With the Winter Meetings set to begin Monday at Disney World, one of the great exercises of the offseason is how the World Series winner tries to maintain its status as the top dog, and how other contenders try to catch up with personnel moves.
Two keys for the Red Sox will be to make sure their starting pitching remains intact, which it likely will, even if they look to deal one of their veterans, and continuing to have a top bullpen, which it also appears they will.
They have certainly taken a hit by losing Jacoby Ellsbury to the Yankees, and the team will also look different with the loss of Jarrod Saltalamacchia, who signed a three-year deal with the Marlins. But they retained their top righthanded middle-of-the-order hitter by signing Mike Napoli to a two-year, $32 million deal. The next step is to re-sign Stephen Drew and play Xander Bogaerts at third.
With a week of possible deals at the meetings, following a flurry of deals this past week, how have the contenders done in trying to catch the Red Sox?
1. Detroit Tigers — The Tigers’ bullpen was their undoing in the American League Championship Series against the Reds Sox. They were able to get by during the regular season because of their rotation and lineup, so team president Dave Dombrowski wasn’t about to make the same mistake twice. He made a bold deal to dump Prince Fielder and all of his money for Ian Kinsler, creating payroll flexibility so he can re-sign Max Scherzer. He gave new manager Brad Ausmus a little peace of mind with Joe Nathan coming aboard. After dealing Doug Fister to Washington, he got back a dependable lefthander in Ian Krol, who will essentially replace Drew Smyly in the bullpen as Smyly moves to the rotation. Still ahead is another bat and someone to play left field. Verdict: gained ground.
2. Tampa Bay Rays — It appears the Rays have finally made their catching situation better by landing Ryan Hanigan from the Reds. They also have Jose Molina and Jose Lobaton for depth, and it appears they’ll deal Lobaton soon. The Rays need to obtain a first baseman and possibly another outfield bat, and they’ll likely move David Price for a big haul. The Rays are still that can-only-get-so-far team. It doesn’t appear they have made strides toward bridging the gap to the Red Sox. Verdict: No gain.
3. Cleveland Indians — The Indians haven’t done much yet, except lose reliever Joe Smith to the Angels, but there’s plenty of time. They overachieved last season with a fireplug-type team, which earned Terry Francona Manager of the Year honors, but the Indians need to replace Scott Kazmir, who signed with Oakland, and Ubaldo Jimenez, a free agent. They’ll look for lower-cost starters and/or deals, and also use shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera as trade bait. Verdict: No gain.
4. Oakland Athletics — Billy Beane and David Forst have been quite aggressive in rebuilding their bullpen after knowing they would lose free agent Grant Balfour. They have pieced together a nice replacement strategy of trading for Jim Johnson and Luke Gregerson, and signing Kazmir for the rotation, with the possibility of using Brett Anderson for a future deal. The A’s realize they have a window to go beyond where they have the past two seasons. Verdict: Gained ground.
5. Texas Rangers — The Rangers think big. They acquired their middle-of-the-order hitter in Fielder, but they still need a power-hitting outfielder and pitching help. J.P. Arencibia isn’t an upgrade over A.J. Pierzynski. Verdict: No gain.
6. Baltimore Orioles — The Orioles created payroll flexibility by dealing Johnson, but how will they use the money? They need a designated hitter (think Kendrys Morales), a starting pitcher (Ervin Santana), and probably more protection in the bullpen. Verdict: No gain.
7. New York Yankees — They needed to do about as much as the Red Sox did last offseason, but decided to go the high-cost route rather than Boston’s low-cost way. Though they lost Robinson Cano, they gained Ellsbury, Brian McCann, and Carlos Beltran, making up for Cano’s offense but not his defense. The Yankees need to turn their attention to a starting pitcher and bullpen help, and decide whether David Robertson is indeed their closer. Verdict: Gained ground.
8. Kansas City Royals — The Royals made a good deal obtaining Norichika Aoki from the Brewers. He’ll play right field and give them a steady offensive performer. Jason Vargas fits the middle of their rotation and replaces Santana, to some degree. Verdict: Gained ground.
9. Seattle Mariners — The Mariners are white-hot. They made their huge splash with Cano, but are also working on a middle-of-the-order bat. Ownership seems to be big on spending this offseason, maybe even getting back to the Alex Rodriguez/Ken Griffey Jr. days. Verdict: Gained ground.
