- Jayson Stark, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- Normally in this space, you'd be reading the annual, ever-popular Winter Meetings Winners and Losers recap you look forward to all offseason.
Sorry. Not this year.
Can't do it. So much happened the week before the winter meetings, it wouldn't be fair to grade just the goings-on of the past four days.
"Last week was so nuts," one National League executive said, "we couldn't possibly top it."
So this is the annual winners and losers recap, but we're also including the deals and signings that led up to the winter meetings. So everyone got that? Cool. Now heeeeeere we go:
• Fourth starters -- It has been a terrific winter to be Scott Feldman (three years, $30 million from the Astros, even though he has never had an ERA less than 3.86 in his career). ... Or Jason Vargas (four years, $32 million from the Royals, even though he has run off four straight seasons with an ERA-Plus of less than 100). ... Or Scott Kazmir (two years, $22 million from the A's, even though he hasn't pitched enough innings to qualify for the ERA title since 2007). With all of the new national TV money flowing into the sport, much of it has ended up in the pockets of pitchers whose names don't figure to be appearing on any Cy Young Award ballots near you. Not that there's anything wrong with that.
"Most years," said one exec, "you wait out a guy like Scott Feldman until January and get a sweet deal. This year, if you wanted a guy like that, you just went in and got him. When we look back at this winter, the Tim Hudson signing (two years, $23 million, by the Giants) is going to look like a thing of beauty."
• Washington Nationals -- We always try to remember not to grade any team's offseason by looking for the team that wrote the biggest checks. And no team embodies why more than the Nationals. Doug Fister may not be David Price, but the Nats' trade with Detroit to get him was "the best deal of the winter," one exec said. Nate McLouth may not be Shin-Soo Choo, but the Nationals needed a left-handed-hitting outfielder who could play left, center or right -- and McLouth was a perfect fit. Jerry Blevins may not be Aroldis Chapman, but the team needed another left-hander in the bullpen -- and trading for him beat spending $10 million on J.P. Howell.
"I really like what they've done," an AL executive said. "They're not big, big moves. But that's a really good team that got better. They should have been better than they were last year. But I bet this year is different. I bet they won't take it for granted this year that they're destined to play in October."
• Oakland Athletics -- Here's another team that just made out its checklist, then roared in and got things done: gladly took on Baltimore's salary dump (in a fascinating role reversal) in closer Jim Johnson, who figures to be the president of the O.co. Coliseum Fan Club. ... Traded for Padres setup whiz Luke Gregerson to further deepen one of this sport's best bullpens. ... Overpaid Kazmir to balance out this rotation. ... Kept on adding depth by reeling in Craig Gentry, Nick Punto and Drew Pomeranz.
"Man, that's a good team," one NL exec said. "They were good before, and they got better, with all they've done to solidify their team. Right now, they're clearly the favorites in the AL West."
• Chicago White Sox -- They needed to transform not just their roster, but their whole aura. And general manager Rick Hahn is off to a tremendous start, with the signing of first-base/DH masher Jose Abreu and the deal this week for hyperactive on-base machine Adam Eaton.
"I've always been an Adam Eaton fan," one scout said. "I love his style of play. I like the energy he gives the White Sox. And they needed that."
• Los Angeles Angels -- Here's the question: What was the ERA of all Angels starters not named Jered Weaver and C.J. Wilson last season? The answer: A terrifying 4.90. The solution: That fascinating three-team deal this week that brought in Hector Santiago from the White Sox and Tyler Skaggs from the Diamondbacks -- and also freed up money for the signing of Matt Garza or someone like him.
Granted, not everyone is confident that Skaggs will match the hype. But as one exec said: "It's still a great trade. They got 150 percent of the value on dealing a guy like [Mark] Trumbo. And now their rotation is so much better than it was." Is it too simple to say that the Angels' 2014 season now comes down to whether they get their $373 million's worth from Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton?
WINNERS WITH AN ASTERISK
• New York Yankees -- In any other offseason, it would be tough to find much quarrel with a team that just added Carlos Beltran, Brian McCann and Jacoby Ellsbury to the neighborhood, even if it came at a cost of $283 million Steinbrenner family bucks. But by waving adios to Robinson Cano, even though the Yankees did the right thing by walking away from an ugly contract, "they lost their best player, by far," one exec said. "So it's definitely a possibility this [winter] hasn't been as big a positive as you'd think, given the amount they've spent."
