For all the talk of the balance of power tilting towards the AL East, baseball's power division hasn't won a pennant in two years, and has as many world titles collectively as the St. Louis Cardinals over the last six. With the eventual one-game play-in to determine each league's wild-card team, the benefits of being second-best in the division have been erased. Over the past 10 seasons, the East has provided eight wild card teams.
So the stakes just got higher in one of the most competitive divisions in the league, while the new playoff structure might eventually create lottery opportunities for the Orioles or Blue Jays to reach a division series. Sticking with the theme David Schoenfield introduced for this series Monday, what are the three top priorities for the beasts of the AL East?
1. Rotation depth: Who's No. 2?
Now that CC Sabathia has opted to stick around, the questions are who gets lined up behind him in 2012? How soon until top prospects Manny Banuelos and Dellin Betances get chances to join Ivan Nova behind him? They're still stuck with A.J. Burnett for two more years, and seeing so much of the downside risk of signing him might understandably keep GM Brian Cashman from chasing C.J. Wilson. Bringing back Freddy Garcia at $5 million for another season of place-holding made sense, especially since they don't seem to know what to expect from Phil Hughes.
Likely solution: Sticking with Hughes and Burnett would be defensible in most organizations, but the need for a second stopper beyond Sabathia to put the Yankees in better postseason shape will compel them to chase a high-end vet. Don't be surprised when they ink Roy Oswalt as the best balance of short-term need, high price tag and quality.
2. Designated hitter: Open (Jorge Posada, free agent).
The job already belongs to Jesus Montero. The expectation of the offensive boost they'll get from Montero will no doubt fuel speculation that the Yankees could shop Nick Swisher in his last season before free agency. The Yankees will also add some down-on-his-luck veteran slugger to a split contract and a spring training invite to try and make the roster, not unlike Eric Chavez last February.
3. Infield depth: (Eduardo Nunez and … )
Derek Jeter will be 38 years old, and he's coming off his worst year. Alex Rodriguez hasn't managed to stay healthy and play a full season since 2007. Anticipating that he'll miss another 30-40 games in 2012 would be practical. And Nunez can't play short and third base if the Yankees are confronted with continuing decline from the Captain at the same time that A-Rod breaks down. A lefty bat to spot either starter would be handy.
Likely solution: Obvious free-agent candidates like Jerry Hairston Jr., Nick Punto or Adam Kennedy would represent the most risk-averse solutions without providing much help at the plate. Signing Carlos Guillen would entail lots of risk, but he's played around the infield and if he was game for an incentive-laden deal, might get another shot at the postseason.
1. First base: Open (Casey Kotchman, free agent)
Kotchman was less an actual incumbent and more like the temp you thank and then let loose. So the Rays are now in the position to explore their options and find something better. They won't get in on the Prince-Albert sweepstakes, but they might find Carlos Pena amenable now that he's found that the market isn't going to give him a huge long-term contract. But even that's fairly unlikely. Minor league professional hitter Russ Canzler shows up atop the depth charts for the time being after hitting .314/.401/.530 for Triple-A Durham; he could be part of a platoon if the Rays find a lefty-batting partner.
Likely solution: The Rays understand that their alternatives are fairly interchangeable, just as they were last year when they settled for Kotchman and Dan Johnson. There's always the opportunity to see if the A's would part with any of their collection of semi-interesting alternatives, because they'll have to pick from among Brandon Allen, Chris Carter and Daric Barton. A Barton/Canzler platoon would be typical of the organization's ability to make do with less.
2. Designated hitter: Open (Johnny Damon, free agent)
Damon has already expressed an interest in coming back, as well he might -- DHs who slug .418 aren't likely to be in a lot of demand, no matter how much they're seen as great clubhouse guys. Brandon Guyer's arrival in the outfield corner adds a good option to the Rays' lineup. They're not in dire need and will have the freedom to explore whatever opportunities crop up.
Likely solution: A lot like first base, there isn't a likely solution beyond the likelihood that the Rays might find a veteran willing to sign for a relatively-cheap contract in January -- like Damon did last year. It might even be Damon again. But it will be a matter of finding the man willing to take what the Rays will offer while providing a modicum of offense.
