In the final installment of our 3 Remaining Needs series, let’s take a look at the division that boasted the best and worst teams of the 2018 season. The AL East perfectly reflects the class warfare plaguing the American League, as the gap between the competitive upper class and, well, the Orioles could not be more stark. Even within the upper crust, however, there is plenty of variance, as the low-payroll Rays have done their best to keep pace with payroll behemoths in Boston and New York. Meanwhile, the Blue Jays have taken a step back but are still looking to prepare their roster for an anticipated influx of premium young talent.
- Trade Mychal Givens. It’s a no-brainer for the Orioles to sell off their veteran pieces for prospects, only they don’t have much to sell off. Alex Cobb and Andrew Cashner can be shopped, but they’d be salary dumps if they’re moveable at all and they might be better off providing a veteran base for a rotation that should have younger arms auditioning for at least two turns out of every five. The O’s have invested too much in Dylan Bundy over the years to trade him now for pennies on the dollar; better to hang onto the upside. That leaves Givens (10.3 K/9) as the most attractive piece on an otherwise barren roster. Once the major free agent bullpeners are off the market, teams should come calling for a hard-throwing late-inning arm with three seasons of control remaining.
- Sign trade bait for July. With a hugely uncertain roster situation, the Orioles should be willing to take some risks and snap up whatever the market leaves. While they’re not likely to snag any major free agents, even on pillow deals, they should be scouring the bargain bin for vets on one-year deals that could potentially bring something back at the trade deadline. Frankly, the particular position doesn’t matter so much as the value opportunity that’s presented. Needless to say, the same reasoning also supports active waiver-wire scanning, such as the team’s recent claims of Rio Ruiz and Hanser Alberto.
- Boost their international operations. The O’s longstanding aversion to spending on international amateur talent is well-documented. That was beginning to change before the club turned over the reins to new GM Mike Elias, but the org’s initial foray onto the market did not exactly go without a hitch as the club’s top reputed targets (Sandy Gaston and the Mesa brothers) landed elsewhere. That served as a reminder that bringing in top talent — not to mention, unearthing lower-cost gems — involves more than having and spending the available funds.
Boston Red Sox
- Replace/re-sign Craig Kimbrel. The Red Sox haven’t done much work to rebuild their bullpen as of yet, but the degree to which they’ll need to is still unknown. With no clear market developing for Kimbrel at this time, a reunion is not at all out of the question. If they don’t bring him back to Boston, they’ll need to do something to bolster a unit currently over-reliant on holdovers Ryan Brasier and Matt Barnes.
- Explore upgrades at catcher. Boston somehow managed to win a World Series in a season where its catchers batted a combined .194/.246/.288 in 619 plate appearances. Regardless of the defensive Christian Vazquez and Sandy Leon can frame and throw with the best of them, and Blake Swihart (if he ever catches) may yet turn into something if given any semblance of an opportunity, but the catcher position in Boston was an utter black hole on offense last season. It wasn’t quite as bad as having a pitcher hit each time through the order, but it was closer than any AL team should be. That the team hasn’t done anything to this point suggests it may not be at the top of the priority list, but it’s hard to deny that there’s an opportunity to improve. Speaking of backstops …
- Resolve the status of Blake Swihart. The Red Sox need to finally determine if Swihart has any kind of real role with the team. Again, it’s tough to criticize a team that won a World Series in 2018, but even Boston’s most steadfast defenders have to concede that the team didn’t exactly manage its roster all that effectively as pertains to Swihart. Boston wouldn’t put Swihart behind the plate, wouldn’t put him in the field and wouldn’t DH him. Swihart had just 48 plate appearances through May 31 in 2018 despite not spending a single day on the disabled list or in the minors. He had 99 PAs prior to the All-Star break — again, without a DL stint or any time in the minors. He can’t be optioned, and the Sox clearly don’t have a spot for him. It may have worked in 2018, but the Sox were effectively operating with a 24-man roster for a good chunk of 2018. They need more flexibility, and Swihart probably would like a chance to actually play somewhere.
New York Yankees
- Trade Sonny Gray. Once Brian Cashman began the offseason by declaring Gray would be traded, there seemed little room for negotiation. The market for Gray may not fully materialize until all of the top starting arms are off the market, but there doesn’t seem to be much value in bringing him back to New York. There’s no room in the rotation at present, even if there are questions around the age and durability of their top five. Still, the Yanks are not shy about in-season acquisitions and they have depth in Triple A they can rely on. Specifically, Domingo German (5.57 ERA) and Luis Cessa (5.24 ERA) underperformed last season relative to advanced metrics like FIP and xFIP.
