AL East Hot Stove Preview: Top free agents, targets for each team
This week, SI.com is breaking down the off-season plans for all 30 teams, including top free agents, targets and winter needs. Below is Cliff Corcoran's breakdown of the American League East; to read Jay Jaffe's analysis of the five teams in the National League East, click here. Jaffe and Corcoran will have a look at the AL and NL Central division teams on Thursday and the AL and NL West division clubs next Monday.
Teams are presented in order of finish from 2015. Free agents are listed in order of Wins Above Replacement (baseball-reference.com version). Age is their 2016 playing age. The listed salaries and bWAR totals are those for their final 2015 team only.
Toronto Blue Jays
Results: 93–69 (.574), lost ALCS to Royals
Pythagorean Record: 102–60 (.630)
The good news for the Blue Jays—coming off their first playoff berth in 22 years—is that their major league-best offense will remain intact. In fact, Toronto’s attack could be even better in 2016 with full, healthy seasons from shortstop Troy Tulowitzki and second baseman Devon Travis. That does not mean, however, that the entire $41.3 million coming off the books per the above list of free agents will be available for them to spend on pitching.
Tulowitzki was a deadline addition; the Jays paid roughly $7.54 million for the final two months of his 2015 season and now owe him $18.8 million for '16. Catcher Russell Martin’s salary increases by $8 million next year per his contract. Third baseman Josh Donaldson is due for a massive raise via arbitration after an MVP-caliber year; he was a bargain at $4.3 million this past season, but MLB Trade Rumors’ Tim Dierkes projects Donaldson's salary to rise to $12 million in 2016. If Dierkes is right, that would be a $26.96 million increase in payroll for those three players alone, and that’s before considering lesser jumps in arbitration for players such as leftfielder Ben Revere, relievers Brett Cecil and Aaron Loup and first baseman Justin Smoak. Altogether, Toronto could use up two-thirds of that $41.3 million before adding a single player to its roster.
An extension for Donaldson could help control near-term costs but would be tricky business given that he will turn 30 in December and is coming off a likely career year. Meanwhile, Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion, both of whom had their 2016 options picked up on Tuesday, are heading into their walk years. If the Blue Jays want to keep the band together at least through the final year of Martin’s contract in 2019, they may want to talk extension with those two as well, though Encarnacion will turn 33 in January and Bautista just turned 35 in October.
Targets: Pitching, general manager
The Jays’ primary target is going to be a front-end starting pitcher, and their search for that player seems likely to start with an attempt to retain Price. It's worth wondering if his up-and-down postseason experience soured him on the team, and manager John Gibbons in particular, or if his poor playoffs soured the team on him, but ultimately, the main obstacle to a reunion will be Price’s earning potential. As a former Cy Young Award winner and likely runner-up for the honor this year who just turned 30 in August and has been a workhorse throughout his career with no significant injury concerns, Price seems likely to land a contract worth $200 million or more, comparable to the seven-year, $210 million deal Max Scherzer signed with the Nationals last winter heading into his age-30 season.
The Blue Jays need more than an ace, however. As things stand, their 2016 rotation projects as Marcus Stroman, R.A. Dickey (whose $12 million option was picked up on Tuesday) and Drew Hutchison, with no obvious candidates for the final two spots. Sophomore Aaron Sanchez could move back into the rotation, but he struggled as a starter in early 2015 and was the team’s primary setup man in the postseason; he would need to be replaced in the bullpen if he returns to starting. Even if he doesn’t, the Jays need relief reinforcements with Hawkins retiring and Lowe reaching free agency.
Other than Price, Toronto would be best advised to look beyond its departing free agents for pitching reinforcements. Estrada rose to the front of the rotation over the course of the 2015 season, but his performance doesn’t look repeatable given his poor peripherals and .217 BABIP on the season. Lowe has had an erratic career and didn’t pitch particularly well after coming over from the Mariners at the non-wavier trade deadline. Buehrle is likely to retire (though, contrary to earlier reports, he will consider major league contract offers).
The Blue Jays are also in need of a general manager after the surprising departure of Alex Anthopoulos. Until one is hired, new team president Mark Shapiro, formerly of the Indians, and interim GM Tony LaCava will be in charge of baseball decisions.
The Jays are set on offense for at least one more year, but they are understaffed in both the rotation and the bullpen and will need to expand their payroll to flesh out their pitching staff. They should also consider acquiring some stability for their lineup beyond the 2016 season via potential extensions for their three best hitters.
New York Yankees
Results: 87–75 (.537), lost AL wild-card game to Astros
Pythagorean Record: 88–74 (.543)
Young thrived as the Yankees’ fourth outfielder in 2015 and is worth retaining, particularly given the fragility and lefthandedness of the team's starting outfield. The others are all free to go. Not listed above is good-field, no-hit backup infielder Brendan Ryan, who picked up his $1 million player option on Tuesday.
