Wednesday, December 16, 2015

The 2015 Mets Offseason

Haven't written in a long while. Two kids and a law practice will do that to you. Here are my thoughts on the Mets' offseason to date.  


As you may have heard, the 2015 World Series was won by the team with the higher payroll.


Instead of celebrating their deepest playoff run since 2000's Subway Series, Mets fans are understandably frustrated with ownership's diversion of baseball revenues to service Fred Wilpon's personal indebtedness on his team, stadium and television network. For those who haven't followed the sordid details, Wilpon's annual interest payments amount roughly to the $120 million the St. Louis Cardinals spend on MLB payroll.


If you're looking for the facile answer why the Mets paid less to field a team in 2015 team than they did in 2001 (adjusted for inflation), Wilpon's debt is it. Embedded media constantly regurgitate the company line. Those who value their press passes will tell you that the Mets' $110 million payroll expenditure combines with Wilpon’s $120 million in debt financing to produce a larger number than every team but the league-leading Dodgers put toward players last year.


This line of thinking is deeply flawed. Wilpon's cries of poverty are overwhelmed by the fact that the value of the team itself has grown by 120 percent in the last dozen years, to $1.35 billion. MLB’s annual revenues have exploded from $1.4 billion in 1995 to around $9.5 billion today. In other words, granting that the equity appreciation isn’t liquid, Wilpon's investment in the Mets has more than doubled. His part-ownership of MLB Advanced Media (the unit that streams video for baseball, HBO, and ESPN) is worth another $166 million. That's pure profit, as MLBAM didn't exist when Wilpon bought the team. Ratings for SNY, the Mets' regional sports network, are up 60 percent from 2014 -- and are now on par with Yankees ratings. When you read about the Diamondbacks signing Zack Greinke out of the $90 million a year they get from their new TV contract, it’s a reminder that you should add at least that amount to the Mets' annual revenues.


Wilpon quietly signed a 17-year lease to move SNY's headquarters -- oh, and those of his real estate group, Sterling Equities -- to 83,000 pristine square feet on the 49th and 50th floors of the new 4 World Trade Center. Ownership is doing just fine. But while the Red Sox supplement their young hitting talent by signing David Price and trading for Craig Kimbrel, the Dodgers flex their financial muscles to run MLB's largest payroll, and the Tigers' owner says, "I don't care about the money. I want the best players," Wilpon uses the Mets to massively buttress his personal balance sheet.


For the season just ended, the Mets spent the fourth-lowest percentage of revenues of any team -- only 38% of team revenues were directed to payroll. The Mets could have entered next season with only three players (David Wright, Curtis Granderson and Michael Cuddyer) having accumulated the seven years of service time necessary to hit free agency. Rostering so few market-value veterans would have made the team a historical anomaly. It also highlights how the Mets -- like the Diamondbacks signing Greinke -- could easily afford another $30 million on the payroll because they’re getting so much production from young, cost-controlled talent. However, General Manager Sandy Alderson merely “hopes” the team will open 2016 with a higher payroll than it did last year.


The funny thing is, not even the famous "source with direct knowledge of team financials" can deny that the Mets' division title and World Series appearance will earn the team over $50 million in added revenues. Given Alderson’s previously-expressed intention to "make a splash" in 2016, any reasonable expectation has the Mets spending far more this offseason than last, when they committed to merely $12 million in 2015 salary for Cuddyer and John Mayberry.


On December 9, the Mets traded Jon Niese for Pirates second baseman Neil Walker, then signed Asdrubal Cabrera to a two-year, $18.5M contract. Unquestionably, having Walker better aligns the roster. Niese had been shunted to the bullpen for the Mets’ playoff run after a mediocre regular season (4.13 ERA, 4.41 FIP). Between Rafael Montero returning from shoulder soreness and Zack Wheeler returning from Tommy John surgery, the Mets will have two internal candidates to fill Niese’s fifth-starter role. Niese at $9M was an unnecessary expense.