Before you ask, no, signing Jose Molina for $1.5 million was not entirely the answer. But the question is whether a job-sharing arrangement between Molina and minor-league veteran Jose Lobaton will be. Lobaton is a switch-hitter with a career .259/.348/.410 line in the minors, and he's been strong-armed enough to throw people out at roughly a 30 percent clip.
Likely solution: Joe Maddon has been comfortable with cobbled-together platoons in the past, and working with this one while semi-prospect Robinson Chirinos recuperates from a broken wrist suffered in winter ball would be more of the same. But in light of recent rumors that the Rockies are shopping Chris Iannetta, it's hard not to think his blend of walks and power would make him exactly the kind of player at the right price for the Rays.
ESPNBoston.com's Gordon Edes reports that the managerial search is down to Bobby Valentine and Gene Lamont, which is good news. Valentine would bring an articulate spokesman and a dugout aggression the Sox could probably use, while Lamont's merits as a tactician and his stint as a successful skipper on Chicago's South Side shouldn't be overlooked. We won't count this one, since it'll be resolved shortly.
1. Designated hitter: Empty (David Ortiz, free agent)
Papi's offense isn't the issue, the question is whether Father Time will ever catch up to the 36-year-old slugger. But after slugging .529 and .554 the last two years, he can afford to demand a multi-year deal, and the supply of people delivering that kind of power on the market is limited to four players. Ortiz will cost considerably less over a significantly shorter deal than Albert Pujols, Prince Fielder or Carlos Beltran.
Likely solution: Papi re-signs with the Red Sox for a multi-year deal that guarantees that his 400th career homer -- if he keeps aging gracefully, as he's at 349 now -- comes in a Boston uniform. Retaining his power will help let the Sox develop Josh Reddick and Ryan Kalish in right field.
2. Closer: Empty?
If you'd asked this question in July in anticipation of Jonathan Papelbon's offseason defection as a free agent, you'd have said the job was Daniel Bard's to lose. But he may have lost it after four losses and three blown saves in September. Bobby Jenks was supposed to be some sort of insurance, but he can't be counted on between back woes and the pulmonary embolism that was diagnosed in September. So the question is whether the new brain trust wants to believe in Bard's talent, or if it would rather have an alternative.
Likely solution: The Phillies' Ryan Madson has been talked up as an obvious target, and as long as he gets paid top dollar he may be more flexible over who gets saves after a long career in setting up other people. The alternatives would be short-term deals with somebody famous (Francisco Rodriguez) to generate saves, or getting a less well-known veteran like Frank Francisco of the Blue Jays, since he'd be an asset whether he pitches in front of Bard or behind.
3. Infield: Shop depth to exploit the market's shortage of talent on the left side.
Between Jimmy Rollins' price tag, Rafael Furcal's fragility, and Aramis Ramirez's bulk, you can understand how a lot of teams feeling short at short or third will want to expand their alternatives. Between Marco Scutaro, Jed Lowrie and Mike Aviles the Sox have three useful players who can play third base or shortstop, and Lowrie and Aviles are both under club control for the next three years.
Likely solution: Don't be surprised if either Lowrie or Aviles gets dealt for additional relief help. For example, the Cubs' Sean Marshall's only under control for one more year, so he could certainly be available, and the Cubs could use a guy with the bat for third like Lowrie.
1. Closer: Open (Francisco and Jon Rauch, free agents)
This may not be the preeminent need, but the one that GM Alex Anthopoulos will most readily address -- probably no differently than he did last winter when he trawled for short-term help and hauled in Francisco, Rauch and Octavio Dotel. This winter, he's also be losing Shawn Camp after already dealing away Jason Frasor, Dotel and Marc Rzepczynski during the season, so there are plenty of job openings in Toronto beyond the guy who will be getting the most save opportunities.
Likely solution: Another grab-bag of rented veterans who can be comfortable in the knowledge they'll have a shot at a few saves and a deadline deal to a contender.
