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Playing 2016 Contender or Pretender with MLB's Most Active Teams This Winter

Karl BuscheckContributor IIIDecember 28, 2016

Playing 2016 Contender or Pretender with MLB's Most Active Teams This Winter

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    Zack Greinke is the new star of the show for the Arizona Diamondbacks.
    Zack Greinke is the new star of the show for the Arizona Diamondbacks.Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

    From the arrival of Zack Greinke at Chase Field to the landing of David Price at Fenway Park, it has been an ambitious offseason for big spenders like the Arizona Diamondbacks and the Boston Red Sox.

    The question now becomes whether that offseason ambition will transform into wins on the field in 2016. As we get set for the latest round of "contender" or "pretender," let's begin by laying out the ground rules.

    Only teams that weren't in contention in 2015 were eligible for the list. That means there's no room for the likes of the Chicago Cubs and New York Yankees, who have been doing plenty of business but who were both already established in the contender conversation before the offseason began.

    In the process of labeling the following five teams, we took two key factors into consideration:

    • How successfully each team addressed its most glaring weakness(es)
    • The landscape of each team's division/league

    Squads like the D-backs and Red Sox, which have imported prominent players such as Greinke and Price, dominate the list, but there's also a spot for one team's whose most consequential additions have been to the coaching staff.

Arizona Diamondbacks

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    The D-backs are making a serious push down in the desert.
    The D-backs are making a serious push down in the desert.Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

    Key Additions: SP Zack Greinke and SP Shelby Miller

    If fortune favors the bold, the Arizona Diamondbacks are in a great spot.

    You have to admire the tenacity of chief baseball officer Tony La Russa and general manager Dave Stewart, who have vaulted the D-backs into the sphere of legitimate threats by importing Greinke and Miller back in December.

    While the 2015 ERA king and the former Atlanta Brave and St. Louis Cardinal headline the staff, Arizona already boasts an offense that scored the second-most runs in the National League a season ago. First baseman Paul Goldschmidt, the anchor of that attack, didn't see the Greinke addition coming—just like the rest of the baseball world.

    "I was definitely surprised," Goldschmidt said, per Steve Gilbert of MLB.com. "All of a sudden my phone started blowing up with people texting and calling me. It was exciting."

    As Goldy explained to Gilbert, Greinke has the ability to improve the D-backs even when the erudite righty isn't on the mound.

    "I'm sure he'll help out the entire pitching staff, setting the tone, and guys will be able to pick his brain because he's such a smart pitcher," Goldschmidt said.

    It won't be easy for Arizona to rise from a 79-win club to a challenger for the NL West crown, as both the San Francisco Giants and Los Angeles Dodgers will be standing in their way.

    But the D-backs have a superior offense to both of those clubs, and with Greinke and Miller atop the rotation, the team can rival the one-two punches of the Giants' Madison Bumgarner and Johnny Cueto and the Dodgers' Clayton Kershaw and Scott Kazmir.

    The Verdict: Contender

Seattle Mariners

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    OF Nori Aoki is one of many new faces in the Pacific Northwest.
    OF Nori Aoki is one of many new faces in the Pacific Northwest.Joe Nicholson/Associated Press

    Key Additions: OF Nori Aoki, RP Joaquin Benoit, RP Steve Cishek, C Chris Iannetta, SP Hisashi Iwakuma (re-signed), OF Leonys Martin, SP Wade Miley and manager Scott Servais

    It's worth wondering whether Jerry Dipoto has even left his office since the Seattle Mariners hired him as their GM at the end of September.

    After the winter meetings, ESPN's Jayson Stark dug through the transaction wire to tally up all the moves he's made:

    "Your updated Dipoto transaction scoreboard: now up to 9 trades involving 32 players, 3 waiver claims, 8 free agents signed."

    Even with that onslaught of activity, it sounds like Dipoto wouldn't have minded doing even more.

    "I don't know if you ever check off all the boxes," Dipoto said, per Lyle Spencer of MLB.com. "But we came into this offseason with a plan—and I think we stuck to it."

    The exec has brought a slew of quality pieces to Seattle—Aoki (.287 batting average in 2015) and Benoit (2.34 ERA in 2015) stand out as two of the best gets—but Dipoto hasn't yet reeled in any true game-changers.

    That's troublesome—especially when it comes to the offense, which clocked in at No. 13 in runs in the AL a season ago.

    As was the case in 2015, both the wild-card chase and the AL West race are shaping up to be fiercely competitive during the upcoming campaign.

    Last year, the Houston Astros and the Texas Rangers were both playoff teams and the Los Angeles Angels missed out on October by just a single game, even though their offense vanished in the second half.

    Right now, the M's are the fourth-best club in their own division—just like a season ago. And that's a major problem for Dipoto and his Mariners.

    The Verdict: Pretender

Chicago White Sox

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    Robin Ventura has lots of new hitters to throw BP to in 2016.
    Robin Ventura has lots of new hitters to throw BP to in 2016.Jeff Haynes/Associated Press

    Key Additions: C Alex Avila, C Dioner Navarro, 3B Todd Frazier and 2B Brett Lawrie

    The offense was a train wreck for the Chicago White Sox during the season that was in 2015.

