AL East Hot Stove preview: Big moves could re-shape division
The Yankees were surprisingly strong on the mound -- they allowed 4.1 runs per game, third-lowest in the AL -- but that success will be hard to replicate. Bartolo Colon and Freddy Garcia, brought into spring training as fliers, came back from the dead and were shockingly effective in the rotation. Even if they return in 2012 (both are free agents) they're unlikely to repeat their performances. Rookie Ivan Nova (16-4, 3.70 ERA) was an unexpected force, though his low strikeout-walk rate suggests he could revert to something closer to league-average performance. And then there's A.J. Burnett, who showed flashes of his old self but realistically can't be counted on as anything more than a solid fourth starter.
It all means that the Yankees will chase hard after the top pitchers on the free agent market: C.J. Wilson, Mark Buehrle, Edwin Jackson, Roy Oswalt and, if he decides to leave Japan, 25-year-old fireballer Yu Darvish. New York lost the Cliff Lee derby last year; don't expect them to let that happen again if they decide they have to see Wilson in pinstripes.
The rotation could also be bolstered by rookies Dellin Betances and/or Manny Banuelos. Both are expected to start the season at Triple-A, but they're seen as potential top-of-the-rotation starters. Expect Cashman to also troll the free agent market for low-cost reclamation projects like Garcia and Colon -- pitchers from whom he can squeeze a decent season to buy time until Betances and Banuelos are ready for full major league workloads. If quality starters become available on the trade market -- Seattle's Feliz Hernandez, say, or Houston's Wandy Rodriguez -- Cashman could dangle catching prospect Jesus Montero as bait. Montero projects as an above-average hitter, but the Yankees are rich with catching prospects. Montero would be a valuable chip in the trade market.
Cashman has some long-term headaches to worry about, particularly the aging, expensive and declining stars he's stuck with at third base (Alex Rodriguez, 36), shortstop (Derek Jeter, 37) and first base (Mark Teixeira, 31). He also must find a way to lock up second baseman Robinson Cano to a long-term deal. But for now his biggest concern is finding the pitching to support a lineup that will again be one of the game's most dangerous offensive units in 2012. If he can do that, the Yankees' hellish two-year World Series drought could well end next October.
Tampa Bay's formula isn't mysterious. Executive VP of baseball operations Andrew Friedman has built a player-development machine, and the holes his farm system can't fill get plugged with savvy, off-brand free agent signings, such as Johnny Damon and Casey Kotchman last winter. This year Friedman has a luxury few teams have: more quality starting pitchers than he can fit into one rotation, which gives him valuable trade chips and again will allow him to troll the sub-Pujols free-agent market to buy position players of value.
Friedman will almost be forced to deal some of that pitching -- James Shields and Wade Davis are the most likely to move -- for offense, since the Rays were below league-average in runs, on-base percentage and slugging this year and had the AL's third-highest strikeout rate. One possible trade partner is the Reds, who have a deep pool of good-hitting first basemen; with Joey Votto entrenched at the position, they might move prospect Yonder Alonso for a quality starter. Friedman will also be on the lookout for teams with depth at catcher (hello, Toronto) now that he's decided Kelly Shoppach, a decent defender but offensive hole, isn't worth his $3.2 million option.
With their starting pitching depth -- rookies Matt Moore and Alex Cobb should be ready to join a rotation currently headed by David Price, Shields and Jeremy Hellickson -- it won't take much to keep the Rays competitive. Their stellar defense (no team was more efficient at turning batted balls into outs in 2011) makes them a run-prevention force, so even a minor offensive upgrade should be enough to keep them in the 90-95 win range. Manager Joe Maddon would love to have a more potent bat at DH (the Rays got just a .425 slugging percentage from that spot), and a full year from young outfielder Desmond Jennings should also boost Tampa Bay's run total. It's a good bet that when spring training opens, people will be surprised at some of the off-the-radar moves Friedman pulls this winter. But when the Rays are in the hunt next September, it will shock no one.
