- Jayson Stark, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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No more agents singing the Collusion Blues. No more five-part series on Theo Epstein's age. No more glances at the old transactions column to see how Stubby Clapp's job search is going.
In other words, another wind-chilled baseball winter is finally over. Yes, it's safe to unpad the locks on Joker Marchant Stadium and all those other inspirational spring-training homesteads. But first, let's take one last look back at how another wild and crazy baseball offseason really turned out.
Most improved teams (NL)
The last time the Phillies added a marquee free agent (Lance Parrish in 1987), Thome was a junior in high school. One signature on the dotted line later, Thome has changed everything about the Phillies except the color of the Phanatic's nose. But when the Phillies also traded for Kevin Millwood, they became the first team in history to add a 50-homer man and an 18-game winner in the same offseason. Who knew?
Most improved teams (AL)
1. White Sox
Of all the teams in the big leagues that finished .500 or better last year, the White Sox had the highest team ERA (4.53). Now Bartolo Colon and Mark Buehrle give them the best left-right tag team east of Johnson-and-Schilling-ville. Throw in tireless new closer Billy Koch and bullpen depth in Flash Gordon and Rick White, and a team that scored the third-most runs in the big leagues is suddenly constructed for October -- if it can get there.
Most unimproved teams (NL)
Don't get us wrong. We feel sorry for the Expos. They shouldn't have to play one more lonely night in Montreal. They shouldn't have to launch one barnstorming tour through San Juan -- let alone three. They shouldn't have been forced to trade their 20-game winner (Bartolo Colon) when they were on the cusp of contention. But those were the cards they were dealt. And no matter how they spin it, they're worse off after the Colon deal than they were before it. Colon won 10 games in Montreal in half a season. El Duque Hernandez won 12 games for the mighty Yankees in the last two seasons combined.
Most unimproved teams (AL)
2. (tie) Royals
(tie) Devil Rays
Which will get rebuilt first -- downtown Beirut or these three teams? The Tigers subtracted their two most productive hitters (Randall Simon and Robert Fick), plus their best starting pitcher (Mark Redman) and closer (Juan Acevedo) -- and all their new players combined for five homers, 46 RBI and three wins in the majors. The Royals cut payroll below $40 million, even though they'll collect more than that from TV and revenue sharing before they ever sell a ticket. And all we need to know about the Devil Rays is that their biggest acquisition (aside from their manager) was Rey Ordonez.
2. Devil Rays
3. Braves rotation
We'd bet an autographed copy of The Life and Times of Gates Brown that your average American could name more members of the Tigers' coaching staff than members of the Tigers' 40-man roster. (OK, we'll spot you Trammell, Gibson and Parrish. You're on your own for the rest of the puzzle.)
1. Phillies (spent just less than $118 million on their six free agents -- but if you count Pat Burrell's $50 million contract, Randy Wolf's $22.5 million contract and all the long-term deals they've signed in the last 12 months, they come to (gulp) about 280 million bucks).
2. Mets ($79.9 million on Tom Glavine, Cliff Floyd, Mike Stanton, Rey Sanchez, Steve Trachsel and Tsuyoshi Shinjo -- not even counting the $4.25 million they'll pay Ordonez not to play for them anymore).
3. Yankees ($78.1 million on Hideki Matsui, Jose Contreras, Chris Hammond, Todd Zelie, Roger Clemens, Robin Ventura, Chris Widger and Jon Lieber, which doesn't even include their nine minor-league free agents, or Boss Steinbrenner's legal bills trying to get the YES network on a cable system near you).
For that $280 million, the Phillies could have bought Thome, Burrell, Millwood, Wolf, Bobby Abreu, Mike Lieberthal, Tyler Houston, Dan Plesac and Terry Adams. Or they could have bought 46,666,666 pepper cheese steaks at the legendary Pat's King of Steaks. Uh, you want sauce and onions with that first baseman?