- Seriously pursue a premium free agent. No, the Yanks do not need Bryce Harper or Manny Machado. The club won 100 games last year and is a threat to do so again (in a highly stratified American League) without making further upgrades. Still, this division — more so than the two other wings of the AL — promises to host a year-long battle. And … well … this is the Yankees we are talking about. What good is it being a financial behemoth if you can’t use your might to elbow out other teams when rare market opportunities come along? We’re not here to say that the Yankees must land one of these two players, or that they simply have to pursue both even if it makes a mess of the team’s roster and financial planning. But it would be odd if the Yanks didn’t at least put in a strong bid for either or both. With the allure of the pinstripes and New York City helping the cause, they just might come away with a bargain.
- Add another relief arm. Whether or not the club makes any other notable roster moves, this seems like an easy way to improve. The bullpen has been a notable strength in the Bronx of late, and that promises to continue. But the deeper the unit is, the more support it can provide to a highly talented but somewhat risky rotation. Limiting the wear and tear on the starting unit will not only max out its results all year long, but give the Yankees the best chance of having a powerful staff when crunch time comes late in the season.
Tampa Bay Rays
- Make another free agent splash. A big name would surely help the club draw some fans to the park, and perhaps help jump start a still-flagging ballpark effort. More importantly, the team can still tap into some funds to improve its chances of sneaking up on the BoSox and Yanks. As things stand, there’s still just under $60MM on the books for 2019. With a number of quality free agents still out there and awaiting a deal, the Rays should be willing to be aggressive in doling out short-term money to get significant pieces. Charlie Morton could deliver great value, and adding Avisail Garcia may be a decent risk, but there’s no reason to stop there.
- Make a run at J.T. Realmuto. Whether or not the free agent market offers another golden opportunity, the Rays should see if they can pull of an intra-state coup by coaxing the Marlins to send their star backstop up the coast. There’s nothing wrong with a Mike Zunino–Michael Perez pairing behind the dish, but Realmuto is the game’s best. The Tampa Bay front office would have flexibility in resolving the preexisting options, particularly since Perez can still be optioned. He’d be a nice depth piece and could perhaps also remain on the roster as part of a three-catcher mix. Alternatively, the Rays could still deal away Zunino.
- Add some veteran bullpen pieces. The Rays’ fascinating bullpen usage has shown no small amount of promise. Part of the strategy, of course, is to lean on a high volume of young pitching. But it’s hard to deny the value of veteran leadership and of established, steady performance. The current Tampa Bay bullpen unit features just one player — Chaz Roe — with more than three years of MLB service time. Allocating some remaining funds to one or more quality free agents would seem to make sense. Old friend Sergio Romo is among the many remaining possibilities.
Toronto Blue Jays
- Prepare for potential spring trades. Entering the winter, it seemed that veteran first baseman Justin Smoak would pop up in the rumor mill with some frequency. We broke down his potential suitors in anticipation of just that, but nothing of note has materialized to this point. There has been more chatter surrounding righty Marcus Stroman, but no indication to date that there’s any momentum toward a deal. Things may be quiet now, but more and more of the offseason business is stretching up to and into Spring Training, when teams will see their rosters in the flesh and injuries will begin to pop up. The Jays should anticipate some late-breaking interest in these players and be ready to pounce on any good opportunities that come up.
- Put the payroll space to work. Neither Smoak nor Stroman need to be moved for purely financial reasons. Indeed, the Jays should also be willing at least to poke around for bargains on the market. The Jays are only projected to have a payroll of roughly $110MM next season right now, well below recent levels of spending. The team has a variety of players who have a decent amount of MLB experience but who have yet to establish themselves fully. It’s fine to give opportunities to players of that kind, but that shouldn’t be allowed to clog things up if there’s a chance to add better talent — even if it costs a bit of money. The Toronto organization could find some opportunities to acquire talent as teams make final payroll decisions, whether that takes the form of snagging unwanted arbitration-year players or taking on an under-water contract that’s packaged with prospects.
- Add to the bullpen. The Jays have little in the way of established arms at the back of the ’pen, and even if they don’t realistically expect to contend, there’s value in having a few stabilizing pieces to prevent a constant churn of DFAs and other various 40-man machinations throughout the course of the season. Scooping up some useful arms on one- or even two-year deals can also always yield a viable summer trade chip. Last year, the club enjoyed some opportunities at the trade deadline due to its arsenal of veteran relievers, and there’s good reason to pursue a similar course again.