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4 teams expected to improve big this year

@castrovince
February 2, 2020

We know the teams that have been the busiest this Hot Stove season. And if you want a cheat sheet of “winter winners,” my man Richard Justice has you covered.

We know the teams that have been the busiest this Hot Stove season. And if you want a cheat sheet of “winter winners,” my man Richard Justice has you covered.

Alas, “busy” doesn’t always equate to “better.” In the offseason prior to the 2019 season, no team was more active than the Phillies, but they wound up winning just one more game than they had in '18 and lost ground in the National League East. And “better” is not always reflected in the win total. The '20 Yankees, for example, can conceivably be healthier than their '19 predecessors and more October-ready with Gerrit Cole and still not reach 103 wins again in what is, overall, an improved American League.

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So which teams stand to make the greatest gains in the win tally in 2020?

For some semblance of an answer, I consulted FanGraphs’ team Wins Above Replacement projections, and converted those projections to a win total. To do that, you start with how many games a team of replacement-level players (IOW, your typical Triple-A guy) would win, which is estimated to be 48. You then add the projected WAR to the projected worth of a squad full of replacement players to come up with an early estimate.

The result is replete with uncertainty because -- you won’t believe this -- projections aren’t foolproof! And neither is WAR, for the record. (For the record, the full WAR projections are here.)

But presenting these is merely intended as a fun conversation-starter to put into perspective how Hot Stove activity and/or internal improvements (better health, bounce-back seasons, prospect promotions, etc.) could fuel rises in team win totals.

Here are the (projected) greatest gainers, with projected win totals rounded to the nearest whole number.

THE 4 MOST MEANINGFUL GAINERS

This is where there is the most meat on the bone -- offseason upgrades combining with internal improvements to affect a team’s outlook by 10 wins or more and put it either in or close to contention. Four clubs qualify:

Angels

2019 win total: 72
2020 projection: 91
Difference: +19

The Halos will definitely be better in 2020, and the impact of Joe Maddon can’t be calculated by a WAR projection. But I don’t know that they’ll be this much better. This is drastically affected by Mike Trout, who, at 8.9 WAR, is projected to be more than two wins better than the next-closest position player (Mookie Betts, at 6.3). Add in the addition of Anthony Rendon’s 5.7 WAR projection, and the Angels’ spot here is significantly skewed by two players.

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The Angels are ranked 23rd of 30 MLB teams in projected rotation WAR and in bullpen WAR. Their offseason has revolved around quantity and healthy innings accumulation from Julio Teheran and Dylan Bundy. For this team to actually win in the realm of 91 games, the real rotation improvement has to come from within, with Shohei Ohtani easily assimilating back to a once-a-week pitching role and Andrew Heaney and Griffin Canning making strides.

Padres

2019 win total: 70
2020 projection: 86
Difference: +16

We’re still waiting to see if they can make that Mookie Betts splash. For now, the Padres did improve their on-base potential by swapping out Hunter Renfroe for Tommy Pham. They also lengthened their already intriguing bullpen with Drew Pomeranz (and have the fourth-highest projected ‘pen WAR in MLB), added to their outfield depth with Trent Grisham and took a chance on Jurickson Profar at second.

What will ultimately decide if the Padres are contenders is the one area they didn’t meaningfully address -- the rotation. Here, the Padres grade particularly well because of how well the still-developing likes of Joey Lucchesi (2.3 WAR), Chris Paddack (3.2) and Dinelson Lamet (3.3) project, and because a successful comeback is envisioned for Garrett Richards (3.0). Interestingly, the Padres’ biggest aces in the hole -- prospects such as MacKenzie Gore and Luis Patiño -- don’t really impact this projection at all. San Diego has a ton of upside, and upside is difficult to forecast. But an 86-win season is realistic and would be enough to vault the Padres into the Wild Card conversation.

White Sox

2019 win total: 72
2020 projection: 86
Difference: +14

These projections love the Sox’s winter. Yasmani Grandal (4.7) puts them No. 1 in MLB in projected catcher WAR, Nomar Mazara helps them rise from 29th in actual 2019 WAR in right field (minus-1.3) to 12th (1.9) and Edwin Encarnación takes them from dead last in the AL at DH (minus-3.5) to sixth (2.1). Add in the continued growth of Yoán Moncada (3.9) and Eloy Jiménez (2.8), the immediate promotion of Luis Robert (2.7) and the eventual promotion of Nick Madrigal (1.6), and the projections love Chicago’s young talent, too.

The division-rival Twins’ WAR forecast points to 93 wins, with the Indians at 90. Because, as I discussed in a deeper-dive into the AL Central, the White Sox have the most internal upside of the three clubs, it’s not at all unreasonable to think the South Siders could be in the thick of actual division contention by season’s end.

