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Room for improvement

Who gets the most bang from their offseason bucks?

Posted: Wednesday January 3, 2007 12:48PM; Updated: Wednesday January 3, 2007 12:48PM
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A couple billion dollars has been spent on free-agents, and some of it not by the Cubs.

A lot of loot has been wasted, of course. But some will actually do what it's intended to do, which is to improve teams that need improving.

Some teams spent money to impress their fans and some spent because they didn't know what else to do with it. Several others depleted their bank accounts with a real purpose: to get better. Some may not even wind up regretting the deals they made and the dollars they committed. A lucky few general managers have actually made their teams better.

Considering the mucho moolah spent, and in some cases in spite of it, here are my picks for the teams that will show the most improvement from 2006 to 2007.

1. Cubs. Next up on general manager Jim Hendry's shopping list: The Sears Tower. The Cubs' stunning spending spree seemed like an unusual strategy for a company that is supposedly selling off parts. I'll say this, so far Hendry's done the best selling. He sold his bosses on committing an outrageous outlay to try to steal a winnable division.

I don't think they'll accomplish that goal, but they will be much better. And not all the contracts were loony, either. For instance, the $10 million spent on Lou Piniella was well spent. And Alfonso Soriano is awfully talented. But after all the cash was committed, their biggest improvement will be attributable to them having Derrek Lee for a full year.
Predicted improvement: 20 wins.

2. Indians. Their early-winter acquisition of Josh Barfield was one of the best moves anyone made. While the market was stocked with serviceable second basemen, Barfield was not only the best of the bunch, but the only one with only a year's service time and thus, no leverage. While that's nice, the real reason Cleveland will be better is that no one underachieved quite like them last year, when its young players quietly revolted against task-master manager Eric Wedge. While Wedge is back, they can't repeat that underperformance.
Improvement: 11 wins.

3. Red Sox. The best move of the winter was the one that drew the most ridicule, at least initially. Boston's decision to bid $51.1 million in the warped posting process (why should Seibu make a $48.5 million profit off Daisuke Matsuzaka's talents?) turned out to be sheer brilliance. Dice-K is supposed to be better than Barry Zito. Yet they get him for $25 million less, they'll save millions via reduced luxury tax charges and they'll reap $7 million or more annually in marketing revenues. The bid was so smart, in fact, that the Yankees went to school on it, bidding to the tune of $26 million on Kei Igawa, a pitcher advertised as being another Ted Lilly.
Improvement: 9 wins.

4. Phillies. GM Pat Gillick can still deal with the best of them. He turned a young pitcher with a 7 ERA (Gavin Floyd) and a talented but shortish (5-foot-11) reliever (Gio Gonzalez) into a top-of-the-rotation starter (Freddy Garcia). They should threaten the Mets, who still haven't figured out how to improve their own rotation.
Improvement: 8 wins.

5. Dodgers. After getting huffy when J.D. Drew did nothing more than exercise a right in his previous contract -- staying for half the money would have been nothing short of idiotic -- they recovered nicely from their mini-tantrum. They enhanced their rotation by taking advantage of Jason Schmidt's well-known requirement to remain on the West Coast, Randy Wolf's generous offer to come home for a year and Nomar Garciaparra's stated interest in staying home. A fading Luis Gonzalez is no Drew, but their pitching and speed makes them the clear NL West favorite.
Improvement: 7 wins.


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