Their starting catcher, Ramon Hernandez, is an established talent though not immediately an impressive figure. Around the infield, though, this team is good. Jim Thome at first base, Luis Castillo at second base, Alex Gonzalez at short, and Troy Glaus at third? That’s a pretty fine infield. But the outfield, with Brad Wilkerson, Milton Bradley, and Reggie Sanders, has the potential to be even better. That doesn’t take into account the stocked bench, where guys like Lyle Overbay, Mark Loretta, Matt Lawton and Mark Grudzielanek wait to play.
Then you get to the strength of the team … the pitching staff. Javier Vazquez, A.J. Burnett, Josh Beckett, Jeff Weaver and Esteban Loaiza? What a rotation! The pen? Oh, just LaTroy Hawkins, Kyle Farnsworth, Todd Jones, Julian Tavarez, Ron Villone, and Guillermo Mota.
What is this team? Is Burley on mood-enhancers again? No. This is the team of players who moved from the National League to the American League last season. Take note of it; these guys are about to make baseball’s most important and least-discussed inequity even wider.
In February, waiting impatiently for my son to be born, I had a fairly leisurely lunch with my friend Robert Dudek. We discussed the Blue Jays, as we usually do, and the Burnett signing was extensively rehashed. Robert made the point that Burnett, for all the potential synergies the Jays could generate by matching him with his favorite pitching coach, was likely to take a hit to his raw numbers from Florida. Not only was he moving to a tougher park, and the DH league, but (as he suggested and as I immediately agreed) the AL was simply a much tougher league than the National League.
Is the talent gap really that significant? This isn’t merely a case of looking at anecdotal examples like Matt Clement‘s struggles in the AL after his NL success. For example, the AL played .540 ball against the NL in interleague play in 2005. That mark was just .508 in 2004, but the AL was still better despite being handicapped by having its pitchers have to hit in NL parks.
Then there’s the the record of the AL vs. the NL in the last eight World Series, in which the AL has won 29 games and the NL 12. That’s probably closer to the true mark of how far apart the leagues are. The top eight or nine teams in the American League probably could have made the National League playoffs last season, and I would say that there were only three or at most four teams in the AL worse than the NL West champs. There’s a big gap.
And during this offseason, those AL teams loaded up even more, facing the need to beat the hell out of each other to even get a sniff of the playoffs. Toronto, New York and Boston spending freely on talent in the AL East; Cleveland and Chicago in a nuclear arms race in the Central (which still has a fine Minnesota Twins ballclub who are adding a lot of talent through their farm system); the A’s, Rangers and Angels furiously adding new players to get a leg up on the AL West. Even the AL’s worst team, the Royals, went out and spent a pile on free agent talent in a quest to get better, and the Seattle Mariners brought in a guy who might yet be the AL’s best new position player.
Let’s take a look at the significant free agents that moved from the NL to the AL in this past offseason.
Free agent 2005 Win Shares Ramon Hernandez 10 A.J. Burnett 12 Jeff Weaver 13 Esteban Loaiza 11 Kyle Farnsworth 11 Todd Jones 13 Julian Tavarez 4 Reggie Sanders 12 Matt Lawton 14 Alex "SS" Gonzalez 13 Mark Grudzielanek 18 Miguel Cairo 5 (OK, this is not a plus) JT Snow 10
Plus, the Mariners brought in Kenji Johjima, and the Devil Rays brought in Shinji Mori (although Mori is now out for the season).
From AL to NL, the list is a little shorter:
Free agent 2005 Win Shares Tom Gordon 10 Jacque Jones 15 Bill Mueller 18 Pokey Reese 0
A massive transfusion of talent from NL to AL, basically. I may have missed a couple; please let me know if I have. In return, the NL are signing the AL’s castoffs as minor league free agents or are promoting young players. That’s 146 win shares of talent coming from the National League, and only 43 going the other way, a net gain of 103 win shares.
But most talent didn’t change leagues via free agency this offseason. As usual, the trade market saw much more (and more important) action than free agency. In interleague trades involving established (non-prospect) players of note, the AL loaded up:
New American Leaguer 2005 Win Shares Troy Glaus 23 Jim Thome 4 Javier Vazquez 14 LaTroy Hawkins 3 Milton Bradley 11 Lyle Overbay 18 Brad Wilkerson 23 Luis Castillo 17 Antonio Perez 10 Mark Loretta 15 Josh Beckett 14 Mark Redman 3 Corey Patterson 4 Ron Villone 5 Guillermo Mota 2 Edgardo Alfonzo 9 Terrmel Sledge 1 Mike Lowell 9 Rob Mackowiak 12 Vicente Padilla 6 Marcos Carvajal 3 Sean Burroughs 4 Jon Leciester -1 (OK, I think I've beaten this to death)
The NL got a less impressive collection:
New National Leaguer 2005 Win Shares Edgar Renteria 14 Alfonso Soriano 16 Steve Kline 3 Miguel Batista 6 Orlando Hudson 15 Orlando Hernandez 5 Aaron Rowand 19 Tony Womack 3 Luis Vizcaino 7 Steve Finley 6 Damaso Marte 4 Yorvit Torrealba 2 Doug Mirabelli 5 Dave Bush 6 Dewon (heh) Brazelton -2
That’s a net transfer of 100 Win Shares (209 Win Shares to the AL, 109 going back to the NL). Add in the 103 gain through free agency, the AL has sucked 203 Win Shares, about 68 wins, of talent out of the NL this offseason. That’s about five wins per AL team, and that means that your typical AL team will need to be about five wins a year better (in terms of talent on hand) just to keep pace.
That’s a lot. That’s a major shift in the playing field; and it doesn’t count the fact that a number of the new American Leaguers are coming off of down seasons. I’m pretty confident that Jim Thome, Milton Bradley, LaTroy Hawkins and Corey Patterson aren’t going to combine for 22 win shares again.
Conversely, if you’re an NL team’s fan despairing of the hemorrhage of good players your team has suffered, keep the faith. The water level’s a lot lower than it’s been in the past. You’ll probably contend yet.
What’s more, this factor shouldn’t be forgotten in your fantasy and roto drafts. Good players in the National League are going to be competing in an even less talent-rich environment, and good players in the AL are going to be challenged more than ever. What’s more, watch out for some of these players actually changing leagues; the new ALers are going to find the going really tough in 2006.
The gap between the leagues is large, and widening. Don’t forget it.