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Hunter deal has ripple effects
The first significant free agent changed teams Wednesday — Torii Hunter to the Tigers for two years and $26 million — less than 24 hours after FOXSports.com reported news of the Marlins-Blue Jays blockbuster.
After the midweek whirlwind, it’s time to take stock of what the moves mean for a number of parties in the offseason marketplace.
The Tigers needed Hunter — for his defense in right field, for his ability to hit left-handed pitching, for his energy, enthusiasm and clubhouse leadership. His presence (and bat) is what they missed in the World Series against San Francisco. In classic Dave Dombrowski style, the team addressed its need early in the offseason.
Hunter maintained an .868 OPS against lefties this season, a skill that should come in great handy for a Detroit team that went just 26-25 against southpaw starters this year. (The Tigers’ susceptibility to lefties was laid bare on the global stage when they struggled against Barry Zito and Madison Bumgarner in Games 1 and 2 of the World Series.)
Critics could say that $26 million is too much for a 37-year-old outfielder. I disagree. Owner Mike Ilitch is famous for his flexible payroll in a non-salary cap sport. Ilitch is willing to spend in order to field a championship-caliber club — particularly when stars are involved — and the Tigers had to make sure Hunter’s hometown Texas Rangers didn’t woo him away at the last moment.
Hunter should slot second in the Tigers batting order, between leadoff man Austin Jackson and the formidable 3-4-5 of Miguel Cabrera, Prince Fielder and Victor Martinez. Jim Leyland’s everyday lineup will require only minor adjustments for the rest of the offseason; left field is likely a spring competition — Andy Dirks, Avisail Garcia, Brennan Boesch, Quintin Berry, and perhaps Nick Castellanos — while a trade for a more athletic shortstop remains possible. (The Tigers picked up Jhonny Peralta’s option but could move him.)
Now, the Tigers’ highest priority is adding a starter to their rotation. It may be difficult to retain Anibal Sanchez, with his asking price at $90 million.
Rangers general manager Jon Daniels remains the envy of many of his peers. Yes, Hunter is no longer an outfield option for him. But Daniels possesses an abundance of prospects, so essentially all trade possibilities — Justin Upton, Shin-Soo Choo, perhaps even Giancarlo Stanton — remain alive.
Rival executives expect the Rangers will make at least two significant acquisitions this winter, an outfield bat (to replace Josh Hamilton) and starting pitcher. Zack Greinke is said to be high on their list, but questions remain about his willingness to spend the prime of his career in a hitter-friendly American League ballpark. Greinke may prefer to sign with the Angels, Dodgers or Braves.
The takeaway there: Even after the Rangers’ consecutive pennants made them a destination franchise, it’s not clear if they will be the choice of elite free-agent pitchers. (Hello, Cliff Lee.)
Toronto remains a site of considerable intrigue within the industry, as observers speculate about the identity of the Blue Jays’ next manager.
Anthopoulos, the Blue Jays’ thorough GM, isn’t close to hiring a new skipper, in part because he was preoccupied with acquiring Mark Buehrle, Josh Johnson, Jose Reyes, Emilio Bonifacio and John Buck from the Marlins. Now he can shift his attention back to the managerial vacancy — which has grown more appealing in the interim.
Above all, Anthopoulos must hire a respected figure capable of commanding what became a fractured clubhouse near the end of the 2012 season. The job will be difficult, given the heightened expectations. The Blue Jays also must incorporate two veterans — Buehrle and Reyes — who signed lucrative free-agent contracts with the Marlins last winter on the premise that they would play in Miami.
Some within the organization would like to have Sandy Alomar Jr. and Roberto Alomar on the field staff, perhaps with Sandy as the manager. Their big league pedigree — and Roberto’s Hall of Fame career with the Blue Jays — would add immediate cachet. But Anthopoulos has suggested he prefers candidates with extensive managerial experience in the majors.
BOSTON RED SOX AND NEW YORK YANKEES
It’s not often that we ask what the Red Sox and Yankees must do in response to the Blue Jays, but that’s the question here.
If Buehrle and Johnson remain healthy and perform up to their career norms — which is far from assured — then Ricky Romero and Brandon Morrow will bump down to the middle of the rotation, giving Toronto the division’s best starting staff outside of Tampa Bay. When combined with how the Orioles rotation evolved late in the season, the Red Sox and Yankees (for the moment, at least) face a pitching deficit in the AL East.
The decision of free-agent starter Hiroki Kuroda looms large for both rivals. The Yankees want to keep him. The Red Sox would like to sign him away. One way or the other, the Yankees must add at least two starters while being mindful of the supposed, self-imposed $189 million payroll limit for future years. The Red Sox have one opening in their rotation — and that’s if John Lackey returns on schedule from elbow surgery.
Yes, the Red Sox and Yankees have time to make these upgrades. But the Blue Jays’ blockbuster underscored just how important those improvements will be.
B.J. UPTON, CODY ROSS AND MIKE NAPOLI
Hunter’s contract — with an average annual value of $13 million — is good news for these right-handed hitters.
Hunter is coming off a better overall offensive season than Ross, with an OPS+ of 132 compared to 113. But Ross mashed left-handed pitching this season at a better clip than Hunter — an essential part of the job description for both players — and Ross is over five years younger.
Does that mean Ross will get a similar guarantee to Hunter? That’s not clear. But his representatives can make that request with a straight face.
Napoli, a catcher who can play first base, is less comparable with Hunter’s profile from a defensive standpoint. But he had a higher OPS than Hunter over the past three seasons — albeit in fewer games — and has drawn interest from the Red Sox and Mariners, among other teams.
Napoli, like Ross, is 31. If the going rate for an impactful (but not franchise-changing) righty hitter is $13 million per year, they are headed for handsome paydays indeed.
So, how long until Stanton is traded?
OK, OK. Perhaps we shouldn’t assume too much about Fire Sale IV. But if the Marlins are going to strip down their roster to the studs, why stop now?
Stanton, 23, is by far the Marlins’ most valuable remaining trade piece. He led the National League in slugging this year and won’t become a free agent until after the 2017 season. (Ricky Nolasco and Logan Morrison, coming off down seasons, wouldn’t bring back much of a return.)
Stanton is the one player left on the roster Marlins fans would pay to watch. The question, though, is how many fans want to buy tickets at all. If Marlins officials have concluded that the fans are certain to stay away in droves, then it won’t impact the gate much if they trade Stanton, too.
Who would have interest in Stanton? Just about every team in baseball. The most plausible matches are the Rangers and Rays — who are presently hottest in the bidding for Justin Upton, too.