Friday, November 25, 2005

AL East Offseason

New York Yankees
Key players lost: Tom Gordon, Bernie Williams, Kevin Brown, Al Leiter, Tino Martinez, Ruben Sierra, Alan Embree, Matt Lawton
Needs: Center Field, 1B/DH, relief help
The Yankees' signing of Hideki Matsui to play left leaves center field as the only gaping hole in the lineup. Johnny Damon is the biggest name the Yankees will pursue, but they'll have to get past the Red Sox if they want him. The Yanks are already pursuing other options in center, with Brian Giles a name in the news. The problem is that the Yankees are coming off a terrible defensive year in 2005 and could do better than to have 3 left fielders in the outfield in 2006 (with Matsui and Gary Sheffield no great shakes with the glove). There are some hitting options for center, with the Yanks considering Giles or Jacque Jones and shifting Matsui to center, there aren't a lot of good defensive solutions. Most of the free agent outfielders are defense-challenged corner outfielders like Jeromy Burnitz, with Damon the only legitimate center fielder on the free agent market. It's possible that the Yanks could get creative and trade for a center fielder. Some have suggested moving Derek Jeter to center, which would be the best and most unlikely solution, considering Jeter's popularity.
The Yanks could also use another bat to play first base, with Jason Giambi a much better fit to DH. But considering that the Yanks did all right without a bat there in 2005 (with the underwhelmingTino Martinez and Ruben Sierra filling the 1B/DH role with Giambi), it's not their first priority.
But pitching is the Yankees' biggest problem. As much attention as their center field pursuit has received, one has to remember that the Yanks made the playoffs last year with the very un-dynamic duo of Bernie Williams and Matt Lawton playing there. If the Yanks really want to improve their team, they need to shore up the pitching staff. Closer Mariano Rivera returns, and if the Yanks can re-sign Tom Gordon, they'll have one of the best 1-2 relief punches in the league. But the starting rotation is a disaster waiting to happen. This is their rotation as it stands now:
Randy Johnson, Mike Mussina, Shawn Chacon, Chien-Ming Wang, Jaret Wright
That's just plain ugly. The back end of the rotation has potential (Chacon and Wang especially), but is amazingly unreliable, and is just as likely to fail as to succeed. The front end of Johnson and Mussina is more reliable, but the Yanks have to consider that Johnson (42) and Mussina (37) will be a combined 69 years old in 2006, with both men suffering big setbacks in quality in 2006 (Mussina's ERA was 4.41, Johnson's 3.79). It's really amazing to me that everyone is talking about center field, when the starting rotation is the biggest problem for the Yankees by far. The problem is that the Yankees are already paying a mountain of money to these starters (with Johnson, Mussina, and Wright breaking the bank), and can't really afford another big free agent payday. It would be a great move to sign a B-level starter like Matt Morris or Jarrod Washburn, but the Yanks seem far too preoccupied with center field. Which is a shame, because if the Yankees miss the playoffs in 2006, it will not be because of a lack of offense.

Boston Red Sox
Key players lost: Johnny Damon, Bill Mueller, Kevin Millar, John Olerud, Mike Myers, Tony Graffanino
Needs: Center Field, 2B, 1B?, bullpen help

The acquisition of Josh Beckett gives the Sox a rotation they can at least have some faith in as they enter 2006:

Curt Schilling, Josh Beckett, Matt Clement, David Wells, Tim Wakefield/Bronson Arroyo
Wells has asked for a trade, so it looks like both Wakefield and Arroyo will stay in the rotation, depending on the progress of young hurlers like Jon Papelbon. There are no great pitchers here, but no bad pitchers, either (depending on Schilling's health and Wakefield's age).
The bullpen is a different story. The Sox had one of the worst bullpens in the AL in 2005, and aren't looking at any obvious improvements in 2006. Getting back closer Keith Foulke at full health will be a plus, but there's no guarantee he'll be at his 2004 level of excellence. The Sox have shown some interests in some big-name free agent closers, but a better solution would be a stopgap like Tom Gordon, who could serve as a setup man and emergency closer. They need some help in middle relief as well. They re-signed Mike Timlin, who was their best reliever in 2005, but there's nothing in Timlin's history to suggest he can consistently produce at his 2005 levels.
Center field is a pretty big issue. It looks like Boston will be able to re-sign Damon, although with Scott Boras representing him and the Yankees on the horizon, there are no guarantees. They face the same dearth of center fielders that the Yankees do, with no obvious replacement on the team.
The right side of the infield is temporarily empty, although the acquisition of Mike Lowell puts some people out of a job. It's possible that either Lowell or resident Kevin Youkilis could shift to first base, but that still leaves second base open. The Sox may choose to get creative at second, with no one outside of Mark Grudzielanek really appealing in the free agent ranks.
Top priority, though, is improving the pitching staff, and the acquisition of Beckett was a pretty big step towards that.

