As we get to something close to the half-way mark of the “off season”, it seems like much of what we’ve been hearing so far has been what might happen or what hasn’t rather than what has. There are still over a hundred free agents out there unsigned, and despite a few big trades sending players like James Paxton and Edwin Encarnacion to new homes, the majority of big names are still big names in the same cities. It could be awhile until Bryce Harper and Manny Machado sign their huge deals and break the logjam.
That said, there has been enough activity to get a feel for what 2019 might be like. With that in mind, I present a report card on the AL East teams’ off season to this point. And, no surprise, our Blue Jays aren’t at the head of the class.
Baltimore – after an embarassingly bad 2018 which saw them set a franchise record for losses, one would think things could only go up for Baltimore. Perhaps so, but so far, they’re clearly sticking to a philosophy of addition through subtraction. They’ve let fo of quite a few players, and brought in next to nothing. So far, gone from the roster are catcher Caleb Joseph, infielders Luis Sardino and Danny Valencia, DH-type Pedro Alvarez and outfielders Craig Gentry and (franchise player) Adam Jones. One would think unless Jones’ re-signs with them, at a hometown discount, fans will be burning his jersey after he vetoed a trade last summer which would have brought in some young talent. Coming in to replace all those, so far … backup infielder Drew Jackson. And the man with the thankless task of getting them back to respectibility again, new manager Brandon Hynde. Getting rid of some deadweight has to help, but only if they bring in some amount of new, enthusiastic talent. The fans of the Chesapeake deserve better. Grade : F
Boston – thus far, Boston hasn’t added many new faces but are saying “bye bye” to some familiar ones. Right now the bullpen looks a bit shaky with superstar Craig Kimbrel still testing the free agent market and Joe Kelly jumping to the west coast and the Dodgers. However, they’ve retained Heath Hembree and Nathan Eovaldi (whom some speculate will be converted into a fireballing closer), so all is not lost. Ian Kinsler and Drew Pomeranz are currently free agents as well, as is aging DH Hanley Ramirez. After his .254, 6 homers, 0.2 WAR in just 44 games last year, one can imagine the Sox will be happy to see the end of him and his mega-contract. Bottom line – they’ve not done much (I expect they will before April though), however, with 108 wins and a World Series championship , they didn’t need to do too much. Grade : C
New York – one could almost feel sorry for the Yankees. They did everything right last year, won 100 for the first time in nine years, continued to rein in their drunken-sailor-spending habits of earlier in the century, somewhat, have developed some young talent… yet didn’t win the division for the 6th straight year. Clearly, this isn’t acceptable to the powers that be in the Bronx, and nor is seeing the hated Boston rivals win. So the Pinstripers plan to do things differently it seems. They made the first big splash of the off-season, picking up lefty James Paxton, coming off a career year which featured a no-hitter, from Seattle for highly-rated pitching prospect Justus Sheffield and two other minor leaguers. They re-upped CC Sabathia and JA Happ to solidify the rotation just yesterday retained reliever Zach Britton to go along with the already stellar bullpen duo of Bettances and Chapman. Shortstop Adeiny Hechevarria might be missed, particularly with Didi Gregorious expected to be out for half of 2019, but to limit the damage they picked up veteran Troy Tulowitizki when he was released by the Blue Jays, apparently seeing enough potential in a workout they attended to figure he’s back in game shape after missing all of 2018 from foot surgeries. Lance Lynn is a free agent, but his departure should be more than covered by Paxton. Other than that, they’ve not done much. Whether or not they change that by making a big splash on Machado or Harper remains to be seen (my guess, no, but they’ll do something to boost the offence) , but already they’ve done more than the other teams in this division. Grade : A
