- Jayson Stark, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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Welcome to the halftime show of the 2012-13 baseball offseason. Sorry to report that Chris Berman, James Brown and Terry Bradshaw won't be joining us.
So how can this be a halftime show without them? Do the math. The World Series champagne bottles were uncorked just 7½ weeks ago. Pitchers and catchers show up under the palm trees a mere 7½ weeks from now. Voila.
Out there in Hot Stove Land, Josh Hamilton, Zack Greinke, B.J. Upton and Ryan Dempster have all signed. Nick Swisher, Cody Ross, Michael Bourn and Kyle Lohse, on the other hand, are still the captains of the All-Unemployed Team. Of Keith Law's top 50 free agents, 33 have signed, but 17 remain.
So what better time to sift through the hyperactivity in the old transactions column and assess the madness -- or, at least, the madness so far? (OK, the correct answer to that question is probably Feb. 20, not Dec. 20. But ignore that. Will you?)
We spent the past few days polling a half-dozen big league executives on which five teams have improved the most this winter -- and which five have improved the least.
We also asked Dan Szymborski of ESPN Insider to help answer that question with numbers, by using his ZiPS projection system to project next season's win totals based on current rosters.
And we've combed through the Vegas odds to get a sense of where that crowd stands in this debate.
So ... ready for the results? Cool. The envelopes, please:
The five most-improved teams
The computer projection: Szymborski projected 2013 win totals for all 30 teams at the start of the offseason, based on their rosters at the time. Then they projected those totals again this week. Here are the five teams that came out best:
The Vegas view: Now, from a different perspective, here are the five teams whose winning-it-all odds have improved the most since the day after the World Series, according to the sports book at Bovada:
How baseball executives see it: And now, finally, we present the five teams that came out best in our survey:
Toronto Blue Jays
It isn't often there's a unanimous verdict in any poll. But this one was easy. The Blue Jays lost 89 games in 2012. They're viewed as the early favorites in the AL East in 2013. And even if that's arguable, it tells you all you need to know about what they've done.
They've traded for three starting pitchers (R.A. Dickey, Mark Buehrle, Josh Johnson) who averaged 209 innings apiece last season. They've added a dynamic leadoff man (Jose Reyes), a guy who hit .346/.390/.516 (Melky Cabrera) before the test-tube police nabbed him, and two players (Emilio Bonifacio and Maicer Izturis) who give them the depth and versatility they lacked in 2012. So what's not to like?
"They've basically traded for a No. 1, a No. 2 and a No. 3 starter," said one AL executive. "And that's remarkable, in and of itself."
"This isn't just a one-year fix," said an NL exec. "Outside of Josh Johnson [a year from free agency], they have most of these guys under control for two or three years. In two or three years, if Reyes is still playing like hell and Buehrle is the same guy, and Dickey still looks like he'll keep doing this till he's 50, they might still be the team to beat."
"I give them a lot of credit," said another NL exec. "They recognized that right now, the Red Sox and Yankees aren't the Red Sox and Yankees. The AL East isn't the AL East like it used to be. They saw a window of opportunity, and they're going for it. A lot of teams never take that swing. At least they took it."
Boston Red Sox
There's a difference between the Most Improved list and the Most Free Agents Signed list. You know that. We know that. The Red Sox know that.
So if we were ranking by volume, well, heck -- the Red Sox just about lead the league in that. Since their 2012 ship sank to the bottom of the AL East sea, they've added Dempster, Koji Uehara, Shane Victorino, Jonny Gomes, Stephen Drew, David Ross, a new manager (John Farrell) and, if his deal ever becomes official, Mike Napoli.
Clearly, then, they're better, even though that whole group will be on the wrong side of 30 by Opening Day. But how much better? Lots of divided opinion on that.
They're deeper. Our panel agreed on that. Their clubhouse should be much more harmonious. They've added more of Law's top 50 free agents (six) than any other team in either league. And "they've brought in a bunch of guys who can play in Boston," said one AL executive. But on the other hand …
"They've added a lot," said one AL exec. "But remember, they had to add a lot, because they had so many holes."
And another AL exec gave this scathing review: "To me, they've spent a lot of money to be mediocre."
Kansas City Royals
It's been fashionable to second-guess the Royals for dealing Wil Myers and plundering their prospect pool to make a go-for-it trade at a point in time when the rest of their roster might not be up to going for it. All right, we get that. Nevertheless, they're better than the 90-loss mess they were in 2012.
They might not be better off in 2015, but they're better now. James Shields makes them better. Wade Davis, if he becomes a true No. 3 starter, makes them better. Ervin Santana and Jeremy Guthrie don't come with money-back guarantees. But on paper, they also make this team better.
"What was their rotation last year, and what is it now?" asked one NL executive. "That says it all for me."
There is no perfect time, the same executive said, to make a trade like this. So is it possible this team's position players weren't advanced enough to merit a win-now kind of deal? Sure. But "it's the general manager's job to win," he said, "not collect prospects."
"Look, it's hard to get both things together," the exec went on, "to have a really good offense and really good pitching at the same time. But their pitching's better. And their offense should be better with the maturation of the guys at the corners [Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas]. But no matter how you look at it, you can't tell me the Kansas City Royals aren't better than they were a year ago. No way you can say that."
Los Angeles Angels
By the time this offseason is over, the Angels could rank a lot higher on this list, because it's possible they're still not done. But for now, the good news is they've added the biggest impact bat on the market (Mr. Josh Hamilton, ladies and gentlemen). And they've massively upgraded their bullpen, with Ryan Madson and Sean Burnett.
The additions to their rotation (Jason Vargas, Tommy Hanson and Joe Blanton) don't match the subtractions (Greinke, Dan Haren and Santana). But they'll be a run-scoring assembly line if everything goes according to plan. So they won't exactly need to throw a shutout every night. Will they?
