This is the fifth of six-part preview of the impending off-season. I had been holding off on the two divisions involving World Series combatants until the games had concluded, but with the Series’ hasty conclusion on Sunday–and Scott Boras’ equally quick declaration that it’s A-Rod Huntin’ Season–now is the time to cover the AL East, where all five teams will have some very interesting decisions to make.

Part I: AL Central
Part II: NL Central
Part III: AL West
Part IV: NL East

Boston Red Sox
2007 Record: 96-66, first place
2007 Attendance: 3.0 million, fourth in the AL
2007 Payroll: $143 million, second in MLB
Key Free Agents (2007): 3B-R Mike Lowell, RHPs Curt Schilling, Eric Gagne, Mike Timlin, and Matt Clement, 4C-L Eric Hinske, C-R Doug Mirabelli, RHPs Tim Wakefield and Julian Tavarez (club options)
Key Free Agents (2008): C-S Jason Varitek, MI-L Alex Cora, RHP Brendan Donnelly, LF-R Manny Ramirez (club option), LHP Hideki Okajima (club option)
Key Long-Term Commitments: RF-L J.D. Drew, $14M/year through 2011; DH-L David Ortiz, $12.5M/year through 2010, plus 2011 club option; RHP Josh Beckett, $10M/year through 2009, plus 2010 club option; SS-R Julio Lugo, $9M/year through 2010, plus 2011 vesting option; RHP Daisuke Matsuzaka, $8.8M/year through 2011; CF-S Coco Crisp, $5.25M/year through 2009, plus 2010 club option
Key Ready-Now Youngsters: CF-L Jacoby Ellsbury, RHP Clay Buchholz, LHP Jon Lester, OF-L Brandon Moss, SS-S Jed Lowrie, RHPs Justin Masterson, Michael Bowden, and Craig Hansen
Needs: 1. 3B, if Lowell departs; 2. A starting pitcher, if Schilling departs.
What They Should Do: Weak Sell. The Red Sox can give away talent and still have the best 2008 club in baseball, perhaps alone in the majors other than the similarly deep Indians. I would certainly re-up Wakefield, whose option is cheap, and make a reasonable effort to re-sign both Schilling and Lowell, but there are reasonable contingency plans if either ask for too much money. If Schilling departs, you could still have a very capable rotation of Beckett/Matsuzaka/Buchholz/Wakefield/Lester. If Lowell leaves, you could move Kevin Youkilis to third base, David Ortiz back to first, make Manny your DH, and go with an outfield of Ellsbury/Crisp/Drew. That would give up quite a bit of infield defense, but would make most of it back up in the outfield. Alternatively, if you re-sign Lowell, you can trade Crisp for a prospect, targeting a corner outfielder or a catcher. Either way, the Red Sox should be getting a little cheaper and a little younger, while at worst only marginally affecting the quality of the 2008 team. A more severe iteration of this plan would be to deal Julio Lugo and give Jed Lowrie the shortstop position, but the Red Sox will probably need to wait for Lugo to have a better season and regain some trade value before they can do that.
What They Will Do: Hold. I’d guess that in the wake of his World Series MVP, the Red Sox will be willing to apply the precedent they established for Jason Varitek, and give Lowell one more year on his contract than they might give him otherwise. I’d also guess that if Schilling goes–and he’s more likely to leave than Lowell–the Red Sox will target some sort of fourth starter type in the free agent market. Both of these are perfectly defensible decisions.

Doing something drastic like going after Alex Rodriguez, on the other hand, is neither particularly defensible nor particularly likely. The Red Sox do well enough on the field, at the gate, and in player development that they have little reason to overpay for someone when there are palatable alternatives, and this is the one environment where I think concerns about A-Rod’s clubhouse and media distractions are tangible enough to weigh into your decision.

