Let's see now. Super Bowl? All suped out. The dunk contest? Dunked to the last windmill. The Winter Classic? Golden Globes? New Hampshire Primary? All in the rearview mirror.
You know what that means.
Yep. It must be baseball season. If pitchers and catchers are stampeding toward spring training as we speak, that means it's time for our annual look at another insane baseball winter. We take that look through the eyes of 35 of the most astute baseball executives on our continent -- or, to put it another way, the 35 who carved out the time to take part in our always-fascinating Best and Worst of the Offseason poll.
We now proudly present the results of that poll, even though we're pretty sure Ian Desmond, Austin Jackson, Jimmy Rollins, Tim Lincecum and a whole bunch of other unemployed household names would tell you they don't consider this offseason to be over yet. Nevertheless, the results are in. And here they come ...
(But first, this yearly reminder from your trusty pollsters: We'd never pretend we conducted this survey precisely the way George Gallup would have. Not everybody voted on every category. Not everybody voted for the same number of teams or players in every category. So 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 (National League)
If we had created a category entitled "Most Shocking Winter," we almost guarantee the Diamondbacks would have won that one, too. Within the other 29 front offices, a lot of really smart people were scratching their heads and describing this team's ultra-aggressive offseason with words such as "hard to fathom." That's because, really, nobody saw this coming.
Raise your hand if you predicted in October that the D-backs would be the club throwing $206.5 million at Zack Greinke. Raise your hand if you saw them dropping the No. 1 pick in the country in June, shortstop Dansby Swanson, into a package that brought Shelby Miller. Hmmm. We're not seeing a lot of hands out there.
Why do we get the feeling that's the part of this go-for-it eruption that chief baseball officer Tony La Russa and GM Dave Stewart enjoy most? They knew they were risking a little long-term peril for a dramatic short-term assault on the reign of the Dodgers and Giants in the NL West. And you know what? They. Didn't. Care.
Most improved teams (American League)
Red Sox: 27
With apologies to Greinke, we could argue there wasn't a better starting pitcher who changed teams this winter than David Price. With apologies to Aroldis Chapman, we could also argue there wasn't a better relief pitcher who called a moving van this winter than Craig Kimbrel. Guess which team reeled in both of them? Yeah, it was those Boston Red Sox.
If your mind works the way ours do (in which case, you need help immediately), you're no doubt wondering: How rare is it for a team to pull off two moves such as that in the same offseason? Well, the answer, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, is, basically, never. Elias says the Red Sox are the first team in history to acquire a Cy Young starter and a closer who led his league in saves at least four times in the same baseball winter. So there you go.
Now, obviously, it isn't up to Price to turn Hanley Ramirez into a real, live major league first baseman. It isn't Kimbrel's job to get Pablo Sandoval to hit the gym instead of the dessert buffet. Those two can't solve all this team's pressing issues. But when Dave Dombrowski set out in November to alter the face of his club, it was only a few weeks before the whole planet knew exactly what (and whom) he had in mind. His team still has big questions. But as one AL exec put it, "It's hard to beat adding an ace and elite closer."
Most unimproved teams (NL)
You know the National League is in quite the odd state when nine of the 15 teams in the league get multiple votes for this not-so-exalted honor. But it was that kind of winter. When you look at this league, as one NL exec said, "it's amazing how many teams won't be any good." The voting in this category vividly reflects that, so it wasn't the obvious teams that got our attention.
The Cardinals? Lost Jason Heyward and John Lackey to free agency (and the Cubs). Got a scary health bulletin on Yadier Molina. Got outbid for their top free-agent targets, which was the biggest shock, one exec said, "for a team that's so used to getting whoever they want."
The Dodgers? Seemed as if every move they made was Plan B, C or Z on their offseason priority list. Lost out on Greinke. Had to back out of a deal for Chapman. Didn't like the medicals on Hisashi Iwakuma. Seemed intent on hiring one manager (Gabe Kapler) before winding up with a different one (Dave Roberts). Etc., etc., etc. This is still a deep, dangerous team with massive resources, but this was one winter, another exec said, when it felt as if "nothing went the way it was supposed to."
Most unimproved teams (AL)
Blue Jays: 3
Owner Arte Moreno went out and hired a bright, creative new GM in former Yankees assistant Billy Eppler -- then promptly got so fixated on not paying a nickel in luxury tax that the Angels could never get their hands on that impact outfield bat they needed. That is, unless your definition of "impact outfield bat" is Craig Gentry (.339 career slugging percentage) or Daniel Nava (who slugged .245 last year).
"The only thing they did that I'd applaud was getting Andrelton Simmons," one exec said. "But the bottom line is they still don't have enough around the center fielder."
Best free-agent signings
Zack Greinke (Diamondbacks): 14
David Price (Red Sox): 13
Howie Kendrick (Dodgers): 10
John Lackey (Cubs): 9
Ben Zobrist (Cubs): 8
Alex Gordon (Royals): 6
Yoenis Cespedes (Mets): 6
Justin Upton (Tigers): 5
It was an awesome winter to grab your shopping cart and head down the aisles of the old Free Agent Mega-Mart. The incredible array of players who got multiple votes was an excellent reminder of the depth and quality in that market. Beyond the group listed above, 17 other players and one manager (Dusty Baker) got votes in the Best Signing portion of this competition.