"That lineup is some kind of dangerous," said an NL executive. "If Mark Trumbo is your 6-hole hitter, look out. Losing Greinke is big. But with the offense they've got, I don't think they need another ace. They're going to get plenty of run support. That's for damned sure."
Los Angeles Dodgers
Oh, yeah. Them.
If you weren't paying attention, you'd think this team had signed 19 free agents for approximately $932 billion. In fact, the Dodgers have "only" added Greinke (for six years, $147 million) and Hyun-Jin Ryu (for six years, $36 million, plus a $25.7 million posting fee). And in other news, they traded for utility whiz Skip Schumaker and re-signed reliever Brandon League (three years, $22.5 million).
But Greinke unto his own self is such a sport-rattling acquisition, it was impossible to leave the Dodgers off this list.
"Greinke alone impacts that rotation dramatically," said one NL exec. "You put those two guys -- him and [Clayton] Kershaw -- at the front, and it'll be hard to beat those two in any series."
The five least-improved teams
The computer projection: Szymborski projected these five teams as having taken the biggest hit to their win totals, compared to the beginning of the offseason. (Keep in mind that these projections also factor in the improvement of other teams in their division.)
The Vegas view: Meanwhile, here are the five teams whose winning-it-all odds have taken the biggest turn south since the day after the World Series, according to Bovada:
How baseball executives see it: Before we tell you how the execs we surveyed saw it, we should announce there's one massive difference between this group and the most-improved group: The teams that made the least-improved cut still have nearly two months to check off the items on their winter to-do list. So everything is subject to change. We should also mention that a dozen different teams got votes in this half of the survey. So at least these five clubs know they're not the only ones with work to do.
Ready for a shocker? The Marlins were NOT the unanimous choice for least-improved team. But only because one AL executive took this stance:
"Are they still in the big leagues? I don't even count them. They're a nonentity."
Whew. Does that give you an indication of how offended some folks in this sport were by the direction this franchise has taken, or what?
We'll spare you all the piling on and at least concede that other teams do like many of the players the Marlins got back from Toronto, especially shortstop Adeiny Hechavarria and outfielder Jake Marisnick. And one more uplifting observation, from another AL exec: It's not as if they can finish any lower next year than they did this year.
"Obviously, they were a last-place team with those guys," he said. "So it doesn't mean they'll be a whole lot worse. Who knows? Something freaky could happen, and they might even be better. But I doubt it."
Fortunately for the Astros, it's hard to argue they've gotten significantly worse. Heck, they didn't even make Szymborski's least-improved list -- but only because their projected win total (now set at 53) was so low to start with.
Their most high-profile additions so far: Carlos Pena (182 strikeouts, 98 hits last year), Philip Humber (6.44 ERA) and reliever Jose Veras (sixth team since 2009). At least 24-year-old right-hander Alex White (obtained from Colorado in the Wilton Lopez deal) still has his fans. But he also went 2-9 with a 5.51 ERA last season, with a 51-to-64 walk-strikeout ratio.
Beneath this surface, there are encouraging things happening on the player-development front. But in the meantime, back in the big leagues, baseball-reference.com projects this team to have a $24.9 million payroll. And one AL exec describes the Astros' short-term big league panorama this way: "Dismal. And headed south."
This is still an awfully talented team, with a deep roster and deep system. But yikes! This club has had a nightmare of an offseason so far.
Gone, for starters, are Hamilton, Napoli, Mike Adams and Michael Young. Granted, much of that was by design, and there's plenty of time for other moves. But as one NL exec put it, "When you lose Josh Hamilton, how are you going to get better?"
What really pushed the Rangers to this lofty spot on this list, though, was all the impact players and arms they seemed poised to acquire -- and didn't: Shields, Greinke, Dickey, Hamilton, Justin Upton, etc.
"I'm really disappointed in Texas," said an AL exec. "It's unbelievable to me, how they allowed themselves to miss out on everything they had on their radar."
But another AL exec said there's a logical explanation for that -- and a moral to all that swinging and missing: "They had too many balls in the air. They had too many things going on. You have a chance to get shut out when you do that. And that's exactly what happened."
After such an uplifting season, the Orioles seemed positioned for a big offseason. But maybe they were just positioned for a big second half of the offseason -- because their big league additions in the first half have consisted of Trayvon Robinson, Danny Valencia and Alexi Casilla (plus Rule 5 draft pick T.J. McFarland).
"I'm really surprised by what they've done, or haven't done," said one AL executive. "With the momentum they had going into the offseason and the resources I thought they had financially, I don't think anybody would have been surprised if they'd gotten in on something big."
"Coming off such a good year, they haven't done anything to make you say they're taking that next step," said an NL exec. "It didn't even have to be something big. Even signing a Ryan Dempster. Go out and get one veteran guy to put in your rotation and stabilize it. I don't know how they can sit there and say this rotation is good enough to get them back there."
New York Mets
Let's just say there was massive competition for the final spot on this list. Among the teams that got multiple votes: the Rockies, Brewers, Mariners and Yankees. But the Mets sneaked in here, even though they got rave reviews for the return they got in the R.A. Dickey deal.
"If you're asking are they going to be improved down the road, I'd say yes," said one AL executive. "But if you're asking are they improved next year, the answer is obviously no. I mean, you've lost your No. 1 starter, a guy who won the Cy Young Award. The bullpen looks kind of shaky right now. They haven't re-signed [Scott] Hairston, so what's their outfield? And I'll go back to this: You're taking away your No. 1 [starter], a guy who really impacts your club. That's a big hit."
Maybe, in seven weeks, we'll have a different feeling about all of this. But that's a discussion for another day. For now, that'll do it for our offseason halftime show. Now back to the hot-stove action!