AL East Balance of Power Shift

I thought it would be important to take note of all that’s happened thus far over the winter meetings so that we can review what has impacted the “Balance of Power” in the AL East now that so many acquisitions have been made.

It’s obvious that the Red Sox have done the most to improve their team for 2011, and it’s also obvious that the Rays will have a lot of question marks surrounding their lost impact players. The Orioles and Jays have made minor moves in comparison, but moves that could impact their respective clubs long term. However, the biggest surprise thus far has been the lack of any moves from the NY Yankees. I’ve never been a Brian Cashman fan – any GM who gives A. J. Burnett that kind of money and dumps Johnny Damon for Nick Johnson when the former was such a perfect part of the team and deals too much talent and youth for an aging Curtis Granderson is just all out wrong – and expect him to keep faltering this off season.

Here are the details of each club’s moves or non moves either just before or during the winter meetings:

  • The Boston Red Sox:  First, the Sox agreed to terms with their soldier – Jason Varitek. Then, they dealt a whole bunch of prospect question marks – SP/SS Casey Kelly, 1B Anthony Rizzo, and CF Reymond Fuentes – to the Padres in return for one of the top 5 bats in the game in 1B Adrian Gonzalez. They have also reportedly agreed to sign Gonzo to a $161,000,000 contract extension (although Adrian has recently denied any agreement is in place) and will make that deal public once they can avoid the luxury tax. The Sox also added all-star OF Carl Crawford by signing him to a 7 year $142,000,000 contract. That’s $304,000,000 spent for 2 players. And they say that there’s no need for a salary cap in baseball……sheesh. Having said that, it’s encouraging to see someone other than the Yankees land one of the top 3 FAs in any off season. The Red Sox can now concentrate their efforts on landing Scott Downs  or other relievers that would help solidify their questionable pen ahead of Jonathan Papelbon and Daniel Bard. The Sox will now hand the Rays their 1st round pick, and this mean that if they do acquire Scott Downs, they’ll be ensuring that the Jays pick is approximately 30-40 picks lower than it otherwise would be since they’d inherit the Sox 2nd rd pick instead of their first (Crawford is one of the few higher rated Type A FAs than Downs). Sure, the Sox lost Victor Martinez and Adrian Beltre to FA, but the additions of Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez in the lineup make up for that and then some. If Jarrod Saltalamacchia turns out to be as good as advertised, the Red Sox should be able to create some separation from the remainder of the AL East.
  • The Baltimor Orioles: Traded for Mark Reynolds in return for David Hernandez and another reliever, increasing the power in their lineup tremendously as a result. Mark pretty much takes over from Ty Wigginton in the O’s lineup, who they lost to FA and the Rockies. They are also reportedly about to acquire SS J.J. Hardy from the Twins. They are about to sign Koji Uehara to 1 year contract with a vesting option for 2012. They are said to be looking at ex-Jay Kevin Gregg and all options at DH including Vladimir Guerrero, Jim Thome, and Hideki Matsui.
  • The Tampa Bay Rays: Lost RP Rafael Soriano and fellow RP Dan Wheeler to FA, although they have not signed anywhere else yet. The Rays have moved to help their pen most recently by dealing SS Jason Bartlett to the Padres in return for Cesar Ramos and Adam Russell. This deal definitely hurts, as in my humblest of opinions they got about 5% of what they could have gotten for Bartlett had they dealt him prior to last season. They also lost Dioner Navarro who recently signed with the LA Dodgers, and 1B Carlos Pena who signed with the Cubs. More importantly, they not only lost Carl Crawford, but they lost him to the division rival Red Sox. To add insult to injury for Rays fans, there are tons of rumors surrounding the dealing of one of their top pitchers in Matt Garza. The Rays are said to be looking at prospects in return, not exactly what Rays fans want to hear after so many losses. Will anyone show up to their games in 2011 if they begin the season slowly? In that park? Tough days are ahead for the Rays who will be forced to lean on youngsters OF Desmond Jennings and SP Jeremy Hellickson to overcome some of their losses.
  • The New York Yankees: Well, this one’s easy – they’ve done absolutely nothing but talk and give one official offer to Cliff Lee. They very well may be losing a key pitcher in Andy Pettitte who is sitting on the fence as to whether he wants to return or not. During contract negotiations, they allowed things with Derek Jeter, their unquestioned most important player in the franchise for decades, to get ugly enough for Jeter to get annoyed and disgruntled about how the negotiations took place. Good job Mr. Cashman. During all of this, they’ve watched the Red Sox load up on talent, watched the Rays dump a ton of theirs, even watched the Orioles improve a little while also watching the Jays get  younger, add a reliever, and get faster. They’ve been linked to almost every player out there, with one of the more interesting being Russell Martin. With Jesus Montero being their only sure option at catcher since Jorge Posadais getting up there in age, the Yankees wouldn’t mind shoring up the position. Very disappointing turn of events thus far if you’re a Yankees fan. As for the rest of the AL East, they have to be happy in knowing that the only money spent by the empire thus far has been on their aging players. With that said, if the Yankees can land Cliff Lee, everything that has transpired thus far will be forgotten. Still, I can’t help but laugh about the fact that landing Cliff Lee could make the Yankees older once again for the long term. A 6-7 year deal would make Cliff 39-40 by the time he retires, so AL East opponents may actually be glad that the Yankees commit so much to him in the hopes that his decline and the decline or loss of Alex RodriguezDerek Jeter – Mariano Rivera - and C.C. Sabathia results in a major balance of power shift in the AL East.
  • The Toronto Blue Jays: Lost RP Scott Downs to FA and have not made any intentions known to keep him around. Just before FA, they also lost RP Brian Tallet and Jeremy Accardo, as well as 3B Edwin Encarnacion. They also let Lyle Overbay walk, thus far, as they are “intrigued” by using Adam Lind as a full time 1B. Traded for Rajai Davisjust before the meetings, inheriting one of the top 3 speedsters from 2010 as a result and someone who should add a ton of speed to the lineup. May very well be able to keep Jason Frasor in the fold as he accepted arbitration, and acquired Carlos Villanueva from the Brewers for a PTBNL in order to replace the loss of Brian Tallet in the pen. The biggest move thus far is one that all Jays fans are now familiar with, as they dealt Shaun Marcum to the Brewers in return for Canadian prospect . That Lawrie is flexible in terms of position to be played at provides the Jays with added flexibility when completing trades or drawing in FAs. He’s now a top 50 prospect added to a growing list of Jays top prospects and could make his presence felt as early as 2011. The Jays may be trying to land but also trying to lower his cost, as Scott Boras felt the need to say that “I think there are short-term contracts for players and there are short-term contracts for players with a history like “. As expected, the Jays just lost 2B/3B Brad Emaus in the rule 5 draft, but he was set to be unseated by Brett Lawrie in either AAA or with the Jays, so the impact of his loss will not be felt directly by the Jays, only indirectly by what they could have received from him in trade – if anything.

