The goal of every Major League Baseball team in the off-season is to improve, but some teams improve more than others. Some teams don’t improve at all (or get worse). Take the clubs in National League East, for instance. The Philadelphia Phillies now may have the best starting staff in baseball with the signing of Cliff Lee. Likewise, the Atlanta Braves and Washington Nationals each improved their chances of winning with the additions of Dan Uggla and Jayson Werth, respectively. And then there are the New York Mets … oh, the poor New York Mets. While the Phillies, Nationals and Braves were among the teams that improved in the off-season, they didn’t necessarily improve the most — in the case of the Phillies, they already were very good. These next five teams may not all make the playoffs, but they are the most improved since the 2010 season ended.
5. Chicago Cubs — The Cubs (75-87 in 2010) still have a long way to go, but they took a couple of steps in the right direction with the off-season additions of former Tampa Bay Rays Carlos Pena and pitcher Matt Garza. Granted, Pena was terrible last season with a .196 batting average, but he still cranked out 28 homers and 84 RBI. Remember, this is the same guy who averaged 35 homers and 101 RBI the previous two seasons. Garza won 15 games last season despite some rocky patches. However, his August splits (1.27 ERA and 0.99 WHIP) hint at his big potential. The Cubs will receive a boost in the hitting and pitching departments if these two picj-ups pick it up in 2011. In addition, the return of former Cub Kerry Wood will add some depth to the bullpen. Let’s put it this way, the Cubs can’t get much worse.
4. Oakland Athletics — The budget-conscious Athletics quietly finished .500 in 2010. That’s more than the high-spending New York Mets, Chicago Cubs and both Los Angeles teams can say. They’ll probably be better than those clubs again in 2011 thanks to a series of thrifty, but savvy moves by general manager Billy Beane. He signed Hideki Matsui to serve as the team’s primary designated hitter and added underrated outfielders Josh Willingham and David DeJesus. Matsui, who had 21 homers and 84 RBI last season for the Angels, still has some juice left in his bat and is the best hitter of the bunch. Relievers Brian Fuentes and Grant Balfour will back up closer Andrew Bailey in a suddenly deep bullpen. The offensive boost and bolstered bullpen is just what Oakland needed to compliment their young and talented starting pitchers.
3. Baltimore Orioles — The Baltimore Orioles had a winning record last season (34-23) after Buck Showalter took over as manager, but still finished the season 66-96. They could be a spoiler in the American League East this year with the signings of designated hitter Vladimir Guerrero, first baseman Derrek Lee and third baseman Mark Reynolds. Those three players last season combined for 80 homers and 280 RBI. However, the addition Guerrero and Lee will go beyond the numbers. The two veterans may be more valuable as mentors to young and talented outfielders Adam Jones and Nick Markakis. Both are overdue for a breakout season. The Orioles also rolled the dice on pitcher Justin Duchscherer, who has missed most of the last two season, shortstop J.J. Hardy and reliever Kevin Gregg. If nothing else, they’ll add depth to Baltimore’s roster.
2. Milwaukee Brewers — After finishing 2010 with a record of 77-85, the Brewers rebuilt their starting rotation with the acquisitions of former Cy Young award winner Zack Greinke and former Toronto Blue Jay Shaun Marcum. They’ll join Yovani Gallardo to comprise a suddenly deep-and-dangerous starting staff, which last season had the second-worse ERA in the National League. Scoring runs shouldn’t be a problem for the Brew Crew with Prince Fielder, Rickie Weeks and Ryan Braun leading the offense, so if Greinke and Marcum can deliver on the mound, the Brewers will win plenty of games. That Milwaukee didn’t lose much in the off-season only makes these two moves that much bigger. A return to the post-season is a real possibility.
1. Boston Red Sox — The Red Sox shook up Major League Baseball by adding slugger Adrian Gonzalez via trade and power-speed combo Carl Crawford to an already potent lineup, which includes Kevin Youkilis and Dustin Pedroia. Gonzalez, who previously played his home games at pitcher-friendly Petco Park, could be in store for a monster season in the less-spacious Fenway Park (check his home-road splits). The acquisition of former White Sox closer Bobby Jenks (173 career saves) was overshadowed by the previously mentioned blockbuster moves, but he could turn out to be almost as important. Jenks will join Daniel Bard and closer Jonathan Papelbon to form one of the deepest bullpens in baseball. Those moves should more than offset the losses of third baseman Adrian Beltre, who won the AL MVP, and catcher/designated hitter Victor Martinez. After making such bold moves, it’s World Series or bust for the BoSox.
Baseball-Reference.com. Accessed February 24, 2011.
The Official Site of Major League Baseball. Accessed February 24, 2011.