This morning I counted, without even trying all that hard, 12 teams that seemed to have made significant improvements during the past offseason. When I say significant, I mean that the players they added are pretty obviously more valuable than the players they lost. Here are those teams, with the additions:
Angels: (Vladimir Guerrero, Bartolo Colon, Kelvim Escobar)
Royals: (Juan Gonzalez, Brian Anderson, Matt Stairs, Benito Santiago)
Cubs: (Derrek Lee, LaTroy Hawkins, Greg Maddux)
Padres: (Brian Giles, Ramon Hernandez)
Phillies: (Billy Wagner, Tim Worrell)
Yankees: (Alex Rodriguez, Gary Sheffield, etc.)
Red Sox: (Curt Schilling, Keith Foulke)
Blue Jays: (Ted Lilly, Miguel Batista)
Tigers: (Ivan Rodriguez, Carlos Guillen, Fernando Vina, Rondell White)
Astros: (Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte)
Mets: (Mike Cameron, Kazuo Matsui)
Orioles: (Miguel Tejada, Javy Lopez, Rafael Palmeiro)
Yes, some of these guys finished the 2003 season with these clubs; I counted players who spent a month or less with their current teams (which covers Anderson and Giles). And yes, maybe it's a stretch to consider the Phillies in this group, because as great as Wagner is, you can only do so much with 75 innings (on the other hand, Worrell's pretty good, too). But that's a lot of teams. Whether you think it's 11 or 12, it's still true that roughly a third of the clubs did big things this winter, and look better.
(Should we assume that all of these teams will be better? No, of course not. A few of them -- Royals? Blue Jays? -- will undoubtedly play worse (or, to be more precise, a few will win fewer games). While the Red Sox have been strengthened by the additions of Schilling and Foulke, they're also going to suffer from the likely declines of three or four guys in the lineup. The Sox won 95 games last season, and I'm not convinced they'll win a lot more this season.)
We've heard a lot about these teams that have done such wonderful things in the offseason, but on Thursday it occurred to me that we haven't heard much about their opposites.
White Sox: Bartolo Colon, Carl Everett
You know what's really a shame? The White Sox could have easily been the best team in their division, with just a few judicious moves. Here are the run differentials for the top three AL Central finishers in 2003:
White Sox 791-715 +76
Twins 801-758 +43
Royals 836-867 -31
Looking at just those numbers, is it fair to summarily dismiss the White Sox from the 2004 pennant race? I don't think so. The White Sox were a lot better than the Royals last year (the Royals weren't even as good as their run differential, which is positively inflated by clutch hitting that won't be repeated). If the White Sox had merely held their ground this offseason, they'd have been good bets to wipe out the Royals and battle the Twins all season.
But of course the White Sox didn't hold steady. They lost Colon, who won 15 games and ate a ton of innings, and they lost Everett, who played only 73 games for the White Sox after being acquired from the Rangers but was productive when he did play. And now the Sox don't have anybody on hand who can both a) play center field, and b) hit.
(Oh, and this doesn't really fall under the purview of today's column, but what are the odds against Esteban Loaiza winning 21 games and posting a sub-3.00 ERA again? Pretty long, I would guess.)
Fortunately for the White Sox, their main competition is the ...
Twins: Eddie Guardado, LaTroy Hawkins, A.J. Pierzynski
Joe Mauer's a great prospect, but as a rookie will he give the Twins what Pierzynski gave them? No, probably not. Last year, Guardado and Hawkins combined for 12 wins (against six losses), 43 saves, and a 2.33 ERA. Joe Nathan's a solid addition, but the Twins' bullpen simply won't be as good this year as it was last year. I still think the Twins are the best team in the Central, but they will not win 90 games again.
Braves: Gary Sheffield, Javy Lopez, Greg Maddux
I was, a couple of months ago, reluctant to announce the demise of the Braves, because I've been burned two or three times before. But looking at those names now ... are you kidding me? In Sheffield and Lopez, the Braves lost two of the five best players in the National League (based on what they did last season). Maddux wasn't great last year, but he'll be missed, too. If the Braves manage to win again, somebody should immediately take a mold for Bobby Cox's and John Schuerholz's Hall of Fame plaques.
Expos: Vladimir Guerrero, Javier Vazquez
'Nuff said, I think. I like Jose Vidro and Livan Hernandez as much as the next guy, but when you lose your best hitter and your best pitcher, you're in trouble. I think it's premature to predict a complete collapse, because there's still some real talent on the roster. But the days of the Expos contending -- last season, they were tied for the NL wild-card lead with a month to play -- are over.
Pirates: Brian Giles, Aramis Ramirez, Reggie Sanders, Matt Stairs
Did anybody notice just how well Sanders and Stairs played in 2003? In 130 games, Sanders hit 31 home runs. In 121 games -- and in 43 of those he merely pinch-hit -- Stairs hit 20 home runs (and topped off the power with a .389 on-base percentage).
At this moment, then, the Pirates have one very good, if overpriced player (Jason Kendall), two players who have a good chance to become very good (Jason Bay and Freddy Sanchez), and a whole bunch of guys who will be coaching high-school baseball when this decade turns. Actually, that's not completely fair. Outfielder J.J. Davis is, along with Bay and Sanchez, a Rookie of the Year candidate, and the Pirates have a few solid pitching prospects in the minors. But young players take time, and things in Pittsburgh are going to get worse before they get better.
Giants: Rich Aurilia, Jose Cruz
Losing Aurilia isn't serious, you say? It's serious as death when you replace him with Neifi Perez. Same story with Cruz, who wasn't great but 1) did hit 20 home runs, 2) did draw 102 walks, and 3) is a lot better than his replacement, whether it's Michael Tucker or Jeffrey Hammonds or some non-productive, injury-prone combination thereof.
Marlins: Ivan Rodriguez, Derrek Lee, Ugueth Urbina, Mark Redman
I almost didn't include the Marlins, because while they lost three excellent players, they also will benefit from the addition of Hee Seop Choi (in the Lee trade) and full seasons from Dontrelle Willis and Miguel Cabrera. The Marlins will be competitive enough to finish in second place, but they just lost too much talent this winter.
And that's it. Seven teams, which doesn't seem like quite enough. Or maybe it is. While something like 12 teams were aggressively trying to get better this winter, of course few teams if any were aggressively trying to get worse. If we assume that 12 teams are trying to get a lot better, that leaves 18 other teams from which to cherry-pick players. So you'll probably have (roughly, of course) six or seven teams that get a lot worse, six or seven that get a little worse, and six or seven that stay where they were. Roughly speaking, of course.
And again, what happens during the winter is only one half of the equation. Yes, Billy Wagner makes the Phillies better, but what should really make them better is typical seasons from players like Pat Burrell and Marlon Byrd. A year ago, I predicted the Phillies would outscore every National League team but the Rockies. I was right about one thing; they didn't outscore the Rockies. But they didn't outscore the Braves, Cardinals, or Astros, either. Well, I say this year the Phillies will outscore everybody, even the Rockies. And all they did this winter was sign a 75-inning pitcher who throws a hundred miles an hour.
Postscript: This column could hardly have been written without the help of the sublimely informative Baseball Prospectus 2004, which arrived at my door on Thursday. If my columns over the next month or so seem better, then give credit to the gang at BP (and if they seem worse, it must be you).
Senior writer Rob Neyer writes three columns per week during baseball's offseason. This spring, Fireside will publish Rob's next book, "The Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers" (co-written with Bill James); for more information, visit Rob's Web site. Also, click here to send a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.