Yes, They're Back: 8 MLB Teams Who Are Better Than Last Year

Karl Buscheck@@KarlBuscheckContributor IIIJune 6, 2016

Yes, They're Back: 8 MLB Teams Who Are Better Than Last Year

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    There's been plenty of reason to celebrate for David Ortiz and the Red Sox early on in 2016.
    There's been plenty of reason to celebrate for David Ortiz and the Red Sox early on in 2016.Steven Senne/Associated Press

    What a difference a year has made for David Ortiz and the Boston Red Sox.

    In 2015, the club landed in the cellar in the American League East—15 games behind the division-winning Toronto Blue Jays. This year, as the third month of the season rolls along, the Red Sox own the second-best winning percentage in the circuit.

    The AL East heavyweights are the most improved team of 2016, but they're far from the only rejuvenated squad this year.

    In order to rank the most improved teams of 2016, we zeroed in on three key factors:

    • How well their new trade/free-agent additions have performed
    • How successfully key returning players have bounced back from underwhelming performances in 2015
    • How much room for improvement each team had

    That last bullet point is a big one because some clubs—like the Red Sox—had much more room to grow than others.

    The idea here is to focus on teams that are "back." As a result, only teams that missed out on the postseason in 2015 were eligible for inclusion.

    The Red Sox are the only club from the AL East that made the cut, but three teams in the National League East landed spots in the rankings that follow.

Honorable Mentions

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    The Oakland Athletics' Rich Hill—the AL Pitcher of the Month in May—has been one of the surprise stars of 2016.
    The Oakland Athletics' Rich Hill—the AL Pitcher of the Month in May—has been one of the surprise stars of 2016.Ben Margot/Associated Press

    Before running through the top eight, let's take a look at a few of the clubs who almost made the grade. All of these teams have raised their level of play significantly in 2016, but they still haven't improved enough for us to officially declare that they're back:

    • Colorado Rockies
    • Milwaukee Brewers
    • Oakland Athletics

8. Philadelphia Phillies

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    Odubel Herrera has been playing like an All-Star at Citizens Bank Park.
    Odubel Herrera has been playing like an All-Star at Citizens Bank Park.Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

    The Key New Guys: RP Andrew Bailey and SP Jeremy Hellickson

    What's Behind the Turnaround?

    With the Washington Nationals, New York Mets and Miami Marlins all standing ahead of them in the NL East pecking order, the Philadelphia Phillies won't be playing any October baseball in 2016.

    Still, there's no avoiding the reality that the Phils are light years ahead of schedule on their rebuild.

    After losing 99 games last season—more than any other team in baseball—the Phillies spent much of the opening two months of 2016 north of .500 before hitting a funk in the final week of May. Thanks to the likes of Maikel Franco, Odubel Herrera, Aaron Nola and Jerad Eickhoff, the future is bright in Philly for the first time in a long time.

    As The Ringer's Michael Baumann bluntly put it, the Phillies were expected to be "terrible." Instead, the upstart NL East club has posted a 27-29 mark. The surprisingly respectable start to the 2016 season was enough to earn the Phillies the eighth and final spot in these rankings.

7. Chicago White Sox

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    Todd Frazier has now cracked 53 homers since the start of 2015.
    Todd Frazier has now cracked 53 homers since the start of 2015.Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press/Associated Press

    The Key New Guys: C Alex Avila, 3B Todd Frazier, SP Miguel Gonzalez, SP Mat Latos, 2B Brett Lawrie and C Dioner Navarro

    What's Behind the Turnaround?

    If these rankings had been compiled a month ago, the Chicago White Sox would have been much higher up the list.

    After a monster April, the South Siders went into the tank in May, losing 15 of 19 games at one point. Despite that slide, the White Sox remain in third place in a tight AL Central—trailing the first-place Cleveland Indians by just three games.

    While the Sox have cooled off considerably as a team, one guy who hasn't is Todd Frazier. The veteran third baseman, who was picked up in a three-team swap last winter, shares the major league lead with 18 long balls. That puts Frazier on track to easily top his career high of 35 from a season ago.

