AL Preview: Free Spending Edition
With Spring Training underway throughout baseball, we will take a look at the offseason moves made by the other American League teams. Two teams will be reviewed each Sunday until the beginning of the regular season. Previous previews include: TEX/HOU; OAK/LA; SEA/TOR
By Bob Toth
Two teams have dominated the American League East for the better part of the last 15 years. For fans opposing the deep wallets and free spending that has occurred on the East Coast for so long, it marks a long period of torture and frustration watching two teams frequently duking it out with one another, both on and off the field, in an attempt to one-up the other.
The Boston Red Sox have had just one first place appearance in that span but have finished in second place in ten other years, including seven Wild Card births. They ended an 86-year drought in 2004 when they won the World Series and claimed a second in that time in 2007.
The New York Yankees have been the juggernaut of baseball, finishing in the top spot in the East in 12 of those 15 years. In both seasons that the club finished in second place, they made the Wild Card. They reached six World Series and won four of those matchups, the last coming in 2009 following the only season that the team did not make the playoffs since the 1994 strike.
The Yankees stood pat in the offseason though, looking for one more ride out of their highly successful, playoff-tested crew. The Red Sox start anew with another new manager after purging significant funds midway through the 2012 season on their way to a fifth-place finish. Can either of these long-time rivals prevail in what has become a well-balanced, well-funded, and competitive division?
Last year was not what the Fenway faithful had in mind. Starting a new regime with Bobby Valentine at the helm, replacing Terry Francona as manager in Boston, a loaded roster was expected to contend again in the East.
Instead, the Red Sox (69-93) tripped and stumbled out of the gate. They started April 4-10 before winning six straight and seven of eight to end the month to finish back at .500. The losing ways quickly returned as the team dropped eight of nine games to begin May and fell seven and one-half games back in the division.
They hovered around the even mark for most of the first half of the season, but steadily lost ground in the division, ultimately falling double-digit figures behind the Yankees. Their high-water mark was achieved on July 1st, when the club was five games over .500.
With an insurmountable deficit before them, the team dumped major salary onto the West Coast, moving first baseman Adrian Gonzalez, pitcher Josh Beckett, outfielder Carl Crawford, and infielder Nick Punto to the Los Angeles Dodgers prior to the August 31st waiver trade deadline. The club wrapped up the season with a 16-42 record from the beginning of August until season’s end and finished 26 games in back of the Yankees for the division. It was the first time Boston had finished a season below even since 1997 (78-84) and it was their worst record overall in a full season since 1965 (62-100).
Things needed to change and the Sox started at the top, relieving Valentine of his duties after just one season. The team pursued Blue Jays manager John Farrell, a former Red Sox pitching coach under Francona, and arranged a deal to acquire his services after just two years in Toronto.
After the unloading of several players during the season, the Red Sox did not see many substantial players leave following the season. Shortstop Mike Aviles was traded to Toronto at the same time Farrell was returning to Boston. Catcher Kelly Shoppach, first baseman James Loney, outfielder Cody Ross, and pitchers Erik Bedard, Daisuke Matsuzaka, and Rich Hill all became free agents and signed elsewhere.
Free agent David Ortiz resigned quickly with the club after the start of free agency on a two-year, $26 million deal. The eight-time All-Star returns to Boston after playing just 90 games last season, his lowest total of games played since 2001 when he was a member of the Minnesota Twins organization. The 37-year-old designated hitter was batting .318 with 23 home runs and 60 RBI when injury shortened his season prematurely.
Boston added a pair of veterans to join Jacoby Ellsbury in the outfield. Jonny Gomes comes over to the Red Sox after one season in Oakland. He batted .262 and hit 18 home runs while driving in 47 in 99 games. He signed a two-year, $10 million contract.
Shane Victorino heads to Boston after splitting last season between Philadelphia and Los Angeles with the Dodgers. The 32-year-old signed with the Red Sox on a three-year, $39 million deal after being heavily courted by the Cleveland Indians. The Flyin’ Hawaiian is coming off of one of his worst seasons in the big leagues after batting .255 between the two teams last season and seeing slight declines in most offensive categories except for stolen bases (career-high 39 stolen established).
They strengthened their bullpen acquiring All-Star closer Joel Hanrahan from the Pittsburgh Pirates. The late December trade sent four players to Pittsburgh, including Ivan De Jesus, Jr. and Jerry Sands, who both were acquired in the August blockbuster with the Dodgers. In each of the last two seasons, Hanrahan had represented the Pirates in the Midsummer’s Classic and has been one of the more successful closers in the National League. He made 70 appearances in 2011 and saved 40 games while maintaining a 1.83 ERA. The following season, he appeared in 63 games and finished 57, saving 36 games and posting a 2.72 ERA with five wins.
