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For MLB GMs, 'winning the winter' can lead to a cruel summer

BOCA RATON, Fla. - They collected their information, discussed trades with clubs and potential signings with player-agents, but when general managers began departing the Boca Raton Resort & Club, they were subtly reminded Thursday of a little history lesson.

“I’ve learned that you don’t want to win the winter,’’ Yankees GM Brian Cashman told USA TODAY Sports. “It almost creates false expectations. When a team wins the winter, typically the media pressure crushes them over time, or it’s just hard to live up to the expectations.

“So I’d rather get blasted over our deals, because then it has a better chance of working out.’’

So far, so bad. The Yankees made the only real trade at the annual GM Meetings by acquiring Aaron Hicks from the Minnesota Twins for catcher John Ryan-Murphy. It drew rave reviews knowing it perhaps will lead to even a bigger move, and created sexy headlines in the New York tabloids.


“I’ve been there,’’ said Chicago Cubs president Theo Epstein, “it’s not what you want.’’

It was prior to the 2011 season when Epstein was with the Boston Red Sox when they acquired All-Star first baseman Adrian Gonzalez from the San Diego Padres and signed outfielder Carl Crawford to a $142 million deal. The Red Sox were the stars of the winter, building a team for the ages.

That team never went anywhere, collapsing in the final month of 2011, which led to the departures of Epstein and manager Terry Francona. A year later, they had their worst season in 47 years, finishing in last place, losing 93 games.

“The expectations became so high,’’ Epstein said, “people were speculating whether this is the greatest team of all time. A super team. It affected us when we got to a slow start.

“It’s an unbelievable dynamic over the last few years how the winners of the off-season tend to be miserable the following September.’’

Just ask those winter kings of a year ago.

The San Diego Padres and Chicago White Sox were crowned winter champions a year ago. The Padres made nine trades that involved 42 players, bringing in an entirely new outfield, with the largest payroll in franchise history.

“In all of my years in baseball,’’ Arizona Diamondbacks GM Dave Stewart said, “it’s the first time I’ve seen an overhaul of pretty much the whole team. I’ve just never seen that before. Never a major overhaul like that.’’

They proceeded to spend the summer losing 88 games, firing two managers, and finishing next-to-last in the NL West.

It was no different for the AL winter champs. The White Sox went out and sent four players for starter Jeff Samardzija, signed free agent closer David Robertson, free-agent outfielder Melky Cabrera, free agent first baseman Adam LaRoche, and free agent pitcher Zach Duke.

The White Sox finished 19 games out of first place, and one game out of last, with the third-worst record in the AL at 76-86, with White Sox chairman Jerry Reinsdorf calling it the most disappointing season of his tenure.

“Certainly, converting on the opportunity that was presented to us last year,’’ White Sox GM Rick Hahn said, “we wouldn’t change. Obviously, the results weren’t what we hoped. You wish it would have played out differently.

“But from the planning and execution of a plan standpoint, it’s certainly nothing we would have shied away from. Sometimes, it just takes time. Look at the Blue Jays.’’

Ah yes, the Blue Jays were kings of the winter of 2012, the beneficiaries of the Miami Marlins’ fire sale, just a year after the Marlins were the winter champs of 2011, spending $191 million. It took three seasons, and another flurry of aggressive moves with the acquisition of ace David Price, third baseman Josh Donaldson and shortstopTroy Tulowitzki, but they finally reached the playoffs for the first time since 1993.

Sound familiar?

The Los Angeles Angels spent a record $240 million on All-Star first baseman Albert Pujols in the winter of 2011, came back 12 months later and threw out $125 million for All-Star outfielder Josh Hamilton, and won the AL West in 2014.

“Any time you make that kind of change,’’ said Seattle Mariners GM Jerry Dipoto, the Angels’ GM at the time, “it takes time, especially when you bring in players as magical as Albert Pujols or mercurial as Josh Hamilton. These are premium players. Former MVPs. Former batting champions. They checked every box as far as career accomplishments.

“But any time you bring in that kind of dynamic, having those accomplishments and different personalities, it’s just different. It changes the clubhouse when they come in, and it takes time. The other players are looking. How are they going to walk? How are they going to talk? How is this clubhouse going to work? The manager and staff may move a little more gingerly putting things together.

“As a result, it takes teams a little while to get their wheels spinning before they get on a roll. Sooner or later, the tires will gain traction if you put the right pieces in place, and once the players gain that familiarity and trust with one another. Then, it's on.

“Well, unless you just made some really bad decisions.’’

Yes, there’s that, too.

Still, you’ve got to go back to the winter of 2008 when the Yankees dropped $423 million on the free agent market to grab starters CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett and first baseman Mark Teixeira, to see a club "win the winter" and the World Series the following year.

They tried the same strategy two years ago when they spent $485 million on Masahiro Tanaka, Jacoby Ellsbury, Brian McCann and Carlos Beltran. Well, in two years, they have played in one playoff game, and lost.

“Well, we’ll never have to worry about that,’’ Pittsburgh Pirates GM Neil Huntington said. “We will never win the winter. Never. We haven’t come close, and I don’t anticipate that we ever will. And I think we’ve shown there’s nothing wrong with that.’’

Said Epstein: “I hope we can say the same one day, too. A healthy organization is not made by the virtue of one busy off-season. The organizations that are the healthiest, and have the most talent coming through the pipeline, that have the fewest holes, tend to have the least active off seasons. And those organizations tend to win.’’

The St. Louis Cardinals have epitomized non-descript winters. Never have they been crowned the winter winners since GM John Mozeliak joined the organization 20 years ago. Yet, they have reached the playoffs 12 times since 2000, winning two World Series championships and four pennants.

The Cardinals were hoping to keep it that way, but within 24 hours, they lost two starters. Lance Lynn will miss the entire 2016 season with Tommy John surgery andAlex Reyes, their top prospect, was suspended 50 games for marijuana use under the game's minor league drug testing policy.

They may have no choice but to steal the winter headlines if they sign the top prize of the free agent market, ace David Price, and perhaps even retain outfielder Jason Heyward, too.

“We’ve endured a few body blows here,’’ Mozeliak said, “but I don’t want to get into predicting what we may or may not do. That’s never healthy. Our goal is to win the in-season. It’s not making headlines in the off-season.’’

This year, they may no choice.

“Maybe we’ll see,’’ Mozeliak said, “if we have a different outcome.’’

Good luck.


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