AL East Hot Stove Preview: Red Sox threatening to leave rivals behind
This week, SI.com is breaking down the offseason plans for all 30 teams. Teams are presented in order of finish from 2013:
Boston Red Sox
2013 Results: 97-65, first in AL East, won World Series
Run differential: +197, first in MLB
Pending Free Agents: SS Stephen Drew, CF Jacoby Ellsbury, RHP Joel Hanrahan, SS John McDonald, 1B Mike Napoli, C Jarrod Saltalamacchia, LHP Matt Thornton
The champagne has barely dried, but the World Series champions are poised to scatter to the four winds. Most likely not to be retained are Drew and Ellsbury, thanks to the presence of blue-chip prospects waiting behind them, namely Xander Bogaerts and Jackie Bradley Jr. The 30-year-old Ellsbury hits the market with a representative season under his belt (134 games with a .298/.355/.426 line, nine homers, an AL-best 52 steals in 56 attempts and 5.8 WAR) that should garner him a hefty contract in a thin market. The 30-year-old Drew struggled in the postseason but otherwise returned to form, hitting .253/.333/.443 with more or less average defense en route to 3.1 WAR, numbers that should put him in line for a multiyear deal.
Both received qualifying offers, as did the 32-year-old Napoli, who hit .259/.360/.482 with 23 homers and impressive defense in his first year as a full-time first baseman. He’s unlikely to accept that, and instead work toward something along the lines of the three-year, $39 million deal to which he originally agreed last offseason before his degenerative hip condition was discovered. The 28-year-old Saltalamacchia, who set several career bests while hitting .273/.338/.466 with 14 homers, did not receive a qualifying offer; Boston will explore retaining him to pair with backup David Ross, given that Ryan Lavarnway and its other catching prospects aren’t ready yet.
Hanrahan underwent Tommy John and flexor tendon surgery in mid-May; given his 76 saves from 2011-12, he’ll get a deal somewhere with an eye toward a midseason return. The Sox turned down Thornton’s $6 million option in favor of a $1 million buyout, which was no surprise after he was left off the playoff roster. The 37-year-old lefty managed just 43 1/3 innings and 6.2 strikeouts per nine between the White Sox and Red Sox; once a top setup man, he’s now merely a complementary bullpen piece.
Top Prospect on the Verge: SS/3B Xander Bogaerts
If you watched the postseason, you’ve at least got a passing familiarity with this 21-year-old Aruba native, who after playing 18 regular season games for the Sox hit .296/.412/.481 in 34 postseason plate appearances, gaining more playing time as October progressed; he started the last two games of the ALCS and all six World Series games. Prior to his late August callup and a crash course at the hot corner, Bogaerts hit .297/.388/.477 with 15 homers split between Double-A and Triple-A.
Easily a top-five prospect heading into 2014, he offers near-elite bat speed and an advanced approach at the plate, projecting to hit for both average and power, eventually in the middle of the order. With a strong arm but somewhat limited range, he’s likely to be the team’s Opening Day shortstop, but third base could be his eventual destination. He’ll remain flexible if the right deal allowing Boston to strengthen itself at either position lands in general manager Ben Cherington’s lap.
Targets: Catcher, first base, third base
Much of what the Red Sox will do depends on how far they’re willing to go to retain Saltalamacchia and/or Napoli. The team doesn’t view any of its catching prospects as ready to start at the major league level yet. Lavarnway’s receiving doesn’t appear satisfactory, and Christian Vazquez, who spent 2013 at Double-A Portland, is probably a couple years away from regular major league duty.
If the Sox can’t retain Saltalamacchia via a two- or three-year deal, they could make a run at free agent Brian McCann or explore a shorter-term deal with an older catcher such as A.J. Pierzynski or Carlos Ruiz, both entering the market in their mid-30s after down seasons; the 37-year-old Pierzynski hit .272/.297/.425 with 17 homers in 134 games, while the going-on-35-year-old Ruiz hit .268/.320/.368 with five homers in 94 games. If they’re willing to punt offense, pitch framer par excellence Jose Molina is another option, though he’ll be 39 in June.
Napoli has repeatedly stated a preference to stay in Boston, and the bet here is that he does given the weakness of the free agent alternatives. But if he does depart, Kendrys Morales (.277/.336/.449 with 23 homers for Seattle) wouldn’t be a bad fit. Nor would longtime Brewers slugger Corey Hart, though he missed all of 2013 after knee surgery.
