After winning the offseason (as of now), the Red Sox are the prohibitive favorites to win the American League East, but that may be an indictment of the rest of the teams in the division, which have made less impactful moves.
The acquisitions of David Price, Craig Kimbrel, Chris Young, and Carson Smith have drawn rave reviews around baseball. There’s little to dislike about what Dave Dombrowski has done to improve a last-place team.
Have they done enough? The glaring defensive deficiencies in the infield, the unsteady rotation after Price, and a couple of questions in the bullpen (the health of Koji Uehara, the tread left on Junichi Tazawa) could still derail them.
The defending division champion Blue Jays appear to have messed up a good thing by not pursuing Price in free agency and allowing popular Canadian general manager Alex Anthopoulos to depart, but don’t count them out with that lineup. And the ownership group may choose to splurge midseason again.
Toronto didn’t make an offer to Price, who went 9-1 after being acquired. The Jays instead added starters J.A. Happ in free agency and Jesse Chavez via trade from Oakland. Aaron Sanchez may go back to the rotation.
“It’s going to be a different look right now,” said manager John Gibbons. “There’s still time. There could be a couple of other moves and some changes. But we’ll see. I think the team, having [Troy] Tulowitzki and those guys, [Ben] Revere, on the field every day for six months is going to make us that much better. So we expect to score a lot of runs.
“One area we did run into trouble the first half of the season was probably middle relief. Even sometimes later in the game. So that’s always an issue for every team, and until they all come together, we know who everybody’s going to be down there, it’s tough to say. But that’s always a challenge for us. It’s a challenge for everybody else, too.”
Gibbons came to enjoy Price the pitcher and Price the person.
“[The Red Sox are] getting the best, no doubt about it,” Gibbons said. “From a personal standpoint, what he did for us last year, he really basically got us over the top. If we didn’t acquire him, good chance we don’t make the playoffs. He was that good for us. It was also a united clubhouse. He was a natural fit from Day 1. So it really helped energize some things because we were a solid team, but we just kind of staggered along, and he helped — he was one of the guys that helped put us over the top.”
As for the postseason rap on Price, Gibbons said he “didn’t see a different guy at all. You look at the numbers in the postseason and I had to deal with that constantly. All I know is he’s a guy that gets you into the postseason every year, and he pitched some very good games in the postseason as well. He was victimized by a couple of home runs in this past series, and there’s a little bit of luck involved, too.
“And one thing I can say about him, though, after his first start in the playoffs, it didn’t go the way he wanted, but he came to us and said, ‘Hey, pitch me out of the bullpen.’ We would never have done that if he hadn’t approached us. That tells you what kind of guy he is. There’s no way I could look at him and think you don’t want this guy in the postseason. That would be crazy. That’ll change.”
The Yankees can still be formidable and it doesn’t appear they’re done with transactions. They will get Mark Teixeira back after leg surgery. They acquired Starlin Castro from the Cubs to play second base and perhaps finally replace Robinson Cano. They are dangling closer Andrew Miller and outfielder Brett Gardner for a starting pitcher. After New York traded lefty reliever Justin Wilson to Detroit for two prospects, some in the media wondered if the Yankees are building for the future rather than for 2016.
“For us to go out and add big pieces, I didn’t expect that to happen,” said manager Joe Girardi. “Yeah, on paper, Boston has improved their club. Obviously they have added to their rotation with David Price, who has pitched extremely well, and they have added to their bullpen with the guys that they obtained over the last couple weeks. But you’ve always got to play the game on the field.”
The Rays are the Rays. They will be competitive because of their pitching, and Chris Archer could compete with his old buddy Price for best pitcher in the division. The Rays have tried to improve their offense by acquiring utilityman Brad Miller and first baseman Logan Morrison from Seattle, but Tampa Bay always seems offensively challenged.
Manager Kevin Cash feels the Rays can’t look at what the other teams are doing.
“[The Red Sox] are doing everything they can to go out and compete,” said Cash. “We all know the American League East is a very competitive division, and it looks like they are just adding more to that competition with the signings that they have made and the acquisitions. Inside the organization, I don’t think it affects us at all. We know that the structure that we have in place, what works, what will work, and we’ll continue to compete really well against the other teams that are out there.”
The Orioles have retained catcher Matt Wieters and reliever Darren O’Day, but they await word on slugger Chris Davis, to whom they have made a $160 million offer. They also need a starting pitcher, as it appears they won’t re-sign Wei-Yin Chen. They acquired bopper Mark Trumbo to play first or DH.
