Long before the White Sox won the World Series and Theo Epstein celebrated Halloween in a gorilla suit, baseball front-office people were predicting that the trade market would be hopping this winter.
The speculation certainly made sense. The 2005-06 free-agent class was nondescript, general managers agreed, so why not exercise a little creativity and make deals rather than just hand over your hard-earned cash to Scott Boras?
The Florida Marlins got things rolling in November when they announced plans to shed their inventory, and quickly. General manager Larry Beinfest proceeded to slash the payroll and stock the Florida system with young pitching talent, while simultaneously helping the Red Sox, Mets, Cubs and Twins fill major needs through trades.
Miguel Tejada moaned, groaned and stayed put in Baltimore. And while Manny Ramirez trade speculation abounded, it amounted to a whole lot of nothing. Barring a February shocker, he'll continue being Manny in the shadow of the Green Monster in 2006.
All told, big league clubs consummated more than 40 trades after Washington and San Diego kicked things off with a Vinny Castilla-for-Brian Lawrence swap in early November. The deals range from the hyped (Carlos Delgado to New York) to the obscure (Kenny Baugh from Detroit to San Diego for Ricky Steik) to the perplexing (Alfonso Soriano from Texas to Washington).
Rangers GM Jon Daniels acquired 40 percent of a starting rotation via trade in deals for Adam Eaton and Vicente Padilla. He also picked up outfielder Brad Wilkerson, who is likely to become a fantasy darling now that he's escaped cavernous RFK Stadium for hitter-friendly Ameriquest Field.
Can newly arrived Juan Pierre resolve the Cubs' issues at leadoff and in center field? Chicago certainly hopes so. Can Edgar Renteria rebound from his 30-error debacle last season? If the Braves plan on winning yet another division title, he'd better.
And last but not certainly least, can Mr. and Mrs. Kris Benson make life more interesting in Baltimore, where yet another sub-.500 finish seems inevitable?
As the equipment trucks pack up and prepare to leave for the Grapefruit and Cactus Leagues, here's a look at six winter trades likely to have a significant impact on the 2006 season:
1. The Mets acquire first baseman Carlos Delgado and $7 million from Florida for first baseman Mike Jacobs and minor-league pitchers Yusmeiro Petit and Grant Psomas.
Paul Konerko, the one true masher available via free agency, re-signed with the White Sox, but Mets GM Omar Minaya still found a way to fill a gaping hole at Shea. Last year, manager Willie Randolph started seven players at first base (Doug Mientkiewicz, Jacobs, Marlon Anderson, Chris Woodward, Jose Offerman, Miguel Cairo and Brian Daubach), and they combined to rank last in the majors at the position with a .693 OPS (on base plus slugging percentage).
Delgado, a career .952 OPS guy, radically changes the dynamic in Flushing. He hit 33 homers and ranked third in the NL in slugging percentage last season, despite logging roughly half his at-bats with Juan Encarnacion, Paul Lo Duca and an ineffectual Mike Lowell batting behind him. True, Shea Stadium isn't much fun for hitters. But Delgado's 2005 home-road splits (.283-16-55 at Dolphins Stadium and .318-17-60 on the road) show he's impervious to ballpark dimensions.
The Mets still need Jose Reyes to start thinking more like a leadoff hitter, but the combination of Lo Duca, a healthy Carlos Beltran, Delgado, David Wright and Cliff Floyd in the 2-6 spots gives the Mets reason to hope they'll surpass their total of 722 runs scored.
The Cubs actually might have given up more talent for Pierre than the Mets surrendered for Delgado. Petit posted awesome strikeout-to-walk totals in the minors, but some scouts think he's a No. 4 or No. 5 starter at best. And while Jacobs has a sweet stroke, he lacks plate discipline and might wind up as a platoon player in the big leagues.
Back when Epstein was on hiatus and contemplating whether he wanted to run for Congress, sing backup vocals to Eddie Vedder or replace Ryan Seacrest as host of "American Idol," the Red Sox dipped into their deeper, more abundant farm system and assembled a package to beat out Texas for Beckett.
The dream scenario: Beckett slides in nicely behind Curt Schilling and gives the pitching and defense oriented Red Sox a chance to play deep into October. We're talking about a pitcher who has notched 607 strikeouts in 609 career innings, and played Prince Valiant at age 23 in the 2003 World Series.
"His delivery and his stuff are as good as anybody's," said an American League scout. "Maybe he'll never get where people expect him to be. But I'd take that gamble."
There's a corresponding bad news scenario if Beckett falls victim to the dreaded National League to American League transition, or those whispers about a fragile shoulder have merit. For all the hype Beckett has received as a first-round draft pick, lingerie model Leann Tweeden's former boyfriend and the kid who conquered the Yankees on a cold October night in the Bronx, he has yet to pitch 200 innings in the majors. His next 180-inning season will be his first.
A lot depends on Thome's health, of course, but it seems awfully hasty to write him off after one injury-plagued washout of a season. Thome averaged 41 homers and 110 hits during an extended run of dominance during 1996-2004 before back and elbow problems limited him to 193 at-bats last year. Sixteen days after his replacement, Ryan Howard, won the NL Rookie of the Year award, Thome was a Phillie no more.
While Rowand brings some passion to the Phillies clubhouse, Gonzalez is a highly regarded prospect and Howard is now free to relax through the inevitable slumps, the biggest ramifications of this trade will be felt by the defending champion White Sox.