So new GM Ben Cherington's first task -- aside from finding a replacement for departed manager Terry Francona; Phillies bench coach and Ted Danson lookalike Pete Mackanin seems to be an early front-runner -- is rebuilding the staff. That effort will begin with a decision on what to do with closer Jonathan Papelbon: let him walk as a free agent (and pocket two valuable draft picks), or pay top dollar to keep him? A year ago it seemed unlikely that Papelbon would be in a Boston uniform in 2012, but the combination of his stellar 2011 performance and the September struggles of heir apparent Daniel Bard makes this a difficult call for Cherington. Papelbon is almost certain to seek the highest-value contract he can get; unlike Heath Bell in San Diego, there's little chance he'll accept a hometown discount to stay where he is. Still, don't be surprised if the Red Sox pay up to keep him.
Cherington will also have to pay, in cash or in talent, to upgrade the rotation, especially now that John Lackey will (thankfully?) miss 2012 after undergoing Tommy John surgery. Assuming they can scrub the chicken grease from their pitching hands -- sorry, couldn't resist -- Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz should bounce back from disappointing 2011 seasons. Josh Beckett, the alleged ringleader of the in-game clubhouse partying, was a Cy Young contender in the first half and a shadow of an ace in the second; the $47 million he's owed over the next three seasons makes it unlikely that Cherington will be able to trade him. In theory that trio could rank with any rotation top-three in the game, but Cherington will look for reinforcements outside of the organization. He'll keep tabs on C.J. Wilson, if only to drive up the price if the Yankees are chasing the lefthander, and could try to lure Roy Oswalt or Mark Buerhle as cheaper (in dollars and years) alternatives.
If the new GM really feels like shaking things up he could dangle Kevin Youkilis in the trade market. Youk is beloved in Boston, and his physical breakdowns the last two seasons might be a turn-off to other teams. But his bat and corner-infield versatility could also be enough to bring a decent third or fourth starter back in a deal. Ditto for outfield prospects Josh Reddick and Ryan Kalish and infielder Jed Lowrie. None are potential stars, but they all could be attractive players in the right trade package.
The Red Sox could afford to lose Youkilis's lineup presence; he played only 120 games this year and the team still led the majors in runs scored. A bat they might be forced to keep is that of David Ortiz, another free agent who presents a tough call for Cherington. The DH had a renaissance season in 2011, reaching his highest OBP, slugging and OPS levels since '07. Cherington no doubt cringes at the thought of giving a one-dimension player who's about to turn 36 a three-year deal, but the fact is that few players available could replace Ortiz's production. The Red Sox may have no choice but to bring Big Papi back.
Assuming Ortiz returns, and with MVP candidates Jacoby Ellsbury, Dustin Pedroia and Adrian Gonzalez on board through at least 2013, there's no reason to believe the Red Sox won't again have one of the game's most potent lineups in 2012. Despite the sturm und drang of the season's last six weeks, Cherington isn't inheriting a massive rebuilding job; on paper, he's walking into a far better situation than his former boss Epstein is with the Cubs. Once he hires a manager, his biggest worry, aside from finding pitching help for next year and an everyday rightfielder, will be restocking the farm system, which was thinned by Epstein's trade with San Diego for Gonzalez last year. Boston fans may not feel this way now, but there's a good chance that in one year they're talking about champagne, not beer, being consumed in the Red Sox' clubhouse.
Exactly how the Jays will fill those holes is anybody's guess -- Anthopoulos has shown an impressive knack for pulling off trades that no one saw coming and seem to tilt strongly in his favor (goodbye Vernon Wells; hello Colby Rasmus). But expect the GM to be a player in the free agent market, even if he's not running with the highest rollers. President Paul Beeston has said Toronto is very unlikely to hand out six- or seven-year contracts, which probably rules out any trips north of the border by Albert Pujols, Prince Fielder or C.J. Wilson.