Whether Walker is a necessary expense is open to debate. Dilson Herrera and his career .304/.369/.470 minor-league line could have been given a shot to play second base, filling the shoes Daniel Murphy wore when he kicked grounders all over the World Series. Instead, trading for Walker both reveals the team’s belief that Herrera needs more development time and provides the Mets with far more certainty as they defend their pennant -- Walker has produced at least 2.4 bWAR in every season since 2011. Granting that the Walker trade is a good play for 2016, it’s both cynical and accurate to say that the Niese/Walker swap was essentially revenue-neutral, with Walker set to earn approximately $1 million more than Niese will in 2016.


Cabrera’s signing is more about accumulating depth than an indictment of Wilmer Flores’s ability to play an MLB-caliber shortstop, as both infielders have widespread reputations as defensive butchers. ESPN’s Dan Szymborski projects Cabrera and Flores to produce 2.2 and 1.7 WAR, respectively, in 2016. Because Wright seems more likely than not to spend time on the disabled list, Walker and Cabrera are both on the wrong side of 30, and Flores is far better than the replacement-level backups like Eric Campbell and Daniel Muno that filled in last year, having Flores on the bench is another reasonable hedge against uncertainty for a team that expects to contend for a playoff spot.


Flores should play more than a typical extra infielder, though. Walker is a switch-hitter who has a career 123 wRC+ against righties and a mere 83 wRC+ against lefties. Flores has mashed southpaws to the tune of a 162 wRC+. Flores can be a real asset as the short half of a platoon -- if Terry Collins is inclined to use him that way.


The Mets claimed they’re not done building next year’s team even before Cuddyer retired, freeing up a roster spot and $12.5M in salary (minus the undisclosed buyout Cuddyer will get for walking away with a year left on his contract). With Daniel Murphy and stretch-run additions Yoenis Cespedes, Tyler Clippard, Juan Uribe and Kelly Johnson off the books as free agents, and accounting for the fortuitous Cuddyer announcement, the Mets’ current payroll is estimated at ~$103 million for 25 players, one of whom (Zack Wheeler) will still be recoving from Tommy John surgery on Opening Day:


Player            Salary
RF Granderson     $16.0M
2B Walker   $10.0M
1B Duda           $6.8M
2B Wright         $20.0M
LF Conforto       $0.6M
C  d'Arnaud       $0.6M
SS A.Cabrera      $9.25M
CF Lagares        $2.5M


Bench Nieuwenhuis $0.6M
Bench Plawecki    $0.6M
Bench Tejada      $2.5M
Bench Flores      $0.6M


SP Harvey         $4.7M
SP deGrom         $0.6M
SP Syndergaard    $0.6M
SP Matz           $0.6M
SP Colon          $7.25M
SP Wheeler        $0.6M


RP Familia (RH)   $3.3M
RP Reed (RH)      $5.7M
RP Blevins (LH)   $4.0M
RP C.Torres (RH)  $0.8M
RP Edgin (LH)     $0.6M
RP Mejia (RH)     $2.6M
RP Montero        $0.6M


2016 payroll is now exactly what it was in 2015, when the Mets -- the New York Mets -- ranked 21st out of 30th teams in MLB. Between Alderson’s “hope” that the team will spend more than last year’s $103 million on its Opening Day roster, Cuddyer’s retirement, and a $50 million playoff bonanza, the team can easily commit to another $25 million for 2016 payroll. In other words, the Mets could have afforded Jason Heyward.


Please don’t scoff. Adding the best free-agent center fielder -- pushing Juan Lagares to the defensive-support bench spot he's best suited for -- to the team with the best starting rotation in baseball would have made the Mets a near-lock for the 2016 playoffs. Heyward received $23 million a year from the Cubs. If the Mets had dealt Jon Niese for a prospect or cheap bullpen arm instead of Walker, allowing Dilson Herrera or Wilmer Flores to start at second base, they would have saved $9 million. Cuddyer’s retirement saved another $12.5 million. Sure, that $21.5 million covers only one year of Heyward’s deal, but the Mets have merely $48 million committed for 2017 payroll and only $28.5 million committed for 2018. Again: The Mets could have afforded Jason Heyward.


