By Ross Newhan
Pitchers, catchers and thoughts on a frenetic, finance-busting, franchise empowering off-season (with more action still to come):
Chicago should be just that--Northside, Southside, both. No general manager nailed his winter blueprint quicker than Rick Hahn of the White Sox, and no one acquisition did more to energize a long suffering fan base than the Cubs signing of one-of-a-kind Joe Maddon as manager. The White Sox look like contenders in the AL Central without another move and the Cubs should be competitive, if not contenders, in the NL Central, with the next seven weeks helping to sort out the MLB's deepest fleet of seemingly ready prospects.
LIGHTING UP THE GASLAMP
Petco area businesses are salivating over the attendance impact expected for Padre home games because of the lineup overhaul by new general manager A.J. Preller, all via a series of adrenelin pumping trades except for the free agent signing of James Shields. This could be the best San Diego team since the 1998 World Series version, particularly if Will Myers can play center field and Will Middlebrooks is the everyday third baseman. With the Wills, there may be a way in the NL West. Otherwise, the Padres will have to do some unhappy juggling to shore up the defense behind that very good pitching and some of the new arrivals may be sitting--questions for spring.
SWOON OVER MIAMI?
It is always difficult to know if the Jeffrey Loria of today will be the Jeffrey Loria of tomorrow, but this appears to go beyond the owners' whims and has all the look of a real, longterm deal for the Marlins given the foundation inspiring committment to Giancarlo Stanton, the additions of Dee Gordon, Michael Morse and Martin Prado, and the healthy mix of a productive farm system. If Jose Fernandez remains on track to return in mid-season from Tommy John surgery the Marlins should be wild card competitive in the NL East, where the rich get richer Nationals will be tough to unseat.
CUBA LIBRA, ANYONE?
So, Yasiel Puig pumps the Dodgers with energy (and irritation) and Jose Abreau wins a Rooke of the Year award with the White Sox, and now the Cuban onslaught is in full swing. Rusney Castillo is expected to be an outfield starter with the Red Sox after costing $72.5 million and Yasmany Tomas is expected to start at third base for the Diamondbacks after costing $68.5 million, but, in all liklihood, you ain't seen nothing yet. There are approximately 75 Cuban players pursuing contracts with major league clubs headed by infielders Yoan Moncada, Hector Olivera and Andy Ibanez and pitcher Yadier Alvarez. The international signing guidelines differ in each case, but the madcap, private workout pursuit of the 19 year old Moncada, in particular, is expected to culminate in the next 5 to 10 days with a (big market?) bonus signing that could top Castillo and Tomas, and include a 100% tax on the respective club's bonus pool overage. It's a complicated business, but the loosening of relations with Cuba could, in time, end MLB's dirty relationship with human traffickers and accelerate the push for a needed international draft.
PANDA TRACKS (AND MORE)
They are thinking first-to-worst-to-first in Red Sox nation, providing they can dig Fenway out of the snowback in time. Down in sunny Fort Myers, in the meantime, they will be putting Pablo Sandoval on the scales regularly and giving Hanley Ramirez regular lessons in left field, where the wall and diminsions are similar to those he will find in Boston. The early signings of arguably the two best hitters on the free agent market cost the Red Sox $183 million, and now they are considered the team that is in best position to make one of the splashiest late moves, dipping into a deep prospect system to trade for Cole Hamels, providing a missing ace for their pitching deck.
THE DH FACTOR?
While Sandoval and Ramirez are moving to a league that in which the designated hitter provides them with an added lineup option, the three best and most expensive free agent pitchers on the market--Max Scherzer, Jon Lester and Shields--all fled the DH burden of the American League for the DH-less National. Each of the three is in his 30s, and while the opportunity to pitch to a pitcher rather than a bonafide hitter may not have been the primary motivation in their decisions, well, it's a nice thought in their senior baseball years. Besides, now they get a chance to hit themselves (LOL).
A lot of what has happened to the Giants, since winning their every other year World Series, and to the A's, since at least reaching the wild card play-in game, hasn't been good. Or, looking at in another way, has been difficult to understand. Oakland GM Billy Beane renovated his roster, insisting he wasn't rebuilding because he is too old for a five year plan. Yet, as my former Times' colleague, Bill Shaikin, pointed out, Beane made nine trades involving 27 players, dismissing four of the five A's who hit 10 or more home runs and five of the seven who made the All-Star team. He is left with a still promising rotation, a moneyball mix and match lineup and the return of Barry Zito, 36, from retirement. The Giants had their parade, and then largely went quiet. Sandoval and Morse left, taking away 32 home runs, while their replacements, Casey McGehee and Nori Aoki, hit five. The rotation that Madison Bumgarner carried through the post-season is the same as it was, meaning the return of Matt Cain from elbow surgery seems critical.
The new management of the Dodgers turned over the lineup in a 48 hour span of the winter meetings, emerging with a new shortstop (Jimmy Rollins) and second baseman (Howie Kendrick) and handing center field to Joc Pederson as Puig left for right field and Matt Kemp for San Diego. The defense should be better, the bullpen (given veteran additions) deeper and much depends (big time) on the readiness of Pederson and the health of the new fourth (Brandon McCarthy) and fifth (Brett Anderson) starters. The Angels, looking to go farther than 94 wins took them (a division series wipeout to Kansas City), made smaller but possibly significant moves in the offseason, deepening their pitching and farm system. Do they have a replacement for Kendrick? Will Garret Richard be ready early in the season? Can CJ Wilson bounce back? Some of the big questions. The biggest? Josh Hamilton. Now you see him, now you don't.