It is almost like the American League East has been put in a time machine and sent backward 20 years. The Blue Jays are the division favorites with less than a week left before Christmas. Toronto hasn't been to the postseason since winning its second consecutive World Series in 1993. Those Blue Jays used to fill SkyDome on a nightly basis, but they now have trouble drawing crowds to what is known as Rogers Centre.
Seven of eight front-office types and scouts polled randomly this week picked the Blue Jays to win the AL East in 2013. The lone dissenter picked the Yankees because "they are the default option." My, how things have changed for the major leagues' only non-United States franchise, a team that has finished fourth in the division in each of the last five seasons.
"How can you not make them the favorite?" one AL front-office type asked. "Man-for-man, they have the best team in the division now."
Rogers Communications, which owns the Blue Jays, gave general manager Alex Anthopoulos permission to "go for it" this winter, and he hasn't held back. First, he took advantage of the Marlins' fire sale and acquired the double-play combination of shortstop Jose Reyes and second baseman Emilio Bonifacio as part of a 12-player trade, along with right-hander Josh Johnson and left-hander Mark Buehrle. Then Anthopoulos took a shot on free-agent outfielder Melky Cabrera—the Melkman's 50-game PED-related suspension that ended his 2012 season with the Giants be damned—for two years and $16 million. Finally, the Blue Jays acquired the 2012 National League Cy Young Award winner, knuckleballer R.A. Dickey, from the Mets on Monday in a seven-player trade with the Mets.
Dickey, Johnson, and Buehrle now front a rotation that pushes Brandon Morrow and left-hander Ricky Romero down to the Nos. 4 and 5 spots. Reyes and Cabrera will hit at the top and Bonifacio will bat at the bottom of a lineup that will likely include right fielder Jose Bautista, first baseman Edwin Encarnacion, center fielder Colby Rasmus, third baseman Brett Lawrie, designated hitter Adam Lind, and catcher J.P. Arencibia.
"I'm not ready to say they have the best team in baseball, but they definitely have the best team in the American League East," another AL front-office type said. "They've struck at the right time. It's the perfect storm for Alex."
The time has never been better for the Blue Jays to make a move. The Yankees are dead set on staying under the $189-million luxury tax threshold in 2014 and are not signing anyone to long-term contracts. The Red Sox have shaken up their roster but haven't made any blockbuster moves. The Rays may have hurt themselves in the short term by trading right-handers James Shields and Wade Davis to the Royals for four players, including a pair of top prospects, right-hander Jake Odorizzi and outfielder Wil Myers. The Orioles have stood pat following a fluky season in which they outperformed their Pythagorean record by 11 wins.
Adding Dickey is an interesting move, as it is difficult to predict how productive he will be over the next three seasons with the Blue Jays—he was already signed for 2013, then agreed to a two-year, $25-million contract extension—because of his unique career arc. Dickey has contributed just 9.7 WARP in 10 major-league seasons, with 8.4 coming in the last three years with the Mets, his age 35-37 seasons—as he gained better command of the knuckleball. Dickey also had abdominal surgery in October.
"He's even hard to compare by knuckleballer standards because he's so different," said a scout from one NL club. "He throws a hard knuckler. It gets on hitters a lot faster than the ones Tim Wakefield, Charlie Hough and the Niekro brothers threw. The thing about knuckleballers was always that they could pitch forever because they didn't put much effort into throwing the pitch. R.A. is different, though, because he throws harder, so it remains to be seen how much toll it takes on his body. I think he was worth the gamble for the Blue Jays, though. He's in very good shape and he takes the game seriously. I think he will be able to pitch effectively into his 40s."
Two AL West rivals, the Angels and Mariners, made a one-for-one swap on Wednesday, and a talent evaluator from a third team in the division thinks the trade of first baseman/designed hitter Kendry Morales to Seattle for left-hander Jason Vargas is going to help both clubs: "It's one of those trades where both teams dealt from strength and got exactly what they needed."
