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Wednesday, February 15, 2006
Spring fills the air

By Jayson Stark
ESPN.com

If the Pro Bowl has come and gone, the bobsledders are loosening up in Torino and your wife's Valentine bouquet is blooming in your living room, you know what that means:

Spring Break
Spring training site maps
Hot Stove Heaters index
World Baseball Classic
Wednesday's chats
Jerry Crasnick Insider
Baseball America Insider
Yep. No more Miguel Tejada trade rumors. No more GM candidates lining up to interview in Boston, Cincinnati or Chavez Ravine. No more sleepless nights, wondering which teams will win the bidding war for Vic Darensbourg and Keiichi Yabu.

In other words, the biggest headline of the week is that the most excruciating sector of the baseball year -- known in some parts of the world as "the offseason" -- can now, finally, be located only in our rearview mirrors.

So as we head for those exotic locales you've waited to visit all winter -- Hi Corbett Field, City of Palms Park and the alluring Cecil P. Englebert Complex -- let's look back on all that furious winter maneuvering, and where it's all leading beneath the palm trees.

Most Improved Teams (National League)

1. Mets
2. Brewers
3. Dodgers

Are the Mets now the most interesting team in New York? Think about it. Which is the more compelling collection of personalities -- Pedro Martinez, Billy Wagner, Jose Reyes, David Wright, Cliff Floyd, Tom Glavine and Carlos Delgado? Or Johnny Damon, A-Rod, Derek Jeter, Randy Johnson, Gary Sheffield, Jason Giambi and the rest of that corporate Yankees Inc. ensemble? OK, OK. We know we could start a major five-borough brawl with that kind of question. But even those of you screaming, "Da Bombers," ought to concede (in a quiet moment of rationality) that the Mets have become quality, almost-worthy-of-their-very-own-network, prime-time programming. Even though we think they "lost" all three of their major winter trades (Mike Cameron, Kris Benson and Jae Seo), they're now clearly the best team in the National League on paper. And when was the last time that happened? 1987?

Most Improved Teams (American League)

1. Blue Jays
2. White Sox
3. A's

Sure, those Blue Jays had to spend way too many north-of-the-border dollars. Granted, Vegas still thinks they're only the 15th most likely team in baseball to win the World Series (at 30-1). But this team did upgrade at five positions (first base, third base, catcher, bullpen and rotation). And Troy Glaus did hit more home runs last year (37) than any player who changed teams this winter. And no other team added both a starter and closer, age 30 or under, who reached double figures in wins and saves, respectively, last year. So no one doubts that these Blue Jays are clearly better than they were the last time we saw them. Whether they're better than the Yankees and Red Sox, on the other hand -- well, that isn't so clear. Yet.

Most Unimproved Teams (NL)

1. Marlins
2. Astros
3. Reds

So what's the Marlins' new marketing slogan? "Come watch us pack for Vegas?" ... "Only four more days until Dontrelle pitches again?" ... "Anybody who can correctly tell Renyel Pinto from Yusmeiro Petit wins free season tickets?" ... "Where in the world is Jeff Conine?" ... It's a sad little tale, all right, for a team that just wants a place to play where the humidity is below 180 percent and a few of those luxury-box dollars they rake in don't have to be deposited in the local NFL owner's checking account. As fire sales go, by the way, the Marlins held themselves a very respectable closeout auction, if you're only measuring quality and quantity of prospects. But as baseball teams go, this one won't be real picturesque. Just for reference sake, the record for the biggest one-season plummet in wins (non-strike-year division) is 56, by Connie "Everything Must Go" Mack's equally clearance-minded 1914-15 Philadelphia A's. The Marlins would need to lose 136 games to break that one. Even this team can't pull that off.

Most Unimproved Teams (AL)

1. Angels
2. Devil Rays
3. Orioles

The Angels' spin on what's happening in Anaheim -- oops, sorry: make that Los Angeles of Anaheim -- is that they're beginning "the changing of the generations." But that doesn't alter the fact that they spent the winter chasing Paul Konerko and Manny Ramirez -- and wound up with Edgardo Alfonzo and Curtis Pride. Riding down their exit ramp were an All-Star catcher (Bengie Molina), their winningest pitcher of the last 10 years (Jarrod Washburn) and the pitcher who was second in the league in quality starts last year (Paul Byrd). It's obvious that their additions -- Alfonzo, Pride, Hector Carrasco and J.C. Romero -- don't equal their subtractions. So their young players had better be as ready to explode as they think -- or this could be a third-place team.