If the Jays do add an impact DH bat, and the Yankees lose out on Cliff Lee, the Bombers could be facing quite the barrage of offense from the Red Sox and Jays while operating with a very questionable starting staff. The balance of power in the AL East is shifting more significantly this off season than I can ever remember it doing. Is this due to the loss of George Steinbrenner at the helm of the Yankees? His son Hal is known to be much more business oriented, operating the club under a dollars and cents policy – not a purely winning is everything baseball related policy as his father did. I may be wrong, but I get a feeling that while other teams in the AL East have credible plans in place to enjoy long term success – aside from Rays who are restrained due to their budget – the Yankees are trying to use their logo and history to attract players with the lowest cost possible. The result is that players may chose to go elsewhere and leave the Yankees vying for second rate FAs who may or may not succeed in a high-pressure situation like faced New York while playing for the Yankees.

Unless the Yankees make some seriously impactful additions this off season I can’t honestly predict that they’ll make the playoffs in 2011. The White Sox have improved and should be able to add a more healthy Jake Peavy to their rotation. The Twins should be getting Justin Morneauback, and thus these 2 teams could make a serious run at a Wild Card spot. With my opinion – today – leaning towards the Red Sox winning the AL East outright, the Yankees will be facing stiff competition to get into the playoffs from the White Sox, Rangers, Angels, A’s, and of course the division rival Blue Jays and Rays.

The point is that more than ever, other clubs are taking a run at the powerful Yankees and the balance of power in the AL East is not what it used to be. For a multitude of reasons there is now more competition for the Wild Card spot in the AL than ever. Unless things change quickly for the Yankees, Brian Cashman and others could be shown the door in order to bring in a new regime in New York. There is little patience for bad seasons in NY, and any season without the Yankees in the playoffs is deemed a bad season. All of this is great for an up-and-coming franchise like the Toronto Blue Jays who can sit across the fence with a ton of budget room to add FAs or international talent, the deepest pitching prospect talent in the minors in all of MLB – in my opinion, and another run of many draft picks in this year’s draft. Add the already well established and competitive team they have on hand, and the prospects for the Jays making the playoffs just keep getting better and better as transactions are made and time goes by.

Here’s a thorough player acquisiton/loss summary from November onwards:

Red Sox:

Orioles:

Tampa Bay Rays:

New York Yankees:

Toronto Blue Jays:

Let’s play the what if game from here. What if Cliff Lee signs in Texas as expected, Adrian Beltre and Rafael Soriano sign with the Angels as expected, and the Blue Jays trade for Zack Greinke. Where does this leave the Yankees? Who do they chase? In my estimation, they are left trying to trade for one of 2 players: Prince Fielder who could become their full time DH, or Felix Hernandez. Otherwise, they’ll be trying to sign the likes of Magglio Ordonez, Derek Lee, or others who will not have the same impact as the FA season was announcing to their fans when the off season began.

When you look at the winners and losers thus far this off season, it’s fairly obvious that the Red Sox, Orioles, and Jays are on their way up, while the Yankees and Rays are moving laterally and down respectively. Now that’s an interesting and exciting shift in the balance of power!

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Tags: Brad Emaus Brett Lawrie Brian Tallet Rajai Davis Scott Downs

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