Winning the winter rarely equates to winning the summer -- or fall
Baseball has four seasons: spring training, the regular season, the postsesason and the offseason. The last is the only one that doesn't involve playing games, but there is nonetheless plenty of attention given to winners and losers.
With another offseason upon us, we thought it would be informative to look back at each offseason since the turn of the millennium to see which team was considered the winner at the time and what impact winning the offseason had on its performance in the season that followed. If there's one through-line in the below it's that the variations in the performances of a team's returning players are more significant than the quality of its offseason additions.
Rodriguez, already a four-time All-Star and Silver Slugger who finished third in the American League MVP voting in 2000, his age-24 season, was the prize of this offseason, which also saw Manny Ramirez and Mike Mussina enter free agency. The Rangers wildly out-bid the competition for him, and jumped from ninth to third in the league in run scoring with Rodriguez replacing Royce Clayton at shortstop. However, their pitching, which was already dead last in the majors in run prevention in 2000, somehow got worse, and even their Pythagorean record only improved by four wins.
Meanwhile, Rodriguez's former team, the Seattle Mariners, defended their AL West title and improved by 25 wins to equal the major league record of 116 wins. That was thank in large part to the off-season additions of second baseman Bret Boone, who came out of nowhere to replace Rodriguez's production, and Japanese rightfielder Ichiro Suzuki, who became just the second player ever to win the Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player awards in the same season.
Jason Giambi was the top free agent to switch teams this winter, but Alomar was a future Hall of Fame second baseman in his early 30s coming off a career year with the Indians that saw him finish just two spots behind Giambi in the MVP voting and win his 10th gold glove. Burnitz was coming off four-straight seasons of 30 or more home runs and Vaughn was a former MVP who had missed all of 2001 due to an elbow injury but had hit .306/.395/.555 in the seven seasons prior to that.
To those three the Mets added 29-year-old lefty starter Shawn Estes via a trade from the Giants, and centerfield speedster Roger Cedeño, a free agent. Vaughn was a modest success before another injury ended his career in 2003. The rest were awful. Burnitz slugged .365, and Alomar collapsed, suffering through his worst season to that point and finding himself out of baseball two years later. The Mets didn't win 80 games again until 2005.
Thome was the top hitter on the market, coming off a pair of seasons in which he hit .297/.430/.649 and averaged 50 home runs and 121 RBIs. Bell was a solid third baseman who started for the National League champion Giants in 2002 and a welcome replacement for Scott Rolen, who had forced a trade at the '02 deadline. Millwood went 18-8 with a 3.24 ERA for the Braves in '02, his age-27 season. Millwood wasn't nearly as good for the Phillies, but he threw a no-hitter in April and did represent an upgrade in the rotation. Thome led the league in home runs, drove in 131 and finished fourth in the MVP voting. Bell was a disappointment, but thanks to other improvements, including the offseason addition of veteran lefty reliever Dan Plesac, the Phillies' improvement in 2003 was actually greater than their records above indicate. Their Pythagorean record improved by 11 wins. Even so, they finished 15 games out in the NL East and five games out of a playoff spot.
The Yankees traded for Alex Rodriguez and Javier Vazquez and signed Garry Sheffield and Tom Gordon, but they also lost Andy Pettitte, Roger Clemens and Alfonso Soriano. The Angels' additions above were pure upgrade. Guerrero was the best hitter on the market. Guillen was coming off a breakout age-27 season in which he hit .311/.359/.569 with 31 homers for the Reds and A's. Colon was arguably the best pitcher on the market, having averaged a 125 ERA+ and a .635 winning percentage over the previous five seasons. Escobar was a late-blooming swingman that many believed could make the leap if given a chance to start full-time.
Escobar turned in a solid first season for the Angels, making 33 starts and posting the lowest starters ERA on the team in either the '03 or '04 seasons. Colon had a bad year, but still won 18 games thanks to the upgrade on offense where Guerrero won the AL MVP and Guillen proved that 2003 wasn't a fluke.
This is where the Mets started to recover from the 2001-2002 offseason. Beltran was the prize of the offseason coming off his age-27 season and a monster postseason for the Astros. The Mets gave him the sixth most expensive contract in major league history to that point (it's now 30th) signing him for $119 million over seven years, but despite a poor first season which soured many fans on their new star, it proved to be one of the best $100-million contracts in the game's history. The book on Martinez was that the end was near, but he was just one season removed from his dominant peak. The Mets gave him a four-year deal hoping his performance in the first two years would compensate for the last two. It worked for one year, as he went 15-8 with 208 strikeouts and a 2.82 ERA.
Flush with money from the wireless boom, Rogers Communications greatly expanded the Blue Jays' payroll after the 2005 season, making general manager J.P. Ricciardi the key player of this offseason. The money ultimately wasn't well-spent, but it was still an impressive haul for a single offseason and the Jays' second-place finish in 2006 remains their highest finish since their last World Series win in 1993.
Glaus rebounded from a couple of injury plagued seasons to hit 37 home runs for the Diamondbacks in '05 and largely repeated his performance with the Jays in '06. Overbay was a late bloomer with doubles power and good on-base numbers who had a career year for the Jays in '06. Molina's bat had caught up with his glove in the seasons leading up to his free agency and he proved to be a solid two-way catcher for Toronto as well. Burnett stayed healthy in '05, was still in his 20s and still had that great fastball/curveball combo. Ryan had been an All-Star in his first year as a closer in '05 and was even better, and an All-Star again in '06.
