As we’ve learned time and time again, championship baseball teams aren't built in one offseason. The formula for success generally includes a team building through the amateur draft, international amateur signings and acquiring the right players at the right time through free agency or trades.
Each offseason, there are examples of a free agent getting paid top dollar for a long-term contract that lasts well beyond what is expected to be that player’s prime. If the player fails to live up to expectations, a team is stuck with that player and that player’s “bad” contract. Depending on the size of the team’s budget and the terms of the contract, this can set a team back for years.
Even the Yankees, who are expected to lower their payroll under the $189 million tax threshold prior to the 2014 season, proved that they couldn’t continue hiding their mistakes by spending more money. A lack of talent in the upper levels of the minors makes this a challenge and has limited them to several one-year contracts for veterans that are past their prime to fill out their 2013 roster.
So what makes a team go from bad to good in one offseason? Or good to great? Or awful to just average? Below is a look at the 2011-12 offseason and what the teams with the most significant jump in wins from 2011 to 2012 did to improve.
Not on this list are the Angels, who signed Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson to mega deals, and then improved by just three games (86 wins in 2011, 89 wins in 2012) despite the marvelous rookie season of Mike Trout and the mid-season acquisition of Zack Greinke.
Neither are the Marlins, who signed top free agents Heath Bell, Mark Buehrle, and Jose Reyes. They actually dropped from 72 wins in 2011 to 69 in 2012, then proceeded to trade all three players away this offseason with the excuse that "we might as well be last in payroll if we're going to be last in our division".
Here are seven teams that improved by at least six wins from 2011 to 2012, along with some notable additions and departures from last offseason, top performers who were in the organization at the end of the 2011 season, and the 2012 WAR (Wins Above Replacement Player, according to FanGraphs) of each player.
San Francisco Giants
2011 record: 86-76 2012 record: 94-68 Net: +6
Notable Offseason Additions: Angel Pagan, OF (Trade): 4.8 WAR, Melky Cabrera, OF (Trade): 4.6 WAR, Gregor Blanco, OF (Minor League Free Agent): 2.4 WAR
Notable Offseason Departures: Carlos Beltran, OF (Free Agent): 3.6 WAR, Jeff Keppinger, IF (Free Agent): 2.8 WAR, Cody Ross, OF (Free Agent): 2.4 WAR, Andres Torres, OF (Trade): 1.7 WAR, Jonathan Sanchez, SP (Trade): -0.7 WAR
Top In-House Performers: Buster Posey, C (Drafted 2008): 8.0 WAR, Matt Cain, SP (Drafted 2002): 3.8 WAR, Madison Bumgarner, SP (Drafted 2007): 3.4 WAR, Pablo Sandoval, 3B (Amateur FA 2003): 2.6 WAR, Ryan Vogelsong, SP (Minor League Free Agent JAN 2007): 2.6 WAR, Brandon Crawford, SS (Drafted 2008): 2.0 WAR
The return of Buster Posey from a devastating leg injury that knocked him out for most of the 2011 season likely made the biggest difference for the eventual World Champions. General manager Brian Sabean has to be given a lot of credit, however, for acquiring three outfielders who ended up accounting for a combined 7.8 WAR. One, Gregor Blanco, was brought in on a minor league deal, and the other two, Angel Pagan and Melky Cabrera, were acquired in trades for three players who were considered huge disappointments in 2012.
2012-13 Offseason Comparison: Atlanta Braves
The names are more familiar, the expectations are much higher, and the price wasn't nearly as cheap, but outfielders B.J. Upton and Justin Upton could have as much of an impact, if not more, than the Giants' trio. The brothers could push the Braves to an even higher level than in 2012 when they won 94 games and earned a Wild Card berth.
