Champions of the Off-season
With one last flurry of signings on Tuesday -- Ben Sheets to the A's, Jon Garland to the Padres, Jim Thome to the Twins, Xavier Nady to the Cubs -- the Hot Stove League is just about extinguished. Sure, a bunch of free agents remain, some of them even quite desirable. Any day now, Johnny Damon could wind up with the A's, and Orlando Hudson could still be a Washington National in time for Fanfest.
But for the most part, the talent-grab is over. (For the record, here is what's left of the free-agent market.)
Being crowned Champions of the Off-season, of course, doesn't mean squat. We all know teams in other sports that seem to win that title every year, only to fizzle spectacularly during the season. Heck, it happens in baseball, too. A year ago, I went all-in on the Mets following what looked to be a fabulous off-season. But we all know how that turned out.
That brings us to this disclaimer: the following picks are not playoff picks. There is plenty of time left for me to get those wrong. These are merely the teams in each division, plus a wild card in each league, who have had the best winters:
NL East: Phillies. On the surface, their biggest moves invite criticism -- the two-time NL champs essentially swapped one ace (Cliff Lee) for another (Roy Halladay), and made a three-year commitment to a second baseman (Placido Polanco) whom they are asking to move to third. But both represented pure upgrades over what they were replacing, and Halladay's team-friendly contract extension made that move a clear win. Beyond that, though, the Phillies also bolstered their bench (Brian Schneider, Ross Gload) and solidified their long-term core with extensions to Carlos Ruiz, Joe Blanton and Shane Victorino.
NL Central: Brewers. Okay, they probably overpaid for Randy Wolf (three years, $29.75 million), given where the market went after that early signing. But Wolf was, by many accounts, the second-best free-agent pitcher on the market -- and he didn't cost the Brewers any draft picks, since the Dodgers had failed to offer him arbitration. The Brewers also added Doug Davis at a bargain price. They were a couple of pitchers away from winning that division, and now they have them.
NL West: Giants. I'm not saying they've had a great off-season -- re-signing Bengie Molina, adding Mark DeRosa and Aubrey Huff. They merely win by default, as they are the only team in the division that looks like they're trying. The Dodgers, Padres and Rockies appear to be sitting this one out, while the Diamondbacks' off-season was built around a very suspect three-way trade that did not make them discernibly better.
Wild card: Reds. Yes, we're basing this almost entirely on the signing of Cuban prospect Aroldis Chapman to a stunning $30.25 million guaranteed contract -- they haven't really done anything else. But if he's as good as everyone says, and joins Bronson Arroyo and Aaron Harang in this rotation any time soon, the Reds are in business in a division that is highly winnable.
AL East: Red Sox. By signing ace John Lackey, the top free-agent pitcher on the market, and making major defensive upgrades at third base (Adrian Beltre) and center field (Mike Cameron) -- plus a minor upgrade at shortstop (Marco Scutaro) -- the Red Sox might just shave 150 runs off their runs-allowed total from 2009, which is every bit as good as adding 150 runs on offense.
AL Central: Tigers. No one in the Central made huge gains this winter, but the Tigers managed to pick up three high-upside youngsters in the Curtis Granderson trade -- center fielder Austin Jackson and pitchers Max Scherzer and Daniel Schlereth. They also upgraded their leaky bullpen with lefty Phil Coke and closer Jose Valverde. Their pitchers will miss Placido Polanco and Jim Leyland will miss over-using Fernando Rodney, but not all that much.
AL West: Mariners. If the A's manage to sign Damon, on top of Sheets, we may re-think this. But for now, this winter was a major victory for the Mariners -- who added a second ace (Cliff Lee, joining Felix Hernandez) and a second leadoff man (Chone Figgins, joining Ichiro Suzuki), and picked up something of value (the still-productive Milton Bradley) in exchange for one of the worst contracts in baseball (Carlos Silva).
Wild card: Orioles. For me, this came down to the Yankees or Orioles. Both teams traded for veteran, workhorse, front-line starting pitchers (Javier Vazquez and Kevin Millwood, respectively) -- but the Orioles' additional moves were simply stronger. They upgraded at both corner infield spots (Garrett Atkins, Miguel Tejada) and at closer (Mike Gonzalez), and they didn't lose anyone of value, unlike the Yankees (Damon, Hideki Matsui, Melky Cabrera).
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