For the better part of the last two decades the American League East has been dominated by the big fish, the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox. Recently the Tampa Bay Rays have been able to break into that triumvirate to steal a couple of playoff births and division titles. Last season brought more parity and more disturbance to the big budget empires with the Baltimore Orioles surprise run to 94 wins and a Wild Card spot, leaving only the Toronto Blue Jays out in the cold.
But this offseason, the established order in the AL East may finally be fully overthrown. The Yankees are old, injured, and cutting payroll back to a modest $189 million. The Red Sox are coming off their worst season since 1981 and they aren’t signing any of the big name players either, instead opting for character guys on short-term deals. Toronto (yes, Toronto) is ramping up payroll and making franchise-altering trades to add a staff full of pitchers, one that includes 2012 NL Cy Young winner R.A. Dickey. Tampa Bay is doing their usual thing, trading for young, unproven talent while rebuilding on the cheap. And Baltimore, well, they’ve stood pat thus far.
The sharks are circling. From the looks of it, everybody has a shot in the AL East. No other division in baseball can say that. So why don’t we take an early peak at the division race, position by position, to see where things stand?
Whenever a team trades their best prospect and their best pitching prospect, the assumption is that they were just floored with an offer that they couldn’t refuse. After all, if Toronto’s #5, #6, and #10 prospects (according to Baseball America) could nab Mark Buehrle, Josh Johnson, Jose Reyes, and John Buck, what could the consensus Minor League Player of the Year, Wil Myers, be worth? And what could Myers get you if you packaged him with other top prospects from one of the deepest, most talented minor league systems in baseball? It would have to be a killing, right? Like a David Price, or a Clayton Kershaw, or a Troy Tulowitzki plus more right? Well, if you were paying attention on Sunday evening, the Royals were able to turn Wil Myers, Jake Odorizzi, Mike Montgomery, and Patrick Leonard into James Shields, Wade Davis, and a player to be named later from the Rays. Quite frankly, that’s not exactly the most inspiring haul you could possibly get. In fact, I said as much a couple of weeks ago when rumors of a Wil Myers trade first surfaced. Here’s the basic gist of what I wrote:
“So unless the Rays want to trade David Price or Matt Moore straight up or the Mariners suddenly get the urge to deal King Felix away, the Royals need to stand pat. Those are the only types of players Dayton Moore should be looking for. No Jon Lesters, no James Shields types. While they are both good pitchers, they just won’t offer enough in return to justify trading away a potential future All-Star who’s going to be on a rookie deal.”
Well not much has changed in two weeks. I still believe Myers will turn into a perennial All-Star with multiple 30 homer seasons, and the only reason to trade that type of player away is if you can get a true #1 starter. And as much as I love James Shields, he isn’t a #1 starter. He might be the best #2 in baseball, but that’s not worth the haul Kansas City is giving up. Regardless of my own personal thoughts, one thing really stands out about this trade from Kansas City’s perspective: the franchise is all-in for 2013. There is no going back now. Kansas City’s front office must truly believe that the acquisition of Shields and Davis puts them in the running for the AL Central title, otherwise there is absolutely no reason to make this deal. Meanwhile, the Rays are the team looking past 2013, even though they won 90 games in last season, and you know what? They will probably be better off for it and that’s what makes this such a fascinating trade to break down.
Since the day he was hired as the manager of the Tampa Bay Rays back in December of 2005, Joe Maddon has preached an organizational philosophy that starts with pitching, strong defense, and aggressiveness on the base paths. The organization-wide changes took a couple of seasons to fully catch on, but by his 3rd season on the job the Rays were fully buying in to Maddon’s methods, particularly on defense. The 2008 Rays possessed the most efficient defense in baseball, turning balls put into play into outs at a 70.8% frequency, just one year after having the worst fielding team in baseball, ranking dead last in defensive efficiency at 65.2%. In terms of defensive runs saved, the 2008 Rays were credited by Baseball Info Solutions as being over 100 runs better on defense than they were in 2007. That kind of improvement led Tampa’s pitching staff to cut out 300 hits from their opponents, nearly 2 per game, and it produced the franchise’s first winning season ever. Those Rays would eventually fall to the Phillies in the 2008 World Series, but even in defeat Maddon’s principles had taken hold of the franchise.