    The South Siders ranked last in the AL in runs, homers and OPS.

    That explains why GM Rick Hahn has moved so aggressively to fix the lineup. Of all the new bats, none offers more promise than Frazier, who slugged 35 home runs in 2015 and 29 the year before that.

    The big challenge for manager Robin Ventura as he tries to fit all the new pieces together will be keeping the club afloat in the loaded AL Central.

    "We're improved, definitely," Ventura said, per Scot Gregor of the Daily Herald. "We're also in the division that has the World Series champion [Kansas City Royals]. We know it's a tough division. Everyone in the [AL Central] division is getting better, and this is our way to improve and make ourselves a viable candidate."

    The lineup is far more viable this year now that Frazier, Avila, Navarro and Lawrie have been added to the mix.

    Meanwhile, the White Sox's rotation—led by lefties Chris Sale and Jose Quintana—is sneaky good. In 2015, the group posted the second-best ERA in the Central. The departure of Jeff Samardzija (4.96 ERA) looks like a case of addition by subtraction, and 2014 top pick and fellow lefty Carlos Rodon will be entering his sophomore season.

    Add it all up, and the White Sox have the upside to make some noise in the derbies for the wild-card spots and the division title.

    The Verdict: Contender

Miami Marlins

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    Barry Bonds is headed to South Beach.
    Barry Bonds is headed to South Beach.Associated Press

    Key Additions: Hitting coach Barry Bonds and manager Don Mattingly

    For the Fish, activity hasn't translated to a ton of new faces. But the brain trust has definitely been active.

    So far, trade speculation about rising ace Jose Fernandez has dominated the winter. Now, outfielder Marcell Ozuna's name has hit the block, as Clark Spencer of the Miami Herald reported. But as spring training inches ever closer, both guys remain with the Miami Marlins.

    The two biggest moves have been on the coaching staff. Mattingly is the new skipper for the NL East squad and Bonds steps in as the hitting coach.

    Bonds, the all-time MLB home run leader, is a rookie in his new post, but he's a genius of a hitter who will have all sorts of insights to share with his students. Per John Shea of the San Francisco Chronicle, Alex Rodriguez was one of his students last January before going on to club 33 jacks.

    But it's Donnie Baseball who has the platform to make the far greater impact.

    "The most important move [of the offseason] was bringing in Don Mattingly," team president David Samson said to Joe Frisaro of MLB.com.

    The manager's track record has provided his new boss with reason for optimism.

    "Mattingly talks about his experiences, whether it was with New York or L.A., and he talks about putting together a winning team, and what it is to be a winner," Samson said.

    Building a winner in Miami is a monumental ask. Bleacher Report's Scott Miller detailed just how toxic things got last season after the team axed then-manager Mike Redmond.

    "Soon, players took to playing circus music in the clubhouse and on charter flights whenever anything they viewed as amateur enough to be endemic to the Marlins occurred."

    That's a lot of culture for the new guy to change.

    There's also the consideration that, thanks in part to injuries, the Marlins were downright lousy in 2015, running up 91 losses.

    Mattingly, whose Los Angeles Dodgers won the NL West in each of his final three seasons in Southern California, has the resume to get the Marlins back to the postseason for the first time since 2003. Just don't count on that happening in Year 1.

    The Verdict: Pretender

Boston Red Sox

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    Dave Dombrowski found his ace in David Price.
    Dave Dombrowski found his ace in David Price.Associated Press

    Key Additions: RP Craig Kimbrel, SP David Price and OF Chris Young

    How well has the winter gone for Dave Dombrowski, the president of baseball operations for the Boston Red Sox? Let's ask Theo Epstein, his counterpart with the Chicago Cubs.

    "[The Red Sox are] well positioned. A lot of good young players," Epstein said to Tim Healey of MLB.com. As Healey pointed out, many of those core guys arrived during Epstein's reign at Fenway Park. "They've added a couple of really good pitchers this winter, so it should be a fun year for them in the AL."

    Those two pitchers—Price and Kimbrel—are really good, indeed.

    By inking Price to a seven-year, $217 million megadeal, the Sox have finally snagged that No. 1 arm the team had been lacking. In Kimbrel, Boston has acquired a late-game ace (39 saves or more in each of the past five seasons) who significantly bolsters a relief corps that lugged around the third-worst ERA in the AL in 2015.

    Young is the biggest bat Boston has added this offseason, but the numbers suggest the offense is good to go. Last year, the Red Sox scored the fourth-most runs in baseball. The problem is that a couple of their division neighbors—the Toronto Blue Jays and the Yankees—ranked No. 1 and No. 2, respectively, in that department.

    The Red Sox will also have to compete with the Baltimore Orioles (81-81 in 2015) in the crowded AL East. Still, thanks to those new arms, Boston now has the roster to battle for a wild-card berth and possibly the club's first division title since 2013.

    The Verdict: Contender

     

    Note: All stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com and MLB.com. All salary information courtesy of Cot's Baseball Contracts on BaseballProspectus.com.

    If you want to talk baseball, find me on Twitter @KarlBuscheck.

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