    When it comes to the holdovers, Chris Sale has been the star of the show. The sidewinding left-hander, who endured a frustrating 2015 by his own lofty standards (3.41 ERA), has reeled off a 9-2 record and a 2.54 ERA to position himself as a front-runner for the AL Cy Young Award.

6. Miami Marlins

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    Don Mattingly has the Fish back on track after an ugly 2015.
    Don Mattingly has the Fish back on track after an ugly 2015.Kathy Willens/Associated Press

    The Key New Guys: Hitting Coach Barry Bonds, SP Wei-Yin Chen and MGR Don Mattingly

    What's Behind the Turnaround?

    So far, manager Don Mattingly has been the most impactful free-agent signing for the Miami Marlins.

    After they finished the 2015 season with an unsightly 71-91 record, the Marlins new skipper has guided his club not just into the middle of the wild-card conversation, but even the NL East discussion. Sitting in third currently, the Fish are only 3.5 games behind the division-leading Washington Nationals.

    The most impactful player on the field has been Jose Fernandez, who's finally healthy.

    The 23-year-old Cuban just turned in an outrageously good May. Fernandez was 6-0 with a 1.38 ERA in six trips to the mound, as he compiled 56 strikeouts. According to the calculations of ESPN Stats & Info, that's the most punchouts "by any pitcher in a calendar month in franchise history."

5. Cleveland Indians

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    Francisco Lindor has avoided a sophomore slump with the Tribe.
    Francisco Lindor has avoided a sophomore slump with the Tribe.Tony Dejak/Associated Press

    The Key New Guys: OF Rajai Davis and 1B Mike Napoli

    What's Behind the Turnaround?

    The Cleveland Indians remain anchored in the No. 5 spot because, while the first-place club is stronger and more balanced than it was in 2015, the Tribe were also far from a disaster a season ago.

    In 2015, the Indians were stuck in third place—13.5 games back of the front-running Kansas City Royals in the AL Central—but they also finished on the right side of the .500 mark (81-80).

    The most significant improvement for manager Terry Francona's squad has been with the bats.

    Last year, the club was No. 11 in the AL in runs. This year, Cleveland has climbed all the way to fourth. It certainly helps that the Indians have had the services of shortstop Francisco Lindor from the start of the season. The sophomore shortstop is hitting .313/.367/.456 with his usual stellar defense.

    At the same time, it certainly hurts that outfielder Marlon Byrd was hit with a 162-game ban after failing a PED test for the second time.

    The X-factor for Cleveland is trying to figure out when star left fielder Michael Brantley will finally be healthy. Brantley is on the disabled list for the second time this season with an injured right shoulder.

    "We didn't put a timetable [on Brantley's return] because there isn't one," Francona admitted to Paul Hoynes of Cleveland.com. "It's how he feels."

4. Washington Nationals

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    Daniel Murphy has been right at home in the nation's capital.
    Daniel Murphy has been right at home in the nation's capital.Chris Szagola/Associated Press

    The Key New Guys: MGR Dusty Baker, INF Stephen Drew, RP Shawn Kelley, 2B Daniel Murphy, RP Yusmeiro Petit and RP Oliver Perez

    What's Behind the Turnaround?

    With a 83-79 record that left them out of the playoffs, the Washington Nationals whiffed on their 2015 expectations in a big way.

    The 2016 season—manager Dusty Baker's first in charge—is off to a far more promising start. After a injury-riddled 2015 campaign, Stephen Strasburg has been electric as Max Scherzer's co-ace. The 27-year-old has yet to lose a game (9-0) and has posted a 2.69 ERA for the NL East leaders.

    At the dish, Daniel Murphy has been unreal. The veteran second baseman, whom the Nats signed away from their division rival the New York Mets, earned NL Player of the Month honors for May by hitting .416 with seven bombs.

    "[He's] the acquisition of the year in baseball," Baker declared to James Wagner of the Washington Post. "I'm glad we have him."

