to-walk ratio (1.75), OPS allowed (.826, higher than the OPS of Buster Posey and Prince Fielder last year), innings pitched (871, or 5 1/3 per start) and quality starts (62). Their lineup was lousy, as well, but their rotation was exceptionally terrible, so much so that 32-year-old journeyman Kevin Correia, who went 9-13 with a 4.18 ERA was by far their best starting pitcher. So this offseason Minnesota spent $73 million on Ricky Nolasco and Phil Hughes. That's got to help a least a little, right?
Chicago White Sox resolve to score some runs.
The White Sox play in one of the best hitters' parks in baseball, but in 2013 their 3.69 runs per game ranked 29th in the majors, out-pacing only the Marlins' pathetic 3.17. The team's goal for 2014 is thus clear: score some darn runs.
Enter the so-called "Cuban Barry Bonds," first baseman Jose Abreu, who hit .394/.542/.837 with 35 home runs in 87 games in Cuba in 2012 and was signed to the richest contract ever given to an international free agent ($68 million over six years). Abreu pushes the re-signed Paul Konerko into what should be an effective platoon with Adam Dunn at whichever of first base and designated hitter Abreu is not occupying. Add former Diamondbacks prospects Adam Eaton and Matt Davison, who will compete for playing time at centerfield and third base, respectively, and a full season of former Tigers prospect Avisail Garcia in rightfield and Chicago should indeed score more runs in 2014 than it did in 2013.
The White Sox might not be an overwhelming force at the plate, but they should be better, and with their rotation still mostly intact (top prospect Erik Johnson is expected to replace Hector Santiago, the price for Eaton), that should translate to more wins as well.
Oakland A's resolve to keep their foot on the Rangers' neck.
The A's surprised everyone, including themselves, by winning the AL West in 2012 and continued to defy expectations by winning the division again in 2013. The overall excellence of the team and its management, which has a knack for finding unexpectedly strong performances from seemingly marginal players, is the primary reason for that. Still, the A's success against their principle intra-division rivals, the Rangers, particularly in crucial late-season series, has proven key in each of the last two seasons.
In 2012 Texas led the West from April 9 to Oct. 2, but Oakland took five of six head-to-head games in the season's final two weeks, including a home sweep of the final three games of the regular season, to steal the division in Game 162. In 2013, the division was more of a see-saw battle, but the Rangers were again in first place in August and carried that lead into September only to again lose five of their last six head-to-head games with the A's. Oakland tied up the division by taking two of three in the first week of September and effectively put it out of reach with a three-game sweep in Arlington in the middle of the month that built their lead to 6 1/2 games. As as result, heading into 2014, it is the Rangers who are chasing the A's, rather than the other way around.
Texas Rangers resolve to accomplish the goals of their four-year plan in Year One.
With the trade for Prince Fielder and the signing of Shin-Soo Choo following contract extensions for Elvis Andrus, Matt Harrison and Martin Perez earlier in the year, the Rangers have a lot of cost certainty over the next five seasons, as well as a lot of cost. In 2016, Fielder, Choo, Andrus, Harrison, Yu Darvish, Derek Holland and Adrian Beltre will cost the team a combined $104.1 million. In 2017, Beltre comes off the books, but the other six (assuming Holland's option is picked up) plus Perez will cost the team $94.1 million, not counting that year's arbitration settlement for Jurickson Profar. After that Darvish becomes a free agent and Holland, Harrison and Perez all have options, creating an opportunity for Texas to tear things down before the 2018 season and start over, or to reinvest in that core group.
For the next four years, however, the key parts of the Rangers' roster and payroll are set, and that significant investment demands a significant return. For a team that is still smarting from its World Series losses in 2010 and 2011, particularly the latter when it was twice within one strike of the first championship in franchise history, it would just as soon get that return in 2014 and let the remaining years be gravy.
Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim resolve for Mike Trout to win an MVP award.
Trout has done his part each of the last two years -- hitting a combined .314/.404/.544 while averaging 30 homers, 41 steals (at an 87 percent success rate), 95 RBIs, 124 runs scored, eight triples and a 166 OPS+ while playing the majority of his games in centerfield -- but the vote has gone against him both years in part due to the shortcomings of his teammates. The Angels have failed to reach the playoffs in each of Trout's first two mind-blowing seasons, and he has finished a distant second in the MVP voting both years.
Los Angeles' biggest problem in 2013 was the back of its rotation. To fix it, general manager Jerry Dipoto, who has a poor track record on trades, made what looks like a nice three-way deal with the White Sox and Diamondbacks to land young lefties Hector Santiago and Tyler Skaggs for impatient thumper Mark Trumbo (career OBP: .299). Dipoto then replaced Trumbo on the cheap with veteran lefty power bat Raul Ibañez (OBP last three years: .300). With the Rangers having reloaded and the A's likely improved as well, the Angels don't have a clear path to their first playoff berth since 2009, but if they can add a healthy Albert Pujols and a bounce-back year from Josh Hamilton to the potential upgrades in the rotation, they could make things very interesting in the AL West in 2014.
Coming off four straight losing seasons, a 91-loss campaign in 2013 and having not outscored their competition since 2003, adding Robinson Cano won't single-handedly transform the Mariners into a contender, but they took a big chance anyway and signed the 31-year-old second baseman to the third largest contract in major league history. Cano is a great player whose line-drive swing and slick fielding should translate to any ballpark, but his 10-year, $240 million contract (reportedly $65 million more than the Yankees were offering with no known third team involved in the bidding) could prove to be a disaster.
That would only enhance the image of the Seattle front office as dysfunctional, undisciplined and lacking both a plan and astute player evaluation. The best way to counter those claims is to have Cano lead the Mariners to the playoffs for the first time since 2001. Of course, most New Years' resolutions are broken well before the year is over.
Houston Astros resolve to finally turn the corner.
In the last three seasons, the Astros have lost 106, 107 and 111 games, respectively. That makes them look like a pathetic organization, but there has been a lot going on in the background. The team was sold in 2011, moved to the American League in 2013 and has undergone a complete overhaul of its front office (which has included the hiring of several of my former Baseball Prospectus colleagues in Mike Fast, Kevin Goldstein and Colin Wyers). They've also had some outstanding drafts, buoyed by their having the top overall pick in 2012 and 2013, a distinction they hold for 2014, as well. Houston isn't ready to contend yet, but for the first time in four years, it should be a better team in the coming season than it was in the previous one. That will be thanks to the arrival of outfield prospect George Springer, an astute trade for Rockies centerfielder Dexter Fowler, the maturation of sophomore starting pitchers Jarred Cosart, Brett Oberholtzer and Brad Peacock and the potential addition of 2013 top pick Mark Appel to the rotation during the season. The Astros aren't ready to take their big step forward just yet, but for the first time since 2010 they should win more games than they did the year before.