The Cubs grabbed a lot of headlines this offseason by committing $272 million to leftfielder Alfonso Soriano, who was coming off a 40/40 season, starting pitchers Ted Lilly and Jason Marquis, and incumbent third baseman Aramis Ramirez, but the Red Sox took the prize by reeling in Japanese ace Matsuzaka and appearing to steal J.D. Drew after he opted out of his Dodgers contract.
Both would prove to be sources of frustration to the Red Sox and their fans due to chronic injuries, but thanks largely to their additions from the previous offseason, ace Josh Beckett and third baseman Mike Lowell, the emergence of Rookie of the Year second baseman Dustin Pedroia, a monster season from David Ortiz, and, to a lesser degree, an unexpected performance from another offseason addition, righty reliever Hideki Okajima, the Red Sox went all the way almost despite the middling performances of their two big offseason signings.
The thing to remember about the trade that brought Miguel Cabrera and Dontrelle Willis to the Tigers after the 2007 season is that Willis, who would be 26 in 2008, was the older of the two. At the time, Willis was just two years removed from a season in which he was the Cy Young runner-up and there was reason to believe that his poor 2007 season, the only sub-par year of his career to that point, was partially the fault of the porous Marlins defense. Renteria had just turned 31 and hit .332/.390/.470 for the Braves in 2007. Cabrera, as you can guess, was great in Florida and stayed that way in Detroit.
Willis was never healthy after the trade and won all of two games as a Tiger. Renteria collapsed as well, though less spectacularly. Even Cabrera had a sub-par season by his own standards, though he still led the league in home runs and total bases. Combine that with Justin Verlander's only bad season, a collapse by 39-year-old designated hitter Gary Sheffield and awful seasons from Nate Robertson and a 43-year-old Kenny Rogers in the rotation and you get a lost season for the Tigers despite a franchise-changing offseason acquisition.
The Yankees missed the postseason in 2008 for the first time since 1993 and were about to move into their new billion-dollar ballpark, so they did exactly what you'd expect them to do: spend a ton of money on free agents. Specifically, they committed $423.5 million to Sabathia, Teixeira and Burnett. All three, plus rightfielder Nick Swisher, whom they effectively stole from the White Sox after a down year, had strong first seasons in New York. Teixeira finished second in the MVP voting. Sabathia finished fourth in the Cy Young voting. Swisher rebounded to his A's form, and Burnett was both healthy and effective.
Combine those additions with bounce-back seasons from Robinson Cano and Jorge Posada, improvements from Derek Jeter and Hideki Matsui, and second-half dominance from Phil Hughes in a set-up role, and the Yankees cruised to their 27th world championship.
The Phillies landed the biggest fish this offseason, trading for Blue Jays ace Roy Halladay, and the Mariners received the most hype after benefitting from Ruben Amaro Jr.'s odd decision to trade Cliff Lee in conjunction with the Halladay acquisition. Seattle also signed infielder Chone Figgins and exchanged problems with the Cubs by trading Carlos Silva's contract for Milton Bradley's temper, but even with Lee in the fold, that failed to measure up to what the Red Sox did.
With a huge hole at shortstop and Mike Lowell rendered immobile by hip surgery, the Red Sox found ideal solutions in Beltre and Scutaro and stood to reap the rewards of moving Beltre and Cameron into a hitter-friendly ballpark. Lackey, meanwhile, was the top free agent pitcher on the market and looked to give the Red Sox a dominant rotation along side Beckett, Jon Lester, Matsuzaka and Clay Buchholz.
It didn't quite work out. Beltre had a monster season, rejuvenating his career, and Scutaro was solid, but Lackey was a disappointment, Beckett was awful, Cameron played just 48 games and hit 20 fewer home runs than the year before, and injuries riddled the roster.
There was no clear victor in this offseason. The Red Sox landed two marquee players in Gonzalez and Crawford, but they also lost Beltre and Victor Martinez to free agency, and Crawford's contract, worth $142 million over seven years, looked like trouble from the start. Indeed, Crawford was alternately injured and awful in his two years with the Red Sox before the new administration blew up the whole mess and shipped Gonzalez, Crawford and Beckett to the Dodgers.
Gonzalez was actually great in 2011, and Boston looked to be on its way back to the playoffs when the calendar flipped to September, but over the course of that month the Sox went 7-20, falling from first place to third, seven games back and out of the playoff picture via a walkoff loss to the Orioles in the final game of the regular season.
Much like the 2006-2007 offseason, the team that made the most noise during the offseason -- in this case the Marlins, who opened a new ballpark, introduced new uniforms, spent big money for the first time since 1997 and threw the lit match that is manager Ozzie Guillen on top of the pile -- wasn't the team that won the offseason. When you add what was likely the greatest rookie season in major league history from Mike Trout and the deadline addition of Zack Greinke to Pujols and Wilson and the extra wild-card spot, it's really hard to figure out how the Angels missed the playoffs in 2012, but they did.
Part of the blame/credit has to go to the upstart Oakland A's, but in truth the Angels were inconsistent all year. They were awful in April before calling up Trout. A slow start from Pujols didn't help there. They struggled in August when their rotation, despite the addition of Greinke, scuffled. Dan Haren had a miserable year. Wilson underwhelmed, the bullpen blew hot and cold, and they still finished just four games behind the wild-card leader and won one more regular season game than the AL pennant-winning Tigers.