Friday December 26th, 2014

The suitors are still just beginning to line up for Max Scherzer, Cole Hamels could yet be packing his bags, and the madness in San Diego may be just starting. This unpredictable, breathless, insane offseason is far from over, but as the calendar flips to 2015, let's all take a deep breath and look back at the two months since Pablo Sandoval snagged the final out of the World Series. Here are the top five moves of this offseason (so far).

5. Marlins trade for Mat Latos

The Marlins are all in. That became clear as a cloudless Miami morning when Jeffrey Loria greenlit the historic Giancarlo Stanton contract, then struck the deal for base-stealing dynamo Dee Gordon, a shiny new toy that will make the Marlins more interesting but not necessarily any better. But of all their additions so far — from Gordon to Michael Morse to Martin Prado — the most intriguing is the addition of Latos, a potential ace added at a bargain price.

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We know that Latos, who battled arm problems last season, is a gamble; his elbow issues affected his velocity and his stuff. But the tall righty just turned 27 in December, and has shown that, when healthy, he's one of the best pitchers in the league — certainly a pitcher capable of holding Jose Fernandez's spot atop the rotation until Fernandez returns late next summer. The Marlins, who haven't made the postseason since their World Series win in 2003, will be fascinating next year. If Latos is healthy — and yes, that's a big if — the Fish will actually be pretty good, too.

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4. Nationals trade for prospects Joe Ross and Trea Turner

"A few years from now, I bet we look back as one of the lopsided deals of this offseason — for Washington." These were the words of a team executive as he spoke about the three-team trade that sent Wil Myers from Tampa to San Diego. The Nationals were the third team involved, dealing away one quality minor leaguer (Steven Souza) for two very good prospects who in a few years could be key players in the nation's capital. After the deal, Baseball America ranked Ross and Turner in the top six in the Nationals' organization.

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Ross — younger brother of Padres pitcher Tyson — projects as a potential No. 2 starter with a good fastball that tops out at 97 mph. But the prized prospect — BA has him as the No. 2 prospect in the Nats' minor league system — is Turner, the 13th pick in last year's draft. Turner, who's now in limbo after the trade because of arcane, absurd MLB rules, is the long-term replacement for Ian Desmond at shortstop. Turner is a good contact hitter with plus speed, the kind of talent who could be the Nats' dynamic leadoff hitter and table setter for many, many years.

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3. Padres trade for Justin Upton

San Diego's deal for Matt Kemp didn't entirely make sense. This one does. Upton hasn't quite matched expectations, but remember that he's still only 26 years old and finished fourth in NL MVP voting in 2011. He still possesses big-time power that will play in any park, even Petco Field, and last year, he showed signs that he may be ready to take the next step as he enters his age-27 season. Upton has a year of team control left, and is coming off a season in which he hit 29 home runs, his highest homer total since 2011.

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Will the Padres be any good? Who knows? They should have one of the best offensive outfields in baseball. But they could also have one of the worst defensive outfields in the game. Upton is the key to the Padres' revival. The deal for Kemp made the biggest splash. The Myers trade was the most shocking. But it's the Upton deal that will turn out to be the gamechanger for the franchise that's undergone the most radical makeover of the winter and, thanks to now-ubiquitous general manager A.J. Preller, is suddenly one of the most fascinating franchises in baseball.

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2. Blue Jays trade for Josh Donaldson

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The title of Most Improved Team in Baseball (So Far) could go to the White Sox or Cubs or Padres, but don't forget the sleeping giants in the AL East, a club that picked up one of the best all-around catchers in the game (Russell Martin) as well as one of the best all-around players in baseball, period. Donaldson is a superstar, ranking second in WAR among position players over the last two years, and to get him, the Blue Jays gave up three prospects who likely won't be making an impact for another three years and one disappointing major leaguer (Brett Lawrie). Does anyone have a more potent trio of hitters than Donaldson, Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion?

Donaldson goes from a hitter's graveyard in Oakland to a launching pad in Toronto. He's been an MVP candidate the past two years, finishing fourth and eighth in voting; it's not unreasonable to think Donaldson could be the Blue Jays' first MVP winner since George Bell.

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1. Cubs sign Joe Maddon

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We tend to overstate the impact of managers (the Royals did just fine last season despite the blunders of Ned Yost) but Maddon — perhaps the most underpaid man in baseball over the last few years — will be worth every cent of his contract with the Cubs. If there's one manager in baseball who could single-handedly transform a franchise, it's him. Face of the franchise, company spokesman, effective partner to the front office, master clubhouse motivator, brilliant tactician: He will be all these things for the Cubs.

Without Maddon, there may not be Jon Lester in a Cubs uniform. Without Maddon, we wouldn't be talking about the Cubs as legit contenders in 2015. No single move this winter will have a bigger impact than the North Siders' addition of the mad professor with the groovy glasses.

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