It seems like the last piece of ticker tape hasn't even fallen on a given year's World Series Champions parade before teams are lighting up the phone lines to begin wheeling and dealing in anticipation of the next year's Spring Training. Without a doubt, the period between the World Series and when pitchers and catchers report the following year is one of Major League Baseball's busiest times of year. And it seems as if the madness really begins in earnest with the kickoff of MLB's annual winter meetings.
A four day event in which representatives of all 30 MLB clubs attend to discuss league business, such as rule changes, and possible innovations to the game – as well as participate in the Rule 5 Draft on the last day of the meetings – each and every year, there are dozens of deals that go down involving countless sums of cash and a good number of ballplayers. Oftentimes, following the conclusion of the winter meetings, a good number of teams don't look nearly the same as they did before the meetings began.
This year's winter meetings were no different in that regard. Held in San Diego, California, this year's MLB meeting may have been in fact, one of the busiest and craziest in Major League history. One anonymous general manager, following the conclusion of the meetings said he'd “never seen a crazier few days,” and said the final day, in which a flurry of trades were consummated, was like the “grand finale of a fireworks show.”
Indeed, a total of 79 players will be in different uniforms than they wore in 2014 – with a total of 20 All Stars changing addresses in 2015. Some teams definitely got weaker, but some teams came out of the winter meetings loaded for bear. In looking at the plethora of deals, there seems to have been a shift in the balance of power around the Majors.
With that in mind, let's look at 15 of the biggest surprises in the Majors this offseason...
15 Giancarlo Stanton's Outlandish Contract
The Miami Marlins shocked the baseball world by signing slugger Giancarlo Stanton to a monster 13-year, $325 million dollar deal. Sure, Stanton has had 5 good seasons in South Beach, clubbing 154 homers and driving in 399 runs while compiling a career .271 batting average – but how exactly does that translate into $325 million dollars? Especially from notorious cheapskate, shady dealer, and Marlins owner, Jeffrey Loria? The Marlins insist their new approach to fielding a winner is to take care of the guys who perform, and Stanton's contract – as well as their other offseason moves – seem to validate the new approach in Miami. But we'll see what sort of tricks Loria has up his sleeve as Stanton's ridiculous contract plays out.
14 Los Angeles Dodgers Trade Matt Kemp
Given the logjam in the outfield, it's no surprise that the Dodgers opted to trade one of their high priced outfielders this offseason. The surprise though, is that it was Matt Kemp when most of the early rumors had them parting ways with Andre Ethier. Especially in light of Kemp's second half resurgence last year in he was putting up numbers that were reminiscent of what should have been his 2011 MVP season. The other eyebrow-raising aspect of the Kemp deal is that the Dodgers sent him south to their division rival San Diego Padres.
13 Boston Red Sox Sign Hanley Ramirez to Monster Deal
Perhaps it is a sign of desperation – or perhaps the Red Sox have really duped themselves into believing that they got a deal when they signed Hanley Ramirez away from the Dodgers. Whatever the case may be, Boston ponied up $150 million dollars to a guy who hit .283 and just 13 home runs last season. And oh yeah, a guy without a lot of range playing probably the most pivotal position on the infield dirt. Factor in Ramirez's attitude problems when he's not getting his way, and Boston may find themselves having quite a case of buyer's remorse.
12 Joe Maddon Leaves the Tampa Bay Rays
Operating on less than a shoestring budget, Joe Maddon turned the perennial AL doormat East Tampa Bay Rays into perennial contenders. In nine years with the Rays, Maddon posted a 754-705 record and led his team to one World Series appearance. Maddon, more than any player on the roster, was the face of the franchise, and it seemed like he'd be with the Rays forever. But the writing was on the wall when team president Andrew Friedman bolted for bluer pastures in Los Angeles, choosing to run the Dodgers front office. Shortly thereafter, Maddon opted to not re-up with the Rays, instead heading to the Windy City to see if perhaps he can turn another perennial loser into a winner in the Chicago Cubs.
11 Jon Lester Signs with the Chicago Cubs
Lester was one of the premier free agent pitchers to hit the market this offseason. With teams like the White Sox, A's, Giants, Dodgers, Yankees, and even the Red Sox – the team that traded him last season – there certainly was no shortage of suitors for Lester's services. It was a surprise though, that he wound up signing with the Chicago Cubs – not exactly a team synonymous with success. A six year, $155 million dollar deal will make Lester the second highest paid starting pitcher in the Major Leagues.
