AL East Hot Stove forecast: Can Rays keep up with Yanks, BoSox?
The Rays will have to learn to do more with less. To give them proper credit, they saw the possible closure of a window of opportunity and stretched their payroll to unchartered territory for them (over $70 million) but will now have to deal with a payroll as low as perhaps about $50 million.
But it may not be as bleak as it could be. Essentially what that means is they will lose three players to free agency -- leftfielder and face of the franchise Carl Crawford, first baseman Carlos Peña and closer Rafael Soriano, a trio that collectively made $27.5 million last year -- and simply have to replace them from within their stocked farm system. Desmond Jennings will take over in left; Dan Johnson can play first base; and for an additional savings, they could trade starter James Shields, who's due to make $4.25 million, and fill his rotation spot with wunderkind Jeremy Hellickson.
Closer, however, will remain an issue, as the bullpen struggled in 2009 without a strong ninth-inning presence. Perhaps the Rays will try one of their top prospects arms that won't crack this year's rotation -- McGee or Moore -- in that role.
That still leaves the Rays looking for an additional power bat, an area that was lacking last season when Pat Burrell failed and Brad Hawpe wasn't a satisfactory replacement. It's not impossible that Peña's poor 2010 cost him enough market value that he could return to Tampa Bay on the cheap, but more likely they will seek a more cost-effective option.
Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera will be back. Managing partner Hal Steinbrenner's comments on New York radio Tuesday, reminding fans that they are running a "business" is merely an opening statement lobbed toward the Jeter camp that they won't be handing him a blank check and they won't be appeasing his rumored request for a six-year deal to match the expiration of Alex Rodriguez's contract.
The Yankees' emphasis, of course, will be on Cliff Lee, Cliff Lee and then some more Cliff Lee. If that doesn't work, they may make one more offer to Cliff Lee. But the rotation needs more than just Lee, a bonafide New York killer. General manager Brian Cashman will work hard to lure back Andy Pettitte who, when healthy, was excellent this past year. With Royals' ace Zack Greinke indicating he likely wouldn't accept a trade to New York, there is increased importance for the Yankees for add another arm via free agency -- unless they trade prized prospect Jesus Montero for some sort of elite arm. The Yankees nearly dealt him for Lee last summer and with other promising catchers in the pipeline (Austin Romine chief among them) could do so this winter.
Other longshot options to remake their lineup would be to find a taker to trade either Curtis Granderson or Nick Swisher and then replace him with either Jayson Werth or Carl Crawford. Though last year's emergence of Brett Gardner makes it unlikely the Yankees sign either of the top outfielders in free agency, anything's possible with this team. Or New York could pay Dunn enough money to play DH that he'll forget he ever owned a glove -- another unlikely scenario, though, given the need for the Yankees to rest aging veterans like Jeter and Alex Rodriguez at the DH spot occasionally.
If anyone was rooting against the Padres last season, it was the Red Sox, who would love to add a power-hitting first baseman and could untap the potential of the opposite-field swing of San Diego's Gonzalez. But the Padres were in playoff contention until the final day of the season, so Gonzalez likely won't be traded this offseason without setting off riots among Padres fans.
Still, Kevin Youkilis said he is preparing to play third base, rather than first base, this offseason. That likely signals what's been expected: Boston will let Beltre leave via free agency and pick from among a better class of available first basemen than third basemen. Among the other free-agent first baseman the team could pursue: Dunn, Konerko or Aubrey Huff. The option on Ortiz is more than the Red Sox want to spend, but they also know his value to that lineup and seem reticent to offer him a two-year contract, so expect them to exercise the option anyway.
It's a strange time for the Red Sox when only four players are locked into next year's lineup: their middle infielders, second baseman Dustin Pedroia and shortstop Marco Scutaro; outfielder J.D. Drew and Youkilis as a corner infielder. Mike Cameron and Jacoby Ellsbury will presumably be recovered from their rib injuries, though the former may be better suited to fourth outfielder duty and the latter will be a prized chip in all offseason trade talks.
Don't rule out a trade of a package of prospects and young players headlined by Ellsbury which could bring back a power bat, such as the Brewers' Fielder. It would also open an outfield spot for a free agent like Crawford or Werth.
