The goal of the Hot Stove season is to get better. But that means different things for different teams. Some are playoff-caliber clubs looking for that last push they need to win it all. Others are also those who are looking for a way in.
So instead of ranking the most improved teams without context, let’s break them down into categories and rank them within those categories.
And don’t worry, if your club isn’t listed here, there’s still time between now and Opening Day to do something (although free agent picks will surely be slim). Here are the 11 teams that have improved the most this offseason (so far!), broken down into three categories.
FROM ELITE TO, ONE, ¿MÁS ELITE?
Before the Carlos Correa deal, the Mets (who you’ll remember won 101 games this year) might not have improved much, even after well over $400 million in total financial investments this offseason. That’s because the vast majority of that spending amounted to filling gigantic free-agent holes with equally gigantic pieces. That being said, the rotation is probably even better now with Justin Verlander, Kodai Senga and Jose Quintana than before. The bullpen has added David Robertson. And of course, if Correa’s deal goes through, it lengthens the lineup considerably, which he needed to power.
No, the Phillies weren’t actually an elite team in the 2022 regular season. But they finished two wins away from winning it all, so we have some respect for their name. Whichever category you put them in, they’re certainly improved. Concerns that the Phillies will feel the effects of their big 2022 run, from potential “hangovers” for Zack Wheeler and Aaron Nola to Tommy John surgery clouding when and where Bryce Harper will return to the lineup, have been largely assuaged. for some big moves. The signing of Trea Turner instantly makes this a much more athletic team, and Taijuan Walker, Matt Strahm and Craig Kimbrel ease the strain on a pitching staff that worked through October.
A record deal with Aaron Judge is the Yankees’ top move of the winter. But all of that and the re-signing of Anthony Rizzo kept him in the middle of the order. It’s the acquisition of Carlos Rodón that potentially takes the Yankees to a higher level, putting them in the conversation for the best rotation in the game … and on this list.
FROM GOOD TO EXCELLENT?
Somehow, San Diego managed to surprise us once again. Just when many in the industry assumed the Padres’ acquisition pace was going to slow this offseason, they struck a monster deal with Xander Bogaerts that, combined with a full season from Juan Soto and the eventual return of Fernando Tatis Jr., could give them an embarrassingly lethal top half of the lineup. Bringing Matt Carpenter on board improves the bottom half, and forward Seth Lugo deepens the pitching staff.
Yadi Molina is a legend. But with Yadi limited to 78 games in his swan song season and no longer an offensive presence, the Cardinals ranked 20th in MLB in catcher WAR and 28th in catcher OPS. Enter Willson Contreras, who isn’t a sure thing on the defensive end, but is a clear offensive upgrade to ease the middle order’s burden on Nolan Arenado and Paul Goldschmidt.
The signings of Josh Bell and Mike Zunino should improve the Guards’ lackluster power profile considerably. Cleveland ranked 29th in OPS as both a catcher and designated hitter in 2022. Bell now joins Josh Naylor as an option at DH and first base, so they’re deeper there. And Zunino takes over the starting receiver duties, where he’s a huge offensive upgrade over the late Austin Hedges without compromising the defense the Rangers value at the position.
While the Teoscar Hernandez trade robbed the Blue Jays of an offensive punch, the subsequent trade for Daulton Varsho adds power from the left side. And the signing of center fielder Kevin Kiermaier allows them to move George Springer to right field and gives them a significant upgrade on defense. The Blue Jays also now have three viable playoff starters (four, if José Berríos straightens out) after signing Chris Bassitt. The acquisition of Erik Swanson in the Hernandez trade brought the necessary edge to the bullpen.
And here’s the other end of the Hernandez trade. To the frustration of the fan base, the Mariners haven’t made any noise in free agency (their only signing is veteran reliever Trevor Gott to a $1.2 million contract for 2023). But Hernandez, who had a 2.8 WAR (per Baseball Reference) last year to Mitch Haniger’s 1.4, has the ability to amplify his production in the corner outfield, and Kolten Wong, who had a 3.1 WAR last year spent at a second base position where the Mariners only ranked 23rd with a -1.3 mark, also raises the bar for a team that took a big step last season. It’s understandable why fans would want to see more of a splash from Seattle, because the Astros are still the better team, on paper. But the Mariners deserve a mention here.
FROM NO PLAYOFFS TO PLAYOFFS?
The Rangers are living proof that good things often take time. Last winter, they invested half a billion dollars in their midfield infield. They improved… by eight games. Texas still finished 13 games under .500. But the club has blitzed yet again by signing the great Jacob deGrom and left-hander Andrew Heaney, and the Rangers upgraded their rotation depth options with Jake Odorizzi. They could still use an impact bat, but taking a rotation that ranked 25th in the MLB in ERA last season and pitting it against the most dominant starter in the game (when he’s healthy) is a huge improvement.
There’s a lot going on here and collectively it’s very interesting. Left-hander Tyler Anderson is a good pick for a rotation that was better than expected last year. In the lineup, the Angels have significantly improved their depth with the additions of Hunter Renfroe, Gio Urshela and Brandon Drury. The bullpen looks much better with the addition of Carlos Estevez. None of these moves was spectacularly flashy, and the Angels obviously have a lot of ground to make up in the AL West. But they already have two of the biggest stars in the game in Shohei Ohtani and Mike Trout, so all it takes is the right supporting cast to take this team to the top. Hopefully the Halos have finally found that.
Cubs fans started this winter with stars in their eyes. This winter has probably not been as bold as many of them wanted. But while Dansby Swanson was objectively fourth among four-star shortstops in this market, his durability and defensive reliability are great assets to a team looking to move up. Jameson Taillon wasn’t at the top of the starting pitching market, but at 31, after battling illness and injury, his talent has recently returned to pre-surgery levels. At worst, he’s an average league arm for a rotation that needed more stability. Veteran Brad Boxberger is an upgrade for the bullpen. And of course, if Cody Bellinger can somehow recapture his old MVP form on a one-year deal with the North Siders, they could rank as the most improved team of all.