American League New Year's resolutions: Red Sox should make David Ortiz's last game a postseason game, Royals should establish a dynasty, and much more.
With 2015 drawing to a close and 2016 almost upon us, it’s time for Major League Baseball’s 30 teams to make their New Year’s resolutions. Here are some suggestions for the 15 American League clubs. (My New Year's resolutions for the 15 NL clubs can be found here.)
Baltimore Orioles resolve to give that Chris Davis money to Manny Machado. The Orioles reportedly made Chris Davis a $154 million contract offer in early December. However, with the Red Sox ascendant, the Blue Jays keeping their division-winning lineup intact, and the Yankees getting younger, I’m not convinced the Orioles would be serious contenders in 2016 even with Davis in the lineup. I am convinced that contract would have been a significant overpay for Davis. That money would be better spent on Justin Upton or Yoenis Cespedes, but the best use of it would be locking up Manny Machado long term. Consider this list of the active leaders in career wins above replacement (Baseball-Reference version) among players who were age 23 or younger in the 2015 season (ages listed are 2015 playing ages):
Among all active major leaguers, only Trout, Alex Rodriguez, Albert Pujols, Harper and Jason Heyward compiled more bWAR through their age-23 season than Machado has through his age-22 season. Machado is arbitration-eligible for the first time this winter and has just three team-controlled years remaining. The Angels locked up three of Trout’s post-free agency seasons in a six-year, $144.5 million deal in March 2014. One would think $154 million would be enough to lock up Machado for at least that long, and such a deal would allow the Orioles to take the long-term focus I believe is more appropriate for their current standing in their division.
Boston Red Sox resolve that David Ortiz’s final major league game will take place in the postseason. David Ortiz is going to receive many gifts as he takes his victory lap through the American League in the coming season, which he announced, on his 40th birthday in November, would be his last. The best gift he could receive, however, would be one last postseason appearance. Not only would it be fitting for one of the most sensational postseason hitters in major league history to take his final bow on the big stage, but with the Red Sox having finished the 2015 season with a 32-26 (.552) run after which they added David Price, Craig Kimbrel and Carson Smith, it seems like a gift the Sox are very much capable of giving.
Chicago White Sox resolve to contend in the coming season. They made the same resolution last year by signing David Robertson and Melky Cabrera and trading for Jeff Samardzija but failed to keep it, winning just 76 games, a three-win improvement over 2014. This year, they’re doubling-down with trades for Todd Frazier and Brett Lawrie and a wrong-headed overhaul of a not-broken catching situation that saw them non-tender expert framer Tyler Flowers and sign poor framers Alex Avila (who also has a troublesome concussion history) and Dioner Navarro. Some resolutions are made to be broken.
Cleveland Indians resolve to eliminate all Chief Wahoo imagery from their ballpark, uniforms and merchandise. A move that is long overdue and a resolution that, sadly, is unlikely to be kept.
Detroit Tigers resolve to improve their run prevention. Only the Rockies and Phillies allowed more runs than the Tigers’ 4.99 per game in 2015 as Detroit’s ongoing bullpen struggles were matched by a collapse of their rotation to drag the Tigers, winners of four straight AL Central titles, all the way down to last place this past season. It’s no surprise, then, that new general manager Al Avila’s biggest acquisitions this offseason have been pitchers, notably rotation ace Jordan Zimmermann, closer Francisco Rodriguez and set-up men Mark Lowe and Justin Wilson. Add in the hope for healthy seasons from rotation stalwarts Justin Verlander and Anibal Sanchez and sophomore Daniel Norris, and the Tigers’ are certainly positioned to give up fewer runs than they did a year ago, though that’s a fairly low bar to clear.
Houston Astros resolve to get those final six outs in the Division Series. The Astros’ 2015 season was a raging success by almost every measure, bringing the Cy Young and Rookie of the Year awards and a five-game Division Series appearance to a city that had endured 416 losses over the previous four seasons. Still, it ended with a bitter taste as the Astros, leading 6-2, needed just six more outs in Game 4 of the Division Series to eliminate the Royals and move on to the American League Championship Series. Instead, the Royals scored five runs in the top of the eighth inning of that game, then dominated Game 5 to eliminate Houston. Those final six outs of the Division Series will be Houston’s focus throughout the 2016 season.