Together with Executive Vice President of Baseball Operations Andrew Friedman, Tampa has been able to continue to excel on the defensive side of the ball since that pennant-winning season, frequently ranking among the top 5 in most team defensive statistics. But the 2012 edition was a little bit different. While the Rays were still one of baseball’s five most efficient teams in the field, it was more a product of a fantastic pitching staff and Maddon’s frequent shifting more than great team play in the field. The team actually led the AL in errors committed while ranking in the middle of the pack in most of the advanced range statistics. That kind of thing is bound to happen when you ask Hideki Matsui or Luke Scott to don a glove. The difference between having the 5th best defense and the first may not seem like a lot, but for a team on a limited budget with an even more limited offense, it may have been the difference between watching baseball in October and playing it.
Under Maddon’s leadership the Rays have made the playoffs three different times, and in each year they boasted one of the best defenses, by any metric, in baseball. Although last year’s unit was better than average on defense, they slipped in the rankings just a little bit, which may be driving Friedman’s pursuit of better glove men. The Rays front office has already acquired shortstop Yunel Escobar and 1st baseman James Loney to meet those needs, and they are hot on the trails of an outfielder. Both, Escobar and Loney, come with excellent reputations with the glove that are backed up by most advanced numbers, and they should thrive behind a brilliant pitching staff.
“You’ve got to believe it. If we didn’t learn anything from last year you have to keep playing until you’re mathematically eliminated. In the meantime, believe that you can — and I do.” – Joe Maddon, commenting on his belief that the Rays can still make the playoffs
If any team in baseball history can pull of miracle finishes in back-to-back seasons it would have to be the Maddon-led Tampa Bay Rays. In 2011 the team sat 9 games back of a playoff spot on September 3rd before racing to a 16-8 finish to edge out the Red Sox and ride into the history books. Well, this year the Rays are vying to repeat history in what may turn out to be even more unlikely fashion. Tampa Bay is trying join the 1964 St. Louis Cardinals and the 1951 Brooklyn Dodgers as the only teams to make up a 6 game deficit in the standings with 14 or fewer games left. Led by a strong pitching staff, a finally healthy Evan Longoria, and a surging BJ Upton, the Rays have already cut the deficit in half. And thanks to a potentially favorable schedule the rest of the way, they have the chance to do much, much more.
With the playoffs fast approaching, half of the teams in Major League Baseball are either looking at a playoff spot or still have fantasies of winning one. All that means is that we as fans have a smorgasbord of delicious games to watch between wanna-be playoff teams. Let’s take a look at the 3 best series of the weekend:
It wasn’t so long ago in July, when the Tampa Bay Rays were sitting 10.5 games out of first place. They were a mire 47-45, slumping, and rumor had it that core players like James Shields and BJ Upton were on the trading block. GM Andrew Friedman, perhaps the finest GM in all of baseball, decided to hold onto his assets and see if the team had another 2nd half turnaround in it. Well, thanks to a red-hot Upton (.266/.316/.564, 14 HR, 37 RBI, 14 steals in 57 games) and the best pitching staff in baseball, the Tampa Bay Rays look like one of the most dangerous teams in the American League heading toward the end of the season.
The stretch drive in baseball has finally arrived. It’s September, which means that each and every Major League team has about 30 or so games to make one final push toward October. Some teams like Texas, New York, Detroit, Cincinnati and St. Louis were expected to be here, possessing teams that lived up to their early season potential. Other teams like Baltimore, Oakland, Pittsburgh, and Washington have surprised this year, finding themselves in a position to chase a playoff spot. Others (Boston and Philadelphia) have been far more disappointing in 2012 and won’t be participating in the October fun this year. With just one month left it’s a good time to survey the field of contenders to try to find the teams that have the best chance to make some noise come playoff time.