CLEARWATER, Fla. -- Whew. What an offseason. Give us a second while we catch our breath and try to digest what just happened.
Did the San Diego Padres trade for every available outfielder except Dave Winfield? ... Was the most humongous contract in professional sports history really handed out by (gasp) the Miami Marlins? ... Did the Baltimore Orioles nearly trade their general manager? ... Did it seem as if James Shields took longer to find a home than the Beverly Hills Chihuahua?
(But first this word from your trusty pollsters: We'd never pretend we conducted this survey precisely the way George Gallup would. Not everybody voted on every category. Not everybody voted for the same number of teams or players in every category. If you plugged these numbers into your trusty MacBook Pro, it would probably explode within 30 seconds. In other words, all tweets and emails from scientists and mathematicians questioning our methodology will go overlooked and unanswered. Got that? Cool. Now on with the show.)
MOST IMPROVED TEAMS (NL)
We're getting a little worried about new Padres GM A.J. Preller. He hasn't made a deal in the past half-hour. After a winter in which he pulled off seven trades (three of which brought him a whole new outfield -- in the same week), signed four free agents (including Shields) and reeled in a bunch of other free agents on minor league deals (including the long-lost Jose Valverde), that's a shocker. That said, as, say, Larry Beinfest and Frank Wren could tell him, there's a slight difference between winning the winter and winning the World Series, and there are still questions about whether the Padres have the sort of outfield defense, infield star power and lineup balance to win the NL West. But Preller's peers were amazed by the breadth of this astonishing overhaul by a first-year GM. One AL executive voted in exactly one category in this poll (this one) just so he could say of this club: "In my baseball life, I've never seen a team make such a monumental improvement as the Padres did this offseason."
MOST IMPROVED TEAMS (AL)
If you watched White Sox GM Rick Hahn at work this winter, you could almost see him checking off boxes on his offseason wish list: Top-of-the-rotation starter -- Jeff Samardzija (check). Closer -- David Robertson (check). Left fielder -- Melky Cabrera (check). First baseman/DH to ease the load on Jose Abreu -- Adam LaRoche (check). Left-handed reliever -- Zach Duke (check). Super utility men -- Emilio Bonifacio and Gordon Beckham (check). Now that the transaction dust has settled, this team is way better than the 89-loss outfit of 2014. But how much better? It was incredible, on one hand, to see a team get this many most-improved votes and still, on the other hand, hear so many concerns expressed by the people voting for it -- over depth in general, pitching depth in particular and the challenge of making all these pieces mesh. "So they're certainly better," one AL exec said. "I just don't know what to expect."
MOST UNIMPROVED TEAMS (NL)
As you can see, there was no shortage of teams to vote for in this prestigious category. But it tells you all you need to know about the state of the once-mighty Phillies that they were still a runaway winner. Of course, as one NL exec observed, they're "intentionally" not improving because they've finally admitted it's time to join the cast of "Extreme Makeover." But there was also a wave of sentiment that they didn't accomplish nearly as much as they could have and should have this winter. They'd be a lot better off by now, one AL exec said, if they'd moved virtually all their veterans just to get that page turned. Instead, he said, "they treaded water."
MOST UNIMPROVED TEAMS (AL)
What a free-for-all this category was. The Rays retooled, waved adios to manager Joe Maddon and GM Andrew Friedman, and took what many of our voters viewed as mostly a temporary step backward in the name of long-term success. The Oakland reboot was so confusing the A's got multiple votes in both the most-improved and most-unimproved portions of the poll. The Orioles got a bunch of these votes and are still seen as a team that could win the AL East if Manny Machado and Matt Wieters are pictures of health. The Tigers are on this list even though nobody would be shocked if they won the World Series -- yeah, without Max Scherzer. Given that 10 of the 15 teams in the league got at least one vote, we get the impression nobody has any division in the AL figured out yet.
BEST FREE-AGENT SIGNINGS
The votes in this sector of the survey zigzagged in all directions, with 33 different players collecting at least one vote -- including two Cubans (Yoan Moncada and Hector Olivera) who haven't even signed yet. Oh, and one fellow who isn't a player at all -- Joe Maddon -- got two votes. So what pushed Martin and Shields to the top of this list? Well, there weren't a lot of fans of Martin's five-year, $82 million contract, per se. But "he impacts winning," one voter said. Shields' votes were reflections of both his contract (because the Padres were able to keep it to four years) and the way he fits both his new ballpark and the aggressive winter of his new club. They "had to sign him," an AL exec said, "to finish off the project."
WORST FREE-AGENT SIGNINGS
Max Scherzer (Nationals) -- 15
Brett Anderson (Dodgers) -- 10
Hanley Ramirez (Red Sox) -- 9
Michael Cuddyer (Mets) -- 8
Nick Markakis (Braves) -- 6
Billy Butler (A's) -- 5
Brandon McCarthy (Dodgers) -- 5
When we asked one NL executive for his selections in the best free-agent competition, his instant quip was: "That's an oxymoron." No wonder the votes piled up for all sorts of candidates on this side of the poll. We counted 14 free agents who got at least three votes for worst signing and another nine who got two votes. But the most fun fact of all is 17 different players got votes in both the worst-signing and best-signing categories. The reason for that isn't actually confusing. We'd sum it up this way: Love the player, hate the contract. There's no better example of that than Scherzer. "It's ridiculous that they'll be paying him forever," one voter said. "But he's a great pitcher."
