Ranking the best off-seasons so far

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We’re almost into 2014, which means we’re only about a month and a half away from pitchers and catchers reporting to spring training — the official start of baseball. Most of the big name free agents are off the board and thus most teams have already finished shopping or have done most of the heavy lifting already. With that said, let’s look over the teams that have had the five best off-seasons to this point.

5. New York Yankees — Any time you add Jacoby Ellsbury, Brian McCann, Carlos Beltran, and Hiroki Kuroda, you have had a productive off-season. The Yankees have committed $328 million in free agency so far and may still spend more depending on how far they get in the Masahiro Tanaka sweepstakes. The Yankees were shocked, however, when second baseman Robinson Cano opted to take a ten-year, $240 million deal with the Mariners — a team that has finished in fourth place or worse in eight out of the last ten seasons — rather than continue his legacy in the Bronx. The Yankees’ already old and injury-prone infield became even more uncertain as they seem to be relegated to using Kelly Johnson sans Cano. The Yankees also have a bit of rotation uncertainty to address, but that could be fixed by signing Tanaka. Overall, a mostly productive off-season but the loss of Cano hit them hard.

4. Detroit Tigers — The Tigers have had an interesting off-season to say the least. They breathed a huge sigh of relief when they were able to unload the remainder of Prince Fielder’s nine-year, $214 million deal on the Rangers and get Ian Kinsler to show for it. However, they followed up with one of the more questionable trades in recent memory, trading starter Doug Fister to the Nationals for reliever Ian Krol, infielder Steve Lombardozzi, and Minor League starter Robbie Ray. The Tigers are as in win-now mode as any team out there, so the Fister trade could only have precipitated another shoe dropping, but that shoe has yet to drop. Elsewhere, the Tigers added Rajai Davis and Joba Chamberlain along with new closer Joe Nathan. The Tigers should once again be the favorite to win the AL Central.

3. Texas Rangers — There is no doubt the Rangers got better, but the question is at what cost? Acquiring Prince Fielder cost them Ian Kinsler. While they certainly had the depth to afford to do that, they also had to take on Fielder’s gargantuan contract. The Rangers also committed $130 million to Shin-Soo Choo, who may be a platoon outfielder at best. However, the Rangers will have one of the most powerful offenses in baseball in 2014 and should be a pre-season pick to contend at least for the AL Wild Card if not win the AL West outright over the Athletics.

2. Tampa Bay Rays — The small-market Rays raised some eyebrows when they signed free agent first baseman James Loney to a three-year, $21 million deal. In a market flush with first basemen, it was surprising to see the Rays commit three years to a player at a team on the wrong end of the positional spectrum. Loney, however, had a career rebirth in 2013 and the Rays must see a reason for it to continue. Rays GM Andrew Friedman also added reliever Heath Bell and catcher Ryan Hanigan in a three-way trade with the Diamondbacks and Reds, relinquishing only two non-prospect Minor Leaguers. The Rays adequately addressed all of their needs and didn’t get bogged down by a big, expensive contract as is their habit. A pretty standard, productive off-season for them.

1. St. Louis Cardinals — The Cardinals had one need: a shortstop who can hit. The free agent market for shortstops was thin, with just Jhonny Peralta and Stephen Drew at the top, but the Cardinals snagged their guy, signing Peralta to a four-year, $53 million deal. They also traded David Freese and Fernando Salas to the Angels for Peter Bourjos and Randal Grichuk, a trade that has a lot of upside for the Cards. They have nothing left to do, so they will bide their time until spring training when they will start their quest to win the National League pennant yet again.

Astros owner Crane expects to hire new manager by Feb. 3

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HOUSTON (AP) — Houston Astros owner Jim Crane expects to hire a new manager by Feb. 3.

The Astros need a new manager and general manager after AJ Hinch and Jeff Luhnow were fired Monday, hours after both were suspended by Major League Baseball for a year for the team’s sign-stealing scandal.

Crane said Friday that he’s interviewed a number of candidates this week and has some more to talk to in the coming days.

Crane refused to answer directly when asked if former Astros player and Hall of Famer Craig Biggio was a possibility for the job. But he did say that he had spoken to Biggio, fellow Hall of Famer Jeff Bagwell and former Astros star Lance Berkman in the days since the firings.

“We’ve talked to all of our Killer B’s,” Crane said referring to the nickname the three shared while playing for the Astros. “They’ve contacted me and they’ve all expressed that they would like to help. Berkman, Bagwell, Biggio have all called and said: ‘hey, if there’s anything I can do, I’m here for you.’”

“So we’ll continue to visit with those guys and see if there’s something there.”

Crane says his list is still rather extensive and that he hopes to have it narrowed down by the end of next week. He added that he expects most of Hinch’s staff to stay in place regardless of who is hired.

Crane has enlisted the help of three or four employees to help him with the interview process, including some in Houston’s baseball operations department.

“We compare notes,” he said. “I’ve learned a long time ago that you learn a lot if four or five people talk to a key candidate and you get a lot more information. So that’s what we’re doing.”

Crane’ top priority is finding a manager with spring training less than a month away, but he said he would start focusing on the search for a general manager after he hires a manager. He expects to hire a GM before the end of spring training.

“We should have another good season with the team pretty much intact … so I don’t know why a manager wouldn’t want to come in and manage these guys,” he said. “They’re set to win again.”

The penalties announced by MLB commissioner Rob Manfred on Monday came after he found illicit use of electronics to steal signs in Houston’s run to the 2017 World Series championship and again in the 2018 season. The Astros were also fined $5 million, which is the maximum allowed under the Major League Constitution, and must forfeit their next two first- and second-round amateur draft picks.

The investigation found that the Astros used the video feed from a center field camera to see and decode the opposing catcher’s signs. Players banged on a trash can to signal to batters what was coming, believing it would improve the batter’s odds of getting a hit.

With much still in flux, Crane was asked what qualities are most important to him in his next manager.

“Someone mature that can handle the group,” he said. “Someone that’s had a little bit of experience in some areas. We’ve just got to find a leader that can handle some pressure and there’s going to be a little bit of pressure from where this team has been in the last few months.”

Despite his comment about experience, Crane said having been a major league manager before is not mandatory to him.

“We made some mistakes,” he said. “We made a decision to let that get behind us. We think the future is bright. We’ll make the adjustments … people think we’re in crisis. I certainly don’t believe that.”