Superficially, it appears there’s been a lot of fireworks and retooling in
the AL East, but what have the teams in the division really accomplished?
This is the division that hosts the World Champs, which you would think
would be incentive for the others to improve. Yet when you revisit this
winter’s activity, you see that the Yankees may be the division’s most
ambitious and creative team in their offseason work.
Boss Angelos’s toy team desperately needed offensive help after finishing
in the bottom half of the league in runs, and that on the
"strength" of sturdily mediocre seasons from vanilla fossils like
B.J. Surhoff and Brady Anderson. But improving a declining
offense has not been an offseason priority. The Orioles are living with the
legacy of last winter’s ill-spent Angelos cash, blown on luminaries like
Delino DeShields and Will Clark.
Rather than cut their losses and try to sort out who can be part of the
next good Orioles team, Angelos and his toothless management committee are
settling for half measures. Jerry Hairston Jr. is expected to chase
DeShields to the bench, but Calvin Pickering is buried by the
decision to compensate for the Clark mistake by dragging back Harold
Baines and Jeff Conine for return engagements.
While signing someone to push Jason Johnson and Matt Riley
for one of the last two spots in the rotation might make some sort of
sense, the Orioles are settling for Jose Mercedes, and seem
convinced that he’s the right guy to keep Riley in Rochester until Riley is
The Orioles aren’t in a position to fine-tune; they haven’t really caught
on that they’re a bad team. The nicest thing you can say about their
offseason is that Mike Hargrove is no Ray Miller, even if he has the lonely
experience of being the only manager Bobby Cox has ever outfoxed in the
Boston Red Sox
After previously playing for high stakes, Dan Duquette has been pretty
quiet this offseason. Carl Everett is a nice upgrade from the
Damon Buford/Darren Lewis stumblebum platoon in center field,
and the pitching staff looks like it will again be Pedro Martinez
and two dozen other guys who will pitch when they’re healthy and/or
whenever Jimy Williams and the Duke feel like using them. And once they run
through those options, there’s always Tim Wakefield.
It might be a good idea to bring in a platoon mate for Trot Nixon
(paging Matt Mieske), but the most interesting situation on the team
is shaping up at DH/first base. Brian Daubach and Mike
Stanley are the incumbents, but Dernell Stenson and Morgan
Burkhart both have an opportunity to earn roles. Neither last year’s
efforts (in Daubach’s case) or a guaranteed contract (in Stanley’s) are
guarantees of employment: witness the Duke’s readiness to dump Mark
Portugal or Reggie Jefferson last season. The game’s greatest
"what have you done for me lately?" GM will have the chance to
get whatever his team needs most offensively from the DH slot, while
continuing to exercise his legendary flexibility with the pitching staff.
New York Yankees
Hats off to the World Champs: they’re making all of the little moves they
need to make space for future improvements. Rather than blow money on free
agents, the Yankees are continuing to build from within, creating roster
space for the players who will be cornerstones of future Yankee contenders
right now. While other teams futz around with retreads or mid-level free
agents who won’t solve their problems, the Yankees have made room for
young, ready players in left field (Ricky Ledee), the infield
(D’Angelo Jimenez), at catcher (Jorge Posada), at fifth
starter (Ed Yarnall) and in the 11th pitcher and last position
player roles (anyone can earn these jobs, which makes for meaningful
competition in camp). And because DH is manned by a merely adequate platoon
of Darryl Strawberry and Jim Leyritz, the Yankees can hand
Nick Johnson playing time if he’s ready by midseason or if
Strawberry needs to go on another four-month hiatus.
Equally important for the organization was the decision to pry Randy Levine
from the mayor’s office in New York. He’s a family friend of Bud Selig,
which won’t hurt if and when the Yankees need to make their case to the
commissioner’s office on issues ranging from revenue sharing to the
internationalization of the draft, things the Boss should be against.
He’s also the negotiator who helped extricate the owners from their
self-constructed labor mess in 1994-95. Most importantly, he’s wired into
the New York political scene, which should prove crucial in the Yankees’
drive to secure local financing for a new stadium. The Yankees’ burgeoning
corporate synergies with the Nets and potentially the Devils will make
Levine an asset to them as well. In short, the Yankees are on their toes as
far as nabbing talent, both on and off the field.
Tampa Bay Devil Rays
Rev up for irrelevance, them Devil Fishies is busy! Vince Naimoli’s mad
scramble for headlines has led to lots of moves, and shockingly enough,
even some improvement. They have a rotation built around risks: Juan
Guzman won’t be healthy for the entirety of the next two years, but he
could give the Rays a good 20-start stretch in either 2000 or 2001. If
anyone makes Wilson Alvarez get in shape, he can still be one of the
AL’s top half-dozen left-handers. Back them up with Ryan Rupe and
reliable 200-inning guy Steve Trachsel, and there’s a chance the
Rays will have one of the league’s stronger rotations.
So if the gambles in their rotation work out, what better way to get those
coveted fannies in the seats than to score some runs? Attendance generally
tracks runs, and the D-Rays have made gestures towards offensive
improvement by bringing in Greg Vaughn and Vinny Castilla.
The pieces are there for a pretty good offensive team. They’d have to ditch
defense altogether, leaving Bubba Trammell in right field so that
they could platoon Dave Martinez with free-agent pickup Gerald
Williams in center field, while putting rookie Aubrey Huff at
third base and moving Vinny Castilla over to shortstop.
OK, it isn’t going to happen any more than Guzman is going to give them 32
starts. Trammell and Huff are as screwed as Randy Winn, which just
goes to show Chuck LaMar hasn’t discriminated in his quest to block his own
with the gray and the restless.
Toronto Blue Jays
In what seems to be a trend, Gord Ash has managed to undercut his team
while enjoying a touch of luck. He saddled the lineup with David
Segui by offering him arbitration, blocking both Andy Thompson
and Kevin Witt at DH. The good news is that the willingness of
potential trading partners to wait until camp to see if Alex
Gonzalez is 100% means that the Jays may end up moving Tony
Batista to third base.
While Gonzalez’s believers are beginning to resemble the Geronimo Pena
Legion of Perpetual Hope (Ed. note: Plenty of pews available!–JSS),
this is nonetheless a bit of good luck for the Jays. It’s comparable to the
organization’s good fortune when they screwed up and didn’t have an
internal replacement for Gonzalez last spring, which pushed them into
picking up Batista in the first place. At the end of the day, the Jays will
have a better infield defense and offense than if they had gone shopping
and done something like resurrect Ed Sprague‘s carcass.
The interesting fight in camp will be between Jose Cruz Jr. and
Vernon Wells in center field, and whether or not Gary Glover
is close to being ready to join the rotation. Glover’s development will be
even more important if Kelvim Escobar is hurt, or if Joey
Hamilton continues to scuffle.