How motivated is Thome? When he came to Chicago to take his physical, the Sox medical staff stressed that it was vital for him to be diligent in his rehabilitation. Thome responded by reaching into his pocket and pulling out a calendar with his work schedule for the 3½ months left until spring training.
Thome has checked in regularly with hitting coach Greg Walker and trainer Herm Schneider, and he's been in the cage four to five days a week for 150 swings at a crack. According to Sox assistant GM Rick Hahn, he has yet to suffer any setbacks.
"This deal has a boom-or-bust feel to it,'' an NL front office man said of the Thome trade, "but the ballpark and the DH aspect will work in his favor. I think this could make the White Sox truly dangerous.''
Vazquez had a truly weird 2005 season. It began with a 6.11 ERA in April followed by a 2.15 ERA in May. He spiked to 6.75 in June, dipped to 3.71 in July, ballooned to 7.09 in August and closed things out with a stellar 2.52 in September and October.
"If he doesn't have it all working, he can really fall apart mentally, and that scares you,'' said a scout. "He has three or four good pitches and good command. But sometimes he'll nibble or give up on certain pitches, or fall in love with a certain pitch. And when he's not right, his ball can flatten out. He's definitely underachieved.''
Vazquez's inconsistency did nothing to suppress interest in him, even though he had two years and $24 million left on his contract. On the contrary, once A.J. Burnett signed a five-year, $55 million deal with Toronto, Vazquez looked downright reasonable.
"We saw the opportunity to pick up another 200-inning strikeout pitcher on the right side of 30,'' Hahn said. "It was an opportunity we couldn't pass up. Having too much pitching really isn't of grave concern to us.''
The White Sox now have Vazquez, Jon Garland, Mark Buehrle, Freddy Garcia and Brandon McCarthy under contractual control for a minimum of two years each. That gives GM Kenny Williams the freedom to shop Jose Contreras at the deadline in July. And as Williams has shown, he's never afraid to do something dramatic.
Young, an impressive blend of power and speed, is a legitimate center fielder who has drawn comparisons to Mike Cameron and Eric Davis. He hit 26 homers and stole 32 bases in the Class AA Southern League, and continues to show more patience at the plate each year. Eric Byrnes, signed by Arizona to play center after being non-tendered by the Orioles, is simply keeping the seat warm for Young.
The Jays spent $102 million on free-agent pitchers Burnett and B.J. Ryan, but they won't make a dent in the AL East if the offense doesn't improve. That means more production at the corners, from both Glaus and new first baseman Lyle Overbay, is vital.
Glaus has his drawbacks. He's a lock to strike out 150 times, one scout calls him an "old 29" and he'll never be regarded as having the sunniest disposition in the clubhouse. Although Glaus has regained much of the arm strength he lost from shoulder problems, he's also a defensive liability at third base.
"He's a premium power bat," said a scout, "but I just don't think he can play third base anymore. He can't move, and he seems to have trouble bending over.''
Still, Glaus brings welcome thunder to a Toronto lineup that tied for 10th in the league in slugging. He'll give AL pitching staffs someone to worry about other than Vernon Wells, the only Blue Jay to surpass 20 homers in 2005.
Some observers think the Blue Jays will miss Hudson more than they realize. One AL front office man calls him a genuine "game changer" in the field. Hudson made only six errors in 699 total chances last year and ranked third among AL second basemen to Mark Ellis and Brian Roberts in the STATS Inc. category of Zone Rating.
No one stands to benefit more from Hudson's arrival than Diamondbacks sinker ball master Brandon Webb, who led all big league pitchers with a 4.34 ground ball-to-fly ball ratio last season. This is known in the business as positive synergy.
6. The Red Sox acquire outfielder Coco Crisp, reliever David Riske and catcher Josh Bard from Cleveland for minor leaguer Andy Marte, reliever Guillermo Mota, catcher Kelly Shoppach, a player to be named and cash.
Just think of all the rumors that swirled around Austin Kearns and Kevin Mench and went nowhere, and you get an idea how hesitant teams are to deal young, productive, reasonably priced outfield bats. That factor alone was enough to make the Crisp trade noteworthy.
It's magnified, of course, by the fact that Crisp has the burden of replacing Johnny Damon in Boston.
Here's the odd part: While Crisp is billed as a center fielder and leadoff hitter, he's not necessarily either. The Indians considered him an above-average left fielder and basically adequate in center. And the Tribe didn't take off in 2005 until manager Eric Wedge began hitting Grady Sizemore leadoff and dropped Crisp to second.
As one scout observed, Crisp has more power than you might think at first glance -- and less speed. He also has an aversion to working counts: Last year, he ranked 70th among AL regulars with 3.48 pitches per plate appearance. That wasn't much more than uber-hackers like Shea Hillenbrand, Pudge Rodriguez and Vladimir Guerrero.
One AL front office man said he wouldn't be surprised if the Red Sox ultimately move Crisp to second or near the bottom of the order and consider other alternatives at the top -- like first baseman and resident on-base machine Kevin Youkilis.
The Indians, who've taken a pounding for trading Crisp, think Marte will be ready to step in as their regular third baseman by 2007. If Aaron Boone is hitting .211 at the All-Star break, as he did last year, Marte's shot could come sooner.
Baseball America and other minor-league publications talk about Marte as if he's a sure thing, but one NL personnel man said Marte has some flaws in his swing that make him vulnerable to breaking balls and pitches away. Marte's ascent to the majors could hinge upon whether he can make the necessary adjustments. He's still only 22 years old.
"By no means is he ready to step in and play in the major leagues right now," the NL official said.