A few days back, Craig Goldstein and I engaged in a simple Twitter argument over Stephen Drew and the Cardinals. This devolved into an hour-long Gchat battle over draft picks, organizational philosophy, the current free agent market, and Ryan Jackson.
In the end we still largely disagreed, but we did align on one point: the debate itself was quite fun. That led to this column idea, in which Craig and I will bring you one move each team should (or shouldn’t) make this offseason.
To be clear, this isn’t meant to predict what these teams will do, and it isn’t meant as a definitive guide to any organization’s strategy. Instead, it’s just two men’s takes on moves—specific, or overarching—that each team should make based on an unbiased view of the free agent market and each team’s chances of contention in 2014.
This is meant to be fun and foster debate, so feel free to sing our praises and decry our lack of wisdom in the comments. Because if there’s one thing any of us can take away from the early days of the offseason, it’s that prediction columns are fun.
First up on our list is the AL East, which is a unique division in that every team can reasonably talk itself into believing it’s a contender next season, and many of these teams have some money to spend.
Baltimore Orioles: Target pitching
If the 2014 season began tomorrow (everyone’s favorite phrase this time of year), Ryan Flaherty, Nolan Reimold, and Danny Valencia would likely be everyday players for the Orioles. That’s not good enough for a team that has a shot at contention, and I’d expect at least two of those spots to be marginally upgraded through free agency. There are plenty of corner outfielders with pop on the market, as well as a few non-Robinson Cano second baseman who can be reasonably presented as MLB starters.
That being said, the Orioles just finished as the fifth-most productive offense in the majors, and they aren’t losing any significant offensive contributors other than Nate McLouth. They finished with just the 23rd-best team ERA, though, and are in danger of losing two starters in Jason Hammel and Scott Feldman. That should make it pretty clear that the Orioles need to focus on pitching this offseason.
While doling out big bucks to free agent pitchers is always a scary proposition, this isn’t a bad year to be in the market for starters. A No. 2 starter type along the lines of Ervin Santana or Matt Garza would make a lot of sense for Baltimore, as would Masahiro Tanaka, and the O’s have experience with the Japanese market. Yet if those price tags prove to steep, acquiring a player like Tim Hudson, Jason Vargas, Bartolo Colon, or Scott Kazmir to slot behind Chris Tillman and Wei-Yin Chen would be a wise strategy.
With Kevin Gausman and Dylan Bundy waiting in the wings, it might be tempting for the Orioles to focus on offense instead. Yet an organization that recently relied on Tillman, Brian Matusz, Jake Arrieta, and Zach Britton to serve as its next wave of starters should be aware of the pitfalls of banking too heavily on pitching prospects. If they can’t land a top-tier starter, an innings eater is still needed.
Boston Red Sox: A left-handed hitter for the left side of the infield
The Red Sox likely will and should begin their 2014 campaign with Xander Bogaerts manning shortstop and Will Middlebrooks manning third base. Both players are young, both have big right-handed power (a rarity in today’s game), and both are cheap and under team control for the next many seasons. Neither player is perfect, though, and as invulnerable as Bogaerts looked in the playoffs, he need only look 45 feet to his right on the field to see how quickly the league can adjust to and shut down a promising young player.
To that end, Boston would be wise to handcuff Bogaerts and Middlebrooks with a left-handed hitter who can play on the left side of the infield. The man who’s perfect for this job is Stephen Drew, and while there’s a chance he returns to Boston, he’ll likely bite on a multi-year deal and a guaranteed starting spot somewhere else. Nick Punto is perhaps the second-best option on the market, and while I can’t even fully believe I’m typing this, he has managed to accumulate around 1.5 WARP with irregular playing time in three of the past four seasons.
Yet the best bet for the Red Sox may come in the form of Danny Espinosa, who lost his starting job to Anthony Rendon and is likely available at the right price this offseason. Despite his terrible 2013 campaign, Espinosa is a great defender who can hit for power against righties, even if he’s a superior player against left-handed pitchers. Should Middlebrooks struggle again, Bogaerts can shift to third and Espinosa can man short. Should Bogaerts prove to be a bit to young for the majors, “WMB” can stay put as Espinosa plays good defense at short.
Espinosa isn’t a perfect solution, but switch-hitters with defensive versatility in the infield don’t grow on trees. Boston can get more creative than I just got in trying to find a Bogaerts/Middlebrooks handcuff, but they shouldn’t let those two go into the season unprotected.
New York Yankees: Live up to your reputation
The Yankees are often chided for their free-spending ways and attempts to “buy a championship” through free agency, even during stints in which homegrown players have made up a bulk of their nucleus. But, with an aging team mostly devoid of key young contributors and a ton of money potentially coming off the books, it’s time for the Yankees to live up to the billing they’ve received so often in the past.
