- Jerry Crasnick, ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer
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The hot stove season got off to a reasonably fast start with Dan Uggla and Victor Martinez changing teams in November, and gained some serious momentum when Cliff Lee, Jayson Werth, Adrian Gonzalez, Zack Greinke and Carl Crawford moved on in December. Judging from the lack of activity since then, it's been a slog for unemployed players, exasperated agents and tapped-out front-office executives throughout the game.
With pitchers and catchers set to begin reporting to camps in about 10 days, we've now entered the punctuation phase. All that remains is for Vladimir Guerrero, Scott Podsednik and a few other veterans to find jobs, and for Albert Pujols' future in St. Louis to get resolved one way or another. Then it'll be time to slap on the sunscreen and get to work.
Before the injury updates and position battles begin emanating from Florida and Arizona, it's time to dispense some grades. Over the next week, ESPN.com senior writer Jayson Stark and I will be handing out offseason report cards for the six Major League Baseball divisions. It's a difficult task comparing the activity for baseball's affluent teams with the moves turned in by the financially constrained, but we promise to do our best in the name of fairness, objectivity and a desire to avoid the inevitable barrage of outraged "East Coast bias" e-mails.
The process begins today with the American League East. Jayson weighs in Friday with the NL East grades.
Boston baseball fans have gone from "beleaguered" to "entitled" in recent years, and they began tuning out en masse last year when the Red Sox failed to win 90 games for only the second time in nine seasons. The team's TV ratings dropped a staggering 36 percent from 2009 to 2010.
It's hard to say precisely where the Red Sox stand compared to the Patriots and Celtics in the New England sports fan's pecking order right now. But during a spellbinding few days in early December, general manager Theo Epstein quickly put an end to the apathy.
The Red Sox dug deep into their farm system to nab Gonzalez, who should be a lock to hit 40-plus homers provided his surgically repaired shoulder is healthy. As a bonus, he'll make a mere $5.5 million this year -- or $500,000 more than shortstop Marco Scutaro.
The Red Sox shelled out $142 million over seven years for Crawford, a four-time All-Star, Gold Glove defender and triples machine who changes the entire tone of the lineup with his speed. No one -- least of all the Los Angeles Angels -- saw it coming.
If you want to nitpick, Boston's lineup is excessively left-handed with Crawford, Gonzalez, David Ortiz, J.D. Drew and Jacoby Ellsbury. But the Red Sox ranked second in the AL with 818 runs scored last season despite losing Kevin Youkilis and Dustin Pedroia for 147 games and having Ellsbury around for less than a month. This team looks like an offensive powerhouse even with Beltre and Martinez no longer in the equation.
Boston's bullpen should also be better in 2011. Wheeler is a reliable seventh-inning guy, and Jenks gives manager Terry Francona a third power righty to complement Daniel Bard and Jonathan Papelbon. If Josh Beckett and John Lackey can bounce back from disappointing 2010 seasons, the Red Sox won't be stopping at 90 wins.
New general manager Alex Anthopoulos put his stamp on the franchise in December 2009 when he traded Roy Halladay to the Phillies for three minor leaguers. Pitcher Kyle Drabek, catcher Travis D'Arnaud and outfielder Anthony Gose all rank among the organization's top prospects, so the Blue Jays are perfectly happy with their haul.
Two weeks ago, Anthopoulos pulled off an equally stunning trade when he sent Vernon Wells to the Angels for Juan Rivera and Mike Napoli -- who was quickly flipped to Texas for reliever Frank Francisco. The Angels assumed all $86 million still owed Wells (or $81 million, depending on which report you believe), so everyone from Anthopoulos' front-office peers to your friendly neighborhood blogger hailed the feat as nothing short of miraculous.
The departure of Halladay and Wells leaves Toronto without a bona fide "face of the franchise," but Anthopoulos now has the freedom and the extra resources to keep hammering away at the scouting-and-player-development theme. And if he wants to invest some money in a multiyear deal for 54-homer man Jose Bautista, he has the flexibility to do that, too.
Anthopoulos' peripheral moves were all in sync with the road map. He sent Marcum to Milwaukee for a promising bat, Brett Lawrie, and stuck to one-year deals for Francisco, Rauch and Dotel in the bullpen. The Jays also steered clear of the Manny Ramirez-Vlad Guerrero market at DH and signed Encarnacion, who has been a disappointment but still has some upside at age 28.
