5 Most Improved

We’re about a month away from the first inkling of baseball, in mid-February. During most offseasons, now would be the time where we scour the newspapers and message boards for something – anything – to talk about. This offseason, at least in Boston, things are a little different; we’re getting to know new players by the boatload, we still don’t have a center fielder, nor possibly a shortstop. I’m personally trying to figure out if we can swing a 15-man bullpen.
But for most teams, this offseason has taken shape, and news is slow (want proof? Check out ESPN.com: the MLB link can now be found behind the NFL, NBA, NHL, College Basketball, Womens’ Basketball, the Olympics, and Tennis. Ouch). Given that, I wanted to take a quick look around the majors and pick out the 5 most improved (and, tomorrow, the five… least improved? most DEproved? Worsened?) clubs in either league. Today, I’ll count down the 5 most improved teams, listing the major players lost and gained, and throw out a few thoughts about what they needed and what they’ve gotten. Keep in mind that I’m not considering the long-term here, which is why you won’t find the Red Sox on this list. This will simply consider the alterations between the 2005 and 2006 clubs.
5. Oakland Athletics
Players gained: OF Milton Bradley, SP Esteban Loaiza, RP Chad Gaudin
Players lost: RP Ricardo Rincon, RP Octavio Dotel, SP/RP Seth Etherton
It may not look like much, but Oakland really had few holes. The bullpen is strong, the rotation deep, the offense improving. Billy Beane has, for a couple years, been building a pitching/defense club, and this offseason he has completed the transition. The A’s now have 3 legitimate center fielders manning all three OF positions, and have added an innings eater to the back of an otherwise youg and improving rotation. With the Angels stagnating, this might be the year when the “rebuilding” A’s reclaim the top spot in the AL West, primarily by allowing what might turn out to be the fewest runs in the majors.
4. New York Mets
Players gained: Carlos Delgado, Billy Wagner, Paul LoDuca, Chad Bradford, Xavier Nady, Jose Valentin
Players lost: Mike Cameron, Braden Looper, Roberto Hernandez, Kazuhisa Ishii, Miguel Cairo, Doug Mientkiewicz
Aside from Mike Cameron, the Mets cut a lot of chaff this offseason, and added as many useful parts. The Mets, despite the bad press of 2005 were not a terrible team, playing above .500 ball and lasting in the wild card race into September despite a weak back end of the rotation, an offense that was at times spotty, and a bullpen that never met a lead it couldn’t blow. They came into the offseason weak at 1B, C, and SS, but this offseason have managed to shore up two of those positions while acquiring bullpen help in the form of one of the best closers of the last decade.
The Mets, even more than the Red Sox or Cubs, took advantage of the Florida Marlins firesale, completing two deal in two days that netted them Carlos Delgado and Paul LoDuca from the struggling Miami franchise. Delgado fills a gaping hole at first, where the Mets had been trying to get by primarily with Red Sox rejects. LoDuca, while not a power threat, is at least a decent offensive catcher with an excellent reputation among pitchers. The Mets also moved Mike Cameron to the Padres for Xavier Nady, who – though still without a true breakout – could have the ability to make an impact in Flushing. The rotation remains weak after Pedro and Glavine, but the moved Omar Minaya has made – though expensive – should result in a much stronger Mets club in 2006.
3. Chicago White Sox
Players gained: SP Javier Vazquez, 1B Jim Thome, IF Rob Mackowiak
Players lost: DH Carl Everett, CF Aaron Rowand, SP Orlando Hernandez, RP Damaso Marte, IF Luis Vizcaino
The reigning champs came into the offseason with one major pressing concern: retaining the services of 1B Paul Konerko. They did so, inking him to a large (and potentially unwise) deal, but did not stop there; despite the press that ‘Smartball’ had gotten, Kenny Williams knows you can win with slugging too. To that end, he took a gamble, acquiring Jim Thome from Philly for CF Aaron Rowand, who completes the Phillies outfield. Thome replaces departing and oft-injured slugger Frank Thomas, and should get at least reasonably more healthy playing time. He and Konerko will make a fairly awesome 3-4 tandem when healthy, and can spell each other at first base, giving both ample rest. The White Sox also chose to further deepen their already impressive rotation, adding Javier Vazquez – a pitcher with potential #1 ability – to the back of the rotation behind Buehrle, Contreras, Garland, and Freddy Garcia. Should any of them fail, star rookie Brandon McCarthy waits in the wings. With Cleveland holding reasonably still this offseason, it’s hard to ignore the feeling that the White Sox are looking at at least another year of AL Central domination; at the very least, they’ve improved a team that had the AL’s best record and won the World Series in 4 games. That alone is an impressive feat.
2. Los Angeles Dodgers
Players gained: Rafael Furcal, Nomar Garciaparra, Bill Mueller, Danys Baez, Kenny Lofton, Lance Carter, Jae Seo, Brett Tomko, Sandy Alomar, Jr.
Players lost: Elmer Dessens, Jason Phillips, Jose Valentin, Edwin Jackson
The Dodgers, alongside the Red Sox and Marlins, might be the most altered club in the majors. New GM Ned Colletti opened Frank McCourt’s wallet, significantly raising spending in the infield and adding significant pitching depth. The Dodgers, on paper, were the strongest team in their division. Hampered by injury after injury, they sunk to a sub-.500 record and found themselves staring up at a weak San Diego ballclub come October. With Paul DePodesta’s structure in place but his vision tarnished, Colletti sought out established veterans with high price tags to fill their holes. He did so with a certain level of financial looseness, but avoided for the most part in gutting one of the majors’ best farm systems. Despite a weak free agent market, the Dodgers dominated. They’ll almost certainly be the class of the division in 2006, and most likely run away with it from the get go.
1. Toronto Blue Jays
Players gained: SP A.J. Burnett, 3B Troy Glaus, RP B.J. Ryan, 1B Lyle Overbay
Players lost: 2B orlando Hudson, RP/SP Miguel Batista, SP Dave Bush, 3B Corey Koskie, RP Chad Gaudin, OF Gabe Gross
For me, this was an easy selection. The Blue Jays had three holes: a strong #2 to back up Roy Halladay, a source of power, and a bullpen ace. They filled all three, in dramatic and expensive fashion; J.P. Riccardi turned his also-ran, small market Jays into a contending middle-market team overnight with the bank-breaking signings of Burnett and Ryan. The Glaus trade and extension give them the kind of power threat they’ve been lacking since Carlos Delgado’s departure, and adds a legitimate slugger to a lineup of players that got on base better than 26 other teams in 2006. Lyle Overbay, while overrated this offseason, came cheap for the Jays: Bush is a decent starter, but has a #4 ceiling, and was completely expendable given the Jays’ rotation depth (Quick quiz: who had the 12th best ERA in the AL last year? Answer: Josh Towers), while Gross was no better an OF option than Reed Johnson or Alex Rios.
Sat what you will about their methods, but the Jays are a far stronger team looking forward to 2006 than they were in 2005. They are contenders as of this moment, and could just as easily finish in first as they could in third. 95 wins is far from outside the realm of possibility, and that swing makes them the most improved team of 2006.