Public perception, fed by Wilpon and his friendly press corps, instead ruled a Heyward signing impossible. Now, the Mets will likely sign 30-year-old Dexter Fowler or 29-year-old Gerrado Parra at a fraction of Heyward's salary. Those guys could perform adequately as the dominant side of a center field platoon with Lagares, but it's not the impact signing the Mets need -- the potential second coming of Carlos Beltran in his prime. Remember when the Mets signed the best free agent available?


In 2005, Omar Minaya inked the then-28-year-old Beltran to a 7-year, $119 million contract. The outfielder finished 9th in MLB with 32.3 bWAR for the life of his contract. Beltran sits above his former teammates David Wright (10th, 31.9) and Curtis Granderson (11th, 31.3) on that list. Indeed, for those seven years, Beltran was better than future Hall of Famers Chipper Jones (12th, 29.8), Ichiro Suzuki (14th, 29.3) and Derek Jeter (31st, 25.6). Heyward would have fit perfectly in orange and blue.


But Wilpon’s P.R. poverty campaign has been a success. With Heyward off the market, the Mets re-signed the serviceable LOOGY Jerry Blevins for one year at $4 million and innings-eater-slash-team-mascot Bartolo Colon for $7.5 million. Next, the front office will likely sign a mid-market lefty-hitting centerfielder. Wilpon will dole out barely $10-$15 million over 2015’s payroll -- anchoring the Mets in the bottom-third of MLB spending -- and tout that expenditure like he did last year when the team signed Cuddyer. Then the front office will close up shop for the winter while the likes of Justin Upton, Yoenis Cespedes and Chris Davis sign elsewhere. (And while Alderson hopefully undergoes successful cancer treatment.)


The league should censure Wilpon for redirecting team revenues to make payments on debt rather than payroll when the team has a championship-caliber core. Yet it's well established that MLB has no interest in forcing Wilpon to sell unless he goes full-McCourt and embarrasses his fellow owners. All the Mets have done in acquiring Walker and Cabrera this offseason is fill the holes left when Murphy and Uribe/Johnson left as free agents. Mets fans have to hope that the team's bumper crop of cost-controlled young players improves enough to overcome what will inevitably be a disappointing offseason of high propaganda and low spending.


**


Scott D. Simon is an attorney who specializes in commercial litigation, financial restructuring, and bankruptcy. He is also Commissioner of the Westchester Hebrew Softball League, and one of the Effectively Wild Podcast’s favorite emailers. Follow Scott on Twitter at @scottdsimon.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

2013: Tigers or Athletics?

Today's issue of Joe Sheehan's Newsletter, spurred by rumors of Felix Hernandez signing a $175 million contract, posits that the Mariners are "the fourth-best team in a division with three of the top ten teams in baseball ..." 

Few would argue that the Rangers, who have reached two of the last three World Series, or the Angels, having signed Josh Hamilton and Zack Greinke* this offseason, are not among MLB's best. But placing the A's among a group that includes the aforementioned Rangers and Angels means that two of the Nationals, Blue Jays, Tigers, Dodgers, Reds, Giants, Braves, Rays and Yankees are not top-ten teams. I emailed Joe how that could be, and he replied that while he hadn't researched the topic, he's sure that the A's are better than the Tigers.

*This is what happens when I write at 11pm. This is also why I haven't written in two years. 

My first response was that Tigers < A's is, if not a narrowly-held position, then a quietly-held one -- I've not heard anyone tout the A's for 2013. Indeed, Sportsbook set the A's at 30-1 to win next year's World Series, longer odds than the Cardinals and Rays.* Sportsbook's odds imply that the Red Sox and A's are equally likely to win the World Series. Now, online gambling lines qualify less as research than entertainment, so let's dig a little deeper. 

