For some sports fans, Boston’s six game victory in the World Series over the St. Louis Cardinals, which ended on October 30, may seem like it just happened. For die-hard baseball fans, however, it may already feel like a lifetime ago. The 2014 season will not commence until late March (the first game will actually be played in Sydney, Australia between the Arizona Diamondbacks and the Los Angeles Dodgers on March 22, with the first North American regular season game on March 28) but spring training is about to start. With that in mind, it’s important to take a look back and remind ourselves of what happened during this past off-season.
The Yankees were extraordinarily busy, as six of the ten signings on this list were either new acquisitions by the Yankees or losses of their key players to other organizations. Between those roster moves, the retirement of Mariano Rivera, the suspension of Alex Rodriguez for the entire 2014 season and the announcement that Derek Jeter will retire at the end of this season, the Yankees are a team undergoing a major transition, making them one of the biggest storylines for this season. A couple of smaller teams making big signings, including the biggest signing of free agency, also dominated headlines, leaving intriguing question marks about whether those signings will lead to correspondingly significant results. Whether you’re a casual fan of the sport or love it above all other sports, and regardless of who you cheer for, this past off-season held enough drama to keep the world captivated and remind us that while baseball may only be played from March to October, being a baseball fan is a year-round activity.
10 Carlos Beltran, RF, New York Yankees: 3 years, $45,000,000
At 36 years old, the eight-time All Star and three-time Gold Glove winner may be closer to the end of his career than the beginning, but has shown little signs of slowing down. Last year with the St.Louis Cardinals, Beltran hit .296 with 24 home runs and 84 RBIs, and throughout his career he has remained a consistent threat to hit 25-35 home runs and 80-100 RBIs. The only major difference in his statistics has been in stolen bases, as he has only exceeded double digits in the category once since knee surgery in January of 2010. Beltran’s post-season statistics are also impressive, including a league-leading 15 RBIs in last year’s playoffs. The Yankees are hoping that any decline on Beltran’s part will be gentle, and that he will be able to provide significant offense throughout his entire contract.
9 Ricky Nolasco, SP, Minnesota Twins: 4 years, $49,000,000
Any time a National League starting pitcher signs a big contract with an American League team, I get nervous. While it is not universally a rule by any stretch, several talented pitchers have struggled to make the adjustment. A.J. Burnett was never able to dominate in the American League as hoped by the Blue Jays or the Yankees, Jake Peavy took over two full seasons before he looked fully comfortable and R.A. Dickey took over two months to find his footing after signing a multi-year contract with Toronto last year. It is by no means a consistent rule, but Minnesota fans should expect Nolasco to require some time to adjust. Nolasco was able to put up some impressive numbers considering the quality of the Marlins teams he played for, and will hopefully be able to anchor the Twins’ rotation and help them improve on last year’s 66-96 record.
8 Matt Garza, SP, Milwaukee Brewers: 4 years, $50,000,000
As someone who has been traded three times in his career, Garza must have enjoyed the opportunity to finally choose his own team. The Brewers made him the most expensive free-agency signing in team history, and his seven consecutive seasons with an ERA under 4.00 would seem to indicate he may be worth the money. Garza’s consistency has made him one of the most desirable players in recent years, and his five different pitches have impressed scouts throughout his career. Garza will undoubtedly be hoping he can stay in Milwaukee for the duration of his contract, which would make it his longest time with one team so far in his career.
7 Jhonny Peralta, SS/3B, St. Louis Cardinals (formerly Detroit Tigers): 4 years, $53,000,000
After serving a 50-game suspension in August and September of 2013 for his connection to the same Biogenesis clinic performance-enhancing drugs scandal that also resulted in suspensions for Alex Rodriguez and Ryan Braun, Peralta’s signing may be controversial amongst some Cardinals fans. While his game did not rely on power in the same way as those two players, the questions of whether Peralta’s play will experience a drop-off after his suspension and whether Peralta deserves such a reward after being caught cheating, are up for debate. Even if his offense slows somewhat, Peralta remains an upgrade from the offensive potential of Pete Kozma and David Freese, the Cardinals’ shortstop and third baseman last year, and will play an important role in the team’s quest to make the World Series for the third time in four years.
6 Curtis Granderson, OF, New York Mets: 4 years, $60,000,000
The 2000 Subway Series between the Yankees and Mets may have been over a decade ago, but there is no love lost between the two teams, which makes Curtis Granderson’s move especially meaningful. Granderson had been a crucial part of the Yankees offense, regardless of struggling with injuries last year, finishing with over 40 home runs and over 100 RBIs in both 2011 and 2012. His 2007 season with Detroit was also particularly noteworthy, in large part because of his 23 triples, which not only led the league but also was the highest single season total since 1949. While Yankees fans will be sorry to lose him, the city of New York will be glad to keep him, as Granderson has long held a reputation as one of baseball’s friendliest players and an exemplary contributor to his community. This can be demonstrated through his 2009 Marvin Miller Man of the Year Award. Mets fans will likely be more concerned with his on-field contributions, however, in the hopes he can help lead the team to their first above .500 record since 2008.
