Spring training is right around the February corner and aside from signing Carlos Rodon for six years and $162 million, the Yankees have been pretty quiet on the home improvement front this offseason, content to have re-signed Aaron Judge and Anthony Rizzo while otherwise letting Steve Cohen grab the New York Hot Stove spotlight with his offseason outlay of over $500 million.
No addressing the primary need for an outfield bat once Andrew Benintendi went off the board and signed with the White Sox. No finding any takers for Aaron Hicks or Josh Donaldson, and other than the re-acquisition of much-traveled Tommy Kahnle for the bullpen and the curious trade of Lucas Luetge to the Braves for two marginal minor league prospects, Brian Cashman has seemed content to go with essentially the same cast of Yankees that struggled mightily in the postseason last year. Whatever issues that remain unresolved — shortstop, left field, third base, fifth starter now that Frankie Montas is hurt again — are apparently going to be subjects for spring training.
But you know what? The Rodon signing alone, giving them a starting rotation of four potential No. 1′s along with Gerrit Cole, Luis Severino and Nestor Cortes on any given day, in itself establishes the Yankees as heavy favorites to repeat as AL East champions. Another reason is none of their division rivals — especially the Rays, Orioles and Red Sox — have done anything to immeasurably improve their lot this offseason.
Let’s examine the AL East and who did the least this winter.
RAYS: One of the worst offensive teams in baseball last year, with the 12th most strikeouts and ranking 25th in homers, 23rd in OPS and 20th in runs, the Rays left the stage in ‘22 with one of the most pathetic postseason performances in history, combining for a .115 batting average in 84 plate appearances against the Guardians in the best-of-three playoff series including a numbing 29 strikeouts. Having jettisoned three of their highest-paid players, Kevin Kiermaier, Ji-Man Choi and Mike Zunino, owner Stu Sternberg had money to spend this winter but instead passed on all the free-agent outfielders and first basemen on the market. They still have plenty of prospect resources to make a trade this spring, but as of now the Rays appear to be counting on filling that missing bat void with injury comebacks from Wander Franco and Brandon Lowe — while once again winning a lot of low-scoring games with their seemingly endless parade of interchangeable relief pitchers.
ORIOLES: After their surprising renaissance 2022 season in which they finished over .500 for the first time in six years, GM Mike Elias declared it was now time for the Orioles to take the next step and “significantly escalate the payroll,” especially on quality veteran starting pitching and an established top flight shortstop, to become a legitimate playoff contender. He lied. Their only “significant” (if you want to call it that) signing this winter was $10 million on 35-year-old Kyle Gibson for the rotation, at the same time they either made no effort or were substantially out-bid on starters Nathan Eovaldi, Johnny Cueto, Corey Kluber, Jameson Taillon, Chris Bassitt, Taijuan Walker, Ross Stripling, Noah Syndergaard and Sean Manaea, not to mention all the All-Star shortstops on the market. In taking bows for the Orioles’ feelgood 2022, Elias conveniently fails to acknowledge that the crux of that team — Ryan Mountcastle, Austin Hays, Cedric Mullins, Anthony Santander, as well as their two top pitching prospects, Grayson Rodriguez and DL Hall, were all signed by his GM predecessor Dan Duquette. Without breakout rookie seasons from Rodriguez, Hall and infielder Gunnar Henderson, the Orioles could easily regress to under .500 again.
RED SOX: Until he was able to lock up Rafael Devers for 11 years/$331 million, Red Sox GM Chaim Bloom was the most hated man in Boston this side of John Henry. Bloom may have made a lot of moves this winter — signing fading closer Kenley Jansen for $32 million, fire plug Japanese outfield prodigy Masataka Yoshida for $90 million, the versatile Justin Turner for $22 million, righty reliever Chris Martin for $17.5 million, Kluber for $10 million and center fielder Adam Duval for $7 million — but collectively they do not appear to have improved the 2022 last-place Red Sox a whole lot, especially in light of the free agent defections of Xander Bogaerts and Eovaldi and his misconceived trade of catcher Christian Vazquez last year. Even with Kluber, the Red Sox rotation lacks a true ace or even a No. 2; the catcher is career backup Reese McGuire and the shortstop right now looks to be light-hitting handyman Kike Hernandez. In other words, this is still not a very good team.
BLUE JAYS: Of all the AL East teams, only the Blue Jays made aggressive offseason moves to address their major weaknesses — defense, pitching depth and left-handed hitting. They did so by signing Kiermaier for center field so they could move George Springer to right, and trading top catching prospect Gabriel Moreno and outfielder Lourdes Gurriel Jr. to Arizona for lefty-swinging, defensively elite left fielder Daulton Varsho, coming off a career 27-homer season. They also signed lefty-swinging Brandon Belt for DH and backup first base, and Bassitt to fortify the rotation behind Kevin Gausman and Jose Berrios. At the same time, however, the Jays sacrificed the popular Teoscar Hernandez’s 25 homers in a deal to bolster their bullpen for Erik Swanson, who had impressive numbers (1.68, 70K in 53.2 IP) last year but in mostly non-high leverage situations. They should be better but there are still too many question marks about their rotation to suggest they could supplant the Yankees.
IT’S A MADD, MADD WORLD
Thanks in large part to Steve Cohen, MLB reaped a record total of $78,479,606 in luxury tax revenue this year according to the estimable baseball salary and tax watchdog Ron Blum of the Associated Press. It is worth noting that this is the same pool that MLB uses for annual payments to the (now 179) pre-1980 players who got jobbed out of their pensions years ago. As part of the new Basic Agreement in 1980, the owners had agreed to lower the requirement of service time to be eligible for the pension from four years to just 43 days. However, it was not retroactive to players who played prior to 1980. It wasn’t until 2011 when the late Players Union executive director Michael Weiner and then deputy commissioner Rob Manfred worked out a complicated “stipend package” deal for the pre-1980 players that, while still not including them in the pension plan, enabled them to receive benefit allowances up to a max of $10,000 based on their service time. Because they were not in the pension, the payments cannot be transferred to their spouses when they die. At the same time, however, in 1997 MLB agreed separately to award pensions of $10,000 a year to Negro League players who played on teams prior to 1947. Importantly, only a very few of the 179 pre-1980 players still alive are collecting the $10,000 per year max and most of them considerably less. As I have written in this newspaper on a number of occasions, it would cost MLB and the Players Association $5 million (or the salary Cohen will be paying Mets reliever Brooks Raley this year) a year to get all those 179 players up to $10,000. Surely with all this revenue at their disposal, there must be a way for MLB and the Union to do the right thing by these aging former players who, through no fault of their own, never got a pension.