*The A's play in one of the toughest divisions in baseball while the Tigers play in one of the easiest, though the addition of the Astros to the A.L. Central balances the scale somewhat. Still, the Tigers are clearly a better bet to win their division than the A's are to win theirs -- and therefore much more likely to make the playoffs and win the World Series. This shouldn't affect how we objectively view the teams.


Based on Baseball Prospectus's adjusted standings page, the 94-68 A's should have won between 87 and 92 games last year. The Tigers, at 88-74, nailed their Pythagorean mark; BP says Detroit should have won between 87 and 90 games. What the adjusted standings tell us is that one could expect the A's to naturally regress next season, while the Tigers' record was a fair reflection of its component statistics. The A's and Tigers were both ~89-90 win teams at heart last season, thus the question becomes: Which team did more to improve for 2013?

The A's were involved in two offseason trades, acquiring John Jaso from the Mariners and Jed Lowrie from the Astros. The only major-leaguer Oakland relinquished in those deals was Chris Carter, the hulking slugger whose 16 home runs in 67 games only provided +0.8 WAR because he played a miserable first base -- when he was even allowed to put on a glove. Carter might thrive in Houston, but he's no great loss to the A's. Granting Joe's premise that Jaso provides a two-win upgrade from A's catchers last year, that's a significant upgrade. Lowrie was a +2.5 WAR player in his age-28 2012, but that was the first time he had played even 90 games in a season. The A's have stated they plan to use Lowrie in a utility role, so It is not harsh to pencil him in for a +2.0 WAR season next year. 

The A's also signed Hiroyuki Nakajima to be their starting shortstop in 2013. Nakajima was a star in Japan, but it's fair to say that Japanese infielders seem to rarely work out. Nakajima will look to outplay Stephen Drew, who left Oakland to sign with Boston. Drew's been injured for significant portions of the last two seasons, so he's far from guaranteed to outplay Nakajima next year.

Of the Athletics' returning players on offense, it's unlikely that Brandon Moss, he of the .251/.317/.442 career mark, repeats his age-28 .291/.358/.596 season in 2013. Similarly, Coco Crisp will play this season at 33 years of age; he's more likely to regress than improve.  For the A's to maintain their 90-win pace from last season, they'll need both Yoenis Céspedes and Josh Reddick to prove that their combined 55 home runs and down-ballot MVP showings were not flukes. Reddick will be 26 this year, and Céspedes will be "27", so both could be entering sustained peaks. Still, Céspedes and Reddick combined for only 85 non-intentional walks in 1,213 PAs. That's not a Jason Giambi or Johnny Damon walk rate. Color me skeptical that the Oakland outfield duo will exceed last year's combined +7.9 Fangraphs WAR. 

On the pitching side, the A's lost Brandon McCarthy to free agency, but hope to get Brett Anderson back from having pitched 230 innings -- over the last three seasons. Anderson is a borderline star when on the mound, but his next season throwing 180 innings will be his first. After 35 innings in 2012, I doubt the A's are counting on Anderson to provide more than 120 innings this year. The rest of Oakland's rotation -- Bartolo Colon, Jarrod Parker, Tom Milone, and Dan Straily -- will be helped by throwing half their games in the Colosseum, but two-through-five that's a weak starting staff. 

The A's, as is their sabermetric wont, annually cobble together outstanding bullpens from other teams' discard piles. I'll concede that whatever anonymous relief corps Oakland conjures up will outperform the Tigers' pen. 

Oakland's improved at catcher and improved their infield depth while they hope that last year's outfield breakouts are for real. They're treading water on the pitching side. Today, I'll pencil the A's in for 90 wins. Are the Tigers that good?

(It's already past my bedtime, I'm at 900 words, and I've not even written up the Tigers yet. Apologies if this rapidly devolves into incoherence.)

