What typically makes an offseason exciting, and what typically makes contending teams do irrational things with money, is pressure. You have a division with two contenders, one makes a move to improve and the other feels the desperate need to match it. Tigers sign Victor Martinez, Sox sign Adam Dunn, etc…
I wrote a short while back about the lack of the Yankees this offseason and the effects that their absence appears to be having. But there is something else going on as well, and something that is more directly impacting the sleepy luke-warm hot stove in the Motor City. A distinct lack of pressure.
In my opinion, and you may have a different opinion, the three teams doing the most to improve this offseason have been the Miami Marlins, the Toronto Blue Jays and the Los Angeles Angels. This is, to say the least, atypical. Not only were the three not playoff teams in 2011 – the closest any of them came to a wild card was the Angels five games out. They still trailed their division leader (Texas) by 10. The Marlins were 30 games out of first and 18 back of St. Louis for the wild card. The Blue Jays finished 4th in the AL East, 16 behind the Yanks, 10 behind the Rays and 9 behind the Red Sox.
I’m sure I’m not the only one who thinks that the Angels, with the additions of Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson, are at the very least going to be solid wild card contenders even if they aren’t on par with the Rangers quite yet. The Blue Jays? Thanks to a strong Loony, Toronto seems to finally be in a spending mood again – and the addition of the 2nd wild card slot might help improve their outlook too. But IF, and that’s a big capitalized IF, they wind up signing Prince Fielder (or Carlos Beltran) the Jays will only be moving to the fringes of competition in the division. The Rays, Red Sox and Yankees have typically been teams putting pressure on one another to one-up in years past. This offseason, they have all been virtually silent. The Red Sox did sign Nick Punto today, but that is hardly going to send shockwaves all the way to the Big Apple. Both Boston and New York are likely to exceed the luxury tax threshold next year and in years to come and both would like to restrain payroll growth for the coming years when penalties get stiffer. Both have overpaid players that they can’t move and both have high expectations for success. It would seem that the Yankees are going to be content with the five game cushion that they have over the Rays and Red Sox and the Red Sox, financially hamstrung, are forced to accept that 5 game handicap so long as it gets no larger. The Rays? The Rays still have no revenues, so they still do little to improve during the offseason. They have loads of young talent, so they are still a threatening presence in the division, but they tailed off enough between 2010 and 2011 that they aren’t making the Yankees and Red Sox desperate enough to throw $50 million (including penalties from the league) at a $15 million pitcher. The Blue Jays may enter the ring, but they won’t in any way change the dynamic of the competition already taking place.
It’s unlikely that the Philadelphia Phillies feel much pressure from the 72-win Marlins, even with Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle and Heath Bell added. The Rangers might very well feel some pressure from the Angels, particularly after losing C.J. Wilson, and it is entirely possible that Texas will make a big move or two in the coming months. However, the rest of the division lags far behind and hasn’t done much of anything to narrow the gap. Since the two can pad win totals with games against Houston, Seattle and Oakland I would think that the AL West runner-up should have a very good shot at one of those two wild card slots. One reason that Oakland, Houston and Seattle haven’t done much? They are simply too far behind Texas and now LA for one or two big (expensive) moves to put them within reach. The same could be said for Atlanta, Washington and the Mets – Philly is just too good for any of them to challenge via free agency. The same is, of course, true for the Fish but the Fish have a new ballpark to move into, a lot of fan enmity, investigation by the Feds over faking poverty to swindle the public out of a stadium and the wrath of Bud Selig over exploitation of revenue sharing agreements.
The story is similar in other divisions: in the NL Central, the St. Louis Cardinals and Milwaukee Brewers were the class of the division, both making the playoffs in 2011. Neither is a particularly large market and both look to lose their best player this winter. Some attempt to offset the loss has been made, with St. Louis pursuing Rafael Furcal and Milwaukee Aramis Ramirez, but both look likely to slide back into the pack in 2012. Behind those two you had the Cincinnati Reds, a team with some young talent and low revenues, at 17 games out of first.
In the NL West, the young Diamondbacks won the division handily with a relatively low payroll and probably feel that they can win the division again with only minor moves. The Rockies and Padres seem to be looking at rebuilds, while the Dodgers are recovering from their McCourt divorce hangover. The team which ought, in a normal offseason, to feel the desperate pull towards a Prince Fielder – the big market San Francisco Giants – have been largely silent. Why? The 2010 champs finished only 4 games out of the wild card, so they are clearly close. But… they look to be preoccupied with the enormous raises that Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain will get in extensions (if they sign them) and should get a big shot in the arm on offense when Buster Posey returns.
And last, but not least, our very own AL Central. The Tigers absolutely ran away with the division last year in what was supposed to be a very close three horse race. The White Sox and Twins were and are saddled with highly paid and wholly unproductive players, which gives them only two choices going forward. Burn the house down and go on with a mid-level payroll that could win 70, or 80 if their slumping vets bounce back. OR, stay the course and attempt to put enough pieces in place around the vets to contend for a playoff spot IF they bounce back. The Sox were actually much better in 2011 than the Twins, but it seems to be the White Sox that have chosen option #1 while the Twins have chosen option #2. Neither team can really afford to raise payroll, they were both all in on 2011, but the Twins are attempting to fill in holes with free agents like Josh Willingham and Jamey Carroll while the Sox are looking to pare payroll by unloading anybody they can get a decent price for. The Sox are actively getting worse. No pressure from that quarter. The Twins are staying the course – but finished a whopping 32 games out of first. No pressure from that quarter either. The Indians and the Royals are both up-and-coming young teams that see themselves as eventual heirs to the division. But they are among the smallest markets in the league and can’t do much to add payroll beyond the moves they have already made: Jonathan Sanchez, Jonathan Sanchez and an extension for Jeff Francoeur for KC and Derek Lowe, Grady Sizemore and potentially a second-tier right-handed bat in Cleveland. Cleveland finished 16 games behind Detroit and KC 24, so while both will hope to improve significantly through development of young players neither is doing anything substantial to push Detroit into making moves.
This is much the same story as we’re seeing across the league: teams that are too far out doing little, teams that ought to be making a splash but don’t have the payroll flexibility and, of course, teams that have a comfortable lead in the division and simply don’t need to do much of anything as the rest of the division stays put. It should come as no great surprise, then, that the Tigers seem content to go forward with Don Kelly and Brandon Inge platooning at third, Ramon Santiago at second, Austin Jackson leading off and “Question Mark” taking the mound every fifth day. That’s just the kind of team that demolished the AL Central competition in 2011, why wouldn’t Dave Dombrowski expect the same thing to happen again? There is no sense of urgency here and until the Indians and Royals really start turning potential into demonstrated production, there won’t be. As Tigers fans, we should consider this offseason