New York Yankees
2007 Record: 94-68, second place
2007 Attendance: 4.3 million, first in the AL
2007 Payroll: $190 million, first in MLB
Key Free Agents (2007): 3B-R Alex Rodriguez, RHPs Mariano Rivera, Roger Clemens, and Luis Vizcaino, 1B-L Doug Mientkiewicz, C-R Jose Molina, C-S Jorge Posada (player option), LHP Andy Pettitte (player option), RF-L Bobby Abreu (club option)
Key Free Agents (2008): RHPs Mike Mussina and Kyle Farnsworth, DH-L Jason Giambi (club option), RHP Carl Pavano (club option)
Key Long-Term Commitments
: SS-R Derek Jeter, $20.3M/year through 2010; OF-L Johnny Damon, $13M/year through 2009; LF-L Hideki Matsui, $13M/year through 2009; LHP Kei Igawa, $4M/year through 2011
Key Ready-Now Youngsters: RHPs Joba Chamberlain, Phil Hughes, Ian Kennedy, Allan Horne, Tyler Clippard and Edwar Ramirez, OF-S Melky Cabrera, INF-S Wilson Betemit, OF-R Shelley Duncan
Needs: 1. 3B; 2. C, OF, and/or Closer, depending on who departs and who sticks around; 3. 1B
What They Should Do: Weak Sell. It’s safe to assume that no team has ever had this much talent coming off the books at any one time. So let’s start by considering what assets the Yankees still have locked into place. The starting rotation should not need Andy Pettitte to return, nor really need any outside help at all–a staff consisting of Chamberlain, Kennedy, Hughes, plus veterans Chien-Ming Wang and Mike Mussina, could be one of the better groups in the American League, and there are ample reserves at hand in the form of Clippard, Igawa, Horne, and possibly even Carl Pavano. Yes, there are contingencies where several things could go wrong, but that’s just as true for the other 29 MLB clubs. The middle infield, with Derek Jeter and the strangely underrated Robinson Cano, is lock-solid. Jason Giambi should be back in the DH slot, provided he can stay healthy. An outfield of Damon, Cabrera and Matsui, with Shelley Duncan a candidate for work against left-handed pitching, is probably about league average.

Let’s say that the Yankees part ways with all their free agents. That would imply going with Wilson Betemit at third base, and probably Duncan at first. It would mean being willing to tolerate a year of Kyle Farnsworth as your closer, or perhaps hoping to get big things out of Edwar Ramirez, who struck out 15.4 batters per nine innings (!) between three professional levels this year. There’s nothing at all at catcher, so we would allow the Yankees to sign a middling free agent at that position, someone like Michael Barrett.

How bad would that team be? Not as bad as you might think. It looks like about an 86-88 win team from here, although with a high degree of variance on either side of that estimate because so much of the talent is either very young or very old. I should pause here to note that I’m a fairly big fan of all three of Chamberlain, Kennedy, and Hughes–not just in the long-term but also in the near-term–and a believer that players like Betemit, Cabrera, Duncan, and Ramirez are better than they’re given credit for, albeit probably below league average relative to their positions. It’s a group that would reach the playoffs perhaps 30 percent of the time, and occasionally back into 98 wins, making Joe Girardi the biggest hero in New York since Fiorello LaGuardia.

But it wouldn’t be the juggernaut that Yankees fans are used to, and so what the club needs to ask itself is whether it’s willing to tolerate being merely decent for a year instead of being dominant. Of course, there is a lot of middle ground between this “worst case” scenario, and the Yankees throwing money at any player who will take it. In evaluating these alternatives, the Yankees ought to abide by two guiding principles:

  1. Let’s not make silly long-term contract commitments, of the sort we’re finally getting out from when the Giambi and Pavano contracts terminate at the end of the season.
  2. Let’s not block or trade young talent at places where we have it.

