Off-season drama far from over for Jays, AL East


James Shields (L) and Max Scherzer (R) are the top remaining free agents (AP).

Considering that the American League East has spent more aggressively than any division in baseball this winter, its teams sure have a lot of needs to address before opening day.

AL East teams have combined to spend $362.5 million this winter, according to MLB  Trade Rumors. But with significant holes on rosters throughout the division, the early part of the new year promises to be busy unless the five AL East teams are content entering spring training with question marks.

Even after adding Russell Martin and Josh Donaldson, the Toronto Blue Jays need reinforcements in the bullpen and, potentially, at second base. Expect GM Alex Anthopoulos to continue monitoring the trade market for relievers while keeping tabs on the infield market.

Toronto’s bullpen combined to post a 4.09 ERA last year — much higher than the MLB average of 3.58. The Blue Jays’ need for relief has never been more apparent, and while Anthopoulos has months to tinker with candidates for the final bullpen spots, the top relievers won’t be available forever. Once spring training begins, the trade market tends to slow down.

While the Blue Jays have already made their biggest moves, some of their AL East rivals have the potential to continue making major splashes.

Top Free Agent Contracts: AL East

Pablo Sandoval, Red Sox: five years, $95 million
Hanley Ramirez, Red Sox: four years, $88 million
Russell Martin, Blue Jays: five years, $82 million
Chase Headley, Yankees: four years, $52 million
Andrew Miller, Yankees: four years, $36 million
Justin Masterson, Red Sox: one year, $9.5 million

The Boston Red Sox have been even busier than the Blue Jays, remaking their rotation with ground ball pitchers Justin Masterson, Wade Miley and Rick Porcello while signing impact bats in Hanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval. Yet as long as the top of the free agent pitching market remains unsettled, the Red Sox will loom as a potential destination for Max Scherzer and James Shields. Boston doesn’t need either free agent pitcher to enter the 2015 season as a legitimate contender, but signing top free agents is never purely about needs.

While the New York Yankees have been uncharacteristically quiet this off-season, they look like another intriguing destination for Scherzer or Shields. Sure, re-signing the likes of Chase Headley, Chris Young and Chris Capuano will help. Andrew Miller, Didi Gregorius and Nathan Eovaldi were nice pickups, too.

But New York’s rotation depends on three pitchers who missed considerable time in 2014: CC Sabathia, Michael Pineda and Masahiro Tanaka. On paper, the Yankees are the perfect fit for Scherzer in many ways, especially after losing the dependable Hiroki Kuroda to Japan. They can’t be counted out, even if they’re publicly suggesting the pursuit of top arms remains unlikely.

All of that said, the AL East team with the most pressing need of all could be the defending division champions.

AL East Division Champions

2010 — Tampa Bay Rays
2011 — New York Yankees
2012 — New York Yankees
2013 — Boston Red Sox
2014 — Baltimore Orioles

The Baltimore Orioles  lost Nelson Cruz, Nick Markakis and Miller without off-setting those departures with additional talent. That doesn’t mean they’re in as much trouble as some suggest; it simply means they’ll be busy later in the off-season, much like they were a year ago when they signed Ubaldo Jimenez and Nelson Cruz to late-February deals.

This time, executive VP of baseball operations Dan Duquette will be seeking an outfielder and some offence from the left side of the plate. But Baltimore doesn’t have to rely on free agency if Duquette prefers to avoid it. The San Diego Padres seem like a logical trade partner with an outfield surplus that includes the likes of Will Venable and Seth Smith.

Meanwhile, the Tampa Bay Rays have a history of adding free agents late in the off-season, so they’re another team worth watching even if they’ve already undergone an onslaught of change on and off the field. If there’s a way for the Rays to add an affordable piece — say a reliever, or an outfielder — expect their new leadership team to act.

And if they get a truly compelling offer for Ben Zobrist, the Rays will have to listen. They’ve shown a willingness to part with top talent in recent months, dealing former Cy Young winner David Price as well as 2013 Rookie of the Year Wil Myers.

Add it up and there are a whole lot of unresolved questions throughout the division. From bullpen bargains and trade chips to elite arms like Scherzer, the off-season is far from over in the AL East.

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