Rounding the Bases: American League review

MlbHlSqThere are three main countdowns to the MLB season.  The first is the date that pitchers and catchers report for Spring Training, which has already passed.  The second is the date on which Spring Training games begin and that will turn to zero on Tuesday.  That just leaves us with the countdown to opening night, when the Yankees and Red Sox get the 2010 season underway on Sunday 4 April.  The end to this long winter (and it’s certainly seemed like a long winter) is in sight.

Teams are still trying to improve their rosters and Johnny Damon (Tigers), Jonny Gomes (Reds), Rod Barajas (Mets), Russell Branyan (Indians) and Felipe Lopez (Cardinals) all finally found jobs this week.  A couple of those moves will be taken into account as we follow up last week’s review of National League moves by looking at the key addition and key departure for each team in the American League. 

Baltimore Orioles

Kevin Millwood was acquired in a trade with the Texas Rangers to give Baltimore a veteran presence at the top of their rotation.  Brian Matusz, Chris Tillman and Brad Bergesen all made their Major League debuts last year and they have just 39 MLB starts worth of experience between them.  Adding in a 13-year veteran should give the Orioles the double boost of a decent workhorse starter (he’s averaged 31 starts per season over the last 5 years) and a guy who can help the youngsters along in their development.

The Orioles didn’t lose anyone particularly significant over the winter.  Chris Ray might once have been seen as a notable player for them when he spent time as their closer in 2006 and 2007, but he missed all of 2008 with an injury and then struggled on his return last year.  He went to the Rangers in the deal that brought Millwood to Baltimore and the Orioles are unlikely to end up unhappy with the swap (mainly a case of shifting money for Texas).

Boston Red Sox

At the start of the offseason, the Red Sox Front Office was suggesting that 2010 would be a ‘bridge’ year for the organization.  That didn’t go down too well with some of the writers in Boston and there still seems to be some unease with how the team’s offseason has gone.  It’s a feeling that’s hard to explain when you size up the additions they have made to their roster over the last few months.  No addition has been more valuable than that of starting pitcher John Lackey.  Pitching wasn’t exactly a weakness for the Red Sox, but you can never have enough quality starters and Lackey will bring his bulldog mentality and strong track record to Fenway as part of a top-notch rotation.

Jason Bay lead the Red Sox in homers (36) last year and it’s the potential lack of bombing power without him that has some in Boston piling on the pessimism.  While he struggled in front of the Green Monster with his glove, Bay consistently had quality at-bats and it looked like the Red Sox would re-sign him as a free agent.  Instead, Bay made off for the Mets with more than a hint of acrimony lingering between the left fielder and his former team, who didn’t trust his body’s capability of consistently keeping him on the field over the next four or five years.

Chicago White Sox

I could stretch the definition of a ‘new addition’ here and go for Jake Peavy.  The 2007 NL Cy Young winner joined the White Sox at the trade deadline (31 July) last year, but he was recovering from an ankle injury at the time and didn’t make his debut for the Pale Hose until 19 September.  He was impressive in his three starts (3-0, 1.35 ERA, 18 K’s in 20 innings pitched) and his presence in the rotation from the start of the season could make a huge difference in the tightly-contest AL Central.  If Peavy doesn’t count, Mark Teahen gets my vote.  Acquired in a trade with the Royals, he will take over at third base and allow potential superstar Gordon Beckham to move over to second.

The two biggest contributors of previous seasons that have left the team are Jermaine Dye and Jim Thome.  Dye had a horrible second half to 2009 and still hasn’t found a new team, while Thome has landed with division rivals the Minnesota Twins.  Thome finished the 2009 season with the Dodgers so technically he wasn’t an offseason departure; however he was only in L.A. temporarily and many expected that he would re-sign with the White Sox.  They decided against it in favour of allowing manager Ozzie Guillen to use the DH spot in a more flexible way.  Most teams use a regular DH, but it is counterproductive unless that player is a big offensive weapon (such as David Oritz in his prime) because there is value in being able to switch regular players into the DH spot to give them a bit of rest here and there over the course of the season.  With that being said, you still need to get a good contribution from the DH spot and pitting that against the work Thome does for the Twins will make for an interesting subplot this season.