2011 record: 72-90 2012 record: 79-83 Net: +7
Notable Offseason Additions: A.J. Burnett, SP (Trade): 3.4 WAR, Clint Barmes, SS (Free Agent): 1.7 WAR, Erik Bedard, SP (Free Agent): 1.3 WAR
Notable Offseason Departures: Ryan Ludwick, OF (Free Agent): 2.8 WAR, Paul Maholm, SP (Free Agent): 2.5 WAR, Ryan Doumit, C/OF (Free Agent): 1.6 WAR, Ronny Cedeño, IF (Free Agent): 0.6 WAR
Top In-House Performers: Andrew McCutchen, OF (Drafted 2005): 7.1 WAR, Neil Walker, 2B (Drafted 2004): 3.3 WAR, Pedro Alvarez, 3B (Drafted 2008): 2.9 WAR, Jeff Karstens, SP (Trade Jul. 2008): 1.7 WAR, James McDonald, SP (Trade Jul. 2010): 1.7 WAR
The Bucs' seven-game improvement is overlooked by their 20th consecutive losing season, as it probably should be. Relying heavily on the continued improvement from superstar center fielder Andrew McCutchen and a young core of talented players, the Bucs didn't do much in the 2011-12 offseason. They did acquire veteran starter A.J. Burnett from the Yankees for two fringe minor leaguers and signed steady shortstop Clint Barmes to a two-year deal, although another free agent, catcher Rod Barajas, was a huge disappointment. Burnett bounced back from two mediocre seasons in the AL East and Barmes was a steady defender at shortstop.
2012-13 Offseason Comparison: San Diego Padres
The Padres did even less than the Pirates did last offseason with the re-signing of starting pitcher Jason Marquis being their biggest move. Third baseman Chase Headley will be counted on to continue his second half explosion of 2012 while improvements from Yonder Alonso, Cameron Maybin, and a full season of Carlos Quentin could have the Padres above .500 after winning 76 games in 2012.
2011 record: 67-95 2012 record: 75-87 Net: +8
Notable Offseason Additions: John Jaso, C (Trade): 2.7 WAR, Kevin Millwood, SP (Minor League Free Agent): 2.0 WAR, Hisashi Iwakuma, SP (Free Agent): 0.8 WAR, Jesus Montero, C (Trade) -0.2 WAR
Notable Offseason Departures: Michael Pineda, SP (Trade): 0.0 WAR
Top In-House Performers: Felix Hernandez, SP (Amateur FA Jul. 2005): 6.1 WAR, Kyle Seager, 3B (Drafted 2009): 3.6 WAR, Ichiro Suzuki, OF (Purchase Nov. 2000): 1.9 WAR, Tom Wilhelmsen, RP (Minor League Free Agent Mar. 2010): 1.5 WAR
Under-the-radar acquisitions John Jaso, Hisashi Iwakuma and Kevin Millwood accounted for 5.5 WAR but general manager Jack Zduriencik's big trade acquisition, Jesus Montero, wasn't quite ready to make an impact. The M's didn't lose much from their roster, which is probably why the minor additions, along with big seasons from ace Felix Hernandez, third baseman Kyle Seager and closer Tom Wilhelmsen were enough for an eight-game improvement. Now they're hoping a much busier offseason will push them over the .500 mark in 2013.
2012-13 Offseason Comparison: New York Mets
Although they're reportedly in the mix for center fielder Michael Bourn, the Mets have only added a few inexpensive pieces to the major league roster this offseason. Like the Mariners, they have some young talent on the way and are just hoping to not get buried in a tough division early in the season before they're ready to compete in a year or two.
2011 record: 80-81 2012 record: 98-64 Net: +17.5
Notable Offseason Additions: Gio Gonzalez, SP (Trade): 5.4 WAR, Edwin Jackson, SP (Free Agent): 2.7 WAR
Notable Offseason Departures: Tom Milone, SP (Trade): 2.7 WAR, Jonny Gomes, OF (Free Agent): 2.1 WAR, Derek Norris, C (Trade): 0.5 WAR
Top In-House Performers: Ian Desmond, SS (Drafted 2004): 5.4 WAR, Bryce Harper, OF (Drafted 2010): 4.9 WAR, Ryan Zimmerman, 3B (Drafted 2005): 4.5 WAR, Stephen Strasburg, SP (Drafted 2009): 4.3 WAR, Adam LaRoche, 1B (Free Agent Jan. 2011): 3.8 WAR, Danny Espinosa, 2B (Drafted 2008): 3.8 WAR, Jordan Zimmermann, SP (Drafted 2007): 3.5 WAR
While they should't get much credit for drafting Bryce Harper and Stephen Strasburg with the 1st overall picks in consecutive drafts - any team would've done the same if they had been the worst team in baseball the previous year - the Nats have plenty of other impact players that were drafted and developed by the organization. Their top acquisition last offseason, Gio Gonzalez, was acquired for four minor leaguers that were each drafted and developed in a deep and talented farm system.