Targets: Bullpen depth
New York isn't a great team, but it's a well-populated one that could actually stand pat this winter and not have any glaring holes. The club's most apparent weakness is second base, but rookie Rob Refsnyder deserves a chance to establish himself at the position and could also platoon with lefty Dustin Ackley, who was a fine defensive second baseman before the Mariners returned him to the outfield and could again be viable at the keystone with time to get re-acclimated. Those options don’t preclude general manager Brian Cashman from pursuing an upgrade such as Howie Kendrick or Ben Zobrist, but he doesn’t need to add a second baseman. The same goes for the rotation, which is six-deep heading into the off-season, not counting swingman Adam Warren. The Yankees could look for an improvement on one or more of Ivan Nova, Nathan Eovaldi or CC Sabathia—the last of whom is heading into the final guaranteed year of his contract and has a $25 million option for 2017 related to the health of his left shoulder—but they don’t necessarily need to.
If anything, New York seems likely to be more active in trades than with free agents. The biggest crunch on the roster involves Mark Teixeira: At first base, he's blocking prospect Greg Bird, who impressed after replacing the injured Teixeira down the stretch, and he can't move to designated hitter thanks to the presence of Alex Rodriguez and his immovable contract. Things could get even more crowded at DH if slugging prospect Aaron Judge—the apparent successor in rightfield to Carlos Beltran, who is entering the final year of his contract—arrives ahead of schedule. Teixeira has a full no-trade clause, but he is also entering the final guaranteed year of his contract, is coming off a strong bounce-back season and is still regarded as a solid defender heading into his age-36 season.
What the Yankees need most is to firm up the soft underbelly of their bullpen. Lefty Justin Wilson, righty Dellin Betances and closer Andrew Miller made an outstanding Big Three last year, but the middle innings were a mess, with New York rotating through a seemingly endless parade of no-name rookie relievers in an attempt to bridge the gap between a disappointing rotation and excellent end-game.
With a payroll well over $200 million and few departing free agents, New York appears to lack the flexibility for meaningful improvement. That could change via trade, but the team could also stand pat aside from some upgrades in their middle relief. The Yankees' hope is that improved health and the continued maturation of a young rotation and players such as shortstop Didi Gregorius, as well as Bird, Refsnyder and perhaps even Judge will lead to better results in the coming season.
Results: 81–81 (.500)
Pythagorean Record: 83–79 (.512)
Davis, Chen and O’Day would all represent significant losses for the Orioles were they to sign elsewhere, so expect Baltimore to make some attempt to retain all three. Davis, who led the majors in home runs in two of the last three years, can obviously be an impact bat, but his inconsistency from season to season may make him too much of a gamble for a mid-market team like the O's. O’Day won’t come cheaply, either: Having posted a 1.92 ERA, 0.94 WHIP and 4.56 K/BB while averaging 68 appearances a year over the last four years, the sidearming righty is arguably the best reliever on the market. As for Chen, the Orioles should probably attempt to upgrade his spot in the rotation, but it would still be tempting for Baltimore to re-sign the 30-year-old Taiwanese lefty given that he’s likely to be undervalued by the market and that the club has much bigger needs on the other side of the ball.
Wieters, on the other hand, will be sent on his way. Satisfied with Caleb Joseph’s excellent receiving skills and competent bat—the latter of which can be platooned with that of righty-swinging backup Steve Clevenger—as well as the pre-arbitration salaries of both, the Orioles intend to make Wieters a qualifying offer in the hope that the thin catching market will net them a draft pick when he signs elsewhere.
Targets: Corner bats
The outfield corners and designated hitter were weak spots for Baltimore for most of 2015, and with Davis a free agent, the team now has a hole at first base as well. That’s four effectively vacant positions in a nine-man lineup, three of which—first base, DH and rightfield—were the most productive positions in the AL as measured by OPS in 2015.
The Orioles obviously can’t afford to fill all four of those empty spots with an elite free agent, particularly with star third baseman Manny Machado reaching arbitration this winter and a prime candidate for a long-term contract of his own. Still, they need to make a big splash in filling at least one of them, which should make them players for the likes of outfielders Justin Upton and Yoenis Cespedes and keep them involved with Davis. If they land one of those three, they could then flesh out the remaining spots with second-tier options such as Mike Napoli (at first base or DH), Colby Rasmus (in either outfield corner) or Marlon Byrd (in an outfield corner or at DH). Another option would be a bat-first player like second baseman Daniel Murphy, in whom they reportedly have some interest and whom they could move to the left on the defensive spectrum (in other words, moving him to an easier position like first base or the outfield).
The O's lack of activity last off-season continues to haunt them, as they now need to fill in half their lineup with productive bats and could use an upgrade in the rotation as well. Accomplishing that would require a major spending spree, the likes of which we’re unlikely to see from this organization, but half-measures could find Baltimore left behind in a division in which no team was outscored by more than five runs over the course of the 2015 season.
Tampa Bay Rays
Results: 80–82 (.494)
Pythagorean Record: 81–81 (.500)
Jaso has hit .273/.373/.431 (127 OPS+) over the last four seasons but averaged just 87 games played per year due to injury, including re-occurring concussion issues; those were part of the reason why he didn’t make a single appearance at catcher last year. Sizemore, meanwhile, is a three-time All-Star who has been a replacement-level player since returning to the majors in 2014 from injuries that cost him all of the previous two seasons. Given that both are on the wrong side of 30, neither seems like a worthwhile investment. Cabrera exceeded expectations in his lone year with Tampa Bay and may be worth renewing, largely because the Rays are unlikely to be players for free agent shortstop Ian Desmond, and the rest of the market at that position is comprised of aging backups.
