Tuesday December 15th, 2009

On a late fall day that could resonate for many falls to come, two contenders were fortified, one was crippled and another was born. An ace looked to be going from west to east (John Lackey), east to west (Cliff Lee) and fourth place to first (Roy Halladay). If baseball teams are truly defined by their best pitchers, the ones who snap long losing streaks and dominate short playoff series, then Monday was as significant as a Game 7.

Nothing is official yet, but when the details are agreed upon and the paperwork is submitted, the outlook for next season will have been altered considerably. The Red Sox and the Phillies, World Series champions in 2007 and 2008, can talk title again. The Mariners, out of the playoffs for the past nine years, can prepare for a pennant race. And the Angels, after three straight division titles, can measure how much ground they've lost.

The winter meetings ended just in time for the real action to begin, proving once again that general managers do not have to be in the same hotel to strike a deal. To recap the day's reports: The Red Sox agreed to a contract with Lackey, prying him from the Angels. The Blue Jays capped six months of negotiations for Halladay, sending him to the Phillies. The Phillies, having just been led to the World Series by Lee, dealt him to the Mariners. The Blue Jays reaped a bushel of prospects. The Angels got nothing but worry (and perhaps Yankees DH Hideki Matsui, who it should be noted cannot pitch).

The Phillies will now have a better No. 1 starter than Lee, if that's possible. The Mariners will have two potential No. 1 starters, with Lee and Felix Hernandez. The Red Sox will have three, with Lackey, Jon Lester and Josh Beckett. The Angels, already short on arms, are left with Jered Weaver at the front of their rotation. Because the Angels lost Lackey and the Mariners picked up Lee, the AL West gets more competitive. Because the Red Sox picked up Lackey and the Yankees missed out on Halladay, the AL East gets more competitive as well. The NL East, on the other hand, looks more lopsided than ever.

The Phillies are starting to operate like the Yanks and Sox, substituting great players for elite ones. As much as Lee did for them in the post-season -- 4-0 with a 1.56 ERA -- his career numbers are not as consistent as Halladay's. Besides, it should be easier for the Phillies to negotiate a contract extension with Halladay than Lee, considering Halladay has never pitched for a contender and lives near the Phillies spring-training site in Clearwater, Fla. This was the rare move that made both baseball sense and financial sense. By trading one Cy Young Award winner for another, the Phillies still lack depth in their rotation, but they can go righty-lefty at the top, with Halladay and Cole Hamels.

Seattle can do the same with Hernandez and Lee. By inserting themselves into this three-team trade, the Mariners have also positioned themselves to seize the AL West. Few noticed, but Seattle won 85 games this season, and then weakened the Angels by signing Chone Figgins at the start of free agency. The Angels have overcome a lot, but this might be too much. In consecutive offseasons, they have now lost Mark Teixeira, Francisco Rodriguez, Figgins and Lackey, receiving nothing but draft choices in return.

Not long ago, Southern California was all riled up for a Freeway Series. But with the Angels slipping -- and the Dodgers seemingly frozen by the divorce between owner Frank and Jamie McCourt -- baseball's balance of power has shifted again to the northeast. The Yankees have the trophy, the Phillies have Halladay, and the Red Sox have the pitching to make another move (for Padres slugger Adrian Gonzalez, perhaps?)

Monday was a jarring reminder of why baseball's off-season merits so much attention. For weeks, it seems like nothing happens except the Brad Penny signing. Then, with little warning, comes a single trade that changes races, creates favorites, causes some fan bases to celebrate and others to panic. Two Cy Young Award winners are on the move, three teams are dramatically changed and several others are affected. If anybody but the Yankees wins the World Series next year, there is a good chance that they will look back at December 14 as the day it all started.

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