Winter winner? Don't judge a baseball team by what's on paper

Yankees' Jacoby Ellsbury puts on his jersey during

Yankees' Jacoby Ellsbury puts on his jersey during a press conference at Yankee Stadium. (Dec. (Credit: Mike Stobe)

Winning the offseason. It's a term that's mostly used in mocking fashion, a way to make fun of a rival's wasted money or misguided trades during the three months that separate the World Series from spring training.

But until the games actually count, how else do we keep score? In baseball, every winter move is scrutinized to the point of exhaustion, whether it involves the Tigers shipping Prince Fielder to the Rangers or Justin Turner signing a minor-league deal with the Dodgers.

And that's how the sport is played from November through January -- on paper, a place that rarely decides a champion before a pitch is thrown on Opening Day. Look no further than the 2012 Marlins or 2013 Blue Jays as the most recent examples of big dreams gone bad.

It's probably no coincidence that both of those epic failures shared some of the same DNA -- and similar rotten luck on the injury front. In Miami's case, adding a closer (Heath Bell), shortstop (Jose Reyes) and front-line starter (Mark Buerhle) at a cost of $191 million produced a 69-win team, which prompted owner Jeffrey Loria to dump all of them the next winter.

"Acquiring high-profile players just didn't work," Loria later said in explaining the sell-off, "and nearly everyone on our team underperformed as compared to their career numbers."

Loria has been ridiculed for his lack of patience in gutting the franchise only a year after opening a new $600-million retractable-dome stadium, but he spoke the truth. Last winter, the Blue Jays took advantage of Loria's salary dump in a 12-player deal that, along with a $25-million trade-and-sign for R.A. Dickey, was supposed to sign them up for a World Series run. That reboot got them 74 wins -- the same number recorded by the Mets.

But those are only two of the many cautionary tales when it comes to hot-stove hysteria. During the 2011 winter meetings, the Angels spent $330 million in one day on two players by luring Albert Pujols away from the Cardinals and signing C.J. Wilson. They finished 89-73, but third in the AL West and out of the playoffs.

None of those retooling efforts come close, however, to what the Yankees accomplished this winter in spending $471 million, including $438 million on four marquee free agents -- Masahiro Tanaka, Brian McCann, Jacoby Ellsbury and Carlos Beltran.

After failing to make the playoffs in 2008, the Yankees invested $423 million on CC Sabathia, Mark Teixeira and A.J. Burnett, a trio that helped them -- to varying degrees -- win a World Series the following season. So did the Yankees "win" the winter this time by dumping a blizzard of cash on their problems?

That's debatable. With no Mariano Rivera, no Alex Rodriguez and no Robinson Cano, that's three positions right there the Yankees failed to upgrade. Consider a hobbled Derek Jeter approaching his 40th birthday, a suspect Sabathia and concerns about Teixeira's surgically repaired wrist, and there is reason to doubt that they will see an '09 return on this hefty investment.

"I think clearly a lot of heavy lifting needed to take place this winter," Yankees general manager Brian Cashman said after completing Tanaka's seven-year, $155-million contract. "And it has taken place. We're always looking to improve. I don't think it's realistic to think that there's any more heavy lifting that can take place."

Just maybe not until the July trading deadline. The Yankees are getting a $25-million rebate on A-Rod this season, and after blowing past the $189-million luxury-tax threshold, payroll no longer seems to be of any great concern -- if it ever was in the first place. That business model has always worked for the Yankees, rewarding them with 17 playoff trips in the past 19 years.

On the flip side, the Yankees have lost two of their last three World Series appearances and have one title in the past 13 years after the dynastic run that wrapped in 2000. This winter may not buy them another ring, but really, what other choice did they have?

Few outside Yawkey Way considered the Red Sox an offseason winner a year ago when they collected Mike Napoli, Shane Victorino, Jonny Gomes, Stephen Drew, Ryan Dempster and Koji Uehara at a total cost of roughly $100 million. But after Boston claimed its third title in 10 years with that supplemental crew, those winter moves are looked at as brilliant.

"We weren't really concerned about the initial reaction," Red Sox GM Ben Cherington said.

Go figure. What it does show is that the only way to determine how great a winter your team had is to see who's still playing come October.

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