With the emergence of the Tampa Bay Rays, the American League East has become the game’s toughest division, a status only reinforced by the pair of financial heavyweights in New York and Boston. Yet while the Yankees spent nearly enough money to bail out a Wall Street investment bank this winter, the rest of the division took a much more modest approach to the free- agent market, with an average expenditure that would rank fourth among the six divisions.

Despite that relative frugality, the division’s general managers have engaged in enough smart deals that four of the five teams show a net gain of talent according to the admittedly rough methodology I’ve used for this Outside Help series. The NL East can lay claim to a similar ratio, confirming an element of geographical bias when it comes to the impact of the current economic climate. In terms of total dollars committed to free agents, six of the top 10 teams and eight of the top 15 hail from the two Easts. By comparison, the last two winters saw only two of those teams crack the top 10, and four of them reach the upper half.

Teams are listed in order of their 2008 finish; for each hitter, WARP and EqA are listed, while for each pitcher, the figures are WARP and EqERA.

Tampa Bay Rays

SP Winston Abreu (0.7, 5.20), LF Pat Burrell (2.1, .293), RP Lance Cormier (1.0, 4.68), SP Dewon Day (-0.3, 6.64), 3B Morgan Ensberg (0.0, .243), RP Jason Isringhausen (0.9, 4.67), RF Matt Joyce (0.9, .253), CF Gabe Kapler (1.3, .275), 2B Adam Kennedy (0.6, .243), RP Joe Nelson (1.5, 3.67), RP Brian Shouse (0.6, 4.63)

OF Rocco Baldelli (1.0, .264), DH Cliff Floyd (1.2, .275), DH Jonny Gomes (0.6, .277), RF Eric Hinske (1.5, .281), SP Edwin Jackson (1.7, 5.2), RP Trever Miller (1.1, 3.88)

+2.2 WARP

On the subjects of shrewdness and thrift, the Rays did a reasonable job of addressing their relatively marginal off-season needs in an inexpensive manner. Among the glut of corner outfielders, they struck relatively early in signing Burrell, whose contract still wound up being surpassed by Manny Ramirez, Raul Ibanez, Adam Dunn, and Milton Bradley in both total dollars committed and average annual value even as the free-agent market continued to collapse. The deal looks even better when one considers that his projected WARP includes damage in the outfield (-11 FRAA on his weighted mean) which he’s unlikely to inflict while spending most of his time as the team’s designated hitter. Elsewhere, the Rays added the youthful Joyce and versatile veteran Kapler to the outfield mix, and brought in an interesting assortment of relievers-Nelson, Shouse, and the rehabbing Isringhausen-to mix and match with last year’s successful bullpen. While the overall gains weren’t overwhelming, they’ll augment a youthful core that’s got this team of young upstarts pegged to give the Red Sox and Yankees a run for their money yet again.

Boston Red Sox

RF Chip Ambres (0.1, .241), OF Rocco Baldelli (1.0, .264), RP Randor Bierd (1.0, 4.55), SP Enrique Gonzalez (0.6, 5.67), SS Nick Green (-0.7, .211), LF Paul McAnulty (1.0, .267), SS Ivan Ochoa (0.7, .232), SP Brad Penny (1.6, 5.07), RP Ramon Ramirez (1.9, 3.59), RP Takashi Saito (1.9, 2.96), SP John Smoltz (3.0, 3.65), RP Billy Traber (0.9, 4.63), RF Brad Wilkerson (0.2, .256)

RP David Aardsma (1.0, 4.33), C Kevin Cash (-0.1, .197), SP Bartolo Colon (1.4, 4.86), SS Alex Cora (0.4, .234), CF Coco Crisp (1.8, .257), SP David Pauley (-0.2, 6.36), C David Ross (1.1, .249)

