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Thursday, January 27, 2005
Top 10 most improved

By Jayson Stark
ESPN.com

Phew. What a winter.

A billion dollars worth of free agents.

Cy Youngs changing jobs, changing teams, even unretiring.

Trades nobody saw coming.

And it isn't even over yet.

But with spring training looming just beyond Super Bowl Sunday, here's a look at the top 10 most improved teams of 2005, as selected in an informal poll of GMs, assistant GMs and scouts:

NO. 10 -- GIANTS

GM Brian Sabean knows he's running out of time to win with Barry Bonds. So he brought in the cast of "Thirtysomething" -- Omar Vizquel, Moises Alou, Mike Matheny and Armando Benitez. Unless all four -- and Barry -- contract senior-citizen-itis, the Giants are now the favorites in the NL West.

NO. 9 -- REDS

They may not be the Big Red Machine reincarnate yet. But this team is better, after acquiring Eric Milton, Ramon Ortiz, Joe Randa, Kent Mercker and Rich Aurilia -- even if the Great American Ballpark isn't exactly a perfect fit for Milton and Ortiz, two of the five active pitchers who have served up 40 gopherballs in a season.

Tim Hudson
Bobby Cox can't help but smile with Tim Hudson, right, in his rotation next season.

NO. 8 -- BRAVES

GM John Schuerholz spent less money on free agents than the Mets tossed into Pedro Martinez's signing bonus -- but still found a way to retool. After stunning trades with Oakland and Milwaukee, the Braves have Tim Hudson and John Smoltz atop their rotation and Danny Kolb as their closer. But they're also depending on the volatile Raul Mondesi to replace J.D. Drew's offense, so don't hang that 14th straight NL East banner quite yet.

NO. 7 -- ANGELS

This team -- whatever its name is -- will miss Troy Percival, David Eckstein, Troy Glaus and Jose Guillen. But with Francisco Rodriguez ready to close and hot prospect Dallas McPherson taking over third base, the Angels had the freedom to bring in Orlando Cabrera, Paul Byrd, intriguing Cuban slugger Kendry Morales and maybe the biggest free-agent bargain of the winter, Steve Finley.

NO. 6 -- RED SOX

It's easy to focus on who isn't back -- primarily Pedro Martinez, Derek Lowe and Cabrera. But Jason Varitek is back. Edgar Renteria upgrades the champs at short. And -- for 55 million fewer dollars than Martinez and Lowe got -- they've replaced two starting pitchers with three: Matt Clement, Wade Miller and one-time Fenway villain David Wells. So it's possible this team could be even better than those curse-busting Idiots who preceded them.

NO. 5 -- DIAMONDBACKS

They traded the Big Unit. They've won just about everybody's Overspenders of the Winter award. But the addition of Troy Glaus, Javier Vazquez, Russ Ortiz, Shawn Green, Shawn Estes and Royce Clayton can't help but make a 111-loss team better. It's just more likely to be a 2004 Tigers kind of better, not a win-the-World-Series kind of better.

Randy Johnson
George's haul included a former Yankee-killer.

NO. 4 -- YANKEES

It's still a shock the world's first $200-million baseball team didn't sign Carlos Beltran. But if all goes well, they've seriously upgraded their pitching staff with Carl Pavano, Jaret Wright, Mike Stanton, Felix Rodriguez and some guy named Randy Johnson. And if all doesn't go well? There's plenty more George Steinbrenner dollars where those 200 million came from.

NO. 3 -- MARINERS

They haven't had a 40-home-run man since A-Rod left town. So this winter, the Mariners signed two of them -- Adrian Beltre, coming off a 48-homer eruption for the Dodgers, and Richie Sexson, two years removed from a 45-homer season for Milwaukee. The new shortstop, Pokey Reese, completes a much-improved defensive infield. Now, if anybody can pitch, this team could boomerang from 99 losses right back to contention.

NO. 2 -- MARLINS

It's possible no free agent will have a bigger impact on one team than Carlos Delgado, whose eight 30-homer seasons are eight times as many as all lefthanded-hitting Marlins in franchise history. If Al Leiter can replace Carl Pavano and Guillermo Mota can do a decent Armando Benitez imitation, the Marlins should be the scariest beast in the NL East.

NO. 1 -- METS

For 194 million bucks, you could buy 19 million pastrami sandwiches at the Stage Deli -- or Carlos Beltran, Pedro Martinez and Kris Benson. The Mets gave their frazzled fans something to chew on with the three most staggering free-agent contracts of the winter. It might not put them in the playoffs. But at least, it put them back on New York's radar screen.

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.