--By Patrick Snow (@AthlonSnowman)
Since the St. Louis Cardinals won their 11th World Series in late October, the baseball world has witnessed many major moves and risky contracts — and that was with the big-money Yankees and Red Sox staying fairly quiet. From power sluggers leaving the NL Central to power arms moving east, there were many winter changes that will have a long-lasting effect on the 2012 campaign and beyond. Here are nine of the most important hot stove happenings:
1. King’s Ransom
The offseason’s biggest news involved something rarely seen — arguably baseball’s best player changing uniforms. Albert Pujols had as good a start to a career in his 11 years in St. Louis as the game has ever seen. His average season with the Cardinals consisted of a .328 average, 40 home runs, 121 RBIs and a 1.037 OPS. Those numbers are amazing, and you have a legend in the making when adding in World Series titles in 2006 and 2011. However, Pujols decided to turn his back on Cardinals fans and take the gargantuan money offered by the Los Angles Angels of Anaheim. The Halos will pay Pujols $240 million over the next decade, but that number is heavily backloaded. King Albert will seem like a bargain while making $28 million over next two seasons, which allowed the Angels to also add former Rangers starter C.J. Wilson to the rotation. However, Pujols will make a staggering $140 million over last five years of the deal, when he will be 37-41 years old. If the Angels get back to the postseason and win a championship in the next two or three seasons, this deal will be worth the cost. However if Pujols misses time with injuries or the team does not claim a title, the massive contract will be heavily criticized.
2. No Ban for Braun
For most of the offseason, it looked like National League MVP Ryan Braun would serve a 50-game suspension for accelerated testosterone levels during a drug test. However in a surprising decision by an independent arbitrator, the Brewers’ slugger was exonerated on a procedural technicality. It was the first case in which an MLB player has won an appeal on a drug-related penalty. No matter how it occurred, Milwaukee gets a much-needed boost with Braun (.332, 33 HR, 111 RBI and 109 runs in ’11) returning to the lineup. He will need to be as productive as ever because…
3. Fresh Start for Prince
Another shocker happened in the Motor City, where former Brewers slugger Prince Fielder inked a nine-year, $214 million deal with the Detroit Tigers. Many around baseball did not think that Fielder would even get close to Pujols-type money, but Tigers management was willing to pay the freight after losing DH Victor Martinez for the year to a knee injury. Over the last six seasons in Milwaukee, Fielder’s average year was .282 with 38 home runs, 108 RBIs and 95 runs scored. And even though some teams worried about his physique over the long-term, Prince has been very durable in averaging 160 games played over those six seasons. While Detroit’s defense may suffer with Miguel Cabrera moving to third base, the Tigers one-two punch in the middle of the lineup looks like the best in baseball.
4. Makeover in Miami
Things have changed in a big way with the Marlins — from the name to a new stadium, new manager, new uniforms and an much-increased payroll. Former White Sox skipper Ozzie Guillen takes over a team that added a trio with 11 All-Stars appearances in shortstop Jose Reyes, starting pitcher Mark Buehrle and closer Heath Bell. Will all of the changes make the Miami Marlins a contender? It’s difficult to see them breaking the stranglehold the Phillies have on the NL East, but the new-look Marlins, Braves and improving Nationals should stage a compelling race in the NL East.
5. Yu Da Man
The Texas Rangers have lost two straight World Series, and ace C.J. Wilson departed in the offseason to the division-rival Angels. However Ron Washington’s club still has a loaded lineup, and the rotation will be bolstered by the signing of Japanese superstar Yu Darvish. The 25-year-old righthander just completed five straight seasons in Japan with an ERA under 2.00, and he may take the majors by storm in 2012. If the 6-foot-5 Darvish can form a solid rotation with Derek Holland and former closer Neftali Feliz, it would be no surprise to see the Rangers in another Fall Classic.
6. Changes for the Champs
There is still an aftershock in St. Louis from the departure of Pujols, but the reigning champions also lost future Hall of Fame manager Tony La Russa and intrepid pitching coach Dave Duncan. Most organizations could not handle such high-level attrition, but the tradition-laden Cardinals may still prosper. Former Cards catcher Mike Matheny takes over for La Russa, while Derek Lilliquist will tutor the pitching staff. Despite having no managerial experience, Matheny is known as a consummate leader and should transition well. There is no replacing Pujols, but slugger Carlos Beltran (.300, 22 HR, .910 OPS in ‘11) will join Matt Holliday and Lance Berkman in the middle of the lineup. St. Louis can also look forward to the return of former 20-game winner Adam Wainwright to the rotation. If Beltran, shortstop Rafael Furcal and World Series MVP David Freese can stay healthy, the Cardinals have a very solid shot to return to the postseason.
7. Pitching goes east; Hitting goes west
Many of teams on the west coast play in pitcher’s park and struggle to attract free agent hitters. We may have seen the start of a new trend where those clubs — like Seattle, San Francisco and San Diego — are willing to trade young (and financially-controlled) hurlers in order to get some thunder in the lineup. The Mariners sent top rookie pitcher Michael Pineda (173 Ks in 171 IP) to the Yankees for heralded young slugger Jesus Montero. The Padres dealt Mat Latos (23 wins, 3.21 ERA, 374 Ks over last two seasons) to Cincinnati for top prospects Yonder Alonso (1B), Yasmani Grandal (C) and pitcher Edinson Volquez. The Giants traded Jonathan Sanchez to the Royals for outfielder Melky Cabrera, who batted .305 with 44 doubles and 102 runs scored in Kansas City last year. Additionally, the A’s traded a pair of solid young hurlers — Trevor Cahill to Arizona and Gio Gonzalez to Washington — to once again add top prospects.
8. Valentine’s Day in Boston
Red Sox fans are still reeling from last September’s collapse, when Boston blew a nine-game lead in the AL wild-card race while going 7-20 over the final month. The offseason saw GM Theo Epstein leave for Chicago, while manager Terry Francona was replaced by the no-nonsense Bobby Valentine. We all are waiting to see how the new skipper’s personality meshes with this talented roster. One major change on the field was the departure of closer Jonathan Papelbon, who left in free agency for the Phillies. The BoSox traded for former A’s closer Andrew Bailey and former Houston stopper Mark Melancon to fix the bullpen. Will Carl Crawford rebound? Will Kevin Youkilis stay healthy? Can Jacoby Ellsbury repeat his stellar 2011 season? The answers to these questions will decide if Boston can return to the postseason after a two-year absence.
9. Reds Go All-In
With Pujols and Fielder leaving the NL Central, Cincinnati general manager Walt Jocketty decided to go for it all in 2012. Along the aforementioned Latos trade, the Reds also added former Philles closer Ryan Madson (32 saves, 2.37 ERA in ’11) and setup man Sean Marshall to the bullpen. With contract decisions looming for top position players Brandon Phillips and Joey Votto over the next two years, the time to strike is now in the Queen City. If young sluggers Jay Bruce and Drew Stubbs can play up to their potential, the Reds will challenge the Cardinals and Brewers for NL Central supremacy.