Jeff Samardzija to White Sox -- 11
Josh Donaldson to Blue Jays -- 10
Ben Zobrist to A's -- 6
Joe Ross/Trea Turner* to Nationals -- 6
Jason Heyward to Cardinals -- 5
Tyler Clippard to A's -- 5
Rick Porcello to Red Sox -- 5
Justin Upton to Padres -- 4
(* - Turner will be the player to be named later going from San Diego to Washington, multiple sources say)
We knew going in this was the kind of "Let's Make A Deal" winter only Wayne Brady could truly love and appreciate. But then, along came this survey to bludgeon that point home by getting votes cast for 42 different trade outcomes. Yep, 42! Voters loved those Oakland trades for Zobrist and Clippard but seemed largely baffled by the Donaldson and Samardzija deals. The Nationals got rave reviews for their Ross/Turner prospect return in the big three-team trade with Tampa Bay and San Diego, in which Wil Myers was the headliner. But some voters liked how that one turned out for all three teams. There were votes for both ends of the Matt Kemp, Porcello, Upton, Dee Gordon, Brandon Moss and Evan Gattis deals, too. But our favorite vote in this category went like this: Rob Manfred for Bud Selig. (Rim shot, please!)
MOST OUTRAGEOUS CONTRACTS
Let's take the top three one contract at a time because our voters had lots to say about them!
• SCHERZER (7 years, $210 million, with $105 million deferred through 2028) -- As we'd agreed upon earlier, Max Scherzer is a great pitcher. No dispute there. But this contract has fired up the industry like no deal (non-A-Rod division) since possibly the Kevin Brown contract. One of the execs quoted earlier called this one "a Bobby Bonilla joke waiting to happen." With all due respect to Bonilla, who will be raking in nearly $1.2 million a year from the Mets until he's 72 years old, Scherzer still has him beat. He'll get $15 million a year -- seriously, $15 million -- through the year 2028. "And no matter how you look at how that devalues the present-day value of the deal," the same exec said, "that's just amazing. Even if he's great for four years and then declines, that's 10 more years you're still paying him $15 million. That's incredible." It's hard to disagree.
• STANTON (13-year, $325 million extension with an opt-out after 2020) -- To be honest, we weren't sure quite how to calculate the vote totals for Stanton's epic megadeal. For one thing, the very first vote we got in this category read like this: "Stanton, Stanton, Stanton, Stanton." Was that four votes or one? Also, many voters forgot about Stanton entirely -- because he signed so early in the offseason and wasn't a free agent -- that we actually doubled back to remind folks that he did, in fact, ink that deal this winter. That prompted many voters (but far from all of them) to cast retroactive votes. We're guessing the Gallup Poll people would disqualify every one of those votes. But not us, even though we've defended this contract from the beginning and still do. One retroactive voter on why he left it off his original list: "It completely escaped my memory. It's like I didn't want to remember it happened."
• MCCARTHY (4 years, $48 million) -- It sure was fun monitoring the vote totals McCarthy racked up: three votes for best signing of the winter, 10 votes for worst and seven votes for the most outrageous contract. OK, so what the heck do we make of that? Clearly, he got paid because he was so good in his 14 starts as a Yankee (2.89 ERA, 1.15 WHIP, 134 ERA-Plus). If Andrew Friedman and that think-tank front office in L.A. thought he was worth $48 million over four years, it's hard for some folks to quibble. But others look at McCarthy and see a 31-year-old guy who has had only one season of more than 25 starts in his whole career. They say stuff like: "A lot of people like that deal just because Andrew signed him. But let me ask you this: If Kansas City had signed him to that same contract, wouldn't those same people be going bananas?" Hmm. You've got us. We'll definitely be contemplating that question for the next four years. That's for sure.
BEST FREE AGENTS SIGNED TO ONE-YEAR DEALS
FIVE BEST FREE AGENTS, $3 MILLION-AND-UNDER DIVISION
FIVE BEST FREE AGENTS SIGNED TO MINOR LEAGUE DEALS
Hey, who says there are no bargains in free agency anymore? An amazing 71 players got votes in at least one of these categories -- including a pitcher who had a 1.95 WHIP last year (Jim Johnson), another who gave up 11 home runs in 41.2 innings (Ernesto Frieri) and a third (Sugar Ray Marimon) who is heading into his ninth professional season without ever throwing a big league pitch (but deserves a vote just for having maybe the coolest name in baseball). You know what? Based on how some of these past surveys have turned out, it wouldn't shock us if all three of those guys have better years than David Robertson and Andrew Miller because, well, that's how baseball go.