December 27th, 2013

Roster Reality Is Lurking In The Shadows

Like most sports, baseball is a game of momentum.

The Baltimore Orioles, Cleveland Indians, Kansas City Royals, and Pittsburgh Pirates are four teams that captured some momentum last season after time spent in previous season trying to be competitive.

Perhaps the stars aligned for them. But more probably, astute business and baseball related decisions put each of those four clubs in the mainstream of baseball conversation. Their fans were energized and renewed. Their front offices were rewarded for making good decisions in most cases. Not all, but most. Money was spent. Tough decisions were made.

Now, fast forward a year. Those same four teams seem to be challenged once again.

Each of those renewed franchises seems to be running in place while their division opposition sprints towards the starting blocks of a new season.

Consider that the American League East Yankees now boast a lineup featuring former Red Sox star Jacoby Ellsbury. Not to mention the addition of catcher Brian McCann and the outstanding Carlos Beltran.

In the American League Central, the Tigers have lost Prince Fielder, Jhonny Peralta and pitcher Doug Fister, but they made some significant additions to fill unmet needs. They now have premiere closer Joe Nathan to lock the door in the 9th inning. Ian Kinsler can set the table for Torii Hunter, Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez, who all remain. Rajai Davis has joined the club as a possible platoon in left field with Andy Dirks. We need not feel sorry for the Tigers.

In the National League East, virtually every club will be impacted by the already strong St. Louis Cardinals adding Peralta as their shortstop and Peter Bourjos in center. I do feel the defense of Bourjos coupled with the offense offered by Peralta will make an almost perfectly balanced Cardinals attack even stronger. Not to mention that Randal Grichuck could be a real sleeper in the deal with the Angels.

My point? At least one, if not more teams in the AL East, Al Central, and NL Central where the Orioles, Indians, Royals and Pirates hang out got significantly better. All while the four clubs in question decided to play the hands they have been dealt.

We are not in the privacy of the conference rooms. We haven’t heard the discussions with ownership. We can only surmise that each general manager has made a case to knock the door down now while the opportunity exists. We can also surmise the payroll money was not made available or the team’s philosophy didn’t agree with the requests.

It’s not our money.

However, the game has changed. Even the greatest of front offices can only come up with so many rabbits in their hats before the bigger, badder and more prosperous teams in the same competitive environment, playing under the same rules, come and lick the platter clean of the best available players.

General managers in markets that do not choose to spend freely are fortunate when they make a great decision on one “outlier” type player. But more than one per season? That’s a real stretch. There are just so many Scott Kazmir rebounds available. Just so many Jason Grilli type closers to be discovered hanging around. And then those reclamation projects get pricey. But someone else pays that price. Always.

For each of the four teams in question, the window closes a bit more with each new free agent signing or great trade made by an opponent.

For each of the four teams in question, the window closes a bit more when a Justin Masterson hits free agency and may go the way of C C Sabathia, Cliff Lee, or Victor Martinez.

For each of the four teams in question, the window closes when realization hits that a Chris Davis/Matt Wieters combination in the future may cost the club so much of their payroll that signing them long term is deemed an unacceptable option. No Joe Mauer situation for the Orioles. I don’t see that coming at all.

For each of the four teams in question, the window closes when a club realizes that a brief rental of Ervin Santana helped a pitching staff bolstered by the acquisition of James Shields, but now must return to “hope” instead of confidence. Santana lengthened the rotation. I’m not sure Jason Vargas will have the same impact. But maybe.

And so it is. The teams on the cusp of hoisting a championship trophy next fall continue to remain competitive and strive to improve. The teams that saw their candle brighten for a season or two may well be looking at a mere flicker as December turns to January which turns to February and ultimately turns to March. And then reality arrives.

Where did the off season go? What happened to our window of opportunity? Why didn’t we slam in the door and play with the big guys?

There are still free agent pitchers and players available to help many, many clubs. So, we wait. We wait to find out. Will those four stand pat?

So alas, dear friends. The off season isn’t over. Hope remains. One thing is certain, however. Reality is lurking in the shadows. Roster construction is just a few months away. And that’s when roster reality becomes, well….roster reality.

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