NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- It's one of the defining moments of every baseball offseason. No, not the arrival of the baseball winter meetings. We're talking about the stampede for the exits at the end of every winter meetings.
And why is that? Because so much gets talked about -- and so little of it actually gets done. So as we watched 30 teams rush for the revolving doors of Opryland on Thursday, it was hard to tell from afar which teams were thinking, "Mission accomplished," and which were thinking, "Yikes, what a waste of time."
So that's where we come in -- with the 2015 edition of the Winter Meetings Winners and Losers.
Arizona Diamondbacks: For just a minute, forget the funny money the Diamondbacks spent on Zack Greinke. Forget all the heads shaking over what they gave up to trade for Shelby Miller. I'll get to that, I promise. For now, let's confine this analysis to what the Diamondbacks looked like a week and a half ago, versus what they look like now.
They weren't just a 78-win team a week and a half ago. They felt like an almost irrelevant 78-win team. Well, they're not irrelevant anymore, are they? At the very least, they're a team ready for the wild-card conversation. And if they do more -- add bullpen and outfield depth, maybe even pull off a Mike Leake signing -- they'll be in the favorite-in-the-NL-West conversation. And make no mistake about it. That's what these moves were all about: time to win.
"To me, they're kind of like Boston," an executive of one team said. "This is about winning now. There are times when every organization kind of comes to that conclusion, that it isn't enough anymore to just be a .500-ish team and see what happens. So I respect what they're trying to do even though I don't know if I would have done it."
Atlanta Braves: OK, let's talk about that Shelby Miller trade. I've heard it described as the biggest heist of the decade. Other teams see Dansby Swanson as a potential star. Ender Inciarte is such a talented two-way player, the Braves got calls from a dozen teams on him in the first 24 hours after trading for him. And while the ceiling on the pitcher they got back, Aaron Blair, isn't as clear-cut, he'll be ready to pitch in the big leagues sooner than later.
So even though the Braves' over/under win total this year might be somewhere in the neighborhood of 70, they've given us a road map to their future. They've built astonishing pitching depth that should come in waves over the next three years. And that should give them all the currency they need to fill in whatever blanks are left when it's time to win again. What they've also admitted, with this move and pretty much all they've done in the past few months, is that they're no longer committed to the idea of being good when they move into their new ballpark in 2017. But if it's 2018, they're clearly cool with that -- the foundation is now in place, with more to come.
Boston Red Sox: This isn't just about this week. It's about the past month. It's about team president Dave Dombrowski sizing up the field, drawing up his playbook and then methodically reeling off a series of moves that have brought the Red Sox the best starter on the market (David Price), the best closer (Craig Kimbrel), a perfect Fenway lineup piece (Chris Young) and a dynamic setup man (Carson Smith). What team has improved more than this team this winter? The correct answer: None.
Houston Astros: The consensus of scouts and execs I surveyed was that the Astros made a tremendous deal with Philadelphia for the swing-and-miss closer they'd targeted all winter, Ken Giles. The guy they got comes with five years of control and a repertoire, makeup and track record that makes him almost a Craig Kimbrel Lite. And the cost was four players whose exit won't get in the way of the Astros' big future in any significant way.
Chicago Cubs: What happened on the North Side this past season came a year ahead of schedule. Which is what made it so magical. But now, for the Cubs, it's time to go for it. And they're acting like a team that is applying a full-court press to make that happen.
Ben Zobrist, at least early in his contract, gives them defense, lineup balance, much-needed plate discipline and off-the-charts character. John Lackey, Adam Warren, Trevor Cahill and Rex Brothers deepened this staff without chewing up the payroll flexibility that David Price would have swallowed up. So now there's room for a dramatic signing of a free-agent outfielder, plus enough depth to deal for another starter and/or bullpen piece. Always fascinating to watch Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer do their juggernaut building, one shrewd move at a time.
Detroit Tigers: It started with the signing of Jordan Zimmermann, which is increasingly looking like one of the best deals of the winter. Then the new general manager in Motown, Al Avila, started adding bullpen pieces: Francisco Rodriguez, Mark Lowe, Justin Wilson. And Mike Pelfrey and Cameron Maybin were relatively low-cost, minimal-risk lottery tickets who can at least complement the group. The Tigers are still a team constructed around its stars, so they need big (and healthy) years from Miguel Cabrera, Justin Verlander and Victor Martinez. But if that happens, I haven't found anyone in their division who doesn't think they've made themselves a force again.
Aces: Before this month, there had never been a $31 million-a-year starting pitcher in baseball history. Now, thanks to Price and Greinke, the minimum wage for a legit No. 1 has zoomed past $34 million a year. So has there ever been a better time to be a true ace? Not in my lifetime. Or even Nolan Ryan's lifetime. How would you like to be Jake Arrieta? Gerrit Cole? Matt Harvey? Jacob deGrom? Clayton Kershaw, flipping his opt-out switch in three years? There are some enjoyable paydays coming for those guys -- all thanks to the free-agent ace class of 2015-16.
