NASHVILLE-It's still early in the winter meetings, early in December and, yes, relatively early in the off-season, but even at this early stage, how does the always competitive AL East stack up for 2013? How many teams can challenge 90 wins?
The Jays have made the most startling impact following their 12-man deal with the Marlins. The Red Sox are starting to spend and re-build after their mid-summer salary dump to the Dodgers. The Yankees are crumbling with the news of Alex Rodriguez being out at least until June. The Rays are deep in pitching. The O's wnt to the post-season but repeating is tough. So has all that changed the early view of the balance of power?
“I would say the way the (standings) ended up last year,” Jays' GM Alex Anthopoulos said when asked to handicap the AL East. “You have to go that way.
“I don't like to get caught up in what people do in the winter. People talk about Anaheim last year, Boston two years ago. I was here when they signed (Carl) Crawford and (Adrian) Gonzalez. We were all saying wow, nobody's going to win a game again. To me you show respect to the teams that already won. Till we start playing games and guys stay healthy and have good seasons, we're the fourth best team in my opinion because the other three teams haven't gotten worse.”
To use a horse-racing analogy, the Jays are the early speed, the Red Sox have positioned themselves well off the pace as a late closer. The Rays and O's are lurking and the Yankees stumbled out of the gate.
But the Red Sox are the team to watch. Last season their opening day payroll stood at $175.2 million As of Tuesday morning, the Sox had $79.475 million in guaranteed contracts to nine players. They have much money left to spend, even if their intent is not to match last year's bloated payroll. They have added first-baseman/catcher Mike Napoli, outfielder Jonny Gomes and catcher David Ross. They re-signed DH David Ortiz in the days after announcing John Farrell as manager. They need more.
The Yankees are going to have to also spend their way out of their current funk. The news on Monday that their all-contract third baseman, A-Rod, will be undergoing left hip surgery and will miss at least half the 2013 season has stunned them. It showed their age, their fragility and they're not wearing it well.
The only positive with the A-Rod news is that it explains their star player's dismal post-season performance this year. But why did it take this long to make this decision? Derek Jeter will miss the start of the season. Russell Martin is gone. Nick Swisher and Rafael Soriano are on the way out. They re-signed to one year deals Hiroki Kuroda and Mariano Rivera. Yes, GM Brian Cashman has much work left to do.
“I still think it's the toughest division in baseball,” Jays manager John Gibbons said. “That first go-round (as manager in 2004-08) was tough. You were looking up at Boston and New York all the time. Tampa was on the verge of really coming into their own. You could see some young players -- in Baltimore at that time they scored runs so on the nights they pitched they were very tough.
“Boston had a down year last year, but that's not going to last. And Baltimore gets into the postseason (in 2012). Tampa is right there. So it's a tough grind, tough division to play in, but that's why we feel with the trades we made and signing of (Melky) Cabrera gives us a shot. But you've got to go out and do it, but it gives us a lot of excitement.”
The Red Sox are definitely not done dealing this winter. They have a surplus of catchers, led by Jarrod Saltalamacchia who is named in rumours with the White Sox. They have been mentioned on the periphery of the Josh Hamilton speculation. They could even deal an established starting pitcher to the Royals for hot-shot rookie prospect Wil Myers. But that talk has slowed down here in Nashville.
The Yankees will not sit still either. They have an albatross-ian five-year commitment to A-Rod, but they always need to win now and will reach out for a third-base replacement in the short term, whether it;'s Eric Chavez, a free agent who played for them last year or someone else like Yunel Escobar from the Marlins.
“It doesn't really change what we do,” Anthpoulos said of the New York baseball follies. “The Yankees are great. They're good every year. They continue to be good every single year. (Yankees GM) Brian Cashman does an unbelievable job of continuing to sign players to short term contracts that produce, so it doesn't change anything for us.”
Despite what Anthopoulos and Gibbons choose to maintain about the fierce competition in the AL East, the Jays have not been in a position like this of being division favourites since '94, coming off the back-to-back World Series years. There is an added pressure to respond to roster moves by others. The manager can feel it.
“There's always pressure, no doubt about it, because a lot is expected in the baseball world and the country of Canada and Toronto specifically there,” Gibbons said. “But yeah, that's a good thing. That means you've got a good team. But there's always pressure in this business to perform.”
If the season was to begin tomorrow, my projected AL East Division standings would be:
1-Jays; 2-Rays; 3-Yankees; 4-Red Sox; 5-O's. The meetings continue through Thursday. But, as we have said, it's early.