Dempster signed a two-year, $26.5 million deal after splitting a 12-8 season between the Cubs and Rangers organizations. He joins Jon Lester (9-14, 4.82 ERA) and Clay Buchholz (11-8, 4.56 ERA) as the veterans on the staff. Uehara signed with Boston after appearing in 37 games in relief for the Rangers in 2012 while earning a 1.75 ERA with one save. Napoli, after some injury-related concerns, signed a revised one-year, $5 million deal after two seasons in Arlington. He made his first career All-Star appearance last season on his way to a 24-homer season.
Stephen Drew replaces Aviles at shortstop and will join Dustin Pedroia in the middle of the Red Sox infield. Drew split time last season between Arizona and Oakland and finished the year with a .223 average in just 79 games. He signed a $9.5 million contract for one season.
Pedroia is one of several key pieces returning for Boston on the offensive side, including Ortiz and a healthy Ellsbury. Last year, he led the team in hits, plate appearances, stolen bases, and games played. He is a former Rookie of the Year and AL MVP.
Another player to watch will be third baseman Will Middlebrooks. The rookie unseated veteran Kevin Youkilis from the hot corner in Boston and finished the year with 15 home runs and 54 runs driven in through 75 games. The 24-year-old could have the potential to be a perennial 30 home run threat.
The Indians lead the all-time series between the two clubs, 1,024-963. The two teams will surpass 2,000 regular season games versus each other during the coming season. Last year, the Red Sox claimed the season series five games to three and outscored Cleveland by 20. They won three of four in Boston in mid-May and split a four-game set in Cleveland in August.
Several current connections exist between the Red Sox and Indians. Boston manager Farrell pitched several seasons in Cleveland. Infielder Drew Sutton, who played in eleven games for the Indians in 2010, is in camp with Boston as a non-roster Spring Training invitee. Indians skipper Francona reached great levels of success in the dugout as Boston’s manager. Current Indians Spring Training roster members and former Red Sox players Aviles, Matsuzaka, and Hill are all seeking roles on the Cleveland ball club for 2013, with Aviles being an easy favorite for a bench job with the Tribe.
Boston will be looking to Farrell to provide the leadership that was lacking last season in Valentine. The road to the title in the East will be no easy path and they will need solid outings from their starting rotation and a return to form by Ellsbury to stay in contention. If they falter early on amidst all the competition, 2014 free-agent-to-be Ellsbury may become a hot topic of discussion come July.
The New York Yankees were not the usual big player in free agency after falling short in the 2012 playoffs, opting instead to resign several internal free agent veteran contributors. With the start of their Spring Training providing several unexpected surprises, they may wish they had been more active and aggressive.
The Yankees (95-67) did not have the start to the 2012 season that they would have hoped for. Throughout each of the first two months of the year, they hovered in mediocrity just a couple of games above the .500 mark and in the middle of the pack in the AL East. But a dominant 20-7 month of June, capped by a ten-game winning streak, catapulted the Yankees into the top spot in the division. While the Orioles made a hard push in September several times, including in the final week of the season, the Yankees never fully relinquished the top spot in the league and would clinch a playoff birth and a first-round American League Divisional Series matchup against the same Orioles.
The two teams jockeyed back and forth, alternating wins. Games three and four in New York featured dramatic extra inning affairs, with each team winning one of the battles. The Yankees would prevail in five and advance to the American League Championship Series against the Detroit Tigers, but would be swept in four straight games, scoring just six runs in the series and ending their season.
Following their disappointment, a large chunk of veteran ball players on the roster were headed for free agency. Closer Rafael Soriano, who filled in for the injured Mariano Rivera, joined that bunch when he refused a one-year, $13.3 million qualifying offer from the team and ultimately signed a two-year deal with the Washington Nationals with a team option for a third season.
New York turned their priorities to bringing back several key free agent targets who had spent some time in the Bronx throughout the 2012 season or earlier. Starting pitchers Hiroki Kuroda (16-11, 3.32 ERA in 33 starts) and Andy Pettitte (5-4, 2.87 ERA in 12 starts) were resigned by the club in November. The league’s all-time saves leader, Rivera, also resigned with the club to return for one final season in 2013 after missing almost the entire 2012 season with a torn ACL.
In December, the Yankees targeted several familiar veteran faces. Ichiro Suzuki signed a two-year contract. The outfielder was acquired midseason by New York in a trade with the Seattle Mariners. While Ichiro has seen some dips in statistics, somewhat expected of a 39-year-old entering his 13th major league season, he has been exceptionally reliable and healthy, leading the AL in games played in each of the last three seasons. He batted .322 during his short stay with the Yankees last season.
