At 8:45 on the morning of the Rays' second full workout this spring, a lanky lefthander stood in a corner of a clubhouse full of new nameplates, practicing his swing. Each stroke was longer and loopier than the last, and each came incrementally closer to the back of the head of a seated B.J. Upton. The centerfielder, perceiving a white-ash-scented breeze, turned around.
"No, no, David!" Upton said. "Put that down."
David Price—second in last season's American League Cy Young vote—kept swinging, while he talked about his hitting exploits. He has mustered two singles in 10 career at bats; Price was quick to point out that one of those hits had come against Marlins ace Josh Johnson last season. "You've had three different stances, just right here," said Upton. "Terrible."
"Impeccable," Price said.
April 3, 2011
In the Tampa Bay clubhouse this qualifies as banter between hoary veterans, as the 26-year-old Upton (Rays debut: 2004) and the 25-year-old Price (Rays debut: 2008) now rank first and eighth among the club's longest-tenured members. Of the 25 men on the roster the Rays took into the 2010 postseason after winning their second AL East title in three seasons, only 14 remain. Upton pointed out the lockers of the departed. "Carl was right here in the corner," he said. "Carlos was where [James] Shields is. Bartlett was here, it's now Elliot Johnson. Garza? [Mike] Ekstrom's there now. I think."
Tampa Bay enters 2011 without players who accounted for 42% of the team's plate appearances last season (most significantly, leftfielder Carl Crawford, first baseman Carlos Pe√±a and shortstop Jason Bartlett) and pitchers who threw 39% of its innings (including starter Matt Garza and six members of their ALDS bullpen). Such is the lot of a successful, low-payroll club in the free agency era. But the Rays remain a long way from asking their ace to pick up a bat when it counts. Their rearranged clubhouse is not the result of a nascent rebuilding effort, but of a long-anticipated renovation. "The reason why it's not as godawful is because we knew it was going to happen," says manager Joe Maddon. "It doesn't slap you in the face as you walk in."
Rays management spent a few years working on a prospect-development plan that would mitigate the godawfulness of the departures of so many key players. "We don't look at the 2011 team as a culmination of just three months of work," says executive vice president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman. "We went through a very memorable three-year period that will forever be a significant part of this franchise's history. Now our former players' focus is on recreating that elsewhere, and our focus is on re-creating it here."
That effort will be led by holdover stars like Price, Upton and third baseman Evan Longoria, but it will be fortified by a cache of ripened prospects that Tampa Bay stockpiled via the draft and trades, such as starter Jeremy Hellickson, 23, and outfielders Desmond Jennings, 24, and Matt Joyce, 26. "I think [the Rays] are uniquely positioned, because of their talent and depth, to withstand some of the significant losses they've had," says Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein. "It's not every day that a team can lose a Garza and plug in a Hellickson, lose a Crawford and plug in a Joyce and maybe later Jennings. They're being dramatically underrated."
This winter's free agent market did not work entirely to the Rays' detriment, as it allowed them to add two of Epstein's still-productive former employees. Friedman signed Johnny Damon and Manny Ramirez in January, a late, modest ($7.25 million combined), low-risk spree. The 37-year-old Damon (he had a .355 OBP and 36 doubles and was 11 for 12 in stolen base attempts with the Tigers in 2010) and 38-year-old Ramirez (an .870 OPS in 90 games for the Dodgers and the White Sox) are in their dotages, but they should help replace some of the production and leadership of Crawford and Pe√±a. "I thought we needed that kind of a guy," says Maddon. "But when you get that kind of a guy, you want that kind of a guy with something left in the tank, not just that kind of a guy." Damon and Ramirez both appear to be the preferable kind of that kind of a guy.
The Rays do have areas of concern. One is that while their rotation runs five deep (Yankees G.M. Brian Cashman calls the group "fantastic"), they no longer have much injury protection now that Hellickson, who was called up last August, has a full-time spot. Is the lack of a reliable sixth starter an issue when the Yankees don't appear to have a fourth? Friedman chuckles courteously. "Everything's relative," he says.
The AL East will be more competitive than once anticipated due to another man who won't be there: Cliff Lee. The Yankees' plan had been to sign Lee, the 2008 A.L. Cy Young--winner-turned-mercenary-playoff-killer. But the lefthander's decision to spurn the Steinbrenners' riches to rejoin the Phillies, coupled with Andy Pettitte's retirement, left New York with only three proven starters—if you consider A.J. Burnett and Phil Hughes to be proven.
