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December 7, 2009

Prospectus Today

AL Shopping Lists

by Joe Sheehan

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As we wait to discover if Ichiro Suzuki might finally, finally become the second-slot hitter he's been, by his skills, since the day he arrived in Seattle…

New York Yankees: Breathlessly reported midweek, it's not at all news that the Yankees payroll will be coming down in 2009. The $200 million payrolls were always local maximums, the overlap of some bad contracts from a down period in organizational decision-making and producing its own low-cost talent with the monster deals the team committed to in the last two offseasons. Last year's $206 million Opening Day payroll included the expiring contracts of Johnny Damon, Hideki Matsui, Xavier Nady, and Andy Pettitte, plus money owed to Jason Giambi, a total of $43 million gone. A handful of players get raises to eat some of that money, and taking the story literally, capping the payroll in the $185 million range would preclude a large free-agent signing this offseason.

I think the story about the Yankee payroll isn't about their payroll, but this winter's free-agent market. With no free agents the caliber of CC Sabathia and Mark Teixeira available, the Yankees will resist the temptation to overpay the Matt Holliday/John Lackey top of the market, not because they want to keep payroll down per se, but because it's the right baseball decision. A year from now, $37 million comes off the payroll in the form of legends Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera, and even if you expect the team to bring one or both of them back, the price tag will almost certainly be less than that figure, freeing space for some of the prizes of next year's market.

This winter, they'll look to patch left field rather than solve it-maybe by signing Mike Cameron to play center-and spend a few bucks in the bullpen as a means of fixing the rotation, allowing Joba Chamberlain and Phil Hughes to start. It's not out of the question that they'll trade for Roy Halladay, just unlikely given the facts in play.

Boston Red Sox: I covered some of their issues last week. As with the Yankees, their interest in Halladay is inversely proportional to the price they'd have to pay in talent and dollars, more the former. They don't really need a starting pitcher, however. Their biggest hole may be third base, where Mike Lowell has a year left on his contract and cannot play full time. Jed Lowrie, himself a health case, could be part of the solution there. They're deep enough in the bullpen that losing Billy Wagner and Takashi Saito won't hurt. If there's one interesting play they could make, it would be to trade Jonathan Papelbon for… well, anything. Not a dump trade, but a move that recognizes the volatility of the breed and the ease of replacing relievers. Papelbon's trade value almost certainly exceeds his actual value.

Tampa Bay Rays: With so much pitching in the system, they can probably address last year's bullpen follies from within. With that said, they may be in the market for a Brandon Lyon or David Weathers type, a low-platoon-split, low-homer-rate pitcher whose role can be a bit vague depending on how the guys around him do. There have been no rumblings that they will trade Carl Crawford; however, with Crawford a free agent after 2010 and little chance the Rays will be able to commit 20 percent of the payroll to him, he could very well be shopped. Balanced against that is that the '10 Rays will be a very good team, able to challenge the Yankees and Red Sox in the division, leaving little reason for them to make a move like that. They'll probably be quiet this week.

Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim: The Angels will try to retain John Lackey, although the sheer number of teams looking for a starter and his status as the best one available will price him past their point of tolerance. Trading for Scott Kazmir will prove to be a less expensive and less satisfying solution. If Brandon Wood inherits the third-base job, the '10 Angels will be missing a significant portion of what worked in '09, which are high OBPs at the top of the lineup. Replacing Chone Figgins with Erick Aybar isn't going to work very well; replacing the missing baserunners, rather than Lackey, is the team's biggest remaining challenge. They could use some relief help as well, and could be active in the second-tier market this week.

Texas Rangers: The staggering amount of young talent poised to break into the majors puts Jon Daniels in the enviable position of dealing from strength. He doesn't have to make any trades, but 2010 is the first season in which his team could be favored in the AL West, so if he can deal some of that future to lower the variance on performance from a lineup or rotation slot, he may be in position to do that. Jed Hoyer and Alex Anthopolous should both be pinging Daniels frequently, for the Rangers are the one team positioned to trade multiple top prospects in a single deal if the player is right. There's some question as to how much money the Rangers can spend, which is why a trade rather than a free-agent signing seems a more likely route. This team can be a favorite in '10, but it needs to add OBP and needs to recognize that the performance of its pitchers in '09 may not be repeatable.