Blue Jays

2019 win total: 67
2020 projection: 79
Difference: +12

OK, a 79-win effort isn’t going to make this club a contender. But this would still be a really encouraging year for Toronto if it comes true. It would mean Hyun-Jin Ryu (2.9 projected WAR) did lend legitimacy to the pitching staff; that full seasons from Cavan Biggio, Bo Bichette and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. turned the infield into a genuine strength (because of those three young players, Toronto is projected in the top 12 in MLB at second base, shortstop and third); and that youngsters Danny Jansen and Reese McGuire continue to form a really effective catching tandem (projected for the third-best WAR in MLB at that position).

DON’T YOU FORGET ABOUT ME

This category is for clubs that didn’t do much this winter but still might improve enough to contend, anyway, because of the talent already on the roster. One team fits that mold:

Red Sox

2019 win total: 84
2020 projection: 96
Difference: +12

The FanGraphs’ WAR projections are probably way more bullish on the Red Sox than any rational human being ought to be. There are significant injury red flags (Chris Sale, David Price, Nathan Eovaldi) in a rotation projected to be in the top 10 in MLB, and we all know of the looming possibility that Betts or somebody else of note gets dealt before the season or by the Trade Deadline. Toss in a little organizational upheaval with the sudden departure of manager Alex Cora, and a projection of 96 wins looks pretty aggressive.

That said, for all their warts in a hangover 2019, the Red Sox did have the fifth-highest team OPS in baseball and a plus-73 run differential.

SMALL BUT SIGNIFICANT SURGES

These aren’t double-digit gains, but they are still worthy of attention:

Mets

2019 win total: 86
2020 projection: 92
Difference: +6

FanGraphs gives the Mets the highest total projected WAR (44.0) in the National League East -- better than the defending World Series champion Nationals (43.4), who lost Anthony Rendon, and the defending division champion Braves (41.5), who lost Josh Donaldson.

Personally, I’m not ready to cast the Mets as division favorites. But a full season from Marcus Stroman (3.2 projected WAR) and the addition of Rick Porcello (1.9) should offset the loss of Zack Wheeler, while a full season from a healthy Brandon Nimmo (1.5 WAR) should make a six-win jump plausible.

Reds

2019 win total: 75
2020 projection: 80
Difference: +5

After adding Nick Castellanos, Mike Moustakas, Shogo Akiyama and Wade Miley, the Reds are hoping for a much larger leap than five wins -- especially given that their 2019 run differential (-10) insists they probably should have been more like an 80-win team than a 75-win team. But Akiyama, coming over from Japan, is a huge wild card. And with the Cubs (88 wins), Brewers (84 wins) and defending NL Central champion Cardinals (83 wins) all projected to lose wins in 2020, an upward arrow is not to be taken lightly here.

Phillies

2019 win total: 81
2020 projection: 84
Difference +3

The Phillies are another club clearly hoping for a lot more than what this projection states, because between injuries and various performance regressions, they underperformed in 2019 and then added Zack Wheeler and Didi Gregorius (while also changing managers and pitching coaches). Unfortunately, the WAR projections aren’t in love with the Phillies’ rotation after Aaron Nola and Wheeler, and the bullpen ranks in MLB’s lower half, as well. I would still rate the plus-3 win projection as significant when taken in the context of what was an ultra-crowded NL playoff race last season (in other words, any improvement for a club that was .500 or better is a good thing).

NOWHERE TO GO BUT UP

Four teams had a winning percentage of just .364 or below last season. Even the most pessimistic projections typically don’t peg a club to 100 losses, so those four teams all get a big -- but not especially meaningful -- bump here:

Tigers

2019 win total: 47
2020 projection: 70
Difference: +23

Royals

2019 win total: 59
2020 projection: 72
Difference: +13

Marlins

2019 win total: 57
2020 projection: 69
Difference: +12

Orioles

2019 win total: 54
2020 projection: 65
Difference: +11

These projected rises are primarily due to how poorly 2019 played out. But it is worth acknowledging that the Marlins have been one of the busiest teams in baseball this winter with the additions of veterans Corey Dickerson, Jesús Aguilar, Francisco Cervelli and Jonathan Villar.

If any of the above teams do find it within themselves to actually notch double-digit win improvement in 2020, that would have an inherent impact on the Wild Card races, as they could drive down the win totals of other clubs within their specific division.

HEY! WHAT ABOUT THE…

I know you’re going to ask, so…

The Twins (-8 wins), Braves (-8), Yankees (-4), and D-backs (-2) have all made significant additions this winter, yet project to win fewer games in 2020.

That’s especially understandable in the case of the Yankees and Twins, because they both won north of 100 and computer projections rarely rate a team that favorably. The Braves lost a big piece in Donaldson (5.0 projected WAR), and their division appears improved, so you could see how they would lose some ground in the win column (though I, for one, have a hard time believing they’ll be a third-place club, despite their third-place WAR projection).

The D-backs strike me as strange, because their 2019 record (85-77) was worse than their run differential (plus-70) would lead you to believe, and Madison Bumgarner, Kole Calhoun and Starling Marte are all positive pickups. So I’m not buying that they will be worse than last year.

I guess we’ll actually have to play the 2020 season to find out. What a concept.

Anthony Castrovince has been a reporter for MLB.com since 2004. Read his columns and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince.