Monday, February 22, 2010

Ranking the Offseasons - AL

Over the course of the next few days, I will attempt to rank the offseason moves made by each of the 30 MLB clubs based on a combination of how their moves will affect their chances of competing both in 2010 and the future. [Note: Despite my Johns Hopkins education, I grade on a B- curve, not a C.]

The discussion begins in the AL where two things stick out:

*The Red Sox and Yankees seem to be separating themselves even further from the pack.

*I think the race for the AL West will be the one to watch. Three teams had very good offseasons while the Angels came back to the pack. Now, all four think they have a chance to take the division. That's a rare occurrence.

Anyway, here goes:

1) Red Sox: Theo Epstein addressed both defense and pitching (summed up nicely here) this offseason without surrendering much in the way of offense. Sounds like a great recipe in theory, but the health/age concerns of some of the newly acquired talent should keep BoSox fans a bit cautious in their optimism.

John Lackey (5 years, $82.5m) has missed each of the last two Aprils with arm injuries. If he can remain healthy, though, he will slot in nicely as the number three starter in one of the game's best rotations.

When healthy, Mike Cameron (2 years, $15.5m) and Adrian Beltre (1 year, $10m) are defensive stalwarts. Cameron will be 37 on Opening Day and Beltre missed 50+ games last season with a potpourri of injuries.

Any defensive or offensive production the team receives from new SS Marco Scutaro (2 years, $12.5m) would be more than the team got from the position last season.

The team also rolled the dice on former prospect Jeremy Hermida, who had fallen out of favor and the budget in Florida, and Bill Hall (luxury tax reasons) while electing to let free agent LF Jason Bay and RP Billy Wagner walk away in exchange for draft pick compensation.

Best Move: Signing Beltre
Grade for 2010: A-
Grade for the future: B

2) Yankees: The team as currently constructed needs to win now, and the moves that were made this offseason support that theory.

In simple terms, the Yankees swapped Johnny Damon, Melky Cabrera, Hideki Matsui, and a slew of prospects for Curtis Granderson, Javier Vazquez and Nick Johnson (1 year, $5.5m). I would venture to guess that fans in the Bronx are ecstatic as this gives their team an excellent chance to repeat as World Series champs.

On the flip side, the payroll figures to be in the $200m range yet the Yankees lack a fifth starter. (Then again, when you can score six runs per game, it might not matter who starts.) 2011 will be no better as New York has over $144m committed already and that does not include the inevitable re-signing of Derek Jeter.

Best Move: Acquiring Granderson
Grade for 2010: A-
Grade for the future: D

3) Mariners: First the good. Seattle acquired Cy Young Award winner Cliff Lee for three prospects. Then, the team locked up staff ace Felix Hernandez (5 years, $78m). Together, they give Seattle the most formidable 1-2 punch in baseball. They also signed free agent 3B Chone Figgins (4 years, $36m) and locked up Franklin Gutierrez (4 years, $20m) solidifying the team's defense.

[In a recent article, Buster Olney mentions the possibility of Ichiro and Figgins becoming the best 1-2 combo as well. Food for thought.]

Now the bad. The M's failed to address two key areas - the pitching depth (numbers 3 through 5 starters) and the offense. What are they going to do when Hernandez or Lee aren't getting the ball? The offense scored the fewest runs in the American League, and they lost two key contributors (Russell Branyan and Adrian Beltre).

The team also made three other trades over the winter. They traded for clubhouse cancer, Milton Bradley (in exchange for the uber-overpaid Carlos Silva), reliever Brandon League (in exchange for former top prospect Brandon Morrow), and 1B Casey Kotchman (for Util Bill Hall). I am not a huge fan of the first two deals but definitely support the third.

Overall, a solid offseason for the about-to-be-canonized-in-Seattle Jack Z. The team will be better than last season, but will it be enough to push them into the playoffs? I have my doubts as I cannot trust the likes of Doug Fister and Ryan Rowland-Smith to hold down the back end of the rotation.

Best Move: Acquiring Lee
Grade for 2010: B
Grade for the future: A-

4) Rangers: Clearly, Rangers GM Jon Daniels thinks the AL West can be had in 2010. Blessed with one of the game's top farm systems, Daniels rolled the proverbial dice, signing a number of high-risk/high-reward free agents to short-term deals. Among them were Vlad Guerrero (1 year, $5.5m), Rich Harden (1 year, $6.5m), Colby Lewis (2 years, $5m), and Khalil Greene (1 year, $500k). If one or more of these deals pan out, great. If not, they will call up one of their top prospects.