10 Dan Haren to Walk Away from $10 Million?
Dan Haren has never been one of the game's most dominant pitchers – his best season coming in 2008 when he was 16-8 with a 3.33 ERA for the Arizona Diamondbacks – and now that he's on the downside of his career, he's become more of a liability than an asset whenever he takes the mound. In 2014, coming off of his worst statistical season as a pro, the Dodgers inexplicably gave Haren a 1-year deal worth $10 million, with a second year, $10 million dollar option for 2015 that vested if he pitched 180 innings. Haren did, and the Dodgers were on the hook for that $10 million.
As a piece in a bigger deal, the Dodgers shipped Haren and his $10 million dollar contract to the Miami Marlins. But when the trade rumors began to surface originally, Haren went on record saying that he'd rather retire than play for a team away from his family in Southern California, which leaves the San Diego Padres and the Los Angeles Angles – and neither team has shown any inclination to pursue a deal for a downward trending pitcher. If Haren stays true to his word, he is going to walk away from a $10 million payday. He's recently said that he hopes the Marlins can swing a deal that will send him to either the Padres or the Angels, but given the fact that both teams have far better options for their rotation, it's looking like Haren may be bidding the game adieu.
9 Los Angeles Angels Trade Howie Kendrick
For nine seasons, Howie Kendrick has been one of the steadiest bats on the Angels' roster, not to mention one of the steadiest gloves in the field. With Grant Green waiting in the wings and the Angels in desperate need of a front line starting pitcher, Jerry Dipoto worked the deal to send Kendrick to the Dodgers to get the Miami Marlins' former top pitching prospect, Andrew Heaney – whom the Dodgers had just acquired in a separate deal. It's a bittersweet moment for Angels fans as they say goodbye to a stalwart in the Angels lineup and a fan favorite, but welcome in a top notch pitcher who may be just what the team needs.
8 Los Angeles Dodgers Trade Dee Gordon
Dee Gordon had an up and down beginning to his career with the Dodgers. He was lightning fast, but entirely too inconsistent in the field and at the plate. But after a stint in the minors, Gordon seemed to have figured it out this season. Though a natural shortstop, Gordon made the move to second base in 2014 given the presence of Hanley Ramirez. Gordon responded by far though, with his best statistical season as a pro. He had career highs in most all offensive categories and was solid with the leather, also posting a career high in fielding percentage. It looked like Gordon was set to be the Dodgers' second baseman for years to come. Especially with GM Farhan Zaidi being quoted as saying that Gordon was their second baseman. The day after that Zaidi said that though, Gordon was sent off to Miami along with Dan Haren for a package of prospects – and more financial flexibility.
7 Miami Marlins Looking to Contend
For most of their two decades of existence, the Marlins have been a laughingstock around the league. Their owner, Jeffrey Loria is notoriously cheap, and is always looking for ways to cut costs and trim payroll. Despite a state of the art stadium, and the accoutrements of a top shelf, elite franchise, Loria tries to run the Marlins like a second rate, bargain basement team. Which is what makes this offseason in Miami so bizzare. Loria and the Marlins have been shelling out big dollars – most notably to star Giancarlo Stanton – as well as bringing in some pretty solid additions like Dee Gordon., Mat Latos, and Miguel Rojas to fill out a roster that, on paper, looks strong enough to content in the NL East. Nobody knows what has gotten into Loria – or what sort of bait and switch he might be trying to pull – but the Marlins look like a very strong team coming into the 2015 season.
6 Oakland A's Trading... Everybody
On the other end of the spectrum from the Marlins, we have the Oakland A's. Operating on a small budget every year, the A's always somehow seem to remain in contention. With a number of trades in the second half of the 2014 season, the A's looked like they were going all in on a World Series or bust ride. Despite making trades to bring in big guns like Jon Lester, Jeff Samardzija, and Jason Hammel to bolster the team for what looked like a legitimate World Series run, the A's fell flat down the stretch, losing the AL West title to the Angels, and then losing a heart breaker of a wild card playoff game to the Kansas City Royals, ending their season far sooner than many believed.
After such a disappointing year, the A's are cleaning house once again. Gone are Samardzija, Hammel, and Lester. Gone too is the team's most potent bat in Yoenis Cespedes – sent to Boston in the Lester deal. And the offseason purge has claimed other popular and productive players like Josh Donaldson, Brandon Moss, and Derek Norris – which is to say that the A's have traded away almost literally all of their offense from this past season. While the A's still have some good, young pitching talent, they've depleted their roster of any offensive pop. And the last we checked, you do still need to score runs to win in the Major Leagues.
