By Michael Model
The 2015 MLB offseason has been full of excitement. Big names such as Max Scherzer and John Lester inked multi-year contracts. Others, such as Jason Heyward and Yoenis Cespedes, were moved via trade. This offseason also brought the retirements of all-time greats Paul Konerko and Derek Jeter. After all the shuffling, a few teams came out clearly on top. Whether it was to improve an offense, pitching rotation, or bullpen, these teams all addressed areas of need in a big way. Although “winning the offseason”, especially for average or worse teams, doesn’t automatically translate to winning during the season, big moves can go a long way towards revitalizing a franchise. After coming off subpar seasons, here are my five most improved teams going into 2015:
5. Chicago Cubs
2014: 73-89 (5th); my 2015 projection: 83-79 (3rd)
Last season the Chicago Cubs’ offense was at the bottom of the league. They had the fourth worst batting average (.239) and the fifth fewest runs scored (614) in all of baseball. Those numbers should improve this season. The Cubs added Dexter Fowler and Miguel Montero, two players once regarded as top prospects who could use a fresh start. If they combine to hit around .265 with 35 home runs and 130 RBIs, the Cubs will be in business. The Cubs also expect to get some help from their farm system. Last year they brought up Jorge Soler (five homers in 28 games) and second baseman Javier Baez. They also have top prospect Kris Bryant, a third baseman with some serious pop. On the mound the Cubs have improved greatly with reliable veterans. Last season they finished with a team ERA of 3.92, which was below the league average. However, the additions of Jon Lester and Jason Hammel should put their staff in the top half of the league. Lester went a combined 16-11 last season with a 2.45 ERA and Hammel had a 3.47 ERA. Together, the pitching help and the maturation of the youngsters should give the Cubs their first .500 record since 2009.
4. Miami Marlins
2014: 77-85 (4th); my 2015 projection: 87-75 (2nd)
Coming off a 62-100 campaign in 2013, the Marlins fought back towards .500 in 2014. They hit a league-median .253, helped by the emergences of Christian Yelich and Marcell Ozuna. In addition Casey McGehee, a 2013-14 offseason acquisition, hit over .300. While McGehee has gone to San Francisco, the Marlins are still much improved. They acquired Martin Prado, who can hit .270 with 18 homers, from the Yankees. They also traded for stolen base leader Dee Gordon, and signed slugger Michael Morse. These additions will give some depth to the lineup and make sure the Marlins offense is more than just Giancarlo Stanton. Miami has also improved its pitching staff. Although they traded Nathan Eovaldi, they’ve acquired Mat Latos, Jarred Cosart, and Dan Haren. Each of them is capable of winning 10-15 games while having an ERA under 3.80. In addition, the Marlins earned 77 wins without their ace, Jose Fernandez, for most of last season. When healthy, Fernandez can add another 15-20 wins and 200 strikeouts to an already drastically improved Marlins team. That is why they’ll finish second in the NL East and be the NL’s Second Wild Card Team.
3. Boston Red Sox
2014: 71-91 (5th); my 2015 projection: 92-70 (1st)
With a last place finish in 2014, the Boston Red Sox became the first team in MLB history to go from last to first to last in a three year span. This year, they attempt to become the first to go from last to first to last to first. Last season the Red Sox hit a measly .244, which placed them in the bottom third of the league. Their power numbers were also down, as they only hit 123 home runs, down from 178 in 2013. However, the Red Sox are on the rise. They’ve improved in left field with the addition of Hanley Ramirez, and Mookie Betts and Rusney Castillo should both see a rise in numbers as their playing time increases. Nevertheless, Boston’s biggest improvement is at third base. Last year, Red Sox third basemen hit .211 with 10 home runs. Their new third baseman, Pablo Sandoval, hit .279 with 16 homers and 73 RBIs while playing half his games in cavernous at&t park. From a pitching standpoint, Boston lost Jon Lester, but got 15-game winner Rick Porcello and signed Wade Miley to a three-year extension. In addition, Clay Buchholz had an atrocious season, going 8-11 with an ERA over 5.00. Assuming he bounces back, the Red Sox rotation will remain around the middle of the pack, good enough to allow the offense to carry them back to first place in the AL East.
2. Chicago White Sox
2014: 73-89 (4th); my 2015 projection: 88-74 (2nd)
The White Sox finished 12th in the league last year in batting average (.253), and were ninth in homers with 155. Jose Abreu will try to replicate his rookie season numbers, but the White Sox have added some power around him. They signed Melky Cabrera, capable of hitting .280 with 30 doubles. In addition, former Nationals slugger Adam LaRoche can provide another 30 homers to the team. Overall, the White Sox have the potential to be one of the best offensive teams in the MLB. On the defensive end, the White Sox pitching staff isn’t too shabby either. Last year they had the fourth worst ERA in the MLB (4.30), due in part to a very weak bullpen. The White Sox should lower that ERA significantly with the addition of former Cub Jeff Samardzija. In 2014, Samardzija posted a solid 2.99 ERA and struck out over 200 men. In addition, Samardzija is starting behind three-time all-star Chris Sale. Together, the two should keep the White Sox rotation in the middle of the pack. The south siders also improved in the bullpen, signing former Yankee David Robertson to a multi-year contract. Robertson closed the door on 39 of 44 opportunities last season. If he can anchor the bullpen, the White Sox should see drastic improvement on both offense and defense on the way to advancing to the 2015 AL Wild Card Game.
1. San Diego Padres
2014: 77-85 (3rd); my 2015 projection: 90-72 (2nd)
In 2014 the San Diego Padres finished last in team batting average. They hit a horrendous .226, 12 points worse than the next worst team. Along with their lack of contact they lacked any kind of power. As a team, the Padres hit a total of 109 home runs. During the offseason, however, they added 60 home runs to their outfield alone. The Padres acquired all-stars Justin Upton and Matt Kemp, and future all-star Wil Myers. When healthy, each man has the potential to hit .280 with 30 home runs and 100 RBIs. These three alone can take the Padres offense from the bottom of the league to the top. San Diego didn’t stop there, though. The Padres also brought in catcher Derek Norris and third baseman Will Middlebrooks. Norris hit .270 with 10 home runs last season. Middlebrooks, on the other hand, struggled. He failed to hit above the Mendoza line, but hit .288 in 2012 and has the potential to return to that number. In 2014 the Padres pitching staff was a strong suit. They had a team ERA of 3.27, good enough for fourth in the league. That is even more impressive when you consider the fact that their ace, Andrew Cashner, was 5-7, and only made 19 starts due to injury. They’ve also added 200-inning, 180-strikeout pitcher James Shields. With a newly improved offense and a healthy, steady pitching rotation, the Padres are destined for success in 2015, and will have a chance to win their first playoff series since 1998.