Cleveland Indians

The Indians are a classic example of the ‘win cycle’ that many teams live within.  They had a window of opportunity and came within a whisker of making the World Series in 2007, yet that window has now shut.  The likes of CC Sabathia, Victor Martinez and Cliff Lee have been traded away over the last year and a half to try and set up another postseason challenge a few years down the line.  The Tribe are rebuilding and, with virtually no money to spend, General Manager Mark Shapiro made few additions to boost his team for 2010.  Their most significant addition therefore has to be manager Manny Acta.  His record with the Washington Nationals was not good, yet the roster he had to work with left him on a hiding to nothing.  He’s still highly thought of and his enthusiasm, possibly also his ability to work with the Indians’ Latin American players and prospects, should help this young team lay foundations for future success, even if the win-loss record might not be impressive in 2010.

After previously trading Sabathia, Martinez, Lee, Casey Blake and Mark DeRosa, to name just a few, they didn’t have a lot of Major League regulars to lose over this offseason.  Catcher Kelly Shoppach was traded to the Rays, although his previous contribution to the Tribe’s cause was lessened by the presence of Martinez and they have two catching prospects (Lou Marson and Carlos Santana) who would have pushed him out of the way over the next few years as well (both are expected to make their MLB debuts this year). 

Detroit Tigers

I’m tempted to give the nod to Max Scherzer, who was acquired from the Diamondbacks.  He’s a young starter with plenty of upside and could help form an exceptional 1-2-3 at the top of their rotation for several years to come alongside staff ace Justin Verlander and Rick Porcello.  However, Johnny Damon’s offseason was such a big story that I guess I have to go for him, if only because all of the fuss makes it imperative that he comes good for the Tigers.  He benefitted greatly from pulling balls into the right-field porch at the new Yankee Stadium last year and Comerica Park will not be anywhere near as inviting. 

The Tigers need Damon to put up good numbers because the loss of Curtis Granderson to the Yankees could hit them hard.  Granderson launched thirty homers last season and was a real crowd favourite in Detroit; seemingly setting the tone for the organization as a whole.  You can argue how much those intangibles matter to winning ballgames, but there’s no doubt that they will matter in Detroit if the team doesn’t perform well over the first couple of months and their former favourite is lording it up in pinstripes.  Opinion is divided on what sort of player Austin Jackson, the main prospect received from the Yankees in the trade, will become.  There will be some growing pains at the very least for the young centre fielder.

Kansas City Royals

Far from being indicative of the insurmountable financial disadvantage some teams are under, the Royals’ continuing futility is because they are a badly-run organization.  Unsurprisingly, General Manager Dayton Moore hasn’t exactly covered himself in glory this offseason.  Picking up free agent outfielder Rick Ankiel is the one move that might work out quite well.  His 2009 season was blighted by a shoulder injury picked up early in the year and if he can put those troubles behind him to repeat or surpass his 2008 season, then that would be some sort of an improvement to the Royals batting lineup. However, his .315 OBP since becoming a Major League position player in 2007 will do little to improve the team’s suicidal reliance on hitters who make lots of outs.

Like a few teams, the Royals had little of worth to lose.  Mark Teahen’s departure will be the most noticeable one because he has moved to the White Sox.  More broadly, the decision to let go of catchers Miguel Olivo and John Buck in favour of paying Jason Kendall $6m over the next two years is another reason why the Royals are a bad team now and are not getting better any time soon.