The Sox could also look to cobble together a solution involving Mike Carp and Daniel Nava, who combined to start 31 games at the position in 2013, and spend their money elsewhere. If they need a catcher or first baseman from outside the organization, it’s possible they could deal displaced third baseman Will Middlebrooks and look to a veteran free agent such as Jhonny Peralta or Juan Uribe. That said, Middlebrooks’ solid play after being recalled in August (.276/.329/.476 in 158 PA) may have salvaged his job.
With the pickup of Jon Lester’s $13 million option, Boston has six starters under control (John Lackey, Clay Buchholz, Jake Peavy, Felix Doubront and Ryan Dempster being the others). Even so, it’s been reported that the team could have interest in 25-year-old Japanese righty Masahiro Tanaka, who’s coming off a 24-0, 1.27 ERA regular season. His posting fee could be somewhere between $75-100 million, and that’s without considering salary. For a team like the Yankees, who are certain to pursue him to bolster a decimated rotation, he’s almost a necessity; for the Sox, he’d be a luxury, a place to spend some of their post-blockbuster savings — all while sticking it to their division rivals.
Bottom line: The newly-crowned world champions will no doubt experience some turnover between now and Opening Day, but having cleared considerable salary space amid last year’s disaster, they have money to spend. They’re set up to get younger with Bogaerts and Bradley, and have some moving parts that grant Cherington flexibility in assembling next year’s roster.
Tampa Bay Rays
2013 Results: 92-71, won second AL wild card, lost Division Series to Red Sox
Run differential: +54, 11th in MLB
Pending Free Agents: RHP Jesse Crain, RHP Roberto Hernandez, 2B/OF Kelly Johnson, 1B James Loney, C Jose Molina, RHP Juan Carlos Oviedo, RHP Fernando Rodney, DH/OF Luke Scott, RHP Jamey Wright, DH/OF Delmon Young
The Rays face a whole lot of turnover in 2014. Among the pitchers, the only ones likely to be missed are Rodney and Wright. Rodney, who turns 37 in March, saved 37 games but his ERA and walk rate regressed considerably from 2012 to 2013. He has hinted he would grant the team a hometown discount to stay, though if another team throws silly money at him, Tampa Bay isn’t likely to counter. Wright, who turns 39 in December, was once again handy and durable in lower-leverage duty, making 66 appearances with a 3.09 ERA and strong peripherals. He’s riding a string of making good on eight straight minor league deals, and won’t cost much to retain.
If Rodney does depart, the Rays could consider bringing back Oviedo, whose option they declined. He could compete with Joel Peralta for the closer role. Playing under the name Leo Nunez, Oviedo saved 92 games for the Marlins from 2009-2011 but missed all of 2012 with legal difficulties and a UCL sprain that led to Tommy John surgery, and he also didn’t pitch in 2013.
Molina, whose receiving ability is highly valued, could be back if the price is right. So could Loney, who tailed off after a hot start but still provided 2.7 WAR via .299/.348/.430 hitting and above-average defense, all for the low price of $2 million. That said, he may seek more money and security after having rejuvenated his career. Scott has hit just .231/.303/.421 while averaging 84 games over the past three years and is probably done with the organization. Prodigal son Young, miscast as a regular in Philadelphia, could return in a part-time role after a strong finish that saw him hit .258/.329/.452 with three homers in 70 PA. Johnson, who hit .235/.305/.410 with 16 homers, is versatile but expendable, particularly with the combination of the Rays picking up David DeJesus’ $6.5 million option and the possibility of incorporating 2008 overall number one pick Tim Beckham into their second base picture.
Top Prospect on the Verge: RHP Jake Odorizzi
A former Brewers supplementary first-round pick who’s already been part of two blockbuster trades — one involving Zack Greinke and the other James Shields — Odorizzi has appeared on the past three Baseball America Top 100 Prospect lists, peaking at number 68 in 2012. He has pitched in just nine major league games, making two starts for the Royals in 2012 and seven appearances (four of them starts) for the Rays in ’13.
Odorizzi spent most of this past season at Triple-A Durham, putting up a 3.33 ERA while striking out 9.0 per nine in 124 1/3 innings. He’s not overpowering, offering a low-90s fastball that can reach 95 mph, a plus curve and average slider and changeup. He’s a fourth or fifth starter who’s probably next in line if David Price is traded, Jeremy Hellickson can’t rediscover his mojo or somebody else gets hurt.
