With February here and Valentine’s Day approaching, a handful teams have the opportunity to express love for their new acquisitions. In recent years, these teams have included powerhouses like the Boston Red Sox, New York Yankees, Philadelphia Phillies and St. Louis Cardinals, this year’s list of winners is made up of mid-sized markets looking to get to that powerhouse level. So, while we await spring training and the impending 2012 season, let’s take a look at my top-five winners of the offseason.
5. Washington Nationals
One of two NL East teams to make the list, the Nationals realized what it would take to combat the other offense-minded teams in the divison: a good pitching staff. With the acquisition of left-hander Gio Gonzalez from the Athletics and the signing of free-agent pitcher Edwin Jackson, the Nationals have set up a powerful 1-2-3-4 punch in their starting rotation with Gonzalez, a finally healthy Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann and Jackson. At the back-end of the pitching staff, they added relief pitcher Brad Lidge, who is looking to rebound from three very disappointing seasons with the Phillies after being almost unhittable in their 2008 World Series run. If Lidge can find that magic again, he joins a solid relief pitching staff that already includes Tyler Clippard and closer Drew Storen. Although they didn’t make a huge splash in the offensive player pool like last year’s addition of Jayson Werth, they did add a solid utility-player in Mark DeRosa. DeRosa adds a solid bat to a line-up that already included Werth, Michael Morse and Ryan Zimmerman.
The Nationals can contend for an NL East crown, but winning the divison games against the Phillies, Marlins and Braves will be crucial. They added a punch to a pitching staff that was 7th in the MLB in 2011 with a team ERA of 3.58, and they expect to add more runs with a healthy Ryan Zimmerman and the addition of De Rosa. Watch out for the Nats in 2012.
4. New York Yankees
Alright, so I couldn’t come up with a list that didn’t include at least one large-market team, and as much as I dislike putting them here, they come in at number four. This wasn’t a typical offseason for the Bronx Bombers, though. The perennial high-bidder on any big-name free agent on the market had a relatively quiet offseason that saw them add to what they lacked most: quality pitching. The re-signing of ace C.C. Sabathia and the addition of pitchers Huroki Kuroda and Michael Pineda has allowed the Yankees to begin to tie up loose ends that plagued them in 2011. Kuroda and Pineda join a starting pitching staff that already includes: Sabathia, A.J. Burnett, Phil Hughes, Ivan Nova and Freddy Garcia. That starting pitching staff will turn the ball over to relief pitchers David Robertson, Rafael Soriano and Mariano Rivera. In short, The Yankees have a ton of great pitching, too much in fact, but I think that Brian Cashman would agree that too much is a good problem to have.
Yes, they fixed their pitching staff, and yes, that will be complementing an already power-packed offense that includes Curtis Granderson, Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira. The New York Yankees are the front-runners for the AL East crown, and any time you add players and only strengthen your argument for that case, you deserve to be mentioned amongst the offseason winners.
3. Detroit Tigers
As of January 25, the Detroit Tiger’s 2012 season seemed to be in turmoil. Victor Martinez had just gone down with an ACL injury that the team expects will keep him out for most of the upcoming season, and it seemed as if the magic from last season was lost. Then, a day later, Prince Fielder inked a nine-year deal and the season was saved. Fielder’s signing is enough to put the Detroit Tigers at the three spot in my order, but that wasn’t their only move that could pay dividends come August and September. They also signed two veterans in catcher Gerald Laird and relief pitcher Octavio Dotel. While most Tiger fans, including myself, were ecstatic to see Laird go a year ago, he comes back in a different role. He will no longer be sharing time with Alex Avila, but will be giving him a day or two off every week. It’s no secret that Avila, after having a monster offensive regular season, was no where to be found during the playoffs. He was tired, hurt and out of gas because the Tiger’s had no one to back him up in the late months. Laird will provide Avila with a few days off so that come September and October he is at his best. Dotel will help a bullpen that struggled for much of the 2011 season to find any consistency. He will join Joaquin Benoit and Jose Valverde at the back-end of the bullpen that should be pretty solid.
While the Tiger’s didn’t sign a bunch of guys, it appears they may have already sealed up the AL Central. They replaced Martinez with an even bigger bat in Fielder, and the lineup includes two of the best power-hitting and run-producing hitters in baseball with Fielder and Miguel Cabrera. While Cabrera may end up being a liability at third, this offense is going to put up huge numbers, and the a starting pitching staff that includes Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer and Doug Fister with a solid bullpen to turn the ball over late in games to could be scary good. This could be one of the best teams on both sides of the ball in the AL. The Detroit Tigers are definitely in the World Series conversation with these new acquisitions.
2. Miami Marlins
New name. New look. New Stadium. New Faces. New attitude. That’s what Marlins fans can expect in 2012. This is a franchise that has been totally re-vamped for the future, and they did it by changing the way they looked and, hopefully, the way they play. These changes helped get them to the number-two spot in my list, but it was some huge free-agent signings that wrapped it up for me. To me, the Marlins have made strides in the offseason that could see them contend for an NL East crown in what could be the best division in baseball this year. Not only did they add the best shortstop in baseball, Jose Reyes, but they added an All-Star closer in Heath Bell and past All-Star pitchers Mark Buehrle and Carlos Zambrano. With Reyes at short, Hanley Ramirez will move to third, which creates one of the NL’s best left sides of the infield. Reyes will provide a punch at the top spot in the batting order to set up guys like Ramirez, Mike Stanton and Logan Morrison. While the offense may have a few question marks going into the season, the pitching staff doesn’t seem to. Buerhle and Zambrano will join a staff that already includes Josh Johnson, Ricky Nolasco and possibly Javier Vasquez if he decides not to retire and re-signs with the team.
Like the Nationals, winning division games will be crucial to this team being successful. They have the pieces in place to do that, but their offense may hinder that a bit. That’s why they are also looking to add five-tool prospect Yoenis Cespedes once he is cleared to sign with an MLB team. The Marlins are near the top of his wish list, and his addition to the line-up could be the needed piece in fixing what offense problems there may be. I’m not going to say that I think this team will win the division, but they, to me, have made the largest strides of any team in the NL to get better this offseason. Watch out for the Miami Marlins in the next few years, especially as the Philadelphia Philles begin to age.
1. Los Angeles Angels
The Angels sit here at number one because they picked up the best free-agent on the market in Albert Pujols and the best pitcher thought to be on the free-agent market in C.J. Wilson. With the Texas Rangers having gone to two straight World Series, the division rival Angels knew they needed to make a big splash in this year’s free-agency pool. Pujols, who could end up being one of the all-time best hitters in baseball, will anchor a line-up that includes Bobby Abreu, Vernon Wells, Torii Hunter, Mike Trout and Mark Trumbo. C.J. Wilson no longer has to be the number-one pitcher on a team. It seemed like that got to him a little bit in last year’s playoffs, where he struggled. He can now be, quite possibly, the best number three in all of baseball behind Jered Weaver and Dan Haren. The addition of catcher Chris Iannetta is a good pick-up for a team that has lacked a solid offensive and defensive catcher in recent years.
This Angels team seems a little bit like the Detroit Tigers. They have an offense that has the potential to put up gigantic numbers, and a deep, solid pitching staff that will hold opponent runs to a minimum. Most importantly, the Angels are the Rangers’ biggest threat in the AL West, and I’m guessing the Rangers’ pitching staff isn’t all that excited to face Pujols in 18 games this year. I expect the Angels and Rangers to battle all year long, and I think it will come down to the last week out West. My prediction: Angels vs. Tigers for a trip to The Fall Classic.