By Jonathan Bernhardt
The 2012 Major League Baseball season came to a close Sunday night with the first Triple Crown winner in nearly a lifetime, the prohibitive favorite for American League Most Valuable Player, striking out on a fastball right down the pipe from yet another Giants reliever with an annoying beard.
As the calendar rolls into November we turn our eyes once more to the 29 teams who upheld the enduring spirit of our national pastime by failing to win the World Series, and the things they might do this winter to trick their loyal fans into thinking next year will be any different -- things like "trade for overpaid veteran relief pitchers" and "sign overpaid veteran relief pitchers," maybe even get the organization banned from South Korea for good luck. That's right: It's Hot Stove time again, and we have no greater moral duty than to touch it and be burnt.
In particular, we focus and squint at the American League East, home of the two teams with the most easily hoodwinked rubes in baseball -- Red Sox and Yankees fans think they have a good chance at the World Series each year, when really what they have is a good chance at the playoffs and then an insane game of whimsy and chance -- and three others which hail from made up cities, such as Toronto, and whose fans are all spambots, bloggers or some other lower order of life. We'll dissect them in the order of predicted divisional finish in 2013, giving special weight to returning players, free agent signings, trades, minor-league call-ups, and most importantly, what would be funny.
New York Yankees
Surprise! The Yankees win the East again. With that sorted, we can all go home. The Yankees will join us shortly once the Angels or White Sox or whomever sweep them out of the Divisional round.
What They Have: For starters, $100 million combined committed to guys named Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira, CC Sabathia and -- haha -- A.J. Burnett. Yeah, they're picking up half of the tab on his 2013, too. Go Pirates.
Robinson Cano has a club option for $15 million that's already been picked up despite his play in October -- it's not possible to have a postseason so bad it's worth letting Cano walk, short of him making a habit out of, say, hitting team president Randy Levine with a chair after every Yankee loss. Even then you'd have a strong case the Yankees were letting emotions override sound baseball logic.
Speaking of guys with club options and bad postseasons, Curtis Granderson will return to center field. Brett Gardner will be back and healthy and Michael Pineda will be the opposite. Mariano Rivera will likely be back, despite his retirement talk; neither he nor the Yankees are going to let his Hall of Fame career end on a busted knee, and certainly not somewhere other than New York. Rafael Soriano will probably opt out of the last year of his deal to test the market, but the Yankees should be able to find room in the budget for his veteran, late-inning shirt-untucking services.
Andy Pettitte will be back because he's some kind of handsome cyborg pitching monster and Casey Kotchman failed to stop Skynet. Ivan Nova will continue to skulk about the premises.
There's a number of arbitration-eligible guys for New York, and some will get expensive: starter Phil Hughes, relievers David Robertson, Boone Logan, the aforementioned Brett Gardner. Hughes would be a prime trade candidate if New York had any real starting options behind him. Most of these guys will get one-year deals and avoid arbitration hearings entirely.
Rodriguez is not getting traded. I'll hear no more talk on this matter.
What They'll Lose: Nick Swisher is gone. Russell Martin is probably gone too. Freddy Garcia, Eric Chavez, Andruw Jones -- gone, gone gone. Pedro Feliciano, gone. Ichiro Suzuki, gone! Jayson Nix! Casey McGehee! All of them, gone! Raul Ibañez, go -- wait, no, he'll probably be back.
Suzuki stands a decent chance of returning as a fourth outfielder, but he'll see if someone else will make him a starter first. The Yankees don't see him as a Nick Swisher replacement.
Key Targets: Which brings us to veteran starter Hiroki Kuroda. Yankees fans might remember Kuroda from such games as "the one where he pitched like a baller but got little to no run support," otherwise known as August. Though he'll have a number of suitors and the Yankees' brass is at least paying lip-service to the luxury-tax threshold, it seems inconceivable that they won't make the commitment required to get Kuroda back in pinstripes for 2013.
The Yankees also need a new outfielder, a catcher and more starting pitching, so to save time, just pool all the free agents at those positions together, pick the top three you'd want your favorite team to sign, and assume New York will grab two.
Dark Horse Addition: I said there'd be no more talk of a rumored trade involving a certain hated Yankee veteran, so suffice it to say that while I can't imagine why current San Diego Padres third baseman Chase Headley would be spending Opening Day 2013 in the Bronx, I'm going to float the possibility nonetheless.
