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Great Scott! What a Winter

With the hackneyed caravans comes the time for public judgment, conclusions drawn from a winter the elite spent correcting missteps through binge spending, the practice offset by the neglected franchises sweating out their longshot hunches.

The top-heavy economics -- due for overhaul but ignored by a stubborn players’ union and the game’s ambitious overlords -- would afford the Tampa Bay Devil Rays one Alex Rodriguez, if they wished to field any other players, but not two, and caused the Oakland A’s to cast off two ace starters in the interest of financial health, but not all three.

Therefore, it happened that the New York Mets, Boston Red Sox, Dodgers and New York Yankees contributed enthusiastically to more than $1 billion cast at free agents in the last two months. There also were substantial and unexpected fiscal dalliances in Seattle and Arizona, familiar deft maneuvering in Atlanta, Minnesota and San Francisco, and, in Baltimore and Detroit in particular, the season concluded with free agents largely gone and the money earmarked for them largely unclaimed.

One can only presume what the Orioles are up to; perhaps distracted by the revenue-redirecting Washington Nationals, who Peter Angelos is sure will rename themselves the Baltimore Nationals of the District of Columbia any day now.

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At the end of a week in which no fewer than three owners railed against the recklessness of their fellow proprietors, near the end of a winter in which Shawn Green, Randy Johnson and, now, perhaps, Sammy Sosa have been traded by employers burdened with buyers’ remorse, it appears Angelos himself has saved the Chicago Cubs from Sosa, and vice versa.

The off-season began with player agents and their clients suspecting owners would conspire to maintain payroll stability. A billion dollars later, players are richer and more secure, the game has its first $200-million roster, and franchises in Pittsburgh, Tampa Bay and San Diego, to name a few, have never been further behind.

Let’s not forget, if it is the end of the world as they know it, it is the owners who leaned on the plunger. Good thing for them their franchise values double every decade or so, and the Yankees come in and fill their stadiums in the meantime, and the stack of applications for prospective owners in Washington D.C., a twice-failed market, is half as tall as the Washington Monument.

Most perplexing, however, was the Yankees’ pass on Carlos Beltran. Not because they needed him, but because there was an available locker in the clubhouse and now what are they supposed to do with it?

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According to league sources, the Yankees’ choice came down to signing Beltran or buying the American League Central. George Steinbrenner has had his eye on Cleveland for years and, besides, it was cheaper.

Anyway, now that most of the off-season lifting is over, and after a thorough examination of every transaction, every grand-jury transcript and every raised eyebrow, the clear winner in the winter games was the man who stands at the very core of the sport.

That is, Scott Boras.

Six of his free-agent clients brought $321 million over 26 years, with Magglio Ordonez yet unsigned, and none of them went to the Yankees. What are the chances?

For purposes of clarity, teams are divided into categories, based on their winter deeds. Or misdeeds. Or bankrolls.

Some prospered. Some didn’t. Some, honestly, we just aren’t sure.

The short list:

* The rich who got richer: Yankees.

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It wasn’t all splash and Beltran, but they’re better, and maybe next October they’ll get a starter through the second inning. They needed pitching like Kevin Brown needs a friend in New York, so they acquired Randy Johnson, Carl Pavano, Jaret Wright, Mike Stanton and Felix Rodriguez and gave up Javier Vazquez, Brad Halsey and Felix Heredia. And, if Jason Giambi shows up looking anything like Napoleon Dynamite, they’ve got Tino Martinez for first base.

* The rich who got more interesting: Red Sox.

The clubhouse had a fraternity charm, only with more odor. Send in David Wells, Bluto in the flesh, and Dean Selig institutes double-secret probation. They’ve also added Edgar Renteria at shortstop, Matt Clement at starting pitcher and Bob Tewksbury at team psychologist. Seriously.

* The rich who realized they were rich: Mets.

Carlos Beltran, Pedro Martinez and Kris (and Anna) Benson: $194.5 million. Third place in the National League East: pricey.

* The poor who got rich: Diamondbacks.

They’ll owe Matt Williams’ grandchildren something like $3 million each, along with full orthodontia work-ups, but that didn’t dissuade them from setting the market for starting pitchers (Russ Ortiz, four years, $33 million) and third basemen (Troy Glaus, four years, $45 million).

* The rich who got poor who got rich who got ... : Dodgers.

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We laughed, we cried, it was an off-season the whole family could love. Maybe we’re just not bright enough to get it, but Adrian Beltre looked as if he was onto something.

* The Los Angeles rich of Anaheim: Angels.

One of three franchises (the Yankees and Red Sox were the others) to spend to luxury-tax excess, they lost out on Clement but caged a Byrd, and strengthened the middle with Steve Finley and Orlando Cabrera. If the Mets get tired of Mike Piazza at catcher, the Angels might have themselves a designated hitter. Only they seem sure Dallas McPherson is ready to play third base every day.

* Old money: Giants.

On turn-back-the-clock day, the whole roster will be in its prime again. Sadly, Barry Bonds will be 40 pounds lighter. The Giants had hoped to play their opener wearing Bermuda shorts and black socks. Failing that, they settled for leaving their left-turn signals on all the way to the ballpark and carrying on interminable conversations about what they had for lunch.

* Nouveau Reese: Mariners.

Besides shortstop Pokey Reese, at a bargain $1.2 million, they sought to buy themselves into contention with Beltre (five years, $64 million) and Richie Sexson (four years, $50 million). But they’ve got 29 games to make up and they’re a couple of pitchers short.

* Show-me the money: Cardinals.

After one of the memorable four-and-outs in World Series history, mostly because of the story raging in the other dugout, the Cardinals swapped staff depth for top-end pitching. They did little else and downgraded at shortstop, where David Eckstein won’t be Renteria. So, Mark Mulder gets the ball, but the Cardinals won’t get 105 wins again.

* The people who contribute to my 401(k): Cubs.

Tribune Co.'s own little nutty ballclub. In support of fellow employee Sammy Sosa, this piece will end eight innings short of a full column, drive itself to the airport and fly to the Dominican Republic, all the while cursing Dusty Baker, then be shopped to other media outlets all winter.

* Money: Braves.

There’s not enough payroll. There aren’t enough people buying tickets. There’s too much turnover. But that’s the division title they’ve won, 13 years running. Tim Hudson is in the rotation. John Smoltz is back in the rotation. Danny Kolb is the closer. Make it 14.

* Mad money: Astros.

The off-season passed them by. Jeff Kent and Beltran up and left, Lance Berkman blew a knee, and the other Bs aren’t what they used to


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