Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein had two primary objectives this offseason. One was to upgrade the offense and the other was to make over the bullpen. He has certainly succeeded on both counts in December, and the Red Sox are beginning to look like one of the favorites to win the 2011 World Series after missing the postseason this year.
Epstein made his major moves earlier this month when he traded for Padres first baseman Adrian Gonzalez and signed free-agent left fielder Carl Crawford to a seven-year, $142 million. That should significantly improve a hitting attack that was second in the major leagues in runs scored last season with an average of 5.05 per game.
While the relief pitching additions the Red Sox have made aren't nearly as dramatic, their latest move gained some notice when they signed free agent Bobby Jenks to serve as a set-up man to closer Jonathan Papelbon in a bullpen that was 12th in the American League with 4.8 WXRL last season. Jenks had been the White Sox' closer since late 2005, a season in which they won the World Series, and he contributed 16.4 WARP in six seasons. The White Sox, though, decided to non-tender him last month rather than go to a potential arbitration hearing after he managed just 0.4 WXRL in 2010.
"We feel really lucky that Bobby wanted to pitch here and was willing to pitch in a non-closing role," Epstein said.
Epstein reiterated that Papelbon remains the closer, even though the Red Sox reportedly offered Yankees closer Mariano Rivera a three-year, $51 million contract last month to jump the other side of the most-hyped rivalry in baseball. Rivera declined and stayed with the Yankees on a two-year, $30 million deal. Papelbon also had a sub-par 2010 season with a 1.8 WXRL and almost certainly will be allowed to leave as a free agent at the end of next season if he is not traded beforehand.
"I left Pap a voicemail saying that we still see him as the closer and now we have two power set-up men to get the ball to him," Epstein said. "Pap kind of disappears in the offseason, does his own thing, then shows up in spring training in great shape and ready to go. We feel we've added quality depth around him in the bullpen."
The second set-up man Epstein was referring to is Daniel Bard, who led the Red Sox with 4.6 WXRL last season and is considered the closer-in-waiting. However, Jenks would give the Red Sox insurance at closer in the event Bard would struggle in making the transition from set-up man.
The Red Sox also signed two other right relievers with the last week, Dan Wheeler and Matt Albers. Wheeler struggled last season as he posted a -0.6 WXRL for the Rays, but he had a combined 5.1 WARP from 2008-10 for Tampa Bay while helping it win two American League East titles in three years over the Red Sox and Yankees. Albers had 0.9 WXRL for the Orioles last season but was durable as he pitched 75
The Red Sox are still on the lookout for the left-handed relievers. Epstein believes he may have already found solutions from that side among three free agents who have signed minor-league contracts: Rich Hill, Andrew Miller, and Randy Williams. Another lefty possibility is rookie Felix Doubront.
"There are still guys we are talking to, but we certainly feel comfortable coming to spring training with the group we have now," Epstein said. "The biggest thing is we've added lot of depth, a lot of experience, a lot of powers arms who are strike throwers to our pen. Last season, we struggled all year long to cobble it together and give (manager Terry Francona) quality options. If we started the season today, we'd have a lot of different options who could go through the heart of an order to get the ball to Pap."
The Diamondbacks are another team that has tried to rebuild its bullpen this winter after their -4.4 WXRL last season was the worst in the major leagues. Thus, GM Kevin Towers has focused on adding strike-throwing power right-handers, as he signed free agent J.J. Putz to be the closer and acquired set-up men David Hernandez and Kam Mickolio from the Orioles in a trade for third baseman Mark Reynolds.
Towers believes another key piece to the 2011 bullpen will be left-hander Mike Hampton, who was re-signed to a minor-league contract. Hampton did not allow an earned run in 10 relief appearances late last season for the Diamondbacks as he came back from August 2009 shoulder surgery.
"He's a character guy," Towers said. "Shows the ability to get lefties and righties out. Experienced. He wanted to come back and we wanted him back."
The Diamondbacks are also intrigued by lefty Joe Paterson, who they selected from the Giants with the third pick in the Rule 5 draft. Paterson throws with a submarine motion similar to Giants lefty Javier Lopez.
"We see him as a left-on-left situational guy," Diamondbacks director of scouting and player personnel Jerry Dipoto said: "He's an angles guy who brings a different look to our bullpen. We've talked about this from the start, that we wanted to add different looks and different angles. He is going to have to lose that job. That being said, he has no previous major-league experience. This will be his test run, and there are no promises."
Beyond the bullpen, Towers believes the entire roster is better than what the Diamondbacks ended last season with when they finished last in the National League West for a second straight season.
"I don't see us being at the bottom of the division next year if we had to field the club as it is right now, I don't," Towers said. "Starting pitching is better. Bullpen is better. Character is better. Experience is better. Versatility is better. Maybe less power. But we scored runs last year. We were above the league average in offense."
The critics say Jayson Werth had to be looking for every last dollar when he decided to a sign a seven-year, $126 million contract with the Nationals. After all, the Nationals have finished last in five of the six seasons since they moved to Washington from Montreal, including each of the last three years.
However, the Nationals insist things are different now. They continually talk about "Phase 2" of their plan to build their team into a contender by adding free agents to their core of young players. Werth says it was talk of "Phase 2" and assurances from GM Mike Rizzo and ownership that the Nationals would continue to boost the payroll that convinced him to come to Washington.
"The thing about this team is, I think there's some pieces of the puzzle that could be put together and make this team a winner," Werth said. "I was assured by the Lerner family and Mike Rizzo that they're going to take steps needed to go get those players and fill the roster accordingly—not with just anybody, but the right talented guy and the right mix, the person that will make the clubhouse a good place. That was important to me, and that was one of the things that led me to sign here."
The Nationals made a play for free-agent lefty Cliff Lee but he instead signed with the Phillies, Werth's old team. Ironically, Phillies GM Ruben Amaro said they were able to sign Lee in part because they had room in the budget once Werth decided to sign with the Nationals.
The Astros signed free agent Bill Hall to a one-year, $3 million contract to play second base. That figures to be their biggest move of the offseason, barring a major trade.
The Astros, who have been put up for sale by owner Drayton McLane, will have a reduced payroll in 2011, likely no higher than $80 million after opening last season at $92 million. It will be their lowest payroll since they opened 2006 at $88 million in the season following the lone World Series appearance in franchise history.
Astros GM Ed Wade, though, was fully expecting a lesser payroll and feels he can still build a competitive team within tighter budgetary parameters.
"There are teams that are in position to be able to spend well beyond the means of other teams, but it doesn't guarantee victory on the field, it doesn't guarantee a spot in the postseason, and it doesn't guarantee a parade when the season is over," Wade said. "We've all seen what Tampa Bay's been able to do over the past few years and what the Florida Marlins have been able to do and what Minnesota perpetually seems to be able to do. It revolves around a dedication to player development and being charged with making smart baseball decisions and making those decisions."