Seattle Mariners: They're behaving like a team that expects to win next season, which at least makes more sense than the idea that they were going to win in 2008. They may well have the best defensive team in baseball again, depending on who eventually plays left field, and adding Chone Figgins to play third base will mean little to no drop-off in the field from Adrian Beltre. Figgins would be a great signing for them, a high-OBP, top-of-the-order batter to pair with Ichiro in the same way the '09 Angels had Figgins and Abreu key their offense. They still lack a catcher and a first baseman, neither of which is unattainable in this market. The pitching staff is high variance; only Felix Hernandez can be counted on for a strong season, but the rest of the starters and much of the bullpen has tremendous talent and some short-term history of pitching very well. As much as any team, the Mariners could use a stabilizing second starter, but that pitcher may not be available on the market.

Minnesota Twins: The nice story of their late-season drive to 87 wins and the playoffs covered up that this isn't a great baseball team, and that was with Joe Mauer going nuts. They can fix the rotation through better health, but there's no money for any project until Mauer gets signed, so second base, third base, and left field all look like problems that may not be solved. The bullpen in front of Joe Nathan needs work, and for that matter, why does an 87-win team needing to pay for its All-Planet catcher need a crazy expensive closer? Trading Joe Nathan for position players is the Twins' silver bullet, and remember that in the AL Central, your silver bullets can have a chip or two in them and still effective hit the mark. If dealing Nathan solves a lineup hole, the money saved can be used for another one, and the Twins will look like the favorites in the Central.

Cleveland Indians: Their starting nine could be one of the best in the league and, in fact, they almost have too many good young players, what with Michael Brantley emerging. Their pitching staff… doesn't match that. The pitchers they got in the CC Sabathia and Cliff Lee trades may not throw an inning for them next season, and the ones they've produced on their own are almost all command lefties who don't appear to have the command to get by that way. No team in baseball would be more justified in signing two mid-rotation starters this winter; unfortunately, those guys aren't really out there. There are high-risk pitchers such as Rich Harden and Ben Sheets, but not stabilizing forces. The Indians could, however, look to the trade market. They have a surplus of infielders, and via a trade Jhonny Peralta could bring them 200 league-average innings, the latter of which is more important to their '10 than the gap between Peralta and Jason Donald.

Oakland A's: The A's have a staggering amount of young pitching talent at their disposal. They also continue to have one of the worst offenses in baseball, and until they show up with something approaching league average, it's hard to get excited about any renaissance. They're not spending any money this offseason, and after last year's plan fizzled, at best you'll see them in the third-tier markets, perhaps chasing some non-tenders or making deals like the Jake Fox trade. Fox helps them, which is as much an indictment of how bad their offense is as it is a commentary on Fox's skills. They're terrible up the middle; that has to be repaired.

Baltimore Orioles: The Orioles have no reason to work on their 2010 roster. It really doesn't matter who works in the infield corners or DHs or relieves. The best idea may be to maximize the defense at first base and third base however possible with an eye towards protecting the many young starting pitchers on hand. That should save pitches and pitches from the stretch, and getting Brian Matusz, Chris Tillman, and the rest from here to 2012 in one piece has to be the first goal of the organization. Trading Luke Scott for future help can be on that list next.

