Beasts (and Leasts) of the East

March 6, 2005

Boston Red Sox
The hardest part about winning a championship is staying on top.  Unless you are the New England Patriots who had an easy upgrade with Corey Dillon, finding better players than the ones you used to win but who still fit into your team concept is not as easy as it may look.  The Red Sox looked to replace the significant losses of Pedro Martinez, Derek Lowe and Orlando Cabrera in addition to adding quality depth, and GM Theo Epstein did a solid job of that without breaking the bank.  Edgar Renteria doesn't have quite the range of Cabrera at short or the offensive prowess of former BoSox Nomar Garciaparra, but he's more durable than either and the drop-off in skills is negligible.  He's been a pretty good doubles hitter the last three years - averaging 40 a year - but moving to Fenway should boost that even more.  Still, he probably won't be the Sox most significant signing; that distinction belongs to Matt Clement.  Last year, Clement's run support (6th worst in the NL) was about the only significant difference between his and Roger Clemens' numbers.  Now he moves to a team with one of the best offenses in baseball.  He'll also enjoy a slight upgrade on the middle infield defense as the combo of Renteria and Bellhorn is superior to that of Garciaparra and Walker/Grudzialanek.  Two other starting pitchers were brought in with some fanfare: David Wells and Wade Miller.  Wells shouldn't suffer too much from the change from Petco to Fenway as the Boston park has always played kindly to lefties.  However, moving back to the AL and playing against a much improved AL East will push his numbers toward retirement-quality.  Miller has the talent to succeed, but has yet to maintain the consistent focus over the course of a full season to make good on it.  He's also coming back from a frayed labrum which is always a concern.  Ripped up elbows can be repaired with Tommy John surgery, but there really isn't a consistently successful operation or rehab program to heal a bum shoulder.  He's simply too big of a question mark to be relied upon this year.  Fortunately, the Sox, who already had rotation depth with Wakefield and Arroyo, added John Halama and Jeremi Gonzales to the mix this offseason.  Neither will be particularly good, but both could be serviceable in 3 to 5 start stretches.

Other interesting adds are Matt Mantei, Jay Payton, Ramon Vazquez, Dave Berg and Roberto Petagine.  Petagine has spent the last several years beating up Japanese League pitching.  No one questions the guy's talent: he has a very good eye at the plate, a smooth powerful swing and a solid glove at first.  What has been a question is his desire to excel every day.  He could get by on talent alone in Japan, but that won't cut it in the majors.  At 33, this will probably be his last chance to show what he can do, so there should be some incentive for him to push himself this year.  If he does, his offensive production could rank among the top first basemen in the league by the end of the season.  If not, he could be the biggest bust since, well, Roberto Petagine.  Vazquez and Berg add quality depth to the bench.  Both guys can play serviceable defense around the infield and both have enough offensive skills to be a decent stopgap should injury strike the starters.  Payton might have been the perfect pick-up for Boston where he'll be re-united with former Georgia Tech teammate Jason Varitek.  Like Petagine, the guy has got talent; on a college team that featured Varitek and Garciaparra, Payton was considered by many as their offensive equal.  But injuries and fatigue have been his biggest failing.  It appears that he simply doesn't have the constitution necessary to play 150+ games a season.  However, as a 4th outfielder, his ability to play good defense at each position and solid offensive skills should fit perfectly on a team that isn't blessed with good defensive outfielders.  Mantei will add another power arm with closing experience to an already good bullpen.  It's doubtful he'll see many closing opportunities and he's always had trouble staying healthy, but his talent is such that he has the potential to turn in a season similar to the one Tom Gordon turned in last year for the Yankees. 