Manager Buck Showalter has accepted the reality that the Orioles aren’t going to compete monetarily with the Red Sox and Yankees.
“I don’t pay a whole lot of attention to what they’re doing,” Showalter said of the Red Sox. “It’s a given they’re going to spend and develop and do what they can do. I do the same thing. They’re good. They’re always good.”
Bradley popular trade subject
A few teams, including the Royals and Cubs, inquired about Jackie Bradley Jr. at the Winter Meetings but were told by the Red Sox he was not available.
The Royals have had their eye on Bradley as a possible replacement for Alex Gordon. The Red Sox and Royals also engaged in trade talks for Wade Miley before Miley was traded to the Mariners along with Jonathan Aro for reliever Carson Smith and lefty Roenis Elias. The Red Sox, according to one major league source, asked the Royals for hard-throwing reliever Kelvin Herrera, but Kansas City preferred to give up Luke Hochevar. The Red Sox opted for the Mariners deal.
The Cubs, in need of a center fielder, had Bradley high atop their list but opted for big-ticket item Jason Heyward, who is likely to shift from right field.
The Royals wanted Miley in their rotation. Teams love Miley’s durability, his ability to make 30 starts and pitch around 200 innings. Kansas City loved Miley’s fast approach and toughness. At 29, Miley still has an upside.
And here’s an interesting stat: Among Red Sox pitchers with at least 10 starts at Fenway in 2015, Miley had the lowest batting average against at .243. Clay Buchholz had the worst at .298.
There’s still a chance the Royals come up with the money to keep Gordon, who would love to stay in KC, but he will receive numerous offers to play elsewhere at big money. The Royals could instead opt for free agents Dexter Fowler or Denard Span, or acquire the Braves’ Nick Markakis, who has three years and $33 million remaining on his contract.
Manager Ned Yost would love to keep Gordon, but said he will stay out of the decision.
“I want Alex to make his own decision, and Alex knows where we stand as an organization and how much we would love to have him back,” said Yost. “I understand, too, that he’s got two wonderful boys and a great wife that he needs to take care of.
“You know, I think all along, all I’ve ever wanted for any of my players is for them to be successful and do the best for their families that they can do. Selfishly, do I want Alex back? Yeah, I love Alex. Do I hope we can get him back? Yeah, I hope we can get him back. But time will tell.”
Apropos of nothing
1. Bob Nightengale of USA Today makes a convincing case for Fred McGriff for the Hall of Fame. Ten seasons with 30-plus homers and 493 homers in all, eight times with 100-plus RBIs. He compares to David Ortiz, Willie Stargell, Willie McCovey, Frank Thomas, and Jeff Bagwell. McGriff was at the Winter Meetings as a special assistant to Braves president John Hart.
2. Not many baseball executives and scouts queried at the Winter Meetings said they would dish out a $200 million contract to outfielder Jason Heyward. But Theo Epstein was willing to give Heyward $184 million for eight years. Heyward is a middle-of-the-order hitter capable of more than the 13 homers and 60 RBIs he had this past season. He’s a great right fielder with a great arm, but in the eyes of many baseball people that doesn’t justify such a sizable paycheck.
3. Doesn’t it feel like Jose Bautista will be a member of the Red Sox at this time next year?
4. Didn’t Rich Hill give you more confidence than anyone else in the Red Sox rotation at the end of the season? Hill signed a one-year, $6 million deal with Oakland.
5. Aroldis Chapman could be sitting out for a long, long time after MLB investigates the domestic incident with his girlfriend, in which he allegedly choked her and fired eight gunshots in his garage. MLB’s new domestic policy will be tested, and you can bet the punishment won’t be lenient. MLB needs to make a statement with Chapman and with the allegations against Rockies shortstop Jose Reyes. With no appeal process, there’s no reason for commissioner Rob Manfred to consider anything other than the strongest punishment allowed. The other issue here is, if the Red Sox knew about the allegations against Chapman, why weren’t the Reds and Dodgers aware before they agreed to a deal for the flamethrowing closer?
6. New Orioles executive Jeremy Kapstein should be a major asset both in the short and long term. Kapstein was hired last week as a consultant to general manager Dan Duquette.