3. San Francisco Giants

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    Johnny Cueto has been brilliant since arriving at AT&T Park.
    Johnny Cueto has been brilliant since arriving at AT&T Park.David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    The Key New Guys: SP Johnny Cueto, SP Jeff Samardzija and CF Denard Span

    What's Behind the Turnaround?

    It's no secret how the San Francisco Giants have surged to the top of the NL West standings in the opening months of 2016.

    It's all about the pitching—especially the lights-out top of the rotation.

    New guys Johnny Cueto and Jeff Samardzija have both been impressive since joining their new team. Cueto has reeled off three complete games and tallied a 2.16 ERA, while Shark has posted a 3.33 mark. As Jon Heyman of Today's Knuckleball, MLB Network and WFAN pointed out, the Giants continue to prove that "nobody knows pitching like" they do.

    Then there's staff ace Madison Bumgarner. The lefty has already posted three starts with double-digit strikeout numbers and has been terrorizing Senior Circuit hitters as of late. Over his past seven starts, Bumgarner owns a 0.89 ERA, which has dropped his season mark to 1.91.

    Last season the starting staff, which ranked No. 11 in the NL in ERA, was the downfall for the second-place Giants. This year, the trio of MadBum, Cueto and Samardzija is the club's greatest strength.

2. Seattle Mariners

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    After a subpar 2015, Robinson Cano has bounced back in a big way.
    After a subpar 2015, Robinson Cano has bounced back in a big way.Elaine Thompson/Associated Press

    The Key New Guys: OF Nori Aoki, RP Joaquin Benoit, RP Steve Cishek, C Chris Iannetta, 1B Adam Lind, SP Wade Miley and MGR Scott Servais

    What's Behind the Turnaround?

    It's still early, but for now, general manager Jerry Dipoto's aggressive revamp of the Seattle Mariners has been a hit.

    While all the new pieces are fitting together nicely for the M's, the most important development has been the revival of Robinson Cano, who has returned to form after an uncharacteristically poor 2015.

    The second baseman has already clocked 16 home runs for Seattle. As ESPN's Baseball Tonight pointed out on Twitter, Cano didn't hit that total last year until September.

    While the return of Cano has been the top headline of the season, manager Scott Servais has been impressed by the resiliency that his club has demonstrated early on.

    “We handle adversity pretty well. We look at it right in the face and say ‘OK, here we go,’ ” Servais said, per Matt Calkins of the Seattle Times. “There is no real doubt or people looking around going ‘Here we go again.’ This is a different team with a different feel about them.”

    Resilient indeed. On June 3, the M's roared back from a 10-run deficit to beat the San Diego Padres 16-13.

    "That was incredible," Kyle Seager told A.J. Cassavell and Greg Johns of MLB.com. "The fight was pretty special."

1. Boston Red Sox

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    Mookie Betts recently thumped five homers in a two-game span.
    Mookie Betts recently thumped five homers in a two-game span.Nick Wass/Associated Press

    The Key New Guys: SP David Price, RP Carson Smith and OF Chris Young

    What's Behind the Turnaround?

    Scary. That's the only way to describe the Boston Red Sox's offense right now.

    David Ortiz has been his vintage self, but the foundation of this lineup is its trio of rising stars—Xander Bogaerts, Jackie Bradley Jr. and Mookie Betts. Thanks to Big Papi and the kids, the Red Sox lead the world in runs, average, OBP, slugging percentage and OPS.

    Bradley, who earned AL Player of the Month honors for May, recently compiled a 29-game hitting streak. Bogaerts leads all shortstops in average and OPS. And then there's Betts, who hammered five homers in two games against the Baltimore Orioles.

    "Being so young, it's just impressive the way he handles his business," Ortiz marveled of the Sox's table-setter, per Pete Abraham of the Boston Globe.

    The Red Sox's absurd lineup gives them the top spot in these rankings, but if the club is going to keep its impressive run going, reinforcements will need to be added to the underwhelming rotation. Young knuckleballer Steven Wright, currently sporting a 2.29 ERA, is the only starter with an ERA under 4.00.

    Note: All stats courtesy of BaseballReference.com and MLB.com.

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

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