With 2010 drawing to a close, and 2011 about to begin, it's time for the 30 major league teams to make their New Year's resolutions. Here are my suggestions for the 14 American League clubs...
The Tampa Bay Rays resolve to prove that there's life after Carl Crawford. The Rays have won two of the last three AL East titles, but, heading into the New Year, just two players remaining from their 2008 starting lineup (Evan Longoria and B.J. Upton), and only two men remain from that year's rotation (James Shields and Matt Garza, with Garza a possibility to be traded before spring training). More recently seven members of their 2010 bullpen, including all six pitchers who made 50 or more appearances, became free agents this winter, and none have re-signed with the Rays thus far. With homegrown products Jeremy Hellickson, Desmond Jennings and Reid Brignac ready to step into full-time jobs, the Rays aim to prove that their window didn't close with Crawford's departure.
The New York Yankees resolve to trust their young pitchers. Given all of the young pitching talent that has come through the Yankees' system in recent years and the bounty still to come, there's no good reason that the team should have spent the most active part of the offseason waiting on Cliff Lee and Andy Pettitte to make up their minds about where, or if, they wanted to pitch in 2011. Now, facing the possibility of landing neither veteran, and with all of the viable Plan B free agents off the market, the team is scrambling to fill its final two rotation spots. Meanwhile, Joba Chamberlain remains inexplicably exiled in the bullpen, despite his 4.18 ERA and 206 strikeouts in 221 2/3 career innings as a starter, nearly all of them compiled before his 24th birthday. The Yankees do seem to have established Phil Hughes as a solid starter, and rookie Ivan Nova remains in play for the Opening Day rotation, but with three top prospects having reached Double-A last year (Dellin Betances, Manny Banuelos and Andrew Brackman), the time has come for the Yankees to make their in-house solutions Plan A.
The Boston Red Sox resolve to strike with all their hatred and make their journey toward the dark side complete. The Red Sox had the best team in baseball entering the 2010 season, but injuries decimated their lineup and, in part due to their resulting defensive downgrades, their pitching staff was riddled with disappointing seasons. The Sox finished in third place, out of the playoffs for just the second time in the last eight years. Given the fluky nature of that collapse and the fact that they still won 89 games, the Sox could have largely stood pat this winter and expected a significant improvement. Instead, they at long last consummated their flirtations with the Padres over Adrian Gonzalez, then dropped $142 million to lure Carl Crawford on a whopping seven-year contract, the 10th-largest in major league history, at least until the Sox come to terms with Gonzalez on an extension likely to be in the seven-year, $150 million range. The echoes of the Yankees' spending spree in the wake of their 89-win, third-place finish in 2008 are deafening, but then the few remaining differences between the two age-old rivals are purely cosmetic.
The Toronto Blue Jays resolve to draw some dang walks. The 2010 Blue Jays had more than 20 percent more home runs than the next-best major league team in that category, but they were only ninth in the majors in runs scored because their team on-base percentage was the fifth-worst in baseball. Despite that ever-present threat of the longball, the Blue Jays drew fewer walks than 23 other teams last year. The combination of the Jays' emerging young rotation and rookie manager John Farrell, formerly the Red Sox's pitching coach, bodes well for the Blue Jays on one side of the ball. Toronto is hoping that Farrell's coming from a pair of sabermetric-friendly organizations in the Red Sox and Indians will have a positive effect on the other side of the ball as well.
The Baltimore Orioles resolve to make the lives of the Rays, Yankees and Red Sox miserable. With each passing season the prospect of an Orioles renaissance seems to retreat from view, but there's little doubt that this team is getting better. Their 34-23 (.596) performance under new skipper Buck Showalter down the stretch in 2010 isn't something that they can repeat over a full season, but with their young pitching prospects emerging in the major league rotation; the solid-though-fragile lefty-righty combination of Mike Gonzalez and Koji Uehara in the bullpen; the ever-present hope of breakout seasons from Adam Jones, Matt Wieters and Felix Pie; and the additions of flawed-but-valuable infield upgrades J.J. Hardy at shortstop and Mark Reynolds at third base, as well as a full season from Brian Roberts at second; the Orioles seem likely to avoid serving as a soft spot on the schedule of their division's Big Three.
The Minnesota Twins resolve to take the performance of their middle infielders more seriously. The Twins won seven more games in 2010 than in 2009, thanks in large part to their upgrades at second base and shortstop. Minnesota's middle infielders were barely over replacement level in 2009 according to Baseball-Reference's WAR (wins above replacement, which combines offensive and defensive contributions), but Orlando Hudson and J.J. Hardy combined to be 3.4 wins above replacement in 2010. The last Twins middle infield combo to match that total was Chuck Knoblauch and Pat Meares in 1997, and the last double-play combo not featuring Knoblauch to do it was Greg Gagne and Steve Lombardozzi in the Twins' championship season of 1987. Despite that, Minnesota let Hudson walk as a free agent and traded Hardy, who was due an arbitration raise. Japanese import Tsuyoshi Nishioka might prove to be a sufficient replacement for one of them, but even that's no sure thing, and if the Twins Punt(o) those two spots in their lineup once again, they'll open the door for the White Sox to unseat them as division champions.
