Who’s excited for baseball to start?
That’s the gauge to determine this year’s Hot Stove report cards. For though we can enjoy debating whether the Yankees should’ve risked so much on Corey Kluber, or whether the Mets should’ve waited out J.T. Realmuto before committing to James McCann, no fun exists in wondering how your team, ravaged economically by the pandemic, will compete after dumping salary and slashing payroll.
When Trevor Bauer chose the Dodgers (his obvious first choice all along) and Marcell Ozuna re-signed with the Braves on Friday, that cleared the board of the winter’s top free agents. If some interesting names remain, including eight of The Post’s top 30 (but none of the top 10), the major plotlines have been set. We can tell which division races will be enthralling and which won’t.
Hence we rank the offseason by divisions. Not so much by perceived savvy as by sheer effort. Which divisions are the most compelling because all or enough of their members have behaved like they actually want to win this year? From most exciting to least, here you go:
1. NL East
Even if Steve Cohen hasn’t taken the industry by as significant a storm as Mets fans hoped, there’s no denying how much better his new purchase looks with the additions of Carlos Carrasco, Francisco Lindor, Aaron Loup and Trevor May, as well as McCann, and don’t forget Marcus Stroman’s acceptance of the qualifying offer. Furthermore, if any major league team isn’t done yet this winter, it’s the Mets.
Bad for them and good for those who root for all-around entertainment, the division looks to be the most competitive in the industry. The Braves, three-time defending NL East champions, added starting pitchers Charlie Morton and Drew Smyly. The Phillies hired one of the game’s most accomplished executives, Dave Dombrowski, who re-signed Realmuto as well as Didi Gregorius after early cries of poverty. The Nationals should be good again after adding Alex Avila, Josh Bell, Brad Hand, Jon Lester and Kyle Schwarber to a strong nucleus. And don’t forget the Marlins actually qualified for the 2020 expanded playoffs (unlike the Mets, Phils or Nats) and, if they predictably didn’t spend much, at least return their interesting nucleus.
2. NL West
Bauer’s unsurprising landing in Southern California elevated this division to No. 2 by virtue of the top two. On paper, there won’t be a fiercer intra-divisional rivalry this season than Dodgers-Padres. Before the defending champion Dodgers added the elite if creepy Bauer to their already stellar starting rotation, the Padres executed a trio of high-profile trades to welcome aboard Yu Darvish (from the Cubs), Joe Musgrave (Pirates) and Blake Snell (Rays) to their corps of starting pitchers. The 19 games between these two powers will be must-see TV.
The Dodgers’ and Padres’ efforts covered for the Rockies’ ultra-embarrassing trade of former franchise icon Nolan Arenado to the Cardinals for a handful of prospects less than two years after signing him to a massive extension. The Giants, meanwhile, are methodically working their way back, importing four free agents plus seeing Kevin Gausman accept the qualifying offer. They’ll have some say in what happens. The Diamondbacks still have some talent after a quiet offseason.
3. AL East
All hail the Blue Jays, who engaged every free agent besides former U.S. Attorney General William Barr and attempted all sorts of trades, landing the biggest score of all in George Springer (below) plus some complementary pieces (and they’re probably not done, either). Here’s hoping their fans actually get to see the Jays play in Canada this season.
Even with a sizable payroll cut (nearly $50 million), the Yankees brought back their top player, DJ LeMahieu, prevented stud reliever Zack Britton from opting out and acquired a pair of intriguing arms in Kluber and Jameson Taillon as well as veteran reliever Darren O’Day. It’s an acquisition from last winter, however, whose performance bears the most watching. Can second-year director of player health and performance Eric Cressey keep Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton on the field?
Only the Rays could swap out Morton and Snell for Chris Archer and Michael Wacha and get you thinking, “Can’t wait to watch how they make this look good!” The Red Sox made some incremental upgrades (and re-hired manager Alex Cora), the Orioles not so much.
4. AL Central
The Twins and White Sox got after it, the Twins’ haul highlighted by keeping Nelson Cruz and adding Andrelton Simmons, and the White Sox’s by landing starter Lance Lynn and reliever Liam Hendriks. If the Indians broke hearts by dealing Lindor to the Mets in his walk year, they brought back a pair of major leaguers in Andres Gimenez and Amed Rosario who can help now. The Royals even spent a few bucks on Mike Minor and Carlos Santana. The Tigers spent less, though they should be better with an interesting base of young talent as well as new manager A.J. Hinch.
5. AL West.
The Angels and new general manager Perry Minasian added volume, if they didn’t shatter the Earth with any single move — shortstop Jose Iglesias and closer Raisel Iglesias stand out — so they get some points in what was the sport’s worst division of 2020. The Astros re-signed Michael Brantley. The defending champion A’s never win the winter and this one proved no exception; Saturday’s acquisition of Elvis Andrus from Texas is typically, interestingly, buy-low. The Mariners continued their slow climb and the Rangers are rebuilding after trading Lynn and Andrus.
6. NL Central
The Cardinals shelled out for Arenado, have brought back Adam Wainwright and likely will do the same with Yadier Molina, and the Brewers signed former Cardinal Kolten Wong just a few days ago. The Cubs and Reds, though, did their all for the gold medal in this race to the bottom, the Cubs trading their best pitcher Darvish and non-tendering Schwarber and the Reds jettisoning Raisel Iglesias in addition to losing several free agents (including Bauer). As for the Pirates, amidst their full-blown rebuild, as many pointed out on social media, their 2021 payroll (about $38 million) currently is lower than Bauer’s 2021 salary ($40 million). Let’s wrap this up with a well-earned “Yeesh.”