For much of the offseason, all eyes in the A.L. East have been focused at the top as the Red Sox gobbled up high-priced free agents and the Yankees looked for creative ways to spend their money. Yesterday, however, the rest of the division finally responded. In less than 24 hours, the Rays, Blue Jays and Orioles all made (or were on the verge of making) significant moves. Below are some initial observations about these transactions.
The banner above should really read the Jays traded Vernon Wells’ contract because that’s probably the most impactful component of the deal. Like the Yankees, the Angels have been unable to spend their money this offseason. First, the team was spurned by Carl Crawford, and then Adrian Beltre decided to play for the rival Texas Rangers. Without any other big names players to sign, and a gaping hole in the team’s offense, GM Tony Reagins turned his attention to the trade market and found an eager partner in Toronto’s Alex Anthopolous.
Even before the ink dried, Wells’ seven-year/$126 million contract extension, which was signed after the centerfielder’s career best 2006 season, was regarded as one of the worst in the game. When Wells’ performance plummeted in 2007, things looked even worse. As Wells’ star descended amid the backdrop of fiscal restraint, the contract became an even greater source of derision, and in some respects, may have cost former GM J.P. Ricciardi his job.
Because Wells’ deal was end-loaded, Toronto wound up paying only $40 million over the first three years of the extension. Even though fangraphs.com estimates the dollar value of his production at only $20 million over that timeframe, getting out from under the avalanche of dollars owed on the backend of the deal makes it seem as if it’s now the Jays who are enjoying the last laugh. Or does it?
Predictably, the initial reaction to the deal has focused on the Angels decision to assume the bulk of the $86 million remaining on Wells’ contract, especially when you consider the average value owed to the centerfielder over the next four seasons will surpass what Crawford is being paid by the Red Sox. However, when you also consider the $5 million reportedly going from Toronto to Anaheim as well as the $11 million in savings from the amount likely to be owed to Rivera and Napoli in 2011, the Angels total commitment of $70 million looks much more palatable. Of course, that depends on whether Wells’ can maintain the momentum of his resurgence in 2010. Besides, when Wells departs after the 2014 season, who’s to say that the Crawford contract won’t then be the focus of derision? Regardless, the Angels’ have the financial wherewithal to take a risk, especially in a year in which the team was unable to spend its resources elsewhere.
Although Rivera is a solid contributor, and Napoli has emerged as a pretty good hitter, neither really had much of a role on the Angels. Mike Sciosca has never been a fan of Napoli’s defense behind the plate (where the team plans to platoon Jeff Mathis and prospect Hank Conger), and the return of Kendry Morales will remove the need for him to play first base. The Blue Jays, however, should be able to use both players in their everyday lineup, especially with the departure of Lyle Overbay and expected shift of Jose Bautista to third base. Ultimately, the main advantage to the Blue Jays is they are no longer responsible for Wells’ hefty salary, which threatened to be almost 25% of the entire payroll. Toronto isn’t likely to get the same level of production from centerfield in 2011, but over the long term, the flexibility gained should help the team build for the future.
The sight of Damon and Ramirez in the same A.L. East lineup is enough to give Yankees’ fans frightful flashbacks to when both were key members of the championship Boston Red Sox team. Although neither player still strikes the same amount of fear into the hearts of the opposition, both veterans should help fill out a thin Rays’ lineup that includes Evan Longoria and a whole host of question marks. The immediate indication is that Damon will keep left field warm while prospect Desmond Jennings gets a little more seasoning in Triple-A, while Ramirez will take over as the team’s full-time DH and provide lineup protection to Longoria.
Damon signed a pretty fair deal that could pay him as much as $6 million, but early reports suggest Manny’s contract is for a much more modest $2 million. Granted, Ramirez’ also comes with a lot of baggage, but the bottom line is the future Hall of Famer can still hit. Even in a year widely viewed as a major disappointment, Ramirez still ended up with an on-base percentage of .409 and OPS+ of 138. The key is keeping the enigmatic slugger healthy and happy, but the motivation for a better contract in 2012 should help take care of that. Agent Scott Boras is fond of referring to these kinds of one-year deals as pillow contracts, so in Tampa he has found Manny a soft landing.
If the Yankees had any confidence in Jorge Posada’s ability to catch regularly, either Ramirez of Damon would have been a perfect fit on paper. As things stand, however, the Yankees, like most other teams, really had no room for these two veterans, so the Rays get to reap the benefits. In what clearly is a rebuilding year, Tampa can afford to roll the dice on two players finding some of their lost magic because the price is right and risk is low. What’s more, if Ramirez rebounds with a strong season, the Rays will be in position to offer him arbitration (which would now be off a low base salary) and recoup a draft pick or two in the process.
Orioles reportedly come to tentative agreement with Vladimir Guerrero
Orioles’ president Andy MacPhail has denied reports that his team has come to terms with Guerrero, but if true, the signing would be a perfect fit for the Orioles. After a down 2009, Guerrero bounced back in 2010, proving that the early reports of his demise were exaggerated. Whether or not Vlad can continue his resurgence is hard to say, but if he just maintains last year’s performance, the Orioles could be poised for one of the off season’s best bargains. Guerrero’s potent bat aiming at Camden Yards friendly power alley in left center would not only give the Baltimore lineup a much needed jolt, but help provide protection and guidance for young players like Matt Wieters and Adam Jones (although neither would be advised to adopt Vlad’s free swinging approach). Although the Orioles are an up-and-coming team, they are still unlikely to contend in 2011, so the idea of spending money and occupying a roster space with a veteran can have some downside. However, the time seems right for Baltimore to get more aggressive. They may not win the division for a few more years, but that doesn’t mean the team and its fans can’t have some fun along the way.