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Hot Stove Preview (11/13)

November 13, 2008

Hot Stove Preview

AL East

by Jay Jaffe

TAMPA BAY RAYS
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What Do They Need? Strong across the board, the upstart pennant winners' most glaring flaw-exhibited during the World Series-was a weakness against left-handed pitching. They hit just .246/.330/.396 against southpaws, with the third-lowest OPS in the league. They have vacancies in right field and designated hitter with Rocco Baldelli, Eric Hinske, and Cliff Floyd hitting the market as free agents. The bullpen, though it led the majors in Reliever Expected Wins Added (WXRL), could use more depth and an alternative at closer given the age and injury history of Troy Percival, who missed the postseason.

What Do They Have? The Rays have an enviable surplus of starting pitching thanks to a farm system bursting at the seams with talent. With Scott Kazmir, James Shields, Matt Garza, and top prospect/October surprise David Price all slated for rotation spots, and fellow prospects Wade Davis and Jeff Niemann capable of contributing later in 2009, they could deal either Andy Sonnanstine or arbitration-eligible Edwin Jackson, a power arm who could also shift to the bullpen to set up or close. They could also attract trade partners by tapping their wellspring of highly regarded position prospects, a group including shortstop Reid Brignac and center fielder Desmond Jennings. In addition, there is room to take on salary, given that they have less than $50 million in 2009 commitments.

What Are They Likely To Do? They'll consider bringing back Baldelli, a former first-round pick for whom they have great affection. The fatigue caused by his mitochondrial disorder prevents him from being a full-time option, but he's a lefty-masher (.296/.347/.494 career) who could figure into the mix both in right field and at DH. He'd probably need a platoon-mate, but as we saw in October, the Rays don't lack for candidates, including switch-hitters Fernando Perez and Ben Zobrist and lefty Gabe Gross, though those options may not be particularly productive fits. Alternatively, they may deal for a high-impact bat. Matt Holliday may be Oakland's property currently, but given their distance from contention, he may be further trade fodder for a busy Billy Beane. If the Rays are willing to take on salary, they could land Magglio Ordonez-owed $18 million for 2009 plus a $3 million buyout on a 2010 option-while forcing Detroit to pay a significant portion if they want a premium prospect in return. Via the free agent route, Orlando resident Ken Griffey, Jr. is a name that will surface if he's willing to serve as a DH.

What Should They Do? A more down-market trade than for Holliday or Ordonez, though one that would certainly require parting with talent, could be made for the White Sox's Nick Swisher. He maintained his good power and plate discipline despite suffering through a season in which his BABIP fell by 52 points for no good reason given his line-drive rate. On the open market, the best fit might be with Milton Bradley, who hit a searing .321/.436/.563 for the Rangers while playing more games than in any season since 2004. Bradley's numbers will likely decline outside the hitter's haven in Texas, and he carries an injury risk, but slotting the 31-year-old switch-hitter primarily at DH would minimize that. As for his infamous temperament, Joe Maddon might be just the manager to connect with Bradley, making this a happy situation for all parties.

BOSTON RED SOX
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What Do They Need? Foremost is the catching situation; free agent Jason Varitek is coming off of an awful age-36 season (.220/.313/.359), and agent Scott Boras is tossing around numbers like four years and $52 million, a delusional reference to the contract Jorge Posada signed last winter. Posada was coming off the best age-35 season of any catcher in baseball history, whereas Varitek... not so much. Alas, the Sox lack an heir apparent; the closest facsimile is 26-year-old George Kottaras, who hit 22 home runs at Triple-A Pawtucket but threw out just 19 percent of stolen-base attempts. The team could also use some offensive fortification to guard against the possible further decline of David Ortiz.

