Thursday, March 3, 2011

Offseason Recap: AL Playoff Teams

Since they’ve already proved they’re good enough to compete for a title, I’m going to go through last year’s playoff teams, looking at major additions and subtractions over the offseason and then giving you the reasons why they might repeat, and what might prevent them from another date with October ball. Today, I’ll begin with the AL, and I’ll move on to the NL next post.

Tampa Bay (Last year: AL East Champions, 96-66)
Tampa’s AL East-winning squad was nearly entirely dismantled this offseason, Lost to free agency were two of their top hitters, as well as the better part of their outstanding bullpen. Carl Crawford signed with division rivals Boston for 7 years and $142 million. Rafael Soriano will also stay in the AL East, as a $35 million deal will have him wearing pinstripes for then next 3 years. Carlos Peña will be manning first for the Cubs next year, while the pen once led by Soriano will also be missing Joaquin Benoit, Grant Balfour, Dan Wheeler, Chad Qualls, and Randy Choate. However, they did sign Johnny Damon and Manny Ramirez to one-year deals in order to soften the blow to their offense, as well as Kyle Farnsworth, JP Howell, and Joel Peralta to solidify their retooled bullpen. The Rays also made two major trades that will deplete the team at the big-league level in the near future, trading Matt Garza to the Cubs and Jason Bartlett to San Diego in exchange for prospects. The haul for Garza especially was quite impressive, as it contained two of Baseball America’s top 100 prospects. Garza will be replaced by Rays’ top prospect (and no. 6 overall according to BA) Jeremy Hellickson, so this move has a shot to upgrade the rotation if Hellickson can immediately realize some of his immense potential. Led by Hellickson, the Rays now have 8 of BA’s top 100 prospects (second only to the Royals’ absurd 10), as well as 10 of the first 60 picks (and 12 of the first 90) in next year’s draft due to compensation from players who were offered arbitration but eventually signed elsewhere. So they’ll certainly have an opportunity to build a juggernaut in the future, but can they compete this year?

Why they can do it again: Although the Rays’ offense and bullpen will look very different from last year, their starting rotation remains almost totally intact with the exception of swapping Garza out for Hellickson. As I mentioned earlier, this could end up being an upgrade. Throw in a year of maturation for the rest of this young and talented staff, led by David Price, James Shields, and Wade Davis, and this has a chance to be one of the top rotations in baseball. Their bullpen is full of guys capable of providing strong relief work, and last year’s pen wasn’t expected to be as dominant as it was, so Rays fans will be hoping for a similar pleasant surprise in 2011. On offense, there’s no question that this team got worse, but the shrewd signings of Damon and Ramirez could allow them to outperform expectations.

Why they might not: The losses of Crawford and Soriano were going to hurt regardless, but the fact that they ended up with the Rays’ two biggest division rivals adds insult to injury. In the always-competitive AL East, any step in the wrong direction hurts, and with both their offense and bullpen taking big steps back and the inexperience of their talented staff, this could be a down year for the Rays. This club may have to wait to contend until they begin to see returns from their talented group of prospects currently in the organization as well as those soon to be added in the upcoming draft.

Minnesota (Last year: AL Central Champions, 94-68)
Unlike the Rays, the Twins will look very similar to last year’s AL Central championship squad, as their main moves involved re-signing Carl Pavano and Jim Thome and exercising Jason Kubel’s $5.25 million option. Their biggest addition was Tsuyoshi Nishioka, a middle infielder who the Twins won in the posting process and eventually signed to a three-year, $14.3 million deal. Nishioka is only 25, and was strong on both offense and defense with the Chiba Lotte Marines of Japan’s NPB. He’ll replace Orlando Hudson at second, while shortstop JJ Hardy was shipped off to Baltimore and will be replaced by Alexi Casilla. They did take a big hit in the bullpen, losing Jesse Crain, Matt Guerrier, Brian Fuentes, Jon Rauch, and Ron Mahay, but Joe Nathan will return after missing all of 2010 recovering from Tommy John surgery and they’ll retain closer Matt Capps, acquired at the trade deadline from Washington last year. Stars Justin Morneau and Joe Mauer are both recovering from injuries, with Mauer coming off a minor offseason surgery to clean out his knee and Morneau coming back from lingering concussion symptoms stemming from a collision at second base that ended his season on July 7th of last year. Mauer should be all right, but Morneau is still waiting for clearance to participate in games, with the Twins targeting Opening Day for his return. Whether he’ll be able to meet that deadline remains to be seen, but whether Morneau’s comeback is eventually successful will likely be a deciding factor in the success of the 2011 Twins.

Why they can do it again: This is basically the same team that took the Central last year. The bit of offense they’ll lose with the departure of their double-play combo will be more than offset if Morneau can make a healthy return. Their staff is solid from top to bottom and features Francisco Liriano, who has shown that he’s got ace potential when he’s healthy and on his game (as he was last year). Their bullpen will likely take a step back, but it was one of the best in the league last year, and they’ll get back a guy (Nathan) who hasn’t put up a FIP above 3 in his 6 seasons in Minnesota.