5 Brian McCann, C, New York Yankees: 5 years, $85,000,000
An exemplary power bat from the catching position, McCann is positioning himself to be one of the greatest offensive threats to play the position, alongside the likes of Yogi Berra, Carlton Fisk, Johnny Bench, Mike Piazza and Ivan Rodriguez. Playing for the Braves his entire career, McCann has hit over 20 home runs in six consecutive seasons, been named to the All-Star team seven times and won five Silver Slugger Awards. The Yankees had struggled to find a suitable replacement after Joe Girardi and Jorge Posada’s many years at the position, but McCann presents a long-term solution. Not turning 30 until February 20th, McCann has the opportunity to pursue team success as well as many offensive records for catchers in the coming years with his new team.
4 Shin-Soo Choo, OF, Texas Rangers: 7 years, $130,000,000
Making his return to the American League after one season with the Cincinnati Reds, Choo will give Texas a blend of strong hitting, power and speed in their line-up. After losing several key members of the line-up that won them back-to-back AL pennants in 2010 and 2011, like Josh Hamilton, Michael Young, Mike Napoli and CJ Wilson, Choo represents a piece of a new core for the Rangers that also includes Prince Fielder, Yu Darvish and Alex Rios. While the Moneyball approach of division rivals Oakland A’s has been popularized over the last several years, the Rangers are hoping a more traditional big-spending approach will be the way to returning to the top of their division.
3 Jacoby Ellsbury, CF, New York Yankees: 7 years, $153,000,000
Improving your team is always a benefit, but in a rivalry as intense as the Yankees and Red Sox, doing so by weakening your opponent is even more effective. Red Sox fans must be hurting after this signing, especially after Johnny Damon made the same switch from Boston to New York a few years ago, but their status as reigning World Series champions will likely soften the blow. Ellsbury brings not only that winning experience to the Yankees line-up, but an old-school sense of how to play the game. He has hit 10 home runs or more in a season only once (though his 32 home runs demonstrated a surprising capacity for power) and instead has built his game upon hitting and speed, with a career .297 average and three seasons of fifty or more stolen bases. The stolen bases in particular are remarkable in contemporary baseball, as his 52 steals in 2013 led the league, with only seven other players even reaching 40. While Rickey Henderson’s base-stealing records are likely unassailable in this era of baseball, Ellsbury adds that rare dimension to the Yankees, improving their team while weakening their age-old rival.
2 Masahiro Tanaka, SP, New York Yankees: 7 years, $155,000,000
Tanaka was the first major Japanese import player signed under the new posting system, receiving several reported serious offers. In the past, the MLB team who paid the largest fee had the exclusive rights to sign the player, but under the new system, the fee is capped at $20 million, leaving the player to choose between the teams who presented a maximum bid. Unsurprisingly, however, the deep-pocketed Yankees were still able to come out on top by offering an enormous contract, well over double the six year, $60 million dollar contract given to Yu Darvish two years ago by the Texas Rangers. While there had been several high-profile Japanese pitchers who had struggled in the Major Leagues after a strong first season or two, including Hideki Irabu, Tomo Ohka and Daisuke Matsuzaka, Darvish’s extraordinary talent has renewed Major League enthusiasm for top pitchers in Japanese baseball, allowing Tanaka to benefit. Expectations for Tanaka will be stratospheric, between the high-profile media spotlight in New York and the hopes of the team’s fans, but only time will tell if he will dominate Major League hitters or slowly fade into obscurity.
1 Robinson Cano, 2B, Seattle Mariners: 10 years, $240,000,000
The Seattle Mariners didn’t just sign a player who is arguably the best second baseman since Roberto Alomar to one of the biggest deals in baseball history. They sent a statement to the baseball world that they want to be taken seriously, and are intent on building a winning team. Seattle has had some of the greatest players of the last twenty-five years on their rosters, including Ken Griffey Jr., Alex Rodriguez, Randy Johnson and Ichiro Suzuki, and Cano belongs on that list. Jeff Kent has the current record for home runs in a career by a second baseman with 351, but Cano has the potential to smash it, with 204 in his career already. Cano has also hit over .300 in seven of his nine career seasons, with one of the other two seasons still standing at a remarkable .297. He has also drawn over 60 walks each of the last two years, hit at least 25 home runs five years in a row, driven in over 100 RBIs three of the last four years and won five Silver Slugger awards. He is also skilled defensively, winning the Gold Glove in both 2010 and 2012. Quite simply, the Mariners have added one of the most complete players in the game, and will benefit demonstratively through his presence. The signing will hopefully act to draw more fans to Seattle’s home games and help the team draw more big names if they so choose, with Cano acting as an ambassador to the team with other players. The Yankees’ loss is Seattle’s gain, and both teams will be very interesting to watch this upcoming season to find out how their big moves play out over the 162 game schedule and beyond.