Tampa Bay – the 2018 Rays were much like other teams we’ve seen from Florida’s west coast this century – making a silk purse from a sow’s ear. The no-name, small budget team amazed both with their strategies and the results, winning 90. This off-season, they let catcher Jesus Sucre, first baseman CJ Cron and pitcher Sergio Romo go the free agent way but they’ve brought in talent too. Catcher Mike Zunino is a defensive upgrade (having a defensive WAR of 1.7 last year) and still has power, clubbing 20 homers,despite a low .201 average with Seattle. He hit 25 with 64 RBI the year before, and with middling outfielder Gil Heredia, it seemed a decent trade even if it gave up very promising young OF Mallex Smith. More importantly, they ramped up their pitching signing 35 year old veteran Charlie Morton from the ’17 World Series champ Astros. Morton’s age might have deterred a few teams, but on the short term, he’s a great addition, coming off a career year with a 15-3 record, 3.13 ERA and 201 K’s being best of his 11 seasons and the 167 innings second-best. His four-year ERA trend has gone 4.81/4.15/3.63/3.13 , so even if he regresses a little he’s likely to be an above average starter. Cron’s career best 30 homers and .493 slugging will be missed but what Tampa need more than a replacement for him is a move to Charlotte, Portland or Las Vegas… the perennially low-drawing Rays announced they’re going to close the upper sections of their dreary stadium, reducing capacity to a league low 26 000, give or take. Grade : B
Toronto – the first impression of the Jays’ thus far is that they’ve sat on their hands and done nothing, but that’s of course not accurate. On the plus side, they did recently add in two pitching restoration projects, lefty Clayton Richard from SD and righty Matt Shoemaker from LAA. Both were fairly cheap by today’s standards, both have great potential if they can stay healthy and pitch up to their capability. Neither has done that for a couple of years. However, they’re good additions and one of them should be a decent replacement for Marco Estrada who was disappointing more often than not in ’18. However, neither is close to a sure bet and given how bad the starting rote was last year, and GM Ross Atkins frequent bleating about better pitching being job 1, it’s rather a disappointing response. Given that JA Happ was interested in returning to Toronto and signed on with New York for – given his record – a bargain price over only 2 guaranteed years, one wonders why the Jays didn’t return him to the fold. Or outbid the Yanks for Paxton, a Canadian with a Maple Leaf tattoo. Meanwhile, the decent but far from stellar bullpen hasn’t been added to, although Jake Petricka and (my choice for their pitcher of the year last year) Tyler Clippard are free agents.
More problematic is the infield. We’ve spoken of it here before, but the Jays did seem to be dealing with a surplus of middle-infielders/third basemen given the readiness of super youths Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Bo Bichette who both will likely be playing before the All Star Game. However, the Jays botched the chance of turning this to their advantage. Non-tendering a contract to Yangervis Solarte was possibly wise, given that the club option for him was worth aroud $5M, a high price for a guy whose numbers dropped all season long and was widely considered to be just “phoning it in.” But then we have the ridiculous folly of Tulowitzki, who the Jays will be paying close to $38M over the next two years while he plays for the rival Yankees! The 100-win team figure he’s good enough to play for them, but the 73-win one figured he was done. The team’s semi-official beat reporter, Gregor Chisolm says Atkins “sidestepped” the obvious question of why they didn’t at least bring him to spring training and have a chance to trade him, even if only for a prospect or two and even if they were going to pick up most of his remaining contract.
Finally there was young Aldemys Diaz, the versatile 2016 All Star (for the cards.) He was decent through ’18, with a 1.4 WAR (because of a solid 2.3 offensive WAR ) and a .263 average, 18 HR and .756 OPS. Certainly he might have been expendable, but one would expect the Jays might have gotten more in return than Trent Thornton, whom they traded him to the Astros for. Thornton will turn 26 this summer yet is still a minor league “prospect.” He was a so-so 9-8, 4.42 with the ‘Stros AAA team last year and scouts figure his fastball is good in delivery and speed (about 94 MPH) he has an OK curve but a below-average changeup… and a “funky” high-leg kick delivery which might catch hitters by surprise but also seems a bit unwieldy. Thornton is currently ranked as the Jays 22nd best prospect, 8th best as a pitcher. Not exactly something to sell the masses on for 2019.
The ultimate problem with this is that there will be eyes focused on the Jays this year, with the hype surrounding Baseball-America’s top prospect, Guerrero. And the Braves show that a great young player or two, combined with a savvy front office making a few small moves, can quickly go from below-.500 to division champs. Yet Atkins seems content to look at a three, or more, year return to respectibility… and with bringing a great young talent into the big leagues in a clubhouse which will seem unfamiliar with winning or striving for greatness. Grade : D-