We like to joke about the worthlessness of “winning the winter.” Baseball history is, sadly, loaded with examples of teams whose much-hyped offseason activity netted them nothing in games that counted.
But actively trying to get better sure beats the alternative. So while there is still plenty to prove in the season proper, here are the 10 teams that did the best job improving their rosters this Hot Stove season.
This may have already been the most fun team in baseball, and you can be forgiven if you thought the flurry of Trade Deadline activity last summer might not be matched. But the Padres topped even themselves by lighting the winter transaction wire aflame with successive swaps for Blake Snell and Yu Darvish in December. Those moves, as well as a later deal for Joe Musgrove, help account for the absence of Mike Clevinger and any elbow iffiness for Dinelson Lamet to give San Diego one of the best rotations in baseball. Obviously.
But what’s underrated about this offseason is how the Padres also now resemble the National League West rival Dodgers in terms of stacking depth upon depth in the position-player group, with the signing of Ha-Seong Kim and the re-signing of Jurickson Profar. Either of those guys would be locked-in regulars on a lot of clubs. In San Diego, they are utility pieces.
The Padres did all of this while retaining much of the top end of one of the game’s most highly rated farm systems, meaning Adrian Morejon, Ryan Weathers and top prospect MacKenzie Gore are still around as rotation depth options.
As tends to be the case with the Mets, whether the news was positive or negative at a given moment, the last few months have never been boring. But as Spring Training opens, it is clear this club is a lot better today than it was at the end of the 2020 season.
And we shouldn’t gloss over the return of Marcus Stroman, who may have been the second-best starter available in free agency had he not accepted the Mets’ qualifying offer. Certainly, fans would have loved to see J.T. Realmuto, George Springer and/or Jackie Bradley Jr. here, but the depth matters. PECOTA and FanGraphs both project the Mets to win the NL East.
3) Blue Jays
Going in, we knew this would be a fascinating winter for the Blue Jays. With a flexible roster and budget, they were in prime position to overcome their traditional difficulty in signing top free agents (and the specific difficulty of international travel and their unique home stadium uncertainty). They did just that with the monumental signing of George Springer, who takes a young and burgeoning lineup to a new level. And Marcus Semien further raises the floor and addresses the club’s need for improved infield defense.
The bullpen could get a big boost from Kirby Yates, who is only one year (and one elbow procedure) away from posting a 1.19 ERA and 0.89 WHIP in San Diego. The wild cards are in the rotation, where Toronto brought back Robbie Ray and added Steven Matz. But the Blue Jays maintained a farm system deep enough to address any midseason needs and are now a viable threat to win the American League East.
4) White Sox
Let’s state from the start that the hiring of a 76-year-old Tony La Russa to manage this predominantly young and lively bunch was … a little unorthodox. But no matter what you feel about that particular move, the roster received two significant upgrades. Lance Lynn takes the rotation outlook to another level and, along with Lucas Giolito and Dallas Keuchel, gives the Sox three of the top seven finalists in 2020 AL Cy Young voting.
And Liam Hendriks is arguably the best reliever in baseball right now, so he boosts the bullpen. Bringing back Adam Eaton in lieu of some higher-upside outfield options isn’t especially inspiring, but the South Siders maintained the momentum of their step forward last season, and the arrow is pointed upward.
Within any context, adding Nolan Arenado is a big deal, worthy of entry on this list. That the cost in players was manageable and that the Rockies are footing the bill for his 2020 salary only adds to the allure of that addition.
Long ago, in a land far away (called the Bronx), there was an established World Series-winning team known for signing top free agents not necessarily because it needed to but because it could. When the Dodgers signed Trevor Bauer, they took on some serious George Steinbrenner Yankee vibes. It gives Los Angeles a truly ridiculous rotation in which Dustin May and Tony Gonsolin -- two young arms that would be central figures for many squads -- are currently superfluous pieces.
That’s not to dismiss some notable departures. The Dodgers are going to look a lot different without Enrique Hernández, Joc Pederson and Pedro Báez, and they could still lose Justin Turner. But signing the only free-agent arm coming off an elite season is obviously significant.
Bringing back DJ LeMahieu was a no-brainer, and structuring the deal in such a way that it reduces his average annual value helps. That was the easy part. The hard part was addressing the rotation beyond Gerrit Cole, and it basically now boils down to this: Masahiro Tanaka, James Paxton and J.A. Happ are out, and Corey Kluber and Jameson Taillon (and eventually Luis Severino) are in. As for the bullpen, Adam Ottavino is out, and Darren O'Day is in.
Is that a net positive? It ultimately depends on what Kluber and Taillon, who have combined to make 15 starts over the last two years, can contribute. But because both guys appear to be feeling fine and because we’ve seen too many instances in the past of purportedly washed-up players putting on the pinstripes and suddenly playing out of their minds, we’ll rate this as a solid offseason for the Yanks.
The Nats could have slunk away after a disastrous 2020 season and simply said the '19 run was fun while it lasted. But with Max Scherzer’s walk year approaching, they took opportunities to improve and, hopefully, make another run at it. Josh Bell, Kyle Schwarber, Jon Lester and Brad Hand are all solid pickups.
Ultimately, this remains a top-heavy squad with significant depth questions should injuries invade. But it’s another team much better now than it was in November.
No, the Braves did not match the aggressiveness of their rival from Queens. Nor did they necessarily need to. We’re talking about a team that has won three straight division titles and came within a win of the World Series last year. So landing the accomplished, October-tested Charlie Morton to a rotation that will also feature the return of Mike Soroka is a big deal. The Braves further amplified their rotation depth with another quick strike for Drew Smyly, who posted elite whiff rates last year.
As for the lineup, the Braves faced a huge hole with the free agency of their cleanup hitter who posted a 1.067 OPS last year. They filled it with a cleanup hitter who posted a 1.067 OPS last year (Hint: It’s the same guy, Marcell Ozuna). So that’s nice. Atlanta still has some unanswered questions in the bullpen, though.
Are the Phillies, with Dave Dombrowski now at the helm, demonstrably better than they were last season? That’s hard to say. They retained J.T. Realmuto (which is good, because their fans may have staged a revolt otherwise) and Didi Gregorius. It’s better to make a lateral lineup move than to take a step back. And bringing back old friend Brad Miller helps, too.
But the main objective of the offseason, clearly, was to fix the bullpen and improve the rotation depth. None of us are smart enough to know if that was accomplished, because pitchers -- and especially relievers -- are fickle. But rather than making one or two big splurges, the Phillies added Archie Bradley, Chase Anderson, Matt Moore (remember him?), Sam Coonrod, José Alvarado, Neftalí Feliz, Michael Ynoa, Héctor Rondón and David Paulino. At least one or two of those guys have to work out, right? Right?
Honorable mention: The Twins are the team closest to cracking this list, having brought back Nelson Cruz and signed Andrelton Simmons, Alex Colomé and J.A. Happ. They could still stand to add to their pitching group to fend off the rising White Sox.