+8.8 WARP

Relative to their rivals to the south, the Red Sox had a quiet winter, at least until one considers the godawful racket surrounding their retention of Jason Varitek. It was an inexpensive winter as well, at least where the free-agent market was concerned; the Blue Jays were the only team in the division to spend less on such deals. The Sox kicked the tires on a few big-ticket items, but aside from Mark Teixeira, didn’t aggressively pursue any of them. Instead, for less than the cost of one year of A.J. Burnett, they’re rolling the dice on their ability to restore Baldelli, Penny, Saito, and Smoltz-the last three of whom suffered season-ending injuries-to working order. While the health challenges involved are considerable, particularly when one considers that the team already has a red-light district to rival Amsterdam’s, the upside is clear given the net WARP tally. Keep in mind that those numbers for the injured pitchers are based upon fairly conservative innings totals (roughly 120, 45, and 105, respectively), and that even so, the team has in-house youngsters with plenty of upside (Clay Buchholz, Justin Masterson, Michael Bowden) to help cover for them if they fall short. Beyond those gambles, the Sox did a nice job of augmenting their bullpen with Ramirez, and if the best return they could get for Crisp was a reliever, they at least unloaded his contract, which brings me to the final point: lest we spend too much time congratulating the team for their shrewdness and thrift, note that they spent over $111 million to bestow generous extensions upon Dustin Pedroia, Kevin Youkilis, and Jon Lester, and that they’re still carrying the immovable Julio Lugo and Mike Lowell contracts, to say nothing of the second year of Varitek’s dual-option deal.

New York Yankees

SS Angel Berroa (0.0, .221), SP A.J. Burnett (4.9, 3.88), C Kevin Cash (-0.1, .197), LF Eric Fryer (-0.1, .229), SP Jason Johnson (0.9, 5.31), SP CC Sabathia (6.8, 3.48), 1B Nick Swisher (1.9, .279), C Chris Stewart (1.3, .214), 1B Mark Teixeira (5.1, .308), RP Kanekoa Texeira (0.8, 5.03), SP Brett Tomko (1.0, 4.88)

RF Bobby Abreu (3.1, .293), 3B Wilson Betemit (0.5, .267), RP Chris Britton (0.7, 4.19), 1B Jason Giambi (1.4, .285), SS Nick Green (-0.7, .211), SP Jeffrey Marquez (-0.9, 6.79), C Chad Moeller (0.3, .218), SP Jhonny Nunez (-0.1, 6.31), SP Carl Pavano (0.6, 5.51), SP Sidney Ponson (1.0, 5.45), C Ivan Rodriguez (1.3, .243), SP Chase Wright (0.1, 6.14)

+ 15.2 WARP

Some shocking stats via ESPN’s Free Agent Tracker:

  • Of the $1.16 billion spent on free-agent contracts this winter (not including minor league deals), roughly 38 percent of that was spent by the Yankees.
  • The $441 million they committed is more than the next five highest-spending teams (the Dodgers, Braves, Cubs, Mets, and Phillies) combined.
  • That $441 million is also more than the bottom 26 teams combined.

Luckily for the Yankees, that money actually bought real talent. Sabathia has the highest PECOTA weighted-mean WARP forecast of any pitcher in baseball, while Burnett ranks among the top 25, and third behind his new teammate and Francisco Rodriguez among the winter’s hired hands. Teixeira has the highest forecast of any free-agent hitter, and the 19th-highest forecast among all hitters. While the commitments are long, in Sabathia and Teixeira the Yankees paid for players who are entering their age-28 and age-29 seasons, respectively, a welcome strategy considering the general tendency to sign free agents well into their 30s.

Not surprisingly given the expenditures, no team brought in more outside talent than the Yanks did, and none netted more once last year’s departures are considered (and yes, I’ve excluded retired players such as Mike Mussina across the board throughout this series). While they’ve taken on a ton of salary, they shed so many big contracts that their Opening Day payroll should wind up a few million dollars shy of last year’s $209 million, barring a late-spring trade to cover for Alex Rodriguez‘s injury. Even with that situation, a sub-optimal playing-time arrangement in right field (Xavier Nady over Swisher), and the mothballing of Philip Hughes and Ian Kennedy, PECOTA is extremely enthusiastic about the remade Yankees, forecasting them for a major league-high 100 wins.