Targets: Designated hitter, first base, catcher
Overshadowing everything else on the Rays’ to-do list this winter is the question of whether they’ll trade Price, who won’t be a free agent until after the 2015 season but whose salary is set to rise via arbitration from this year’s $10.1 million. To maximize their return, they’ll likely deal him this winter, and much of what else they do depends upon what they get back in terms of MLB-ready talent. The team knows it has enough options for its rotation (Odorizzi, Alex Colome and Jeff Niemann, as he work his way back from April shoulder surgery, are all worth considering) so acquiring a starter isn’t a requirement.
Beyond that, Tampa Bay has several holes to fill, and as usual, it will face significant financial constraints. That means bargains are a must and marquee names are out. The team received just a .214/.307/.373 line from its designated hitters, and while it could retain the lefty-mashing Young, he’ll need a platoonmate. Raul Ibanez, who bashed 29 homers for the Mariners while hitting .242/.306/.487, could fit the bill even though he turns 42 in June; he made just $2.75 million last year.
Even with DeJesus onboard, the Rays could use another outfield bat, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see them seek a rebound candidate such as Mike Morse, Chris Young or Franklin Gutierrez. Likewise, if Loney departs, they’ll look to somebody else willing to work for cheap in hopes of a turnaround; Morse, Justin Morneau, Mark Reynolds or Corey Hart make sense.
If Molina leaves, they’ll look for a complement to Jose Lobaton. Geovany Soto, who hit .245/.328/.466 with nine homers in 184 PA for the Rangers, has historically done well in the pitch-framing metrics that brought Molina to town. Wil Nieves, who has always been well-regarded defensively and who had a career year with the stick (.297/.320/.369 in 206 PA), could be their speed as well.
Bottom line: Tampa Bay continues to shed name-brand players such as Shields and B.J. Upton while remaining contenders thanks to astute management and a deep minor league system. Even if the Rays trade Price, there’s no reason that they can’t continue to stay in playoff contention despite their low payroll.
2013 Results: 85-77, tied for third in AL East
Run differential: +36, 13th in MLB
Pending Free Agents: IF Alexi Casilla, RHP Scott Feldman, 1B Dan Johnson, RHP Jason Hammel, OF Nate McLouth, OF/1B Mike Morse, 2B Brian Roberts, RHP Francisco Rodriguez, C Chris Snyder
The 36-year-old Roberts is the biggest name here, but he’s a shadow of his former self, having played just 192 games over the last four years due to numerous injuries while being paid $40 million. In 2013, he played 77 games, his highest total since 2009, but hit just .249/.312/.392 and was below average in the field. McLouth rejuvenated his career in Baltimore, but that only goes so far when you hit .258/.329/.399 with 12 homers as an everyday leftfielder. Morse is coming off a terrible year (.215/.270/.381 with 13 homers, none after being acquired from Seattle in late August) during which he was hampered by a quad strain.
Hammel and Feldman were both part of Baltimore’s rotating cast of starters in 2013. The former wasn’t nearly as effective as in 2012, posting a 4.97 ERA and yielding 1.4 homers per nine in 139 1/3 innings while missing five weeks due to an elbow strain. The latter, who was acquired from the Cubs in early July, put up a 3.86 ERA and 6.5 strikeouts per nine in 181 2/3 innings between the two teams, and rates as the higher priority of the two when it comes to being retained. Rodriguez, who pitched reasonably well in a setup role (2.70 ERA and 10.4 strikeouts per nine in 46 2/3 innings, offset by 1.4 HR/9), won’t be brought back.
Top Prospect on the Verge: 2B/3B Jonathan Schoop
With Kevin Gausman having exhausted his rookie status and Dylan Bundy likely to move slowly after June 2013 Tommy John surgery, Schoop gets the nod here. Ranked number 82 on BA’s Top 100 Prospects list coming into the year, and showcased alongside Bogaerts and Andrelton Simmons on the Netherlands’ World Baseball Classic team, the 22-year-old Curaçao native endured a rough year. Schoop hit just .256/.301/.396 in 289 PA at Triple-A — still not bad for a 21-year-old playing against older players — and missed two months due to a stress fracture in his back. He destroyed lower-level pitching while rehabbing, pumping up his minor league line to .278/.330/.460 and playing four games for the big club during the final week of the season.
Offensively, Schoop is an aggressive hitter with some pop but a fair bit of swing-and-miss in his game due to a long swing. Defensively, he’s got a plus arm and a good glove but needs to improve his footwork. Roberts’ departure could clear a path for him at second base, while Manny Machado’s knee surgery may allow him an early season look at third, where he may be more suited. Ultimately, he could wind up in an outfield corner, with leftfield the easier path given the O’s current roster.
NEXT: Orioles’ targets and breakdowns of the Yankees and Blue Jays