Kansas City Royals resolve to establish a dynasty in flyover country. Due to the geographic distribution of the teams and the overall dominance of the Yankees, Major League Baseball’s dynasties have tended to clump up in the coastal states. The most notable exceptions are Cincinnati’s Big Red Machine in the 1970s and the World War II era St. Louis Cardinals. Having won the last two American League pennants and the 2015 World Series, the current Royals have an opportunity to add themselves to that short list of landlocked dynasties, but they only have two years left in which to do it. After the 2017 season, Lorenzo Cain, Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Alcides Escobar, Kendrys Morales, Wade Davis, Edinson Volquez, Luke Hochevar, Danny Duffy and Jarrod Dyson, among others, are due to become free agents.
Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim resolve not to waste Mike Trout’s best seasons because of their refusal to pay the competitive balance tax. The competitive balance tax threshold for 2016, the final year of the current collective bargaining agreement, is $189 million. Any team exceeding that figure in “actual club payroll” (a figure that factors in the average annual values of multi-year contracts), will owe a 17% tax on all actual club payroll above that figure, provided they did not exceed the threshold the previous season (which the Angels did not). Angels owner Arte Moreno believes his club is too close to that threshold to extend a competitive offer to one of the big free-agent bats remaining on the market. That despite the fact that the Angels, who scored just 4.1 runs per game last year with another MVP-worthy season from Trout, desperately need a major lineup upgrade.
I have difficulty replicating Moreno’s calculations, putting the Angels no higher than $167 million in actual club payroll for the coming season using MLB Trade Rumors’ arbitration projections for their four pending arbitration cases. Perhaps an average annual value just shy of $22 million won’t be enough to land Upton, Cespedes or Davis. However, with C.J. Wilson and Jered Weaver (combined average annual value of $32.5 million) coming off the books after the coming season, the Angels would be unlikely to have to pay more than a minimal tax for one season even if they did exceed the threshold. Upton, Cespedes and Davis are all superior options to any of the hitters due to become free agents after the coming season. The time to spend the Wilson/Weaver savings is now. Failure to do so could doom the Angels for more than just the 2016 season.
Minnesota Twins resolve to hit the snot out of the ball. Coming into the off-season, many, myself included, expected the Twins to trade third baseman Trevor Plouffe to make room for sophomore slugger Miguel Sano, who was limited to designated hitter duty in his rookie season by Plouffe’s presence at his customary position. Instead, the Twins pushed Sano out of the DH spot by signing Korean slugger Byung-ho Park, kept Plouffe, and have stated their intention to play Sano, and his rifle arm, in rightfield. Minnesota was shy of league average on offense in 2015, but full seasons of Sano, who appeared in just 80 major league games this past season, Park, and centerfield prospect Byron Buxton (46 games this past season) could put a charge in a Twins lineup that was previously led by Plouffe, Brian Dozier and the remains of Joe Mauer.
New York Yankees resolve to further the league’s stealthiest rebuild. Don’t look now, but the 2016 Yankees could have a 26-year-old double-play combination in Starlin Castro and Didi Gregorius, and four starting pitchers age 27 or younger in Masahiro Tanaka (27), Michael Pineda (26), Nathan Eovaldi (26) and Luis Severino (22). The organization also has emerging sluggers at catcher, first base and rightfield in 23-year-olds Gary Sanchez and Greg Bird, both of whom reached the majors in 2015, and 24-year-old top prospect Aaron Judge. Those last two could push Mark Teixeira and Carlos Beltran out of the lineup in what will be their walk years, and all three are poised to make a splash if needed due to injury to the veterans ahead of them on the depth chart. That’s nine players who will be 27 or younger in 2016 who could play key roles for the Yankees as early as the coming year, casting 32-year-olds Brian McCann, Jacoby Ellsbury, Brett Gardner and Chase Headley as the Yankees’ old guard going forward. That’s a big and sudden change for a team that had the oldest lineup in baseball, weighted by playing time, in 2015.
