As the offseason winds down, we’re going to start with some offseason recap pieces. First up, the five teams that improved the most this offseason. Lots of big-name free agents changed addresses this winter, but some teams got a lot better than others. For instance, despite the Detroit Tigers adding Prince Fielder, they lost Victor Martinez due to injury, and didn’t do much else to improve their team. I don’t think they really got a whole lot better, or at least, better than any of the other teams on this list got. Anyway, here are the five teams that improved the most this offseason.
1. Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
The Angels not only added the biggest name hitters on the market in Albert Pujols, they also added one of the biggest name pitchers in CJ Wilson. The Wilson signing also was a bullet in the kneecap of their divisional rival Texas Rangers, who responded by adding Japanese import Yu Darvish. But that wasn’t all for the Angels. Their first move has been overshadowed by those two big signings, but it could impact them even more than either the Pujols or Wilson signings: the acquisition of catcher Chris Iannetta from the Colorado Rockies. The Angels brought in Iannetta for the low cost of a spare arm in Tyler Chatwood, and his presence on the team this year is a massive improvement over their defensive-minded, yet offensively challenged, former catcher in Jeff Mathis. And then just for the hell of it, the Angels inked reliever LaTroy Hawkins, who had a 2.52 ERA for the NL Central champion Milwaukee Brewers last year, to a one year deal. Combine all of that with the four year extension signed by second baseman Howard Kendrick and the impending beginning of the Mike Trout era, and the Angels look to be in great shape for 2012.
2. Miami Marlins
We’ve talked about the Marlins ad nauseum this winter, and quite frankly, it’s warranted. Miami signed three marquee free agents in Jose Reyes, Mark Buerhle, and Heath Bell, and really lost nothing from last year’s team, aside from starter Javier Vazquez to probable retirement. Former closer Juan Carlos Oviedo (AKA Leo Nunez) remains on the team and will shift to a set-up role this season in front of Bell. Former shortsop Hanley Ramirez is shifting to third base to make room for Reyes, and the move is a definite improvement over the dreck that the Marlins trotted out at third last year, headlined by Greg Dobbs. In addition to bringing in Buerhle to add a veteran innings eater to their rotation, the team also traded the exceedingly average Chris Volstad to the Cubs for the exceedingly volatile Carlos Zambrano. Those two new starters sliding into a rotation with Josh Johnson, Anibal Sanchez, and Ricky Nolasco makes the Marlins front five one of the scariest in the league.
3. Cincinnati Reds
Overpriced and underperforming closer Francisco Cordero’s contract expired, and the Reds showed absolutely no desire to bring him back. They replaced him with one of the top relievers on the market, former Phillie Ryan Madson, for just a one year commitment for a lower salary than Cordero was making. The Reds also had a relatively ho-hum rotation coming into the year. They took care of that by adding former San Diego Padres ace Mat Latos in exchange for four prospects. The Latos deal is a large risk, but given that they’re getting four years of control for him, and that the two best prospects in the deal are blocked in Cincinnati, the deal looks a lot better. Just for the hell of it, they traded a package highlighted by occasional starter Travis Wood to the Chicago Cubs to pick up elite setup man Sean Marshall. With the rest of the subtractions in the NL Central, the Reds look like the favorite coming into the year after the moves they made this winter.
4. Washington Nationals
The Nationals did lose out on the major piece they were chasing in Prince Fielder. But the team “settled” for upgrading its pitching staff immensely. Gone from the rotation are Livan Hernandez and Jason Marquis (who combined for 3.5 fWAR last year with Washington, though Marquis was traded in July to Arizona) and in are Gio Gonzalez and Edwin Jackson (who combined for 7.3 fWAR last year). Instead of eating innings in the middle of the rotation, strikeout-avoidance monsters John Lannan and Chien-Ming Wang will instead fight for the fifth starter’s spot between the two newcomers and the two incumbents in Stephen Strasburg and Jordan Zimmermann. The Nationals also added an interesting piece to their bullpen in Brad Lidge, who didn’t look bad when healthy for the Phillies last season. The Nats can seriously contend in the NL East in 2012 with just a little more health, as their corner infielders (Ryan Zimmerman and Adam LaRoche) combined to miss 180 games last year. Full seasons from both of them, along with 2011 breakout star Michael Morse in left field every day, should dramatically improve their offense.
5. Toronto Blue Jays
I had issues filling out the fifth spot in these rankings, so I went with the Blue Jays, who were pretty much in “tweak mode” all offseason. They’ve got a young team that doesn’t really need a lot of talent, but their major issue is that they play in the toughest division in baseball. General manager Alex Anthopolous went about his offseason with a goal of improving his bullpen, and that he did. Toronto’s top two relievers last season, Frank Francisco and Jon Rauch, both left via free agency (ironically, both to the Mets), and Anthopolous replaced the duo with some veterans, and some youngsters. He re-acquired reliever Jason Frasor from the Chicago White Sox after dealing him there last summer. He signed former Reds closer Francisco Cordero to set-up, and also brought in former Rangers set-up man Darren Oliver. But his best move was getting young, cost-controlled closer Sergio Santos from the White Sox, in exchange for just one mid-level prospects. The rest of Toronto’s offseason was filled with re-signing and extending players, like Kelly Johnson and Brandon Morrow. It wasn’t the sexiest offseason, but the Jays’ offseason will really help them in 2012.