The Chicago White Sox resolve to avoid making the same replacement-level mistakes as the Twins. The White Sox finished six games behind the Twins in 2010 with the third-best record in the AL Central and West combined, and things are looking up for 2011, given the addition of Adam Dunn, Gordon Beckham's second-half success (.310/.380/.497), the prospect of a full season from Edwin Jackson, Jake Peavy's return and an increased bullpen role for 2010 first-round pick Chris Sale. What the Sox can't afford to do, however, is give away production in left field, third base or behind the plate, the first two of which, like designated hitter and second base, were below average in 2010, and the last of which is being manned by a 34-year-old A.J. Pierzynski, who hit for less power at age 33 (nine homers) than in any other full season in his career.
The Detroit Tigers resolve to aspire to something other than mediocrity. The Tigers had a ton of money coming off the books this offseason, and thus a big opportunity to make some major upgrades to their roster. They got off on the right foot by signing Victor Martinez to fill their gaping hole behind the plate and adding Joaquin Benoit to their bullpen, but as we reach the New Year, those remain the only upgrades they've made. The rest of their money this offseason has been spent on keeping the 2010 Tigers together, by re-signing Jhonny Peralta and Magglio Ordoñez and extending Brandon Inge for another run at a .500 record. That's a major missed opportunity given that, as I wrote nearly two months ago, outside of Miguel Cabrera, there wasn't a player in their 2010 lineup who couldn't have been improved upon, and there are no hitters of note in their farm system behind second baseman Scott Sizemore, who's not necessarily a future All-Star himself.
The Cleveland Indians resolve to at least hit a little. The Indians are at the apex (or nadir, depending on your perspective) of a rebuilding phase. Accordingly, in 2010 they were the third-worst team in the American League in both run scoring and run prevention. The Indians' pitching prospects are some combination of under-cooked and under-whelming, but their hitting prospects are beginning to emerge. Carlos Santana whet Cleveland fans' whistles prior to his season-ending knee injury this year and should be back to raking in April, top prospects Jason Kipnis and Lonnie Chisenhall could take over at second and third base, respectively, at some point this season, and left fielder Nick Weglarz could join them. Add those four youngsters to Shin-Soo Choo and what Cleveland hopes will be healthy, bounceback seasons from Grady Sizemore and Asdrubal Cabrera, and at least one half of the next competitive Indians team could come in to focus in the second half of 2011.
The Kansas City Royals resolve to give their fans a glimpse of the future. The Royals have what is widely considered the richest farm system in baseball, and the bulk of their elite minor league talent saw action in Double-A in 2010. That puts the team's top prospects on course for late 2011 cups of coffee and a proper arrival in 2012, but in the wake of the Zack Greinke trade, those players can't reach Kansas City soon enough for Royals fans. That doesn't mean that K.C. should rush its top prospects; the team needs only to point to Alex Gordon's struggles since jumping from Double-A to the majors in 2007 as a lesson in the value of patience, but once one of those guys is ready -- most likely third baseman Mike Moustakas, who hit .293/.314/.564 with 15 homers in 52 games at Triple-A this year -- the Royals owe it to their rooters to give him a starting job in the major leagues immediately.
The Texas Rangers resolve to trust their young pitchers and sign Adrian Beltre. Combining the Yankees' and Angels' resolutions, the Rangers need not fret over losing Cliff Lee with young studs Neftali Feliz and Derek Holland on-hand to reinforce the rotation, and losing Lee means that they now have money to spend on Beltre, who could improve the team by two wins on defense alone by pushing Michael Young and his limited range to DH. Add in how much Beltre's bat would thrive in Arlington, and he could be worth another two wins over what the Rangers got from Vladimir Guerrero's rebound last season. Bonus: Signing Beltre would keep him away from the Angels, clearing the Rangers' path to a second-straight division title. The only caveat is that they keep the contract relatively short
The Oakland A's resolve to confront their fear of commitment. When Billy Beane broke up his three aces after the 2004 season, the best player he got back was Dan Haren, but three years and one playoff berth later, Beane shipped Haren to Arizona for a six-player package. Three years after that, just two of those six players are still A's, and the best of the departed quartet has grown up to be Carlos Gonzalez. Gonzalez was traded to the Rockies for Matt Holliday, who spent less than four months in green and gold before being traded to the Cardinals for a three-player packaged centered on corner infield prospect Brett Wallace, and Wallace was the A's property for just five months before being flipped to the Blue Jays for right-field prospect Michael Taylor. With Taylor having struggled for the A's Triple-A team in 2010, one wonders how long it will be before Beane decides that Taylor wasn't the player he wanted, either.
The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim resolve to sign Adrian Beltre. The big change in the AL West in 2010 wasn't the Rangers' three-game improvement, it was the Angels' 17-game drop. Getting Kendry Morales back from his fluke broken leg could add two wins to the ledger, or more if Mike Scioscia will just let Mike Napoli be his starting catcher fercryinoutloud. Having Dan Haren for a full season could add another three or four wins. Replacing Brandon Wood's 5 OPS+ (yes, five) with Beltre, however, could add anywhere from five to 10 wins, putting the Angels right back in the thick of the divisional race.
The Seattle Mariners resolve to avoid embarrassing themselves. The 2010 Mariners weren't just bad, they were embarrassing, both on the field and off. Their offense scored fewer runs per game than any American League team since the 1981 Blue Jays, a team in its fifth year of existence, and the second fewest by any AL team since the addition of the designated hitter in 1973. Off the field, things were no better, from Ken Griffey Jr.'s "napgate," to Chone Figgins' dugout fight with manager Don Wakamatsu, to Jack Wilson breaking his hand in a fall in his bathroom, to the front office's public ignorance of newly acquired relief pitcher Josh Lueke's criminal record. Beyond a natural correction, the 2011 team doesn't project to be meaningfully better on the field, but at the very least they could find a way to lose with dignity.