What Do They Have? Boston's trading chits start with a pair of inexpensive center fielders, Coco Crisp and Jacoby Ellsbury. Crisp's top asset is his defense, and he's reasonably priced ($5.75 million in 2009, with an $8 million option for 2010). Ellsbury, despite not having a set position, played more games than any other Boston outfielder, and while he didn't live up to his late-2007 showing, he did steal 50 bases, he's just 25, and he's two years away from arbitration. With their front four rotation spots set, the Sox have pitching prospects to dangle, starting with Clay Buchholz, second on our Top 100 Prospects list last winter but a flop in 2008 due to mechanical woes (2-9, 6.75 ERA in 15 starts). Potentially competing for the fifth starter's job could be sinkerballing swingman Justin Masterson, who pitched well in relief down the stretch, or Michael Bowden after he spent most of the year in Double-A; either could also be dealt instead of Buchholz.

What Are They Likely To Do? They'll aggressively pursue a deal to acquire one of the Rangers' young catchers, either Taylor Teagarden or Jarrod Saltalamacchia. Despite hitting .319/.396/.809 in a brief Texas stint, Teagarden is primarily known for his defense; he threw out 44 percent of potential base thieves last year. He has power and patience but hit just .211/.319/.374 last year in the minors after a much more robust 2007. On the other hand, Saltalamacchia's defense is questionable, and his height (6-foot-4) suggests an eventual move from behind the plate. Acquiring either would probably hinge on a willingness to part with Buchholz or Bowden. They're also mulling the pursuit of free agent Mark Teixeira; the 29-year-old switch-hitter would fit in well with an offense that ranked second in EqA. Signing him could necessitate further moves, however, with Kevin Youkilis or Mike Lowell being traded, though Lowell might be tough to move coming off of hip surgery and still being owed $24 million over the next two years. Shifting Youkilis to left field, Bay to right field, and J.D. Drew to center field, with Crisp and Ellsbury being traded is a less viable option, since it would significantly weaken a defense that ranked as the league's best according to PADE.

What Should They Do? If they can get Teagarden for a lesser prospect than Buchholz, they should pull the trigger. Offering Varitek a short-term deal (two years, $20 million) to mentor Kotteras might be politically palatable, but it would still be drastically overpaying. For that money they'd probably do better to sign 37-year-old Ivan Rodriguez, who rebounded from a down 2007 before being traded by the Tigers, didn't play much for the Yankees, and wound up hitting just .276/.319/.394. Less costly deals could be made involving the Rangers' incumbent catcher, Gerald Laird, or the Giants' Bengie Molina. Laird is well-regarded defensively but likely to regress from his .276/.329/.398 line. Molina's 2009 contract is a bargain at $6 million, he's durable, has some power, and is a strong defender, and the Giants have so many needs that finding a match shouldn't be too difficult.

NEW YORK YANKEES
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What Do They Need? In missing the playoffs for the first time since 1993, with an offense that slipped from an AL-best 6.0 runs per game in 2007 to a mid-pack 4.9 last year, the Yankee lineup looked increasingly outmoded. With Jason Giambi and Bobby Abreu both free agents, they have holes at first base and right field, and it's imperative they get younger at one position if not both. Further down the wish list is upgrading center field; Johnny Damon is in a defensive decline and Melky Cabrera is taking a Triple-A refresher course. No less glaring is the need for starting pitching, given that 13 pitchers started for the Yankees last year, with the blueprint hinging on youngsters Joba Chamberlain, Philip Hughes, and Ian Kennedy having blown up in GM Brian Cashman's face; all three got hurt, with the latter two so ineffective that they failed to garner a single win. Chamberlain and Chien-Ming Wang (also coming off injury) are assured spots, but the rest is up for grabs, and Cashman plans to overstock the larder to avoid repeating last year's Sidney Ponson-ocalypse.

What Do They Have? The Yankees' top asset is money, including over $75 million in 2008 salaries coming off of the books via the free agencies of Abreu, Giambi, Mike Mussina, Carl Pavano, and Andy Pettitte. They'll need cold hard cash to fulfill their biggest needs, since the values of their most tradable young players, Cabrera and Robinson Cano, are so depressed as to make selling low inadvisable. They have young, unproven pitching to deal, starting with Kennedy, who fizzled (0-4, 8.17 ERA in nine starts) following a promising late-2007 showing. Hughes, who will compete for a starting slot, is likely off limits, but names like Mark Melancon, a potential future closer, and Dellin Betances, a 6-foot-8 behemoth, could surface-not that they'll be moved.

