Scott Miller's Starting 9: Why This Winter's Winners Could Fool You

Scott Miller@@ScottMillerBblNational MLB ColumnistDecember 15, 2015

Arizona Diamondbacks pitcher Zack Greinke talks to the media during a press conference, Friday, Dec. 11, 2015, in Phoenix. Greinke could have stayed with the Los Angeles Dodgers or gone up the coast to the San Francisco Giants. Instead, he signed a massive contract with the Arizona Diamondbacks, dramatically shifting the landscape in the NL West.   (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)
Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

1. Early Peek at 2016: Cubs-Diamondbacks NLCS, Red Sox-Tigers ALCS?

So next year's championship series are set, right? After a few weeks of opening their wallets wide, the Cubs, Diamondbacks, Red Sox and Tigers should keep October open.

Whoa, slow down, hold on, let's get ahold of ourselves. What are you, nuts?

When we write the Chicago Cubs' premature obituary next September or early October—and just as surely as Giordano's deep dish pizza is the most delicious venue on Rush Street, you know it's coming—it is difficult to say with certainty today what the cause for the demise will be. Maybe Jake Arrieta will decide to throw all knuckleballs. Maybe Kris Bryant and Addison Russell will retire early and join a boy band.

Also, it is difficult to sit here today and say with 100 percent clarity why the Arizona Diamondbacks will disappoint with Zack Greinke and Shelby Miller aboard. Maybe Paul Goldschmidt will suddenly spend more time in the Chase Field swimming pool than in the batting cage.

The Red Sox can't lose with David Price? Hogwash. What if Pablo Sandoval shows up this spring weighing more than the TD Garden? The Tigers? C'mon. There's always the chance Jordan Zimmermann loses an "n" and puts Detroit to "zzzzz."

Winslow Townson/Associated Press

It is difficult this time of year to see through the blizzard of free-agent dollars, which rightfully generates the sort of enthusiasm in local markets generally reserved for monumental life moments, like the release of a new Adele record.

So consider this simply a precautionary reminder: The teams that have won the winter in recent years have proceeded to lose the summer.

Last year, the San Diego Padres' acquisitions of Matt Kemp, Derek Norris, James Shields, Justin Upton and others generated more buzz in town than a routine sunset over the Pacific. Today, forensic experts are trying to identify the '15 Padres through dental records and DNA.

The White Sox and Dodgers won the winter last year, too. Turned out, even with Jeff Samardzija, David Robertson and Adam LaRoche, the Sox were less exciting than your sock drawer. And the Dodgers a year later have a new manager and an even more impatient fanbase.

LM Otero/Associated Press

The winter of 2012-13 was all about Toronto after the Blue Jays acquired shortstop Jose Reyes, outfielder Melky Cabrera and pitchers Mark Buehrle and R.A. Dickey. Then they threw out the first pitch of the 2013 season and the Jays dive-bombed all the way to the AL East basement.

The winter of 2011-12 was all about Miami after the Marlins hired manager Ozzie Guillen and threw down free-agent cash for Buehrle, Reyes and closer Heath Bell. Then came Opening Day 2012, and the Marlins tripped to 69-93.

There's a reason why they always play the schedule the next summer after the players go all Trading Places in the winter, and that's because this game has a crazy way of keeping everybody guessing, including the so-called experts.

On paper, having added outfielder Jason Heyward, second baseman/super utility man Ben Zobrist and starter John Lackey, the Cubs are now arguably the best team in baseball.

Yet, how will all of their young talent react to year two?

"I think the sophomore jinx is all about the other team adjusting to you and then you don't adjust back," manager Joe Maddon said at the winter meetings last week. "So the point would be that we need to be prepared to adjust back.

"I think that's my definition of the sophomore jinx, and sometimes you will get the group that takes things for granted and believes or conceded that it's just going to happen again."

Mark Humphrey/Associated Press

You can tell, this already is Maddon's theme for 2016. He said last week he spent time discussing it with the Cubs brass upstairs in the team suite in Nashville.

"[That's] the conversation I need to have early on in camp, without being negative, without being critical of our guys, because we're just showing up," Maddon says. "They're coming off a wonderful season, and it's a very complimentary kind of thing. You want to talk to them and praise them.

"But the target's going to be bigger and I want us to embrace the target. The pressure is going to be possibly greater, and I want us to embrace the pressure.

"The bigger the target, the greater the pressure, I think, equals a grander chance for success. So I'm all about that and I definitely will bring that to our guys' attention."

Arizona, Boston and Detroit, after racing off to great starts in reconstructing rosters and filling holes, are in no danger of sneaking up on anybody in 2016, either.

But as we've seen in the recent past, their toughest opponent to beat may very well be their own raised expectations when the stadiums open and the season begins.

2. Charlie Hustle Thrown out, Again

John Locher/Associated Press

Agree or disagree with the decision, credit Commissioner Rob Manfred with giving Pete Rose his long-awaited appeal and then ruling definitively.

