There isn't a team in baseball that doesn't head into the offseason looking to improve, but only a few are typically able to do so in impressive fashion. After all, there's only so much talent available, and the price to acquire that talent is often counterproductive to what a team is trying to do.
Since the Hot Stove League began in November, multiple teams have been able to make impressive improvements to their rosters. But how do we quantify impressive? It's highly subjective, as what impresses me may not impress you, and what impresses you may not impress your best friend.
To do so, we'll look at a number of factors, primarily the statistical improvement over what a team had at the position a year ago compared with the numbers of their newly acquired talent, as well as what it cost a team to acquire those players.
Teams that were able to improve multiple positions will land higher on the list than those that filled only one hole because, well, it's much harder to acquire multiple pieces than it is to land just one.
Lets take a look at the 10 teams that have impressed us the most so far this winter.
How bad was Minnesota's starting rotation in 2013? Take a look at where the group ranked across multiple categories:
|Category||Twins 2013 Stats||MLB Rank|
Not normally known as an aggressive franchise on the free-agent market, general manager Terry Ryan did what needed to be done this winter, moving quickly to sign free-agent starters Ricky Nolasco and Phil Hughes.
While he's miscast as the ace of the staff, Nolasco is a consistent contributor who will keep the Twins in games and eat innings, the kind of pitcher that the team hasn't had in years.
Hughes, whose numbers in 2013 were atrocious, has historically been very good away from his former home, Yankee Stadium, and has a chance to turn things around and begin to live up to his considerable talent at Target Field. Only 27 years old, he still has some upside.
Adding one more veteran starter to the mix (Bronson Arroyo) would certainly help the team's rotation and push the Twins up the list to a higher ranking, but so far, the improvement that the Twins will see at the top of their rotation is substantial—and impressive.
Perhaps no team was under more pressure to make significant improvements this winter than the New York Mets. Faced with a fanbase that was growing impatient and agitated, GM Sandy Alderson didn't disappoint, upgrading the team's decrepit outfield with a pair of free-agent signings.
Take a look at how the team's two newest outfielders, Curtis Granderson and Chris Young, stack up against the ragtag group of mediocrity that the Mets sent out on the field a year ago:
|2013 Stats||BA||OBP||SLG||XBH (HR)||wRC+||G|
|Mets OF||.235||.304||.381||183 (60)||93||162|
Their stats may be underwhelming, but consider that Granderson was limited by a number of freak injuries, while Young was relegated to part-time duty in Oakland. Healthy, over a full season, the difference in production from last year's group and the newcomers will be quite impressive to see.
Few teams this winter have made a more impressive improvement at one position as the Seattle Mariners did at second base with the signing of Robinson Cano.
How big of an improvement over the four players that the Mariners used at the position last year does Cano represent? Take a look:
|2013 Stats||BA||OBP||SLG||XBH (HR)||DRS||UZR/150||WAR|
|Seattle 2B||.220||.290||.340||62 (16)||0||minus-6.0||0.1|
Equally as impressive was the 10-year, $240 million contract that Seattle gave the 32-year-old All-Star, a record-setting deal for the position and a statement from the small-market club to the baseball world: When the Mariners see something they like, they are willing and able to outbid the big-market clubs for it.
Yet making such a large investment in one player seemingly left the team without the room in their 2014 budget to make equally needed improvements elsewhere, so while Seattle is better now than it was a season ago thanks to Cano, the Mariners still aren't a legitimate contender.
Can anyone explain how Washington GM Mike Rizzo was able to get Doug Fister out of Detroit for three marginal pieces?
For as impressive as Matthew Broderick's schemes were in the classic '80s comedy flick Ferris Bueller's Day Off, what Rizzo was able to pull off this winter is far more impressive.
Consider this: Since 2012, Fister is tied for the 13th-highest WAR among qualified starting pitchers with Washington's own Gio Gonzalez, whom the Nationals acquired from Oakland in the winter of 2011 for a package of starters—A.J. Cole, Tommy Milone and Brad Peacock—as well as catcher Derek Norris.
A similar package should have been required to land Fister—a younger, more reliable fourth starter than his predecessor, Dan Haren, who signed with the Los Angeles Dodgers earlier this winter:
Everything about this move, from the deal itself to the upgrade it provides the Nationals, is impressive.
Texas headed into the offseason with three primary needs: a leadoff hitter, someone to replace the power that the departed Nelson Cruz once provided and a place for prospect Jurickson Profar to play everyday.
With two moves, the Rangers did just that.
Trading second baseman Ian Kinsler to Detroit for first baseman Prince Fielder accomplished two of those goals, as Profar will now be the team's starting second baseman while the hulking Fielder adds an element of intimidation to the middle of the lineup that's been missing since Josh Hamilton left as a free agent before the 2013 season.
While his defense leaves much to be desired and he had, by his standards, a down year at the plate, Fielder is a major upgrade over those that the Rangers used at first base last season:
|2013 Stats||BA||OBP||SLG||XBH (HR)||wRC+||WAR|
|Texas 1B||.238||.304||.438||73 (35)||97||0.4|
If that improvement isn't impressive enough for you, take a look at the difference that the team's other big addition, outfielder Shin-Soo Choo, will have atop the team's lineup:
|2013 Stats||BA||OBP||SLG||XBH (HR)||TB|
|Texas Leadoff Hitters||.266||.336||.386||51 (14)||260|
An on-base machine, Choo leading things off for the Rangers, with Elvis Andrus, Fielder and Adrian Beltre hitting behind him, is sure to result in the Rangers getting out to an early lead far more often than they were able to a year ago.
With multiple holes and little in the way of minor league talent to trade in order to fill them, the New York Yankees did what they do as well as any team in baseball this winter—they spent money.