The Orioles missed out on their top free-agent target, Victor Martinez. But on the whole, president of baseball operations Andy MacPhail added some functional, reasonably priced pieces without undermining the organizational game plan.
Derrek Lee, who signed for a guaranteed $7.25 million, showed signs of decline at age 35. But he's a total pro in the clubhouse, and he should help Baltimore's young players avoid the lack of focus and inconsistent effort that dogged the team before manager Buck Showalter's arrival.
A change of scenery should do Mark Reynolds some good after he hit .198 in Arizona. Or will it? "If he strikes out  times when he knows the pitchers, he might strike out 300 times going to a new league," said a National League executive.
J.J. Hardy is a solid player at short. Kevin Gregg adds experience and stability to the back of the bullpen. And while Justin Duchscherer has thrown only 28 innings over the past two seasons, it was the result of clinical depression and back and hip issues -- nothing arm-related. He was worth a flyer at $700,000 guaranteed and a potential maximum deal of $4.5 million.
The Orioles generated some positive vibes on their way to a 34-23 record under Showalter. MacPhail's tinkering won't get the team to .500. But it made the Orioles better without straying from the long-term approach. That means building with center fielder Adam Jones, catcher Matt Wieters and pitchers Brian Matusz, Jake Arrieta, Chris Tillman and Zach Britton, all of whom are age 25 and younger.
Tampa Bay executive VP Andrew Friedman lives in a different world from Theo Epstein and Brian Cashman. That was readily apparent after the Rays lost to Texas in the American League Division Series and owner Stuart Sternberg extended his hand to thank Carl Crawford for his tenure in Florida and wish him the best. The Rays didn't even pretend they had a chance to keep their cornerstone player.
Friedman is forced to do a lot of things he would prefer not to, and he usually exercises the foresight and financial restraint to make the best of his plight. That was evident in January when the Rays traded Matt Garza to the Cubs and landed pitcher Chris Archer, shortstop Hak-Ju Lee and outfielder Brandon Guyer, ranked as three of Chicago's top 10 prospects by Baseball America. ESPN's Keith Law rated the Rays' haul as better than the package Kansas City received for Zack Greinke.
Jeremy Hellickson is ready to replace Garza in the rotation, and Desmond Jennings takes over for Crawford as the dynamic young outfield catalyst -- if not by April, then soon enough. The Rays will also be awash in draft picks shortly. St. Petersburg Times reporter Marc Topkin tallied the picks the Rays received as compensation for losing Crawford, Soriano and the team's other free agents, and determined that Tampa Bay will have 10 of the top 60 or so choices in June. So the Rays are well-positioned for the future.
It's the present that's worrisome. Johnny Damon and Manny Ramirez give the Rays some cachet and entertainment value for a guaranteed $7.25 million, but manager Joe Maddon better hope the Sunshine Boys have more than just a few yuks left in them. And even though the Rays were desperate for bullpen pieces, we can think of better ways for a team on a budget to invest its money than spending $3.25 million on a soon-to-be-35-year-old Kyle Farnsworth. Tampa Bay led the league with a 3.33 bullpen ERA in 2010. The relief corps has gone from a team strength to a potential problem area in a flash.
When the offseason highlight is general manager Brian Cashman rappelling down the side of a 22-story building during a Christmas celebration while dressed in an elf costume, you know it hasn't been a great winter.
The Yankees re-signed Mariano Rivera and Derek Jeter, but not without incurring some collateral damage in the Jeter negotiations. They made a spirited bid to sign Cliff Lee, but a guaranteed $148 million outlay wasn't enough to seal the deal. It was the Yankees' misfortune to be big-game hunting when there was only one huge trophy on the free-agent market. Once it became clear they weren't interested in trading for Zack Greinke, there weren't a lot of plausible Plan B's and C's to pursue.
(Did Cashman really say the Yankees discussed bringing back Carl Pavano, or were we just dreaming that part?)
Rafael Soriano will help tighten things up at the back end of the bullpen, but you won't find many competing executives who subscribe to the idea of giving a setup man a three-year, $35 million contract that includes two opt-out years. Advantage: Scott Boras.
The Yankees' offense is loaded and this team still has the star power to win 90-plus games and make the playoffs. But now that Andy Pettitte is set to retire, the rotation consists of CC Sabathia, Phil Hughes, A.J. (5.26 ERA) Burnett and a whole bunch of question marks in the fourth and fifth spots. With a payroll approaching $200 million, this is not a place where the Yankees wanted or expected to be.