Four of Boston's five starting pitchers (Josh Beckett, Clay Buchholz, John Lackey and Jon Lester) are under team control through 2014 and the fifth, Daisuke Matsuzaka, is signed through 2012. But it's no secret that Dice-K and the coaching staff have butted heads the past three seasons. Maybe the Red Sox' change in pitching coaches will make a difference, but it would not be surprising for the club to dangle Matsuzaka in trade offers -- presuming he waives his no-trade clause in search of a fresh start. That would open up a spot in the rotation for prospects Kelly or Junichi Tazawa, who will be returning from Tommy John surgery.
Though set-up man Daniel Bard outpitched closer Jonathan Papelbon down the stretch, it's unlikely the roles at the back of the bullpen will change. Papelbon is one year away from free agency and will likely remain the ninth-inning man for 2011.
Catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia is under contract for next season, but he doesn't seem ready for everyday duty. While the Red Sox have made faint efforts at re-signing Martinez, they may opt for a defensive-minded backstop to help cut down on opponents who ran rampant on the basepaths against them the past two seasons.
The most encouraging part of Toronto's 2010 season is that they won 85 games while two of their core players had dreadful seasons. In other words, the Blue Jays ought to improve a few wins simply if second baseman Aaron Hill and designated hitter Adam Lind return to their 2009 form. Toronto's strength is its young starting rotation, so the hiring of Red Sox pitching John Farrell as manager -- who groomed such arms as Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz, Jonathan Papelbon and Daniel Bard -- seems inspired.
Because the Jays are probably still at least a year away from serious contention in the AL East, they'll likely let most of their free agents leave: relievers Scott Downs, Kevin Gregg and Jason Frasor, as well as first baseman Lyle Overbay and catcher John Buck. J.P. Arencibia, the Triple-A Pacific Coast League Player of the Year, will presumably start at catcher.
Manny Ramirez has already reportedly indicated an interest in playing in Toronto and could be an interesting fit at DH, if Lind continues to learn to play first base, where he played 11 games in 2010. But given Ramirez's recent track record of performance and behavior, he's not likely to receive more than a one-year deal, which would seem to run counter to Toronto's plans.
The other key question facing the Blue Jays is how to handle major-league home run champ Jose Bautista, who is likely to receive a hefty raise in arbitration this year and is eligible for free agency next year. What kind of an extension they offer him may suggest whether his own team believes his power surge will last or not. Either way, the Jays have at least one more year of Bautista playing alongside Vernon Wells and Travis Snider, a trio that hit 99 home runs last year and could do the same again -- though Bautista's total of 54 could fall back by 10 or so, Snider's 14 ought to increase by about that much.
The Blue Jays also have to decide whether to offer arbitration to third baseman Edwin Encarnacion, who has power (21 homers) but a low on-base percentage (.305) and a ton of errors (18). He made nearly $5 million last year and would likely make more through arbitration. Though Bautista can play third base, he seems to be more valuable as a rightfielder and
The Orioles were a new team under manager Buck Showalter, who inspired his players to play above-.500 ball (34-23) in the final two months after starting the year 32-73. Baltimore's true talent is probably somewhere in between, especially in the AL East while playing an unbalanced schedule. But most of the season was a disappointment as the club took a step backward.
The young core of catcher Matt Wieters, centerfielder Adam Jones and rightfielder Nick Markakis all had seasons that were a little underwhelming or at least a little below expectations, but those three, along with second baseman Brian Roberts and DH Luke Scott, represent a strong first half of a lineup.
The question becomes what to do with the rest of the infield. The Orioles need a consistent power bat and preferably one that plays a corner infield position. This is why they heavily pursued Mark Teixeira before the 2009 season and why they'll at least feel out the first basemen's market. If Dunn continues to insist on playing first base rather than DH, the Orioles are a team that could be willing to take that chance on his subpar fielding. Maybe they'd take on a reclamation project like Peña, who'd come relatively cheaply.
The Millwoord experiment was a disaster, but Brian Matusz showed flashes of someday being a No. 1 or No. 2 starter. Jeremy Gurthrie is a serviceable starter, and other young arms like Jake Arrieta and Chris Tillman also demonstrated rotation potential. The Orioles will still kick the tires this offseason to find a veteran starter who'll fill in the middle of the rotation, eat some innings and take some pressure off the kids.
Again, because Baltimore is a couple years away from contending, it's in a position where it might as well take a chance on a few low-risk, high-reward guys. That could mean offering incentive-laden contracts to pitchers returning from injury (Brandon Webb, Chris Young) or from disappointing seasons (Vazquez). It'll probably hold off on exploring much by way of bullpen arms, especially with Mike Gonzalez still under contract.