The 2013 Tigers will benefit from a full year of Anibal Sanchez in the rotation and Omar Infante at second base. Neither is an MVP candidate, but each represents an easy one-win upgrade over last year's performers in those spots. Detroit also sees Victor Martinez, returning from injury, replace free-agent Delmon Young at designated hitter. That alone could provide three or four wins over the team's 2012 performance. The Tigers also signed 37-year-old Torii Hunter to play right field. Hunter's not going to hit .313 again, but he won't have to in order to provide more than Brennan Boesch (.240/.286/.372) and Quintin Berry (.258/.330/.354) did last year. Figure that's another 2-win improvement. 

On the regression side of the ledger, Miguel Cabrera, Justin Verlander and Austin Jackson all performed at MVP levels last year. Two of these three are future Hall of Famers whose 2012 stats are not out of place next to their career numbers. (Prince Fielder and Jhonny Peralta also performed in line with expectations and should do so again.) Jackson, still just 26 years old, is no lock to provide another +5 WAR season, but I'd rather have Jackson's 2013 than that of Céspedes or Reddick.  

Behind Verlander and Sanchez, the rest of the Tigers' rotation includes Max Scherzer, who was basically unhittable in last year's second half, Rick Porcello, who Jason Parks predicts to break out in 2013, and Doug Fister, who proved in 2012 that his Seattle numbers were sustainable in Detroit. This is an exceptionally strong starting staff. 

With Rafael Soriano off the market to Washington, it appears the Tigers will go into 2013 with a rookie closer backed up by a nondescript veteran bullpen. I'm falling asleep so I'm not going to offer my opinion on Detroit's seventh through 13th pitchers, but with the variability of relief pitchers, I'm unwilling to predict greatness or failure. Jettisoning Jose Valverde's Capital-C Closer mentality is likely to add, not subtract, wins from the team. 

The Tigers took an 89-win team and improved by adding Hunter, Infante and Sanchez, getting Martinez back, and showing the door to Young and Valverde. On paper, that looks like five or six wins to the good. 

I'll stipulate that the A's demonstrated surprising skill by holding off Texas and Anaheim for the 2012 A.L. West crown. But it is respectfully submitted that last year's A's overachieved and did not adequately replace the wins they'll lose to regression. The Tigers, who won the Central nearly by default, and who were last seen getting swept by the Giants in the World Series, improved by trade and free agent signing, but also by health and (subtly) free agent departure. 

Having given this a pretty close look, I'm pretty sure that the Tigers are a better team than the Athletics heading into 2013. 

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

On The Leadership Aging Curve

Joe Sheehan's got an excellent Newsletter issue today about Michael Young's trade demand and, more generally, about "leadership" in the abstract. If you're somehow reading this and aren't a Newsletter subscriber, you should remedy that now (preferably by subscribing and not by clicking away from this blog).

Joe writes:
The notion of Michael Young, Ranger Leader is more a media construct than anything else, as all of these things are, and it is in a time like this, when the player has to choose between self-interest and organizational interest, that we see just how silly the construct is.

***

Leadership, as much as reporters may say it is, isn't just about making yourself available for quotes, yet some large portion of getting the label of "leader" is that one act. The fact is, we don't know these guys, and after Jeter, after Gonzalez, after Young, maybe it's time we stopped imbuing them with traits they may or may not possess solely because we wish they had them.
Joe would be the first to tell you that it's impossible for an informed outsider such as himself to quantify a "leader's" contributions to his team beyond his observable hitting, fielding or pitching.

But to my thinking, maybe both views are wrong: the MSM's position that a player *is* a leader and Joe's view that players are self-interested and shouldn't apologize for it.

Maybe players' leadership follows a development curve not unlike what we see with baseball skills. You've got your young guys who come up brash and unready to lead. Then they transition into their peak leadership years: they've been big leaguers long enough to command respect from the media and their teammates. Then they enter their decline phase, when both their on- and off-field skills atrophy and they're eventually replaced.

