Already blessed with one of big league baseball’s strongest starting rotations— Roy Halladay, Cole Hamels and Roy Oswalt were a combined 40-22 in 2010—the Philadelphia Phillies landed the biggest catch of the off-season when free-agent lefty Cliff Lee signed a five-year deal worth US$120 million (Lee turned down the New York Yankees, despite their offer being worth US$28 million more). The Phillies’ rotation, which some say is the best in major league history—at least on paper—now boasts three Cy Young Awards, 13 All-Star appearances and a World Series MVP to its credit.
PLAYING IT SAFE
Justin Morneau’s season ended abruptly last July when the Minnesota Twin took Toronto Blue Jay second baseman John McDonald’s knee to the head while sliding into second base. The 2006 American League MVP, who was one of eight big leaguers last year to miss games due to a concussion, was hitting .345 with 18 home runs and 56 RBIs at the time of the injury and was scheduled to start in the All-Star game. But even by the time spring training rolled around, the 29-year-old New Westminster, B.C., native had yet to be cleared to play. Morneau, who carries many of the Twins’ hopes for a repeat trip to the post-season, managed to work his way into some pre-season games by mid-March; he believes he’ll be back for opening day.
WHAT’S OLD IS NEW AGAIN
The Tampa Bay Rays had gone from long-term laughingstock to perennial contender, but their pennant hopes plummeted this winter with the departures of fleet-footed left fielder Carl Crawford and power-hitting first baseman Carlos Peña. To fill the holes, the Rays dipped into the free-agent pool and pulled out Johnny Damon and Manny Ramirez. It’s a departure for the Rays, who became a winner thanks to cheap, young talent. But the club is hoping the pair of veterans will help its high-octane offence not miss a beat.
RED SOX RELOAD
After finishing the 2010 season six games out of a playoff spot, the Boston Red Sox instantly re-established themselves as pennant favourites with a pair of big off-season moves. First, they inked Carl Crawford, formerly of Tampa Bay, to a seven-year $142-million deal. Crawford was the winter’s biggest prize among position players, having hit at least .296 in each of his last six healthy seasons, averaging 53 stolen bases a year over that span. And then the Red Sox dealt three prospects to San Diego for slugging first baseman Adrian Gonzalez, who should benefit greatly, moving from one of baseball’s worst hitting parks (Petco Park) to one of the best: Fenway Park.
SWINGING FOR THE FINANCES
Since his 2001 rookie season, Albert Pujols has been, by many counts, the best hitter in all of baseball. In each of his first 10 seasons, the St. Louis Cardinals slugger has averaged 41 home runs, 123 RBIs and a .331 batting average. Yet despite the best efforts of the club, the two sides couldn’t come to an agreement to fend off the lifelong Cardinal’s impending free agency later this year. Reports had the 31-year-old asking for a 10-year, US$300-million contract extension, which would have been baseball’s richest ever. Though he’s already a blue-chipper, look for Pujols, who says he’ll wade into the market this winter, to post some massive numbers this season in an effort to raise his value even more.
NO MONEYBALL THIS YEAR
Two of the biggest-spending teams in baseball won’t be able to solve any on-field problems with money this year. The Los Angeles Dodgers will likely be sold now that the judge in the messy public divorce of owners Frank and Jamie McCourt has ruled they must share ownership of the US$722-million team. And the owners of the New York Mets, having allegedly profited from the massive fraud perpetrated by Wall Street scoundrel Bernie Madoff, are being sued for $1 billion by the trustee seeking to recover funds for Madoff’s victims. While there’s hope for the Dodgers—it would have to come under new ownership—the Mets are tied to expensive, long-term commitments to aging, declining players and could be hamstrung financially for years.