Least Recognizable Teams

1. Marlins
2. Royals
3. Padres

Name five Marlins. Somebody. Anybody. Sorry, managers, coaches and mascots not eligible. This team, says agent Seth Levinson, is turning into an actual-life Abbott and Costello routine right in front of our eyeballs, as in: "Who's on First? What's on Second? 'I don't give a darn' is both their shortstop and the reaction of the politicians to the possibility of the Marlins' leaving town."

Best Free-Agent Signings

1. Billy Wagner (Mets)
2. Johnny Damon (Yankees)
3. Paul Konerko, White Sox

CHECKBOOK CHAMPS
1. Blue Jays: We just came back from that little stand at the airport where you can exchange your foreign currency. So we handed over A.J. Burnett, B.J. Ryan and Bengie Molina, plus an autographed picture of Troy Glaus. And they gave us back 137,811,363 official Canadian dollars. Which sure is a lot of pictures of Queen Elizabeth. (That's $119.462 million US, counting the new perks in Glaus' contract, if you're exchanging along at home.)

2. Yankees: Help. We need an accountant to settle this. If we include the $52 million the Bombers gave Hideki Matsui, they spent $128.55 million on their free-agent crop this winter. And that would be more negotiable American dollars (or yen) than the Blue Jays. But here's the controversy: Matsui signed without ever filing for free agency. So depending on how we make up the rules in this category, we could rank either team No. 1. In the end, we figured the Yankees have dominated the checkbook standings for longer than they've dominated the AL East standings. So this is one race they won't even mind finishing second in.

3. Dodgers: Here's another team whose spending spree was tricky to measure, since one of their signings wasn't just a free agent (Jose Cruz Jr.) who signed before filing. It was a free agent signed by their previous general manager (Paul DePodesta), about 12 minutes before he got fired. At any rate, new GM Ned Colletti finished the overhaul by bringing in another six free agents, for a total price of $72.6 million. Has to be an offseason record for a GM tag team.

We sure hope the Blue Jays at least outdraw the Raptors, because for $137.8 million Canadian, they could have renovated their baseball team or given their fans what they really want -- 391,520 authentic Mats Sundin jerseys.

Was there a bigger upgrade by any team at any position than the Mets' high jump from Braden Looper to Wagner? Looper coughed up more ninth-inning runs (22) than any full-time NL closer except Chad Cordero. Wagner, on the other hand, once went 3½ months between blown saves and went two months (22 straight appearances) in one stretch without allowing even one run in the ninth inning. If Wagner had hung out in Shea last year, Pedro might have won the Cy Young -- and the Mets might have been playing in October.

Worst Free-Agent Signings

1. Braden Looper (3 years, $13.5 million from the Cardinals)
2. Jarrod Washburn (4 years, $37.5 million from the Mariners)
3. Kyle Farnsworth (3 years, $17 million to set up in a town hardly anyone thinks he's ready for -- New Yawk)

Looper undoubtedly will be better in the eighth inning than he was in the ninth. But what was it about these three numbers that the normally shrewd Cardinals didn't understand: .578 (slugging percentage by left-handed hitters against him), 5.25 (his ERA outside of Shea) and .425 (on-base percentage against him after his 15th pitch)? Too many years. Too many dollars. What are we missing here?

Best Trades

1. Mets get an RBI machine (Carlos Delgado) who drove in more runs by the All-Star break (66) than all Mets first basemen knocked in all year (62) -- in exchange for three prospects (Yusmeiro Petit, Mike Jacobs and Grant Psomas) who don't figure to make an All-Star team ever .

2. Red Sox get a 26-year-old ace-class arm (Josh Beckett) from Florida (plus Mike Lowell and Guillermo Mota) for the gifted but enigmatic Hanley Ramirez, plus three pitching prospects right off the All-Radar Gun Team.

3. White Sox deepen their already vast pitching pool by getting Javier Vazquez from Arizona for flashy center-field prospect Chris Young and two pitchers they won't miss (El Duque and Luis Vizcaino).

Three Biggest Non-Trades in the Winter of the Non-Trade

1. Orioles wipe out all the minutes on the Angelos cell-phone family plan -- but still don't trade Miguel Tejada to the Red Sox, Cubs, Astros or Phillies in deals that were rumored to (but never quite did) involve Manny Ramirez, Mark Prior, Brad Lidge and Bobby Abreu, and occasionally dragged in three-team partners that were rumored to (but never quite did) include the A's and even the Devil Rays.