Perhaps during those "peak leadership" years the interest of the player and team are neatly aligned. It's the player's best opportunity to have his personal skills contribute to the team's success, so he goes along to get along, hoping that he'll be part of a championship squad.

You sometimes hear about young leaders like a Jeter, or young malcontents like a pre-rehab Josh Hamilton or a Lastings Milledge, and you hear about the veteran problems you described in the NL. But guys like Milton Bradley -- quality players yet clubhouse cancers -- to me seem the exception not the rule.

Someone with more time on his hands could run a Google News search for players' names + "leader" (and player + problem) and graph the ages of the players cited. Still, I feel like leadership, like elite baseball ability, is a skill that develops, peaks and fades. Not unlike Michael Young's contributions to the Rangers over the years.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

The A.L. East is Stacked

Never have teams in baseball's other divisions been as happy to be there as 2011. The best free agent, Carl Crawford, signed with Boston. The Red Sox also acquired the best position player by trade, bringing in Adrian Gonzalez. The Rays just signed Manny Ramirez and Johnny Damon to complement a young team that won 96 games last season. The Blue Jays pulled off the unlikeliest heist of the hot stove league by ridding themselves of the worst contract in baseball -- even getting an underrated power-hitting catcher in return. And the Yankees? They'll still have MLB's highest payroll and a roster featuring at least three future hall of famers.

As I drifted off to sleep last night, I wondered which of these teams' rosters I would prefer. (Kudos to the Blue Jays for even entering the discussion.) Here's a quick and dirty analysis. Your mileage may vary, etc. Note that this ranking is all about expected performance. If we ranked these guys by wins expected per million in salary, the list would be completely different.

I'm going to rank each position for each team, with 1 being the best. Lowest score wins.

Catcher
Yankees - R.Martin/Posada (2)
Red Sox - Saltalamacchia/Varitek (4)
Rays - Jaso/Shoppach (3)
Blue Jays - Arencibia/Napoli (1)

Posada and Napoli will likely get more games at DH than behind the plate, but anytime you have a quality DH as your backup catcher, you're ahead of the game. I'll take the upside of Arencibia over the denouement of Russell Martin's career. I give the Rays a tiny bonus for acquiring Robinson Chirinos from the Cubs in the Garza trade; Chirinos can really hit and might be up soon. I know the Jays have Jose Molina on the roster, but my guess is that Molina joins Francisco Cervelli in the role of glorified bullpen catcher.

First Base
Yankees - Teixeira (2)
Red Sox - A.Gonzalez (1)
Rays - Zobrist (4)
Blue Jays - Lind (3)

Gonzalez and Teixeira are close, but I'll take the 29-year-old over the 31-year-old. As a Mets fan, I remember Mo Vaughn's rapid decent into suck far too well. Zobrist is a more valuable player than Lind because of his positional flexibility, but as a first baseman, where "hit" and "power" are the most important tools, I see Lind more likely to repeat his 2009 than Zobrist.

Second Base
Yankees - Cano (1)
Red Sox - Pedroia (2)
Rays - S.Rodriguez (4)
Blue Jays - A.Hill (3)

Cano put up hall of fame numbers the past two seasons. He's taken the mantle of "best AL second baseman" away from Pedroia, who will have to earn it back -- if he can. Hill seems to be alternating good years with bad (his pattern suggests 2011 will be a good one). Until Rodriguez plays a full season, I can't justify ranking him above Hill.

Shortstop
Yankees - Jeter (1)
Red Sox - Scutaro (3)
Rays - Brignac (4)
Blue Jays - Y.Escobar (2)

Again I'm ranking the Rays player last because we have yet to see what he can do over a 150 game season. Much was made of Escobar's trade to the Blue Jays. The statheads who predicted an improvement in AVG were proved right, though Escobar seemed to be the only Blue Jay who didn't slug .400 last season. Still, I'll take him over a 35-year-old Scutaro. You'll find folks who say that Jeter's 2010 proves he's done as a quality regular. They could be right, but if Jeter gets any bounceback in 2011, he'll be the best shortstop of this bunch.