The move should bolster the Angels' run prevention. Vargas will tuck neatly into the middle of the rotation behind Jared Weaver and lefty C.J. Wilson and in front of Tommy Hanson and Joe Blanton. Trading Morales also allows the Angels to move the defensively-challenged Mark Trumbo from right field to designated hitter, the Sensational Mike Trout—he should legally change his name—from center field to left field and allow speedy Peter Bourjos to move into the lineup as the center fielder.
"This helps on so many levels," the evaluator said. "Vargas doesn't make up for the Angels losing Zack Greinke (to the Dodgers in free agency), but that rotation looks better now that he's in it. He'll eat innings and he'll get ground balls. He knows how to survive in the American League without great stuff."
Morales adds thump to the Mariners, who have finished last in the AL in runs scored in each of the last three seasons. While Safeco Field remains a pitchers' park, the fences are being moved in next season. That certainly won’t hurt Morales, who had a .298 True Average in 2012 for the Angels after missing the final two-thirds of the 2010 season and all of 2011 because of a broken ankle, which, ironically, he suffered while jumping on home plate after hitting a walk-off grand slam against the Mariners.
"I was starting to wonder if he was one of those guys who just would never to be able to get his skills back," the evaluator said, "but I liked what I saw of him in the final couple of months of last season. He got his bat speed back and he was driving the ball again. I think you'll see him be the Morales of old next season and the Mariners need a bat like his in the middle of their lineup."
The Indians ' front office has a lot of smart people. They’re not quite smart enough to figure out how to raise Woody Hayes from the dead, but certainly smart enough to tug at the heartstrings former Ohio State Buckeyes baseball star and current free-agent outfielder Nick Swisher. The Indians pulled out all the stops when Swisher visited Progressive Field this week, including inviting former Ohio State football coach Jim Tressel to lunch, which had to suffice because Hayes has been dead for 25 years.
After having free-agent outfielder Shane Victorino turn down their four-year, $44-million contract offer to sign with the Red Sox for three years and $39 million, the Indians badly want to sign Swisher. They could use the offensive help, and they certainly need something to boost ticket sales. The combination of hiring a big-name manager in Terry Francona and a former Buckeye—don't underestimate the power of scarlet and gray in Ohio—could do that.
The Indians reportedly offered Swisher a four-year, $52-million contract. He didn't turn it down, but he also didn't accept it; both sides agreed that it would stand, at least for the time being. Swisher is married to actress Joanna Garcia and would really like to play in Los Angeles for the Dodgers or Angels. However, the Angels already have an overcrowded outfield after signing Josh Hamilton, and the Dodgers—contrary to a report that many in baseball believe was planted by Swisher—are not actively shopping right fielder Andre Ethier.
The way the market value keeps increasing each offseason, especially for free-agent pitchers, perhaps it shouldn't have come as a surprise that right-hander Anibal Sanchez got five years and $80 million to re-sign with the Tigers. However, there were a lot of baseball people who didn't see that coming, even after Sanchez shined in the postseason with a 1.77 ERA in his three starts.
"He's a good starting pitcher, don't get me wrong," a NL front-office type said. "I just don't think he's a $16-million-a-year pitcher. But that's what the market is now, and it's only going to go higher next winter."
Each major-league team will receive an additional $25 million in 2014 when the new national televisions deals go into effect with Fox, ESPN, and Turner. Sanchez is obvious an early beneficiary of that windfall, but the question is whether he is worth the money. Scouts and front-office types are split in opinion; for instance, one thinks Sanchez would be worth the money on the right team, but that’s not the Tigers.
"His game is getting ground balls, and he needs a good defense behind him," one AL scout said. "The Tigers' infield defense is awful, and it's going to hurt him over a full season."
When J.D. Drew played right field for the Red Sox, team insiders jokingly—and sometimes with snark—referred to him as former Boston GM Theo Epstein's favorite player because his statistical markers gave the appearance of a superstar waiting to happen. Drew never turned into a superstar and produced 11.1 WARP in his five seasons with the Red Sox from 2007-11, after which he retired.
