We are less than 2 weeks away until the Athletics and Angels kick off the Pitchers and Catchers report on February 19th. As the major sprees of the off-season are behind us, and arbitration settlements slowly shrinking within every clubhouse, now is the time we recap the big moves and questionable calls that have etched the foundations of an exciting 2015 regular season. Edward Overend wrote a stellar piece recently upon the Top 20 moves of the baseball off-season; I follow up this write up with an outlook of all 30 teams’ individual off-season performances.
Big contract signings, key arbitration agreements, crushing departures via free agency and monumental trades shall all be summarised within a single grade. Who do I think struck gold and orchestrated the A-grade winter; who succumbed to the pressure and withered in the corner for a D-grade disaster; we break down each team by division, offering an early look at the state of each division heading into Spring training. (Note: statistics in brackets denotes 2014 regular season; batting average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage; pitching win-loss record, earned run average)
American League East:
Baltimore Orioles: D+
The Orioles (my beloved) have generated their own characteristic with quiet, economic off-seasons. This year, however, was the first in which they failed to retain all of their key contributors to free agency, and failed to provide equality of value with their acquisitions.
OF/DH Nelson Cruz (271/333/525), who hit 40 HR’s and 108 RBI in 2014, was lost to Seattle for a 4-year, $58 million contract, figures that an in-house organization like the Orioles could not afford to dish out on the 34-year old. He was essentially replaced by the recent signing of ex-Pirates OF Travis Snyder (264/338/438), which is massive step backwards in regards to power. Snider is coming off his most productive year offensively; slugging 13 HR’s in Pittsburgh last year, so one can hope this can translate to a 20+ HR campaign in Camden Yards in 2015.
The most crushing loss for the Orioles this year was cornerstone OF Nick Markakis (276/342/386), who declined his arbitration offer and headed to Atlanta for a 4-year, $45 million deal. That kind of money, Baltimore should be dishing out for one of their farmed superstars.
Yes, shortly after his signing, Markakis underwent neck surgery to help repair the herniated disk in his neck; the very injury that scared the Orioles from resigning him to a big extension. But you can’t look over his value and accolades in his 9 seasons in Baltimore; 2 Gold Gloves, a .290 lifetime average and 1547 hits. He was the go-to lead-off hitter in Baltimore, and he was such a popular figure in the community, not to mention a key leader in the clubhouse. Both offensively and defensively, a big void has opened in Right Field.
Buck Showalter is devising his rotational scheme in the line-up, which will utilise strong performers like Steve Pearce and Delmon Young in sporadic outfield duties, as well as the vacant DH role. Look for Alejandro De Aza to thrive as he will most likely replace Markakis as the lead-off hitter. Other signings such as RP Wesley Wright were low-key, low-pressure acquisitions that only bolster and provide depth in the bullpen. A key point to note is that Baltimore retained it’s entire 5-man rotation from 2014 (which does not involve Usbaldo Jimenez).
The reason why there’s a ‘+’ in front of the deserved D grade is simply the holes in which the Orioles have opened for up-and-coming, young talent. Whether it be Pearce and Young with more batting time, or Christian Walker and Dariel Alvarez storming through the minor leagues; the lack of big signings will be rectified in the long run through breakout performers. The only question is, how long will it take?
Boston Red Sox- A-
Even before Thanksgiving, the Red Sox showed no financial remorse towards their desired targets. Prior to their hay-day on November 25th, they re-signed the 40 year-old CP Koji Uehara (2.52 ERA, 26 SV) to a 2-year, $18-million deal, showing a huge amount of faith in the veteran. Uehara has been one of the top bullpen arms in baseball his entire career; his age hasn’t slowed him down one bit.
Then, November 25th occurred. 3B Pablo Sandovol (279/324/415) was signed for $95 million, shortly followed by SS Hanley Ramirez (283/369/448) for $88 million. Clearly money didn’t matter up in front office, as these two signings alone helped sky-rocket the Red Sox’ salary up over the $200 million barrier. After seeing their unsung heroes in 2013 come undone last year; with Middlebrooks being traded, Herrera, Juan Francisco and Gomes being shown the door, Hanley and the Panda will sit very comfortably on 3B and LF respectively (mostly due to Xander Boegarts at SS).
