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5 teams that have made stealth improvements

MLB.com @RichardJustice

Free agency isn't always about spending the most money. Baseball smarts matter, too. We're reminded of this every season.

For instance, Brandon Morrow. Raise your hand if you thought the Dodgers had acquired one of 2017's best relievers when they signed him to a one-year, $1.25 million contract last offseason.

Free agency isn't always about spending the most money. Baseball smarts matter, too. We're reminded of this every season.

For instance, Brandon Morrow. Raise your hand if you thought the Dodgers had acquired one of 2017's best relievers when they signed him to a one-year, $1.25 million contract last offseason.

Morrow appeared in 45 regular-season games and averaged 10.3 strikeouts per nine innings while allowing less than a baserunner per inning. Last week, he was rewarded for his good work with a two-year, $21 million contract from the Cubs. He is no longer a secret.

And there's Marwin Gonzalez. He was Jeff Luhnow's first acquisition after Luhnow became Astros general manager in 2011. He went from the Cubs to the Red Sox in the Rule 5 Draft and then was dealt to the Astros.

Six years later, he's coming off his best season, a smart, versatile player who was instrumental in helping the Astros win the World Series. So while we focus on the stars, not all the smart moves are getting much attention.

• Hot Stove Tracker

Let's take a look at five teams that have gotten better this offseason without a lot of fanfare:

1. Rangers

General manager Jon Daniels has begun the process of filling out his rotation with three veterans: Doug Fister, Mike Minor and Matt Moore. Fister and Minor were free-agent signings, while Moore was acquired from the Giants via trade. The three of them will make a combined $21 million in 2018, and only Minor is signed beyond next season.

This is the same formula Daniels used in getting Andrew Cashner on a one-year, $10 million deal last offseason. For that investment, Daniels got 28 starts, 166 2/3 innings and a 3.40 ERA.

Daniels might still make a play for Yu Darvish or Jake Arrieta, but if he doesn't do anything else, the Rangers have taken three small yet significant steps back toward contention.

Video: Banister on looking for starting pitching depth

2. Twins

The Twins could end up being significant players in free agency, with virtually every available starting pitcher on their radar. But they've quietly gotten better already by signing right-handed starter Michael Pineda and veteran closer Fernando Rodney, as well as taking right-hander Tyler Kinley in the Rule 5 Draft.

Rodney will be a solid addition to the Minnesota bullpen, and the Twins have high hopes for Kinley, who had 72 strikeouts in 53 1/3 innings in the Minors between Class A Advanced and Double-A last season in the Marlins organization.

Pineda underwent Tommy John surgery in July and will miss most of the 2018 season, but the Twins see him as someone who could help them down the stretch and be a solid contributor in 2019.

Video: Levine happy to add Pineda to the Twins

3. Padres

General manager A.J. Preller's most important work is happening at the Minor League level with the accumulation of talent and then more talent. But having allowed Austin Hedges, Hunter Renfroe, etc., to come up and begin getting acclimated to the Majors, Preller has taken three significant steps toward improvement in 2018.

Shortstop Freddy Galvis, acquired from the Phillies, is a very solid addition. Preller has Minor League depth at that position, but that's not the point. Galvis is the type of guy that can help the Padres turn a corner in 2018.

Video: Justice discusses Galvis being traded to the Padres

Preller also picked up a very solid Major League arm from the Yankees in 26-year-old right-hander Bryan Mitchell. As for third baseman Chase Headley, also acquired from the Yankees, it's unclear where he fits on the club in 2018. But with several teams seeking help at the hot corner, Headley could provide infield depth for the Padres or be traded to bring another prospect into the system.

4. Mets

One step at a time, right Mets fans? First, there was the hiring of new manager Mickey Callaway. He will help the Mets pitching staff in ways large and small, from preparing from starts to developing game plans to fine-tuning mechanics. And general manager Sandy Alderson made another smart move by signing reliever Anthony Swarzak. In 70 appearances for the White Sox and Brewers last season, he averaged 10.6 strikeouts per nine innings and had a 1.03 WHIP.

Alderson would like to add a second baseman and make another bullpen move, but the Mets have already quietly gotten better.

Video: 12:25 Live: Mets reach two-year deal with Swarzak

5. Orioles

No general manager is better at finding talent in places some other teams aren't even looking than Dan Duquette. He has done that with Miguel Gonzalez (Mexican League), Wei-Yin Chen (Japanese League) and Brad Brach (acquired from the Padres) in recent seasons.

He does this, in part, by hiring good scouts and then asking them to focus on "how a guy can help us win games." In other words, spend as much time on positives as negatives.

That's what the Orioles had in mind last week when they used three Rule 5 Draft choices to take three pitchers with the potential to help a pitching-strapped club in 2018: left-hander Nestor Cortes (Yankees) and right-handers Pedro Araujo (Cubs) and Jose Mesa Jr. (Yankees).

"We like all three," Duquette said, "and we feel like they have a legitimate shot to compete in the spring."

Richard Justice has been a reporter for MLB.com since 2011. Read his columns and follow him on Twitter at @RichardJustice.