7. Royals manager Ned Yost recalled the first conversation he had with Zack Grienke, who signed a $206 million deal with Arizona: “I never said a word to him until the day that I took over as manager of the Kansas City Royals and I walked up to him. He was in the bullpen and I said, ‘Zack, I just wanted to say hi. It will probably be the last thing I’m going to say to you all year because I know you don’t really like to talk much.’ And he looked at me and goes, ‘Whoo. Thanks.’ I let Zack be Zack. He’s a very unique guy. It’s amazing how intelligent he is. And when you do have a conversation with him, he’s always very enlightening because he doesn’t sugarcoat anything. He always will tell you exactly what’s on his mind.”
Updates on nine
1. Daniel Bard, RHP, free agent — Bard spent all of last season trying to solve his command problems and seemed to be making progress, but never pitched in a game. The former star setup man with the Red Sox is hoping to hook on with a team this winter.
2. Cody Ross, OF, free agent — It appears Ross’s career is over. The horrible hip injury he suffered with the Diamondbacks two years ago hasn’t allowed him to recapture his effectiveness. He had a tremendous year with the Red Sox in 2012 (22 homers, 81 RBIs) with his made-for-Fenway swing, but when it came time to sign a new deal, the Sox wouldn’t give him a third year and so he signed with Arizona. Ross played with Oakland for a short period last season.
3. Jesse Crain, RHP, free agent — Once considered one of the best middle relievers/setup men in the game, Crain has spent most of the last two seasons rehabbing from shoulder surgery. Crain, 34, last pitched with the White Sox in 2013.
4. Will Middlebrooks, 3B, free agent — His agent, Joe Sambito, said Middlebrooks has received inquiries from 11 teams. Released by the Padres, Middlebrooks has been unable to live up to the standard he set as a rookie with the Red Sox. The Brewers, who recently acquired infielder Garin Cecchini from the Red Sox, could bring Middlebrooks into their third base mix.
5. Nick Markakis, RF, Braves — John Hart and John Coppolella have done a great job turning over the roster and bringing in top young talent. Markakis could be the next to go. The Royals are interested, and a reunion with the Orioles is possible as Buck Showalter remains a big fan.
6. Craig Breslow, LHP, free agent — Breslow and fellow reliever Joe Nathan were at the Winter Meetings trying to draw interest in their services. Breslow would love to try his hand as a starting pitcher. Nathan will attempt to show teams he’s healthy and could contribute as a back-end reliever. He last pitched for Dave Dombrowski in Detroit. You wonder if the Red Sox are willing to give him a chance.
7. Carson Smith, RHP, Red Sox — Baseball people love Smith’s stuff, but hate his delivery. There’s concern he may be an injury waiting to happen, and that’s why the Mariners were willing to deal him. He had a tough 40-pitch outing against the Red Sox Aug. 16, when he allowed three hits, three walks, and two runs over two innings. He rebounded with a good September. “He seemed to hit a little bit of a wall after the All-Star break,” said one scout who watched him quite a bit in Seattle. “The first thing you think about is an injury of some sort, especially with a loss of velocity. But he pitched his way out of it.”
8. Theo Epstein, president of baseball operations, Cubs — Epstein didn’t land his first choice in free agency, David Price, but he was among the more productive executives at the Winter Meetings in signing Jason Heyward, Ben Zobrist, and John Lackey. Epstein essentially took two key players away from the rival Cardinals in Heyward and Lackey, and got a veteran presence in Zobrist. He also got a serviceable swingman in Adam Warren from the Yankees.
9. James Shields, RHP, Padres — There’s still a feeling that Shields could be tacked on to a veteran staff. Among the potential candidates are the Cubs, Giants, Yankees, Blue Jays, and Royals (if the Padres took on some money).
Shields allowed the most home runs at home in San Diego since 2002.
From the Bill Chuck files — “Over the last five seasons, 26 pitchers have made 150-plus starts, among those the only ones with above 4.00 ERA: Jeremy Guthrie 4.56 and Rick Porcello 4.37.” Also, “Over the last two seasons, Edwin Encarnacion and Chris Davis have each hit 73 homers; Encarnacion has 180 K’s and Davis 381 whiffs” . . . Happy birthday, Fergie Jenkins (73).
Astros second baseman Jose Altuve led the American League in stolen bases for the second straight season, but his 38 steals were the fewest of any league leader since Luis Aparicio swiped 31 for the White Sox in 1962. Still, Altuve, with 30 or more steals in four straight seasons with a success rate greater than 70 percent, ranks among the best young base stealers in the game:
Nick Cafardo can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.