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.

The Giants are winning but they’re still gonna sell

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The state of baseball in general, the state of the National League in particular and the state of the San Francisco Giants as a competitor are conspiring to create what seems like at least a mildly absurd situation.

The Giants, a veteran-laden team that, as recently as this past offseason but definitely within the past couple of years, were at least talking about being on a win-now footing, just swept a four-game series, have won five straight games and have won 12 of 14 to pull themselves to within two and a half games of a playoff spot.

Yet, that’s all for temporary show, because they’re about to sell off. At least according to Jeff Passan at ESPN. Giants president Farhan Zaidi tried to push back on that in a radio interview yesterday, denying that the club has foreclosed the possibility of a postseason push, but I’m not really buying that and I don’t think most people are.

On one level it makes sense to ignore the recent surge and forge on with a rebuild. Sure, the Giants are winning but they’re not exactly good. They’re two and a half out of the Wild Card, but there are many teams ahead of them. There’s a lot of reason to think that they’re playing in good fortune right now and that that, rather than finding some extra gear of sustainable better play, is what’s to credit. Hot streaks can happen at any time but the trade deadline only comes once a year. When you have the best starter available in Madison Bumgarner and the best reliever available in Will Smith, you gotta make those deals. That’s what I’d probably do if I ran the Giants and I think that that’s, wisely, what Zaidi will do.

Still, it’s an odd look, less for the Giants specifically than for baseball as a whole. We may in an era of cheap front offices who don’t like to contend if it means spending money, but it’s unfair to paint the Giants with that brush. They’ve spent money and acquired talent and have done whatever they can to extend their 2010-2014 mini-dynasty a few more years and in doing so they’ve made a lot of fans happy. That team has pretty much reached the end and, even in an earlier, more competitive era, they’d not be properly criticized for starting in on a rebuild. Heck, they’d be excused if they had done it a year or two earlier, frankly.

But, because so many teams have punted on improving themselves, these aging Giants are at least superficially competitive. As such, when they do sell off in the coming days, it’ll look to some like they’re waving a white flag or something when they’re not really doing that. I mean, the Rockies and the Pirates, among other teams, should be much better than they are but didn’t seem all that interested in improving, thereby helping the Giants look better, right? It’s less a knock on the Giants for rebuilding when they’re within striking distance of the playoffs than it is on the rest of the league for allowing a team like the Giants to be within striking distance of a playoff spot.

But that’s where we are right now. An insanely competitive Wild Card race from teams that, on the whole, are rather unconcerned with being competitive. What a time to be a baseball fan.