Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

It's a whole new ball game

Several teams have added serious depth in the off-season

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Before heading to Florida for his 50th season in professional baseball, Jim Leyland thought about all the deals that were made since he walked off the field as the World Series ended last October.

"Toronto probably was the big boy in the off-season as far as the moves they made," the Detroit Tigers manager said. "That's going to be just one heck of a division, obviously. Toronto, they actually were my sleeper team last year until they had all those injuries to the pitching staff."

From Joker Marchant Stadium in Lakeland, Fla., to HoHoKam Park in Mesa, Ariz., bats and balls will be broken out next week when teams report for spring training -- extra early because of the third World Baseball Classic. For an off-season with a lacklustre free-agent market, a whole lot of movement took place.

While the L.A. Dodgers and Angels flashed cash, putting Zack Greinke in Dodger blue and Josh Hamilton in Orange County red, Toronto general manager Alex Anthopoulos flipped players in the trade market as if they were baseball cards.

NL Cy Young Award winner R.A. Dickey was acquired from the Mets, and 2011 NL batting champion José Reyes arrived with pitchers Mark Buehrle and Josh Johnson from Miami, which seemed to jettison virtually every veteran other than mascot Billy the Marlin.

"There's pressure to win for everybody," said manager John Gibbons, back running the Blue Jays' dugout for the first time since 2008. "It's survival of franchises. They've got to win sooner or later. That forces some teams to do some things if you're going to keep up."

Players and fans are looking forward to sun in Florida and Arizona over the next 1 1/2 months, with the exhibition schedule starting Feb. 21 when the Boston Red Sox host Northeastern University at Fort Myers, Fla. But the cloud of drugs remains over the game. Alex Rodriguez, Gio Gonzalez and others were alleged to have obtained substances on baseball's banned list from a Florida clinic, charges the players denied.

Who did what will take months to sort out, perhaps years. Teams are more focused on the now.

The Atlanta Braves, minus retired star Chipper Jones, were busy this winter bringing in brothers B.J. and Justin Upton to play alongside each other in a stacked outfield.

The Washington Nationals, who brought post-season baseball to the American capital last year for the first time since 1933, look primed for a run at the World Series. They re-signed Adam LaRoche and added Dan Haren, Denard Span and Rafael Soriano to a deep and talented roster highlighted by young phenoms Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper.

At the other end of the spectrum, Houston, which hosts Texas in the March 31 major league opener, stripped down as it moved into the American League and left itself with just five players on the big league roster who have three seasons or more in the majors.

With a payroll in the $25 million range -- less than Rodriguez alone will earn -- the Astros could become the first team to get the top draft pick for three straight years. They also could become just the second team, according to STATS, to lose 106 or more games in three consecutive seasons. The 1962-65 New York Mets are the other.

Spending doesn't always work. Exhibit A is the Miami Marlins.

Moving into their new ballpark last spring, the Marlins thought they had a good chance to win the World Series for the first time since 2003. Showtime even followed the team around for a reality series, The Franchise.

But Miami skidded out of contention, stars were traded, the TV show was cut short and manager Ozzie Guillen was fired after one season. A payroll that bulked up to about $97 million last April was sliced in half, leading to harsh criticism of owner Jeffrey Loria.

"It's not a lot of fun," Marlins president of baseball operations Larry Beinfest said.

The San Francisco Giants had the most convivial off-season after sweeping Detroit to win their second World Series title in three seasons following a 56-year drought. San Francisco kept its core together, re-signing outfielder Angel Pagan, infielder Marco Scutaro and left-hander Jeremy Affeldt for a combined $78 million.

"We're very proud that our players want to return and we can embrace them," Giants President Larry Baer said. "It's also comforting that so many players are returning by virtue of youth and not for free agency. So, yes, I'm very appreciative in a world of lots of movement in pro sports that we can essentially stay together."

Ineffectual franchises searched for someone to guide them to success. Gibbons is among six new managers in the majors, joined by Boston's John Farrell, Cleveland's Terry Francona, Colorado's Walt Weiss, Houston's Bo Porter and Miami's Mike Redmond.

Weiss is making the rare switch from high school coach to major league manager, leaving Regis Jesuit High School in Aurora, Colo.

Entering his third season as Dodgers manager, Don Mattingly will be expected to at least lead Los Angeles to its first post-season appearance since 2009. The Dodgers, without a World Series crown since 1988, have boosted their payroll to $215 million-plus and could end the New York Yankees' streak of 14 years as baseball's biggest spender.

In the Dodgers' first full season since they were bought by a group that includes Mark Walter, Magic Johnson and Stan Kasten, they are likely to join the Yankees in paying the luxury tax.

Down Interstate-5, the Angels gave Hamilton the biggest free-agent deal of the off-season for a position player, a $125 million, five-year contract that puts him in a batting order that already included Albert Pujols and Mike Trout. The Angels, who also could be near or above the $178 million tax threshold, hope the signing ends a streak of three seasons without playoff ball and lifts them above Texas and Oakland in the AL West.

"It was a great investment," Angels owner Arte Moreno said.

Oakland won the division despite the lowest payroll at $59.5 million and came within a victory of reaching the AL championship series.

With the downtrodden Astros joining the AL West, the Angels, Rangers and Athletics could pick up wins that will help them in the race for the two wild-card berths at the expense of the East and Central.

The Yankees, wanting to get under the $189 million tax threshold in 2014, allowed Nick Swisher, Raul Ibanez, Russell Martin and Eric Chavez to leave as free agents -- they totalled 80 of New York's team-record 245 home runs. Rodriguez is likely to miss at least the first half of the season following hip surgery.

Kevin Youkilis and Travis Hafner were the major offensive additions after the Yankees spent their efforts and money to re-sign Hiroki Kuroda, Andy Pettitte, Mariano Rivera and Ichiro Suzuki.

"The last couple years everyone said that we hit too many home runs. Now they're wondering where the home runs are going to come from," manager Joe Girardi said. "Other guys are just going to have to get the job done. And maybe it's not with the home run this year. Maybe it's with a little bit more speed and maybe it's more gap to gap."

-- The Associated Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 10, 2013 B10

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