It's more than Manfred's predecessor, Bud Selig, ever did while the Rose situation drifted interminably forward, no answer in sight. For years, Rose has been asking for a hearing and an answer.

He got one, finally, albeit not the answer he wanted.

Ultimately, the decision is no surprise. Manfred worked under Selig long enough that there was no expectation he would shift against the grain except maybe with small-potatoes issues.

The thinking has been that Selig would never reverse course on Rose because he idolized the commissioner who originally issued Rose's lifetime ban, Bart Giamatti. Rose's best hope was that Manfred was another step removed from Giamatti, so, to quote Dumb and Dumber, you're saying there's a chance… .

No more.

In one key passage from his decision, Manfred writes, "Mr. Rose's public and private comments, including his initial admission in 2004, provide me with little confidence he has a mature understanding of his wrongful conduct, that he has accepted full responsibility for it or that he understands the damage he has caused."

Manfred also writes that "Mr. Rose has not presented evidence of a reconfigured life either by an honest acceptance by him of his wrongdoing, so clearly established by the Dowd Report, or by a rigorous, self-aware and sustained avoidance by him of all the circumstances that led to his permanent ineligibility in 1989."

In a statement, Reds President and CEO Bob Castellini noted that Manfred phoned him before publicly announcing the decision and expressed gratitude that the Hall of Fame issue will remain separate, to a degree, from what Rose can do with the Reds.

"We are pleased that we have had and will continue to have opportunities to commemorate Pete's remarkable on-field accomplishments," Castellini said in a statement. "Any future plans to celebrate Pete's career with the Reds first will be discussed with the commissioner and then will be communicated publicly at the appropriate time."

3. Johnny B. A San Francisco Giant

Peter Morgan/Associated Press

That the Giants would pump $220 million into their rotation this winter in Johnny Cueto (six years, $130 million) and Jeff Samardzija (five years, $90 million) is wholly consistent with the way this top-shelf organization has been doing business for years.

Brian Sabean, point man in charge of baseball operations for nearly two decades, and manager Bruce Bochy philosophically are on the same page in constructing a team, and that page reads pitching, pitching, pitching.

Bochy's worst fear is having to go to his bullpen in the fifth inning every night. From the time he had right-hander Kevin Brown in San Diego in 1998 to the Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, Madison Bumgarner days in San Francisco, Bochy knows that the most direct path to winning is with an ace pitcher (or two) and a staff that can chew through innings as well as anybody else.

Eric Risberg/Associated Press

Last winter, the Giants were zeroed in on Jon Lester before the Cubs scored him.

This winter, they went hard after Zack Greinke. They were involved with David Price.

Now, they land Cueto.

The downsides: Rumors of a balky elbow dogged Cueto throughout the summer in 2015, growing especially loud in September when he hit a dead-arm stretch during which his fastball dropped to the 90 mph range. Also, there are legitimate questions surrounding his temperament, in that the Kansas City Royals arranged for him to pitch only home games in the World Series because they didn't trust him on the road after he melted down in Toronto in the ALCS.

The upsides: Bochy and San Francisco pitching coach Dave Righetti are among the best in the business at handling pitchers. In the NL, Cueto will face easier lineups without DHs. And in the NL West, he'll pitch in pitchers' parks in San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego.

The upsides easily win when you factor all of that into this picture. Especially assuming, gulp, Cueto passes his physical.

4. Diamondbacks Could Still Spring a Leake

Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

Looks like the boxing out under the boards will continue deeper into the winter in the NL West.

Arizona general manager Dave Stewart said before leaving Nashville last week that the D-backs will continue to stay engaged in conversations with free-agent starter Mike Leake.

Difficult to believe given the $206.5 million they've committed to Zack Greinke and the blockbuster trade with Atlanta to acquire starter Shelby Miller, but Arizona likes Leake a lot and seems determined.

Ben Margot/Associated Press

"Hopefully we will continue to talk and see where it goes," Stewart said. "Ken [Kendrick, Arizona owner] has been amazing; Ken and Derrick [Hall, club president] [find] creative ways to do things."

Leake pitched collegiately across town at Arizona State University and industry sources say he is very interested in finding a way to fit with the D-backs.

"I'll tell you, he's a pretty amazing kid," Stewart said. "What he wants to accomplish and what he has accomplished at a young age is amazing.

"I think he definitely would be an asset to our team."

5. New Managers Making the Rounds

Mark Humphrey/Associated Press

Different strokes for different folks when it comes to learning, and early-stages building of a new team.

Washington manager Dusty Baker says he isn't rushing out to meet a lot of his Nationals players over the winter because, well, his experience tells him it might not be needed.

"I've called a few guys, but I learned, when I went to the Reds I called everybody," Baker said in Nashville last week. "And then I spent a lot of time talking to Josh Hamilton. And then Josh was gone a couple of weeks later. So until you see who's going to be on your team, heck, I'm going to be with these guys every day."

