Posted: Thursday November 3, 2011 11:11AM ; Updated: Friday November 4, 2011 11:50AM
Stephen Cannella
Stephen Cannella>INSIDE BASEBALL

AL East Hot Stove preview: Big moves could re-shape division

Story Highlights

The Yankees need to upgrade their starting pitching, perhaps via free agency

The Rays could decide to trade a starter while the Red Sox may lose their closer

The Orioles could signal their revival by signing slugger Prince Fielder

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Jesus Montero
Jesus Montero could be a significant part of the Yankees' future -- if they don't trade him during the offseason.
US Presswire

This week, will analyze the offseason plans for each team in a division-by-division format. Wednesday will preview the National League and Thursday the American League. Teams are listed in order of finish in 2011.

New York Yankees

2011 Results: 97-65, first place in AL East, lost ALDS to Tigers

Runs Scored/Runs Allowed: 867/657

Pythagorean Record: 101-61

Pending Free Agents: RP Luis Ayala, RP Andrew Brackman, IF Eric Chavez, SP Bartolo Colon, SP Freddy Garcia, OF Andruw Jones, RP Damaso Marte, RP Sergio Mitre, C/DH Jorge Posada

Prospects on the Verge: C Jesus Montero, SP Dellin Betances, SP Manny Banuelos

Building For: A World Series championship, as usual

Strengths: Offense; cash reserves; catching

Biggest Holes: Starting pitching

Targets: SP C.J. Wilson, SP Mark Buerhle, SP Yu Darvish

The Plan: The Yankees took a lot of the drama out of their offseason before it had barely started, re-signing CC Sabathia this week at terms (five years, $122 million) that would frighten most teams but, in this team's financial universe, were actually close to reasonable for both sides. A new contract for general manager Brian Cashman quickly followed. With the everyday lineup essentially Opening Day ready -- it's aging, but it's settled -- New York can concentrate on filling the same hole it began 2011 with: a shortage of starting pitching.

The Yankees were surprisingly strong on the mound -- they allowed 4.1 runs per game, third-lowest in the AL -- but that success will be hard to replicate. Bartolo Colon and Freddy Garcia, brought into spring training as fliers, came back from the dead and were shockingly effective in the rotation. Even if they return in 2012 (both are free agents) they're unlikely to repeat their performances. Rookie Ivan Nova (16-4, 3.70 ERA) was an unexpected force, though his low strikeout-walk rate suggests he could revert to something closer to league-average performance. And then there's A.J. Burnett, who showed flashes of his old self but realistically can't be counted on as anything more than a solid fourth starter.

It all means that the Yankees will chase hard after the top pitchers on the free agent market: C.J. Wilson, Mark Buehrle, Edwin Jackson, Roy Oswalt and, if he decides to leave Japan, 25-year-old fireballer Yu Darvish. New York lost the Cliff Lee derby last year; don't expect them to let that happen again if they decide they have to see Wilson in pinstripes.

The rotation could also be bolstered by rookies Dellin Betances and/or Manny Banuelos. Both are expected to start the season at Triple-A, but they're seen as potential top-of-the-rotation starters. Expect Cashman to also troll the free agent market for low-cost reclamation projects like Garcia and Colon -- pitchers from whom he can squeeze a decent season to buy time until Betances and Banuelos are ready for full major league workloads. If quality starters become available on the trade market -- Seattle's Feliz Hernandez, say, or Houston's Wandy Rodriguez -- Cashman could dangle catching prospect Jesus Montero as bait. Montero projects as an above-average hitter, but the Yankees are rich with catching prospects. Montero would be a valuable chip in the trade market.

Cashman has some long-term headaches to worry about, particularly the aging, expensive and declining stars he's stuck with at third base (Alex Rodriguez, 36), shortstop (Derek Jeter, 37) and first base (Mark Teixeira, 31). He also must find a way to lock up second baseman Robinson Cano to a long-term deal. But for now his biggest concern is finding the pitching to support a lineup that will again be one of the game's most dangerous offensive units in 2012. If he can do that, the Yankees' hellish two-year World Series drought could well end next October.

Tampa Bay Rays

2011 Results: 91-71, second place in AL East, lost ALDS to Rangers

Runs Scored/Runs Allowed: 707/614

Pythagorean Record: 91-71

Pending Free Agents: RP Juan Cruz, OF Johnny Damon, 1B Casey Kotchman, C Kelly Shoppach

Prospects on the Verge: SP Matt Moore, SP Alex Cobb

Building For: Another year of crashing the AL East payroll party

Strengths: Starting pitching; team defense; Maddon Magic; front office resourcefulness

Biggest Holes: Catcher; DH; a strikeout-prone lineup

Targets: Trading partners with depth at first base and catcher; short-buy free agents lost in the Pujols-Fielder-Wilson shuffle

The Plan: If you wish baseball would level its financial playing field by adopting increased revenue sharing or -- gasp! -- a salary cap, the Rays are your worst nightmare. It's not impossible for low-payroll teams to compete under the current system -- no team with a top-nine payroll won a postseason series this year -- but sustaining that success for more than a year is rare. (See the 2007 Indians, '08 Brewers, '09 Rockies, '10 Reds... and most likely the '11 Brewers.) Yet here is Tampa Bay, coming off its third playoff trip in four seasons, never spending more than $72 million per year along the way, getting by with a $43 million payroll in 2011. They drive the Yankees and Red Sox crazy on the field, but the plucky Rays are those behemoths' best friends when it's time to negotiate a new CBA.

