Sizing up offseason at midway point
Jayson Stark [ARCHIVE]
ESPN.com
December 21, 2012
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Welcome to the halftime show of the 2012-13 baseball offseason. Sorry to report that Chris Berman, James Brown and Terry Bradshaw won't be joining us.

So how can this be a halftime show without them? Do the math. The World Series champagne bottles were uncorked just 7.5 weeks ago. Pitchers and catchers show up under the palm trees a mere 7.5 weeks from now. Voila.

Out there in Hot Stove Land, Josh Hamilton, Zack Greinke, B.J. Upton and Ryan Dempster have all signed. Nick Swisher, Cody Ross, Michael Bourn and Kyle Lohse, on the other hand, are still the captains of the All-Unemployed Team. Of Keith Law's top 50 free agents , 33 have signed, but 17 remain.

So what better time to sift through the hyperactivity in the old transactions column and assess the madness -- or, at least, the madness so far? (OK, the correct answer to that question is probably Feb. 20, not Dec. 20. But ignore that. Will you?)

We spent the past few days polling a half-dozen big league executives on which five teams have improved the most this winter -- and which five have improved the least.

We also asked Dan Szymborski of ESPN Insider to help answer that question with numbers, by using his ZiPS projection system to project next season's win totals based on current rosters.

And we've combed through the Vegas odds to get a sense of where that crowd stands in this debate.

So ... ready for the results? Cool. The envelopes, please:

The five most-improved teams

The computer projection: Szymborski projected 2013 win totals for all 30 teams at the start of the offseason, based on their rosters at the time. Then they projected those totals again this week. Here are the five teams that came out best:

The Vegas view: Now, from a different perspective, here are the five teams whose winning-it-all odds have improved the most since the day after the World Series, according to the sports book at Bovada:

How baseball executives see it: And now, finally, we present the five teams that came out best in our survey:

1

Toronto Blue Jays

It isn't often there's a unanimous verdict in any poll. But this one was easy. The Blue Jays lost 89 games in 2012. They're viewed as the early favorites in the AL East in 2013. And even if that's arguable, it tells you all you need to know about what they've done.

They've traded for three starting pitchers (R.A. Dickey, Mark Buehrle, Josh Johnson) who averaged 209 innings apiece last season. They've added a dynamic leadoff man (Jose Reyes), a guy who hit .346/.390/.516 (Melky Cabrera) before the test-tube police nabbed him, and two players (Emilio Bonifacio and Maicer Izturis) who give them the depth and versatility they lacked in 2012. So what's not to like?

"They've basically traded for a No. 1, a No. 2 and a No. 3 starter," said one AL executive. "And that's remarkable, in and of itself."

"This isn't just a one-year fix," said an NL exec. "Outside of Josh Johnson [a year from free agency], they have most of these guys under control for two or three years. In two or three years, if Reyes is still playing like hell and Buehrle is the same guy, and Dickey still looks like he'll keep doing this till he's 50, they might still be the team to beat."

"I give them a lot of credit," said another NL exec. "They recognized that right now, the Red Sox and Yankees aren't the Red Sox and Yankees. The AL East isn't the AL East like it used to be. They saw a window of opportunity, and they're going for it. A lot of teams never take that swing. At least they took it."

2

Boston Red Sox

There's a difference between the Most Improved list and the Most Free Agents Signed list. You know that. We know that. The Red Sox know that.

So if we were ranking by volume, well, heck -- the Red Sox just about lead the league in that. Since their 2012 ship sank to the bottom of the AL East sea, they've added Dempster, Koji Uehara, Shane Victorino, Jonny Gomes, Stephen Drew, David Ross, a new manager (John Farrell) and, if his deal ever becomes official, Mike Napoli.

Clearly, then, they're better, even though that whole group will be on the wrong side of 30 by Opening Day. But how much better? Lots of divided opinion on that.

They're deeper. Our panel agreed on that. Their clubhouse should be much more harmonious. They've added more of Law's top 50 free agents (six) than any other team in either league. And "they've brought in a bunch of guys who can play in Boston," said one AL executive. But on the other hand &

"They've added a lot," said one AL exec. "But remember, they had to add a lot, because they had so many holes."

And another AL exec gave this scathing review: "To me, they've spent a lot of money to be mediocre."

3

Kansas City Royals

It's been fashionable to second-guess the Royals for dealing Wil Myers and plundering their prospect pool to make a go-for-it trade at a point in time when the rest of their roster might not be up to going for it. All right, we get that. Nevertheless, they're better than the 90-loss mess they were in 2012.

They might not be better off in 2015, but they're better now. James Shields makes them better. Wade Davis, if he becomes a true No. 3 starter, makes them better. Ervin Santana and Jeremy Guthrie don't come with money-back guarantees. But on paper, they also make this team better.

"What was their rotation last year, and what is it now?" asked one NL executive. "That says it all for me."

There is no perfect time, the same executive said, to make a trade like this. So is it possible this team's position players weren't advanced enough to merit a win-now kind of deal? Sure. But "it's the general manager's job to win," he said, "not collect prospects."

"Look, it's hard to get both things together," the exec went on, "to have a really good offense and really good pitching at the same time. But their pitching's better. And their offense should be better with the maturation of the guys at the corners [Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas]. But no matter how you look at it, you can't tell me the Kansas City Royals aren't better than they were a year ago. No way you can say that."

4

Los Angeles Angels

By the time this offseason is over, the Angels could rank a lot higher on this list, because it's possible they're still not done. But for now, the good news is they've added the biggest impact bat on the market (Mr. Josh Hamilton, ladies and gentlemen). And they've massively upgraded their bullpen, with Ryan Madson and Sean Burnett.

The additions to their rotation (Jason Vargas, Tommy Hanson and Joe Blanton) don't match the subtractions (Greinke, Dan Haren and Santana). But they'll be a run-scoring assembly line if everything goes according to plan. So they...
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