Posted by: Mike Cornelius | January 17, 2013

Winter’s Winners Still Have To Prove Themselves

Every winter a team or two or three stakes their claim to the championship of the Hot Stove League. An owner opens his checkbook, a general manager gets on the phone, and fans rejoice at the news of a major free agent signing or blockbuster trade. Winter’s icy grip is eased by happy thoughts of warm summer evenings spent in the stands, watching one’s newly acquired heroes hit and pitch their way to victory after victory, all as prelude to a successful run deep into October and the postseason.

For years the kings of winter almost always made their home in the Bronx. Under the late George Steinbrenner the Yankees could be counted on to outbid the competition for the services of the best of any year’s free agent class, often overpaying in the process. But after shelling out nearly a quarter of a billion dollars in luxury tax payments over the past decade, and with their tax rate climbing to 50% next season, the Yankees under Steinbrenner’s son Hal have become budget conscious.

Into the void have stepped teams suddenly awash in the revenue generated by new regional television contracts. Last year the Los Angeles Angels inked both slugger Albert Pujols and pitcher C.J. Wilson to big contracts. This winter they have continued to spend, recently luring outfielder Josh Hamilton away from Texas. Just up the freeway the new ownership group of the Dodgers has given their fans plenty of reasons to look forward to Opening Day. They gladly took on several high-priced contracts that the Red Sox deemed expendable for last season’s stretch run; and last month they opened their checkbook again to sign right-hander Zack Greinke to a six-year deal.

But for all of the free spending amid the palm trees of southern California, the champion of this off-season would appear to be north of the border, in frigid Toronto. Since finishing their customary fourth in the AL East the Blue Jays have been hard at work remaking their roster, assisted by the deep pockets of their corporate owner, Canadian media giant Rogers Communications. The Blue Jays gave Melky Cabrera two years and $16 million to prove that his gaudy batting average during a truncated 2012 season wasn’t just a product of artificial testosterone. They were the willing beneficiaries of Miami’s house cleaning, trading prospects and journeymen for pitchers Josh Johnson and Mark Buehrle, shortstop Jose Reyes, and catcher John Buck. Then the week before Christmas they shipped Buck and two prospects to Queens for National League Cy Young Award winner R.A. Dickey, who they promptly signed to a $29 million three-year contract extension.

With Johnson, Buehrle and Dickey the Blue Jays have restocked their starting rotation with hurlers who have a combined total of seven All-Star appearances. Johnson led the NL in earned run average in 2010, and Dickey was the league leader in strikeouts and shutouts while winning twenty games for the Mets last season. Buehrle has won at least ten games in each of the past dozen seasons. At the plate Toronto’s lineup will now boast the 2011 NL hitting leader in Reyes and the man who likely would have won the 2012 NL batting crown but for his fifty-game PEDs suspension in Cabrera. They join a presumably healthy slugger Jose Bautista, who has averaged more than forty home runs each of the last three seasons, despite having his 2012 campaign cut short by wrist surgery.

Of course the Blue Jays, Dodgers and Angels can’t all win this year’s World Series. For all the excitement created by free agent signings and blockbuster trades, players still have to perform and rosters still have to mesh. Some fans who are busy praising the shrewd moves of their team’s general manager today will be screaming for him to be sacked ten months from now. As any Miami Marlins fan knows, predicting a run deep into next October’s postseason based simply on the makeup of a team’s roster in January can be an exercise in folly.

Last winter the faithful in Miami couldn’t wait for the season to start at the Marlins gleaming new stadium after the team loaded up on free agent talent during the off-season. But by late summer there were lots of empty seats at Marlins Park as the team first underperformed and then imploded, spiraling down to 93 losses, good for a distant last place in the NL East. The Marlins didn’t even wait for their disappointing season to end before starting to dismantle the team that had seemed so loaded last winter. Late in July they traded infielder Hanley Ramirez to the Dodgers. The fire sale accelerated after the final game of 2012, to the presumed benefit of the Blue Jays. One year after such high hopes in south Florida, 93 losses this season might constitute success for what’s left of Miami’s roster.

One shouldn’t expect the cautionary tale that unfolded in the Little Havana neighborhood last season to dampen this winter’s excitement in Toronto or greater Los Angeles. That would go against the very nature of the off-season, when every team is even in the standings and World Series glory can seem just one big contract away. But there is a reason why this winter’s big spenders had to spend big. The Blue Jays haven’t been to the post-season in two decades, and have occupied fourth place in the highly competitive AL East five years in a row. Both the Dodgers and Angels are three years removed from the playoffs. The Dodgers were two games back in both the NL West and NL Wild Card standings on August 25th, the day of their blockbuster trade with Boston. They were just one game over .500 the rest of the way. Despite adding Pujols and Wilson, and getting a breakout season from AL Rookie of the Year Mike Trout, the Angels finished 2012 looking up at both Texas and Oakland.

In short, the apparent big winners of this off-season still have a number of teams to pass; and while the franchises ahead of them may not have grabbed so many headlines, they weren’t necessarily standing still either. Fans in Toronto, Anaheim and L.A. all deserve to be excited, because on paper all three teams look loaded. But the Great Game isn’t played on paper.  So those fans should also remember that no team has ever been given a victory parade just for being champion of the Hot Stove League.


  1. Nice analysis. Meanwhile, some teams, like the Mets, seem destined to wait at least one more year before even pretending to be contenders. Still other fans, as in north Chicago, keep going to games pretty much just to be in the park itself.
    I have to say, though, that if I was a Jays fan, I’d be pretty optimistic right about now.

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