Seattle Mariners resolve to learn each other’s names. As of Tuesday afternoon, 17 members of the Mariners’ 40-man roster had joined the organization since the end of the World Series. Those new faces are likely to comprise a full half of the team’s projected 25-man Opening Day roster. In addition, the Mariners have a new manager in Scott Servais, an almost entirely new coaching staff (only dream hitting coach Edgar Martinez remains from the 2015 staff), and a rebuilt front office under new general manager Jerry Dipoto, whose hiring at the end of September instigated all of the subsequent changes. However all of that translates on the field, the first step to becoming a winning team for Seattle will be becoming a team at all. It’s a good thing their uniforms have their names on the back.
Tampa Bay Rays resolve to fix Evan Longoria. Lost in the Rays’ fall from grace the last two years has been a similar decline in the performance of their franchise player, Evan Longoria. Tampa Bay made the playoffs four times in Longoria’s first six seasons with Longo hitting .275/.357/.512 (136 OPS+) while playing Gold Glove defense, winning the Rookie of the Year, collecting numerous MVP votes, and leading all major league third basemen in bWAR over that span. Over the last two years, however, the Rays have fallen back below .500 wile Longoria has hit .261/.324/.419 (109 OPS+) while declining in the field and ranking a distant third in bWAR among the third baseman in his own division. The biggest change in Longoria’s game has been his sudden drop in power, from a .238 isolated slugging (slugging percentage minus batting average) in those first six seasons to just .158 the last two seasons. However, his walks are also down, as is his patience overall as he has swung at a higher percentage of pitches, and a higher percentage of first pitches in particular, and seen fewer pitches per plate appearances over the last two seasons than in the six seasons prior. Entering his age-30 season it’s not a given Longoria can recover his previous form, but with his six-year, $100 million extension due to kick in with the 2017 season, he will go from being one of the best bargains in baseball to yet another overpaid veteran in the next year if he can’t.
Texas Rangers resolve to tighten their grip on the AL West. When the Rangers acquired Cole Hamels just before the non-waiver trading deadline this past July, I was among those who saw it as a move aimed at the 2016 season and beyond. Then Texas went out and won the AL West, proving they were already a good enough team to capitalize on the addition of Hamels. Indeed, from May 4 through the end of the 2015 regular season, only the Blue Jays posted a better record than Texas’s 80-58 (.580) mark. In the coming season, their rotation will be topped by Hamels, Yu Darvish (expected to return from his Tommy John rehab in May), Derek Holland and Martin Perez, four pitchers who combined to make just 38 starts for Texas this past season. Their bullpen will enjoy full seasons of Sam Dyson, Jake Diekman and Tom Wilhelmsen, who combined to make just 57 relief appearances for Texas in 2015. Their lineup will be supported by top prospects Joey Gallo and Jurickson Profar, the latter of whom won’t turn 23 until February and looked good in 91 plate appearances in the Arizona Fall League after missing most of the last two seasons due to a torn teres major muscle behind his right shoulder. The Astros may still be the team of the future in the West, but the Rangers are staking their claim to being the team of right now.
Toronto Blue Jays resolve to remind everyone how good they were last year. Much of this off-season’s hype has focused on how much better the Red Sox stand to be in 2016 after their strong finish to 2015 given the talent of their young hitters, their plan to move Hanley Ramirez to first base, and their offseason pitching reinforcements, including signing Price away from the Blue Jays. That hype has largely ignored the fact that the Blue Jays had by far the most potent lineup in baseball this past season—scoring 891 runs to the runner-up Yankees’ 764—and have not only kept that lineup together, but stand to get larger contributions from deadline additions Troy Tulowitzki and Ben Revere and oft-injured rookie Devon Travis in the coming season. Yes, the Jays lost Price, but he and Marcus Stroman combined for just 15 regular season starts for Toronto this past season, whereas Stroman stands to make at least twice as many for the Jays in the coming season. Yes, their rotation is still underwhelming, with the re-signed Marco Estrada and new additions J.A. Happ and Jesse Chavez joining knuckleballer R.A. Dickey, but Boston’s rotation behind Price isn’t exactly full of world beaters, either. The Red Sox may be improved, but the AL East is still Toronto’s division to lose.