The Los Angeles Angels and Miami Marlins were champions of the 2011-12 offseason. The Angels committed more than $300 million to Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson on a single day at the winter meetings. The Marlins signed Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle and Heath Bell for the grand opening of their avant-garde ballpark in Little Havana.
Then the games began. The Angels finished a disappointing third in the American League West. The Marlins fared even worse, slipping back into irrelevancy with a 93-loss debacle amid embarrassing antics from since-fired manager Ozzie Guillen.
And this was hardly the first time an offseason boom led to an in-season bust. In fact, 2012 merely followed the same script as the year before. Remember the 2011 World Series between the Greatest Rotation Ever and the Greatest Red Sox Team Ever? Of course you don’t. It never happened. The Phillies of Halladay, Hamels and Lee didn’t make it out of the first round. Boston’s only award came from the Fried Chicken and Beer Association of America.
So, there is a reason we haven’t witnessed tearful acceptance speeches from the Los Angeles Dodgers and Toronto Blue Jays after their Hot Stove League pennants: Championships are earned, not purchased.
The New York Yankees had the majors’ highest payroll in each of the last 14 seasons, according to the USA Today salary database. They won the World Series three times, the most of any team in baseball during that span.
At least, that’s one way to look at it. Here’s another: Although the Yankees outspent every other organization in the industry for more than a decade, someone other than Mariano Rivera threw the season’s final pitch more than 78 percent of the time.
And if the Yankees can’t buy the World Series, well, no one can.
That’s not to excuse owners who would rather hoard money and carry minimum payrolls. (The Big Marlin — Jeffrey Loria — is again on the hook for that offense.) The concurrent splurges for the Dodgers and Blue Jays have transformed both into instant World Series contenders. The Dodgers, in particular, have doubled last year’s Opening Day payroll — up to $213.01 million, according to Cot’s Baseball Contracts — and will unseat the Yankees as baseball’s most expensive team this season. But let’s be honest about what those expensive players represent: higher-percentage lottery tickets.
After signing Zack Greinke ($147 million) and Hyun-Jin Ryu ($36 million), the Dodgers have an overabundance of starting pitchers — and probably the game’s best 1-2 combination, between Greinke and left-handed ace Clayton Kershaw. But there’s anxiety surrounding the lineup, because of players returning from surgery (Matt Kemp, Carl Crawford) and the high demands on mercurial types (Hanley Ramirez, Andre Ethier).
The Blue Jays added a dynamic presence in shortstop Jose Reyes — a threat to lead the American League in batting average, triples and runs. And Toronto has one of the league’s top rotations, led by trade acquisitions R.A. Dickey, Mark Buehrle and Josh Johnson. Yet the team’s season could hinge on the health of slugger Jose Bautista, who played only six games after the All-Star break because of a wrist injury.
From this week’s workouts through the end of the season, expectations will be a constant, oppressive force for both the Dodgers and Blue Jays. Faced with a similar circumstance, the 2012 Marlins crumbled. (Reyes, Buehrle and Johnson can tell their new Toronto teammates all about that.) The Angels started dreadfully, too, with a 6-14 record before Mike Trout arrived.
For those reasons, Kemp and Bautista are the most important figures in each clubhouse — particularly early this season. As Hank Aaron Award winners for their respective leagues in 2011, their offensive bona fides are well established. They also possess the personal qualities and organizational tenures necessary to lead — a particularly important consideration, when a redesigned team is supposed to win. (Ask the Lakers.)
Something else to keep in mind: If the Dodgers or Blue Jays struggle early, their fans shouldn’t expect to be saved by even more spending at the trade deadline. Consider what happened at the middle of last season: The Dodgers added nearly $300 million in payroll in trades for Adrian Gonzalez, Josh Beckett, Ramirez and the injured Crawford, among others. The rival San Francisco Giants opted for much cheaper upgrades, such Marco Scutaro and Hunter Pence. At last check, they were spraying champagne.
It’s been that way for a few years, eventual champions defining themselves with modest, in-season moves. The ’11 Cardinals had Edwin Jackson, Octavio Dotel, Marc Rzepczynski, Rafael Furcal and Arthur Rhodes. The ’10 Giants found Pat Burrell, Cody Ross, Javier Lopez and Ramon Ramirez. Neither team was touted much in the preseason. The 2009 Yankees — who signed CC Sabathia, Mark Teixeira and A.J. Burnett — were the most recent club to “win” the offseason and season in the same cycle.
Owners, general managers, agents and dollar signs have given us plenty to talk about over the past few months, but the spotlight isn’t theirs anymore. From Monday through October — on any day that starts with uniforms hanging neatly in lockers — the game belongs to the players. For the next eight-and-a-half months, the exhilarating uncertainty of what happens on the field is about the only thing a baseball owner can buy.