Toronto Blue Jays
Key players lost: (none of note)
Needs: Nothing obvious; could use another starter, a good closer, or a new DH

The Blue Jays did better than their record would indicate in 2005. With Roy Halladay (presumably) healthy, Josh Towers looking like a solid #2, and Ted Lilly a good bet to rebound from a dreadful 2005, the Blue Jays actually have a pretty strong rotation. Gustavo Chacin is another potential star, although his 70:121 BB:K ratio in 2005 is troubling. The Blue Jays could use a new closer, as Miguel Batista (4.10 ERA, 31/39 in saves) wasn't exactly dominating.

The Jays are hotly pursuing pitcher A.J. Burnett for reasons unknown to me. Burnett is a good pitcher, but not worth the $50 million in 5 years the Jays would have to pay. Burnett has great "stuff," but that's pretty trivial until he proves he can consistently turn that "stuff" into good pitching. Burnett isn't a bad pitcher, but his injury troubles and control problems (at least 79 walks in each full season) are enough to cast doubt on his high price tag. The Jays are apparently looking to spend money for its own sake, which never really works.

Baltimore Orioles
Key players lost: B.J. Ryan, Sammy Sosa, Rafael Palmeiro, Steve Reed, Jason Grimsley, B.J. Surhoff
Needs: 2 or 3 starting pitchers, 1B, DH, closer

The Orioles have such a bad starting rotation that there's just not much they can do in one offseason. The signing of Leo Mazzone as pitching coach is a good start, but even Leo can only work so many miracles. The only starter of any consequence is Erik Bedard, who is coming off an injury-plagued 2005. Daniel Cabrera has highly-touted "stuff," but the fact that he's not actually a good pitcher (career 4.75 ERA). He turns 25 in May 2006, so he still has time to develop, but his truly abysmal control (career 176:233 BB:K ratio in 309 IP) make him a good bet to become the next Victor Zambrano.

Losing closer B.J. Ryan is a blow, and it's unlikely that Baltimore will be able to join the mad rush to sign Ryan. With Billy Wagner close to committing to a team, that will leave Ryan to pick among the 10 teams or so that want a closer now. It's unlikely the Orioles will get him, and coming up with a replacement will play a big part in setting the table for 2006.
The Orioles are pretty lucky to lose Sammy Sosa and Rafael Palmeiro, all things considered. Since the Orioles traditionally ignore pitching in favor of big-money hitters, it's possible they could land a big name in the off-season. It's just that they're not always so hot at getting good players in those big-name deals. With Carlos Delgado off to the Mets, there aren't a lot of 1B/DH types available, unless they can pry Paul Konerko away from the White Sox. They could take a flyer on someone like Frank Thomas or Mike Piazza, but the Orioles have already spent enough money on injury-prone fading stars to justify taking such a chance.
The Orioles also have some pretty big issues in the outfield, which currently looks like this:
Eric Byrnes -- Luis Matos -- Jay Gibbons
All three are capable of being pretty good, but they're much more likely to be thoroughly mediocre -- not good news for an infield that includes Miguel Tejada, Brian Roberts, and Melvin Mora.

Tampa Bay Devil Rays
Key players lost: Travis Lee, Alex Gonzalez, Eduardo Perez
Needs: 1B, 3B, an entirely new pitching staff

Things really could be a lot worse for the Devil Rays. They've got some good prospects on the way up, they've finally got rid of the Laurel-and-Hardy ownership and management that made them such a farce, and they've always got the Royals there to make them look good.

The simple story here is that their offense doesn't suck, and their pitching staff really does. Their outfield of Carl Crawford-Rocco Baldelli-Jonny Gomes looks solid, if unspectacular. They've got a fine shortstop in Julio Lugo, but big vacancies at first and third base with no strong candidates to take them over. Although, it's entirely possible that the Devil Rays will move someone like Joey Gathright into their stacked outfield, moving Gomes to first base.
Scott Kazmir took a big step toward becoming a true ace in 2005, his league-leading 100 walks notwithstanding. He's the fruits of the only really good trade the franchise has made, getting him for Wild Thing Victor Zambrano in the summer of 2004. After him, there's nothing. There's a chance that guys like Casey Fossum and Seth McClung could approach average, but not for Mark Hendrickson or the parade of other starter wanna-bes in the organization. Danys Baez is a serviceable closer, and the D-Rays have some arms to support him in the bullpen, but the franchise won't even begin to contend until they can solve some of their pitching problems.

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