Wild winter induces spring fever

It's about time ...

We're pleased to announced that, effective immediately, you will no longer be forced to read any more stories about the seven mystery teams lining up to offer half a billion dollars to Scott Boras' never-ending supply of "icon" clients.

We can also promise no more Randy Johnson trade rumors. And no more stories about everyone's favorite baseball power brokers, the D.C. City Council. And no more feverish clicks on the ESPN.com transactions link to see if Stubby Clapp has signed yet.

Yes, friends. It's official. That interminable portion of the baseball year known technically as "the offseason" is finally defunct.

So before we turn our attention to the compelling events now unfolding at Joker Marchant Stadium, Ho Ho Kam Park and those other spring-training hot spots you've grown to know and love, let's look back at the trail we've been traveling these last few months -- and the 2005 Spring Training Highway just ahead:

Most Improved Teams (National League)

1. Mets
2. Giants
3. Marlins

Did the Mets overpay everybody except Andy Dominique? You betcha. Are they a bet-the-Lexxus lock to make the playoffs? Uh, not exactly. But have they at least turned themselves into a must-see spring event? How could they not be? Pedro Martinez may not be the Pedro of 1999, but he's still just the second pitcher since Christy Mathewson (joining, fittingly, Dwight Gooden) to rip off eight straight seasons with a .640 winning percentage or better (min.: 10 decisions). And Carlos Beltran may not be the homer-a-day monster he appeared to be in October. But he's still the only player in history to unfurl four straight seasons of 20 homers, 100 RBI, 100 runs and 30 steals. The Mets need plenty of help, and plenty of health. But this sure is one fascinating baseball team all of a sudden.

Most Improved Teams (American League)

1. Mariners
2. Yankees
3. Angels

Adrian Beltre, Richie Sexson and Pokey Reese aren't going to turn the Mariners back into those 116-win terrors of yesteryear. But you can't say this team didn't address two blatant needs. They hit 91 fewer home runs than the Rangers last year -- so adding two 40-homer men was a heck of an idea. And their infield committed nearly twice as many errors (72) as the Rockies (37) -- so they upgraded at three positions. Of course, all that just makes these Mariners better in a Tigers kind of way, as opposed to a win-the-World Series kind of way. But you've gotta start somewhere.

Most Unimproved Teams (NL)

1. Astros
2. Rockies
3. Dodgers

Four months ago, the Astros were 10 outs away from the World Series with Roger Clemens on the mound. Of all the things that have happened to them since, just about none are good. Their GM (Gerry Hunsicker) quit. Their 100-RBI second baseman (Jeff Kent) headed for L.A. Their right fielder (Lance Berkman) ripped up his knee playing flag football at a church. And they allowed Carlos Beltran's agent, Scott Boras, to control the pace -- and, ultimately, the fate -- of their winter. This is a team hoping to make a major deal in spring training. And it sure needs to.

Most Unimproved Teams (AL)

1. Royals
2. Rangers
3. Devil Rays

Since 1920, only three teams have managed to lose as many games as the Royals did last year (104) and then get worse the next year -- the 1938-39 Phillies, 1964-65 Mets and 2002-03 Tigers. But those three might be getting company. When we polled people recently on which team has the least chance of winning the World Series, they didn't have to look beyond the 816 area code.

Least Recognizable Teams

1. A's
2. Dodgers
3. White Sox

We're not sure how many GMs out there never miss an episode of Extreme Makeover, but the competition has never been more feverish for this award. The Dodgers have turned over seven-eighths of their starting lineup in a mere calendar year. The White Sox just blew up half their lineup. The Diamondbacks ought to set all kinds of franchise records for program sales. And we doubt there are 15 people outside the state of Missouri who could name six Royals.

But every time we try to imagine an A's conversation that doesn't begin with Hudson-Mulder-Zito, we realize an era just ended in Oakland. And somebody ought to observe that properly. So consider it duly observed.

Checkbook champs

1. Mets: GM Omar Minaya never had so much fun spending $196.9 million of owner Fred Wilpon's money. And no one since Bobby Bonilla has enjoyed taking it more than Beltran, Martinez, Kris Benson and the two free agents in Minaya's bargain bin -- Miguel Cairo and Mike DeJean.

2. Dodgers: At least they got 10 free agents for their $144.6 million -- twice as many as the Mets got for their $196.9 million. Then again, that doesn't even count the $10 million they paid Arizona for the privilege of trading for Shawn Green.

3. Yankees or Diamondbacks (someone call an accountant): Technically, Arizona ought to win this, after piling up $115.75 million in contracts this winter. But if we subtract the $19 million the Yankees and Dodgers giftwrapped to Arizona in the Big Unit and Shawn Green deals, then the Yankees sneak in there at $102 million (not even including all the money they paid Javier Vazquez and Kenny Lofton to hit the exit ramp).

That Mets TV network had better get higher ratings than Desperate Housewives, because for $196.9 million, they could have signed all those free agents -- or bought 8.95 million Donald Trump "You're Fired" T-shirts. If Pedro blows out his shoulder by Memorial Day, those shirts might wind up being a more appropriate buy.

Best Free-Agent Signings

1. Carlos Delgado (Marlins)
2. Steve Finley (Angels)
3. Beltran-Martinez tag team in Queens (Mets)

Beltran and Martinez were the sexiest signings of the winter. Finley might have been the best bargain of the winter (at two years, $14 million). But Delgado is a one-man lineup changer for a team that got 27 home runs from all its left-handed hitters combined in the last two years. Delgado hit that many in 88 days in '03.

