MLB: New York Mets at Colorado Rockies-Game One

…and now, the off-season truly begins. We had our fun, warming our hands on a prematurely heated hot stove. The Winter Meetings ended up as more of a “cupboards are empty because the food is on the table” letdown but there was still plenty of player movement to keep the hardcore fan happy.

But now, it’s over. A few big pieces remain on the board but the vast majority of dominoes already fell. We’re living on scraps from now until Spring Training, a truly horrifying thought.

Until we have something bigger to, ahem, chew on, we must make due with the measly crumbs we’re fed in the interim. Onward and upward, amirite?

Tampa Bay and the Los Loney Boys

The Rays are good at many things as a franchise, one of the most maddening (ICWYDT) abilities in the minds of their rivals is their ability to make chicken salad at first base. From the resurrection of Carlos Pena to the Casey Kotchman experience, the Rays snapped James Loney off the free agent market last season and he responded as all Rays first basemen do – with a fine season for a very competitive playoff club.

Never one to fit the first base power mould, Loney hit 13 home runs and put up his best offensive numbers since his 2008 breakout year. Add in his excellent first base defense and you have a nice player. But rather than allow Loney to head on to richer pastures, the Rays instead chose to retain Loney’s services, signing him to a three-year deal worth $21 million.

This goes against type for the Rays in terms of both contract term and overall style, as this represents the largest outlay of cash to a free agent (retain him as they did, Loney still hit the open market) since the mostly disastrous Pat Burrell signing of 2009.

We need to look no further than this surprise move by the Rays to understand the impact of inflation in the game today. Even the frugal Rays will struggle to find a nice bargain by going year-to-year as the salaries increase and international spending budgets are capped. The $7MM they’ll give Loney in 2015 and 2016 figures to be well below market, even if his offense slips below league average (as one might expect).

The Rays are all about making the pieces fit. James Loney gave the Rays exactly what they needed and wanted, so much so that they chose to stay in the James Loney business for three more seasons.

From the “MAY THEY NEVER LIVE IT DOWN” files

The Twins get little bang for their bucks

There is value in durability. Even on the worst teams, there is value in workhorses, in making starts and in insulating the future from the horrible present to ensure the sun does, one day, come out again.

This is about the nicest thing I can say about the Minnesota Twins’ decision to hand more than $80 million to Ricky Nolasco, Phil Hughes, and Mike Pelfrey. In descending order of utility, the Twins seem bound and determined to create a discrete barrier between the present and the future by stacking their current rotation with pitchers who run the gamut from “serviceable” to “guy with pulse.”

Not that it’s a bad thing, it just seems like a strange use of money. Could the Twins not have afforded a better pitcher for that money? Yes, they most certainly could have shoved a very similar amount of money in front of a better pitcher and have a fancy piece to trot before season ticket holders as proof that Things Will Be Better Soon.

But the Twins won’t be better, not for a few years. The very nature of free agent contracts is predicated on the first years paying for the last, in terms of players performing their best during the initial years of the term.

No one pitcher will make the Twins good again. Not for a while yet. The Twins farm system bursts with impact players whose time will come – but not for a couple years.

These deals are meant to bridge the current version of the Twins to that bright future. Drag 100 starts out of Hughes and Pelfrey and then clear the decks because the good ones are on their way. Shift Ricky Nolasco from default Opening Day starter to dependable fourth starter.

At least they have a plan – for that Terry Ryan and friends deserve credit. Sadly that plan makes the present day hard to stomach and even tougher to watch. Just try thinking of it as an investment in the future – not that today is meaningless but once they get over the sticker shock, the entire plan comes into sharper focus. Just don’t look too closely, nobody needs to know the nitty gritty details.

Kansas City shoves, hopes pieces are in place

The Kansas City Royals attracted their fair share of scorn last season when they traded one of the top prospects in baseball for James Shields. In a vacuum the trade wasn’t awful, it was the belief that KC was more than a James Shields away from contending.

To their credit, the Royals hung tough in 2013 and posted their best season in a decade. They were still on the periphery of the wild card chase until late September and have put together a very nice off-season so far, grabbing Omar Infante on a four-year, $30 million contract after acquiring Nori Aoki in a trade with Brewers.

Omar Infante is not the perfect ballplayer but he should represent an encouraging sign for Royals fans. The Infante signing is free agency for a mid-sized team done right. He fills a need for a team that believes itself ready to compete, ready to add a few key wins in the move from 86 wins to 90.

He gives them a second base starter and also has enough versatility to move elsewhere on the diamond should the need arise. It isn’t sexy but it is necessary. They might not jump off the page as World Series favorites but the Royals are doing the little things winners must – an exciting proposition for most shell-shocked Royals fans.

Uribe and Ellis

Two very good players signed free agent deals this weekend, Juan Uribe and Mark Ellis. The Dodgers opted to retain the defensive whiz at third by inking Uribe to a two-year deal while Mark Ellis went to St. Louis where he provides much needed infield depth.

The Dodgers deal with Uribe is nice for both team and player, as Uribe rebounded from two terrible seasons in LA with a great season both at the plate and in the field, posting a 5 fWAR season after two years of near replacement level play. He figured prominently into a huge moment for the 2013 Dodgers and is beloved by his teammates. For two years and $15MM, you could do a lot worse.

But the Ellis signing is really interesting to me. Derrick Goold of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch first reported the one-year deal. It’s a clear example of success inertia. The Cardinals winning environment allows a player like Ellis to turn down the possibility of more playing time or even more money for a chance to chase a ring with a top-notch organization.

As a right-handed veteran compliment to rookie Kolton Wong, the Cards have nothing but options. If Wong comes through and makes an impression on his first sustained bug league opportunity, well that’s a fine problem to have. Failing that, I’d like to see the Cardinals use Wong/Ellis in the same fashion the Pirates split time with Jordy Mercer and Clint Barmes last season.

Not a strict left/right platoon, they kept the better offensive player (Mercer) on the bench early in games, flipping the “defensive substitution” paradigm on its head. Each player totaled around 330 plate appearances each, chipping in 2 WAR combined.

Both Wong and Ellis are capable of much more of that on their own but it serves as a nice example of how a team can manage a surplus of talent at a crucial position. To say nothing of potential cover for Matt Carpenter at third base and keeping Daniel Descalso to strict backup SS duties.

They’re the Cardinals, they earned the right to the spoils of their riches. The Dodgers show that while they might appear budget-less, they still value the defensive contributions (as well as the clubhouse presence) of a player like Juan Uribe. Perfect mid-December signings – effective if not glamorous.

500 (the hard way)

This concludes your now-weekly Barry Bonds NSFW home run highlight. Hope you enjoyed it as much as I did.