Why they might not: The question marks. Does Morneau come back healthy? Does Mauer’s knee cause him problems? Can Francisco Liriano stay off the DL? Will the bullpen implode without several of its key components from 2010? And finally, how good are the White Sox and Tigers? Both have improved, and if the Twins can’t put up a win total in the vicinity of last year’s, either team could catch up and take the Central.

Texas (Last year: AL West Champions, 90-72)
The AL-champion Rangers will be looking to do it again, but they will have a significantly tougher time in 2011. First of all, they lost Cliff Lee, who was the biggest prize of the offseason. In addition, they lost some key pieces on offense, including DH Vladimir Guerrero and catcher Bengie Molina. They did work hard to replace these players, their biggest splash coming in the form of a five-year deal for Adrian Beltre. Beltre, an excellent hitter and defender, will man the hot corner for Texas, allowing Michael Young to shift to DH to replace Guerrero. Young wasn’t happy about the way that deal went down, and requested a trade, but at this point it looks like he’ll be staying in Texas. The Rangers also traded reliever Frank Francisco, their closer in 2009 and a key piece of their bullpen last year, for Mike Napoli, who will replace Molina behind the plate. Free agent signing Yorvit Torrealba will also provide cover at the catching position. Arthur Rhodes, who is old as dirt but coming off a very strong year in Cincy, was signed to strengthen the bullpen, which should help offset the loss of Francisco. Finally, possibly their best pickup was a $3 million deal for Brandon Webb, a former Cy Young winner who had spent more than a full year recovering from a 2009 shoulder surgery. Webb’s contract is heavily incentivized, meaning he’ll make $3 million if he completely implodes and can’t make a comeback, but can make $8-10 million with a good year. Webb’s been looking good in workouts so far and if he comes back strong, providing value in excess of that $8-10 million should be pretty much automatic.

Why they can do it again: The team that got them to the World Series last year, minus Lee, is pretty much intact. The addition of Beltre will help on both defense and offense, and this fearsome lineup still features AL MVP Josh Hamilton along with a number of other potent bats. Though their pitching staff lacks a true ace (CJ Wilson, who produced 4.4 WAR last season, is their opening day starter), it has solid depth throughout, and if Webb can return to anything resembling his pre-injury form the potent offense should be able to carry them to another division title.

Why they might not: Losing Lee, quite possibly the best pitcher in the game, certainly hurts, as does the loss of Guerrero. Mitch Moreland will need to prove he’s their guy at first, and if he can’t, Michael Young and Mike Napoli will play there, opening up questions at DH or catcher. If they take a significant drop, Oakland will be right there to make them pay, as the A’s had an extremely strong offseason and will be looking to steal Texas’ division crown.

New York (Last year: 95-67, AL Wild Card)
The Yankees will send out a squad that looks a lot like last year’s, after resigning Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera on multiyear deals this offseason. However, they had a few losses that could hurt them in 2011. Andy Pettitte, a fixture in the Yanks’ rotation for 13 of the last 16 seasons, finally hung up his cleats at 38. Pettitte was coming off a fairly productive 2.3 WAR season in which he put up a FIP of 3.85 in 21 starts. Javier Vazquez, signed before the 2010 season after an excellent 2009 season with the Braves, proved a failed experiment in his return to the AL, and will look to regain his form in the NL East once again after catching on with the Marlins. Finally, Lance Berkman, who had come over from the Astros at the trade deadline, will be returning to the NL Central after signing with the Cardinals. They did add a few strong pieces, the most notable being Rafael Soriano. Soriano will take over 8th-inning duties, handing the ball to Rivera to form a shutdown back of the bullpen. They also brought in Russell Martin and Andruw Jones, both on one-year deals. Martin will take over duties behind the plate, while Jones will come off the bench as the fourth outfielder. Finally, they brought in Mark Prior, Freddy Garcia, and Bartolo Colon on minor-league deals to compete for spots at the back of their rotation. CC Sabathia is the team’s ace, with Phil Hughes and AJ Burnett slotting in behind him, but the fourth and fifth spots are up for grabs between those three pitchers and in-house options Ivan Nova and Sergio Mitre.

Why they can do it again: They’re the Yankees. When you spend as much money as they do, you’re gonna have a pretty good shot. Their offense is star-studded, the back end of their bullpen is one of the best in the majors, and in Sabathia they have one of the most dominant starters in baseball. In addition, the Rays seem to have taken a big step back this offseason, which could result in the Yankees and Red Sox battling for both the division crown and Wild Card, with both playing postseason baseball.

Why they might not: The back end of their rotation is a HUGE question mark. Any time Bartolo Colon is in the discussion to break camp with a rotation spot, that’s not a good thing. After three strong years to begin his career, Russell Martin has put up wRC+ of 85 and 88 in the last two seasons, which led to his non-tender by the Dodgers. They can’t feel too comfortable with him starting the season behind the plate, although top prospect Jesus Montero could be a strong option if he falters.

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