Los Angeles Angels

Hideki Matsui signed as a free agent with the Angels after ending his career with the New York Yankees in the most memorable way imaginable: hitting two homers in the decisive Game Six of the World Series and winning the Series MVP in the process.  He was exclusively used as a DH to save his knees last year and he responded with a strong season (.274/.367/.509 , with 28 homers in 526 PA).  Although Matsui would like to spend some time in the outfield, the Angels will gladly keep him in the DH spot if he can replicate his 2009 form.  He will take over from Vladimir Guerrero in the Angels’ batting lineup and he should be an effective replacement, particularly as ‘Vlad the Impaler’ has become less destructive over the last three seasons (the sliding AVG, OBP, SLG and BB/K rate shown most clearly on Fangraphs).

Guerrero will still be missed and he’s one of three key players who have left the team as free agents over the offseason.  Guerrero signed with the Texas Rangers, while starting pitcher John Lackey left for the Red Sox.  However, the biggest loss could turn out to be Chone Figgins.  He epitomized the Angel’s brand of baseball over the last few years and was superb for them as a lead-off hitter and a good-fielding third baseman.  Division rivals the Seattle Mariners will benefit from Figgins’ strong all-round game for the next four seasons.

Minnesota Twins

The Twins have earned a reputation in recent years for ‘making do’ rather than going out and making upgrades.  They’ve changed tack this year, helped no doubt by the extra projected revenue that their new ballpark, Target Field, should provide.  Jim Thome was brought in to be an impact bat off the bench, and an occasional DH, while Orlando Hudson will take over at second base.  Hudson’s arrival should help in two main ways.  Firstly, he will form a bridge between lead-off hitter Dernard Span and the impressive heart of the Twins’ batting order.  Secondly, he’ll be an upgrade in the field at second base.  He’s certainly not a major offensive player and he is not quite the Gold-Glover of old either, but he’s good on both sides of the ball and adding a good everyday player rather than a mix of adequate players at the position makes for a decent gain on a team that should be in the thick of the battle in the AL Central.

Minnesota haven’t yet agreed an extension with Joe Mauer, but they haven’t lost any significant players either.  Orlando Cabrera has been replaced with J.J. Hardy and the Twins have other relievers to take the place of Ron Mahay.  The one player they might regret losing is Carlos Gomez, traded to the Brewers in the deal to acquire Hardy.  He’s still young enough to turn into a good everyday player, but he’s been part of the Twins organization for two years now and hasn’t broken through so you can understand the decision to trade him for a player that they need now.

New York Yankees

You didn’t expect the Yankees to stand still after winning a World Series, did you?  They might not have dished out mega-bucks contracts this year, but they’ve restocked their roster to give them a great chance of retaining their title.  If one move stands out the most, it was the trade to bring back starting pitcher Javier Vazquez via a trade with the Braves.  CC Sabathia was terrific as expected last season and is a good bet to be so again, but A.J. Burnett was inconsistent, Andy Pettitte is one year older and the Yanks seem to be doing all the can to make life difficult for Joba Chamberlain and Phil Hughes to establish themselves as starters in the Big Leagues.  This is all relative of course: a lot of teams would kill for a rotation of that quality.  Still, the Yanks are not designed to be very good, but to be the best and adding Vazquez to the mix is exactly the sort of move that can keep them ahead of their competitors.

One of the marks of a winning organization is that they know when to say ‘thanks for all you’ve done’ and to let a player go.  They did that with Hideki Matsui, despite his World Series heroics, and also with Johnny Damon this offseason.  If they are going to miss one of them then it has to be Damon and that’s why they tried to keep hold of him.  Matsui is really limited to being a DH now, whereas Damon can play left field (not all that well, but he can play there) and seemed perfectly suited to the dimensions of the new Yankee Stadium.  You can’t blame the Yanks for standing firm and offering no more than what they think Damon is now worth though.  Apparently, even the Yanks have their limits.

Oakland A’s

Although the A’s are a small-market team, they’re not averse to picking up a player on a short-term deal where they can.  Ben Sheets is a potential top-line starter and would be far out of the A’s financial league if there wasn’t something wrong with him.  What’s wrong with him is that he hasn’t been able to keep healthy and he missed all of 2009 due to an injury.  The A’s dived in and offered him $10m on a one-year deal.  That’s a pricey gamble, but it’s one worth taking for the A’s. They have a group of young starters who could form the basis of a division winner in a year or two.  Having Sheets around will take the pressure off them and give them a source of knowledge to tap into as well.

