Warming to all of baseball's offseason going-ons

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WALLA WALLA — Thank goodness for the Hot Stove League.

If not for the wheelings and dealings, the rumors and innuendo — and all of those bar room debates that are sure to follow — November through February would surely stand as the four most dreary months of the calendar year.

These are the all-too-short, fog-shrouded days that offer little more than the prospect of an overnight snowfall. And they would be unbearable if not for the banter of baseball huddled around a potbellied stove.

Figuratively speaking, of course.

This is that intriguing time of year when big league ball clubs plot and plan for the coming campaign. Free agents are signed, trades are consummated and prospects are reevaluated, some projected into big league roles.

Every major league team is a contender during the dead of winter. And every fan, to greater and lesser degrees, holds out hope that this will be his or her team’s year to take that next big step.

There are no better examples than last year’s Washington Nationals in the National League and the Oakland Athletics of the AL.

The Nats figured to finish no higher than third place, possibly fourth, in the National League East, but they won 98 games and took the division by four games over second-place Atlanta and a whopping 17 games over Philadelphia, the preseason favorites.

Likewise, Oakland was expected to battle the Seattle Mariners to avoid last place in the American League West. Instead, the surprising A’s won 94 games and edged favored Texas by one game for the division title. And the Angels, the team most fans expected to challenge the Rangers, finished third, five games back.

Trying to predict who will be the surprise teams of 2013 is challenging, not to mention foolhardy. But you can almost make book that one or two upstarts will emerge.

There has already been a plethora of player movement during this off season. And many more moves are sure to follow.

But games are won and lost on the field of play, not on boardroom wall displays. So determining this winter’s winners and losers will take some time.

Check back in July or possibly August.

Certainly the Toronto Blue Jays made the first big splash of the off season when they traded four journeymen and four prospects to cash-strapped Miami for five veteran players, four of whom should be key contributors in 2013 as the Blue Jays bid to become relevant in the difficult American League East.

Pitchers Josh Johnson, who has a 56-37 career won-lost record, and 12-year veteran Mark Buehrle (174-132), should easily fit into Toronto’s starting rotation. Jose Reyes, a career .291 hitter who stole 40 bases last season, is expected to take over at shortstop or possibly third base. And center fielder Emilio Bonafacio, who batted .258 in 2012 with 13 steals, adds another intriguing speed element to a lineup that is already loaded with long-ball sluggers the likes of Jose Bautista (27 homers in 92 games), Edwin Encarnacio (42 bombs) and Colby Rasmus (23 big flies).

Considering New York’s only significant move so far this winter is the addition of over-the-hill third baseman Kevin Youkilis as a replacement for over-the-hill Alex Rodriguez, who also happens to be injured, the Yankees appear no better, no worse than they were in 2012.

And since Boston’s only positive steps — other then dumping over-the-top manager Bobby Valentine — are the signings of catcher Mike Napoli and outfielder Shane Victorino, the Red Sox don’t appear to be greatly improved heading into the holidays.

Baltimore was predicted to finish last in the AL East in 2012, but the Orioles won 93 games and finished second in the division, just two game behind the Yankees. However, the O’s have so far been relatively silent over the course of the off season.

That said, the Blue Jays just might be the team to beat in the Al East.

There is, of course, the winter’s other big, big trade to consider between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Kansas City Royals.

The Rays, who lagged five games in back of the O’s in last year’s AL East, pulled off a deal that isn’t likely to prove helpful in 2013 but promises to bear significant fruit in the not-too-distant future.

Tampa swapped one of its top pitchers, 15-game winner James “Big Game” Shields, along with bullpen stalwart Wade Davis, to Kansas City for three of the more highly regarded prospects in all of baseball. What the Rays received in return are outfielder Wil Myers and pitchers Jake Odorizzi and Mike Montgomery.

Myers, who some liken to Angels Rookie of the Year Mike Trout, was ranked No. 28 in last year’s Baseball American top 100 prospects. Montgomery, a fireballing lefty, ranked No. 23 and Odorizzi was 68th.

In one 2013 prospect ranking that has already been released, Myers is ranked No. 9, Montgomery 28th and Odorizzi has climbed to No. 30.

If this trio of players develops the way some experts anticipate they will, the Rays will have consumated one heck of a deal and will once again be in position to challenge for a division title and a return to the World Series, where they lost to the Phillies four games to one in 2008.

On the other hand, if Shields can prove to be the ace the Royals have been looking for since Zack Greinke left Kansas City following the 2010 season, and if Ervin Santana, another winter acquisition, regains the pitching form he has flashed on and off during his eight seasons with the Angels, the young and talented Royals could become serious contenders in the American League West.

For now, all of this is little more than Hot Stove conjecture.

But isn’t it fun?

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