10. Los Angeles Angels — The Angels are trying. They traded Peter Bourjos to the Cardinals in a package that included third baseman David Freese, and signed Smith. They don’t appear to be done, as they need a couple of starters. Verdict: No gain.
QUITE A RELIEF
Teams with solid pens have peace of mind
There are still some interesting relievers out there. Grant Balfour, who had a tremendous year with Oakland, remains a free agent, along with Joaquin Benoit, Fernando Rodney (a heart attack last season and lights-out the season before), Jesse Crain (injured the last two months of last season), Boone Logan, John Axford, Oliver Perez, and Luis Ayala.
If you don’t build your bullpen with quality and depth, you pay the price.
The Red Sox were so good in 2013 in part because they had tremendous bullpen depth. You can’t lose Joel Hanrahan, Andrew Bailey, and Andrew Miller and survive, at least most years.
Even with Miller returning, the Red Sox are still adding to their bullpen, signing Edward Mujica, who had 35 saves through August last season for the Cardinals, before fading. The Sox like the idea of two closers in case Koji Uehara feels the effects of his biggest major league workload.
The Sox also traded for Burke Badenhop, who will be in a middle-relief role and was a consistent performer for the Brewers the past two seasons. Mujica and Badenhop (12 walks in 62⅓ innings) are known for their command. The Red Sox also have good depth with Alex Wilson, Brandon Workman, and Drake Britton.
The A’s and Tigers have done the best job (besides the Red Sox) of rebuilding their bullpens. The Dodgers were able to re-sign Brian Wilson, who pitched well late in the season when he came back from his injury rehab. He’ll be part of a pretty powerful 1-2 punch with Kenley Jansen.
The Orioles will have to replace Jim Johnson as their closer, but they figure between Tommy Hunter and Darren O’Day they should be OK. The Yankees have some work to do. David Robertson, Shawn Kelly, Preston Claiborne, and lefthander Cesar Cabral are a good core, but they need more.
Executives will tell you that rebuilding bullpens is the toughest thing a GM has to do on a yearly basis.
Apropos of nothing
1. When do the Yankees tell Derek Jeter that he can’t play shortstop anymore? Jeter could save himself a lot of wear and tear moving to second, where Robinson Cano has vacated, or third, where Alex Rodriguez is likely to serve a lengthy suspension. Jeter wants to show everyone he can play shortstop at age 39 after a terrible ankle injury, but the Yankees are better off signing someone like Stephen Drew and moving Jeter to second or third, aren’t they? Surprised that Jeter doesn’t see this himself for the good of the team.
2. Cano’s contract with the Mariners may be outrageous, but what does it say about the price of pitching when mediocre Scott Feldman gets a three-year, $30 million deal from Houston?
3. It appears that the Angelos family is not going to allow GM Dan Duquette to spend this offseason. The Orioles might as well throw their window to win out the window.
4. One AL official had an interesting take on recent big contracts: “I think after the Red Sox-Dodgers deal and the Tigers trading [Prince] Fielder, teams are starting to think, ‘Hey, let’s get the player we want, pay them a lot, and if it doesn’t work out in a couple of years we can move them somewhere.’ ”
5. The Nationals should make a comeback this season after last season’s aberration. They have added to their pitching with the trade for Doug Fister and acquired a good fourth outfielder in Nate McLouth.
6. Still waiting for the Blue Jays’ big moves.
7. By adding Jacoby Ellsbury, Carlos Beltran, and Brian McCann, the Yankees have created a trade market for themselves. Brett Gardner, Ichiro Suzuki, and Vernon Wells are now expendable. Gardner, because of his speed, strong defense, and ability to play center field, will be in demand. The Reds have always had an interest. Suzuki is getting old, but he can still play the outfield and run. The Giants have been enamored with Ichiro for years and need an outfielder. The Yankees also have extra catching, so Francisco Cervelli or Austin Romine could be dealt. The Yankees need a second baseman, and Howie Kendrick or Brandon Phillips are possible fixes.