New York Yankees
Just as with any other year, the Yankees made the most noise with their winter additions.  The one that surprised no one was the signing of Doug Glanville, who will be filling the role that Kenny Lofton did last year as the starting centerfielder and key cog in the Yankee offense... ok, maybe not, but more on him a little later.  After one disappointing season in the Bronx, Javier Vazquez was shipped out to Arizona, along with a couple of potentially marginal prospects, for Randy Johnson.  Despite his age, Johnson had the best year of any pitcher in the NL last year but lost out on the Cy Young award because the D-back offense only gave him enough run support for three wins... he got 16, but they only gave him enough run support for three. The rest of the time, he had to hold the opposition to a negative run total.  Still, as good as he looked last year, repeating may be very difficult.  First of all, he's now in the AL where line-ups are deeper because of the different rules.  Second, he won't be pitching where it's always warm.  New York weather is as tempermental as Barry Bonds after he takes his supplements, which doesn't bode well for the continued good health of a guy with a balky back and no cartilage in one of his knees.   It's harder to stay loose in cold or damp weather, and the humid summers take a lot more out of an athlete's body than the climate-controlled, dry warmth of a retractable roof stadium.  And lastly, over the course of his career, Johnson has proved somewhat thin-skinned when it comes to dealing with the media, and the daily New York media is notoriously over-arching and intrusive.  While it's certainly possible that the Unit will have yet another sensational season on his way to Cooperstown, the smart money is on a season more in line with what Kevin Brown did in New York last year than what Johnson did in Arizona.  The two very big positives for Johnson is that he'll get lots of run support and that Yankee Stadium has always been friendly to lefties, so it may all equal out in the wins column.  Two other highly publicized additions to the Yankee rotation were Jaret Wright and Carl Pavano.  There are risks that both could be complete disasters - Wright with his injury history, Pavano coming off his first good season - but my feeling is that both will be pretty decent.  Pavano was certainly the beneficiary of good luck last year as none of this underlying skill numbers are particularly noteworthy, but he has shown a knack over the last season and a half for making smart pitches when it mattered most.  Maybe he's the right-handed Tom Glavine.  Maybe not.  But it's too early to dismiss the signing.  Wright found his groove in AAA with the Padres in 2003 and made Leo Mazzone look like a genius last year in Atlanta.  Maybe genius is as much in the substance as in the timing... the same thing happened with John Burkett when the Braves signed him too.  But I digress.  Wright was in the top 20 in the majors in strikeout rate and showed a knack for keeping the ball in the park, allowing only 11 homers last year.  However, it took him two tries to pass the physical before signing with New York, a fact that does not inspire confidence that he'll stay healthy for 32-35 starts.  The Yankees are taking a high-ceiling, high-risk approach to their rotation, which worked fine last year when they could plug in Orlando Hernandez for 10 or so starts, but might not be as successful this year with no real back-up plan.  However, unlike any other team in baseball the Yanks have an unlimited payroll so theoretically they can overcome such an oversight during the season.

The biggest improvement this offseason for the Yankees might have occurred in their bullpen.  Buddy Groom, Mike Stanton and Felix Rodriguez were brought in, each with quality resumes.  Rodriguez is at the top of his game, but the two lefties are on the downside of their careers and last year showed continued erosion.  They should have enough left in the tank so that Yankee brass won't have to worry about the fans loudly recalling the halcyon days of Felix Heredia.  The Yanks also brought in two cagey, playoff-experieced vets in Tino Martinez and Tony Womack.  Womack will add some speed to the line-up but it remains to be seen if his 35-year old legs have much left or if he can get on base enough to use it.  Last year he posted his career best on base percentage at .349.  His next best was .332 back in 1999 and for his career it's .319.  Martinez is a solid addition who will stabilize the infield defense and provide enough offense so that Jason Giambi never has to take off his batting gloves again.  Rey Sanchez and Damian Rolls were brought in to massage egos from the bench.  And Glanville?  As baseball players go, he's about as smart as they come so he could gain notoriety as the Quipmaster of New York.  That could prove useful, taking pressure off the team's more media-awkward stars to talk about their own exploits.  He'll also be useful in the field as Bernie Williams' defensive replacement, which says more about Williams' defense than it does about Glanville's skills.

Baltimore Orioles
The O's made noise by trading Jerry Hairston and a couple prospects to the Cubs for Sammy Sosa.  On the surface, it's a good move for both clubs: the Cubs get a good defensive second baseman who can cover for Nomar's obvious defensive deficiencies and they get rid of a player who's become the focus point for all the teams' ills, while the O's get a marquee power hitter and they unclutter their second base position.  However, in the long run, the O's may come to regret this.  Hairston's injuries the last couple of years have largely been freakish in nature, which means there's a decent chance he could start staying healthy for full seasons at a time.  If he does and if the Cubs and Dusty Baker realize that they have a real second baseman and not just a utility player, Hairston has the talent and skills to become a fantastic everyday player.  When he and Brian Roberts were competing for the second base job in 2003, the starting pitching staff's ERA was a full run lower with Hairston in the field, and Roberts is no slouch with the glove.  He's also begun to understand how to maximize his value to the team as a lead-off man, getting on base the last two years 35.3% and 37.8% of the time respectively.  In short, he's becoming vintage Roberto Alomar without the power.  But what about the Os and Sosa?  Sammy will start fresh in a new city and should fare reasonably well.  Camden Yards is a good place for right-handed power hitters, the clubhouse has a decidedly latin feel and Oriole fans are among the most loyal and patient in baseball.  What remains to be seen is if Sammy can get back to controlling the strikezone the way he did under Jeff Pentland, or whether he will continue to devolve back into the free swinging, all-style Sammy who was so frustrating to watch flail at breaking pitches two-feet off the plate. 

