AL clubs take stage after winter makeovers
Yankees, Mariners offer some of league's freshest looks as Spring Training opens
As pitchers and catchers arrive their respective Spring Training camps, we bid adieu to the Hot Stove season, and that's bad news for the likes of Ubaldo Jimenez and Ervin Santana, who are still out there in the free-agent ether.
Teams have, by and large, solidified their budgets and rounded out their rosters, and what we'll attempt to do here and on Friday is assess how each club addressed its most pressing need (or needs).
Let's start with the American League, in order of regular-season finish last year.
Red Sox: You can win a World Series and still have holes. The Red Sox acknowledged as much by effectively beefing up a bullpen that relied heavily (too heavily, perhaps, if you factor in the possibility for 2014 regression after high-inning loads) on Koji Uehara, Craig Breslow and Junichi Tazawa (Breslow, remember, lost effectiveness in the World Series). The addition of Edward Mujica, who notched 37 saves for the Cardinals last season before injuries interrupted his ninth-inning effectiveness, is a wise one, and ground-ball machine Burke Badenhop should help in the middle innings. The Red Sox will have questions about whether Xander Bogaerts and Jackie Bradley Jr. are ready to step into regular roles (and the odds are piled high against Grady Sizemore in his comeback bid after two microfracture surgeries), but Boston's bullpen additions were a necessary, underrated element to the offseason.
A's: Oakland's offseason wasn't centered so much on addressing needs as it was on the maintenance required on an ever-evolving roster. The A's let Bartolo Colon and Grant Balfour walk in free agency, essentially replacing them with Scott Kazmir and Jim Johnson, respectively. They dealt outfielder Michael Choice to acquire outfielder Craig Gentry. They dealt pitching depth in Brett Anderson for cheaper pitching depth in Drew Pomeranz. There were other moves, but you get the idea. To know if the A's took a step forward, backward or no step at all is to be omniscient. But general manager Billy Beane should be given substantial benefit of the doubt.
Tigers: The star talent on their roster would have ensured the Tigers would enter 2014, once again, as the prohibitive favorite in the AL Central, but there were some serious financial concerns bubbling beneath the surface and manager Jim Leyland's decision to retire was bound to make this a time of transition, one way or another. When all was said and done, the Tigers made defensive improvement and better financial flexibility their primary targets, and it's hard to argue with either goal -- especially with Max Scherzer and Miguel Cabrera nearing free agency. The end result is a team dramatically different than the one that lost the AL Championship Series. There's less power with the losses of Prince Fielder and Jhonny Peralta, but certainly better glovework and baserunning agility with Ian Kinsler joining the lineup and Cabrera leaving the hot corner to shift back to first base. This team is better-suited for October than the ones that preceded it, but of course it has to get there first.
Indians: Significant departures from the rotation (Kazmir, Jimenez) and bullpen (Joe Smith, Matt Albers, Rich Hill and, at the Tribe's discretion, Chris Perez) means the Indians have a ton of innings to fill. Barring a dramatic dip in the price tag, a reunion with Jimenez does not appear to be on the horizon, so the Tribe is placing a lot of faith in 2013 breakout starter Danny Salazar and other incumbents like Josh Tomlin, Carlos Carrasco and Trevor Bauer to emerge as dependable Major League options while also holding out hope that Shaun Marcum can mount a Kazmir-like comeback and John Axford can reclaim his past closing success. There are some big gambles in there, and the Indians might need to upgrade the starting staff in-season to support what should be a strong offense.
Rays: If you were 100-percent convinced that the time was right to trade David Price, then chalk the Rays' winter up as a disappointment. A multitude of factors lined up against the Rays in the Price talks, perhaps the most prominent being their successful swap of James Shields last year and the dread opposing GMs must feel at the prospect of trading the next Wil Myers. As far as how things actually played out, the Rays restocked their bullpen with Balfour, Heath Bell and Brad Boxberger and improved their catching situation with Ryan Hanigan. They might, however, find themselves in need of some right-handed-hitting thump to replace what Delmon Young gave them down the stretch last season.
Rangers: A Texas-sized makeover was in order after the 2012 and '13 teams fell flat, and the Rangers responded with two of the winter's more significant moves -- the blockbuster trade for Fielder and the $130 million acquisition of Shin-Soo Choo. Those guys both rank in the top 10 in on-base percentage over the past three seasons, so the Rangers should have plenty of opportunity to light up the scoreboard. Unfortunately, the costs of that improvement undoubtedly played a part in the Rangers' quiet reaction when a new need arose. Derek Holland's knee injury and subsequent surgery hurts a rotation already beset with health concerns, and this could emerge as an area that needs refinement as the season progresses.