December saw an influx of deals revolving on pitching. SP Rick Porcello (15-13, 3.43 ERA)was traded from Detroit in exchange for OF Yeonis Cespedes and RP Alex Wilson in a move to add a prosperous talent in their pitching staff. Once-beloved Red Sox prospect Justin Masterson (7-9, 5.88 ERA) was signed for a 1-year, $9.5 million deal in an attempt to bring stability to the starting rotation. Youngsters Rubby de la Rossa and Allen Webster were traded for Diamondbacks starter Wade Miley (8-12, 4.34 ERA), who in February signed a 3-year, $19.25 million extension.
Underneath the whirlwind deals regarding the starting rotation at Fenway, once-top prospect picthers Drake Britton (designated for assignment) and Anthony Ranaudo (traded to Texas for SP Robbie Ross) were sent packing. All the big deals aside, the farming system in Boston is starting to turn into a bit of a mess. With Bucholtz, Miley, Masterson, Porcello, Kelly occupying all 5 rotation spots; the latter 4 being recently acquired, where exactly do the prospects prosper and etch their way into the bigger picture? Not to mention the kick down the pecking order for potential starters Edwin Escobar and Brandon Workman.
January saw Boston reach a deal with key RP Junichi Tazawa (4-3, 2.86 ERA) to compliment the retaining of Uehara. And to top off the frenzy surrounding pitching, RP Alexi Ogando (2-3, 6.84 ERA) was signed to a 1-year deal last week to add further depth to an impressive, dense bullpen.
Boston have nothing to worry about in regards to the bat or the glove. They have nothing to worry about on the mound, yet. Their farming system has turned eerie very quickly by trading away their former pitching prospects and allowing big-name veterans take up the short-term sunlight from those underneath. The trade that picked up Eduardo Rodriguez from Baltimore will add to the line of solid prospects- i.e. Ownes, Webster, Johnson- that are now essentially trapped until those big winter trades begin to unravel; if they do, that is.
New York Yankees- C
Not many off-season acquisitions could have rectified the fact that Derek Jeter is now retired. His leadership and consistency leaves a giant void in the Yankees’ clubhouse. How did they resolve this issue? Beyond the intriguing acquisition of SS Didi Gregorius, not much.
But let’s start with Gregorius (229/290/363), who offers the Yankees a young, athletic prospect who has yet to reach his true potential from his time in Arizona. He strikes out too often (17.4% rate), especially compared to his walk rate (2.36 SO/BB ratio), but he’s a prosperous fielder with a good arm; like Jeter before him, he’s not a renown base-runner, but does run rather swiftly between the bags. Didi Gregorius embodies the majority of the Yankees’ off-season objectives; to get younger; improve on defense; avoid risky investment; provide depth; find a shortstop.
Outside of this signing, they acquired SP Nathan Eovaldi (6-14, 4.37 ERA) from Miami in exchange for UT Martin Prado and SP David Phelps. This was an important signing, for the trio of Tanaka, Sabathia and Pineda all come into 2015 with more red flags than optimism, mostly due to injury woes. Eovaldi will sit nicely in the 4-slot in the rotation. RP Andrew Miller (5-5, 2.02 ERA) was signed from Baltimore after his outstanding 2014 campaign, and immediately enters the fray as the set-up man for giant CP Dellin Betances.
Beyond these handy pick-ups, Garrett Jones (246/309/411) was signed to join re-enlisted OF Chris Young (229/299/385) to add depth and extra power off the bat to the Yankees’ outfield. They also re-enlisted 3B Chase Headley (243/328/372), setting up the biggest topic of the Yankees’ Spring Training: Headley or A-Rod? Rodriguez is set to return and plant his polarizing figure back in the Yankees’ line-up, most likely at DH due to Headley’s strong finish in New York (262 AVG, 768 OPS). But it is worth pointing out that Rodriguez’s 2013 line (244/348/423) outperforms Headley’s 2014 campaign.
Alas, competition always brings out the best in the individual, which will benefit the entire outfield regardless of who steps up the most in March. But the lack of depth and signings behind their vulnerable trio on the mound will raise concern. Eovaldi is a fresh approach from past years, but just one signing for the rotation is not fresh enough. They fulfilled the majority of their general off-season goals, but failed to pick up a signing that bolsters their power ranking in the AL East
Tampa Bay Rays- D-
Only the signing of SS Asdrubal Cabrera (241/307/387) saves the Rays from being branded with the F-bomb.