I especially like the Harden deal as he has as much natural ability as any anyone in this year's free agent class. Because of his injury history, however, he came at a fraction of the cost of John Lackey with only a one-year commitment.

If the ownership mess can be sorted out by July, the team can also acquire some help before the trade deadline.

Best move: Signing Harden
Grade for 2010: B
Grade for the future: B-

5) Twins: By and large, general managers are not an unintelligent bunch (I speak in double-negative tongue on purpose). Why do I bring this up here? Orlando Hudson was signed by Minnesota (1 year, $5m) this offseason, pushing their payroll north of $100m. This was the second straight offseason Hudson garnered very little interest. He seems to be a player in decline (and the numbers back that). Sure, he is an upgrade from the putrid production the team received from its second basemen last year, but $5m seems exorbitant.

By my count, fans in Minnesota have two things to be happy for:

1- The highway robbery of a deal for JJ Hardy (traded Carlos Gomez straight up), and
2- Joe Mauer seems inclined to want a long term deal to stay in the Twin Cities for the rest of his career.

This offseason reminds me a lot of the Mariners. Several deals that look good on paper, but will they help enough to lead to the postseason?

Best move: Acquiring Hardy
Grade for 2010: B
Grade for the future: B- (A, if they can sign Mauer to a long-term deal)

6) A's: Oakland was involved in all facets of the offseason. They were major players in the chase for a number of free agents, landing Ben Sheets (1 year, $10m), Coco Crisp ($1 year, $4.75m), and Gabe Gross (1 year, $750k). They were also involved in trades at the major league level (acquiring Kevin Kouzmanoff for Scott Hairston and Aaron Cunningham) and minor league levels (swapping Brett Wallace for Michael Taylor). A very busy winter indeed.

[Side note: In the end, Oakland, through all of its trading with San Diego (and Scott Hairston), dealt Sean Gallagher, Ryan Webb, Craig Italiano, and Aaron Cunningham for Kevin Kouzmanoff. Not cheap at all.]
Oakland may still be a hitter or two short, but the pitching staff, including newly re-signed Justin Duchscherer (1 year, $2m), has great potential and can carry the team.

Best move: Re-signing Duchscherer
Grade for 2010: B
Grade for the future: B-

7) Angels: As the other three teams in the AL West improved, the Angels lost two key free agents - John Lackey and Chone Figgins - and two more solid contributors - Vlad Guerrero and Darren Oliver. To replace this group, the team signed Joel Pineiro (2 years, $16m), Fernando Rodney (2 years, $11m), and Hideki Matsui (1 year, $6m). Let's compare:

-(no one) vs Figgins = big loss

-Pineiro vs Lackey = loss

-Rodney vs Oliver = slight win

-Matsui vs Vlad = wash

I am not worried about the pitching as much as I am the offense (and the other three teams in the division). Los Angeles must now count on Jered Weaver to replace Lackey and 3B Brandon Wood to fill Figgins' shoes.

This could be the year someone catches the Angels for the first time since 2006.

Best move: Re-signing Bobby Abreu (2 years, $19m)
Grade for 2010: C
Grade for the future: B+ (they now own five of the first 48 pick in the 2010 Draft)

8) White Sox: Chicago used the trade as its weapon of choice this winter, acquiring OF Juan Pierre and 3B Mark Teahan. The Pierre trade makes sense monetarily as the Dodgers will eat most of the cost, but the Teahan deal leaves much to be desired. GM Kenny Williams traded two former top prospects for a guy that was on the verge of being non-tendered by the cellar-dwelling Royals and then signed him to a contract extension on top of that (3 years, $14m).

Williams also signed reclamation projects Omar Vizquel and Andruw Jones to one-year, incentive-laden deals.

Worst move: Extending Teahan for three years
Grade for 2010: C-
Grade for the future: C

9) Orioles: For a team that finds themselves at least two years from serious contention, Baltimore made a series of befuddling moves. Signing Garrett Atkins (1 year, $5m), Miguel Tejada (1 year, $6m), and Mike Gonzalez makes them a notch better in 2010, but at what cost?