Also heading to the Big Apple was Youkilis, a long-time member of hated division rival Boston. The corner infielder split last season between the Red Sox and White Sox. Injuries plagued his final season with Boston, but his power resurged in the Windy City. He had four home runs and 14 RBI in 42 games prior to being dealt; in Chicago, he cleared the fences 15 times and drove in 46 in 80 games. He will give the Yankees a $12 million insurance policy at third base with the injury to Alex Rodriguez, who underwent offseason surgery on his left hip and is not expected to be able to rejoin the lineup until midseason.
Several other minor signings, including outfielders Matt Diaz (in December) and Juan Rivera (in January) and designated hitter Travis Hafner (in February), provided the roster with several lower cost additions to the bench to replace some of the higher-priced departing talent. Diaz comes to New York on a minor league contract after playing for four different clubs in his ten-year career. Rivera returns after a season and a half with the Dodgers; he last played with the Yankees in 2003. Hafner ends his ten-year stop with the Indians and will become a left-handed designated hitter option, where the Yankees hope he can remain healthy and benefit from the same jet stream out to right field that has made the park a launching pad.
A dangerous lineup returns in the Bronx, but even before Opening Day, the Yankees have taken a substantial hit to their early season scoring.
In his first Spring Training at-bat, slugging outfielder Curtis Granderson was hit by a pitch by Toronto Blue Jays pitcher J.A. Happ and is expected to miss ten weeks with a fractured right forearm. The 31-year-old leaves an immediate hole in the Yankees’ plan, as they now have to find a replacement for their run-producing slugger until he returns, possibly sometime in early May. Despite pacing the Bombers with 43 launches of his own last season, he batted .232 and nearly eclipsed 200 strikeouts in 160 games played. Granderson, who once led the AL in 2007 and 2008 in triples, has finished second in home runs in the AL in each of the last two seasons.
Last Tuesday, Mark Teixeira had left the Yankees to begin preparation for his participation in the World Baseball Classic. Swinging off of a tee, he sprained a tendon in his right wrist. He is expected to miss eight to ten weeks of action as well. The Yankees first baseman was coming off of the shortest season in his big league career, playing 123 games last season and setting career lows in home runs, runs batted in, and hits.
Thirty-eight-year-old Derek Jeter, seriously injured in the postseason, will hope to return to full form in his 19th season in pinstripes. He missed just three games during the regular season last year.
Much of the early season hopes will now fall on the bat of slugging second baseman Robinson Cano. Between free agent departures and injuries, Cano will be one of the lone mainstays to grace the early season Yankees’ roster in the final year of his contract. Cano has been the model of consistency in the lineup as is – he has missed no more than three games in each of the last six years. He paced the team with 33 homers, 94 RBI, and a .313 batting average in 2012.
CC Sabathia (15-6, 3.38 ERA) will lead the rotation with the re-additions of Kuroda and Pettitte. He reached 200 innings pitched for the sixth straight season despite missing several starts midseason. Phil Hughes (16-13, 4.23 ERA) will join them, but he has battled a bulging disc in his back early on in Spring Training.
The Yankees have dominated the all-time series with the Indians, leading 1,100-870. The Yankees own the best winning percentage of any team that has played the Indians 14 times or more in their history. They have scored nearly 1,200 more runs during their head-to-head matchups. Last season, the Yankees maintained that dominance, winning five of six pairings with the Tribe. They swept a three-game series in the Bronx in June and took two of three in Cleveland during the Indians’ disastrous August.
Several former Indians litter the Yankees roster. In addition to Hafner, Jayson Nix (78 games with Cleveland in 2010) is in the mix for a spot on the club. Sabathia still anchors the starting rotation. Thomas Neal was brought into camp with the Yankees as a non-roster invitee after playing in nine games with the Indians during a September call-up last season. Joining Swisher as ex-Yankees in the Indians’ camp are 42-year-old Jason Giambi and former Yankees pitching prospect Zach McAllister.
The AL East will not be the cakewalk it has been for the Yankees for nearly two decades. Their roster is another year older and several younger players in the primes of their careers (Granderson, Teixeira) are banged up before the year’s first official game. The veteran New York squad will have to fend off an onslaught from several younger teams who have shown the ability (Baltimore, Tampa Bay) or the desire (Toronto) to push for the division crown now. The weight of the season may very well fall on the shoulders of Cano and Jeter, because if the Yankees cannot keep the division close until their injured stars return, the highly competitive East may get away from them in a hurry.
Next week: we continue our trip down the Atlantic coastline to preview the rest of the East – the Baltimore Orioles and the Tampa Bay Rays.
Photo: Jared Wickerham / Getty Images