Winning the winter rarely equates to winning the summer -- or fall
In this millenium only two teams won the winter and the World Series
It's the performance of returning players, not new ones, that often matters most
Even big stars like Alex Rodriguez can't single-handedly turn a team around
Baseball has four seasons: spring training, the regular season, the postsesason and the offseason. The last is the only one that doesn't involve playing games, but there is nonetheless plenty of attention given to winners and losers.
With another offseason upon us, we thought it would be informative to look back at each offseason since the turn of the millennium to see which team was considered the winner at the time and what impact winning the offseason had on its performance in the season that followed. If there's one through-line in the below it's that the variations in the performances of a team's returning players are more significant than the quality of its offseason additions.
Winner: Texas Rangers
Key Move: Signed free agent SS Alex Rodriguez
Previous Season: 71-91, 4th place
Following Season: 73-89, 4th place
Rodriguez, already a four-time All-Star and Silver Slugger who finished third in the American League MVP voting in 2000, his age-24 season, was the prize of this offseason, which also saw Manny Ramirez and Mike Mussina enter free agency. The Rangers wildly out-bid the competition for him, and jumped from ninth to third in the league in run scoring with Rodriguez replacing Royce Clayton at shortstop. However, their pitching, which was already dead last in the majors in run prevention in 2000, somehow got worse, and even their Pythagorean record only improved by four wins.
Meanwhile, Rodriguez's former team, the Seattle Mariners, defended their AL West title and improved by 25 wins to equal the major league record of 116 wins. That was thank in large part to the off-season additions of second baseman Bret Boone, who came out of nowhere to replace Rodriguez's production, and Japanese rightfielder Ichiro Suzuki, who became just the second player ever to win the Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player awards in the same season.
Winner: New York Mets
Key Moves: Traded for 2B Roberto Alomar, 1B Mo Vaughn and RF Jeromy Burnitz
Previous Season: 82-80, 3rd place
Following Season: 75-86, 5th place
Jason Giambi was the top free agent to switch teams this winter, but Alomar was a future Hall of Fame second baseman in his early 30s coming off a career year with the Indians that saw him finish just two spots behind Giambi in the MVP voting and win his 10th gold glove. Burnitz was coming off four-straight seasons of 30 or more home runs and Vaughn was a former MVP who had missed all of 2001 due to an elbow injury but had hit .306/.395/.555 in the seven seasons prior to that.
To those three the Mets added 29-year-old lefty starter Shawn Estes via a trade from the Giants, and centerfield speedster Roger Cedeņo, a free agent. Vaughn was a modest success before another injury ended his career in 2003. The rest were awful. Burnitz slugged .365, and Alomar collapsed, suffering through his worst season to that point and finding himself out of baseball two years later. The Mets didn't win 80 games again until 2005.
Winner: Philadelphia Phillies
Key Moves: Signed free agents 1B Jim Thome and 3B David Bell, traded for SP Kevin Millwood
Previous Season: 80-81, 3rd place
Following Season: 86-76, 3rd place
Thome was the top hitter on the market, coming off a pair of seasons in which he hit .297/.430/.649 and averaged 50 home runs and 121 RBIs. Bell was a solid third baseman who started for the National League champion Giants in 2002 and a welcome replacement for Scott Rolen, who had forced a trade at the '02 deadline. Millwood went 18-8 with a 3.24 ERA for the Braves in '02, his age-27 season. Millwood wasn't nearly as good for the Phillies, but he threw a no-hitter in April and did represent an upgrade in the rotation. Thome led the league in home runs, drove in 131 and finished fourth in the MVP voting. Bell was a disappointment, but thanks to other improvements, including the offseason addition of veteran lefty reliever Dan Plesac, the Phillies' improvement in 2003 was actually greater than their records above indicate. Their Pythagorean record improved by 11 wins. Even so, they finished 15 games out in the NL East and five games out of a playoff spot.
Winner: Anaheim Angels
Key Moves: Signed free agents OF Vladimir Guerrero and Jose Guillen and SPs Bartolo Colon and Kelvim Escobar
Previous Season: 77-95, 3rd place
Following Season: 92-70, 1st place, lost Division Series
The Yankees traded for Alex Rodriguez and Javier Vazquez and signed Garry Sheffield and Tom Gordon, but they also lost Andy Pettitte, Roger Clemens and Alfonso Soriano. The Angels' additions above were pure upgrade. Guerrero was the best hitter on the market. Guillen was coming off a breakout age-27 season in which he hit .311/.359/.569 with 31 homers for the Reds and A's. Colon was arguably the best pitcher on the market, having averaged a 125 ERA+ and a .635 winning percentage over the previous five seasons. Escobar was a late-blooming swingman that many believed could make the leap if given a chance to start full-time.
Escobar turned in a solid first season for the Angels, making 33 starts and posting the lowest starters ERA on the team in either the '03 or '04 seasons. Colon had a bad year, but still won 18 games thanks to the upgrade on offense where Guerrero won the AL MVP and Guillen proved that 2003 wasn't a fluke.
Winner: New York Mets
Key Moves: Signed free agents CF Carlos Beltran and SP Pedro Martinez
Previous Season: 71-91, 4th place
Following Season: 83-79, 3rd place
This is where the Mets started to recover from the 2001-2002 offseason. Beltran was the prize of the offseason coming off his age-27 season and a monster postseason for the Astros. The Mets gave him the sixth most expensive contract in major league history to that point (it's now 30th) signing him for $119 million over seven years, but despite a poor first season which soured many fans on their new star, it proved to be one of the best $100-million contracts in the game's history. The book on Martinez was that the end was near, but he was just one season removed from his dominant peak. The Mets gave him a four-year deal hoping his performance in the first two years would compensate for the last two. It worked for one year, as he went 15-8 with 208 strikeouts and a 2.82 ERA.
Winner: Toronto Blue Jays
Key Moves: Traded for 3B Troy Glaus, 1B Lyle Overbay, signed free agents C Bengie Molina, SP A.J. Burnett, CL B.J. Ryan
Previous Season: 80-82, 3rd place
Following Season: 87-75, 2nd place
Flush with money from the wireless boom, Rogers Communications greatly expanded the Blue Jays' payroll after the 2005 season, making general manager J.P. Ricciardi the key player of this offseason. The money ultimately wasn't well-spent, but it was still an impressive haul for a single offseason and the Jays' second-place finish in 2006 remains their highest finish since their last World Series win in 1993.
Glaus rebounded from a couple of injury plagued seasons to hit 37 home runs for the Diamondbacks in '05 and largely repeated his performance with the Jays in '06. Overbay was a late bloomer with doubles power and good on-base numbers who had a career year for the Jays in '06. Molina's bat had caught up with his glove in the seasons leading up to his free agency and he proved to be a solid two-way catcher for Toronto as well. Burnett stayed healthy in '05, was still in his 20s and still had that great fastball/curveball combo. Ryan had been an All-Star in his first year as a closer in '05 and was even better, and an All-Star again in '06.