When we look at what teams do in the offseason, it tends to cloud our judgement of how good they really are. However, looking at some of the moves and signings this winter, it is obvious a few teams helped themselves in countless ways.
One of the best strategies that teams can take is using free agency as a tool to add talent to a good collection of homegrown talent, rather than trying to build an entire team around the free agents. It is a tool designed to help teams take the next step, not be their building block.
As spring training kicks off, here are the teams who made significant changes this season (both in trades and signings) to put themselves in position to compete for a championship.
Notable Moves: Signed Dan Haren and Rafael Soriano; Acquired Denard Span from Minnesota for Alex Meyer
The Nationals were already one of the best teams in the National League before making any moves. They did have flaws, as every team does, but there was no reason to think they wouldn't be near the top of the standings with a full season from Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper.
But then the team shored up a huge hole in the outfield by acquiring Denard Span, one of the better defensive center fielders in baseball and a solid hitter. The team would be better off moving Jayson Werth to left field and Bryce Harper to right, but they won't be losing much in defensive value either way.
Dan Haren was one of the sneaky deals of the offseason. He wasn't healthy last year, but is not far removed from being a consistent 200-inning pitcher. He doesn't have to be the ace of the staff anymore, so there really is no pressure on him at all.
As much as I roll my eyes at relief pitchers getting contracts that average more than $10 million per season, Rafael Soriano does make an already good bullpen deeper and gives the team options at the end of games.
There are a handful of teams in the National League that can call themselves World Series contenders. The Nationals might be at the top of that list entering the season thanks to what they have done this offseason.
Notable Moves: Signed B.J. Upton; Acquired Justin Upton and Chris Johnson from Arizona for Martin Prado, Randall Delgado and prospects; Acquired Jordan Walden from Los Angeles for Tommy Hanson
The Braves lost a lot of offense at third base when Chipper Jones retired and they really did nothing this offseason to make up for it at that position. Juan Francisco and Chris Johnson will be lucky to have an on-base percentage over .310 this season.
However, they did make enough offensive upgrades at other positions to actually be better in 2013. B.J. and Justin Upton joining forces with Jason Heyward in the outfield could prove to be one of the best trios in the National League.
Justin Upton's power outage last season can be directly attributed to a thumb injury, so I am not worried about him getting back to being a 25-30 home run player and five to six wins above replacement.
B.J. Upton strikes out too much to hit for average, but he has more than enough power, draws enough walks and plays strong defense in center field to make up for that flaw in his game.
Walden, whose fastball sits in the high 90s, only strengthens an already deep bullpen. Losing Tommy Hanson really isn't that big of a deal because he was clearly losing a lot in terms of stuff and value with each passing season.
The National League East is going to be top heavy with the Braves and Nationals, both of whom will be in the playoff race.
Toronto Blue Jays
Notable Moves: Acquired Josh Johnson, Mark Buehrle, Jose Reyes, John Buck and Emilio Bonifacio from Miami for Yunel Escobar, Adeiny Hechavarria, Henderson Alvarez and prospects; Acquired R.A. Dickey, Josh Thole and a prospect from New York for John Buck, Travis d'Arnaud and prospects
No team helped itself more this offseason than the Toronto Blue Jays. You can also argue that no team took on more risk this offseason than they did.
The starting rotation was a big problem last season, so the Blue Jays added three proven big league starters to the mix. Mark Buehrle is usually a lock for 200 innings every season, though they won't always be great because his stuff isn't going to impress you.
Josh Johnson has the potential to be a Cy Young candidate, but he has had issues staying healthy. He has thrown more than 200 innings just once in his career.
R.A. Dickey is the safest bet of the pitchers acquired, though you have to wonder if moving from the pitcher-friendly confines of Citi Field to the hitter-friendly Rogers Centre, not to mention the much tougher American League East, will hurt his numbers.
Jose Reyes adds another dynamic weapon to an already potent offense. Keeping Jose Bautista healthy will be critical, because he changes everything about that lineup.
The American League East is wide open for the first time in what feels like 20 years. The Blue Jays certainly have all the pieces in place to be the best of the bunch. Until something happens to change that perception, you have to like the what they have done.
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