Updates on nine
1. David Price, LHP, Rays — The Mariners are making a run at Price and feel they have the chips to deal to the Rays. A lot of teams would love to be in it. The Red Sox have the best chips to deal, but there’s probably a slim chance the Rays would want to enhance their competition. The Rays want controllable veterans and/or top prospects in return. Given the Rays’ void at first base, Justin Smoak might be a player the Rays would want.
2. Matt Garza, RHP, free agent — So, who ends up with Garza? The Angels need two pitchers, but draft-pick compensation is an issue. The Blue Jays are interested in every starter out there and could emerge. Garza is on the high end and that’s why teams have gone after middle-tier guys. The Yankees, Orioles, and Phillies are also in the mix.
3. Ubaldo Jimenez, RHP, free agent — Everyone loves his stuff, but teams are leery, not knowing if he’s the lights-out pitcher they saw in Cleveland the second half of last season or the one who nearly got himself released early last season. “He’s still young and he’s still a talent and he’ll get a lot of money,” said one American League GM. Look for the Blue Jays, Yankees, Braves, Phillies, and Orioles to have interest.
4. Asdrubal Cabrera, SS, Indians — Coming off his subpar season, the Indians may use Cabrera to lure pitching help. The Red Sox have a veteran pitcher to offer, but would they want to commit to Cabrera knowing they have Xander Bogaerts and Will Middlebrooks manning shortstop and third? The Red Sox say they are looking for a left-side infielder.
5. James Loney, 1B, free agent — Not sure where Loney is going to get the three-year offer he’s seeking. The Pirates remain a possibility with every first base candidate. The Orioles, Blue Jays, Rockies, and even the Rays could also be in the hunt. But three years? We’ll see.
6. Rajai Davis, OF, free agent — Davis is viewed as a fourth outfielder by most teams, including the Red Sox, but his speed is attractive. Davis, a righthanded hitter who stole 45 bases last season (caught six times), could complement Jackie Bradley if the Sox commit to the rookie, or possibly ex-Mariner Franklin Gutierrez.
7. Shin-Soo Choo, OF, free agent — The biggest outfield chip left, Choo should get big bucks in the next couple of weeks, or even at the Winter Meetings. Some reports have linked him to Boston, but that would be going against the Red Sox’ model of not giving more than five years at huge dollars. Choo’s major suitors are the Mariners, Rangers, Tigers, and Phillies. The Mariners would like to re-sign Kendrys Morales, but it doesn’t preclude them from going after Choo. The Mariners lost out on Mike Napoli, but have the funds to offer Choo a $100-million-plus deal. While the Rangers got their slugging first baseman in Prince Fielder, they love Choo’s on-base ability. That’s also an area in which the Tigers would love to improve.
8. Matt Kemp, Andre Ethier, Carl Crawford, OFs, Dodgers — One of the three won’t be in LA before the start of the season. The Dodgers can eat money and will do so if they can get a fair deal. The Tigers, Red Sox, Yankees, Blue Jays, and many others could be in play. Kemp fits the Red Sox. Crawford, who could lead off, seems to fit the Tigers. The Red Sox really don’t want to move Shane Victorino out of right field, so Ethier may not be a fit, even though there have been inquiries.
9. Ervin Santana, RHP, free agent — We’re hearing the money with Santana could get in the four-year, $64 million range. He may sit a while, and his value is going to be pretty high before all is said and done. “The price of pitching is incredible and rising,” said one NL executive. “Santana, Jimenez, and Garza are going to make out pretty well. In the meantime, teams like the Red Sox being able to move one of their veteran pitchers, the Cubs with [Jeff] Samardzija, could also make out well in deals.”
From the Bill Chuck files — “Of all the relievers with at least 20 saves, Edward Mujica had the lowest walks per nine inning rate at 0.70, followed by Koji Uehara’s 1.09 and Mariano Rivera’s 1.27.” Also, “Since 2009, at Fenway, A.J. Pierzynski has hit .379 (22 for 58) with seven doubles, no homers, and five RBIs.” . . . John Farrell and Ben Cherington will be honored with awards for executive and manager of the year at the Boston Baseball Writers’ Dinner Jan. 23 at the Westin Copley. Tickets are $200 each or $2,000 for a table of 10, and can be purchased by visiting www.sportsmuseum.org or by calling 617-624-1231 . . . Happy birthday, Alfredo Aceves (31), wherever you are, and Brian Barkley (38).Nick Cafardo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.