Posted by: Mike Cornelius | February 4, 2021

Hot Stove Winners, And One Big Loser

A NOTE TO READERS: The next post will be Monday, one day later than usual. The normal schedule will resume next Thursday. As always, thanks for reading.

Another hot stove season of the Great Game enters its final days. The last-minute squabbling between MLB’s owners and the Players Association is behind us and a starting date for Spring Training is confirmed. The really, really last-minute donnybrook between the parties, probably over issues like pandemic guidelines and rules changes, is still weeks away (here at On Sports and Life we have it penciled in for the last week in March, just before Opening Day). This period of relative calm between the storms seems like a good time to assess which teams are emerging as champions of the offseason, winners of the weeks when no games are played.

Here in early February, with the annual appearance of Punxsutawney’s resident rodent still a topic of conversation and with pitchers and catchers yet to report, there is of course no definitive answer to the question of what franchise had the most successful winter. Then again, that is probably what gives the debate its appeal, since like countless other sports-related arguments this one can be carried on at length with no cost beyond the commitment of one’s spare time. Which, almost eleven months after COVID-19 first shut down the sports world, is something we fans still have in excess.

Except for the sorely tested faithful of the woebegone ball club that makes its home at Denver’s Coors Field, fans of every franchise can find some nugget of news from the offseason to provide hope for the coming campaign. Even clubs that have largely stood pat, like the Yankees and Phillies, can claim to have had a successful winter when staying the same meant re-signing two of the top available free agents in New York’s DJ LeMahieu and Philadelphia’s J.T. Realmuto. But to be crowned the offseason champion requires more than merely running in place, and after another ponderously slow winter finally gave way to some movement in the past few weeks, a handful of clubs with remade rosters are the top contenders for this year’s prize.

While other teams were busy complaining about how much money was lost playing the abbreviated 60-game 2020 season in empty stadiums, the San Diego Padres were hard at work restructuring their starting rotation. The Padres executed a pair of big trades just before New Year’s, acquiring 2018 AL Cy Young Award winner Blake Snell from Tampa Bay, and well-traveled right-hander Yu Darvish, who led the NL in wins last season while finishing second in ERA, from the Cubs. Three weeks later San Diego added Joe Musgrove to its pitching corps in a three-team, seven-player deal with the Pirates and the Mets. Add in some roster depth with a couple of lesser free agent signings, and a franchise that just used the bats of Manny Machado and Fernando Tatis Jr. to return to the postseason after a fourteen-year absence is being touted as a threat to the Dodgers’ long hegemony in the NL West.

In the junior circuit, the Blue Jays, after being forced to play “home” games last season in Buffalo because of Canadian travel restrictions, are giving their fans something to look forward to when the team can once again play, and fans are able to visit, Toronto’s Rogers Centre. The Jays greatly improved both their offense and their outfield defense by signing George Springer, late of the Houston Astros, to a six-year, $150 million pact. One of the Great Game’s best leadoff hitters, Springer also finished last season at +6 defensive runs saved in center field. Toronto’s center fielders combined for a -14 rating in that metric. Then just days ago the Blue Jays inked free agent second baseman Marcus Semien, who is just one season removed from a thirty-plus home run campaign in Oakland that saw him finish third in the balloting for the AL MVP Award. Toronto also bolstered its rotation options with a couple of third or fourth starter acquisitions. Though the playoff drought was not as long, like the Padres the Blue Jays were back in the postseason last fall for the first time in several years. Toronto now appears primed to make a repeat appearance come October.

Then there is St. Louis. In a year in which other NL Central clubs, most notably the Cubs, look to be retooling and planning for the future, the Cardinals are suddenly division favorites. That can happen when a franchise is widely judged as having come out on top of one of the most lopsided trades in baseball history. It was certainly no secret that five-time All-Star third baseman Nolan Arenado wanted out of Colorado, having lost faith in the direction the Rockies were headed. But while the Cardinals were one of the more frequently mentioned landing spots for Arenado, no one expected Rockies general manager Jeff Bridich to ship his star to the Midwest in exchange for some likely forgettable prospects and a middling pitcher with a total of ten major league decisions.

As surprised as fans and scribes were at the personnel involved in the deal, they were utterly incredulous upon learning that Bridich also threw in $50 million to help St. Louis pay Arenado’s salary. Rockies fans are understandably furious, and even the team’s official Twitter account greeted the news with a crying emoji. Emotions are understandably very different on the banks of the Mississippi, where Arenado’s addition to a team that was already pretty solid has Cardinals fans planning on some deep playoff runs in coming years.

Fans of several franchises other than those noted here will naturally make their own claims at offseason supremacy. And it must be noted that even this close to the start of Spring Training, there are still plenty of unsigned free agents, including some names that had been expected to be under contract by now, like pitcher Trevor Bauer, third baseman Justin Turner, and designated hitter Marcell Ozuna, all three of whom were in the top ten of virtually every pundit’s free agent rankings at the start of the offseason. There’s still time for another club to climb to the top of the hot stove heap.

But as spirited as this annual debate always is, fans shouldn’t forget that the title of “winter’s winner” has never earned any club a celebratory parade. The citing of past statistics, speculation about potential lineups, and projections of future performance are all just diversions to help us while away the days through the months of cold and dark while we wait for the Great Game to return. Ultimately it is in the daily grind of the longest season that the real story will be written, a tale told over 2,430 contests and the playoffs that follow. It is a reminder that seems especially pertinent this year, when the normally straightforward task of getting all those matchups in the books is especially fraught. Yet even in a pandemic, nothing counts until they actually play the games.

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