For Part One of my analysis of how the “bad” teams are regaining power, click here.
As the winter meetings wrap up in Nashville today, many teams have either made moves or are still trying to call around and get deals done to improve their clubs. The last day of the meetings has been pretty slow, with the most noteworthy trade being for Ben Revere, and the biggest signing being Koji Uehara. The biggest names in free agency (Hamilton and Greinke) have yet to sign, but the Mariners seem to be going all-in for Hamilton. This news corroborates my view in this article series; that the weaker teams from the past decade or so are beginning to return to relevance.
Yesterday, when I tried to emphasize how the Royals have a chance to make noise in the AL this year, I did so based on the personnel they currently have, as well as the fact that they are showing clear interest in several quality players. However, the news today is that the Royals payroll is apparently tighter than expected. This is a reminder that no matter what efforts a GM, a fan base, or a group of players takes to improve a franchise; an owner’s actions or frugality can derail the plan (take this Royals example or the Marlins with Loria, for instance). A dedicated owner willing to stretch payroll in order to help get a winning product on the field at the opportune time is extremely important for these perennial “losers,” and there is no better example of this type of dedicated ownership than with this team:
Toronto Blue Jays (Playoff Drought - 20 Years):
There has been no team more active in the offseason thus far than the Jays. Despite building a strong farm system and making some very well received trades, GM Alex Anthopolous’ club has struggled through underperformance and injuries over the last couple of seasons. However, with the blockbuster trade that sent Jose Reyes, Josh Johnson, Mark Buehrle, and others to the T, Jays ownership showed that it was willing to take on payroll to improve the team, and its Vegas Odds to win the World Series have jumped from 100/1 before the trade to 9/1 after. With key pieces like Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion, Brandon Morrow, and Brett Lawrie in place for years to come, the Jays appear to be ready to make the jump to true contender. They could clearly use an upgrade at DH, where mainstay Adam Lind (92 wRC+ over the last three seasons, second worst among qualified 1B/DH ahead of Ty Wigginton) is currently penciled in, but their clear most pressing issue is to find at least one more starter who can come in and contribute. With Ricky Romero coming off a horrible season and JA Happ, who hasn’t lived up to his former top prospect pedigree, as their #4 and #5, the Jays could use another pitcher on a one-year deal to shore up their rotation and push Happ to more of a swingman role (someone like Brandon McCarthy or Shaun Marcum – though this is only likely if the team is willing to go even farther over budget or is able to shed payroll by trading players like Lind and/or John Buck).
The Toronto Blue Jays have been the clear winners of the offseason so far, and fans hope that this success in team construction translates to success on the field. If the Jays’ young contributors take a step forward and their stars (Bautista, Reyes) stay healthy, this team is poised to play meaningful September baseball again and end the city’s 20-year playoff drought. I may be a somewhat of a homer Jays fan, but this team has the potential for greatness and a hunger to win that I think will lead it to an AL-east winning season.
94-68, 1st Place in the AL East
Next, I will take a look at the Buccos.
Pittsburgh Pirates (Playoff Drought – 20 Years):
The Pirates are a somewhat peculiar case among the teams I am examining, because they’ve actually been in the spotlight as a contending team for parts of the past two seasons. At the 2011 All-Star break, the Pirates were only one game back in their division, leading to them to becoming “buyers” at the deadline for the first time in recent history. They picked up Derrek Lee and Ryan Ludwick, but ultimately collapsed and finished 24 games out in the NL Central. This past year was very similar, with the team leading the division at the Break, but finishing out of the playoff race in the end. However, out of the second-half struggles has emerged a true star in Andrew McCutchen, one of the league’s true 5-tool superstars, who just finished third in NL MVP voting and is signed through 2018. I actually like the Pirates lineup, with McCutchen, Neil Walker (provides pop at 2B), Pedro Alvarez (clubbed 30 homers in a vastly improved 2012 campaign, although he still struck out 30% of the time - not good), and the young Starling Marte (top prospect who will spark the team with his bat and his legs). While the pitching leaves much to be desired, AJ Burnett pitched well in 2012, (with an FIP- of 92, grouped with Cain, Lohse, Weaver, and Bumgarner) James McDonald put together solid stretches (posting above a 10 K/9 and 7 IP/game in May) and Wandy could be a solid #5. If they can fill the remaining spots with league average starters until top prospects Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon (some analysis here) are ready, they could have a late-season surge fueled by their younger arms. Also, one of the more personal reasons I have for hoping for the Pirates to succeed is that they have Travis Snider, one of my favorite Jays prospects/players, and I hope he does well there.
The Pirates have gotten a taste of contention over the past few years, and with several of their young studs poised to contribute soon, they seem to be a team to be reckoned with. Just look at how they stole headlines a few days ago from prying away Russel Martin from the Yankees in what is seen as an overpay. The good news for Pirates fans with this move, however, is that the management appears to be willing to help turn this team into a contender. The Buccos have a dedicated fan base that is hungry for a winning team and a playoff run, and this team is set up to compete in the tough NL Central.
86-76, 2nd place in the NL Central
Both the Jays and the Pirates have built up young cores, are looking to win back the feverish support of their formerly dedicated fan bases, and want to begin to open a prolonged window of competition. Time will tell if these teams, neither of which has made the playoffs in 20 years, will be able to overcome their recent history and play meaningful baseball into October. I wouldn’t put it past either of these teams to make a run this year, and get people to remember that Pittburgh and Toronto have been baseball cities in the past, and can certainly be again.
Stay tuned tomorrow for the final part of this article series, where I will post analysis of the Mariners and Padres.