When it comes to teams that have made the biggest improvements in terms of solidifying themselves as bona fide postseason contenders, our winter winners nominees are the Tampa Bay Rays and Oakland A’s, both of which had their usual limited payroll resources to work with.
The Yankees add Masahiro Tanaka during their uber-busy offseason.
We agree with Jonny Gomes that it’s not about winning the winter, it’s winning the summer. But right now, winter, in all its sub-freezing misery, is all we’ve got, and the Yankees’ signing of Masahiro Tanaka to top off a $458 million free agent makeover sure warmed the cockles of their fans’ hearts.
The additions of Brian McCann, Jacoby Ellsbury and Carlos Beltran more than offset the loss of Robinson Cano from the lineup - assuming they all stay healthy - and, if nothing else, thrust the Yankees into the winter “winners” category as one of the clubs that did the most to improve themselves. Problem with the Yankees was they had a whole lot more improving to do than most of their rivals, and even with their Tanaka-McCann-Ellsbury-Beltran booty, they remain a team with major question marks at all four infield positions, the bullpen and still the starting rotation, unless you really believe Tanaka is going to step right in and pitch like a $155 million ace.
The same can be said for the Mets, who improved themselves with the signings of curtis granderson trade Granderson and Bartolo Colon but remain a team with a major deficiencies - shortstop, first base, set-up relief and bench.
When it comes to teams that have made the biggest improvements in terms of solidifying themselves as bona fide postseason contenders, however, our winter winners nominees are the Tampa Bay Rays and Oakland A’s, both of which had their usual limited payroll resources to work with.
The Rays went into the winter with holes at closer, first base and catcher and addressed them all by signing old friend Grant Balfour to replace Fernando Rodney at closer, re-signing first baseman James Loney for three years and $21 million and trading with the Reds for Ryan Hanigan, who led all National League catchers in throwing out baserunners the last two years. Hanigan is also said to be one of the best catchers in baseball in pitch framing - an attribute that will especially endear him to manager Joe Maddon. All the Rays’ offseason moves, including the re-signing of outfielder David DeJesus, will boost their payroll, $15 million-$20 million, to a club record high $80 million-$82 million - in spite of the lowest attendance in baseball.
"That’s a huge jump for us, obviously," said Rays owner Stu Sternberg, "and in the future we’re not going to be able to keep doing this unless the attendance improves. But given all the uncertainty (going into the winter) I’d have to say we exceeded our expectations. We didn’t know if we could get Loney back - we shopped all over the place for a first baseman - and we didn’t foresee Balfour being available for us. But both of them had been here and liked playing here and that turned out to be an advantage for us. Thank God we didn’t need to go after starting pitching."
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That’s because, after making it known they would entertain offers for David Price, the Rays decided to keep their 2012 Cy Young ace - at least for now - and are poised to make a run at the defending AL East/world champion Red Sox. “We know, given the market for pitchers of David’s caliber, we’re never going to be able to keep him,” Sternberg said. “But if we can’t get the kind of pieces we need to have back for him, well, he’s got two more years, which means we have two more bites at that World Series apple and what’s bad about that? If you look at our history, Carl Crawford, B.J. Upton and Carlos Pena all played out their contracts to the end with us.”
Out in Oakland, A’s GM Billy Beane is forced to operate under the same financial constraints as the Rays, but he, too, hardly retreated this winter in the face of free agent defections Colon and Balfour. Beane replaced Colon by signing Scott Kazmir to a two-year, $22 million deal, then went about putting together what may be the strongest bullpen in baseball by trading second baseman Jemile Weeks to the Orioles for Jim Johnson, the AL saves leader the past two seasons, to replace Balfour as closer, and reserve outfielder Seth Smith to the Padres for Luke Gregerson, an elite set-up man. Then last week, Beane signed Eric O’Flaherty, who is recovering from Tommy John surgery, as a hoped-for midsummer lefty set-up man addition. “If you ask me, (Beane) had the best offseason of anyone, provided Kazmir stays healthy and builds on the comeback season he had with Cleveland,” assessed one baseball exec. “Even so, he assembled a helluva bullpen there, and the A’s are going to be very tough to unseat (in the AL West).”
So those are this winter’s winners, as we see it, and we’ll include the White Sox, too, even though they don’t figure to be World Series contenders - if only because second-year GM Rick Hahn showed boldness in overhauling baseball’s worst defensive team with a much-needed infusion of youth, acquiring center fielder Adam Eaton and power-hitting third base prospect Matt Davidson in separate deals with Arizona and signing Cuban first baseman Jose Abreu for $68 million.
Meanwhile, with the caveat that the winter is not over and there are still a few potential difference-making free agents - Rodney, Kendry Morales, Bronson Arroyo, Ervin Santana, Stephen Drew - out there for the signing, it is a bit strange how so many teams have done virtually nothing this off-season. For now anyway, we would have to say the Red Sox, Blue Jays, Orioles, Cubs and Reds in particular could be categorized as losers this winter.
The Red Sox, seemingly resting on their laurels from last year’s smashing offseason, lost one of their most important players, Jacoby Ellsbury, along with Drew and catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia to free agency and so far have signed only creaky-kneed Grady Sizemore as a hoped-for platoon center fielder. However, we’re still betting Drew goes back to them on a two-year deal. The Orioles, who badly need starting pitching, a closer and another bat, have done nothing this winter other than back out of deals with players failing physicals. After Baltimore did just that with Balfour and then outfielder Tyler Colvin last week, why would any free agent dare to engage the Orioles? The Blue Jays, despite having the worst starting pitching in baseball last year, were not in on Tanaka and have been curiously passive with all the other free agent starters.
The Cubs kept their bankroll in their pockets all winter, anticipating they would win the Tanaka sweepstakes, and now that they’re left empty-handed, their Opening Day starter, Jeff Samardzija, is again expressing a reluctance to sign long-term with them. Wrigley Field attendance has been gradually declining with each succeeding last-place season - to a 15-year low of 2.6 million last year - and now figures to drop even lower in 2014. As for the Reds, whose most notable offseason acquisition has been utilityman Skip Schumaker, it’s a wonder if maybe they’re feeling choked by the $225 million Joey Votto contract, just as they were years back by Ken Griffey Jr.’s. How else to explain not even making Arroyo, the most durable starter in baseball over the last decade, a qualifying offer?