This would rule out going after a player like Torii Hunter, who is likely to be overpaid. It would also rule out bringing back Mariano Rivera, who isn’t going to cut the Yankees any meaningful hometown discount. It would imply providing players like Cabrera, the three young starters, and perhaps Betemit with the benefit of the doubt as they try and entrench themselves in the lineup. Here is one riff on that strategy:

  • Part ways with Bobby Abreu, whose $16M option could be better spent elsewhere.
  • Probably part ways with Mariano Rivera, although they can be flexible on this decision if the price is right. Instead, I would sign a mid-market left-handed reliever like Ron Mahay, and let Ramirez and Farnsworth fight for the closer’s job, ready to make a move at the trade deadline if no solution has emerged by then, and ready to consider options involving Joba Chamberlain if nothing else is working out.
  • Hope that Andy Pettitte does not pick up his option. If he does, I would definitely punt on Rivera and probably make Chamberlain my provisional closer out of spring training, ready to reverse that decision as events dictate.
  • Go ahead and re-sign Posada, being willing to overpay slightly given the lack of alternatives in the organization.
  • Sign Mike Lamb to challenge Betemit at third. If Betemit hits well enough to earn both sides of a platoon, we can still get Lamb 200-300 PA in various roles.
  • Here’s the big one: Sign Barry Bonds. New York is big enough to absorb any distraction that Bonds might provide, and he’ll likely be one of the biggest bargains in the market. More importantly, he won’t be seeking more than a one- or two-year contract. That gives us Bonds, Damon, Matsui, Cabrera, Giambi, and Duncan in some kind of rotation between the three outfield positions, first base, and DH. Either Bonds or Matsui is going to need carry a first base mitt with him, and we will rotate the assignments depending on who is healthy and who is hitting.

I would still term this a “weak sell,” because it implies that we’re going to be cutting payroll back down to the $150 million range (see table below). But we’re still going to have something between a very good team and a great team, and there will be plenty of personalities to keep fans and media engaged all season.

The 2008 New York Yankees?
Pos    Player          Salary ($M)
C      Posada          $14.0*
C      Nieves          $ 0.4
1B/DH  Giambi          $21.0
1B     Phillips        $ 0.4
2B     Cano            $ 4.5+
3B     Lamb            $ 3.5*
3B     Betemit         $ 1.5+
SS     Jeter           $20.0
SS     Gonzalez        $ 0.4
LF/DH  Bonds           $15.0*
OF     Damon           $13.0
CF     Cabrera         $ 0.5
OF     Matsui          $13.0
OF/1B  Duncan          $ 0.4
SP     Wang            $ 5.5+
SP     Mussina         $11.0
SP/CL  Chamberlain     $ 0.4
SP     Hughes          $ 0.4
SP     Kennedy         $ 0.4
SP/LR  Igawa           $ 4.0
SP/RR  Clippard        $ 0.4
CL     Ramirez         $ 0.4
LR     Mahay           $ 2.0*
RR     Farnsworth      $ 5.5
RR     Bruney          $ 0.8+
DL/SP  Pavano          $11.0
Total Payroll         $149.2
+ Estimated Arbitration Payment
* Estimated Free Agent Payment

What They Will Do: Hold. This question is no easier to answer than the previous one. By “hold” I mean that the Yankees will not be willing to tolerate a rebuilding year–they will set a target of about 95 wins, as they usually do. I don’t mean that the Yankees will stand still, since they will necessarily need to shell out some money (or prospects) to replace A-Rod and company. But this is at best a speculative conclusion, which prompts several related questions:

  • What will Hank & Hal Steinbrenner do, if they dictate the strategy? The mishandling of the Joe Torre situation has Hank & Hal’s fingerprints all over it, and it could lead one to a couple of different conclusions about their way of doing business. In particular, they are impatient, penny-wise and pound-foolish, and not particularly competent baseball men. That would imply the Yankees running around like headless chickens, in on the bidding on just about everyone, and sort of reverse-arbitraging their way to some bad decisions where the Winner’s Curse kicks in.