Toronto Blue Jays
Going into last season I really liked Toronto, and after watching their promising team get systematically dismantled by injuries I feel no compunction about getting optimistic all over again about 2013. I mean, there's no way that happens twice in two years, right? Right! Jays fans, please direct all hate mail to my editor. (Ed. Note: you can reach Jonathan via Twitter.)
What They Have: Late-bloomer specials José Bautista and Edwin Encarnación will return to right field and first base respectively; at this point most analysts, myself included, believe Bautista's for real and Encarnación was a contract-year fluke ... which means it's likely that in 2013 Bautista craters and Encarnación hits another forty dingers. J.P. Arencibia will get most of the time behind the plate to begin the season due to last June's season-ending knee injury to top catching prospect Travis D'Arnaud. Brett Lawrie will play third angrily. Colby Rasmus and his hair will start in center, and veteran outfielder Rajai Davis has a $3 million club option that should be picked up without much fanfare. Shortstop Yunel Escobar will return, but Toronto boss Alex Anthopoulos just traded his manager to Boston for Mike Aviles to back up, platoon with, or replace him.
While Toronto loses the services of John Farrell, they should get back the billion young pitchers who destroyed various parts of their arms this April, June, and July. If three of Brandon Morrow, Brett Cecil, Drew Hutchison and Kyle Drabek stay both healthy and effective -- and Ricky Romero pitches like it's 2011, not 2012 -- then the Jays should be fine on the mound even if they're running J.A. Happ out there every five days.
Bullpens are only notable at this point in the offseason in a macabre, "how much money will they spend on THIS headcase who'll only pitch 60 innings next year" way, and Toronto's not a club that generally goes in for that. That said, closer Sergio Santos, lost to an arm injury in 2012 (shocker!) but both young and signed to a team-friendly contract for the next forever, will be back with next season.
So will backup catcher Jeff Mathis, which I find very amusing and Blue Jays fans do not.
What They'll Lose: The majority of the 2012 Jays that won't be joining them opening day 2013 aren't heading for free agency, but back to the minors. Barring another round of pitching Armageddon in Toronto, Henderson Alvarez and Carlos Villanueva won't see more than a few spot starts unless they take significant strides forward, and guys like Joel Carreno and Jesse Chavez shouldn't even get that. Aaron Laffey was outrighted to Triple-A at the end of the year and shouldn't return. Omar Vizquel is notable position player departing.
Key Targets: Except, of course, for second baseman Kelly Johnson. Johnson is over 30 and had a disappointing year at the plate -- the Jays are more than willing to let him test free agency, and if there's someone out there willing to give Johnson a multi-year deal the Jays will speed him on his way. But Toronto has no internal options to replace Johnson unless they want to try either Escobar or Aviles every day at second and the best option on the free agent market is either Jeff Keppinger or Marco Scutaro; there's going to be real competition for both. So if they don't work out and Kelly Johnson's still looking for work, then hey, maybe he'll be back in Toronto.
Dark Horse Addition: With the emergence of shortstop Josh Rutledge in Colorado, and the fact that not only is that Troy Tulowitzki's job but that Rutledge profiles better defensively as a second baseman anyway, Eric Young, Jr. might be available in trade. Young was very promising at the plate last year without much of a Coors effect on his home/away splits -- admittedly in a very small sample size -- but he's a converted outfielder plagued by leg injuries, has never played a full season in the bigs, and didn't actually play any second base for Colorado last year.
That's a whole lot of red flags, but the Jays' surpluses match the Rockies' needs perfectly -- Colorado needs pitching, and the Jays have fungible pitching assets to spare. Young would be an intriguing pick-up for Toronto.
Tampa Bay Rays
The Rays have one of the best pitching staffs in baseball and are becoming a very tough team to bet against at least making the wild card, but I'm going to do it anyway because their hitting was putrid in 2012 and I don't see it improving much next year.
What They Have: Ben Zobrist and Evan Longoria. The pitchers are important, but Zobrist and Longoria are key to a successful season in Tampa Bay. Matt Joyce will return to right field, but he needs a platoon partner, and Desmond Jennings should take over as the everyday centerfielder -- assuming a suitable partner is found for Joyce, those four or five guys will be the core of the offense. A successful Rays season either relies on them being healthy and productive, or Tampa's front office working some crazy magic elsewhere in the batting order. Given general manager Andrew Friedman's résumé, this is hardly out of the question.
