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January 19, 2000

AL East Notebook

A midwinter review

by Christina Kahrl

Superficially, it appears there's been a lot of fireworks and retooling in the AL East, but what have the teams in the division really accomplished? This is the division that hosts the World Champs, which you would think would be incentive for the others to improve. Yet when you revisit this winter's activity, you see that the Yankees may be the division's most ambitious and creative team in their offseason work.

Baltimore Orioles

Boss Angelos's toy team desperately needed offensive help after finishing in the bottom half of the league in runs, and that on the "strength" of sturdily mediocre seasons from vanilla fossils like B.J. Surhoff and Brady Anderson. But improving a declining offense has not been an offseason priority. The Orioles are living with the legacy of last winter's ill-spent Angelos cash, blown on luminaries like Delino DeShields and Will Clark.

Rather than cut their losses and try to sort out who can be part of the next good Orioles team, Angelos and his toothless management committee are settling for half measures. Jerry Hairston Jr. is expected to chase DeShields to the bench, but Calvin Pickering is buried by the decision to compensate for the Clark mistake by dragging back Harold Baines and Jeff Conine for return engagements.

While signing someone to push Jason Johnson and Matt Riley for one of the last two spots in the rotation might make some sort of sense, the Orioles are settling for Jose Mercedes, and seem convinced that he's the right guy to keep Riley in Rochester until Riley is ready.

The Orioles aren't in a position to fine-tune; they haven't really caught on that they're a bad team. The nicest thing you can say about their offseason is that Mike Hargrove is no Ray Miller, even if he has the lonely experience of being the only manager Bobby Cox has ever outfoxed in the postseason.

Boston Red Sox

After previously playing for high stakes, Dan Duquette has been pretty quiet this offseason. Carl Everett is a nice upgrade from the Damon Buford/Darren Lewis stumblebum platoon in center field, and the pitching staff looks like it will again be Pedro Martinez and two dozen other guys who will pitch when they're healthy and/or whenever Jimy Williams and the Duke feel like using them. And once they run through those options, there's always Tim Wakefield.

It might be a good idea to bring in a platoon mate for Trot Nixon (paging Matt Mieske), but the most interesting situation on the team is shaping up at DH/first base. Brian Daubach and Mike Stanley are the incumbents, but Dernell Stenson and Morgan Burkhart both have an opportunity to earn roles. Neither last year's efforts (in Daubach's case) or a guaranteed contract (in Stanley's) are guarantees of employment: witness the Duke's readiness to dump Mark Portugal or Reggie Jefferson last season. The game's greatest "what have you done for me lately?" GM will have the chance to get whatever his team needs most offensively from the DH slot, while continuing to exercise his legendary flexibility with the pitching staff.

New York Yankees

Hats off to the World Champs: they're making all of the little moves they need to make space for future improvements. Rather than blow money on free agents, the Yankees are continuing to build from within, creating roster space for the players who will be cornerstones of future Yankee contenders right now. While other teams futz around with retreads or mid-level free agents who won't solve their problems, the Yankees have made room for young, ready players in left field (Ricky Ledee), the infield (D'Angelo Jimenez), at catcher (Jorge Posada), at fifth starter (Ed Yarnall) and in the 11th pitcher and last position player roles (anyone can earn these jobs, which makes for meaningful competition in camp). And because DH is manned by a merely adequate platoon of Darryl Strawberry and Jim Leyritz, the Yankees can hand Nick Johnson playing time if he's ready by midseason or if Strawberry needs to go on another four-month hiatus.

Equally important for the organization was the decision to pry Randy Levine from the mayor's office in New York. He's a family friend of Bud Selig, which won't hurt if and when the Yankees need to make their case to the commissioner's office on issues ranging from revenue sharing to the internationalization of the draft, things the Boss should be against.

He's also the negotiator who helped extricate the owners from their self-constructed labor mess in 1994-95. Most importantly, he's wired into the New York political scene, which should prove crucial in the Yankees' drive to secure local financing for a new stadium. The Yankees' burgeoning corporate synergies with the Nets and potentially the Devils will make Levine an asset to them as well. In short, the Yankees are on their toes as far as nabbing talent, both on and off the field.

Tampa Bay Devil Rays

Rev up for irrelevance, them Devil Fishies is busy! Vince Naimoli's mad scramble for headlines has led to lots of moves, and shockingly enough, even some improvement. They have a rotation built around risks: Juan Guzman won't be healthy for the entirety of the next two years, but he could give the Rays a good 20-start stretch in either 2000 or 2001. If anyone makes Wilson Alvarez get in shape, he can still be one of the AL's top half-dozen left-handers. Back them up with Ryan Rupe and reliable 200-inning guy Steve Trachsel, and there's a chance the Rays will have one of the league's stronger rotations.

So if the gambles in their rotation work out, what better way to get those coveted fannies in the seats than to score some runs? Attendance generally tracks runs, and the D-Rays have made gestures towards offensive improvement by bringing in Greg Vaughn and Vinny Castilla. The pieces are there for a pretty good offensive team. They'd have to ditch defense altogether, leaving Bubba Trammell in right field so that they could platoon Dave Martinez with free-agent pickup Gerald Williams in center field, while putting rookie Aubrey Huff at third base and moving Vinny Castilla over to shortstop.

OK, it isn't going to happen any more than Guzman is going to give them 32 starts. Trammell and Huff are as screwed as Randy Winn, which just goes to show Chuck LaMar hasn't discriminated in his quest to block his own with the gray and the restless.

Toronto Blue Jays

In what seems to be a trend, Gord Ash has managed to undercut his team while enjoying a touch of luck. He saddled the lineup with David Segui by offering him arbitration, blocking both Andy Thompson and Kevin Witt at DH. The good news is that the willingness of potential trading partners to wait until camp to see if Alex Gonzalez is 100% means that the Jays may end up moving Tony Batista to third base.

While Gonzalez's believers are beginning to resemble the Geronimo Pena Legion of Perpetual Hope (Ed. note: Plenty of pews available!--JSS), this is nonetheless a bit of good luck for the Jays. It's comparable to the organization's good fortune when they screwed up and didn't have an internal replacement for Gonzalez last spring, which pushed them into picking up Batista in the first place. At the end of the day, the Jays will have a better infield defense and offense than if they had gone shopping and done something like resurrect Ed Sprague's carcass.

The interesting fight in camp will be between Jose Cruz Jr. and Vernon Wells in center field, and whether or not Gary Glover is close to being ready to join the rotation. Glover's development will be even more important if Kelvim Escobar is hurt, or if Joey Hamilton continues to scuffle.

Christina Kahrl is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Christina's other articles. You can contact Christina by clicking here

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