Epstein is gone and one his former lieutenants, Ben Cherington, is the GM. Ironically, the Red Sox agreed to terms with free-agent shortstop Stephen Drew on a one-year, $9.5-million contract this week. Like his brother, Stephen has been considered an underachiever throughout his seven-year career during which he has racked up 13.7 WARP. Drew seemed to break through in 2010 with a 4.6 WARP season for the Diamondbacks, but then he was limited to 86 games by a broken ankle the following year. Last season, he played at replacement level in a combined 79 games with Arizona and Oakland.
However, one AL scout who saw Drew extensively last September while advancing the Athletics in anticipation of a potential post-season matchup believes Drew is ready to bounce back to his 2010 level this season.
"He played as well as I've ever seen him play down the stretch," the scout said. "I wasn't too wild about the A's trading him for him last year, but he proved me wrong. He played with a lot of confidence, he was swinging at good pitches and he was hitting the ball hard."
The Athletics turned to Japan to find a replacement for Drew, signing free-agent shortstop Hiroyuki Nakajima to a two-year, $6.5-million contract. The 30-year-old posted a .310/.381/.474 slash line during his 11-year career in Nippon Professional Baseball.
Japanese middle infielders have fared poorly in coming to the United States, a list that includes Kazuo Matsui, Tsuyoshi Nishioka and Munenori Kawasaki, who certainly never let the good times roll with a -0.8 WARP in 113 plate appearances for the Mariners last season. Most scouts who have seen Nakajima play don't feel he will be able to reverse the trend, even if you have to love a guy who is funny enough to say he wanted to sign with the Athletics because GM Billy Beane is "sexy and cool."
"For me, he's a utility infielder at best," said a scout from an NL club. "I just don't think he'll physically stand up to playing every day in the major leagues and I think he'll get exposed by big-league pitchers. He's not that strong, and pitchers with good, heavy fastballs will knock the bat out of his hands."
The Astros need a full-time designed hitter with a shift from the NL to the AL, and they believe Carlos Pena, who signed a one-year, $2.95 million deal with Houston, can fill the void. The immediate rush to judgment in recent years has been that Pena is finished because of low batting averages, as he hit .227, .196, and .225 from 2009-11. However, he also had 2.4, 1.1, and 1.6 WARP in those seasons.
However, Pena wasn't able to compensate for a low average in 2012 with his usual high totals of home runs and walks. He hit .197 in 600 plate appearances for the Rays but wound up being below replacement level (-0.3 WARP) thanks a paltry .364 slugging percentage that included just 38 extra-base hits, including 19 homers. Scouts who watched Pena last season don't think that his power will return, even in a homer-friendly venue like Minute Maid Park.
"He just can't drive the ball consistently anymore, and that's really where all his value at," said an AL scout. "It's a shame. He's a great guy and he cares so much. You could tell he was pressing last season and trying to find something that was no longer there. The Astros aren't risking a whole lot of money, but I just don't see a turnaround happening."
When asked at the start of the offseason what was on his winter wish list, Twins general manager Terry Ryan had a ready answer: "Starting pitching, starting pitcher, and even more starting pitching." He has lived up to his word by trading for the Phillies' Vance Worley and signing Kevin Correia and Mike Pelfrey as free agents. Furthermore, the Twins have added two top prospects via trade in right-handers Trevor May of the Phillies and Alex Meyer of the Nationals.
Pelfrey is an interesting case; the Twins have guaranteed him $4 million on a one-year contract even though he made just three starts in 2012 before succumbing to Tommy John elbow surgery on May 1. Pelfrey believes he will be ready for Opening Day, though that is a month earlier than the normal one-year rehabilitation process for elbow-reconstruction patients.
"I don't think this is going to work out very well," said an NL scout. "I'm afraid he is going to get eaten alive over in the AL. He is too much of a pitch-to-contact guy, and those pitchers have trouble in that league. He should have stayed in the NL."