Third Base
Yankees - A.Rodriguez (3)
Red Sox - Youkilis (2)
Rays - Longoria (1)
Blue Jays - Bautista (4)

Third base is a microcosm of the A.L. East: The Yanks are going with the expensive marquee name, the Rays with homegrown first-round talent, the Sox with a star who's underrated outside of New England and fantasy teams, and the Jays with a recent addition who outperformed expectations. Only in the A.L. East would last year's MLB home run leader be overshadowed by MLB's best young player, a first-ballot hall of famer, and a Greek god. Nobody really expects Bautista to put up the same line he did last year. Any regression puts him at the back of these rankings. Longoria was the best third baseman in baseball last year, and he's likely to improve at age 25. Youkilis is three years younger than A-Rod and has put up better numbers recently, so Youk takes the number 2 spot here.

Left Field
Yankees - Gardner (2)
Red Sox - Crawford (1)
Rays - Damon (3)
Blue Jays - J.Rivera (4)

Crawford is so much better than the other left fielders in this group that the rankings don't do him justice. Like Crawford, Gardner gets plenty of value from his outfield play. Unlike Crawford, Gardner may be underrated. Damon is on his third A.L. East team, but at this point he's a severe defensive liability. Rivera is the worst starter on any of these teams.

Center Field
Yankees - Granderson (2)
Red Sox - Ellsbury (3)
Rays - BJ Upton (1)
Blue Jays - R.Davis (4)

Yankee fans are trying to convince themselves that Granderson's early-2010 injury resulted in sub-par numbers. But Granderson's 2010 OPS+ was actually higher than his 2009 number, and in line with his career numbers. what you saw in '07 and '08 was his peak, and likely won't be repeated. The MSM wants to label BJ Upton a bust, though as @r_j_anderson never tires of pointing out, Upton is an excellent player with room to improve. Ellsbury was moved off CF last year and needs a comeback season there to reestablish his value. Rajai Davis was another nifty pickup by the Jays; for the money he's a great stopgap option. As an aside, Vernon Wells would rank third over Ellsbury, but then again we're not taking Wells' $21 million salary into account.

Right Field
Yankees - Swisher (1)
Red Sox - JD Drew (2)
Rays - Joyce (4)
Blue Jays - Snider (3)

Matt Joyce is another of the Rays' high-expectations, low-experience players. The variance on his 2010 numbers is very high. Same with Snider, who prospect mavens have loved for years, but who has yet to put together a full season of quality play. Looking at Drew and Swisher, the lower limit of their expected performance is probably the 70th-percentile projection for Snider and Joyce. Thus they get higher ranks. Swisher edges out Drew based on durability alone.

Designated Hitter
Yankees - Posada/A.Jones (3)
Red Sox - Ortiz (1)
Rays - M.Ramirez (2)
Blue Jays - Napoli/[to come?] (4)

With the money freed up by Vernon Wells's departure, I could see the Jays signing a left-handed DH type like Russell Branyon to DH when Napoli moves behind the plate. Napoli's value -- or Posada's, during his career -- stems from their hitting ability coupled with an ability to play behind the plate. To put it another way, these guys are amazing hitters for catchers, but are only serviceable as designated hitters. So the real DHs, guys like Ortiz and Manny, rank 1-2 by default. I'm not sure Andruw Jones has much more in the tank, but he's a better backup DH than anyone the Jays have on the roster.