5 Chicago White Sox One of Baseball's Most Improved Teams?
Given their disappointing 73-89 record, and 4th place finish in the AL Central in 2014, the White Sox are a team looking for answers. The Sox went into the offseason with a plan and seemingly, a win it all now attitude. They've been one of the busiest clubs this offseason, signing a slew of free agents to bolster their club. They've traded for Jeff Samardzija to bolster a rotation that features Chris Sale, Jose Quintanta and John Danks. The Sox have also signed Adam LaRoche, David Robertson, and Melky Cabrera to add some punch to a lineup that includes sluggers like Adam Eaton and Jose Abreu.
Rather than building through their farm system, the Sox have opted to sign a bunch of hired guns to help them improve. On paper, they look like a more formidable team, and possibly one of the most improved clubs in the Majors. It's a plan that many teams have tried with varying degrees of success – we'll have to wait and see if their plan bears fruit though.
4 Andrew Heaney's Wild Day
The 23-year-old Heaney was the Miami Marlins' top pitching prospect. His debut in the Majors was less than auspicious as Heaney went 0-3 and posted a 5.83 ERA. It's quite a small sample size, and Heaney remains widely regarded as one of baseball's top pitching prospects. So it came as a bit of a surprise when the Marlins dealt the young arm to the Dodgers in exchange for Dee Gordon and Dan Haren. Both teams got something good out of the deal, with Miami landing a top tier second baseman and the Dodgers receiving a chip with which to make more deals – a chip they cashed in almost immediately. Los Angeles sent Heaney to their crosstown rivals, the Angels, in exchange for Howie Kendrick, thus getting an upgrade over the departed Gordon. Heaney had a terrific sense of humor about his very brief – as in about five hour – stint in Dodger blue, tweeting out, “Well @Dodgers we had a good run! Great to be part of such a storied franchise. #thanksforthememories” The Angels are hoping that Heaney's stay in their rotation is much, much longer.
3 Max Scherzer's Impending Mammoth Deal
The biggest surprise about free agent pitcher Max Scherzer is that he hasn't signed anywhere yet. Regarded as the number one target for a lot of pitching-needy clubs, the dominant Scherzer basically has his pick of teams. And with fellow free agents setting the market with a six-year, $155 million dollar deal – almost $26 million annually – the price tag on Scherzer figures to be well north of that. Granted, there are but a handful of teams that can afford Scherzer's price tag, but to date we've not heard of a single, solid offer. The Red Sox, Cubs, Giants Dodgers, Yankees, Cardinals, and even the Tigers have been linked with Scherzer, but as of yet, there has been no movement to offer him a contract that we've seen. Though there is still plenty of time for him to sign, and with Scott Boras as his agent, Scherzer will be holding out until the last possible minute to nab the last dollar he can.
2 Boston Red Sox Deal Yoenis Cespedes
Knowing that he would be a free agent at the end of the season, the Boston Red Sox dealt star pitcher Jon Lester to the Oakland A's, gambling that they would get slugger Yoenis Cespedes out of the deal, and then lure Lester back to the Boston fold when the season ended and he became a free agent. Unfortunately for Boston, the gamble did not pay off, and the cards didn't quite fall that way, with Lester signing with the Chicago Cubs.
Cespedes is an All Star, an above average outfielder with a cannon for an arm and some pop in his bat. However with Lester not coming home, the Red Sox realized they needed some bodies in the rotation, and so they dealt the very promising Cespedes to the Detroit Tigers for middle of the road starting pitcher Rick Porcello. So at the end of the day, the Sox dealt Lester away and ended up with very little in return. Nice move, Sox!
1 The San Diego Padres – Contenders?
The Padres have been irrelevant for so long, that a lot of people tend to forget that San Diego still has a professional baseball team. Apparently, the Padres under new GM A.J. Preller, have a new vision for the club. No longer content to be the doormats of the NL West, the Padres have had a very busy offseason that's been full of surprises. The first domino to fall being the trade for Matt Kemp, formerly of their division rival Dodgers.
The Padres weren't done. They kept on wheeling and dealing, bringing in outfielder Justin Upton from the Braves, Derek Norris from the A's, Wil Myers from the Rays, and Will Middlebrooks from the Red Sox. If there is a question mark, it is with San Diego's starting rotation which is not one of the most formidable in the Majors. But with a lineup that features a lot of power, they might be able to outslug some teams. And there is every indication that the Padres aren't done dealing, so they may address their pitching situation yet. The Padres may be the most improved team in the Majors – at least on paper. But like the White Sox, we'll have to wait and see if all of these moves and that improvement on paper translates to on-field production, and most importantly, more wins.