Worst Free-Agent Signings

1. David Eckstein (3 years, $10.25 million from Cardinals)
2. J.D. Drew-Derek Lowe tag team (5 and 4 years, respectively, for a combined $91 million, from Dodgers)
3. Russ Ortiz (4 years, $33 million from Diamondbacks)

There may be no more lovable player in America than Eckstein. And we know St. Louis will embrace him in a Rex Hudler-esque kind of way. But how Eckstein ever got a three-year contract from the NL champs, after getting nontendered by the Angels, is the head-scratching move of the winter.

Best Trades

1. Yankees get the most dominating 41-year-old left-hander alive (Randy Johnson) for Javier Vazquez, two prospects who were never going to model pinstripes and 9 million of those handy Boss Steinbrenner dollars.

2. Brewers get a legit middle-of-the-order thumper (Carlos Lee) from the White Sox for a package headed by not-so-up-and-coming Scott Podsednik who, oh by the way, is actually three months older than Lee.

3. A's get the ultimate Moneyball catcher (Jason Kendall) for the two pitchers GM Billy Beane most wanted to get 3,000 miles away from -- Arthur Rhodes and Mark Redman.

Three Trades That Summed Up The Winter

1. Yankees announce they're "done" trying to trade for Randy Johnson, then turn around six weeks later and trade for a 6-foot-10 left-hander who looks suspiciously like Randy Johnson.

2. Dodgers pull out of the three-way Big Unit megadeal because they decide they're not getting enough in return (i.e., just Dioner Navarro and prospects) -- then trade Shawn Green for Navarro and prospects, in a deal that then died again ... until Arizona finally jumped through its second negotiating window and signed Green to a contract extension.

3. Orioles have to buy Chris Gomez back from the Phillies after signing him as a free agent, then losing him in the Rule 5 draft.

Best Free Agents Under $2 Million

1. Red Sox get Matt Mantei for one year, $750,000, on the theory that, as one AL executive put it, "good when healthy, but rarely healthy" is better than "always healthy but seldom good."

2. Red Sox get Wade Miller for one year, $1.5 million -- which happens to be less than the Mets are paying their old friend Pedro every month.

3. Mets get one-year, $900,000 policy from the Miguel Cairo Insurance Co. in case Kaz Matsui turns out to be allergic to second base or Jose Reyes discovers any more muscles to pull.

Best Free Agents Signed To Minor-League Contracts

1. Rich Aurilia, Reds (want to bet he outproduces David Eckstein at a fraction of the price?).

2. Eric Munson, Twins (37 HR in 634 AB the last two years -- more than Cliff Floyd, Mike Piazza or Larry Walker).

3. Hideo Nomo, Devil Rays (has never had back-to-back losing seasons -- on any continent).

Most Important Injury Comebacks (NL)

1. Lance Berkman-Andy Pettitte tag team (Astros).
2. Mark Mulder-Matt Morris-Chris Carpenter tag team (Cardinals).
3. Brad Penny (Dodgers).

Most Important Injury Comebacks (AL)

1. Joe Mauer (Twins)
2. Magglio Ordonez (Detroit Division, Austrian Medical Assn.)
3. Wade Miller (Red Sox)

Most Innovative Offseason Injuries

1. Lance Berkman blows out his knee playing flag football.
2. Rocco Baldelli wipes out his knee playing Wiffle Ball.
3. Jeff Conine needs shoulder surgery after crashing into a wall playing paddleball.

Most Unlikely Names On Spring Training Rosters

1. Tony Saunders (Baltimore): How long ago was it since he broke his arm throwing That Pitch (on May 26, 1999)? That was 98 Randy Johnson wins and 1,736 Big Unit strikeouts ago.

2. Roberto Petagine (Boston): Since he last played in America (in 1998), he's hit as many home runs in Japan (223) as Vladimir Guerrero has hit here.

3. Bill Pulsipher (St. Louis): It's now 10 years since then-Mets manager Dallas Green predicted that Pulsipher, and fellow Generation X-ers Paul Wilson and Jason Isringhausen, might win 15 games apiece for the '95 Mets. Two more wins, and Pulsipher (who last won in the big leagues six years ago) will reach 15 for his whole career.

Most Intriguing Spring Stories (NL)

1. Mets Madness: Dollar bills flying, Pedro talking, a DP combination switching positions, Mike Cameron wondering what he's doing in right field, Carlos Beltran wondering what he's doing in Port St. Lucie. Lots to ponder. But is this team any good?

2. Bobby Cox's Cuisinart: Watch the amazing Braves manager try to weave Raul Mondesi, Brian Jordan, Danny Kolb, Tim Hudson and The Return of Cy Smoltz into another magic first-place potion.

3. Last Closer Standing: Unable to sign or trade for a closer, the Cubs try the reality-show approach: In the end, somebody will forget to vote himself off the ninth-inning island.

Most Intriguing Spring Stories (AL)

1. ALCS Game 8: Yankees-Red Sox lunacy explodes anew After The Fall. Randy And Curt. Trot And A-Rod. Boomer And The Boss. You couldn't make this stuff up.

2. Giambi-ville: Is there life after the grand jury for the poster boy for steroid stardom? We'll find out.

3. Urbina or Not: Will Ugueth Urbina actually arrive in Tigers training camp? Will he be somehow scarred by the bizarre kidnapping of his mother? Will the Tigers keep him as Troy Percival's set-up man? Does he even want them to keep him? One of the most mysterious baseball stories in years.

Three Stories For Ripley's Believe It Or Not

1. The honorable mayor of Las Vegas shows up at the winter meetings to make his baseball pitch -- with two showgirls and an Elvis impersonator.

2. Those creative Diamondbacks hire two managers in one week.

3. The always-amusing Anna Benson tells radio host Howard Stern that if Kris ever cheats on her, she'd have sex with everyone in baseball except Mr. Met -- then confesses to ESPN.com that she would never do that ... because "some of those guys are disgusting."

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.