Oh, and one more thing: "At some point, they've got to address their pitching," an American League exec said. "Their rotation is just not real good right now. I'd be shocked, when [Masahiro] Tanaka gets out there, if the Yankees aren't all over him."
• Seattle Mariners -- Oh, they're better now than they were a month ago. It's impossible to argue with that. For one thing, based on Wins Above Replacement, Robinson Cano has been at least a five-win player for four straight seasons -- while the Mariners haven't had any five-win position players in any of those four seasons. And Corey Hart and Logan Morrison have enough upside to turn into excellent rolls of the dice. So "the way I look at this," said one NL executive, "is, considering where they were offensively, any improvement was real improvement."
But it's also tough to find anyone who thinks the Cano contract won't turn disastrous. And Hart is coming off surgery on both knees. And Morrison's line the past two years has been .236/.321/.387. So "I just don't know if this is the right approach," one AL exec said. "What is this -- the third incarnation of their new, improved, middle-of-the-order offense? Every year, it seems like they're trying to upgrade their offense. Maybe they should try something a little different, and just be all about dominating with their pitching. In their park, it's always going to be about pitching."
• Teams trying to trade starters -- So whatever happened to all those David Price rumors this week? And all those Jeff Samardzija rumors? Not to mention those Max Scherzer/Ryan Dempster/Jake Peavy/John Lackey rumors? Uh, they were pretty much held hostage, that's what. They were held hostage by the glacial pace of the top of the free-agent starter market (Garza/Ubaldo Jimenez/Ervin Santana), not to mention the international posting-fee tug o' war that will leave Tanaka's fate undecided for at least another month.
"Until those guys sign and until Tanaka gets resolved," said one exec, "that market can't possibly clarify. It might be mid-January, late January or even February before you see some of those guys move."
• The NL Central other than St. Louis -- The Cardinals? They've already addressed their biggest needs -- more offense at short (Jhonny Peralta) and an upgraded outfield defense (Peter Bourjos). But the rest of the NL Central? The Pirates, Brewers, Cubs and Reds mostly have been treading water this winter. Granted, it's early. And clearly, there's more to come for all of these teams (or there had better be). But six weeks into the offseason, the Cardinals have only lengthened the gap between themselves and the rest of this pack.
"This has been the quietest division in baseball," an NL exec said. "I don't think there's any doubt about that."
• Philadelphia Phillies -- What we have here is a team that can't say the word "rebuild." So the Phillies have signed three free-agent position players (Marlon Byrd, Carlos Ruiz and Wil Nieves) who all will begin next season 34 or older. They signed a 33-year-old starter (Roberto "Don't Call Me Fausto" Hernandez) whose 5.03 ERA the past six seasons is the second-highest (behind Luke Hochevar) in baseball among pitchers with 800-plus innings. And amid all of that, they floated the names of Jonathan Papelbon, Cliff Lee and Domonic Brown as potential trade bait, to the confusion of many.
"I just don't understand exactly what they're doing," one AL exec said. "If you're seriously trying to win, you don't do it this way. And if you're trying to get younger, you don't do it this way. At some point, they've got to pick a direction and go with it."
• Baltimore Orioles -- They'd spent two years rebuilding an era of good vibes and repairing much of the damage of the lost decade that preceded it. But the vibes emanating from the Orioles' offseason so far have been anything but euphoric. The dumping of Johnson sent shock waves through the organization. Their free-agent targets have been mostly low-budget. And their biggest offseason acquisition so far has been a reliever (Ryan Webb) who got nontendered by the Marlins.
"They look like a team that's caught in between," one executive said. "They act like they don't have any money, although I'm not sure why. They're a little short on having enough talent to keep pace in the division. And they don't seem like they're going to do much to address it. They feel like they're a team with nowhere to go."
• Atlanta Braves -- Has any team had a quieter winter than the Braves? They've lost maybe their two most important players, if you're measuring both on-field and off-field impact, in McCann and Hudson. And they've yet to acquire a single major league player, either in a trade or with their checkbook. As with all of the teams on this list, the Braves still have plenty of time to add a veteran starter, find a taker for Dan Uggla, rebuild their bullpen depth and maybe, if they get really inspired, figure out a way to trade for Price or Samardzija. But for now, this is a 96-win team that has taken a big step backward.
"I can see a big slide coming this season unless they do something substantial," one scout said. "Everyone in their division has gotten better while they have stood pat."
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