Targets: Shortstop, catcher, a big bat
Only the White Sox scored fewer runs than the Rays in the AL this past season, so there’s little question as to where Tampa Bay needs to do its work. Getting Evan Longoria to rebound from two consecutive disappointing seasons would certainly help, but the Rays still need a shortstop, an upgrade at catcher and a middle-of-the-order hitter or two on the far left side of the defensive spectrum. Technically, the Rays only have an opening at designated hitter. But James Loney (who is entering the final year of his three-year, $21 million contract) fell below replacement level last year, Desmond Jennings was only healthy enough to appear in 10 games after April due to a bad left knee and Steven Souza Jr. underwhelmed at the plate and cost the team runs in the field. Jennings, a three-win player each of the previous three seasons, deserves a chance to re-establish himself in one outfield corner, but Souza and Loney could easily be pushed to DH or the bench if Tampa Bay can find upgrades.
Coming off their worst year for ticket sales since 2004, the Rays are not expected to expand their payroll. With several players due for arbitration—including Jennings, pitchers Alex Cobb, Brandon Gomes, Jake McGee, Erasmo Ramirez and Drew Smyly, infielder Logan Forsythe and outfielder Brandon Guyer—and others due for salary increases per their contracts (an extra $5.25 million for Longoria, Loney, and pitchers Chris Archer and Matt Moore), a desire to hold the line on payroll could actually result in the team tightening its belts this off-season. The impact is that the AL East could once again become stratified, with the Orioles and Rays buried under the Blue Jays, Yankees and Red Sox.
The Rays are in desperate need of upgrades in their lineup but seem unlikely to spend this winter. Look for them to try to solve some of their problems via trade, but this could prove to be a frustrating off-season in Tampa Bay.
Boston Red Sox
Results: 78–84 (.481)
Pythagorean Record: 81–81 (.500)
Hill made his first major league starts since 2009 this past September and was shockingly dominant, striking out 36 men in 29 innings across four starts and posting a 1.55 ERA. Fluky as that may have been, it would seem to be worth the kind of low-cost–one-year deal Hill is likely to demand. At worst, he would be a better lefthanded relief option than Breslow, who has a 5.30 FIP, 1.62 WHIP and 1.63 strikeout-to-walk ratio over the last two seasons.
Targets: Rotation ace, trade partners, bullpen help
Only the Blue Jays and Mets scored more runs than the Red Sox over the final two months of the 2015 season. Boston, then, need not worry about its lineup, which is overstuffed heading into the off-season: Hanley Ramirez is moving from leftfield to first base, Travis Shaw (who hit .274/.331/.491 with 13 home runs in 65 games as a rookie last year) will jockey for position at both infield corners, All-Star Brock Holt is again ticketed for a reserve role, and catcher Christian Vazquez is due to return from a season lost to Tommy John surgery to challenge Blake Swihart and Ryan Hanigan for time behind the plate.
What stands between the Red Sox and a return to serious contention is their pitching staff. Boston picked up Clay Buchholz’s $13 million option on Tuesday, enjoyed a significant improvement from Rick Porcello after his return from a triceps strain in late August (3.14 ERA, 5.18 K/BB over his last eight starts), is optimistic about sophomore lefties Henry Owens and Eduardo Rodriguez, and has stalwart Wade Miley to flesh out the rotation. They also have additional depth in fire-balling Joe Kelly, who seems likely to wind up in the bullpen, and Triple A lefty Brian Johnson. There is a quantity-over-quality issue there, however, and after having failed to re-sign Jon Lester last year, the Red Sox are expected to go hard after David Price and company this winter in search of a true ace.
Given their depth, their well-stocked farm system and the track record of new president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski, the Red Sox seem likely to be involved in at least one major trade this off-season. Such a deal could come in conjunction with a free-agent signing (such as adding free-agent leftfielder Alex Gordon and then trading Jackie Bradley Jr., an idea floated by a few rival executives via a recent column by the New York Post's Joel Sherman), or it could simply come from Boston trading youth and depth for star power and taking on salary in the process.
Again, the team seems likely to pursue high-end starting pitching; Washington's Stephen Strasburg, who is entering his walk year, is one possible target. They also need upgrades in the bullpen, where their best reliever, closer Koji Uehara, is coming off a broken wrist and heading into his age-41 season. Those improvements could be folded into a trade or acquired via free agency. Stealing O’Day away from the Orioles, for example, would be a nifty trick; he has the potential to succeed Uehara, who is entering his walk year, as early as the coming season.
The Red Sox’s strong finish created considerable optimism for their 2016 season, but don’t expect Dombrowski simply to let it ride on the roster he inherited. Boston should be good for a least one major addition, likely to the rotation, and one major trade. Those two could be one and the same, but the primary goals will be upgrades to the pitching staff and clarity on what is a surprisingly crowded roster.