But Beeston is already on record as having said this year that Toronto, which spent $70.6 million on players this season, is in a position to be a $140-$150 million payroll team in the near future. The Jays will likely be interested in Yu Darvish, the highly-touted Japanese righthander who will set off a Matsuzaka-like bidding war if he decides to make himself available to U.S. teams. Ditto for Mark Buehrle, the longtime White Sox lefty who could be had for less than Wilson. Anthopoulos is also likely to re-sign second baseman Kelly Johnson, the free-agent second baseman he acquired from Arizona in August. Johnson's potent bat will make him a popular target, but the Jays may be willing to pay a premium to keep him even though Anthopoulos could get two of the draft picks he craves by letting the Type-A free agent walk.
Assuming Johnson returns, the Jays' everyday lineup is essentially settled -- and, if you're an AL East pitcher, potentially scary. Toronto is expecting big things from the 21-year-old Lawrie (nine home runs, .953 OPS in 171 plate appearances) in his first full season, and if Rasmus can find his stroke again the 3-4-5 combo of Bautista, Rasmus and Lawrie could be one of the AL's best. With Adam Lind coming off his second straight sub-.300 OBP season, expect Anthopoulos to explore economical first base upgrades on the trade market. He'll do the same in his search for bullpen help: With Francisco and Rauch unlikely to return the closer's job is wide open, and the 'pen is also short on lefthanders after Mark Rzepczynski was sent to St. Louis in the Rasmus deal.
Even if Anthopoulos fills every hole, the Jays will still be overmatched in the AL East in 2012. But they can be competitive and give young starters Ricky Romero, Brandon Morrow, Kyle Drabek and Henderson Alvarez another year to mature. When the extra wild card spot arrives in 2013, Toronto will be ready to fight for it.
Whoever takes over the front office will have his work cut out for him. The Orioles haven't won 70 games since 2006, haven't been above .500 since 1997, and their farm system is one of the game's weakest. There will be no quick fixes, either: Owner Peter Angelos appears intent on keeping the payroll in the $75-$85 million range, a number that makes it virtually impossible for any team not named the Rays to compete in the AL East. The team does have catcher Matt Wieters, who finally fulfilled some of his potential both at and behind the plate this year, and centerfielder Adam Jones. And there's manager Buck Showalter in the dugout; there have been occasional stretches since he took over in 2010 when the O's have resembled a major-league-quality team. But Showalter, skilled as he is, just doesn't have enough tools to work with.
Baltimore's first offseason priority is finding rotation help. The Orioles were last in the majors in starters' ERA (5.39), starters' innings pitched (881), quality starts (60), starters' strikeout-walk ratio (1.77) and starters' pitches per inning (16.9), and last in the AL in home runs allowed by starters (134). The rotation has a few quality young arms to build around, but the promise they offered last spring disintegrated quickly. Brian Matusz (10.69 ERA) took several steps backward this year, Zach Britton was wildly inconsistent and Jake Arrieta had elbow surgery in August. The O's can't count on any of them to front the rotation next year, so they'll be searching for veteran starters who can give the young guys time to develop and ease the burden on a bullpen that was severely overworked in 2011. C.J. Wilson is probably out of their price range, but they would be wise to pursue such lower-tier, veteran free agent starters as Edwin Jackson, Mark Buerhle, Paul Maholm or Aaron Harang.
The Orioles should also give the rotation a boost by upgrading the AL's worst defense, which means improving at third base (iron-gloved Mark Reynolds shifted to first when Derrek Lee was traded in July) and at second, where Brian Roberts (98 games played total in the last two seasons) can't be counted on to stay healthy. To give the dangerously-close-to-irrelevant franchise as a whole a boost -- attendance at Camden Yards this season was 50 percent lower than it was a decade ago -- Angelos should open up his dust-covered checkbook and pay whatever it takes to bring Prince Fielder to town. Fielder's power will play well at Camden of course, and he would bring a much-needed element of patience to a lineup that walked less than any other team in the AL East. Fielder won't make the O's an instant contender, but he can bring some buzz back to Baltimore while the new GM tries to come up with a long-term plan to rebuild the franchise.