Unexpected deals headline free-agent period

Unexpected deals headline free-agent period

Unexpected deals headline free-agent period
To such great opening moves as the Sicilian Defense and Queen's Gambit in the annals of chess -- baseball's metaphoric kind or otherwise -- we can now add Rizzo's Reach and Melvin's Leap.

Washington general manager Mike Rizzo and Milwaukee counterpart Doug Melvin took the lead in altering Major League Baseball's 2011 board with the high-risk moves which have starred in this magical offseason.

And, for a change, the term "magical" is applied quite literally. Rabbits were consistently pulled out of unsuspected hats. Pearl Jam sang about "Nothing as it seems," and that just about covered it.

The offseason market began with four players sticking out of the crowd. None landed at an expected destination. Rizzo snagged Jayson Werth. The Red Sox kept Carl Crawford in the American League East. Cliff Lee ran the reverse back to Philadelphia. Then Melvin stealthily acquired Zack Greinke from Kansas City.

Boston GM Theo Epstein added to the unexpectedness by convincing the Padres to deal Adrian Gonzalez now and not wait for the non-waiver Trade Deadline market.

Subsequently, the last calls on the free-agent market were made by the Rangers, who signed third baseman Adrian Beltre to keep him away from AL West competitors (the A's and the Angels), the Twins, who retained right-hander Carl Pavano, and the Orioles, who concluded a hyperactive offseason by picking up Vladimir Guerrero.

Spurred by losing out on Beltre, Angels GM Tony Reagins engineered the winter's Blockbuster III, acquiring outfielder Vernon Wells from Toronto in exchange for Mike Napoli and Juan Rivera.

Including the Yankees, the 2010 postseason octet has been relatively quiet, with the notable exception of the Phillies' Lee snatch. The Giants (Miguel Tejada) and the Braves (Dan Uggla) beefed up their infields, and the Yankees and the Reds prioritized re-signing their own free agents.

It follows the notion that most of the free-agent spending -- and the aggregate outlay is comfortably north of $1 billion -- has been by the chasers. In fact, just the teams coming off losing seasons have splurged in excess of $300 million on 30 free agents.

An obvious result of this activity is the leveling of the game's overall playing field. The gap between the elite and also-ran teams has, for the most part, been narrowed. How could it not, with some of 2010's downtrodden among the most proactive?

Those include: The Dodgers, whose GM Ned Colletti has waged on in a tough work environment to upgrade everywhere, from the infield (Juan Uribe) to the rotation (Jon Garland) to the bullpen (Matt Guerrier); the D-backs, whose new GM Kevin Towers characteristically made over the bullpen (J.J. Putz, David Hernandez) and the bench (Xavier Nady, Geoff Blum); the Pirates, who signed first baseman Lyle Overbay and high-upside righty Kevin Correia; and, of course, the Brewers, who followed Shaun Marcum with Greinke in their rotation grand re-design, and the Nationals with outfielders Werth and Rick Ankiel.

Washington is not yet done. The 2011 season remains a work in progress for a lot of other clubs, too. In the Nats' case, the item atop Rizzo's to-do list is still unchecked: A No. 1 starter to ease the wait for Stephen Strasburg's recovery from Tommy John surgery.

"We need a front-of-the-rotation guy to put everybody in their proper place in the rotation," Rizzo said at offseason's outset. "That's the number one priority."

If managed, the addition of a starter would make it a quantum-leap offseason for the Nationals, putting them in contention as the most improved team.

Right now, that boast belongs to the Red Sox. Crawford will do a lot to halt last summer's outfield merry-go-round (due largely to injuries, Boston went through 11 outfield starters), Gonzalez nudges Kevin Youkilis back to third and Bobby Jenks, Dan Wheeler and Andrew Miller greatly improve the bullpen.

Chicago will also be able to knock your Sox off, as the Pale Hose added Adam Dunn while retaining both Paul Konerko and A.J. Pierzynski. The A's, one of the overlooked surprises of 2010, gave their crack young rotation support by signing free-agent DH Hideki Matsui and dealing for Ivan DeJesus and Josh Willingham.

The Angels, who, to many, still seemed unsatisfied even after netting Wells, aren't alone in projecting the sense they still have a lot of Spring Training work remaining. The Yankees are admittedly scrambling for pitching after missing out on a couple of left-handers they hoped to have -- Lee and Andy Pettitte, who opted for retirement. And the Cardinals' quiet offseason was interrupted only by the signing of Lance Berkman and the trade for Ryan Theriot.

The Spring Training free-agent cleanup could be quite active. More than 40 players remain unclaimed, including recent headliners like shortstop Orlando Cabrera, outfielder Scott Podsednik and right-handers Kevin Millwood and Jeremy Bonderman.

But the offseason has already belonged to the movers and shakers, and it has been a strange one. The team with MLB's best 2010 record (Phillies) added the best available pitcher (Lee). And the team with the second-best record (Rays) endured the biggest strip-down (five departed free agents and the trade of starting shortstop Jason Bartlett). Tampa Bay answered with a big splash by reuniting former Boston Idiots Johnny Damon and Manny Ramirez.

All these dramatic changes, with more to come, adhere to the 2011 theme. It starts at the top, where seven teams will go to Spring Training next week behind new managers and five others will go through their first camps with managers who assumed their reins during the 2010 season.

The new head men include a trio of rookie skippers, with Don Mattingly of the Dodgers under the brightest spotlight. Former Boston pitching coach John Farrell heads the Blue Jays and former longtime Angels coach Ron Roenicke handles the promising Brewers.

Tom Singer is a national reporter for MLB.com. Follow @Tom_Singer on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.