New York Mets
While the Mets continue to seek at least one more addition to their pitching staff, the team has filled all their positional holes. General manager Omar Minaya maintains that he would be comfortable with entering the season with a roster as currently constituted.
By re-signing pitchers Tom Glavine, Orlando Hernandez and infielder Jose Valentin, plus adding outfielder Moises Alou, the Mets may not necessarily have done much to improve their club over last year's 97-victory campaign, but they aren't markedly worse. Acquiring a front-line starter like Barry Zito would help them prepare for what figures to be a tougher division. The Mets are growing older with their veteran core, and injuries are a concern; Alou missed parts of last year with the Giants, as did his Mets predecessor, Cliff Floyd. Also, New York's playoff hopes suffered a serious hit when Hernandez went down prior to the NL Division Series.
The Mets re-stocked their bullpen, one of their strengths from last year, by acquiring 22-year-old fireballer Ambiorix Burgos from the Royals and re-signing the suspended Guillermo Mota, who can join the club in late May. The Mets were surprised to lose reliable Chad Bradford to the Orioles, although New York had no intention of matching a three-year contract offer, and did not pursue Roberto Hernandez (Indians) or Darren Oliver (Angels).
Minaya's trend toward stocking the club with experienced talent raises questions about how quickly the Mets' young core will be permitted to progress; outfielder Lastings Milledge may start the year in Triple-A, if he isn't dealt, and manager Willie Randolph has not committed to any one of John Maine, Oliver Perez, Mike Pelfrey or Philip Humber as sure-fire locks for the starting rotation.
The Diamondbacks came out of the Winter Meetings without making a move. There has been only one major addition made this offseason, getting lefty Doug Davis from the Brewers in a six-player deal. On the surface this club hasn't markedly improved, but two of the most clichéd reasons for a club's improvement fit the D'Backs like an Easton batting glove
First, addition by subtraction. Shawn Green may still have a few years left, but his trade to the Mets opened up right field for Carlos Quentin, who has been a top prospect for three seasons. Quentin's production down the stretch in '06 proved he was ready for the bigs, and his arm in right will be far more intimidating than Green's. Likewise, as close to heresy as it is here in the desert, watching Luis Gonzalez mosey on down the I-10 to Los Angeles makes this club better. While Gonzo's NL leading 52 doubles were nice, his departure allows Eric Byrnes to move to left field where his offense will be at least as good, and his defense will be infinitely better, and opens center field up for Chris Young whose 25-30 homers this season will be a major upgrade for a team that finished 29th in homers last season.
Second, experience. The D'Backs were going to get better this offseason even if the club had returned exactly as it finished the '06 season. Players like Conor Jackson, Stephen Drew, Quentin, Young, and pitchers Micah Owings, Greg Smith, and Dustin Nippert will only improve with another year of seasoning. This is a club built for the future, but with a place in the present.
Besides, those snazzy new uniforms are a major improvement as well.
No one can make the argument that the Oakland A's are better than they were before the start of the off-season, but they may not have declined as significantly as many pundits would have you believe. During the Winter Meetings, the A's added four players to their projected 25-man roster: DH/C Mike Piazza, left-handed reliever Alan Embree and Rule 5 picks Ryan Goleski and Jay Marshall. Piazza gives Oakland a legitimate right-handed cleanup hitter to nestle between the switch-hitting Milton Bradley and the left-handed Eric Chavez. Although Piazza won't likely hit 39 homers as Frank Thomas did last season, Piazza should hit with enough runners on base to drive-in 80-100 runs, if he stays healthy. Embree gives the A's a legitimate left-handed relief specialist, something they went without last season with southpaws Joe Kennedy, Brad Halsey and Ron Flores more effectively against right-handers. Marshall also gives the A's another potential left-handed specialist; he allowed a .096 batting average against left-handed hitters in High-A last season.
The A's bullpen was one of the best in the league last season and a big reason that the team made the playoffs. It should be better with the addition of Embree and possibly Marshall. Embree's acquisition gives the A's the option of placing either Kennedy or Halsey in the rotation. Neither will ever be confused with Zito, but both have the potential to be effective number five starters. What the A's will miss with Zito is his ability to throw 220 innings every year. As for the bench, the A's lost the flexibility of having Jay Payton, who can play all three positions in the outfield, but they have added a potential power source in Goleski. With Mark Kotsay's back problems, Payton's ability to play center was very valuable. Payton, however, didn't hit with nearly enough power for a corner outfielder, something that Goleski has the potential to do. It is likely the A's will miss Payton's defense. Whether they miss his relatively meager offense will have a lot to do with whether Dan Johnson or Goleski can put together decent seasons and whether their best, but most oft-injured players (Bradley, Chavez, Rich Harden, Justin Duchscherer, Huston Street, Mark Ellis, Kotsay and Bobby Crosby) can stay off the trainers' table.
As close as the Tigers were to ending their 22-year World Series drought, the organization headed into the offseason knowing it had questions to answer, and positions to address. Namely, they were in need of a big bat for the middle of the lineup. And in making that addition, there's no question they've strengthened the club and put the team in good position to make a run again in 2007.
Two weeks into the offseason, the Tigers acquired Gary Sheffield from the Yankees for a trio of pitching prospects. The price the Tigers paid was certainly high, but as the old saying goes, "you have to give up something to get something" and the guy the Tigers got has consistently been able to hit 30+ home runs and drive in 100 runs or more.
On top of significantly upgrading the lineup by adding Sheffield's bat, the Tigers also have the advantage of being led by a trio of pitchers who average just 22 years of age. Jeremy Bonderman, Justin Verlander and Joel Zumaya are the Tigers' core, and all three still have their best days ahead of them. Adding experience to talent, and talent to the lineup, can only mean one thing, the Tigers are improved from '06, and will be looking to avenge their World Series defeat next year.