Starting Rotation
Yankees - Sabathia/Hughes/Burnett/Nova/Mitre/[Prior?] (4)
Red Sox - Lester/Beckett/Lackey/Buchholz/Matsuzaka/[Wakefield] (1)
Rays - Price/Shields/W.Davis/Niemann/Hellickson/[Sonnanstine] (2)
Blue Jays - Romero/Morrow/Cecil/Rzepczynski/Drabek/[Villanueva] (3)

For the second time, the Red Sox's domination of a category is minimized by a simplistic 1-4 ranking, especially when considering the necessary "sixth starter." Here's a chart, presented without commentary, ranking each team's starting pitchers (yes, I have Davis and Romero tied):

Yankees rank Red Sox rank Rays rank Blue Jays rank
SP1 Sabathia 2 Lester 1 Price 3 Romero 4
SP2 Hughes 2 Beckett 1 Shields 3 Morrow 4
SP3 Burnett 4 Lackey 1 W.Davis 2 Cecil 2
SP4 Nova 4 Buchholz 1 Niemann 2 Rzepczynski 3
SP5 Mitre 4 Matsuzaka 3 Hellickson 2 Drabek 1
SP6 Mark Prior? 4 Wakefield 1 Sonnanstine 2 C.Villanueva 3

Closer
Yankees - Rivera (1)
Red Sox - Papelbon (2)
Rays - Farnsworth (3)
Blue Jays - Dotel (4)

The bullpen, more than any other spot on these rosters, shows the difference in these teams' budgets. The Yanks and Sox go with "proven" and expensive veterans, while the Rays and Jays will mix and match. It's telling that New York's setup guy was Tampa's closer last year and is now making more than Tampa's entire pen. Rivera will remain the top-rated Cyborg Closer until he returns to his home planet. Papelbon is more expensive than great, but he has a better performance record than Farnsworth and Dotel.

Setup
Yankees - R.Soriano (1)
Red Sox - Jenks (2)
Rays - J.Peralta (4)
Blue Jays - Rauch (3)

I've broken out setup guys from the rest of the bullpen to emphasize the point about cash and bullpen construction. Soriano and Jenks are tier-one free agent pickups, while Rauch and Peralta are second- and third-tier, respectively. As he proved last year, Soriano is an elite bullpen arm when healthy. Jenks' 2010 ERA did not match his underlying K/BB/HR rates, which have been consistently good since he became a relief ace. Rauch is a Proven C closer with stuff usually associated with a middle reliever, though he has a more consistent history than Peralta, a former Royal and National.

Bullpen
Yankees - Chamberlain/Feliciano/Robertson (3)
Red Sox - Bard/Okajima/Wheeler (1)
Rays - McGee/A.Russell/Hayhurst (4)
Blue Jays - Frasor/Purcey/Janssen (2)

Middle relief is where name recognition goes to die. At least it does for teams with lower payrolls. Yet the Rays and Blue Jays have produced quality bullpens year after year, a testament to their field managers as much as to their GMs. Both teams have significantly shuffled their 'pens due to free agency, but the Toronto group at least has some proven replacements. Tampa's relying on a stud prospect and various Mr. Potato Head parts, including the author of the best inside-baseball book since Ball Four. Boston's bullpen features three guys who could be closers on lesser teams. The Yankees' pen has produced more headlines than strikeouts -- and suggestions that Joba be jerked back into the rotation from his spot in middle relief.

**

So what have we got? Totaling up the rankings shows us, unsurprisingly, that Boston should be the best team in the division:

Boston - 34
New York - 48
Tampa Bay - 51
Toronto - 56

What have we learned from this exercise?

- Boston is so good at so many positions. They have until July to figure out if their patchwork catching platoon -- the team's only apparent soft spot -- will suffice on a championship-level squad.

- The Yankees' clear weakness is in the starting rotation. Rumors that they're interested in Kevin Millwood, if true, would go a long way toward helping. I'd rank Millwood as far worse than Buchholz, but better than Niemann or Rzepczynski.

- Tampa Bay, while supposedly "reloading" after losing three 10-figure free agents, holds a roster than is nearly as good as the $200 million Yankees.

- Toronto has assembled an impressive roster of homegrown youngsters and other teams' castoffs. They'll be competitive in 2011 but could be a monster in 2012 and beyond. The Blue Jays are now both literally and figuratively in the A.L. East's league.