Tampa Bay's formula isn't mysterious. Executive VP of baseball operations Andrew Friedman has built a player-development machine, and the holes his farm system can't fill get plugged with savvy, off-brand free agent signings, such as Johnny Damon and Casey Kotchman last winter. This year Friedman has a luxury few teams have: more quality starting pitchers than he can fit into one rotation, which gives him valuable trade chips and again will allow him to troll the sub-Pujols free-agent market to buy position players of value.

Friedman will almost be forced to deal some of that pitching -- James Shields and Wade Davis are the most likely to move -- for offense, since the Rays were below league-average in runs, on-base percentage and slugging this year and had the AL's third-highest strikeout rate. One possible trade partner is the Reds, who have a deep pool of good-hitting first basemen; with Joey Votto entrenched at the position, they might move prospect Yonder Alonso for a quality starter. Friedman will also be on the lookout for teams with depth at catcher (hello, Toronto) now that he's decided Kelly Shoppach, a decent defender but offensive hole, isn't worth his $3.2 million option.

With their starting pitching depth -- rookies Matt Moore and Alex Cobb should be ready to join a rotation currently headed by David Price, Shields and Jeremy Hellickson -- it won't take much to keep the Rays competitive. Their stellar defense (no team was more efficient at turning batted balls into outs in 2011) makes them a run-prevention force, so even a minor offensive upgrade should be enough to keep them in the 90-95 win range. Manager Joe Maddon would love to have a more potent bat at DH (the Rays got just a .425 slugging percentage from that spot), and a full year from young outfielder Desmond Jennings should also boost Tampa Bay's run total. It's a good bet that when spring training opens, people will be surprised at some of the off-the-radar moves Friedman pulls this winter. But when the Rays are in the hunt next September, it will shock no one.

Boston Red Sox

2011 Results: 90-72, third place in AL East

Runs Scored/Runs Allowed: 875/737

Pythagorean Record: 94-68

Pending Free Agents: SP Erik Bedard, OF J.D. Drew, OF Conor Jackson, RP Trever Miller, DH David Ortiz, RP Jonathan Papelbon, C Jason Varitek, SP Tim Wakefield, RP Dan Wheeler

Prospects on the Verge: SS Jose Iglesias, SP Felix Doubront, 3B Wes Middlebrooks, C Ryan Lavarnway

Building For: The World Series, and to erase the memories of September's collapse

Strengths: Offense; financial resources

Biggest Holes: Manager; rotation depth; right field

Targets: SP Roy Oswalt, SP C.J. Wilson, a trade for RF Andre Ethier?

The Plan: Where to begin? It's tempting to start with a monologue of fried chicken and beer jokes, but Step One in assessing the state of the Red Sox is ignoring the soap opera that developed after Boston's historic September collapse. The Red Sox, baseball's best team for the middle four months of the season, didn't miss the postseason because of clubhouse picnics or managerial pill-popping or Oedipal tension between departed general manager Theo Epstein and father figure/team president Larry Lucchino. They missed the postseason because their pitching failed them -- both at the major-league level, where Boston ranked 22nd in the majors in starters ERA, and at the minor-league level, where the franchise had no one serviceable to call on when the season was spiraling. It's telling that while the Rays were able to pluck flamethrowing Matt Moore from Triple-A in September, the Red Sox were considering a trade for Bruce Chen on the final day of the season.

So new GM Ben Cherington's first task -- aside from finding a replacement for departed manager Terry Francona; Phillies bench coach and Ted Danson lookalike Pete Mackanin seems to be an early front-runner -- is rebuilding the staff. That effort will begin with a decision on what to do with closer Jonathan Papelbon: let him walk as a free agent (and pocket two valuable draft picks), or pay top dollar to keep him? A year ago it seemed unlikely that Papelbon would be in a Boston uniform in 2012, but the combination of his stellar 2011 performance and the September struggles of heir apparent Daniel Bard makes this a difficult call for Cherington. Papelbon is almost certain to seek the highest-value contract he can get; unlike Heath Bell in San Diego, there's little chance he'll accept a hometown discount to stay where he is. Still, don't be surprised if the Red Sox pay up to keep him.
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