2. Red Sox let three different general managers and one CEO float Manny Ramirez's name all over Rumor Central -- but never get around to dealing Manny to the Orioles, Mets, Phillies, Angels or Diamondbacks for Miguel Tejada, Lastings Milledge, Bobby Abreu, Ervin Santana, Troy Glaus or a guy in a gorilla suit.

3. Phillies deny they're trying to trade Bobby Abreu -- at the same time they're talking nonstop to the Dodgers, Orioles, Cubs, Red Sox, Giants, White Sox, A's and Blue Jays about trading him for Derek Lowe, Brad Penny, Miguel Tejada, Erik Bedard, Manny Ramirez, Matt Clement, Mark Buehrle, Barry Zito and Vernon Wells.

Best Free Agents $2 Million and Under

1. Padres get Mike Piazza, the man who led all NL catchers in homers, for one year, $2 million -- which is less than the Mets were paying him every month.

2. A's guarantee $500,000 to Frank Thomas, a guy who got just 101 at-bats last year -- and still hit as many homers (11) as all the Oakland DHs combined.

3. Giants swoop up a two-year, $1.8-million bargain in Mark Sweeney -- a fellow who had a .305 average, .401 on-base percentage and .500 slugging percentage last year in parks not located in exotic San Diego.

Best Free Agents Signed to Minor-League Contracts

1. Wade Miller, Cubs: What did he do a few years ago that Kerry Wood has never done? Have three straight seasons of 14 wins or more. That's what.

2. Ruben Sierra, Twins: Sierra the last two years: 21 HR, 94 RBI in 477 AB. All Twins DHs last season: 17 HR, 73 RBI in 575 AB.

3. Royce Clayton, Nationals: The Nationals looked around for someone to push their $4.2-million-a-year shortstop, Cristian Guzman. Amazingly, it took only a minor-league deal to reel in Clayton, a guy who just had a much better year than Guzman, as the pusher man.

Five Most Outrageous Contracts (Sorry, Three Isn't Enough)

1. Blue Jays commit five years each, and a combined $102 million, to a starting pitcher (A.J. Burnett) with fewer 13-win seasons (0) than Kaz Ishii (2) and a reliever (B.J. Ryan) with fewer career saves (42) than Esteban Yan (50). Great arms. Shaky contracts.

2. A's hand a three-year, $21.375-million contract to Esteban Loaiza, a pitcher whose opponent batting average outside of RFK National Canyon last year was a scenic .306.

3. Rangers burn all reminders of their uplifting five-year-deal-to-Chan Ho Park experience, then toss a five-year, $60-million contract Kevin Millwood's way, even though concerns over his shoulder and elbow issues were written into his previous contract in Cleveland. The good news: At least they can void the fifth year if he turns into a physical wreck.

4. Orioles dole out four years, $27.5 million to Ramon Hernandez, even though one of their best players (Javy Lopez) happens to be a catcher.

5. Royals give a two-year contract to noted one-game winner Elmer Dessens, a fellow who has won one of his last 17 starts.

Special Executive Citation: John Hart gets eight years, at about $500,000 a year, from the Rangers to hit pitching wedges, consult from the putting green and not interview for anyone else's GM jobs. No human being in baseball -- player, executive or even owner -- has a longer contract.

Special Do-It-Yourself Citation: Rocco Baldelli becomes every agent's don't-try-this-at-home poster boy by dumping Scott Boras and negotiating his own three-year, $9-million extension in which (among other fiscally bizarre twists) he actually agrees to cut his own salary from $2 million this year to $750,000 next year.

Most Entertaining Contract Clauses

1. Troy Glaus gets not only a $12.137-million player option and midcontract signing bonus tacked on to entice him to approve his trade to Toronto -- but the Blue Jays also give his wife a raise. How? By hiking Glaus' $250,000-a-year "personal business expense" clause (earmarked for Mrs. Glaus' equestrian gig) to $325,000 a year.

2. Speaking of wives, A.J. Burnett's wife doesn't get a raise, a horse or even a plane ticket out of her husband's contract. But she does get eight trips from Baltimore to Toronto, via first-class ground transportation, a year. So what, exactly, is first-class ground transportation? She gets her own rickshaw driver?

3. Three Astros relievers (Brad Lidge, Dan Wheeler, Trever Miller) negotiate Silver Slugger clauses into their new contracts. More on this fascinating development in our new blog column later this week.

Most Important Injury Comebacks (NL)

1. Some guy named Bonds (Giants)

2. Scott Rolen (Cardinals)

3. (Annual award) Kerry Wood (Cubs)

Jim Thome
The White Sox have Jim Thome under contract for the next three seasons.

