The funniest moment of the baseball Winter Meetings happened when a minor league executive absentmindedly walked into a reflecting pool of the Hilton Anatole Hotel in Dallas. Of course, given the blanket coverage of sports these days, a reflection itself of the game's health, the happenstance was captured by multiple cameras.
Taking the plunge was as good a metaphor as anything for the week of baseball business, though as we saw last year (Carl Crawford, Jayson Werth, Adam Dunn), such plunges come with the risk of embarrassment. The money flowed, albeit from unusual places. Here is a quick scorecard of the winners and losers of the week.
Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. Owner Arte Moreno spent $183 million when he bought the team in 2003. He spent $331.5 million during breakfast Thursday. Talk about your expensive room service bills. The negotiations of Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson concluded with shocking speed. Overnight -- or over eggs -- the Angels became a baseball superpower with a payroll nearing $170 million. That's $50 million more than just two years ago and creeping close to the luxury tax threshold of $178 million.
Regional sports networks. Twelve months ago Moreno was complaining about Carl Crawford money (seven years, $142 million.) What changed? He lined up a new local TV deal that could pay him almost twice the current annual rate of $50 million -- even with the second-worst ratings in baseball. Sports programming is hot. It provides loads of content and, most importantly, content that is DVR-proof. Most sports programming is consumed live, not time-shifted, and that's increasingly valuable to advertisers who prefer their ads actually be seen and not zapped. There is a reason the Rangers, who were in bankruptcy a year ago, and the Angels, who kept coming up short on free agents, are now superpowers -- they lined up state-of-the-art massive TV deals. Once it was new ballparks that created the hierarchy of spending power in baseball. Now RSNs are the new oil wells. Next up at the TV windfall game: the Dodgers.
Miami Marlins. Owner Jeffery Loria was so eager to spend cash that he looked at Wilson at one point and said, "Tell me what it will take to make you a Marlin." The Marlins were prepared to give Wilson more than $100 million over six years and reportedly dangled $275 million at Pujols. One baseball source said this is a franchise with such uncertainty that it asked free agents to be paid in two pay periods (some players prefer getting their money in only one period, the regular season) so that they could use the late-year revenue-sharing payments from baseball. It's credit card baseball, and with no no-trade clauses allowed. It could work out great if the fans keep coming beyond this year, or it could all fall apart in about three years. Still, a team that lost 90 games last year added three quality players in Jose Reyes, Heath Bell and Mark Buehrle. Loria set out to make the Marlins interesting and contenders. They are at least interesting. Give them credit for being bold in this rare opportunity of opening a new baseball-only ballpark.
The St. Louis Cardinals. That's right, signing Pujols at about $22 million per year through age 40 without the use of the DH position was risky for the small-market Cardinals if you take out the legacy factor. Other GMs thought the Cardinals privately let out a sigh of relief not to be saddled with a contract like that. Now they need to repurpose those resources assigned to Pujols to upgrade the team.
Yu Darvish. After rumors he might not be posted until January, Darvish posted on the final day of the meetings, just as teams started throwing around big money. Clubs are in shopping mode now, not January. The posting fee might threaten the $51 million Boston bid for Daisuke Matsuzaka, and teams such as the Nationals, Blue Jays, Mariners and Rangers may give a strong run at Darvish. The winner of the posting process will be known Wednesday.
Ron Santo and Tim McCarver. Born a year apart, they competed against one another in the NL from 1963-72. Now, with Santo elected by the Golden Era committee and McCarver voted the Ford Frick Award for his broadcasting excellence, both are well-deserved Hall of Famers -- finally.
Sandy Alderson. The Mets GM had the two best lines of the meetings, first, in response to Reyes whining about not being wooed by the Mets, said, "Maybe I should have sent him a box of chocolates," and then later, noting two of the three biggest contracts in baseball history (Alex Rodriguez and Pujols) were handed out at the same Dallas hotel, said, "There must be a strain of Legionnaire's disease here."
Oakland A's, Seattle Mariners and Houston Astros. The Angels and Rangers are so far out in front of the Athletics, Mariners and Astros (their AL West rivals beginning in 2013) that those clubs can't delude themselves into pretending to be contenders. The Athletics need the San Jose money more than ever, the Mariners may have to re-assess keeping Felix Hernandez out of any trade talks and the Astros will long for the good old days of the friendly NL Central.
St. Louis fans. They don't get to watch Pujols chase records and burnish his legacy as a Cardinals icon. But don't blame the ballclub or even Pujols. Pujols essentially became too good and too expensive for the size of the market -- particularly one that hasn't cashed in yet on the new RSN boom like the Angels and Rangers. St. Louis still has six years left on its local TV deal. They could also start their own RSN, paralleling what the Yankees and Red Sox have done, but St. Louis ranks 24th out of the 30 media markets measured by Neilsen. The Cardinals might not have enough eyeballs for the TV calculus to work.
Hanley Ramirez. He was a problem when he was playing the position he wanted, shortstop. Do the Marlins really believe he will go peacefully to third base? Don't rule out the possibility of a trade.
Chicago White Sox. The trading of a young closer, Sergio Santos, under six years of control surprised many baseball people. GM Kenny Williams indicated it was the start of a rebuilding process -- a process that may well be needed but figures to carry some short-term pain.
Big market spending. The Yankees, Mets, White Sox, Cubs and Dodgers played it conservatively when it came to money. The spending habits of the Dodgers were particularly interesting because of the expected sale of the team. Los Angeles this winter has signed Matt Kemp, Chris Capuano, Aaron Harang, Mark Ellis and Jerry Hairston to creatively structured multi-year deals. They will be paid just $20.75 million combined next season but $42 million in 2013, when owner Frank McCourt hands the bill over to someone else.
And remember this: With a new TV deal and new owner, the Dodgers just might be the Angels of the winter meetings next year, when the potential free agents include Josh Hamilton, Matt Cain, Zack Greinke and Cole Hamels.