What Are They Likely To Do? They'll pursue the biggest of big game, namely CC Sabathia, who will command a nine-figure deal, but will face competition from multiple teams including the Brewers, who have a $100 million offer already on the table. Expect them to chase former Red Sox nemesis Derek Lowe as well as A.J. Burnett, who opted out of the remainder of his five-year, $55 million deal in Toronto after setting career highs in innings, wins, and strikeouts. They won't net all three, but they'll shoot for two and augment that by re-signing either 20-game winner Mussina (if he surprises everyone and shuns retirement) or Pettitte, who's coming off his highest ERA since 1999. As for the lineup, Teixeira is an ideal fit both offensively and defensively; he'd also be the youngest regular aside from Cano and Cabrera. They'll need to break the $100 million mark to outbid the Angels, the Red Sox, and others for his services. In right field, they may offer the 35-year-old Abreu arbitration, a route that could net him a higher salary than he'd average via the three-year deal he seeks but won't get here. They may also explore swapping Cabrera for the Brewers' Mike Cameron, but may have to sweeten the pot to get Milwaukee to bite.

What Should They Do? If the Yanks can only go nine figures on one player it should be Teixeira, given the need for youth and the dearth of A-list first basemen in the free-agent pool. Otherwise they face unappealing solutions like Kevin Millar or an aging Giambi. One alternative would be to trade for the aforementioned Swisher, who can play first base, right field, or even center field; he'd provide flexibility as the winter market evolves. As for the pitching, Burnett's legacy of injuries should make a team still smarting from the Pavano and Jaret Wright debacles think twice. Lowe, by contrast, is a reliable groundballer who's every bit as effective and much more durable, with at least 32 starts in seven straight years.

TORONTO BLUE JAYS
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What Do They Need? Despite 86 wins and the fourth-best run differential in the majors, all the Jays got was this lousy t-shirt commemorating the best fourth-place team of the Wild Card Era. As they retool for 2009, what they need most is an honest answer to the paramount question of whether they can credibly attempt to overcome at least two of the three teams above them. The Jays led the majors in ERA and SNLVAR, with Roy Halladay, Burnett, Jesse Litsch, and Shaun Marcum ranking among the league's top 21 in the latter. The problem is, that unit is no longer intact; Burnett opted for free agency, and Marcum will miss 2009 due to Tommy John surgery. A pair of pitchers recovering from shoulder surgeries, Casey Janssen and Dustin McGowan, can't be counted on to fill the gap. Meanwhile, their offense finished 11th in the league in scoring thanks to key injuries and dubious decisions regarding early-season playing time. First base (punch-and-judy hitter Lyle Overbay), shortstop (John McDonald and Marco Scutaro), and third base (aging, oft-injured Scott Rolen) could all use upgrades, though the $26 million remaining on Rolen's deal makes him virtually immovable.

What Do They Have? Their outfield makes for a strong foundation now that the deadwood has been cleared. Vernon Wells and Alex Rios are locked up with long-term contracts, 24-year-old Adam Lind hit .296/.329/.463 after languishing in Triple-A until late June, and 20-year-old top prospect Travis Snider zipped from High-A to the majors in one year, performing well in September. If the Jays are buyers, dealing Rios, Lind, or Snider for starting pitching is their best bet. Closer B.J. Ryan, who's got two years and $20 million left on his contract, should be dealt if they're selling; the Jays can anoint another closer from within as they did with Jeremy Accardo when Ryan went down in 2007.

What Are They Likely To Do? GM J.P. Ricciardi isn't known for biding his time; even with the security of a three-year extension and his team's long odds, he's likely to try keeping the Jays in their nominally competitive stasis. They'll compete for Burnett once he hits the open market, though going dollar for dollar with the Yankees, Red Sox, and others is risky with the Canadian dollar having plummeted. They could go after Ben Sheets or Canadian Ryan Dempster, but they will both cost plenty of American dollars, too. On the offensive side, they're interested in Rafael Furcal, though it could take a four-year deal to land a shortstop who missed most of 2008 and was only effective during about half of his expiring three-year pact. Giambi's name has come up as well in the context of a DH upgrade.