Most Important Injury Comebacks (AL)

1. Keith Foulke-Curt Schilling tag team (Red Sox)

2. Jim Thome (White Sox)

3. Frank Thomas (A's)

Most Unlikely Names on Spring Training Rosters

1. Fernando Tatis (Orioles): Clear proof that the Orioles will invite just about anybody to spring training, Tatis hasn't played anywhere since 2003. How long ago was his big 34-homer season in St. Louis (in 1999)? A-Rod has hit 281 homers since then.

2. Micah Bowie (Nationals): How great is it to be left-handed and breathing? Bowie has had a 13-year pro career, has pitched in the big leagues in three of them and has made it into 19 big-league box scores in this millennium (but none since May 22, 2003).

3. Mac Suzuki (A's): Not to suggest it's been a while since Suzuki won a game in the big leagues. But his last win was so long ago (Aug. 23, 2001), he gave up a home run to Delino DeShields in it.

Most Intriguing Spring Stories (NL)

1. Barry Bonds is the single most pivotal figure in the entire sport. He holds the Giants' fate in his hands (or kneecaps). He has Babe Ruth's magic number (714) in his sights. The next chapter awaits.

2. Jeff Bagwell's Insurance Broker: Will the greatest Astro of them all be allowed through Drayton McLane's training-camp door? And if he is, then what?

3. Closing with the Stars: Who's the Braves' new closer? Even they don't know. Maybe they'll let all paying customers at The Ballpark at Disney's Wide World of Sports vote on this. Wave a Mickey hat if you want Chris Reitsma. Wave a Goofy hat if you want Oscar Villarreal. Wave a Pluto hat if you want Joey Devine.

4. Don't Meet the Mets: Want to see those new Mets in action? Better hurry. Billy Wagner, Carlos Delgado, Jorge Julio and Duaner Sanchez are all on somebody's World Baseball Classic roster. So are some old Mets you may have heard of -- Pedro Martinez, Carlos Beltran and Jose Reyes. But hey, no one ever could get enough of Chris Woodward and Victor Zambrano in Port St. Lucie.

5. Sori You Asked: The Nationals are counting on Alfonso Soriano's moving to the outfield. Soriano is counting on renewing his love affair with the infield dirt. Is there a compromise in there anyplace?

MOST INNOVATIVE OFFSEASON INJURIES
1. Twins manager Ron Gardenhire blows out a hamstring -- while bowling (but at least got a strike out of it, according to the St. Paul Pioneer Press' Charlie Walters).

2. Brewers outfield prospect David Krynzel breaks his clavicle riding a dirt bike on a go-kart track, doesn't tell the team about it for two months, then has to have it re-broken for surgery -- and now is out for eight weeks.

3. Diamondbacks outfield prospect Chris Young breaks his hand jumping up and down off boxes during an agility workout -- meaning he won't be quite as agile for most of spring training.

Most Intriguing Spring Stories (AL)

1. Lost in Translation: Can a catcher who speaks no English run a pitching staff that runs the gamut from a 43-year-old "ace" (Jamie Moyer) to a 20-year-old Venezuelan phenom (Felix Hernandez)? The Mariners and Kenji Johjima are about to find out.

2. The Young and the Red Sox: The team with 1,000 story lines. Will Manny show up? Will David Wells exit? Can Foulke close? Can Schilling rediscover his acehood? Can Mike Lowell remember how to hit a fastball? And who the heck are those strangers in the infield?

3. Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow: How different will life after the Idiots (not to mention life after the Manson family school of hair grooming) be for Johnny Damon?

4. This Ain't Georgia: Can Leo Mazzone transform Erik Bedard and Daniel Cabrera into the Baltimorean versions of Glavine and Smoltz? The Orioles sure hope so.

5. Time Management: John Boles, Tony Muser and Tony Perez have all managed big-league baseball games more recently than Jim Leyland. And Joe Torre has managed 872 of them (plus four All-Star Games) since the last time Leyland tried it. So does this guy still remember how it's done? The Tigers will start finding out.

Three Offseason Stories For Ripley's Believe It Or Not

1. Theo Epstein quits, escapes Fenway in a gorilla suit, follows Pearl Jam around South America and then returns to the Red Sox -- to find Manny Ramirez right where he left him.

2. Ten days after the A's announce Ken Macha won't be back as manager after he turns down their three-year contract offer, they hire their new manager -- Ken Macha. For the same $2.6 million he'd just vetoed.

3. The Mets give Anna Benson, and her husband what's-his-name, the boot -- but give a two-year contract to a man who will turn 49 (officially) before it expires, Julio Franco.

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.