Mark Humphrey/Associated Press

Meantime, new San Diego manager Andy Green, embarking on his first big league skipper's job, is working it.

"That's been my favorite part," Green said, also while in Nashville. "There's a thousand things that have to take place right away when you take this job, [like putting] your staff together. But my favorite part is sitting across from Tyson Ross having breakfast, finding out who he is as a person and how driven he is, coming in the day after Thanksgiving seeing him dripping in sweat because he's working out and has a passion to be the best he can be."

Green said he had lunch with Wil Myers and spent time with Matt Kemp and James Shields, as well, among others.

"My favorite part is the relationship building," Green said. "It's not just those guys. I talked to Jon Edwards for about half an hour on the phone the other day. I talked to Jon Jay yesterday.

"It's every day, being as invested as humanly possible in getting to know these guys on a personal level."

6. Strange but True Fact

Jim Mone/Associated Press

Under general manager Terry Ryan, the Minnesota Twins have never signed a free-agent reliever to a multiyear contract.

"It's not because I haven't tried," Ryan quipped.

This comes up now because the Twins' No. 1 priority this winter, after signing free-agent slugger Byung-ho Park from Korea, is focusing on improving their bullpen. And with prices for relievers soaring (think Darren O'Day agreeing with Baltimore on a four-year, $31 million deal), that is not an easy task.

7. Free-Agent Power Rankings

Matt Slocum/Associated Press

1. Johnny Cueto: Can you imagine what the San Francisco fans who wore Panda masks will do after being inspired by Cueto's dreadlocks? Could be brilliant.

2. Alex Gordon: The trickle-down effect from Jason Heyward signing with the Cubs should mean Gordon is up next. Now, how much of Heyward's $184 million trickles down?

3. Chris Davis: Orioles GM Dan Duquette confirms the club pulled its $150 million offer off the table. There aren't a lot of clubs looking for first basemen, but remember when Prince Fielder was on the market until late winter when Detroit's Victor Martinez hurt himself working out? Yep, Prince and Davis' agent is one in the same: Scott Boras.

4. Justin Upton: Nationals, Orioles and Giants still look like fits.

5. Yoenis Cespedes: Hello? Hello? Anybody out there? Hello?

8. How Many Catchers Fit on One Roster?

John Bazemore/Associated Press

You'd expect them to hoard water in San Diego during the California drought. Not necessarily catchers.

Yet, by acquiring Christian Bethancourt from Atlanta last week, the San Diego Padres now have four—count 'em—catchers on their 40-man roster.

Derek Norris. Bethancourt. Austin Hedges. And Josmil Pinto, whom the Padres claimed off waivers from Minnesota last month.

One thought is that this overabundance will allow Hedges a year of seasoning in Triple-A. He should have had that last year, but spring injuries helped place him onto the Opening Day roster and he spent too much time on the big league bench.

Most likely, though, the method to GM A.J. Preller's madness here is that catchers are always in demand, and either this winter or as spring training deepens, San Diego will begin fielding inquiries about its catching stash and be able to acquire a young prospect or two in a deal.

The Padres are attempting to compete while also restocking their farm system. But they still need a shortstop and, so far, do not seem overly interested in free-agent Ian Desmond.

9. Chatter

• As he feverishly worked to improve the Atlanta Braves in Nashville at last week's winter meetings, GM John Coppolella, after arriving last Sunday night, did not sleep from Monday morning until he checked out and headed home Thursday. Did. Not. Sleep. Worked all night every night, and looked like it when we spoke as he exited the hotel and headed home. But Atlanta's haul in the Shelby Miller deal, center fielder Ender Inciarte, pitching prospect Aaron Blair and shortstop Dansby Swanson, Arizona's No. 1 pick in last summer's draft, made it worthwhile.

Wilfredo Lee/Associated Press

 Yankees GM Brian Cashman on CC Sabathia, whom we last heard from just before the AL Wild Card Game when he announced he was checking himself into an alcohol rehabilitation program: "He's doing great. He's now in full-blown getting-ready-for-the-season mode and we're looking forward to getting him back in the mix in spring training."

 The Tigers since season's end under new GM Al Avila have undergone a significant makeover, with seven new players on their 25-man roster: Starters Jordan Zimmermann and Mike Pelfrey, closer Francisco Rodriguez, outfielder Cameron Maybin, relievers Mark Lowe and Justin Wilson and catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia.

 Tigers manager Brad Ausmus on Avila: "Al, without question, has been extremely active. He's really kind of accomplished a good portion of what was our goal to accomplish coming out of our organizational meetings in mid-October, which was pitching, pitching and more pitching."

 Say this for new Padres manager Andy Green: He has a sharp sense of humor. Asked whether he was surprised by Arizona's strike for Zack Greinke, the man who coached third base for the D-backs last year quipped, "I think once they cleared my salary off the books, they had enough to go after Zack Greinke."

Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report.

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