Royals: Perhaps losing Santana (provided, of course, he doesn't surprisingly re-sign) will come back to bite a Royals team that benefited from his 2013 comeback campaign, but Jason Vargas offers a level of predictability that Santana did not. The Royals also adequately addressed their two most glaring holes -- right field and second base -- with a trade for Norichika Aoki and the signing of Omar Infante. All the same rules apply: Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas and others need to play to their potential if Kansas City is going to finally reach the postseason, but the Royals seemingly stabilized their most problematic spots.
Orioles: The O's had one of the worst rotations in the AL last season, and they had an offense that, while productive overall thanks to the long ball, didn't get on base nearly enough. Their offseason, therefore, has been pretty vexing. The Orioles lost one of their more effective starters in Scott Feldman and weren't able to land a proven innings-eater in Bronson Arroyo, who signed with Arizona. The lineup questions they carried into the winter -- at second base, left field and designated hitter -- remain questions going into camp. They're going to need Tommy Hunter to come through at closer after the Johnson trade, and they're going to need in-house options like Kevin Gausman and Dylan Bundy (once he's healthy) to step up in the rotation.
Yankees: Among AL clubs, the Yankees posted the lowest adjusted OPS at four positions last year -- first base, third base, right field and DH. Oh, they also lost the best closer in the history of the game to retirement and saw staff ace CC Sabathia endure the worst season of his career. So, yeah, the Yankees had any number of needs, and they committed more than $450 million to improve their rotation with Masahiro Tanaka, and their lineup with Jacoby Ellsbury, Brian McCann and Carlos Beltran. Alas, losing Robinson Cano only opened the door to a new question at second base, where they are crossing their fingers on Brian Roberts and Scott Sizemore, and Alex Rodriguez's suspension leaves a big question at third, where it's some combination of Kelly Johnson and Eduardo Nunez. And the bullpen that lost Mariano Rivera, strangely, went untouched, save for the addition of veteran lefty Matt Thornton.
Angels: As I wrote earlier this week, the Angels had to have a cost-effective offseason, because they're inching toward the luxury-tax threshold and Mike Trout is a year away from arbitration. Knowing that, I like what the Halos did to get better on a budget, especially the injection of some much-needed, cost-controlled upside in the pitching staff in the form of Tyler Skaggs and Hector Santiago. David Freese is going to be an interesting bounceback candidate after offering essentially league-average output last year.
Blue Jays: Last winter's trumpets gave way to this winter's crickets. That's not necessarily a bad thing, because the market afforded plenty of opportunity to throw good money at bad returns, and we might yet see the Blue Jays' patience rewarded if they get a team-friendly price on a starting pitching upgrade. But suffice to say Dioner Navarro is not the answer to all that plagued the Blue Jays last summer, and Toronto retains serious rotation concerns in an AL East likely improved by the Yankees' spending spree.
Mariners: It remains to be seen what the final product looks like, but there's no denying the Mariners have put themselves in position to, at minimum, take a step forward, as they now have a marquee player (Cano) in the middle of a once-sagging lineup. If the widely expected Nelson Cruz contract comes to fruition, all the better, though the uncertainty surrounding the knees of Logan Morrison and Corey Hart means the M's might wind up with more first base/DH types than they need. In the end, any improvement that didn't cost them Taijuan Walker is a good thing (though news of Walker beginning Spring Training with shoulder soreness is not), and bonus points for adding Fernando Rodney to the bullpen.
Twins: The one benefit to posting a rotation ERA of 5.26 is that it doesn't leave open any debate about what your primary offseason target ought to be. Credit to the Twins for spending aggressively to tackle that by hauling in Ricky Nolasco, who has averaged 192 innings and 17 quality starts over the past six seasons, and Phil Hughes, whose fly-ball tendencies ought to fare better in Target Field than they did in Yankee Stadium. That's the good news. The bad? The Twins only scored 614 runs last season, and their lineup, aside from Joe Mauer shifting to first, is essentially untouched. Byron Buxton and Miguel Sano can't get to Minneapolis fast enough.
White Sox: The overhaul on the South Side technically began with last summer's Jake Peavy trade, which netted the power potential of Avisail Garcia. And this winter, the White Sox further improved an offense that was basically boring in 2013. They signed Cuban import Jose Abreu, added a top-of-the-lineup type in Adam Eaton and bought themselves some third-base upside in the form of Matt Davidson after getting the AL's second-worst offensive production at third base last season. Those are all positives, though the Sox stopped short of shoring up their catching outlook after getting production 40-percent worse than the league average from the position last season.
Astros: When you lose 111 games, there's an awful lot of room for improvement, and good for the Astros for reinforcing their rotation with Feldman and Jerome Williams and their bullpen with veterans Jesse Crain, Chad Qualls and Matt Albers. But if you had to narrow the Astros down to a single area of need, it was center field, where Brandon Barnes was primarily responsible for an adjusted OPS 40-percent worse than the league average, the worst such center-field output for any team in baseball. So to be able to flip Barnes and struggling pitching prospect Jordan Lyles for Dexter Fowler was one of the savvier swaps of the offseason.