The other significant additions to the team were Steve Kline, Steve Reed and Jay Witasick.  Kline gives them a solid lefty they can use in set-up.  This will allow them to take their time developing John Parrish and keep BJ Ryan as the closer, and not be tempted to try the inconsistent Jorge Julio again because they lack lefties in the pen.  Steve Reed has been solid, even when he pitched in Colorado.  Jay Witasick has been both brilliant and awful at times the last four years and I expect we'll see some of both this year.  Of the players the O's brought in to add depth - Chris Gomez, Chris Stynes and Enrique Wilson - only Stynes could contribute significantly with the bat.  Over the course of his career, whenever he garners at least 250 at bats in a season, he has averaged .280 with 9 homers.

Toronto Blue Jays
The Blue Jays appear to be on a geological time table for improvement.  They made some potentially positive moves in bolstering the bullpen with Scott Schoeneweis, Billy Koch and Scott Downs, and got a potentially decent starter/releiver in Chad Gaudin in exchange for the highly fungible bat of Kevin Cash.  And Corey Koskie, if he can stay healthy, could be a very nice addition with the free agent defection of Carlos Delgado leaving the line-up devoid of left-handed power.  But the Jays needed to do a lot more than resigning Greg Myers to even keep up with the Orioles and Devil Rays, much less the Red Sox and Yankees.  True, having a healthy Roy Halladay will help the rotation significantly, and the team will get better with the continued maturation of Orlando Hudson, Alexis Rios, David Bush and the promotion of Russ Adams.  But none of those players figures to improve to star quality in the near future, if ever.  They are complementary players, not cornerstones.  While Shea Hillenbrand will make a nice platoon partner with Eric Hinske at first and get enough playing time as the DH to have a nice season, his addition does little to address Clara Peller's lingering question about the line-up, "where's the beef?", especially if Koskie continues to fail to play more than 140 games a season as he's done the last three years.

Tampa Bay Devil Rays
The D-Rays had one of the most intriguing offseasons of any team in baseball.  I'm not saying they improved a whole lot, but let's just say for the sake of argument that Travis Lee, Brandon Larson and Josh Phelps live up to their once hyped potential.  And then let's suppose that Denny Neagle and Hideo Nomo provide enough workman-like success at the top of the rotation to allow Scott Kazmir, Casey Fossum and Jorge Sosa to realize their considerable potential at the back of the rotation.  Conceivably, this could be a very surprising team, especially once they got Rocco Baldelli back and were able to use Danny Bautista as God intended as a 4th outfielder.  Granted, only in the movies does a rag tag team of talented underachievers and has beens put it all together and win.  But stranger things have happened in baseball. 

The hitters realizing their potential is the most likely of the scenarios.  Lee showed noticeable improvements in 2003 before a shoulder injury sidelined him all of last year.  The question hasn't been about his talent but his desire.  While Lee's former manager Larry Bowa and his current one Lou Pinella have similarly fiery personalities, Pinella is much less likely to say something just to inflame.  His emotional outbursts seem to have more constructive focus which should benefit Lee.  Larson's biggest issue has been staying healthy and I don't know that playing on Nexturf will help that aspect more than playing on real grass.  But if he can manage to win the job and stay relatively healthy, a 20+-homer season is within his ability.  For whatever reason, Phelps' production simply evaporated last year.  Maybe his lack of plate discipline finally caught up to him, yet he still managed to hit 17 homers in just 371 at bats.  On the downside, although he still mashes lefties, there are only 5 regular starting lefties in the AL East.  The biggest mystery for Phelps will be to figure out why he hit so much worse on the road last year (more than 200 points difference in OPS) than he did at home.  Alex Gonzales (the former Padre/Expo/Cub/Blue Jay one) will probably keep an everyday job in the infield for the season, which can't be any worse than having Rey Sanchez or Geoff Blum batting regularly.  The Rays also added a slew of roster filler that they can stash somewhere for the rainy days.  Roberto Alomar (who is little more than a coach these days), Marty Cordova, Chris Singleton, Dee Brown, Shane Halter and Brian Buchanan could all have some value over the course of the season, although probably only for a week at a time while a regular is on the DL.

The starting pitching staff has so many questions, but also so many alternatives that there's at least a chance that by the end of May the team will have a reasonably consistent rotation to count on.  Neither Neagle or Nomo looked especially good last year so it's probably a long shot that they will contribute anything but keeping opposing fans wanting to see home runs happy.  But the Rays have a number of talented young starters who just need to find consistency.  This may not be the year they finally post a winning record - especially if they keep making trades like Chad Gaudin for Kevin Cash - but there is a light at the end of the tunnel.