The Brewers, Red Sox and Phillies stood out this winter. But they aren't nearly the only winners to date. With still plenty of free agents remaining, here are the 11 biggest winners so far...
1. Brewers. They knew they needed to upgrade their pitching, and while they gutted their farm system to do it, they improved from a so-so team to a bona fide contender. "They're right up on top now,'' says one NL scout. Zack Greinke should thrive in the National League, and Milwaukee's probably a good fit for him. And the deal in which they gave up underachieving shortstop Alcides Escobar, speedy young outfielder Lorenzo Cain and their top two pitching prospects was a perfect one for a Brewers team that badly didn't want to waste its last year with Prince Fielder. Says an NL executive, "They made the biggest improvement of any team, even if they now have the worst farm system in baseball.'' Agreed.
2. Red Sox. A lot of folks criticized their 2010 season, but their biggest problem was injuries. Just getting Dustin Pedroia, Kevin Youkilis and Jacoby Ellsbury back healthy should help immeasurably. But the importing of Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford provides an offensive one-two punch unmatched by anyone else this winter. Gonzalez should be even better now that he's out of PETCO Park and with a legitimate lineup surrounding him, not to mention a healthier shoulder, and Crawford is obviously used to the rigors of the AL East. Bobby Jenks fortifies their pen, which might still need a lefty to be perfectly balanced. "They are the new team to beat in the AL East after improvements to their lineup and bullpen,'' says one competing executive. "But even more important are all the players Tampa lost and the fact that the most important player the Yankees got so far is Pedro Feliciano.'' Says another competing exec, "They already had the pitching, now they have the hitting.''
3. Phillies. How good is their starting pitching? Well, it's good enough that it has to be compared to the alltime greatest pitching staffs. "They could trade Cole Hamels, and they'd still have three of the best starters in baseball,'' one NL scout remarks. They paid Cliff Lee $120 million over five years, and were still seen as getting a bargain in light of the fact that he could have gotten $28 million, or more than that, from the Yankees. They're a weaker hitting team from the right side without Jayson Werth, and they still need to figure a way to balance a lineup that was uneven last year, even with Werth. But even if they hit only a little, they have to be the World Series favorite, based on their starting pitching alone. One scout went so far as to call them, "prohibitive'' World Series favorites.
4. Nationals. They added a five-tool player and some credibility when they doled out $126 million for Werth, and while that was no bargain price, the move enhanced their stature within the game. They failed to get Zack Greinke, who rejected a chance to go there, but they're still talking to first baseman Derrek Lee and starting pitcher Carl Pavano. They seem to have a real plan now, which is to enhance their pitching and defense (although Werth's a very good defender, so far they've helped their offense more).
5. White Sox. They kept Paul Konerko at the reasonable rate of $37.5 million over three years and also kept A.J. Pierzynski at $8 million over two, which is apparently less than he could have gotten in two other places (believed to be the Dodgers and Jays). But most importantly, they added Adam Dunn, who should be even more of a monster at U.S. Cellular Field. One NL scout says, "It's going to be bombs away for the White Sox.'' They flirted with the idea of trading Gavin Floyd, but appear to have decided they don't want to touch their rotation until Jake Peavy returns. Chris Sale may also begin the season as a starter but could return to the pen, which added Jesse Crain and subtracted Jenks. "Knowing these guys, they aren't done,'' one competing exec says.
6. Tigers. They used most of the money that came off their books to keep Magglio Ordonez, Brandon Inge and Johnny Peralta and add Victor Martinez and Joaquin Benoit. Their offense should be better with Ordonez and Martinez joining superstar Miguel Cabrera, and they have a lot of strong arms in their pen. They went from an almost exactly average team to a solid threat.
7. Dodgers. Despite the most public divorce (and presumably the most expensive, as well) in baseball history, the Dodgers found a way to sign no less than nine players, giving them unusual starting rotation depth and a vastly improved bench. For the rotation alone, they re-signed Ted Lilly, Hiroki Kuroda and Vicente Padilla and added Jon Garland at the bargain rate of $5 million.
8. Braves. Dan Uggla gives them needed punch, though it'll help if Jason Heyward is ready to step into the No. 3 or 4 spot in the order. They will depend on a bevy of hard-throwing youngsters to man the pen after Billy Wagner's retirement, too.
9. A's. While they were rejected by several free agents, they did manage to lure Hideki Matsui for the very reasonable sum of $4.25 million and added David DeJesus via trade. "If they land Adrian Beltre,'' one competing exec said, "they will be a real threat.''
10. Cardinals. They underachieved last year, and retain baseball's best player in Albert Pujols, plus one of its best 1-2 pitching punches in Adam Wainwright and Chris Carpenter, for at least one more year. They didn't spend a ton, as they appeared to be saving for the obvious purpose of keeping Pujols long-term. But what they did made sense. Jake Westbrook is a solid starter, Ryan Theriot should be an offensive upgrade at shortstop and some see Lance Berkman returning to form. "Berkman can still hit,'' one NL scout said. "His knee was bothering him last year.''
11. Pirates. Kevin Correia, Lyle Overbay and Matt Diaz can't hurt, right?
• Joakim Soria told the Mexican paper Vanguard, according to mlbtraderumors.com, that he would be willing to accept a trade to the Yankees and explained that they are only on his no-trade list as part of his agent's strategy. Regardless of his comments, though, the Royals have shown no inclination to trade Soria. The Yankees have been rebuffed multiple times, as have other teams, in attempts to acquire Soria. His contract has team options that could keep him in Kansas City through 2014, no matter what his agent's great no-trade strategies may be.
• Brian Fuentes has drawn interest from the Red Sox, Blue Jays, Rays, Rockies, Mariners, Twins, Pirates, Phillies, Brewers, Yankees and Mets.
• Kevin Gregg is taking to the Orioles and others.
• The Yankees have checked in on Rafael Soriano, who'd obviously have to serve a role other than closer if he were to go to them.
• The Dodgers made a good trade, acquiring starting pitcher Michael Antonini for all-field, no-hit shortstop Chin-Lung Hu. For the Mets, whose No 4 starter until Johan Santana returns is Dillon Gee and No. 5 starter is unknown for now, it was the latest in a series of curious moves.
• The game lost a giant when Bill Lajoie, who built the 1984 Tigers as their GM, died at his Florida home on Tuesday. Lajoie, who was still working for the Pirates and had also worked for the Brewers, Dodgers, Reds and Red Sox in recent years, knew as much about baseball as anyone in the game.