Baltimore's 2012 season was a lot of fun and a terrific story, but the thing about stories as opposed to reality is that you're never burdened by what comes after. What happens after the hero rides off happily into the sunset or the prince slays the dragon? After James Bond stops the diabolical scheme, you don't see the physical therapy he has to endure or the paperwork he has to fill out. You don't see what happens to the prince when the peasants demand a democracy instead of their monarch.
Such as it is with the O's. Going into the offseason, I said the success of the winter would be determined by whether the front office considers its roster a .500 team that had some breaks go its way or a roster you expect to truly win 93 games again.
Unfortunately, GM Dan Duquette et al chose the latter, and the team's outlook is a lot less sunny than it was three months ago. Combine 2012's success with the Red Sox faltering and the Yankees aging and it seemed like the perfect time for the O's to strike and aggressively bring in big-dollar talent, the first time it really made sense for the franchise since 1997.
Instead, the team did nothing. Not only was the team never seriously in the mix for the top free agents, even the second and third tiers of the free-agent market eluded the O's. In an offseason in which the Red Sox and Blue Jays both aggressively improved and the Rays traded James Shields to improve their long-term outlook, Baltimore resigned Nate McLouth and Lew Ford. The biggest acquisition was an overdose of complacency, which is bad news for 2013.
What they should have done (or can still do): The team can no longer sign Zack Greinke or Anibal Sanchez, and most of the significant bats are gone. The team's probably unwilling to move Adam Jones to left for Bourn after Jones won a Gold Glove, so the best options left are either losing the draft pick and signing Lohse or taking the riskier, but less expensive flier in Shaun Marcum. It won't make the O's the favorite, but they have to improve somewhere if they're going to be relevant in September.
New York Yankees
The Yankees still have enough core talent to be serious competitors in the AL East, but they're clearly a team past its prime. Like a large, aging building, the team looks solid in a photograph, but the camera doesn't see the cracks in the foundation, the ancient plumbing, or the scary balance sheet.
The Bombers were able to retain the services of Hiroki Kuroda, Andy Pettitte and Mariano Rivera, but because they want to make sure they are below the $189 million luxury tax threshold going into 2014, neither Soriano nor Nick Swisher have been replaced, Chris Stewart and Francisco Cervelli are still the default catchers, and little has been done to arrest the general decline of a very old team. Kevin Youkilis may replace A-Rod's missing production and Brett Gardner ought to be healthier, but that's not enough in an extremely competitive division.
In the end, the salary cap may be more expensive to the team than the additional luxury taxes the Yankees are trying to avoid like the plague. Spending another $20 million to help the $200 million already invested produce the highest return is likely the thriftier option, when all is said and done. While the Yankees are smart in the long term to be a little more frugal, making a more efficient payroll figure a goal to work toward rather than a rigid policy is a bad decision.
What they should have done (or can still do): If anyone needed to overpay for Josh Hamilton, it was the Yankees. The Yankees could use the bat and Hamilton's lefty power bat is tailor-made for Yankee Stadium.
St. Louis Cardinals
The Cardinals weren't a team in need of a drastic makeover, but that makes their silence this offseason even deadlier. With only a handful of true quality starters available in the free-agent market, St. Louis has done little to use the pitching surplus to improve the team in the middle infield. Signing Ty Wigginton to a two-year contract was the Cards' biggest move, but in many ways, the defensively limited Wigginton is a downgrade from the team's in-house options.
The good news is that for St. Louis, there's still time to make the winter a success. Everybody wants pitching, and the pitchers who don't make the rotation this year will likely be desirable. Even in a worst-case scenario in terms of Jaime Garcia's health, there's only two slots in the rotation for Lance Lynn, Trevor Rosenthal, Shelby Miller and Joe Kelly. If the spring losers are used to win games for the Memphis Redbirds, the team will have wasted an opportunity.
What they should have done (or can still do): Having a lot of pitching depth is great, but the Cardinals are a team that can win now and can afford to part with one of their starters to get middle infield help. J.J. Hardy makes sense, as the Orioles' best young player is Manny Machado, a shortstop who is currently playing third in deference to Hardy. Another (more aggressive) target would be Elvis Andrus, as the Rangers are still figuring out where to put shortstop Jurickson Profar, who is arguably the best prospect in baseball but blocked by Andrus.
It's one thing to do nothing when you win 98 games. It's another thing to do nothing when you lose 98 games. In the choice between retool or rebuild, the Rockies chose relax, essentially pinning all the team's hopes on a scenario in which the various injured pitchers would simply turn it around, a risky scenario given that banking on injured pitchers is like buying lottery tickets instead of car insurance.
If the front office believed that the club had a reasonable shot at competing in 2013, it should have tried to bring in a starting pitcher or two, even if it required a bit of an overpay due to the high altitude of Coors Field. If the front office didn't think the team could compete, there's no reason for Rafael Betancourt or Michael Cuddyer to not be wearing different uniforms in 2013. Instead, for all they accomplished, the front office might as well have shut down for the offseason and avoided the cold Denver winter with a 120-day trip to Hawaii.
What they should have done (or can still do): The biggest acquisition the Rockies can make at this point isn't a player, but a plan. Troy Tulowitzki, Carlos Gonzalez and Josh Rutledge are young enough and good enough to be competing now or competing later. Most of the rest of the team isn't. The Rockies should do what the Astros have done and start trading those guys for any prospect with a modicum of upside.
Unlike the Rockies, a team that apparently went into the offseason with no plan, the Mariners entered the offseason with a bad plan: signing a big bat despite the fact that the team's prized pitching prospects were still a few years off and the team was unlikely to seriously compete otherwise.
The team struck out on the big free-agent hitters and Justin Upton thwarted Seattle's attempt to trade half the farm system for him. So the Mariners have mainly relied on their Plan B of accumulating a nonstop parade of old designated hitter types. The team now has Jesus Montero, Kendrys Morales, Jason Bay, Raul Ibanez, Justin Smoak and Mike Carp all on the roster. Brendan Ryan's a terrific defensive player and Dustin Ackley's been better defensively at second than expected, but having Ryan and Ackley cover the entire field while the team plays seven designated hitters is a rather poor idea, not to mention against the rules.
What they should have done (or can still do): General manager Jack Zduriencik may be on the hot seat, but the team's best years are in the future, not the present, so the organization as a whole needs to be patient. Players such as Ibanez are for teams in competition that need to fill a gaping hole or add a role player, not a team that should be looking for riskier, younger hitters who can still be relevant when the pitching prospects graduate to the majors.