Strasburg's return from Tommy John surgery and Harper's arrival played a big role in the team's ascent to the top of the NL East and into the playoffs, but adding Gonzalez and Edwin Jackson to the rotation were probably necessary for the Nats to hold off a very good Braves team.
2012-13 Offseason Comparison: Los Angeles Angels
A team with a roster already full of talent and hoping to make a Washington Nationals-like run in 2013 is the Angels. They couldn't lure the big name pitcher to Anaheim but they traded for Tommy Hanson and Jason Vargas and signed Joe Blanton to fill out their rotation behind Jered Weaver and C.J. Wilson. Not quite Gonzalez and Jackson but it's a solid enough three, four, and five starters, especially when they have Mike Trout, Albert Pujols, and newest free agent acquisition Josh Hamilton in their lineup.
A 17-game jump in the standings would put them at 106 wins. I don't think that's happening but a 10-game jump to 99 wins should be enough to win the division or, at the least, get into the playoffs.
2011 record: 79-83 2012 record: 97-65 Net: +18
Notable Offseason Additions: Mat Latos, SP (Trade): 3.1 WAR, Ryan Ludwick, OF (Free Agent): 2.8 WAR, Sean Marshall, RP (Trade): 1.8 WAR, Alfredo Simon, RP (Waivers): 0.6 WAR
Notable Offseason Departures: Yasmani Grandal, C (Trade): 2.6 WAR, Yonder Alonso, 1B (Trade): 2.0 WAR, Edinson Volquez, SP (Trade): 1.3 WAR, Juan Francisco, 3B (Trade): 0.8 WAR, Travis Wood, SP (Trade): 0.7 WAR
Top In-House Performers: Joey Votto, 1B (Drafted 2002): 5.9 WAR, Johnny Cueto, SP (Amateur FA Mar. 2004): 4.8 WAR, Brandon Phillips, 2B (Trade Apr. 2006): 4.0 WAR, Aroldis Chapman, RP (Amateur FA Jan. 2010): 3.3 WAR, Ryan Hanigan, C (Non-Drafted Free Agent Aug. 2002): 2.9 WAR, Todd Frazier, IF/OF (Drafted 2007): 2.8 WAR, Homer Bailey, SP (Drafted 2004): 2.8 WAR, Zack Cozart, SS (Drafted 2007): 2.7 WAR, Bronson Arroyo, SP (Trade Mar. 2006): 2.5 WAR, Jay Bruce, OF (Drafted 2005): 2.4 WAR
Ten different players returning from a 79-win team in 2011 posted at least a 2.4 WAR in 2012, while offseason acquisitions Mat Latos, Ryan Ludwick, and Sean Marshall combined for 7.7 WAR. The farm system is bare in the upper minors, especially after trading a package of players that included three major league ready prospects for Latos, but the 25-man roster is full of homegrown talent. Good formula to go from 79 to 97 wins in one season.
2012-13 Offseason Comparison: Kansas City Royals
Speaking of homegrown talent, the Royals have a lineup full of them, including Billy Butler, Alex Gordon, Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, and Salvador Perez. As the Reds did to acquire Latos, the Royals had to give up major league ready homegrown talent in Wil Myers and Jake Odorizzi to get a top-of-the-rotation starter for 2013 in James Shields. An 18-game jump would put the Royals at 90 wins in 2013, which I can envision happening if as many things go right as did with the 2012 Reds.
