Now that Bryce Harper and Manny Machado have found new homes and all 30 teams are playing games across Arizona and Florida, it feels like the offseason is over. Yes, Dallas Keuchel, Craig Kimbrel and others are still unsigned, and they're quality players, but there's no one left who is going to significantly change a team's projections for the upcoming season. The 2019 rosters are more or less set, with most changes over the next few weeks coming in terms of injuries or tinkering around the edges.
With the biggest stars off the board, we can finally take a look at what's happened over the past few months and try to answer a question that's fun to look at each year: Which team improved the most this winter?
It's something of a complicated question, because it's not just about the 2018 win/loss record. Teams should never be expected to just repeat the previous season over again, and either way, promotions, retirements and free agency meant that the 2019 rosters for all 30 clubs looked different than the 2018 versions just days after the World Series ended. The question we're really trying to ask here is more along the lines of: Which team improved its 2019 projections over the past five months?
There isn't a perfect way to determine that, but there is a good-enough way. We can take a look at the projected 2019 standings posted at FanGraphs on Nov. 6, before any meaningful moves were made or qualifying offers were accepted, but after free agents were removed. (For example, the pre-Michael Brantley Astros were at the time projected to give 525 left-field plate appearances to Tony Kemp and Kyle Tucker, which is clearly not the case now.) Then we can compare that to what the projections look like today, with all the new pieces in place.
By comparing those two numbers, we can see which teams improved their 2019 projections the most since the beginning of the offseason. Surprise, surprise: Harper's new team in Philadelphia heads the list in the NL, with the Yankees tops in the AL.
Let's start with those Phillies (+8), because their winter wasn't just about Harper. They also added Andrew McCutchen, J.T. Realmuto, Jean Segura and David Robertson, while shipping out Carlos Santana, Jorge Alfaro and J.P. Crawford. The shuffle also changed the playing-time expectations for players like Nick Williams (down from 581 plate appearances to 115). That's how a team that was projected for 78 wins five months ago, similar to its 80-win 2018, pushes all the way up to 86 wins and into the thick of the NL East race.
The Yankees (+8) may not have come away with Harper or Machado, but take a minute to realize what they did do. Nine teams on our list improved by two or more projected wins, but seven of them started from 82 wins or fewer, giving them more room to improve. The Yankees were already at 90 wins, and they still added eight more projected victories. That's really hard to do. (Note: The severity of Luis Severino's shoulder injury could affect the Yankees' projection and knock them back a win or two depending on how they replace his starts if he misses significant time.)
Of course, in November, their 3/4/5 starters were Domingo German, Sonny Gray and Justus Sheffield. Now, they're looking at James Paxton, J.A. Happ and CC Sabathia -- in addition to relievers Adam Ottavino and Zack Britton and infielders DJ LeMahieu and Troy Tulowitzki. This may not have been the offseason Yankees fans wanted, but let's not confuse that with a bad winter.
The Reds (+6) are the third and final team to move up by at least five wins, which makes sense given the flurry of moves that brought them Gray, Yasiel Puig, Matt Kemp, Alex Wood and Tanner Roark, along with possibly adding-by-subtracting when they removed Billy Hamilton's ineffective bat from the lineup.
The Braves, Brewers and Twins (+3) are all tied with three extra wins. Atlanta didn't really do enough to break out of the NL East pack this offseason, but if healthy, Josh Donaldson is a big addition to its lineup. The Brewers made a big splash in Yasmani Grandal, and a smaller one in Mike Moustakas, though big win boosts were hard to come by since three of the other four NL Central teams held serve or improved, too. And the Twins added some offense in Nelson Cruz, C.J. Cron, Marwin Gonzalez and Jonathan Schoop, but did little to improve their pitching outside of reliever Blake Parker.
Remember: This is a look at which teams improved the most this offseason, not an ordering of which teams are expected to be good or bad. The Red Sox (-1) still look outstanding, projected for baseball's third-most wins. All this says is that they are bringing back almost entirely the same roster they had in early November, aside from re-signing Steve Pearce and Nathan Eovaldi. (Remember: the early-November roster projections had already been without free agents Kimbrel and Joe Kelly.)
The Dodgers (-1) signed Kelly and A.J. Pollock, traded for Russell Martin and retained Hyun-Jin Ryu when he accepted the qualifying offer, but they traded away Kemp, Wood and Puig, and saw Clayton Kershaw's projected-innings total decline slightly. They're still looking great -- 93 projected wins is the most in the NL -- it's just that their winter was more one of standing still rather than moving forward.
Most of these make sense, really. The Mariners (-5) made a great number of moves meant to enhance their future chances, while still hanging on to or adding veterans like Mitch Haniger, Dee Gordon, Kyle Seager, Edwin Encarnacion and Jay Bruce. The Astros (+0) and Cubs (+0) stood pat, just in different ways. Houston added Brantley but lost Lance McCullers Jr. to injury, while the Cubs did almost nothing at all. Both look like obvious playoff contenders in 2019.
The more interesting teams are the ones who made moves that didn't result in big changes to their projections. You might think that the Padres (+2) would have gained more from adding Machado, but it's somewhat muted by the fact that moving presumptive third baseman Wil Myers to the outfield takes time away from a variety of potentially interesting outfielders, losing some value there. San Diego didn't improve its pitching staff either, but remember this: The addition of Machado is more for 2020 and beyond than this season.
That the Mets (+1) look barely improved despite all their moves is stunning, though that's largely explained by the strength of their division. If the Phillies are +8, the Braves are +3 and the Nationals are +2, those extra wins have to come from somewhere and it's not going to be all from the Marlins (-5). Another way to say that is that the Mets really did improve, but so did three of their largest competitors. The NL East, as you know, is going to be wild.
You can look at this just by looking at projected runs scored and runs allowed per game, as well. For example, these teams look to have improved their run prevention the most since November, in terms of runs allowed per game:
-0.36 runs/game (Yankees, 4.41 to 4.05)
-0.15 runs/game (Orioles, 5.37 to 5.22)
-0.10 runs/game (Phillies, 4.45 to 4.35)
-0.10 runs/game (Reds, 4.68 to 4.58)
-0.10 runs/game (A's, 4.59 to 4.49)
... which tells you how much work the Yankees have done to their pitching staff, with Paxton, Happ, Sabathia, Ottavino and Britton, despite losing Robertson.
These clubs made the biggest improvements in their offense, in terms of runs scored per game:
+0.34 runs/game (Phillies, 4.28 to 4.62)
+0.26 runs/game (Reds, 4.32 to 4.58)
+0.19 runs/game (Braves, 4.34 to 4.53)
+0.19 runs/game (Brewers, 4.46 to 4.65)
... and there's the Phillies, with Harper, McCutchen, Realmuto and Segura, and the Reds, with Puig, Kemp and no more Hamilton.
Philadelphia, by the way, appears highly on both lists, and that's how it ended up with such a big projected win total. (This includes expected improvements in their defense, too.) The Yankees look like they made a massive pitching improvement, while still having an offense that's talking about breaking the all-time home run record they set just a year ago.
It doesn't make either one the slam-dunk favorite in their division, of course. The Red Sox are the defending champs, with most of the same group returning. The Nats, Mets and Braves are all going to have something to say about the NL East. The title of "most improved teams" may be all the Yankees and Phillies end up with in 2019 -- at least until we see how this plays out on the field. Winning the winter doesn't guarantee, you know, winning. It sure does make the upcoming season more interesting, however.