Opponents found Lee's saga titillating for a reason besides the shattering of the Yankees' fantasy of a rotation topped by him and CC Sabathia. Lee's dallying—he didn't pick Philadelphia until mid-December—meant that by the time he made his decision, the Yankees' probable second choice on the free agent market, Crawford, was gone—and to their archrival Red Sox, no less. "No," says Cashman, asked if his winter went according to plan. "Not at all.
"By the time [Lee] declared himself, all the quality Plan B's, C's, D's, E's were off the board," Cashman says. "Patience has to be Plan B now." That's patience on his part, with a rotation that might remain in flux for much of the season—and on that of the Yankees' hitters, who will have to score nearly at will to keep the team in the race. It could happen. Though aging in spots (particularly those occupied by Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada and Alex Rodriguez), the lineup ranked first in the AL in runs (859) and OBP (.350) and second in walks (662) last season.
The Yankees' Lee-lessness shouldn't drop them into the depths of the AL East, but the division's laggards in recent years—the Blue Jays and Orioles have finished fourth and fifth each of the last three seasons—can find reasons to dream of one day moving up. In the near term, those reveries might be more vivid in Baltimore. "Tampa has shown us it can be done," says president of baseball ops Andy MacPhail of the ability of an AL East team to rise from moribund to preeminent. The Orioles' attempt has three main components. The first is manager Buck Showalter, who took over the majors' worst team last Aug. 3 and in his 57 games—"too long a time to be a flash in the pan," says MacPhail—led it to a 34--23 record, second-best in the AL in that span. The second is the Orioles' sleeper cell of talented 25-and-under players, including catcher Matt Wieters, centerfielder Adam Jones and starters Jake Arrieta, Zach Britton, Brian Matusz and Chris Tillman. The third is the injection of veterans on short-term deals that MacPhail administered over the winter, including a quartet (DH Vladimir Guerrero, shortstop J.J. Hardy, first baseman Derrek Lee and third baseman Mark Reynolds) who will add pop to an offense that scored the second-fewest runs (613) in the league last year.
The Blue Jays won 85 games last season on the strength of their 257 homers, tied for third-most all-time. However, Alex Anthopoulos, the club's 33-year-old G.M., devoted this winter to shaping his club for the future. His most important move was getting rid of the onerous contract of centerfielder Vernon Wells, who will earn his remaining $86 million from the Angels after being traded in January. Toronto features a promising rotation—the oldest starter is Brandon Morrow, who is 26—and retains sluggers like Jose Bautista, to whom Anthopoulos, to some criticism, gave a five-year, $65 million extension in February. Even though Bautista, 30, has had only one above-average year, it was significantly so: He hit 54 home runs in 2010, 15 more than any other AL player. "I understand the criticism," Anthopoulos says. "But we feel strongly that this is a guy who's found it. If we waited a year, there's a good chance he'd get more years and more dollars on the free-agent market. It's an educated gamble. Those are some of the things we need to do in the AL East."
Still, the coming season, Anthopoulos says, "will give us a good sense of where we're going beyond 2011." The AL East team that has best positioned itself to win immediately is the Red Sox. They finished third last year, but won 89 games despite suffering an improbable number of injuries to key regulars: outfielders Mike Cameron and Jacoby Ellsbury, catcher Victor Martinez, second baseman Dustin Pedroia and first baseman Kevin Youkilis sat out an average of 88 games apiece. One metric suggests that Boston would have had seven more wins—enough for a share of the AL East title—had they sustained a statistically normal level of health.
The Red Sox are now healthy, and Epstein more than replaced departed free agents Martinez and Adrian Beltre by signing Crawford and trading for Padres slugger Adrian Gonzalez. Gonzalez, 28, has hit more home runs than all but seven players over the past four seasons despite playing in San Diego's notoriously homer-averse ballpark. His is the type of power that produces 380-foot mishits to leftfield; those should bear fruit in Fenway Park, with its famously shallow leftfield wall. "The parks in the American League East are a lot smaller than the parks in the National League West," the first baseman says. "That's good to think about."
Crawford also finds himself thinking more about his future than his past. In late February he was asked if he knew the identity of the person who had taken up residence in his old locker at the Rays' spring grounds.
"Who?" he inquired. "B.J.?"
"Oh, oh, there you go," Crawford said. "That's a good guy to give it to. He's supposed to be the guy that's replacing me. He's going to be all right, man, once he gets his at bats. When you've got an athletic guy like that, the ceiling is real high."