Chicago White Sox: I like everything they've done so far, from cutting loose Jermaine Dye to trading for Mark Teahen. The pitching staff is fine, with an above-average rotation, and the bullpen will work itself out. If the White Sox want to win in '10, though, they have to work on the offense, which right now looks to be missing at least three hitters. There's no right fielder or DH to speak of, and that's giving them full credit for a center fielder, which may be generous. Because their DH slot is open, the Sox can add the best hitter they can find, perhaps Hideki Matsui, to bolster the lineup. They could use OBP at or near the top as well. As a large-market team that draws well when it plays well, they could probably afford Jason Bay if they wanted. Come to think of it…

A group led by Jerry Reinsdorf bought the White Sox for $20 million in 1981. Forbes magazine valued the club at $450 million in April, 2009.

… don't tell me any team "can't" afford something. The appreciation in the value of franchises dwarfs short-term cash flow issues. (Quote is from Cot's.)

If the answer is Scott Podsednik, you're asking the wrong question; his '09 was a fluke.

Detroit Tigers: I don't think trading Curtis Granderson is a bad idea, for the team with Granderson may not be good enough to win anything, and Granderson is probably a bit overrated thanks to his sunny disposition and great 2007 season. There are so many problems with this roster that it may take a couple of seasons to fix, and while the Tigers are unlikely to undergo a massive rebuilding project or to slip to 65 wins, it's not clear that they can hang with the Indians, Twins, and White Sox in the short term. Roster spots five through 15 just don't support that kind of success, and with so much money tied up in untradeable contracts and so few prospects to move, they're a bit hamstrung.

Dontrelle Willis, Nate Robertson, and Jeremy Bonderman will make $34.5 million in 2010. I mean, really? Wait, I can do it with hitters, too: Magglio Ordonez, Carlos Guillen, and Brandon Inge will make $37.6 million in 2010. That's $70 million for... nothing, probably. Maybe two wins, depending on how much you let the pitchers kill you.

Kansas City Royals: I don't know anything about Noel Arguelles. However, spending money on a 19-year-old Cuban defector has to be a better idea than anything else the Royals might have done with the cash. If they can continue in this vein, worrying not at all about the 2010 and 2011 Royals and focusing on the 2012 ones, they may start to get somewhere.

I got asked-and don't remember if it was an e-mail or a comment-whether the Royals should try to trade Zack Greinke. Were this a Strat league in which you had the Royals, I think that would be a solid decision. Greinke is the Adrian Gonzalez of pitchers, with terrific performance, likely to continue, on a fantastic contract. The team around him has no shot to win in 2010 and not much better than that kind of chance in 2011. As great as he was last year, Greinke isn't likely to be quite that good again, so his value is peaking. This should make him a perfect trade candidate.

In the real world, you can't trade Zack Greinke. I'm as sanguine about the effects of team decisions on the gate as anyone-if you win, they will come-and I'm telling you that you can't trade Zack Greinke, not right now. He's the only good thing about a bad, bad franchise, and the negative effects of trading him would swamp whatever you got in return. I don't even know if I could entertain the idea, because what if the Rangers dangle Julio Borbon, Michael Main, and Jurickson Profar? Then what do you do?

Toronto Blue Jays: Just to be on record with this one more time, the ideal Roy Halladay trade for the Blue Jays is Halladay and Vernon Wells for nothing. Anthopolous can pump up Wells all he wants, but the guy is a .270 EqA hitter who can't play center field any longer and makes $20 million a year until the rapture. The $100 million they save in that trade is more value than any realistic prospect package, given Halladay's no-trade clause and imminent free agency, will have.

The Jays can sign all the lousy shortstops they want, but all that matters to them right now is the Halladay deal. It's the only story around the team, the franchise, and until Halladay is traded, which has to happen, nothing else matters. The Jays proved last year that they can survive the loss of starting pitchers-their entire rotation was hurt at one point and they kept running average-ish arms out there-so in dealing Halladay it's not pitching they need, but a future center fielder, catcher or shortstop; two of the three, really. If you're not going to get out from under Wells' contract, you have to make sure you get building blocks, the guys who will be the best players on the 2015 Blue Jays. I'm not sure that deal is out there, but I'd run up a hell of a cell bill finding out.

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

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The Week in Quotes: No... (12/07)
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