  • What will Brian Cashman do, if he dictates the strategy? In contrast to the “firing” of Joe Torre, the hiring of Joe Girardi looks more like Cashman’s work. Don Mattingly‘s calling card was the continuity he implied. He was an internal hire with nearly as much stature within the organization as Torre, and he has a more deferential personality than Girardi. Mattingly was the business-as-usual hire. On the other hand, one could imagine him becoming crestfallen if the Yankees failed to meet expectations. Girardi, by contrast, has a reputation for working with young players, and under ambiguous objectives from the front office. That is the hire to make if you’re prepared to move on to Yankees v2.0, perhaps with 2008 serving as the beta test. This would imply that Cashman would prefer something more along the lines of my strategy.

  • Who is actually dictating the strategy? I don’t know, and since the situation has been so fluid, I don’t know that anyone else does either. But one noteworthy factor is that Cashman is on the last year of his contract, which would suggest that he might need to be more concerned about keeping Hank & Hal happy than the long-term fitness of the organization.
  • Would the Hank & Hal strategy actually make the Yankees a better ballclub in 2008 than the Lies, Damned Lies strategy? Perhaps not. Even with all the talent the Yankees have lost, the talent they still have on hand is relatively efficiently configured; there are few redundant assets, and there are capable young players at the positions where they need them the most. So the risk is that Hank & Hal adopt a number of inefficient solutions, like re-upping Abreu when they could have Bonds or perhaps Adam Dunn for the same money, or signing Carlos Silva when he’s actually a downgrade versus Ian Kennedy, or letting Rivera go, but replacing him with some mediocrity like Todd Jones. Even worse, they could trade away some premium young talent. With A-Rod crossed off their list, and Mike Lowell quite possibly not being available, talent at third base is very thin, and the Yankees will either have to be willing to go with a solution like Lamb/Betemit or will have to make some sort of trade. If Billy Beane pulls off some monster heist like Kennedy, Ramirez, and Duncan for Eric Chavez, I would not be entirely surprised.

Toronto Blue Jays
2007 Record: 83-79, third place
2007 Attendance: 2.4 million, seventh in the AL
2007 Payroll: $82 million, 17th in MLB
Key Free Agents (2007): 1B-L Matt Stairs, LHP Joe Kennedy
Key Free Agents (2008): LHP Scott Downs, 3B-R Troy Glaus (player option), RHP A.J. Burnett (opt-out provision), DH-R Frank Thomas (vesting option), C-S Gregg Zaun (vesting option)
Key Long-Term Commitments: CF-R Vernon Wells, $18M/year through 2014; RHP Roy Halladay, $13.3M/year through 2010; LHP B.J. Ryan, $10m/year through 2010; 1B-L Lyle Overbay, $6.6M/year through 2010; SS-R John McDonald, $1.9M/year through 2009
Key Ready-Now Talent: LF-L Adam Lind, C-R Curtis Thigpen, RHPs Jesse Litsch and Josh Banks, LHP Ricky Romero
Needs: 1. SS; 2. Possibly 1B; 3. Star-quality talent
What They Should Do: Weak Buy. There are three features of this club to demarcate before we move forward. First, the Blue Jays’ needs are a little hard to identify, because they’re locked into talent that rates somewhere around league average at an abnormally high number of positions. Second, look at all the silly things that the Jays have going on with their long-term contracts. You’ve got a player option for Glaus, an opt-out clause for Burnett, and vesting options for both Thomas and Zaun, all four of which could come back to haunt the club. By contrast, look at how many club options the Indians have. The difference between club options and player options is enormous from a valuation standpoint, and the fact that the Blue Jays have so many of the latter is an indictment of their financial acumen. Third, the Blue Jays have very little high-upside minor league talent. Travis Snider is the one exception, but he’s too far away to be a consideration in the near-term; after that you have guys like Lind, Thigpen, and Litsch, who are probably battling to be league-average players.

What all this adds up to is that the Blue Jays are damned if they do, and damned if they don’t. If they want to rebuild their farm system, the one really tradeable asset they have is Burnett, who could probably fetch them at least one Grade-A prospect. But that would still leave the glass of the 2010 Blue Jays no better than half-full, while ruining any hopes of contention for this year, and making a lot of the big-dollar veteran contracts pointless. They could conceivably also try and move Halladay, but they run into largely the same problems, while also risking provoking a fan backlash. On the other hand, the Blue Jays could potentially try and throw money at positions like first base and left field, but they’d either have to be willing to write off a sunk cost (Overbay) or a sunken prospect (Lind).