Most estimates have the Yankees with about $80 million to spend this offseason on players other than Alex Rodriguez, CC Sabathia, Mark Teixeira, Derek Jeter, Ichiro Suzuki, Alfonso Soriano, and Vernon Wells before they reach the luxury tax. They’ll need to tender contracts to their younger players as well, of course, but they’ll still be left with a solid chunk of change to spend on the free agent market.
And spend it they’ll need to, because this team has a ton of holes. The priority, obviously, will be resigning Robinson Cano. It’s not a given that he’ll re-up with New York, but this is a Yankees team suddenly short on star power, and short on left-handed pop if Cano leaves as well. But outside of Cano, New York is better off signing a wide collection of non-elite players to try and shore up it’s multiple weak points.
While Brian McCann would look great in Yankees Stadium, for example, the Yankees would be wiser to get David Murphy to platoon with Wells, re-sign Brendan Ryan to cover for Jeter and nail down a reliever like Joe Smith to help a depleted bullpen. They’re also likely to grab at least two free agent starters, meaning someone like Santana, Garza or Ubaldo Jimenez could be paired with a lesser option like Hudson, Dan Haren, or Scott Feldman, should Hiroki Kuroda return to Japan.
It’s tough to call any offseason in which the Yankees sign Cano and a No. 2 starter as “quiet,” but once those areas are shored up they may want to begin emphasizing quantity over quality.
Tampa Bay Rays: Keep David Price (for now)
We’ve heard so much about possible landing spots for Price that it almost seems like a forgone conclusion that he’ll be dealt this offseason. The logic behind this assumption is both reasonable and obvious: Price, entering his second year of arbitration, is getting expensive, and he’d bring back a tremendous package to a Rays team that is dependent on deriving value from young, cost controlled players.
What I think gets a little lost, though, is that if the Rays keep Price for this season or half of this season, they’ll still be able to get a decent haul for him when he’s inevitably dealt. This isn’t a perfect analogy, of course, but the Brewers had to give up Alcides Escobar, Lorenzo Cain, Jake Odorizzi, and Jeremy Jeffress to land Zack Greinke from the Royals when he had two years of control left. That’s a great haul, to be sure, but Milwaukee then landed Jean Segura, John Hellweg, and Ariel Pena when they dealt Greinke with about two months remaining on his contract in 2012.
Is that package inferior to the one they gave up? Yes. Is it bad? Not at all, and it gave the Brewers an extra season and a half in which to try and be competitive. If Price is dealt in July or before 2015, any prospective Rays package should, in theory, split the middle between what Milwaukee gave and what they got. It could very well be worth it for the Rays to cede an extra prospect or two to retain Price for another half or full season, if they can make even one more season work financially.
The Rays have some holes at catcher, first base and in the bullpen, but those are really the only problem spots they need to address for 2014. This is a team capable of contending now, and while they do have pitching depth they have no one who can step into the rotation and do what Price has done through his career.
Toronto Blue Jays: Buy a starting catcher
J.P. Arencibia has started 324 games at catcher for the Blue Jays over the past three years, and has accumulated just 2.7 WARP in that time. The power is nice, and there’s some debate over whether he’s quite as bad defensively as his reputation would lead one to believe, but Arencibia finished 103 out of 103 in BVORP among catchers this season. He’s one of the worst starters in the American League, and Toronto should look for other options.
The Blue Jays figure to be pretty cash-strapped this offseason unless they plan on giving their payroll another bump. That should rule out McCann, the crown jewel of free agent backstops, and perhaps Jarrod Saltalamacchia. However, there are some lesser options that Toronto should be able to lure up north at a much lower cost.
Adding a third-tier catcher to a team that won 74 games last year may not seem terribly inspiring, but the odds that the Blue Jays suffer the same mix of injury and ineffectiveness as they did in 2013 aren’t great. This is a talented team with a winning nucleus in place. Rather than blow it up and entertain trading players like Colby Rasmus, Brett Lawrie, or Edwin Encarnacion, Toronto should keep the band together for one more year with upgrades behind the plate and, if possible, in the middle of the rotation. They may have to get creative with the latter improvement, but the free agent pool allows them to address their catcher problem at a relatively light cost.
A.J. Pierzynski may not be a massive defensive upgrade over Arencibia, but he did hit .272/.297/.425, ranking 19th in catcher BVORP. Carlos Ruiz ranked one spot better, hitting .268/.320/.368 with better defense. Despite his age, he could land a two-year deal. Even options such as Dioner Navarro and Kurt Suzuki could conceivably represent upgrades, despite their inherent flaws. Even if Toronto does decide to attack the position via trade, catcher is a quick way for the Blue Jays to improve the periphery of a team that doesn’t yet need to change its core.