Oakland had a tough year in 2009 as the team is firmly in rebuilding mode and that meant there were few established Major Leaguers to lose over the offseason.  In terms of their contribution to 2009, Adam Kennedy did the most of any player who has left the team over the winter, but he was a holding player at best.  He signed a deal with the Washington Nationals.

Seattle Mariners

In a highly productive offseason, the Mariners have made a number of important additions to their roster.  The top two deals were the trade for Cliff Lee and the signing of free agent third baseman Chone Figgins.  Figgins will be a more than capable replacement for Adrian Beltre and his signing had the added benefit of taking away a crucial player from a division rival (the Angels).  However, Lee has to be considered their most important signing even if he is only on a one-year rental.  Lee and Felix Hernandez are as good a 1-2 punch as there is in the Majors, something that could be particularly important considering there is quite a substantial drop off to the rest of the projected rotation.  That may come back to bite them during the regular season, but if the M’s can get into the playoffs then they will be a serious threat to anyone.

Adrian Beltre is a quality player, but the Mariners have replaced him with Chone Figgins.  So, the Mariners’ main loss of the offseason has to be Russell Branyan.  He gave the M’s offense some much-needed power last year, swatting 31 homers in 505 plate appearances before ending the season on the DL due to a back injury.  That injury probably cost Branyan a few million dollars as he was left looking for a job until last week when he signed a one-year deal worth $2m with the Indians.  Seattle look to be going with a platoon at first consisting of Casey Kotchman and Ryan Garko.  The pair hit just 20 homers combined in 831 plate appearances and will cost the M’s a shade over $4m in 2010. 

Tampa Bay Rays

The Rays have a difficult job competing against the Yankees and Red Sox in the AL East, so they deserve a bit of luck every now and then.  They got some over the offseason thanks to the Atlanta Braves.  Atlanta went out and signed Billy Wagner and Takashi Saito to slot into the back of their bullpen and offered arbitration to free-agent-to-be Rafael Soriano fully expecting that he would decline the offer.  When he didn’t, the Braves were left with one extra reliever that they couldn’t afford.  The Rays gratefully stepped in and made a trade for Soriano, bagging themselves a premier closer on a one-year deal. 

Tampa Bay’s payroll will be at least $70m this year and their owner Stuart Sternberg has already stated that this will be cut to less than $60m in 2011, with the hoped-for boost in attendances following their 2008 World Series appearance sadly not materializing.  It’s likely that Carl Crawford and Carlos Pena will leave the Rays either as free agents at the end of this season or via a mid-season trade if they fall out of contention early.  There haven’t been any major departures over this off-season though.  Second baseman Akinori Iwamura was the main player to leave, being traded to the Pirates, although they have a ready-made replacement in Ben Zobrist if they choose to play him at second this year.

Texas Rangers

The Rangers sense that this might be their year to win the AL West and as part of their postseason push they’ve taken a calculated gamble by signing oft-injured free agent pitcher Rich Harden.  Harden made 26 starts for the Cubs last year, the most in his career since starting 31 back in 2004 with the A’s.  If the Rangers can get 26+ starts from him then they’ll get a good return on their initial $7.5m investment because he still dominates lineups when he’s able to take the mound.  Where they would like him to improve is in making the most of each start by going deeper into games.  Regular short starts due to high pitch counts were a source of frustration for the Cubs in 2009. For example, he averaged 93.5 pitches per outing in his final 4 starts for the Cubs, but lasted just 5, 5, 4 and 3 innings respectively.  Respected pitching coach Mike Maddux may be able to devise an approach which keeps Harden in games for longer, although reducing strikeouts while pitching to contact more might be a risky strategy in the Texas bandbox.

