Is it easy to predict which teams will improve the most? We tend to focus on the teams that made the flashiest moves in the offseason. Think of the 2012 Marlins, who signed Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle and Heath Bell and promptly lost three fewer games. Or the 2013 Blue Jays, who acquired Reyes, Buehrle, reigning Cy Young winner R.A. Dickey, Josh Johnson and Melky Cabrera and were a popular World Series pick. They improved from 73 wins all the way to 74.
I’m trying to think of last offseason's consensus winner. Maybe the Yankees? They signed free agents Masahiro Tanaka, Jacoby Ellsbury, Brian McCann and Carlos Beltran, a pretty impressive haul of big names. The Yankees saw their win total decrease from 85 to 84.
Which teams did have the largest improvement last season? Here are the top five:
So this list of five teams that I predict will improve the most in 2015 isn’t necessarily a list of teams that have received the most headlines this winter (2014 record in parentheses).
1. Boston Red Sox (71-91)
The Red Sox look like the obvious choice after an active offseason that saw them spend big dollars on Pablo Sandoval and Hanley Ramirez and add Rick Porcello, Wade Miley and Justin Masterson to the starting rotation. The rotation lacks the ace that everyone seems to think Boston still needs, but the projections at FanGraphs like the Red Sox at 88 wins -- fourth-highest in the majors -- thanks in part to a rotation that projects to 10.8 WAR, fifth-best in the majors (although with a relatively high ERA of 4.27).
Even if you’re not buying that ace-less rotation, it’s hard not to buy into a vastly improved offense. Red Sox outfielders hit just 26 home runs last season, last in the majors. They should have a whole new trio with Ramirez, Rusney Castillo and Mookie Betts. Sandoval is an upgrade at third base, and sophomore Xander Bogaerts has the ability to break out in a big way.
Also in Boston’s favor: There doesn’t appear to be a dominant team in the AL East. Granted, the Red Sox have lost 90-plus games in two of the past three seasons (they hadn’t lost 90 since 1966), but I think they'll avoid their first back-to-back losing seasons since 1992-94.
2. Houston Astros (70-92)
I wrote about the Astros on Wednesday, pointing out they had glaring holes at first base, third base, left field and the bullpen in 2014 and have addressed all those areas in the offseason.
The FanGraphs projection system isn’t as optimistic as I am, forecasting 77 wins. The Astros do have some regression candidates in Jose Altuve, Chris Carter, Dallas Keuchel and Collin McHugh, but I believe all four will be solid contributors in 2015, and I like George Springer’s chances to become a force in the middle of the lineup. The AL West is tough, and that will work against the Astros, but you can balance their expected improvement against possible decline from the Angels and A’s.
3. Chicago Cubs (73-89)
The Cubs are here not so much because I expect them to make the playoffs -- it will be a tall order to beat out both the Cardinals and Pirates -- but because they’re starting out from 73 wins, so there’s room to improve by 12 wins and get to 85.
Like the Astros, the Cubs carried a lot of dead weight in 2014 -- Darwin Barney, Nate Schierholtz, Junior Lake, Mike Olt, John Baker, Arismendy Alcantara and Javier Baez were horrible offensive contributors, each batting at least 200 times and posting an OPS+ of 70 or less. That’s bad, but Cubs fans already knew that. So they’ve traded for catcher Miguel Montero and center fielder Dexter Fowler. The Cubs also hope youngsters Baez and Alcantara learn from their struggles and will join rookies Jorge Soler and Kris Bryant to help improve an offense that ranked 12th in the NL in runs scored.
4. Chicago White Sox (73-89)
The battle between the Cubs and White Sox should prove to be one of the more interesting subplots of the season. The White Sox made several big moves of their own, trading for Jeff Samardzija and signing free-agent closer David Robertson, left fielder Melky Cabrera and first baseman/DH Adam LaRoche. The team already has two franchise players in Chris Sale and Jose Abreu.
The FanGraphs projection likes the Cubs a lot better than the White Sox -- 84 wins versus 77 -- and I do worry about the back of the White Sox rotation once you get past Sale, Samardzija and Jose Quintana. You also worry that so much rides on Sale and his ability to stay healthy. If the depth on the roster comes through, the White Sox have a chance to surprise in a division where the Tigers and Royals both could win fewer games.
5. Miami Marlins (77-85)
Two major reasons the Marlins could take a major leap forward: They’re young and they have two awful teams in their division. The Phillies and Braves actually project as the worst two teams in baseball via FanGraphs, so I could see the Marlins or Mets taking advantage and winning 90 games. Between those two, I like the Marlins a little better thanks to Giancarlo Stanton and his fellow outfield youngsters, Marcell Ozuna and Christian Yelich. The rotation needs to stay healthy -- Mat Latos and Henderson Alvarez in particular -- but if that happens and Jose Fernandez returns in June and pitches like Jose Fernandez, the Marlins could be a wild-card contender.
Notable omission: The San Diego Padres. I don’t like the outfield defense. I’m not pumped about the third-base and shortstop situations, and I worry about the injury histories of Matt Kemp and Andrew Cashner. They’re going to be entertaining and I hope everything breaks right for them, but I’m not sure I see a 90-win team here.