Toronto Blue Jays

C Michael Barrett (0.6, .247), SP Bryan Bullington (0.4, 5.85), SP Brian Burres (0.3, 5.75), SP Matt Bush (-0.4, 6.55), C Raul Chavez (0.2, .184), RP Matt Clement (0.1, 6.02), RP Dirk Hayhurst (0.5, 5.51), RF Jason Lane (0.2, .238), SP Mike Maroth (0.3, 5.74), 1B Kevin Millar (0.3, .256), SS Angel Sanchez (-0.3, .192), RP Ken Takahashi (0.2, 5.8)

SP A.J. Burnett (4.9, 3.88), LF Kevin Mench (-0.3, .238), RP John Parrish (0.8, 5.12), RF Brad Wilkerson (0.2, .256), C Gregg Zaun (0.5, .237)

-3.7 WARP

At the other end of the expenditure spectrum are the Jays, who last year put together the strongest fourth-place team of the Wild Card Era. The departure of Burnett and injuries to Shaun Marcum and Dustin McGowan have hit the pitching staff hard though, and the team has lowered its sights for 2009 by so much that they didn’t sign a single free agent to a major league deal this winter, the only team beside the Rangers to go that route. Instead, they brought in a royal sampler of free talent, one that includes two overall number one draft picks who have flopped (Bullington and Bush), two high first-rounders looking for greener grass on the other side (shortstop-to-pitcher Bush and pitcher-to-outfielder Adam Loewen, who lacks enough professional at-bats to forecast), and a pair of rehabbing hurlers who haven’t been effective in years (Clement and Maroth). The real problem for the Jays isn’t their pitching, however. The current PECOTA forecast shows them tied for last in the AL in scoring, with a poorly arranged lineup that lacks a single hitter projected for an OBP above .336 (last year’s league average) or more than 20 homers. Barrett could help out at catcher, but Millar, who’s on his last legs, is one of the few first basemen around who represents no threat to the underpowered Lyle Overbay‘s job. It’s going to be a long season north of the border.

Baltimore Orioles

LF Jolbert Cabrera (-0.5, .229), SP Adam Eaton (0.5, 5.71), CF Ryan Freel (0.1, .251), SP Brad Hennessey (0.3, 5.9), 3B Chris Gomez (-0.2, .228), C Robby Hammock (-0.2, .2), SP Mark Hendrickson (1.0, 5.36), SP Rich Hill (0.9, 5.2), SS Cesar Izturis (0.4, .226), C Chad Moeller (0.3, .218), SS Donnie Murphy (0.6, .244), RP John Parrish (0.8, 5.12), SP David Pauley (-0.2, 6.36), CF Felix Pie (2.1, .257), SP Koji Uehara (2.5, 4.48), 3B Brandon Waring (0.3, .233), 3B Ty Wigginton (1.3, .275), C Gregg Zaun (0.5, .237)

RP Randor Bierd (1.0, 4.55), SP Daniel Cabrera (2.0, 4.82), SS Juan Castro (-0.4, .181), SS Alex Cintron (0,.0 .228), RP Lance Cormier (1.0, 4.68), C Ramon Hernandez (1.7, .254), 1B Kevin Millar (0.3, .256), SP Garrett Olson (1.0, 5.33), LF Jay Payton (0.5, .237)

+3.4 WARP

The Orioles have embarked upon a slow turnaround, and if a 75-win projection doesn’t seem like much, it’s still a level of “success” that the team has reached only once in this millennium. The $24 million they spent on free agents this winter is second only to the Yankees in this division and enough to crack the game’s top 10, but it’s tough to find too much fault with their expenditures, to say nothing of their housecleaning. Rebuilding a rotation that finished tied for 12th in the league in SNLVAR, they snagged Japanese import Uehara to provide some ballast alongside Jeremy Guthrie, and brought in plenty of tippable cows for the cattle call to round out the starting five (Eaton, Hennessey Hendrickson, Hill, and Pauley). Wigginton should provide some utility and extra sock to their lineup, Izturis some defensive stability to a unit that posted a grim .668 Defensive Efficiency after the All-Star break, and Zaun the ability to hold down the fort until Matt Wieters‘ service clock is sufficiently gamed. Pie rates as an outright steal, both as somebody who can further upgrade the defense, and as a worthy companion to the high-upside outfield tandem of Adam Jones and Nick Markakis, the kind of move that bodes well for this team in the long run.

Without reconciling the figures for the NL East, which were based on an older set of PECOTA projections and lack more than six weeks’ worth of spring transactions, it’s unclear whether the AL East added more talent than any other division, but it’s a fair bet that they did so-at considerable cost, of course. I’ll try to provide a more definitive answer with one final big-picture look sometime around Opening Day.