Texas’ decision to sign Harden was a clear statement of going in a different direction because he’s replacing someone who has very different qualities. Kevin Millwood is Mr Dependable, someone you can rely on to take the ball every five days, even if he isn’t going to blow teams away like their new prospective ace can.  If Harden spends a significant time on the DL and the Rangers just miss out on the postseason, they might look back on the swap and regret it.  Still, that’s the gamble they are taking and it should be remembered that the $4.5m saving (the difference between the two players’ salaries) helped them add Vladimir Guerrero to their lineup as well.

Toronto Blue Jays

Another team in rebuilding mode, the Blue Jays have been involved in a host of transactions over the offseason and they also have Shaun Marcum and Dustin McGowan coming back from long-term injuries.  They’ve acquired several veterans (Alex Gonzalez, Kevin Gregg, Jose Molina), but the new player I’m picking out is Brandon Morrow.  He was the main player the Blue Jays received from the Mariners as part of the three-way trade that saw Roy Halladay leave for the Phillies and Cliff Lee ending up in Seattle. The Mariners didn’t commit Morrow to either a starting or relieving role for any great length of time and that may have hampered his development.  He’ll be 25 this year so there’s still plenty of time for him to improve and the Blue Jays look like they will give him every opportunity to become a useful starter.

As for the Blue Jays’ biggest loss, Roy Halladay will be missed greatly by Toronto fans.  Even if they had tried to replace him, it would have been an almost impossible task.  They didn’t try to replace him because they are now focused on a rebuilding project and the likely effect that will have in their win-loss column will make Halladay’s absence even harder to take.

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3 Responses to Rounding the Bases: American League review

  1. Andrew February 28, 2010 at 1:25 pm #

    Great summary article, as was the NL one.

    As a Jays fan, I think going into this season knowing they’ve really got no chance of doing too well, it makes it easier to handle. Whereas last year they got off to a surprisingly good start last year then they fell apart.

    I also think that Halladay going to a National League team makes it easier for Jays fans to deal with him leaving. He certainly gave everything he had to the team and I hope the Phillies can go all the way because Halladay definitely deserves a World Series ring.

  2. Joe Cooter February 28, 2010 at 1:32 pm #

    Ey, here’s the rub. Of all the things that have happened this past off season nothing has really been all that surprising. I think Johnny Damon, and or his agent Scot Boras miss read the market and he could have gotten more money if he had been willing to listen. The fact of the matter is, there is very little chance that a 37 year old is going to get the kind of money he wanted.

    Having said that I’m pleased with the way this off season has turned out. The Yankees seemed to have upgraded defensively and really haven’t lost that much in the way of health. Yes the Sox added John Lackey but he really hasn’t pitched all that well against them in the past. I think Minesota may struggle somwhat because they’re not really built to play on natural grass, especially in a cold weather climate like Minesota. In fact the only two players on their who are used to playing in that kind of cold that occurs in Minnesota during April are Joe Mauer, who is a native of Minnesota, and Justin Morneau, who grew up in Canada.

    Should be an interesting year.

  3. Matt Smith February 28, 2010 at 9:33 pm #

    Andrew – I guess the Blue Jays know where they stand now. No doubt most Blue Jays would be quite happy if Doc helped the Phillies to a World Series win over the Yankees or Red Sox!

    Joe – the whole Damon scenario was bizarre because it seemed to make sense for the Yankees and him to agree a contract. If Comerica Park does hurt his numbers (which it probably will) then that’s not going to help him much for 2011, so getting a bit more money from Detroit in 2010 than what the Yanks offered isn’t worth much. Signing a two-year deal worth $14m with the Yanks and being part of a potential WS winner again was surely the best way for him to go. Pride comes before a fall, I guess.

    Lackey’s career record against the Yankees is 5-7 from 16 starts with a 4.66, so there’s some merit in your comment on him.

    As for the Twins, I think the real key is that no one had a bigger home field advantage than they did in the Metrodome. Even if they quickly get comfy in their new home, they’ll probably still lose out a little bit in that respect.

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