Three trades that summed up the winter
1. Rockies-Marlins-Braves pull off three-team deal in which two teams (Rocks and Fish -- pay Hampton not to pitch for them, the Marlins opt to pay part of Hampton's freight just to get rid of Preston Wilson and Charles Johnson, and the Braves wind up with a guy with a 6.15 ERA last year. (Last Braves starter with an ERA that high: Harry Staley, in 1894).
2. Dodgers trade two guys they really, really don't want (Eric Karros, Mark Grudzielanek) for two guys the Cubs really, really don't want (Todd Hundley, Chad Hermansen).
3. Devil Rays trade their only All-Star (Randy Winn) for the privilege of allowing new manager Lou Piniella to fulfill his lifelong dream of filling his new blood-pressure prescription at a hometown pharmacy.
Best free-agent signings (under $2 million division)
1. Rockies steal Jose Hernandez for $1 million -- or $200,000 less than the Orioles gave Deivi Cruz.
2. Braves get Roberto Hernandez for $600,000 -- or $2.15 million less than the Padres guaranteed Jay Witasick.
3. Red Sox sign David Ortiz for $1.25 million -- or $500,000 less than the Brewers paid for Royce Clayton.
Best free-agent signings (minor-league contract division)
1. Brian Daubach, White Sox (believe it or not, owns four straight years of 20+ HRs).
2. Juan Acevedo, Yankees (opponents hit .246 against him, lower than vs. Mike Stanton).
3. Rick Helling, Orioles (one of 12 pitchers with five straight 175+ IP seasons -- a lot of good it did him).
Most outrageous contracts
1. Woody Williams, Cardinals -- $14.9 million in a buyer's market for a guy with two DL stints last year and one season with more than 12 wins?
2. Shawn Estes, Cubs -- got almost as many millions (three) as wins (five).
3. (tie) Bill Mueller, Red Sox/Neifi Perez, Giants -- both somehow got two guaranteed years, at $4+ million, after combining for 10 home runs and 75 RBI last year.
Most important injury comebacks (NL)
1. Kevin Brown/Darren Dreifort/Kaz Ishii, Dodgers
2. Junior Griffey, Reds
3. Shane Reynolds, Astros
Considering the Dodgers will pay Brown, Dreifort and Ishii a combined $28 million this year, they'd like to see them actually visit the mound about 90 times.
Most important injury comebacks (AL)
1. Mariano Rivera, Yankees
2. Joe Mays, Twins
3. Juan Gonzalez, Rangers
The Yankees say Rivera isn't hurt. But suffice it to say, as one baseball man put it, that Rivera "can't be on the DL three times this season for the Yankees to satisfy George's sole purpose in life" (and we're not talking about irritating Larry Lucchino).
Three most unlikely names in spring training camps
1. Mel Rojas, Devil Rays (last time he pitched in the big leagues was '99 -- when he had an 18.90 ERA).
2. Nigel Wilson, Yankees (the Marlins' first pick in the expansion draft 10 years ago -- three picks ahead of Trevor Hoffman -- hasn't been spotted playing on our soil since '96).
3. Steve Avery, Tigers (hasn't thrown a big-league pitch since '99, hasn't had an ERA under 5.00 since '96, and he's still five years younger than Steve Sparks).
Most intriguing spring stories (NL)
1. Braves try to convince themselves that Maddux-Hampton-Ortiz-Byrd is better than Maddux-Glavine-Millwood-Moss.
2. Craig Biggio, Aaron Boone, Danny Graves and Byung-Hyun Kim play What's My Position?
3. Phillies learn to flick the switch from Unloveable Losers to Division Favorite.
Most intriguing spring stories (AL)
1. Yankees clubhouse turns into U.N. Security Council meeting.
2. Managerial Madness (Lou Piniella, Buck Showalter, Alan Trammell, Ken Macha, Bob Melvin check in; Jerry Manuel, Grady Little try to keep their Sox on; Joe Torre guest-stars on "Who's the Boss").
3. What happened to the AL Central (where the Twins have become the Indians, the Indians have become the Twins, the Tigers and Royals sign autographs in invisible ink, and the White Sox ask if there's life after Comiskey Park)?
Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
From the new darlings (Phillies) to the continued sad-sacks (Devil Rays), baseball had an interesting offseason.