The current iterations of the Texas Rangers, Boston Red Sox and Atlanta Braves have at least three things in common: all three crafted their own tragic endings to the 2011 season, all three figure to contend again in 2012, and all three teams don’t need to do very much in order to do so.
Sure, the Hot Stove is very much about conspicuous consumption. For teams with designs on the belt and the title, anything less than the splashiest addition might be regarded as a half-measure. For teams like the Rangers, Red Sox and Braves, this perhaps goes double: a crushing near-miss should beget major changes. Or at least that’s what many observers seem to think. As mentioned, however, there’s no need for a purge in Arlington or Boston or Atlanta, and there’s no need for pricey, top-tier signings.
First, take the back-to-back American League champion Rangers. Last season, they barged to 96 wins in the regular season, which is right in line with what could be expected based on their run differential. For 2012, they have under contract or under team control core performers like Adrian Beltre, Josh Hamilton, Michael Young, Ian Kinsler, Nelson Cruz, Elvis Andrus, Mike Napoli, and every starting pitcher not named C.J. Wilson.
Given Mitch Moreland’s modest upside and wrist problems, there’s some talk that the Rangers may pursue Albert Pujols or Prince Fielder this winter. Yet that may be an unwise allocation of resources for Texas. A better option might be a lower-cost hedge like Carlos Pena or Casey Kotchman. That would leave room in the budget to re-sign Wilson, although the conversion of Neftali Feliz to starter means that the rotation has depth with or without their incumbent ace.
On the whole, the Rangers are in a winnable division and have a great deal of talent already locked down. Big contracts — big contracts that may later prove to be burdensome — aren’t necessary for another run.
As for the Red Sox, lost in their lacerating collapse is the fact that they won 90 despite playing 84 games against teams with .500 records or better. More than chicken thighs, beer cans and video games, injuries — an inordinate number of injuries — are mostly to blame. During the 2011 season, 15 players on Boston’s major-league roster, most of them regulars, made at least one trip to the disabled list. Such a high figure is almost bound to improve in 2012.
Otherwise, the holes are few. Re-signing David Ortiz would fill out the lineup, and that lineup figures to again be one of baseball’s best. The loss of John Lackey to Tommy John surgery (hardly a bad thing from a cold-eyed organizational perspective) means the back of the rotation could use some depth, but there’s no need for a pricey frontline addition. The Sox wisely passed on re-upping Jonathan Papelbon at the absurd going rates, and Daniel Bard is ready to take over as closer. Middle-relief help is needed, but that’s never difficult to dig up, at least for a resourceful team. The overarching point is that the Sox, as presently constructed, are prepared to make a serious run in 2012. Wholesale changes aren’t necessary in the least.
Finally, the Braves. Like the Red Sox, they endured an impossible late-season collapse, but, also like the Red Sox, they’re in good shape for the season to come. Making Derek Lowe go away was a good thing, and the rotation behind Tim Hudson (provided sub-aces Tommy Hanson and Jair Jurrjens are able to stay healthy) looks strong. When depth is needed, Julio Teheran and Mike Minor are ready to step in, or even seize a job out of spring training. Given the workloads foisted upon Craig Kimbrel and Jonny Venters, an addition or two to the relief corps is in order.
On offense, the Braves must hope that Jason Heyward, further removed from his shoulder injury, can rebound. They need help at short, but they won’t be in the market for a Jose Reyes or even a Jimmy Rollins. A reunion with Rafael Furcal? Or perhaps they might be willing to shop starting pitching in order to fill the shortstop hole (and perhaps snag an upgrade in left). And speaking of that upgrade in left, there’s enough out there for the Braves to cobble together a low-cost platoon.
While the offense won’t be exceptional, there’s some cause to think the Braves will improve on this front in 2012. To wit, better health for Heyward and Brian McCann, a full season of Michael Bourn, no uncharacteristic early-season slump from Dan Uggla, and skills growth from the already impressive Freddie Freeman are all reasonable expectations. Sure, the Braves have more needs than the Rangers or Red Sox, but the National League provides more margin for error these days. And there’s also the possibility of expanded playoffs in 2012.
Fans of contenders will always be frustrated by moves at the margins, but sometimes — as in the case of the 2012 Rangers, Red Sox and Braves — that’s all that’s needed to ensure another run.