Faced to choose between the lesser of two evils, I would probably go the “buy” route and re-sign Stairs–he should not cost them very much–and make a play for help at the shortstop position, perhaps trading bullpen talent for someone like Jack Wilson, or seeing what Billy Beane would want for Bobby Crosby. David Eckstein also makes more sense here than he does in many places. Both the rotation and the bullpen, at least, ought to be pretty good, especially if B.J. Ryan and Brandon League get back to full strength. The Blue Jays will still need some help to reach the playoffs under this scenario–perhaps a year where they outperform their Pythagorean record, or perhaps benefit from a flop by the Yankees–but they’ll at least nominally be in contention, and the fan base seems to be responding more favorably to this sort of strategy than they did to J.P. Ricciardi’s rebuilding days.
What They Will Do: Hold. Ricciardi has already stated that he expects it to have a quiet winter, which reminds me that the definition of insanity is trying the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Granted, this is not an easy hand to play–a lot of the Blue Jays’ long-term contracts are cumbersome enough to inhibit any creative redesign. But upgrading the shortstop position from replacement level to league average would increase the Jays’ chances of reaching the playoffs from perhaps 10 percent to 20 or 25 percent, and that’s worth something for a franchise that could use a kick-start.

Baltimore Orioles
2007 Record: 69-93, fourth place
2007 Attendance: 2.2 million, 11th in the AL
2007 Payroll: $94 million, 10th in MLB
Key Free Agents (2007): CF-L Corey Patterson, RHP Kris Benson (club option)
Key Free Agents (2008): OF-R Jay Payton
Key Long-Term Commitments: SS-R Miguel Tejada, $13M/year through 2009; 3B-R Melvin Mora, $8.3M/year through 2009, plus 2010 club option; DH-L Aubrey Huff, $8M/year through 2009; C-R Ramon Hernandez, $7.75M/year through 2009, plus 2010 club option; 2B-S Brian Roberts, $7.15M/year through 2009; RHP Danys Baez, $5M/year through 2009; OF-L Jay Gibbons, $5.6M/year through 2009; LHP Jamie Walker, $4.5M/year through 2009; RHP Chad Bradford, $3.5M/year through 2009
Key Ready-Now Talent: C-R Matt Wieters, LHPs Adam Loewen and Garrett Olson, RF-R Nolan Reimold
Needs: 1. Front Office; 2. CF; 3. LF; 4. Rotation depth; 5. 3B; 6. Closer
What They Should Do: Strong Sell. Wow, the Orioles have a lot of dink-and-dunk contracts that somehow added up to the 10th-highest payroll in baseball. Nevertheless, I think I’d rather be in their shoes than those of the Blue Jays. Almost all of the contracts are coming off the books after 2009, and there’s a little more high-upside talent in the form of guys like Wieters, Nick Markakis, and eventually Billy Rowell. I don’t include Erik Bedard in that group because unfortunately he’ll hit his free agent cycle after 2009 as well; otherwise 2010 would be the year you’d target.

Nevertheless, I think you need to dispatch what assets you can. The middle infield of Miguel Tejada and Brian Roberts is the Orioles’ one true strength, but those are also two contracts that ought to translate to quite a bit of trade value. The other player with some surplus value, of course, is Bedard, who might have one of the most favorable contracts in baseball over the course of the next two seasons. In theory, Bedard ought to have more trade value than Johan Santana; whether the market feels that way is an open question, but you’re certainly liable to do pretty well for him. This is one case where I’m willing to let things get really ugly in 2008 and 2009, not even worrying about the surface major league talent. I’d also recognize the sunk costs of players like Payton and Mora and hope to hit the lottery with a couple of freely-available talent singings, as the Devil Rays did last year with Carlos Pena.
What They Will Do: Weak Sell. Most of all, this team needs a front office makeover, and a GM who is empowered to make tough decisions. I suspect that the Orioles will at least recognize that they aren’t close enough to contending to spend any more on free agents, but also that they’ll be a little too passive in their rebuilding efforts, tending to field calls from other GMs rather than making them themselves.