Jennings's ceiling, in fact, looks very much like Crawford's present, just as the Rays' ceiling appears equivalent to the Red Sox' present. "I would say you'd have to give the division to Boston," says Maddon. "I get it. God bless them. It's fine. At the end of the day, it's the execution on the field, the heartbeat in the clubhouse."
While the Rays' young and talented hearts should allow them to challenge the Yankees for second place in the division, it is the mature Red Sox—with an assist from Cliff Lee, a potential World Series opponent—whose hearts should beat longest in 2011.
HOW THEY WILL FINISH
MVP: CARL CRAWFORD, RED SOX
"I hope he does well," the Rays' David Price says of his erstwhile teammate. "I mean, I don't want him to hit .600 with 45 home runs." Those numbers are out of reach for Boston's new leftfield fixture, but .300 with 25 home runs and 60 stolen bases are all well within reach.
CY YOUNG: JON LESTER, RED SOX
Three other pitchers have won at least 15 games with an ERA under 3.50 in each of the last three seasons: Roy Halladay, Tim Lincecum and CC Sabathia. They've won five Cy Young Awards between them. Now it's time for Lester, 27, who had the AL's best K rate (9.7 per 9 IP) last year.
MR. IRREPLACEABLE: CC SABATHIA, YANKEES
Over the winter the 315-pounder became a 290-pounder by abstaining from "anything with a cartoon on it." (His personal chef helped too.) But he will carry more psychic weight than ever. The rest of the Yankees' rotation is questionable. Can New York make the playoffs if CC falters? Fat chance.
ROOKIE TO WATCH: JEREMY HELLICKSON, RAYS
The 23-year-old righthander impressed in a 10-outing stint for playoff-bound Tampa Bay late last summer, striking out 33 in 361/3 innings. With Matt Garza now pitching for the Cubs, Hellickson has a rotation spot all his own. He's the AL Rookie of the Year fave.
STAR ON THE RISE: TRAVIS SNIDER, BLUE JAYS
If the Blue Jays are to approach the major- league-best 257 home runs they slugged last season, someone has to replace the 31 hit by the traded Vernon Wells. Snider, 23, could do it. The 2006 first-round pick was rushed to the majors at age 20 but has matured: He hit 14 in 82 games last year.
STAR IN DECLINE: VLADIMIR GUERRERO, ORIOLES
He looked like the Vlad of old before last season's All-Star break (20 home runs for the Rangers)—and simply old after it (a .426 slugging percentage, and no homers in 15 postseason games). The O's gave the 36-year-old DH $8 million, but, as G.M. Andy MacPhail says, "there's no such thing as a bad one-year deal."
THE PAYOFF PITCH ...
Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez—"Two of the best players at their positions in the game," notes G.M. Theo Epstein—turn a good club into Boston's third championship team of the century.
The 2010 injury plague continues, and is compounded by three rotation veterans (Josh Beckett, John Lackey and Daisuke Matsuzaka) who fail to lower their combined '10 ERA of 4.84.
Cliff who? The rotation is solid early and extraordinary late, due to a deadline trade for Marlins' ace Josh Johnson and the sensational arrival of 20-year-old minor league lefty Manny Banuelos.
The down 2010s for Derek Jeter (.710 OPS) and Alex Rodriguez (.847) turn out not to be down years reversible by a new swing (Jeter) or a 3% weight loss (A-Rod), but the start of inexorable declines.
"We could win the AL East every year, and the next season we're going to be at least rated third," says manager Joe Maddon. "I love it!" The 2011 AL East champs are picked third again in '12.
A jerry-rigged bullpen without a clear closer fails to approach last season's standard and blows enough games to cost the Rays their third postseason appearance in four years.
Buck Showalter's aggression-instilling magic persists, and the O's ride a top-five offense and an improving young staff to a 25-win improvement—though 91 is only good for third in the AL East.
Buck can't reverse the declines of Vladimir Guerrero, J.J. Hardy and Derrek Lee (silver lining: all have one-year deals), and the team's hopes again rest with a callow core.
Aaron Hill (.205 BA, 26 homers in 2010) and Adam Lind (.237, 23) rebound from frustrating years—Lind: "I was frustrated because I sucked"—and another power barrage keeps the Jays competitive.
Vernon Wells Redux: G.M. Alex Anthopoulos's gamble on Jose Bautista fails when he regresses to his pre-2010 career norm (.729 OPS), suffocating long-term plans under another payroll albatross.