Spring training is close to being in full-swing for Major League Baseball this week, with pitchers and catchers reporting to their clubs' either Florida or Arizona-based spring sanctuaries. As life is, things have changed across the landscape of each camp from wherever they left off at last fall. Whether it was by trading the future for present, breaking out the checkbook or letting wounded warriors get back to their former selves, there’s a lot going on all over in the face-lift department.
The easy route is to pay out the biggest check to fix these issues, but as recent history shows, the biggest spenders don’t have the best results. The Los Angeles Angels ($317 million) and Miami Marlins ($201 million) were the friendliest spenders of the 2011 MLB holiday season, only to finish a combined 31 games out of first place by the end of the next season.
Baseball is the ultimate game of strategy, and extends to the front office folks as easily as it does the dugout inhabitants. Big trades were made and big checks were issued as well, but grabbing a big name doesn’t always compete with making the just right move to perfectly compliment what was there already. And with that in mind, here are the most important moves made this winter.
The Blue Jays Rotation: The Jays rotation was flat disgusting last year. Opening Day starter Ricky Romero was bombed into a 14-loss season, barely holding on to his rotation spot by the All-Star break. Overall, their team ERA was fourth worst in the American League, and when you reside in the AL
Beast East, being the worst at anything is magnified to the highest degree. They responded by being the most aggressive team in baseball this winter, picking up three new arms to boost their starting status. Among them, a former-National League ERA champion (Josh Johnson) and owner of 174 career wins and two no-hitters (Mark Buehrle), and to round it off, the reigning National League Cy Young winner and knuckleballer extraordinaire in R.A. Dickey. This instantly granted them one of the most exclusively good rotations in baseball, and for a team that has no problem scoring runs, it should propel them out of the bottom two teams in their division for the first time since 2007.
Victor Martinez’s Return: It’s kind of scary to think about a lineup with Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder getting even better on offense, but that’s what’s on deck. They were never at full strength at any point last year, with Victor Martinez shelved due to a torn ACL. If he returns with his previous form (career .303 hitter) to give Fielder the type of support he gives Cabrera, Detroit is in good shape to finish the job they came up short on last October.
The Angels' bullpen: The Halos are getting the message: flash and dash doesn’t win out over substance. Josh Hamilton’s addition will get the pub, but the Angels could already hit. What they couldn’t do is close out last year. Their 63% save percentage was second worst in the AL and killed them in the end. But additions of Sean Burnett (2.32 ERA) and Ryan Madson (converted 32 of 34 2011 save chances) could very well be the best depth creation grabs of the year.
Aroldis Chapman’s moving up: His 2012 may have been the most overwhelming campaign ever put forward by a reliever, but the Reds want to maximize that return this year by making him a starter. We’ve seen this experiment go both good (Chris Sale) and bad (Neftali Feliz) in recent memory, so there’s no way to tell if this is permanent or not. But the Reds already boasted one of the NL’s most efficient rotations with four starters that won at least 12 games, and if Chapman keeps up with his strikeouts per nine inning rate from a year ago (an insane 15.3), he’d rack up, roughly, 500 K’s this year, which would be at the least one of the most ridiculous things ever seen in sports. So why not? Give it a go.
Big Game James: The Royals gave up an awful lot of potential and are sure to regret at least a part of it, but they got back exactly what they needed. James Shields is the one of, if not the, most durable pitcher in the game. He comes to sit atop a rotation that put up a 5.02 ERA between 13 different pitchers to start a game in 2012, while Bruce Chen’s 11 wins led the team. Shields has won 31 games the last two years and, most importantly, has averaged 33 starts a year for his career, finishing what he’s started 19 times. This is the type of stability KC needs atop a developing pitching staff that already has a very strong bullpen but was one piece away from being able to contend, due to a lackluster rotation.
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