What Should They Do? Notwithstanding Ricciardi's intransigence, there's a lot to suggest that the Jays should consider selling rather than buying this winter. Overbay might make an adequate stopgap for a team like the Mariners, who played Miguel Cairo extensively there last year, or the Yankees, if they can't land Teixeira. Ryan is a very marketable commodity who fits a team unwilling to meet Francisco Rodriguez's asking price. As sellers, any free agents signed should be done either with an eye towards resuscitating value-buying cheap on a Brad Penny or Freddy Garcia coming off of injury-with the possible goal of flipping them at the trading deadline. On the other hand, if they can re-sign Burnett on reasonable terms (stop laughing!), then hoping for the best with Furcal and better luck in the injury department is somewhat defensible if not advisable. From this vantage, it doesn't look like the Jays' year, and they're better off building for the future.

BALTIMORE ORIOLES
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What Do They Need? If the Jays should look beyond 2009, the same goes doubly for the 68-win Orioles, who employed the fifth-oldest lineup in the league, one in which only Nick Markakis and Adam Jones were on the right side of 30. For far too long, the O's have been in denial about their plight, which now extends to 11 straight losing seasons. A typical winter's patchwork involves trying to get them to 75 wins, a level the Orioles have actually reached just once in this millennium. This only forestalls a more extensive rebuilding effort; they need to face the music and clean house. Take the rotation-please. The unit's ERA as a whole was an MLB-worst 5.51, and Jeremy Guthrie was the only member with at least a dozen starts and an ERA below 5.25; in that light, perpetually maddening Daniel Cabrera starts to make sense because of his ability to eat innings. The Orioles need another arm or two to stabilize a corps of not-so-young and none-too-effective pitchers like Radhames Liz and Garret Olsen, but they shouldn't overpay for name-brand studs on long-term deals, because they're a couple of years away from a credible run at .500, let alone the division flag. Paging Odalis Perez.

What Do They Have? The O's are loaded with veterans entering the final year of their contracts, many having rebounded to pushed their values higher than they might ever be again. Aubrey Huff, 32, put up his best year since his 2002-2004 heyday; he could peel off a Tampa Bay prospect given their DH needs. Melvin Mora, 37, is coming off of his best season since 2005, though his no-trade clause complicates dealing him. Ramon Hernandez, 33, is a credible catching solution in a thin market; perhaps Detroit or Boston would bite. GM Andy MacPhail needs to seize the day and turn these solid components into prospects and youngsters who can be part of the next winning Orioles club. That's most imperative when it comes to 31-year-old Brian Roberts, also in his final year. Last year's Hot Stove circuit was abuzz with Roberts-related trade gossip, but he's still an Oriole because he's a favorite of meddlesome owner Peter Angelos. MacPhail could do as well dealing him as he did in last winter's Erik Bedard heist (which netted Jones, closer George Sherrill-another trade candidate-and three young arms), but he needs the green light.

What Are They Likely To Do? The Orioles would dearly love to pursue Maryland native Teixeira, and given their past history of signing free agents who are headed towards their twilight to long, expensive deals, the rumor that they're serious about Manny Ramirez makes some sense. Not in a good way, mind you. More likely, MacPhail will build on the positive example of Bedard's strong return and move those that need to be moved, including Roberts. Quite frankly, it's difficult to believe he would still want this job if he doesn't have the power to make the best deal out there to further their rebuilding effort. Then again, this team didn't post 11 straight losing seasons simply by accident.

What Should They Do? Along with moving the aforementioned players going into their final contract years, the Orioles should consider investing in their defense, which ranked ninth in PADE. As the Rays showed, improving the team's infield can do wonders for the development of a pitching staff. A strong defensive shortstop, even if he's an offensive zero-free agents Cesar Izturis and Adam Everett come to mind-is a route worth considering, particularly for a team that saw its raw Defensive Efficiency drop by over 30 points in the second half while finishing the year with the execrable Juan Castro at short. Glove men come cheaper than hitters, either on the open market or in trade, and they're a low-cost means of keeping runs off the board for a team desperately in need of same.

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

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