Assessing baseball's offseason

Tim Brown
Yahoo! Sports

Well, I hope that was fun for everybody.

Free agency isn't really over until the last owner overextends himself, and so the San Francisco Giants ponied up for Barry Zito, and for almost twice what it cost to build the Golden Gate Bridge. To be fair, the bridge had a history of shoulder problems. The weighty portion of baseball's offseason concluded Thursday – alphabetically, as it turned out – with the Giants topping off their rotation, filling their Barry quota and making the National League West a little more interesting.

While one NL executive, whose team is searching for pitching but was not among the Zito suitors, took a long look at the seven-year, $126 million Zito contract and muttered, "Sickening," it's maybe not worth all that.

If the Giants choose to allocate more than a third of their payroll to a pitcher who plays every fifth day and a player who plays some of the time, then they clearly view this as the cost of doing business in the commissioner's golden era, and not nearly as sickening as finishing 11½ games behind the Los Angeles Dodgers and losing momentum on their new ballpark.

The addition of Zito definitely makes the Giants better and perhaps wins them some fans from the other side of the Bay Bridge. In terms of the division, the Dodgers and San Diego Padres both hit better against left-handers than right-handers. Granted, few left-handers are Barry Zito, but it's something to consider.

As for the larger view, the past two months were building to Scott Boras' big play, and Zito's payday pushed the owners' winter spending jag beyond $1.5 billion. When Bud Selig bragged about the game's $5.2 billion in net revenue, he wasn't suggesting they go out and spend it all at once, but they're getting there.

With Zito spoken for and only the finer details (Roger Clemens, for one) remaining, the broad strokes of the winter of 2006-07 have been cast. We learned that it is good to be a pitcher, better to be a left-handed pitcher. We were reminded that it is good to hit home runs and drive in runs, whether or not they come with a glove attached. And we discovered that if one is employed by the Tribune Co., it is better to be a ballplayer than an editor.

With pitchers and catchers reporting to spring training in six weeks, and while awaiting J.D. Drew's next set of MRI results, we go division by division, sorting the winners from the losers:

AL East

The New York Yankees had 10 games to play with this winter – their final lead in the division – and didn't necessarily do anything to hurt themselves. Their big moves – pending a trade of Randy Johnson back to the West – were to sign old friend Andy Pettitte and the second-best Japanese pitcher available.

The downside is Pettitte's numbers from last season suggest he might be running out of steam and the Boston Red Sox signed the best Japanese pitcher available. The Red Sox have the best rotation in the division, but now lack a closer. They'll score runs again – any lineup with Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz would – but the holdup over Drew's contract is a bad sign, if a predictable one. Julio Lugo is better than people think he is, though his game might be better suited for the NL.

If nothing else, the Red Sox caught the Toronto Blue Jays, who not only finished out of the running for a starter, but lost one of their own – Ted Lilly – along with their second-most reliable reliever – Justin Speier. They'll need a big year out of A.J. Burnett, healthy ones out of Roy Halladay and Gustavo Chacin, and more soak time for Frank Thomas in the Fountain of Youth.

As for the Baltimore Orioles, who tried desperately to upgrade their pitching, and Tampa Bay Devil Rays, the division remains a 2½-team race.

AL Central

The Chicago White Sox didn't fix much for today. In fact, their winter step might have been backward. But, there was a refreshing touch of sanity in general manager Kenny Williams' maneuvering, as he stockpiled a half-dozen young arms and laid them at the feet of pitching coach Don Cooper. That doesn't entirely explain the Brandon McCarthy trade, other than for volume, which appears to be the plan. They could still use a center fielder.

That leaves the division to the Detroit Tigers, who this September will hold off the Minnesota Twins. Their pitching remains mostly young and strong and Gary Sheffield should significantly upgrade their lineup. Dave Dombrowski was smart enough not to take their World Series wash-out personally, leaving well enough alone.

The Twins are about where we left them, which is short Francisco Liriano (Tommy John surgery) and Brad Radke (retirement) and being horrified by the Zito contract, considering what it might someday mean to Johan Santana. Their season will be determined by Boof Bonser, Matt Garza and Scott Baker.

Despite appearances – and last season's standings – that imply otherwise, the Cleveland Indians are closer to the division leaders than they are to the Kansas City Royals. David Dellucci and Josh Barfield were good acquisitions in left and at second base. Something had to be done about the bullpen, and we're not sure Joe Borowski, Roberto Hernandez and Aaron Fultz went a long way toward that.

Our feeling about the Royals is that we believe in Dayton Moore. Just not this year.

AL West

The Los Angeles Angels made the move everyone laughed at (Gary Matthews Jr.), failed to add a bat to protect Vladimir Guerrero, and took the desperation route in Shea Hillenbrand. All of which makes them the favorite in the division, because the Oakland Athletics are down Thomas, Zito and Jay Payton, the Texas Rangers took one-season fliers on Eric Gagne and Kenny Lofton, and the Seattle Mariners had too far to come even before they traded Rafael Soriano to the Atlanta Braves, which wasn't very smart.

Assuming Bartolo Colon is over his shoulder issues, the Angels are deep in their rotation and bullpen, both of which were undermined by the defense last season. That's where Matthews comes in. They'd do well to talk to the Devil Rays about Carl Crawford or Rocco Baldelli, as well, because it looks as though the Rangers are gaining, especially if they're right about McCarthy.