2. Second base (Kelly Johnson, free agent)
After dealing away Aaron Hill to acquire Johnson -- and expecting that Johnson would file for free agency, yielding draft picks via an arbitration offer -- there's the very real danger that Johnson could just accept arbitration. As fascinating as Johnson is in sabermetric circles, he's had only one good year in the last three. That season was boosted by a .976 OPS in the D-backs' hitter-happy home. Johnson will be turning 30, his strikeout rate reached 26.6 percent last year, and he's not a defensive asset in the field or around the bag. One man's treasure is another man's trash, and the Jays may be stuck learning that Johnson might elicit a lot less interest than they hoped. If he stays, he could reasonably expect more than $6 million via arbitration, which wouldn't be the end of the world.
Likely solution: Johnson doesn't take arbitration, to the regret of everyone involved besides the Jays. The Jays end up having to shop around, because the market's thin. Don't be surprised if another deal with the Cardinals brings Ryan Theriot to Toronto for his last year before free agency.
3. Rotation starter
As much excitement as Ricky Romero deserves en route to ensuring his long-term commitment to the Blue Jays, the rest of the rotation leaves a lot to be desired. Brandon Morrow was talented and exasperating, and Kyle Drabek and Brett Cecil both pitched badly enough to lose their jobs at different points of the season. Top prospects like Deck McGuire, Asher Wojciechowski, Drew Hutchison and Chad Jenkins aren't close to ready, and organizational survivors like Brad Mills, Dustin McGowan and Jesse Litsch are far from sure things to round out a front five.
Likely solution: Henderson Alvarez didn't enjoy many top-prospect touts on the way up, but six quality starts in 10 turns for Toronto should get him one of the slots behind Romero, Morrow and Cecil. It will be interesting to see if the Jays keep the last spot open for Drabek or one of the organizational pitchers, or if they spring for a one-year rental with a veteran innings-eater like Aaron Harang to buy the bullpen some breathing room.
1. Front office.
The player development system has too often proven to be an organizational stepchild. Yappy marketing and Buck Showalter in the dugout didn't change that and couldn't; new GM Dan Duquette is charged with trying. Between faith in his Latin American contacts and his past track record with the Expos and Red Sox, the hope is that Duquette isn't merely the latest front-office time-server -- say, Syd Thrift in a different suit.
Likely solution: While other teams might be heading to the Winter Meetings looking to land big-name free agents, Duquette's best investments this winter should be the ones he makes in adding front-office help, coaches, instructors and scouts. The new CBA may have hamstrung creativity if you reduce that to dollars, but good scouting and better instruction generates its own rewards.
2. Starting pitching: 60 quality starts, fewest in MLB.
This was expected to be, if not an area of strength, or at least a unit that provided hope in the form of young talent. But Jake Arrieta hurt his elbow, Brian Matusz and Chris Tillman took huge steps backward, and top pitching prospect Zach Britton put up a 5.76 ERA in 10 second-half starts. The bullpen had to absorb a ton of work from a rotation that struggled to deliver just 5.4 innings per start while allowing 5.9 runs per nine.
Likely solution: Stockpiling back-end rotation castoffs like Jo-Jo Reyes and Tommy Hunter will not be the solution; that's just hunting for the next Jeremy Guthrie and not finding him. If Duquette wants to make an immediate impact in a way that will show up in the 2012 standings, it might be to add a veteran starter who can be a positive example -- like Charlie Leibrandt did with the early-'90s Braves. While Mark Buehrle or Oswalt would be perfect as examples and as mentors, it's more likely the O's will have to settle for the likes of Joel Pineiro or perhaps a rehabbing Jason Marquis.
3. Infield: Who plays where?
Between concern over second baseman Brian Roberts' recovery from his concussion and questions over whether Mark Reynolds or Chris Davis can play third base, you might think the Orioles should be looking for help at second base and the hot corner. Maybe at first base too.
Likely solution: Take a look at the market, and you can conclude these are issues best left for spring training. Unless the Angelos clan empowers Duquette to blow the budget well past $90 million, the O's can't land a Pujols or Fielder at first base, and they shouldn't make the too-common Orioles mistake of overpaying for mediocre free agents. If Roberts can't come back, if there's one thing the system has, it's in-house alternatives at second (starting with prospect Ryan Adams), and the market for help at third base is thin enough to encourage them to be patient with Davis at the hot corner.
Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.