By Scott McLean
Over the next few days the Major League Baseball universe returns to the field with players reporting to their teams for Spring Training. However the landscape has changed since the Giants won the World Series last October, with teams reloading over the offseason. With offense at a premium hitters have been highly sought over, but the top echelon pitchers have also seen their share of the pie.
(all figures are in $NZ)
Big money: The biggest story was the biggest contract in baseball history, with the notoriously cheap Miami Marlins agreeing to a mammoth 13-year, $420 million deal with their 25 year-old slugger Giancarlo Stanton. Stanton, who’s hit 154 home runs so far in his big-league career and was 10th youngest all-time to reach 100 (the few who did so at a younger age include Hank Aaron, Ken Griffey Jr and Albert Pujols), got a clause that allows him to opt-out after 6 years if unhappy with the direction and progress of the team, when he’ll still only be 30, but potentially leaving behind $280m on the balance of backloaded deal. So far the team is supporting their end, looking to tie up so of their other youngsters including pitching hotshot Jose Fernandez to longer-term deals, and trading for pitcher Mat Latos (from Cincinnati), speedy infielder Dee Gordon (from Los Angeles) and third baseman Martin Prado (from NY Yankees); but all this is balanced by the memory that the last time they made significant investments when they moved into their new ballpark, owner Jeffrey Loria had it disassembled a year later.
Big name teams making big name changes: The first strike was made by the Boston Red Sox, who signed a pair of free agent hitters in third baseman Pablo Sandoval (5yr/$123m) and outfielder Hanley Ramirez (4yrs/$114m) away from San Francisco and Los Angeles respectively. For Ramirez – who’ll be moving from shortstop – it’s a homecoming; he was a Sox prospect and made his MLB debut for the club in 2005, playing a handful of games before being traded that offseason. Those deals then allowed Boston to flip slugger Yoenis Cespedes to Detroit for pitcher Rick Porcello, and acquire lefty Wade Miley from Arizona. They also re-signed closer Koji Uehara (2yr/$23m), but came up short in their efforts to bring back left-handed pitcher Jon Lester, who signed with the Chicago Cubs.
Nobody has undergone a bigger makeover than the Los Angeles Dodgers though. Andrew Friedman, one of the games’ bright young front office brains, was hired away from Tampa Bay where he built a winning club on a shoestring budget. With vastly greater resources he’s wasted little time putting his stamp on the team, acquiring a new double-play combination in veterans Howie Kendrick (from Anaheim) and Jimmy Rollins (from Philadelphia) in trades to replace the departed Gordon and Ramirez, clearing a surplus of outfielders by trading former NL MVP runner-up Matt Kemp to San Diego along with a boatload of cash to help pay the remaining $140m on his deal, and signing pitchers Brandon McCarthy (4yr/$62m) and Brent Anderson (1yr/$13m).
Two other venerable franchises also made moves. The St Louis Cardinals traded for Atlanta Braves’ outfielder Jason Heyward to fill the gap left by heralded prospect Oscar Taveras’ death in an October car accident, while the Detroit Tigers re-signed designated hitter Victor Martinez on a 4yr/$88m pact and added offense with their end of the Cespedes/Porcello deal.
Hello San Diego: Like his Dodgers counterpart, new Padres GM AJ Preller wasted little time making changes. As well as acquiring Kemp, he also traded for fellow outfielders Wil Myers (the 2013 AL Rookie of the Year) from Tampa Bay and Justin Upton from Atlanta, catcher Derek Norris from Oakland, and third baseman Will Middlebrooks from Boston as he aims to improve one of baseball’s worst offenses units, albeit one that plays in cavernous Petco Park. In the past week he’s also added the last remaining top-tier free agent, starter James Shield, on a 4yr/$100m deal.
The Yankees: On the other hand, it’s been relatively quiet in the Bronx. The Bombers spent a lot last year, and after an underwhelming season may now be biding their time until some of their more onerous contracts expire. As they prepare to embark on their first campaign since 1996 without retired icon Derek Jeter their major moves were to sign lefty reliever Andrew Miller (ex-Baltimore – 4yr/$46m), re-sign third baseman Chase Headley (4yr/$67m) who they acquired from San Diego midseason, and trade for Miami pitcher Nate Eovaldi. The big storyline will more than likely focus on Headley’s predecessor at the hot corner however, with Alex Rodriguez eligible again after a year-long ban from the game for his part in the Biogenesis steroids scandal.
In the Windy City: Both of Chicago’s teams opened the chequebooks. On the north side the Cubs brought in Joe Maddon from Tampa Bay as the clubs new manager after Maddon exercised an exit clause in his contract that took effect when Friedman left for the Dodgers. They then won the race to sign Jon Lester (6yr/$200m) ahead of Lester’s former team the Red Sox, who had traded him to Oakland during the season. The Cubs were also able to bring back pitcher Jason Hammel (2yr/$26m), who they themselves had traded to Oakland midseason, and traded for Arizona catcher Miguel Montero. They’ll complement their own young talent in sluggers Anthony Rizzo and Jorge Soler and uberprospect Kris Bryant and seek their first title since 1908.
It was at least as busy on the south side as well, with the White Sox bringing in three major free agents; First baseman Adam LaRoche signed from Washington for 2yr/$32m, outfielder Melky Cabrera from Toronto for 3yr/$54m, and closer David Robertson from the Yankees for 4yr/$60m. A fourth significant addition was righty starter Jeff Samardzjia in a trade with Oakland, making the former Cub the third of last year’s Athletics staff to move to Chicago this offseason.
The World Series Teams: The two teams that fought out the October Classic have both had trying offseasons, struggling to attract free agents to complement their existing cores. The champion San Francisco Giants will hope for returns from pitchers Matt Cain (injury) and Tim Lincecum (form) to complement postseason megastar Madison Bumgarner and veteran Tim Hudson, but were rebuffed in their efforts to re-sign Sandoval and then by most other options for third base, eventually trading for Miami’s Casey McGehee. They did re-sign pitchers Jake Peavy and Ryan Vogelsong. The Kansas City Royals aren’t expected to re-sign ace pitcher James Shields (who remains unsigned) and designated hitter Billy Butler elected to sign with Oakland. While the hope is their young hitters take another step forward they’ve taken fliers on first baseman/DH Kendrys Morales (2yr/$22m) and outfielder Alex Rios (1yr/$14m) to boost the offense and Edinson Volquez (2yr/$26m) to fill some of the void in the rotation left by Shields.
Other deals: Teams also making splashes in free agency included Washington, who signed the top-ranked free-agent pitcher Max Scherzer (7yrs/$285m), Seattle with outfielder/DH Nelson Cruz (4yr/$75m), and Toronto with Canadian-born catcher Russell Martin (5yr/$106m). Toronto also swung a deal with Oakland in a swap of third basemen, acquiring 2013 AL MVP runner-up Josh Donaldson for Brett Lawrie; while Oakland’s GM Billy Beane (he of Moneyball fame) later swung a trade to acquire coveted utility man Ben Zobrist from Tampa Bay as he reloads his team.
The stage is being set