Tampa Bay Devil Rays
2007 Record: 66-96, last place
2007 Attendance: 1.4 million, last in the AL
2007 Payroll: $24 million, lowest in MLB
Key Free Agents (2007): DH-S Greg Norton, RHP Al Reyes (club option)
Key Free Agents (2008): RHP Dan Wheeler, LF-L Carl Crawford (club option), CF-R Rocco Baldelli (club option)
Key Long-Term Commitments: INF-L Akinori Iwamura, $2.8M/year through 2009, plus 2010 club option; Baldelli and Crawford also have revolving club options through 2011 and 2010, respectively.
Key Ready-Now Young Talent: 3B-R Evan Longoria, LHPs David Price and Jacob McGee, SS-L Reid Brignac, RHPs Wade Davis, Jeff Niemann, Andy Sonnanstine, and Chris Mason, ??-R Joel Guzman, SS-S Ben Zobrist; SS-R Josh Wilson, OF-L Chris Snelling
Needs: 1. SP, but only in the very near term; 2. Relief pitching; 3. C
What They Should Do: Weak Buy. Let’s fast-forward a year and introduce your 2009 Tampa Bay Rays:

LF Carl Crawford         SP Scott Kazmir
2B B.J. Upton            SP David Price
DH Carlos Pena           SP James Shields
3B Evan Longoria         SP Jacob McGee
RF Delmon Young          SP Wade Davis
1B Pedro Alvarez         SP Andy Sonnanstine
CF Rocco Baldelli        RP Jeff Niemann
SS Reid Brignac          RP J.P. Howell
C  Dioner Navarro

That, my friends, could be one hell of a baseball club. This is the rare, idyllic instance of a team with a half-dozen franchise talents that will all have the chance to grow up together. Note the inclusion of Pedro Alvarez, the likely first overall pick in the 2008 draft, whose natural position is third base, but who wouldn’t have the chance to play that position in this organization; either way, he could wield an Albert Pujols-type of bat. I’ve also taken the liberty of playing B.J. Upton at second base and holding on to Rocco Baldelli through the first of several option years; Akinori Iwamura at second and Upton in center is the more likely alternative. Finally, I’ve listed Jeff Niemann as the closer because I think with his injury history he profiles well for a change of routine, but it’s too early to guess at that for now.

Can this team contend in 2008? I don’t think it’s completely out of the question–all of these players are talented, and all of them are close to major-league ready–though it will depend on how quickly they’re willing to promote guys like Longoria, Price, and McGee. Is that chance tangible enough to make a surgical strike in the free agent market? What I would not do is spend any money at all on starting pitching talent, which will be considerably overpriced this winter. However, I would consider making upgrades at two positions. The first is at catcher, where Dioner Navarro is the ugly duckling in this dream lineup. I’d at least give passing thought to signing Jorge Posada if he becomes available, with an eye mainly toward helping to mentor the young pitching staff. And I’d consider signing a high-upside reliever along the lines of Eric Gagne or Kerry Wood, perhaps at $3 million with two team option years priced at $6 million and $7 million respectively; they could help the starters to accumulate a few more wins while relieving any pressure on Joe Maddon to run up his pitch counts. With both signings, the strategy is mostly to make a preemptive play for 2009, but if I “accidentally” wind up helping my team to stay in the thick of things until August or September this year, that’s hardly a problem.
What They Will Do: Hold. I doubt that the Rays will agree with me on the merits of someone like Posada. But otherwise, there’s not a whole heck of a lot for them to do. Carl Crawford’s name persistently gets mentioned in trade rumors, but he’s an important enough part of the 2009 and 2010 club that the Rays are better off holding onto him unless they can get an amazing package.

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