The Mike Gonzalez (2 years, $12m) signing taken in a vacuum looks fine. However, when you factor in the fact that it cost Baltimore its second round pick in June, the deal looks a bit foolish. It would have made much more sense to allocate this money to the draft or to signing some young international prospect(s).

The team also dealt Chris Ray for Kevin Millwood, taking on more salary in 2010 without much hope of contending.

Worst move: Surrendering 2010 second round pick to sign Gonzalez
Grade for 2010: C+
Grade for the future: D

10) Blue Jays: Rookie GM Alex Anthopoulos will forever be linked to Roy Halladay. In his first major move at the helm, AA dealt Roy for a trio of prospects - Michael Taylor, Kyle Drabek and Travis D'Arnaud. The move was shrewd on a number of levels.

First, the deal brought in two high-ceiling prospects in Taylor (who was flipped for another prospect, Brett Wallace) and Drabek who were desperately needed as the farm system was barren.

Second, the deal saved the team tens of millions of dollars. Of course, now they will have to pay other players a large chunk of this money, but in the short term while the team cannot be competitive, it makes sense to cut costs.

Now, AA needs to find a taker for Vernon Wells, no easy task.

Best move: Acquiring Brendan Morrow for Brandon League
Grade for 2010: D-
Grade for the future: B+

11) Tigers: Detroit finds itself in the midst of a very confusing offseason. At the Winter Meetings in December, the team traded its most popular player (Curtis Granderson) and second-best pitcher (Edwin Jackson) in a three-team deal that netted them Max Scherzer and Daniel Schlereth from the Diamondbacks and Phil Coke and Austin Jackson from the Yankees. At the time, it seemed like Detroit was in cost-cutting mode. Fine.

However, weeks later, the Tigers signed Jose Valverde (2 years, $14m), a Type A free agent, to be their closer.

Then, the Tigers signed Johnny Damon for $8m.

So, the team swapped two of its best players and its first round pick for a guy with questionable mechanics (Scherzer), Valverde, three mid-level prospects, and now Damon.

Maybe I am missing something, but the logic baffles me. The fans in Detroit deserve better.

Worst move: Signing Valverde
Grade for 2010: C-
Grade for the future: D (they surrendered their first round pick in 2010 to sign Valverde)

12) Rays: I was critical of Tampa Bay last offseason and have no reason to ease off the gas here (insert lame Toyota joke here). The Rays - essentially - traded Akinori Iwamura for Rafael Soriano and his $7.25m salary. They also acquired C Kelly Shoppach from the Indians for a PTBNL... and that's about it.

Solidifying the back end of the bullpen will help (albeit at a hefty cost), but for a team on the cusp of competing, more could have and should have been done. Now, the Rays need to depend on their farm system to produce, and to produce quickly, if they have any hopes of playing deep into October.

Best, err, Only move: Acquiring Soriano
Grade for 2010: D+
Grade for the future: D

13) Indians: As my pick to win the World Series last season, the 2009 Tribe turned out to be even bigger disappointments than Nicole Eggert (I really thought she would stand the test of time). They were never a contender and were forced to trade Cliff Lee before the July deadline with hopes of rebuilding.

Unfortunately, soon-to-be-former GM Mark Shapiro made very little effort to improve his team's chances in 2010 until Friday when they signed Russell Branyan. In fact, they made no discernable effort at all to do anything besides trade Kelly Shoppach to the Rays.

The Branyan deal was extremely team-friendly (1 year, $3m max) but can he have enough of an impact to lead Cleveland to the playoffs? Doubtful.

Shapiro's hits far outweigh his misses so he gets a bit of a pass from here, but this offseason leaves plenty to be desired.

Best move: Signing Branyan
Grade for 2010: D-
Grade for the future: C+ (Lee trade)

14) Royals: If not for Zach Greinke, this would be the worst team in baseball. It actually infuriates me how terrible they are.

They do not develop young talent properly (see Gordon, Alex). They sign terrible free agents to above market value deals - Jason Kendall (2 years, $6m), Rick Ankiel (1 year, $3.25m), and Scott Podsednik (1 year, $1.75m - at least she comes with him), and they lack creativity.

Dayton Moore should be fired.

Worst move: Signing Kendall, probably the worst move by any team all offseason
Grade for 2010: F
Grade for the future: F (with Dayton Moore, there is no hope)

Up next: Ranking the National League (Wednesday)

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