That's not to say there wasn't the usual grumbling about the years and dollars for the two aces at the top of these charts. (More on that shortly.) But "when you are Boston, you go for it, and Price was the best pitcher out there," one exec said. Then there's Greinke, who "changes the face of the Diamondbacks," another said.
But there was nothing surprising in seeing those two names rake in the votes. Seeing Kendrick and Zobrist as the top two position players, though? Interesting! Kendrick wound up being such a good buy (at two years, $20 million) that one exec quipped: "Not sure where he will play, but at that price, who cares?" The same exec said of Zobrist: "Perfect NL player. Great on a young club. Perfect fit at the perfect time."
Worst free-agent signings
Ian Kennedy (Royals): 15
Jason Heyward (Cubs): 8
Ryan Madson (A's): 8
Johnny Cueto (Giants): 8
Chris Davis (Orioles): 4
Jeff Samardzija (Giants): 4
Mike Pelfrey (Tigers): 4
Of all the categories in this poll, none can top this one when it comes to all-out free-for-alls. We had 26 players get at least one vote. A dozen got multiple votes. There were special votes for "anyone who got an opt-out" and "any pitcher over five years." Craziest of all, want to guess how many players got votes for both "best" and "worst" signing? How about 13! So maybe the most notable were the guys on this leaderboard who landed on nobody's "best" list: Kennedy, Samardzija and Pelfrey. Oddly, the two players who got at least three votes for best and worst signing were both Tigers: Upton and Jordan Zimmermann.
Most outrageous contracts
Chris Davis (Orioles): 16
Jason Heyward (Cubs): 13
Zack Greinke (Diamondbacks): 13
David Price (Red Sox): 10
Ian Kennedy (Royals): 7
Johnny Cueto (Giants): 6
When we do this poll, we do our best to make it clear to our voters that "worst signing" and "most outrageous contract" are two different phenomena. The outrage here isn't really about the player, and it isn't about the fit. It's about the length of and dollars in the contract. So that's what Greinke and Price are doing atop the "Best Signing" and "Most Outrageous Contract" standings.
Nobody is arguing they're not great pitchers. They're just really, really unlikely to still be worth a million bucks a start in the final years of their contracts. We're sure it will make their day to know 12 other players showed up in the "Best Signing" and "Most Outrageous" sections of this ballot. So ... it's nothing personal!
Now a quick word on Davis (who got seven years and $161 million from the Orioles) and Heyward (whose eight-year, $184 million deal with the Cubs was one of the stunners of the winter). One exec was so puzzled by why the Orioles gave Davis seven years when no other club appeared to be in that range that his "Most Outrageous" ballot looked like this: "Chris Davis, Chris Davis, Chris Davis."
The best way to sum up Heyward is this: He's one of those guys whose skill set will never appeal to everybody. As one NL exec said in reviewing this deal, "I just don't see it. I just don't see seven years for guys like that. Nice player, but not that kind of player."
Dansby Swanson, etc. to Braves: 20
Aroldis Chapman to Yankees: 12
Todd Frazier to White Sox: 8
Corey Dickerson to Rays: 4
What a winter. Even with all those free agents running around, there were so many trades this offseason that we really should have had Jim Cramer -- not a bunch of baseball executives -- evaluate this category. Trying to summarize these election returns is a job we wouldn't even wish on Chuck Todd. It might not have been more complicated than the Iowa Caucus, but it felt like it.
Would you believe we got votes for 27 different trade outcomes? That's because, with the exception of the Chapman, Frazier and Dickerson deals, our voters lined up on pretty much every possible side of every possible trade. If we created a category for deals that work for both teams, our voters ranked them this way: 1) Kimbrel from San Diego to Boston (for four prospects), 2) Ken Giles from Philadelphia to Houston (for five arms) and 3) Starlin Castro from the North Side of Chicago to the Bronx (for Adam Warren). Then again, that's the way trades are supposed to work. Right?
Bargain free agent department
Best free agents signed to one-year contracts:
Doug Fister (Astros): 11
Hisashi Iwakuma (Mariners): 8
Bartolo Colon (Mets): 7
Rich Hill (A's): 7
Alexei Ramirez (Padres): 5
Steve Pearce (Rays): 4
Yoenis Cespedes (Mets): 4*
(*Those who cast this vote were highly amused by it, for the most part -- because Cespedes signed a three-year deal. But he's widely expected to opt out after one.)
Best free agents, $3 million and under:
Mat Latos (White Sox): 10
Chris Carter (Brewers): 5
Jim Johnson (Braves): 5
Best free agents signed to minor league deals:
Dillon Gee (Royals): 10
Bronson Arroyo (Nationals): 6
Travis Snider (Royals): 4
Craig Stammen (Indians): 4
Who says there's no such thing as a free-agent bargain bin anymore? Not only did 67 players get a vote in one of these three categories, but that doesn't even include the vote for "all the guys who are going to sign in the next 10 days." How fun was that list of 67 players? Arroyo got six votes after a year in which he accumulated more teams (three) than pitches thrown (zero). Tim Federowicz (Cubs) got a vote after hitting .179 in Triple-A. And a .153/.217/.247 slash line for the Braves and Mets didn't stop Eric Young Jr. (Brewers) from getting a vote. Makes you proud to be an American, doesn't it?
Least recognizable team
Finally ... we can sum up this always entertaining category with this quip:
"Hey," one voter said, "I've got a new rock group for you: Freddie Freeman and the Who."