Their off-season couldn’t have started worse, with their most valuable contributor in the whole system being let go to Wrigley Fields. His name was Joe Maddon (754-705, .517), their skipper of 9 years with 2 AL East titles and an AL Pennant on his tenure. Maddon became the figure of the Rays, and spearheaded their low-budget, farm-system approach that produced a floury of stars on the mound and stellar bats on offense.
Speaking of stellar of bats, sophmore-cursed OF Will Myers (222/294/320) was traded to San Diego in exchange for a trio of young players, including C Rene Rivera and prospect 1B Jake Bauers. C Ryan Hanigan (218/318/324) was dealt in this trade also. They did acquire OF Steven Souza Jr from the Nationals to add depth in the outfield, though he is more renown for his defense: just ask SP Jordan Zimmerman.
Tampa lost a whole bunch of young, contributing players via trades for younger prospects. 2B Sean Rodriguez (211/258/443) was dealt to Pittsburgh, meanwhile LF Matt Joyce (254/349/383) was traded to Anaheim for RP Kevin Jepson (0-2, 2.63 ERA). January witnessed the final strike of a huge rewriting of the Rays’ line-up, as SS Yunel Escobar (258/324/340) and 2B Ben Zobrist (272/353/395) were traded in a multi-team trade that included the addition of C Jon Jaso (264/337/430).
Adding Jaso adds good value behind the plate to go with the younger Rivera. Their line-up lacks any major voids, but they sure lost a lot of all-round value contributors, as well as strong leaders in the dugout. Evan Longoria can’t hold the offense on his own, and I see new manager Kevin Cash to learn that the hard way this summer.
On the mound, they lost former Gold glove winning SP Jeremy Hellickson (1-5, 4.52) to the Diamondbacks via trade, but bolstered their bullpen by acquiring RP Ernesto Frieri (1-4, 7.34 ERA).
In the end, the Rays lost a lot of core talent from the past few years and are left with a completely different looking team on the field. Now out of the Maddon-era, we will keep a close eye on the various prospects traded into the Cash-era and see if top prospects 1B Casey Gillespie and SS Hak-Ju Lee can break the line-up before the All-Star break in July.
Toronto Blue Jays- C+
Big splashes were made north of the border this winter, but not particular towards the Blue Jays’ biggest needs.
C Russell Martin (290/402/430) was signed for a 5-year, $82 million deal; a major signing for an All-Star who, according to GM Alex Anthopoulos, has “no holes in his game”, and is the “total package” behind the plate. And to out-do that big acquisition, All-star 3B Josh Donaldson (255/342/456)- regarded as the top man on the hot-corner in 2014- was acquired from Oakland to add even more power to compliment Bautista and Encarnacion. However, 3B Brett Lawrie (247/301/421) was shipped to the bay as part of this blockbuster trade.
Their line-up is nearly complete, but lacking two outfielders after losing Colby Rasmus (225/287/448) to Houston and Melky Cabrera (301/351/458) to the White Sox. Injury-prone Michael Saunders (273/351/450) (traded for SP J.A. Happ) and rookie Dalton Pompey are the current starters in their place: a risk-reward scenario playing out in the outfield this Spring. DH Adam Lind (Milwaukee) and CF Adam Gose (Detroit) were both traded, meaning a sparse outfield remains.
Meanwhile, the bullpen sunk when nobody paid attention to how urgently it needed depth. CP Casey Janssen (3.94 ERA, 25 SV) departed to Washington, and no free agent signings were acquired in aid of his exit. Former All-Star set-up man Brett Cecil (2-3, 2.70 ERA) is the listed CP, with prospect Aaron Sanchez as a possible set-up guy if he doesn’t crack the starting rotation. Pitchers Brandon Morrow and Dustin McGowan elected free agency and are out of the organization. They are in a good spot with Cecil as the closer, but severely lack any reliable arms behind him to keep games tight until the 9th inning.
Depth on the mound is thinning, as well as talent bullpen arms. It is a very bitter disappointment underneath the fireworks of Martin and Donaldson. But they didn’t let go of any of their 5-man rotation, including youngsters Marcus Stroffman and Drew Hutchinson, which is a good thing.
Overall, there was a lot of climax and anti-climax occurring around the Rogers Centre this winter. Beyond the ever concerning bullpen, Toronto looks set for quality starts, and a tonne of offense heading into Spring Training.
Up next: American League Central