Rating every team's winter activity
With the economy in the dumps, spending was way down this offseason
The world champion Phillies did an amazing job locking up top young players
The Marlins, Astros and Nationals really struck out over the last few months
Winter is spilling into spring, as at least one superstar (Manny Ramirez), some very good players (at least Orlando Hudson, Orlando Cabrera and Juan Cruz) and dozens of other major leaguers are still looking for work in the leanest of years.
There may be claims of collusion. It's happened before (under Peter Ueberroth). But that will be a very difficult case to make now in an economy that's looking more and more like our second Great Depression.
The free-agent market did seem to take a U-turn south about halfway into the winter. My own theory is that's when the half-dozen or so teams that determined they'd spend liberally this winter -- the Yankees, Giants, Braves, Royals and A's are the prime examples -- started to run out of money.
The Mets also spent a fair amount, while the Red Sox and Angels went the bargain route after failing to get their prime target, Mark Teixeira. And for obvious reasons, the Nationals had trouble giving their money away.
The rest of the teams took a mostly bare-bones approach for the first time ever.
Yes indeed, it was a weird winter that's dragging into spring.
The Dodgers remain the favorites to land Ramirez and probably Hudson, too, if only because they've shed tens of millions of dollars so far and should have plenty of loot left over. Assuming they finally sign the one real game-changing player left (Manny), their grade will be improved. The Dodgers and the Twins, who appear to be the most likely landing spot for Joe Crede, get incomplete grades for now.
But for the most part, the winter grades are in:
1. Phillies: The world champions did an amazing job locking up their best young players, getting both Cole Hamels and Ryan Howard under contract for three years to avoid the arbitration process that blew up on them last year when Howard won an unprecedented $10 million as a first-year arbitration-eligible player. By all accounts Raul Ibanez will be great for the clubhouse and lineup -- though a right-handed hitter might have made a little more sense.
2. Mets: A run at Manny Ramirez would have made them the kings of the winter. But while they'll hope Fernando Tatis and Daniel Murphy can form a viable platoon in left field and apparently also that Luis Castillo can spring to life (Jerry Manuel wisely is already making him feel better by saying he might get some leadoff at-bats), they did plenty to overhaul a pitching staff in need. Importing two stud closers -- the record-setting Francisco Rodriguez and J.J. Putz -- within 48 hours saved their winter. Plus, they not only brought back talented (but inconsistent) lefty Oliver Perez but gave themselves plenty of options at the back end of the rotation by adding Tim Redding, Freddy Garcia and Livan Hernandez.
3. Yankees: Right now, all anyone can talk about is Alex Rodriguez and his latest massive distraction. A-Rod's teammates didn't look especially happy to be at his latest massive mea culpa. It may be a long summer. But the new Yankees are an impressive group, especially new ace CC Sabathia and new first baseman Mark Teixeira. They did what they had to do, and if they can get out from under the steroid cloud, they should be terrific.
4. A's: Matt Holliday should transform their offense. Had they gotten Rafael Furcal, too, they'd also vie for the top spot on this list. In any case, it's nice to see them giving it a shot, even if their new win-now strategy almost seemed to change on a dime.
5. Diamondbacks: Jon Garland gives them a solid No. 3 starter in one of baseball's best rotations. If their young players emerge, most notably Justin Upton, they'll be dangerous, especially in that division.
6. Rays: Pat Burrell is a steal at $16 million over two years and brings the sort of right-handed power they need. With David Price in the rotation from the start, they could be even better than last year.
7. Giants: They filled a lot of holes early, before the market tightened. But while they didn't get bargains, they surely improved their chances. I still can't help but think the money might have been better spent on Manny alone, rather than Edgar Renteria, Randy Johnson, Bobby Howry, Jeremy Affeldt, Rich Aurilia, Juan Uribe and Co. If they beat the rival Dodgers and get Manny, they move to No. 1.
8. Braves: Once signed, Ken Griffey Jr. and Tom Glavine should bring a nice veteran presence to a team that was better than it showed last year. Derek Lowe, Kenshin Kawakami and Javier Vazquez were all acquired to rebuild the rotation.
9. Red Sox: Failing to land top-target Teixeira hurt. But the moves they did make were logical and worthwhile, as usual, especially the signing of superstar pitcher John Smoltz on an incentive-laden deal that guarantees $5 million. Love it. And who couldn't praise Boston for locking up Kevin Youkilis and Dustin Pedroia with a pair of long-term deals that total just more than $80 million?
10. White Sox: They did well to get out of the Vazquez and Nick Swisher contracts before the bottom fell out of the market and might have caught a break when Orlando Cabrera rejected arbitration. While this might be considered a rebuilding year, a combination of scouts and smarts usually puts them in contention.