The A's big move, other than wishing Zito well, was adding Mike Piazza, who'll be an American Leaguer and a full-time DH for the first time. The Mariners replaced Gil Meche with Miguel Batista and recognized their need for a front-end starter with a serious run at Zito. They'll try Jose Guillen in right field, which pushes Ichiro Suzuki into center field.

NL East

The New York Mets lost out on Daisuke Matsuzaka and Zito, leaving them with Tom Glavine, Orlando Hernandez and a spring pitch-off for the next three spots, perhaps casting Mike Pelfrey and Philip Humber into important early roles. Opinions vary on Pedro Martinez's return from shoulder surgery, the most optimistic of them putting him on a mound in mid-to-late summer. That said, and even with the Philadelphia Phillies' superior rotation, the Mets should pound their way to another division title.

They lost some match-up options in the bullpen when Chad Bradford went to the Orioles and some personality when Cliff Floyd was allowed to walk, but they think pitching coach Rick Peterson can do something with Ambiorix Burgos and, handled gingerly, believe 40-year-old Moises Alou still has some production left.

Unlike last season, the Mets will feel some pressure from below, certainly until Martinez returns. Aided by the late addition of Jamie Moyer, Phillies pitchers had some momentum going at the end of last season, and now Freddy Garcia brings a workhorse's arm and a veteran's sensibility. GM Pat Gillick also signed Adam Eaton, who only twice in his seven-year career has made more than 22 starts, so that might not work out as well.

A year older now and with harmony between the front and manager's offices, the Florida Marlins have remained young, remained inexpensive and remained talented. Their primary decision will be whether to deal Dontrelle Willis, who is gaining on free agency, or Miguel Cabrera, an uncommonly good hitter with conditioning issues. They still need a closer.

The Atlanta Braves' signature pitching slipped badly in 2006, particularly in the bullpen, so it didn't matter that they actually scored more runs than the Mets. Toward that end, GM John Schuerholz added a couple arms (Soriano, Tanyon Sturtze) and the rotation welcomes back Mike Hampton from elbow surgery, and the belief is that Chuck James is headed toward something special. It's probably not enough, and it appears Andruw Jones, who will be very popular in free agency next winter, could be a trade target come mid-summer.

Either way, they're better off than the Washington Nationals, who've handed rookie manager Manny Acta one of the worst rosters in baseball.

NL Central

So, the questions echo off the brick of Wrigleyville: Have the Chicago Cubs done enough? Can they go from 96 losses to 90 wins in a single offseason? Is that what $300 million does for an organization?

Well, it can't hurt. But, better than all of their signings, better than Alfonso Soriano even, is a healthy, productive Derrek Lee, who just two seasons ago hit 46 home runs and had a .418 on-base percentage. There's still the pitching issue, which wasn't solved by the additions of Lilly and Jason Marquis or the perpetual promise of Mark Prior and Kerry Wood or the ninth innings of Ryan Dempster.

We can promise, however, that this season they will be better than the Pittsburgh Pirates.

The St. Louis Cardinals have largely stood pat. They reunited Adam Kennedy with David Eckstein up the middle and brought in reliable right-hander Russ Springer, but have to fill in around Chris Carpenter, Anthony Reyes and, depending on Jason Isringhausen's recovery, Adam Wainwright in the rotation.

Around a two-month stop in Texas, Carlos Lee jumped from the Milwaukee Brewers to the Houston Astros, bringing a 37-homer, 116-RBI pedigree with him. There are some doubts as to his ability to continue playing the outfield, to which the Brewers can attest, but the Astros had to do something about an offense that disappeared at bad times last season. The Brewers, meanwhile, spent on pitching, and hope Jeff Suppan can do for them what he did for the Cardinals. He has made at least 31 starts in eight consecutive seasons.

The Cincinnati Reds surprised everyone by getting into the race and then staying in it, only to have their pitching betray them. They re-upped David Weathers and brought in veteran left-hander Mike Stanton.

NL West

While the Dodgers never placed a bid, Zito might actually have them to thank for his $18 million annually. They allowed Greg Maddux to go to the Padres, triggering their pursuit and eventual signing of Schmidt at nearly $16 million a year. The market thus set, Pettitte got $16 million from the Yankees, leaving Zito to the Mariners, Rangers, Mets and Giants, and we know how that turned out.

The Dodgers, who feathered in Randy Wolf, Juan Pierre and Luis Gonzalez around the Schmidt signing, and the Padres, who still have the best pitching staff in the division and made some cosmetic changes (Kevin Kouzmanoff for Josh Barfield, Marcus Giles to second base, Piazza to Oakland, Dave Roberts to San Francisco), still appear to be the favorites.

But the Giants probably separated themselves from the Arizona Diamondbacks and Colorado Rockies by signing Zito, who more than replaces Schmidt and should have a profound impact on Matt Cain, Brad Hennessey and Noah Lowry.

The Rockies attached a little more time to their rebuilding era with the trade of Jason Jennings, who'd long ago developed a resolve about pitching at Coors Field, to the Astros. But, scouts like Taylor Buchholz and Jason Hirsh, and Willy Taveras potentially solves a major problem in center field.

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