An impressive amount of money.
While Masahiro Tanaka isn't the next coming of Yu Darvish, and the Yankees have struck out on Japanese pitchers before (Hideki Irabu and Kei Igawa), signing the 25-year-old was a risk that the team had to take.
Tanaka fills a major void in the team's starting rotation and serves as a foundation for the team to build its future staff around. The Yankees didn't have a building block for their rotation at any level in the organization. Now they do.
Nobody can argue that Kelly Johnson and Brian Roberts will equal the departed Robinson Cano's play at second base, but the Yankees come out of the winter stronger up the middle than they would have been by just re-signing Cano.
Adding catcher Brian McCann and center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury not only serve as major upgrades at their respective positions both at the plate and in the field, but Ellsbury gives the team its best leadoff hitter in years.
While his defense is subpar and he doesn't have the kind of prodigious home run power that his predecessor, Curtis Granderson, possessed, the switch-hitting Carlos Beltran is a better overall player than Granderson, serving as yet another upgrade for the Bronx Bombers.
The Yankees may not have enough to overtake Boston or Tampa Bay for the AL East crown, but they enter 2014 in much better shape to contend for a playoff spot than they were a year ago.
For $30.25 million and a left-handed specialist out of the bullpen, Kansas City not only found answers at second base and in right field but made its lineup significantly more dangerous in the process.
The Royals used four different players in right field last year and five different players at second base. Newcomers Omar Infante and Norichika Aoki blow all of those players away when it comes to producing at the plate:
More importantly, Aoki and Infante will bat first and second, respectively, in the Royals lineup. That allows manager Ned Yost to drop left fielder Alex Gordon into the heart of the batting order instead of in the leadoff spot, where his run-producing ability was wasted.
While these additions may not be enough for the Royals to overtake the Detroit Tigers in the AL Central, it puts the team in much better position to contend for a playoff berth than it was a year ago. That equals a productive—and impressive—offseason.
While the pieces that the Los Angeles Angels added this winter aren't on the level of the additions that they've made in previous offseasons (Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton), the team addressed its needs and filled them at a minimal cost.
The team landed a pair of young, controllable left-handed starting pitchers (Hector Santiago and Tyler Skaggs) in exchange for outfielder Mark Trumbo, a one-dimensional slugger that can't get on base, isn't overly athletic and was a defensive liability in left field.
Newly acquired third baseman David Freese isn't going to win any Gold Gloves at the position—and he struggles to stay healthy—but the veteran can produce at the plate when he's in the lineup, far more than those the Angels used at the hot corner last year:
|2013 Stats||BA||OBP||SLG||XBH (HR)||wRC+||WAR|
|Angels 3B||.249||.308||.332||33 (8)||81||1.3|
Often overlooked was the team's signing of reliever Joe Smith. Perhaps overpaid on a three-year, $15.75 million deal, Smith has become one of the game's premier middle relievers, pitching to a 2.42 ERA and 1.16 WHIP over the past three seasons while getting hitters out on both sides of the plate.
Already one of the premier teams in the game, the St. Louis Cardinals managed to improve at multiple positions this winter with little effort, a scary proposition for the rest of baseball.
The team's four-year, $53 million investment in shortstop Jhonny Peralta fills a major void in the team's lineup, as he is far more productive at the plate than anyone the Cardinals trotted out there in 2013:
|2013 Stats||BA||OBP||SLG||XBH (HR)||DRS||UZR/150||WAR|
|Cardinals SS||.226||.282||.314||52 (6)||minus-39||minus-10.6||minus-0.3|
What's even more impressive is that Peralta posted those numbers in only 107 games, having served a 50-game suspension in the middle of the season for his link to the Biogenesis Anti-Aging Clinic. Over a full season, the difference in production, both at the plate and in the field, would be significantly greater.
St. Louis also managed to land its everyday center fielder, acquiring Peter Bourjos and minor league outfielder Randal Grichuk from the Los Angeles Angels in exchange for third baseman David Freese and relief pitcher Fernando Salas. With a combination of power and speed, Bourjos is an upgrade over incumbent Jon Jay, who regressed badly at the plate and in the field last season.
More importantly, moving Freese allows the team to slide Matt Carpenter to his natural position, third base, while giving prospect Kolten Wong a chance to play on a fairly regular basis at second base.
Should Wong falter, the team went out and signed veteran Mark Ellis, a finalist for the NL Gold Glove Award at the position in 2013 and the kind of scrappy, hard-nosed player that the Cardinals love.
Just like the team that comes in at No. 1 on our list, the Cardinals improved multiple positions at a minimal cost this winter. That's impressive.
Any team that's in rebuilding mode has one goal in mind heading into the offseason—to accumulate as much young, controllable talent with upside as it possibly can.
Few teams have done a better job of doing that than the Chicago White Sox.
Center fielder Adam Eaton gives the team an exciting leadoff hitter and upgrades the team's defense in center field, with former center fielder Alejandro De Aza taking his less-than-stellar defense to left field, where it will be less of an issue.
Hahn also added a pair of corner infielders to the mix, first baseman Jose Abreu and third baseman Matt Davidson. The two could be long-term answers at their respective positions, something that the White Sox didn't have in their system before.
While all three of the team's big additions are relatively unproven commodities, they all have significant upside and came at little cost, with the six-year, $68 million deal the team gave Abreu representing the most expensive—and risky—move of them all.
That said, if Abreu provides the White Sox with some power and solid defense, his deal will look like a relative bargain before long, and neither starting pitcher Hector Santiago nor relief pitcher Addison Reed—used to acquire Eaton and Davidson, respectively—were part of the team's future plans.
I've said it before and I'll keep saying it: No team got more for less this winter than the White Sox, and that's why they sit at the top of our list.