The pitching staff is fairly boring: You know, perennial Cy Young candidates David Price and James Shields, the best young, left-handed pitching prospect in baseball Matt Moore, some kids in their mid-20s named Jeremy Hellickson and Alex Cobb who had a combined ERA under 3.50 last year in over 300 innings. They'll do their thing.
What They'll Lose: When B.J. Upton hits free agency he'll immediately price himself out of Tampa Bay's budget, and right into the Rangers'. Luke Scott and Carlos Peña won't be back, or if they are they'll be non-factors. Fernando Rodney, coming off one of the most impressive relief campaigns in recent history, has a $2.5 million club option for next season, but since he's at peak value and likely about to turn back into Fernando Rodney, the Rays will likely pick up his option then deal him. The resources it would take for Tampa Bay to keep either Upton or pleasant surprise Jeff Keppinger would likely best be spent elsewhere.
Key Targets: Assuming Zobrist plays short, the Rays need a platoon partner for Joyce in right field, a first baseman, a catcher (even though they apparently are planning to pick up Jose Molina's $1.5 million option), a second baseman, a left fielder, and a DH. Luckily for them, their front office has shown the ability to get the DH and first baseman on the cheap; this was the first year in a while that Friedman's buy-low acquisitions at those positions didn't pay off. At least one hole might be filled by trading Rodney; losing him won't be fun for Tampa Bay fans but the Rays have never had issues restocking their pen after offseason departures. Even so I suspect one of their middle infield positions is going to be manned by some combination of Elliot Johnson, Sean Rodriguez or Ryan Roberts for a good portion of the year. Tim Beckham doesn't look like he's going to arrive any time soon.
Dark Horse Acquisition: This is where the Rays excel, and where they're almost impossible to predict. Maybe they trade for Alfonso Soriano while taking on no money and giving up spare parts and lottery tickets, and he hits .850 playing left and designated hitter. Maybe they sign Carlos Zambrano and he throws 200 innings of 3.50 ERA ball again. Hey, maybe they sign Zambrano and he hits .850 playing left and designated hitter. Scott Hairston, Melky Cabrera, Mike Napoli, Carlos Lee -- they could go in a lot of different directions, but whatever they do it'll be creative, and it might even work.
Boston Red Sox
There's a certain joy in sticking Boston so low on the list, but it comes with a caveat: The difference between second and fourth place in the AL East next year will likely be very slim. Boston immolated their roster at the end of 2012, but they're rich and headstrong enough to turn around and put all that money right back into payroll.
What They Have: David Ortiz, Jacoby Ellsbury and Dustin Pedroia should all be back and healthy to begin the 2013 season. Injuries happen -- no division in baseball was more cognizant of that in 2012 than the AL East -- but as analysts we assume health rather than hurt just so there's something to blame when our predictions go horribly wrong. Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz and Felix Doubront are all solid to return precluding any more big trades from Boston GM Ben Cherington, and John Lackey will be back from Tommy John surgery. Will Middlebrooks is a mortal lock for Opening Day third baseman if he's healthy.
Andrews Bailey and Miller will return in the pen, and despite the general displeasure in Boston for everything Alfredo Aceves, he's arbitration-eligible and will be back as well. Franklin Morales should return as a cost-effective spot starter/swingman. The Sox will probably give Jose Iglesias a good long look at shortstop, considering that market's headlined by Stephen Drew and the ever-looming Marco Scutaro. Pedro Ciriaco will serve in some capacity.
What They'll Lose: No one in Boston will lose much sleep over the departure of Daisuke Matsuzaka, but depart he shall. Mark Melancon likely won't be back either. James Loney is gone, Ryan Sweeney has an arbitration year left but seems a good candidate to get dealt, and Jarrod Saltalamacchia should get a better offer elsewhere than what the Sox are willing to give him. If Aaron Cook returns it's because I've put Boston one spot too high on this list.
Key Targets: With the payroll space freed up by the now-infamous trade with the Dodgers, Boston can afford any player it wants -- maybe any two players it wants -- and a pair of guys like Josh Hamilton and Zack Grienke, for instance, could do a lot to make the Sox a contender again in 2013. Considering how badly the Sox perceive they were burned by their last round of megadeals, however, more realistic is a modest contract for dirt-dog hero and free agent Cody Ross (in fairness, he actually hit well enough to deserve one) and a wait-and-see approach on youngsters Iglesias, Middlebrooks, catcher Ryan Lavarnway and outfielder Ryan Kalish. First base is a problem for the Sox; Mauro Gomez probably isn't the answer there. There's been suggestions that Boston trade for someone like Ike Davis, but that seems like wishful thinking. Free-agent catcher/first baseman Mike Napoli, most recently of Texas, is a more pragmatic option.
