New Year’s resolutions for American League teams
The first day of 2014 is the perfect time for the 30 major league teams to make their New Year’s resolutions. Hope springs eternal, but as so often happens, many if not most of these resolutions will be broken upon the rocks of realization that changing a number on the calendar doesn’t, in and of itself, change the fortunes of one’s circumstances.
We start today with the 15 American League teams and will continue with the 15 National League teams tomorrow. Teams are presented by division based on their order of finish in 2013:
Boston Red Sox resolve to get younger.
It’s hard to find fault with a team that just won the World Series, but given that the Red Sox’ six-game victory over the Cardinals was led by a 37-year-old designated hitter and a 38-year-old closer, there’s clearly one thing for Boston to work on: getting younger. By average age weighted by playing time, the Red Sox had the third-oldest pitching staff in baseball in 2013 and the fourth-oldest collection of hitters.
Fortunately for the Sox, there are two talented youths on the way who could be central to the 2014 team: 24-year-old center fielder Jackie Bradley Jr. and 21-year-old infielder Xander Bogaerts. The latter came up to the majors in August and took over the starting third base job during the postseason, hitting .296/.412/.481 for the Sox in October. Bogaerts was rated the game’s eighth-best prospect by Baseball America prior to the 2013 season and is set to start on the left side of the infield in 2014 (his position will be determined by whether or not the Red Sox can re-sign shortstop Stephen Drew, a stated goal of theirs). He hit .296/.373/.489 across four minor league seasons (three of them as a teenager) and projects as a third baseman who can hit in the heart of the order at full maturity. If all goes according to plan, he’ll battle for the Rookie of the Year award in 2014 and be one of the key building blocks of Boston’s next championship.
Bradley isn’t quite on Bogaerts’ level, as evidenced by his age as well as his struggles in the bigs following an aggressive promotion from Double A to the majors at the start of the 2013 season. Still, he is an elite defensive centerfielder who has hit .297/.404/.471 in the minors since being drafted out of the University of South Carolina and was rated the 31st best prospect in the game by Baseball America last winter. Bradley’s presence emboldened the Red Sox to let Jacoby Ellsbury leave as a free-agent. Having now had a solid stint in Triple A (where he hit .275/.374/.469 in 374 plate appearances around several abbreviated stints with Boston) as well as a taste of the majors, he should be ready to take Ellsbury’s place in Fenway Park in 2014.
Tampa Bay Rays resolve to trade David Price.
It may not happen this offseason but it seems very likely to happen before the end of 2014: The Rays are going to trade ace David Price, who is due to become a free agent after the 2015 season.
Tampa Bay has had increasing success in trading young, established starting pitchers in advance of their free agency (aided by the increasing quality of the starting pitchers they have traded). After the 2008 season they flipped Edwin Jackson to the Tigers for Matt Joyce; in August 2009 they sent Scott Kazmir to the Angels for Sean Rodriguez and Alex Torres; after the 2010 season they dealt Matt Garza for to the Cubs for Chris Archer, Sam Fuld and shortstop prospect Hak-Ju Lee, among others; and in December 2012 they moved James Shields to the Royals in a seven-player trade that netted Wil Myers and Jake Odorizzi.
The additions of Archer and Odorizzi along with the emergence of prospects Matt Moore and Alex Cobb give the Rays a rotation that can survive the loss of Price. While Price himself is irreplaceable, he’s also tremendously valuable and should bring back a return that would surpass any of the others above.
Baltimore Orioles resolve to see a pitching prospect fulfill his potential.
The last half-decade of Orioles baseball is littered with failed starting pitching prospects, from Jake Arrieta and Brandon Erbe to Brian Matusz and Zach Britton. A year ago, Baltimore had two of the top pitching prospects in the game in Dylan Bundy and Kevin Gausman, but Bundy had Tommy John surgery in June and Gausman posted a 5.66 ERA in his first season, doing his best work in relief.
There’s still hope, however. Gausman turns 23 next week and retains his front-of-the-rotation projection, as does the 21-year-old Bundy. Matusz thrived in relief in 2013 and could use that performance as a springboard to return to the rotation for his age-27 season. Chris Tillman has emerged as a solid member of the rotation over the last two seasons and sneaked onto the All-Star team as an injury replacement in 2013. Heading into his age-26 season, Tillman could move toward the front of the rotation if he can control his home run rate. Still, his 16-7 record and 3.71 ERA last year stands as the best performance the Orioles have received from any of the seven pitcher mentioned above, five of whom (Arrieta and Erbe being the exceptions) were projected to be aces.
New York Yankees resolve to let the arbitrator’s decision on Alex Rodriguez’s Biogenesis suspension decide the financial state of the franchise for years to come.
