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.

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.

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

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.

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.

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.