Dark Horse Acquisition: Josh Hamilton. He's the biggest gamble on the market, and he's exactly the sort of player the Red Sox front office should avoid given its self-inflicted problems with the New England media. For his part, Hamilton should forbid his agent to even talk to Boston. But he's a very good baseball player at a position of need for a team with a lot of money to spend and a hunger to regain some of its old dignity. It's hard to say that, context aside, Hamilton and the Red Sox aren't a match.
The Orioles being down here isn't a mistake. I didn't forget they just won 93 games and took the Yankees to the final game of the ALDS, or that they had one of the best Septembers in baseball. But I also didn't forget that the rest of the AL East turned to cripples around them and that for most of the year they were fueled by pixie dust and black magic.
Who They Have: Baltimore isn't about to lose anyone. In fact, were they are so inclined, the Orioles could return the entire 25-man roster without much problem. Their most high-profile departing free agent might be Jim Thome. Just about everyone else is either under contract for 2013, under team control, or arbitration-eligible. Jason Hammel, Miguel Gonzalez, Hardy, Wieters, Reynolds -- if the team wants them back, they'll be back. The multi-million dollar question is whether they'll play like they did in 2012. So distilled down into one person, the question is: What should Baltimore do about Nate McLouth, the notable exception to all of the above? I suspect the answer's something along the lines of two years, $11 million.
Who They'll Lose: Brian Roberts is under contract for 2013, but given his struggles with post-concussion syndrome he may not play another major league game. Some bullpen pieces might depart or get traded -- one thing Dan Duquette does very well is leverage his relievers in the trade market, as in the case of Saunders for Matt Lindstrom; closer Jim Johnson may not be very long for Baltimore. Wilson Betemit is under contract for one more year but could be dealt; Jim Thome may very well retire, but I suspect Baltimore would be glad to have him back. Starter Joe Saunders will also hit free agency, and the front office should wish him well.
Key Targets: It all depends, doesn't it? Whether Hammel, Gonzalez, Chris Tillman and Wei-Yin Chen can build on their 2012 performances; whether Troy Patton, Pedro Strop and Luis Ayala ($1 million 2013 club option) can do the same in the bullpen; what the final verdict is on Jake Arrieta, Zach Britton and Brian Matusz: Are they starters or relievers? There's even a question of whether Manny Machado will move to short, or if Baltimore likes him so much at third it's just going to keep him there (this would be a mistake). The team still needs a second baseman, and if the Orioles are so inclined there's enough room in the budget for a Jeff Keppinger or a Marco Scutaro. As long as the contract isn't longer than two years, neither of those options is bad for Baltimore even if it has to overpay in dollars. The Orioles should look to upgrade their rotation posthaste though, and not rely on any of their internal options developing -- when those guys are ready, they'll play their way into the mix and someone can get traded. That's one of those good problems to have. But Baltimore needs more starting pitching. Pixie dust and black magic tend to wash away in the offseason.
Dark Horse Acquisition: Zack Greinke. He's a perfect fit for Baltimore, far more so than Josh Hamilton or Shaun Marcum or, heaven forfend, Scott Feldman. (Feldman's a perfect fit for Baltimore for all the wrong reasons.) It's the AL East, yes, but Baltimore combines an organization willing to spend some money coming off a great year with a relatively tame, team-friendly media atmosphere. Grienke won't be the face of the franchise, he won't be the star -- after the way Jason Hammel pitched last year, he might not even be the ace -- and he'd go a long way to shoring up the deficiencies in Baltimore's 2012 roster that were masked by good luck in close games.
Or he could pitch like he did in Los Angeles and he'd just be another typical Baltimore big-ticket free-agent signing.
Sports on Earth will bring you division-by-division Hot Stove previews over the next week.
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Bernhardt is a freelance sportswriter who has contributed to Baseball Prospectus, The Classical and ESPN's Sweet Spot blog network, among others. You can follow him on Twitter @jonbernhardt.