Even with less than two weeks until pitchers and catchers report, it's not hard to find holes on the rosters in the majors' strongest and most expensive division. Here are five moves—all free agent signings, though trade possibilities were considered—which AL East teams should have made, some of which could still happen.
Rays: Sign first baseman Russell Branyan.
Even after the recent Johnny Damon/Manny Ramirez signings, the Rays have a glaring hole in their lineup at first base. They let Carlos Peña depart as a free agent after a subpar season, and appear ready to rely upon some combination of lefties Dan Johnson and Casey Kotchman and switch-hitter Ben Zobrist to man first base, an arrangement which doesn't inspire much confidence. Johnson hit a Peña-like .198/.343/.414 in 140 plate appearances with the Rays late last year, with his OBP and SLG virtual ringers for his career marks. Kotchman is coming off a .217/.280/.336 bellyflop with the Mariners, and owns an un-firstbasemanly .259/.326/.392 lifetime line. Zobrist plummeted from .297/.405/.543 with 27 homers in his breakout 2009 to .238/.346/.353 with 10 homers last year; stationing him at first base would compromise the flexibility he provides manager Joe Maddon, particularly with regards to his spot in a multiposition platoon at second base with Sean Rodriguez and in right field with Matt Joyce. Branyan is a 35-year-old lefty who can mash; he's hit .244/.336/.504 with 56 homers over the past two years while earning less than $3 million in base salary. A career .207/.287/.446 hitter against southpaws, he doesn't solve the platoon problem, but he's cheap, reliable production—and he's still available.
Yankees: Sign starting pitcher Jake Westbrook.
The Yankees entered the offseason needing at least one and possibly two starters to complete their rotation given the departure of Javier Vazquez and the potential retirement of Andy Pettitte. General manager Brian Cashman put all of the team's eggs in one basket, unsuccessfully chasing Cliff Lee while ignoring any potential lower-profile move which would have prevented the team from reaching the final week of January with Ivan Nova and Sergio Mitre penciled in as fourth and fifth starters; they've since signed Bartolo Colon and Freddy Garcia to minor league deals, but given their extremely checkered medical histories, at best the Yanks can consider one spot filled. Former Yankee farmhand Westbrook is a groundballer who rebounded from two years in the Tommy John surgery wilderness, throwing 202 innings of 4.22 ERA ball for the Indians and Cardinals in 2010. Backed by the potent Yankee offense and a defense that ranked second in the majors in converting batted balls into outs, Westbrook's ability to be a LAIM (League Average Innings Muncher) would have sufficed, particularly at a price similar to the two-year, $16.5 million deal he netted from the Cardinals.
Red Sox: Sign catcher Miguel Olivo or Yorvit Torrealba.
The Sox may have won the winter with their big acquisitions of Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford, but they could still use an upgrade here or there, even moreso the salary relief that a trade of Jonathan Papelbon, Mike Cameron or Daisuke Matsuzaka would have provided. More sensible would have been to focus behind the plate, where the Sox entered the winter with only Jarrod Saltalamacchia on hand after Victor Martinez and Jason Varitek hit free agency. With a glut of defensively sound, low-OBP, high-SLG catchers on the market in Ramon Hernandez, John Buck, Miguel Olivo and Yorvit Torrealba, they could have landed a workhorse backstop at an affordable price; none earned more than $3 million in 2010. Ruling out Type A free agent Hernandez, who would have cost a draft pick, and Buck, who signed a three-year deal with the Marlins, the Sox would still have had a choice; either Olivo (two years, $7 million to Seattle) or Torrealba (two years, $6.25 million) would have taken the pressure off Salty to play to a level he's never reached before with just Varitek (who re-signed for $2 million) to back him up.
Blue Jays: Sign designated hitter Vladimir Guerrero.
Although the Impaler continues to negotiate with the Orioles, he's not signed, sealed and delivered, so it isn't too late for this move to actually happen. At this point, with 2010 designated hitter Adam Lind—who was so bad that he earned a spot on my Replacement-Level Killer team of ignominy—penciled in at first base, the Jays' tentative DH is Edwin Encarnacion, a defensively challenged hacker who hit a lopsided .244/.305/.482 last year (.273 TAv, 2.0 WARP) and who owns a career .255/.322/.446 line against righties. With general manager Alex Anthopoulos having done a masterful job of paring payroll— the Vernon Wells trade being his signature move—he can afford to splurge for a name player. The 36-year-old Guerrero's coming off a nice rebound in Texas (.300/.345/.496, .288 TAv, 2.5 WARP), and as a Type A free agent who's apparently headed for a one-year deal, he can return value in the form of draft picks as well as whatever he contributes with the stick.
Orioles: Sign first baseman Adam Dunn.
The Orioles remain in rebuilding mode, with a growing nucleus of promising youngsters but no real hope of winning in 2011. In the grand Peter Angelos tradition of catching falling knives, the O's signed 35-year-old Derrek Lee to play first base as he comes off a subpar year. It's a one-year, $7.25 million deal which couldn't possibly work out worse than last year's Garrett Atkins signing, which produced a Vortex of Suck—a tornado of utter ineptitude—but Lee could tumble from a Type A to a Type B free agent, since the Elias rankings are based upon the past two years. The 31-year-old Dunn, who signed with the White Sox on reasonable terms (four years, $56 million) would have provided the Orioles with a mid-lineup bopper who has averaged 40 homers a year for the past seven years; he could push 50 while calling Camden Yards—the AL's most favorable park for lefty power over the past three years—home, and given a team that hasn't drawn two million fans since 2007 the marquee attraction it sorely needs.
A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider .
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