2011 record: 74-88 2012 record: 94-68 Net: +20
Notable Offseason Additions: Josh Reddick, OF (Trade): 4.8 WAR, Jarrod Parker, SP (Trade): 3.1 WAR, Yoenis Cespedes, OF (International Free Agent): 3.1 WAR, Tom Milone, SP (Trade): 2.7 WAR, Brandon Moss, 1B/OF (Minor League Free Agent): 2.4 WAR, Bartolo Colon, SP (Free Agent): 2.4 WAR, Jonny Gomes, OF (Free Agent): 2.1 WAR, Ryan Cook, RP (Trade): 1.6 WAR, Seth Smith, OF (Trade): 1.4 WAR, Derek Norris, C (Trade): 0.5 WAR
Notable Offseason Departures: Gio Gonzalez, SP (Trade): 5.4 WAR, Josh Willingham, OF (Free Agent): 3.9 WAR, Trevor Cahill, SP (Trade): 3.4 WAR, David DeJesus, OF (Free Agent): 1.7 WAR, Craig Breslow, RP (Trade): 0.8 WAR, Ryan Sweeney, OF (Trade): 0.7 WAR, Andrew Bailey, RP (Trade): 0.0 WAR
Top In-House Performers: Coco Crisp, OF (Free Agent Dec. 2009): 2.1 WAR, Brandon McCarthy, SP (Free Agent Dec. 2010): 1.8 WAR
In an offseason where the A's were losing some big-time talent, it appeared that all of general manager Billy Beane's dealings were setting the team up for a season of rebuilding before the young talent was ready to compete again in 2013 or 2014. Little did we know that this core of players assembled last winter would exceed everyone's expectations and make such a huge impact in the American League.
2012-13 Offseason Comparison: Cleveland Indians
When the season starts, the Indians could have as many as ten new faces on the 25-man roster that weren't in Cleveland at season's end. No one seems to be giving the Tribe much of a chance but the truth is no one knows what kind of team this will be because of so much roster turnover. If new acquisitions like Mark Reynolds, Drew Stubbs, and Nick Swisher can provide some offense, a la Cespedes, Moss, and Reddick, and young starting pitcher Trevor Bauer can match Parker's rookie season, they could surprise in the AL Central.
2011 record: 69-93 2012 record: 93-69 Net: +24
Notable Offseason Additions: Jason Hammel, SP (Trade): 2.9 WAR, Wei-Yin Chen, SP (International Free Agent): 2.2 WAR, Darren O'Day, RP (Waivers): 1.4 WAR, Luis Ayala, RP (Free Agent): 0.8 WAR, Wilson Betemit, 1B/3B (Free Agent): 0.7 WAR, Matt Lindstrom, RP (Trade): 0.4 WAR
Notable Offseason Departures: Jeremy Guthrie, SP (Trade): 1.0 WAR, Luke Scott, 1B/OF (Free Agent): 0.3 WAR
Top In-House Performers: Adam Jones, OF (Trade Feb. 2008): 4.6 WAR, Matt Wieters, C (Drafted 2007): 4.1 WAR, J.J. Hardy, SS (Trade Dec. 2010): 2.8 WAR, Chris Davis, 1B/OF (Trade Jul. 2011): 2.1 WAR
New general manager Dan Duquette must've had a lot more faith in his team than everyone else. That's because everyone else thought the O's needed to do more last offseason to avoid another finish at the bottom of the division. He traded his ace, Jeremy Guthrie, in exchange for Jason Hammel, who ended up being the team's best pitcher when healthy. Duquette's signing of starter Wei-Yin Chen also proved to be a brilliant move as the lefty teamed with Hammel to form a formidable front of the rotation in Baltimore.
For the most part, the rest of the work was already done. Much of the production on a 93-win team came from players acquired in previous trades, including Adam Jones, J.J. Hardy, and Chris Davis. It appears Duquette's taking the same approach this time around with an even quieter offseason, which is fine when your team is winning 93 games. Fall back in the division once again, though, and O's fans won't let him forget it.
2012-13 Offseason Comparison: Chicago White Sox
Finding a team who was terrible in 2012, did almost nothing to improve their team this offseason, and could improve by 24 games is near impossible. No, I don't think the Rockies are going to win more than 90 games in 2013. I don't think they'll win 70 games!
The White Sox won't improve by 24 games either, but they can get from 85 wins to 96 and a playoff berth despite a very quiet offseason where the prize acquisition was Jeff Keppinger. We can't forget that they also re-signed Jake Peavy, who is part of a rotation that can be potentially great if everyone stays healthy.