The “Actual Club Payroll” upon which baseball’s competitive balance tax is assessed can be confusing, but generally speaking, it is based on the average annual value of each player’s contract, with any contributions from other teams deducted from that average. Using that simple approach, I have estimated the actual club payroll for the players the Yankees have under contract for 2014 at $177.16 million. That does not include salaries for the team’s arbitration eligible-players (Brett Gardner, David Robertson, Ivan Nova, Shawn Kelley and Francisco Cervelli), who made nearly $8 million combined in 2014. Add that $8 million plus another $2.5 million to flesh out the roster with five players making roughly the league minimum, and the Yankees’ estimated actual club payroll for 2014 jumps to $187.66 million before factoring in what are likely to be significant raises for Gardner, Nova and Robertson.
That would seem to put the Yankees over the $189 million luxury tax threshold for the coming year. If, however, the arbitrator upholds Alex Rodriguez’s 211-game suspension, or a significant portion of it, it could clear as much as $27.5 million from New York’s actual team payroll and put the franchise back under the threshold with room to spare. (Some of those savings would need to be used to replace Rodriguez at third base, though, given his injury history, the team should probably do that anyway).
This is important not because the Yankees want to avoid playing the tax, but because they want to reset the tax rate they do pay. Currently, they are paying a 50 percent tax on all salary above the threshold, but if they stay below it for just one year, they’ll reset that tax rate to 17.5 percent, clearing the way for a spending spree in subsequent offseasons. Given the teams’ aging roster and barren farm system, spending is the only way it is going to be able to restore its former glory in the near term.
Toronto Blue Jays resolve to pretend 2013 never happened.
Last offseason the Blue Jays traded for defending National League Cy Young award winner R.A. Dickey and former All-Stars Jose Reyes, Josh Johnson and Mark Buehrle and signed 2012 All-Star Game MVP Melky Cabrera as a free agent. As a result many, myself included, projected them to win their division in 2013. They didn’t. They won 74 games, just one more than the year before.
This offseason Toronto’s only significant moves have been to let the chronically injured Johnson, who went 2-8 with a 6.20 ERA in his lone season in as a Jay, leave as a free agent, non-tender catcher J.P. Arencibia (career on-base percentage: .258), and replace the latter with free agent journeyman Dioner Navarro (career OBP: .313). The offseason isn’t over, but it seems clear that, having increased their Opening Day payroll by more than $35 million last offseason, the Blue Jays’ plan for 2014 is to hope their plan for 2013 works better on the second try.
Detroit Tigers resolve to play better defense.
Over the last three seasons, the Tigers have won their division three times, reaching the American League Championship Series each time and the World Series once. They did all of that despite dreadful team defense. In each of the last two seasons, Detroit was the second-worst defensive team in the American League, according to park-adjusted defensive efficiency (the rate of turning balls in play into outs, adjusted for ballpark).
That should change in 2014. By trading Prince Fielder to Texas for slick-fielding second baseman Ian Kinsler the Tigers improved their defense at three infield positions in one move. Kinsler is an upgrade on departed free agent Omar Infante at the keystone, the vacated first base spot allows the team to move Miguel Cabrera off third base, and top prospect Nick Castellanos should be an easy improvement over Cabrera at the hot corner. Oh, and the Tigers will also enjoy a full season of defensive wiz Jose Iglesias at shortstop.
Add in the speedy Rajai Davis in a platoon role in leftfield and Detroit has drastically improved its defense, which should make its already dominant pitching staff all the more effective. Unfortunately for the Tigers, the pitcher who would have benefitted most from the improvement in the team’s infield defense, groundballer Doug Fister, was dumped on the Nationals in a still-inexplicable trade.
Cleveland Indians resolve to find a place to play Carlos Santana.
Swiped from the Blue Jays in a minor trade last offseason, 25-year-old Brazil native Yan Gomes hit .294/.345/.481 in 322 plate appearances for the Indians in 2013 while throwing out 41 percent of opposing basestealers and effectively stealing the starting catching job from Carlos Santana, the team’s best hitter. Santana, who is a year and a half older than Gomes, had already seen significant time at first base in 2011 and 2012, and with the emergence of Gomes and the struggles of third base prospect Lonnie Chisenhall (.244/.284/.411 career after 682 major league plate appearances), the Indians have asked Santana to try to relearn the hot corner. It was his primary position in rookie ball in 2005, but he hasn’t played it at any level since fielding two chances there in High-A ball in 2008.
Putting Santana at third base would maximize his value as a non-catcher, allow Nick Swisher to start at first base and clear an outfield corner for free agent addition David Murphy, likely in a platoon with Ryan Raburn. That would still leave a large hole at designated hitter, however, so Cleveland doesn’t need to force Santana into a position he can’t play. Still it seems increasingly clear that he won’t be the Indians’ primary catcher in 2014.