Arizona Diamondbacks: Wait. Didn't you just see the name "Arizona Diamondbacks" in the "winners" section of this opus? Yep. You sure did. And it isn't even because I've lost my mind -- or even my short-term memory. It's about the long-term cost of what the Diamondbacks have done in the name of contending in the near term.
For one thing, they've been universally crushed, in particular for giving away the first draft pick in the country (Swanson), and in general for massively overpaying in their trade for Miller. When even the people in the industry who like Miller are ripping your trade, it's a sign that you might find yourself thinking down the road: "Holy schmoly, how come it seemed like such a good idea at the time?"
For another thing, a team that had the seventh-lowest payroll in baseball this year (and collected close to $30 million in revenue sharing) just blew up the salary structure of the sport with the Greinke contract. And it's hard to say which group of clubs is more unhappy about that -- the small markets who now know they can't afford to keep their young stars, or the big markets that have been writing those revenue-sharing checks. Regardless, the Diamondbacks went so all-in that they can't afford to be wrong about where Greinke and Miller can take them in 2016.
Los Angeles Dodgers: This team has the biggest payroll in baseball and might be run by the smartest people in baseball. So it's shocking to see its offseason plans go so incredibly awry. But so far, the Dodgers' offseason has been pretty much a train wreck:
Losing Greinke because they didn't want to guarantee him a sixth year at age 37, then replacing him with Hisashi Iwakuma, whose three-year deal will run through (yep) age 37. Agreeing to a deal for Aroldis Chapman, then having that one blow up on them (through no fault of their own, obviously) over a disturbing alleged domestic-violence incident. And even though they can walk away from that mess, just the attempt to trade for a new closer comes with the cost of upsetting their incumbent closer, Kenley Jansen, who was coming off another great year and now feels (according to one friend) as if the Chapman deal was a vote of no-confidence.
There's still lots of time for the Dodgers to undo all of this damage. But this isn't the look-into-the-future edition of Winners and Losers. It's the winter meetings edition of Winners and Losers. And there's not a whole lot of winning going on at Chavez Ravine at the moment.
Cincinnati Reds: The Dodgers weren't the only team whose beautiful offseason game plan got all fouled up because of Chapman. His off-field issues didn't exactly propel the Reds' rebuilding work into the HOV lane. The Reds had a chance to move him at the trading deadline, remember, and decided to wait. And that's just one more reminder that when you wait, it opens the door for all sorts of stuff to go wrong.
So now instead of kicking off the renewal project with a Chapman deal, the Reds have to wonder if they'll be able to trade this guy at all. Would anyone touch him at the moment, when there's a potentially lengthy league suspension hovering over him and a PR nightmare waiting to happen in his next destination? And in the meantime, other clubs spent the week grumbling about the Reds' heavy asking prices for the likes of Jay Bruce, Todd Frazier, Brandon Phillips, et al. Again, there's plenty of time to find those men a home. But that doesn't change the fact that this team had a tough week.
Colorado Rockies: How'd you like to be the Rockies? Coming off a 93-loss season. Watching the Diamondbacks, Giants and Dodgers pull away from the rest of the division in star power and payroll power. Wondering whether the new shortstop in town, Jose Reyes, is looking at a massive suspension for his own alleged domestic-violence issues. And still trying to grapple with the same two-decades-old question: How do you construct a winner at Coors Field?
I'd like to say they solved at least some of their bullpen problems this week. But there sure was a lot of head-scratching over the two-year, $10 million deal they handed to righthander Jason Motte, who was left off the Cubs' postseason roster with shoulder fatigue, and the one-year, $6 million contract they doled out to Chad Qualls, who has now pingponged through nine teams since 2010. Hey, somebody has to finish last in the NL West. And right now, the Rockies are the leader in that clubhouse.
Johnny Cueto: If we were taking nominations for the free agent most likely to turn into this winter's Ervin Santana, Johnny Cueto would be an excellent nominee. In fact, I did take those nominations this week. And Cueto emerged as the runaway winner.
Any time a guy turns down an offer like six years, $120 million (as Cueto did from Arizona) and then finds that all the most likely landing spots have just disappeared on him (as Cueto has), here's the problem: He gets a number in his head that causes him to start counting money he never had. So unless a team like the Dodgers shocks the world and steps up into that price range, Cueto could be out there a long, long time this winter, waiting for someone to say the magic words, "$121 million." If that's the over/under, nearly everyone I surveyed took the under. And in some cases, way under. So happy holidays, Johnny. I hope Santa drops a nine-figure check under your tree. Or your Christmas might not be as merry as you were thinking two weeks ago.