San Francisco Giants
The San Francisco Giants are not a better team than they were last year and not that many people expected the Giants to improve greatly in a relatively weak hitter's market. An Alfonso Soriano or a Carlos Lee might have improved this team, but with 11 holes to be addressed, it would've taken more than one player for the team to improve.
Mediocre losses and gains aside, this team lost cleanup hitter Moises Alou and ace Jason Schmidt, and, as of yet, has not replaced them. And while there is room for significant improvement as the young pitching staff (from starters Matt Cain and Noah Lowry to relievers Brian Wilson and Jack Taschner) matures, that is negated by very possible drops in performance from aging returning veterans like Barry Bonds, Omar Vizquel and Ray Durham.
The Giants may suggest they are in it for one last championship run, but a more realistic hope is that they see their young pitchers mature and hope a team of role players find themselves somehow perfectly cast to be a real surprise in the National League.
St. Louis Cardinals
Posing this question now should only be considered a mid-term exam. A number of free agents have yet to find new homes, with several qualifying as difference-makers wherever they land. A new batch of players has also just been thrown into the pool, the non-tenders, who were set free earlier this week. This is how David Eckstein joined the Cardinals two years ago. Finally, the trade season has barely begun. In the past few years, Cardinals general manager Walt Jocketty has added players like Mark Mulder and Adam Wainwright in mid-to-late December deals. So, the jury is still out.
Answering the question with a question, do the World Champions need to improve from 83 regular-season wins or improve from winning it all? They have maintained their core offensively, by getting a below-market priced Adam Kennedy to replace Ron Belliard, keeping a key bench part in Scott Spiezio and extending Jim Edmonds two more years.
The Cards' rotation is still in flux behind Chris Carpenter, who received a well-deserved extension, too. Kip Wells basically replaced Jason Marquis. Two openings remain that were vacated by still-free agents Mark Mulder, Jeff Suppan and Jeff Weaver. If one or two of them come back or Jocketty pulls off another trade, his winter could be considered positive, despite failed attempts at Jason Schmidt, Randy Wolf, Vicente Padilla, Miguel Batista and several more.
With the moves the Rangers have made so far this off-season, it's hard for me to look at this team and convince myself that they've gotten better. At the same time, they certainly haven't gotten worse. Re-signing Vicente Padilla a week ago helps ease a little bit of the direness this team would be facing with their starting rotation had they let him get away. The moves made in the outfield also help take some of the strain off finding player personnel for next season. Sure, Frank Catalanatto and an aging Kenny Lofton may not be the greatest of solutions to what otherwise was a major flaw in the lineup last season (aside from Gary Matthews Jr.), but they are more than satisfactory and, in Lofton's case, could only be a one year situation for a possible run at the talented free agent class in 2008.
Mark Mulder and Barry Zito are still out there for the taking and for it to be a successful off-season the team needs to jump on the opportunity. Mulder won't be available until mid-season but should the pitching prowess he had pre-injury return he could definitely be an asset to this club. And Zito may very well be the final piece of the pitching puzzle to get this club into the playoffs for the first time since 1999.
San Diego Padres
The future would appear to be bright after winning the NL West for the second year in a row. How has the team prepared for 2007? There have been some strange moments in assembling their team of the future – but we know better than to dog Kevin Towers; he often finds a way to "dumpster-dive" and come out ahead.
Bruce Bochy, the man who guided San Diego to NL West pennants in successive years for the first time in team history, was essentially let go, signed by the San Francisco Giants. Second baseman Josh Barfield was traded for untested third baseman Kevin Kouzmanoff, as the team believed the hot corner was a more difficult position to fill. Dave Roberts, their only legitimate leadoff hitter, was allowed to leave via free agency. Their lone power threat, Mike Piazza, is now in Oakland.
They did, however, sign future Hall of Famer Greg Maddux to strengthen their rotation and are interested in David Wells to complete the starting five. The team has stockpiled relievers and the bullpen may again be the best in baseball. The real question is where is the team speed for PETCO and where is the big bat for the lineup? Todd Walker is a wash for Barfield at second, if the team doesn't sign an upgrade in Marcus Giles, and Kouzmanoff will be an upgrade over everyone they played at third base. Left field goes, currently, to Terrmel Sledge. His spot in the lineup may hold the key to the season. With the talent in the NL West seemingly upgraded across the board, the Padres will find it tough to repeat, or in this case three-peat. It appears the Padres have taken a step sideways with Giles and Wells the wildcards in an unfinished off-season.
The Phillies are still a work in progress, with one more pretty sizeable deal to be made. The acquisition of Freddy Garcia and Adam Eaton with the subtraction of Randy Wolf from the starting rotation gives the Phillies a surplus of starting pitchers. Jon Lieber is the likely odd man out with several teams interested in dealing for his services. The likely return is a setup man to get the Phillies to Tom Gordon in the ninth inning.
Another potential deal would send Pat Burrell elsewhere. The Phillies are looking primarily to dump Burrell's salary and likely won't be too picky about who or what they get in exchange. They would like to receive one pitching prospect to take the place of Giovany Gonzalez, who was dealt back to the White Sox to get Garcia. General Manager Pat Gillick is convinced that Burrell can help offensively and is ready to focus completely on his career. A resurgence from Burrell would give the Phillies the big right-handed bat they need to plant in the lineup behind Ryan Howard.
The addition of Wes Helms gives the Phillies a stronger bat than Abraham Nunez at third base, but they kept Nunez for his defensive prowess. Catching is going to be interesting with young Carlos Ruiz handling most of the duties and Chris Coste available as a backup. Adding a veteran catcher to help Ruiz would free up Coste to do some fill-in work on the infield and be a primary pinch-hitter off the bench.