The Cutoff Man: Spring training starts

Valentine’s Day is exactly four weeks from now and folks, there’s no need to buy any gifts this year. It just so happens that Major League Baseball has already taken care of that for us. Sure, you and your hubby can spend a romantic dinner together, maybe even see a movie. But then you can go home and revel in the joy that this Feb. 14 is the day pitchers and catchers report to officially begin spring training. If that’s not enough of a gift for you, then maybe plane tickets to Florida and/or Arizona would seal the deal.

Speaking of deals, this off-season has been chock full of ’em. Perhaps most notably, Cliff Lee spurned the Yankees and surprised everyone by signing with the Philadelphia Phillies — yes, the same Phillies that traded him for Roy Halladay only a year ago and then acquired Roy Oswalt at the deadline. Although all three could be the standout aces of any major league staff, they instead find themselves joined by Cole Hamels in the most formidable rotation in baseball. Is Halladay-Lee-Oswalt going to match Smoltz-Maddux-Glavine in dominance and sheer intimidation? No. Hudson-Zito-Mulder? Maybe. The latter trio was totally homegrown in the A’s system, which made them all the more likable, especially when the A’s starters won 15 games during the team’s 20-game win streak in 2002. While the Braves’ trio was not as technically homegrown — Smoltz came in a Ryan-Fergosi-esque deal from the Tigers and Maddux had already established himself with the Cubs — by the time the trio was finished pitching in Atlanta, they’d certainly become household names. No doubt all three will go into the Hall of Fame donning Braves caps. Give Halladay, Lee, and Oswalt another five years together and maybe the comparisons will start to flow a little more easily.

The Phillies have not been the only big winners this offseason. Until the Lee deal, the Boston Red Sox were — and still should be — considered the big winners of the off-season. Within a week, the Sox traded for first baseman Adrian Gonzalez and signed the Yankees’ second-most coveted free agent, left fielder Carl Crawford. Gonzalez, especially playing in Fenway Park, could become the best first baseman in the game, even surpassing that guy Albert on the Cardinals. His fielding is already second to none, and his opposite-field stroke will no doubt benefit from a short porch in left. Crawford — whom the Yankees really didn’t need, so much as want — gives the Red Sox a legitimate speedster who can play any outfield position better than who they have already and who will no doubt benefit from a short porch in right. More importantly — knock on wood — Crawford has done a pretty good job of staying healthy over his career, which is more than Boston can say for most of its roster, and especially its outfield. With Crawford and Gonzalez in tow and leading the charge, the Sox are easy favorites to win the AL East.

But don’t worry, Yankees fans; all is not lost. The Yanks just signed setup man Rafael Soriano to a three-year, $35 million contract. Aside from the fact that they have now dedicated $65 million this off-season to five years’ worth of two relievers — Mariano got $30 million for two years earlier this winter — the move does give the Yankees a formidable setup-closer duo on paper. Whether Soriano, who wasn’t always a closer before dominating for Tampa Bay last year, can be as effective in a non-closing role as the Yanks hope he will remains to be seen. The Red Sox are hoping to get similar results from Bobby Jenks this year, but as J.J. Putz and the New York Mets can attest — and the Red Sox and Eric Gagne, for that matter — things don’t always go according to plan. While I understand that Soriano will no doubt replace Rivera once the latter finally does retire, that day shouldn’t arrive until the last year of Soriano’s contract at the earliest. If Rivera’s next two seasons are successful, it may take even longer. Other teams, like the Brewers, Rangers, and Cubs, have made big moves this winter as well. That said, the off-season hasn’t been kind to everyone. In every big trade, there is the team that is losing its star player, and in every big free agent acquisition, there arwe the teams that lose out on signing him. The Angels inexplicably barely made a peep in trying to sign Crawford and Adrian Beltre, both of whom would have filled giant holes in their lineup and put the team on the right track after a horrendous 2010 campaign. The Marlins have traded away most of their former future, most notably sending Dan Uggla to fellow NL East-mate Atlanta.

But then there are the teams that couldn’t help having a bad off-season in 2010. The Royals traded Zack Greinke because he asked them to. The Padres traded Gonzalez because they couldn’t afford to pay him what he deserved. The Rays lost Crawford to the Sox and Carlos Pena to the Cubs via free agency simply because they couldn’t afford to re-sign either, and they later traded Matt Garza to the Cubs to avoid having to pay him more than they would be able to.

The Rays have significantly less money to work with than most teams, especially due to the unfortunate fact that no one in Tampa seems to come to their games. The Mets have made big management and front office shakeups, but their off-season plan seems hinged around maybes, has-beens, and hopefuls. Their off-season situation has a little more backstory than “can’t help it,” though; they have almost zero payroll flexibility, mainly due to bad deals of off-seasons past. 2011 benchwarmer Luis Castillo is owed $6 million this year, and bullpen forget-me-please Oliver Perez is owed $12 million. Carlos Beltran is in the final season of his expensive contract, but if things go according to plan, he could still make this year worth every penny. That said, with what little money they do have, the Mets have made some potentially good moves and some nonsensical ones, the most prominent being letting Hisanori Takahashi walk after a phenomenal (and cheap) season.

What’s another difference between the Mets and the Rays? The Rays won their division in 2008 and 2010 and have now proven that they can win with what they have. The Mets have had the big money, but they finished fourth in 2009 and 2010. As this off-season comes to a close, there’s no telling how 2011 will play out for those having, well, off offseasons. 2010 losers like the Orioles and Brewers have done what they need to in order to contend this year, while perennial behemoths like Boston and New York will look to make those moves moot. But winners or losers, off-seasons or on-seasons, there are only four more weeks until hope springs eternal for all.