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White Sox to test meaning of improvement

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Offseason activity garners more positive reviews, but winning winter doesn't consistently translate to regular-season success

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The rave reviews for Rick Hahn's offseason keep rolling in (at least if you don't count FanGraphs). Jon Heyman already called the White Sox the winners of the winter, and now Jayson Stark's annual poll of executives says the same.

There's an obvious catch to being named the "winter winner" or the "most improved" team. In most cases, the teams were disappointments the year before, akin to fringe players being the ones who tend to talk about new "pounds of muscle" in spring training. It's easy to take these words and get carried away, but improvement could easily mean something as uninspiring as "not as bad as before."

One of the responses Stark received echoed that theme:

Now that the transaction dust has settled, this team is way better than the 89-loss outfit of 2014. But how much better? It was incredible, on one hand, to see a team get this many most-improved votes and still, on the other hand, hear so many concerns expressed by the people voting for it -- over depth in general, pitching depth in particular and the challenge of making all these pieces mesh. "So they're certainly better," one AL exec said. "I just don't know what to expect."

However, the results of Stark's recent polls show another dynamic overpowering the usual "improvement" caveat  -- the teams doing the most "improving" tend to be already successful. The American League's arms race has made it difficult for teams to stay on top, even when they've tried to bolster rosters. In the less competitive National League, the idea of improvement is more reliable.

Stark doesn't pretend the poll is scientific. Really, it's little more than a snapshot in time. Still some good news for the Sox here. Generally speaking, the teams in their position have made noteworthy gains. The Jeff Samardzija deal topped the list of best trades, and Adam LaRoche's contract received votes for  "best free-agent signing," which is probably a reflection of his intangibles as much as his talent. And in perhaps better news, the National League started getting into its own bidding wars.

Here's what the last three years look like, and how they fared in terms of year-to-year difference in win totals:

2014

American League National League
1 Yankees (-1) Nationals (+10)
2 Rangers (-24) Padres (+1)
3 Mariners (+16) Dodgers (+2)

The upshot: The Mariners were the only team in the same boat as the Sox, as they started seeing the talent assembled from a string of down years come together. They added Robinson Cano to the mix, and they went from 71 to 87 wins. No postseason appearance, though.

In hindsight: The Orioles were "most unimproved," and all they did was run away with the AL East. Also, Jose Abreu's contract looks better than Brian McCann's.

2013

American League National League
1 Blue Jays (+1)
Braves (+2)
2 Royals (+14)
Dodgers (+6)
3 Angels (-11)
Nationals (-12)

The upshot: Here we have the Royals deciding to max out The Process by trading for James Shields and Ervin Santana, falling just short of the postseason after jumping from 72 to 86 wins. On the other hand, the Blue Jays had nothing to show from their megatrade with the Marlins. The turf monster bit them hard -- only three position players appeared in 120 games, and one of them was J.P. Arencibia.

In hindsight: How the hell did Josh Hamilton's five-year, $125 million deal count as the best free agent signing?

2012

American League National League
1 Angels (+3)
Nationals (+18)
2 Yankees (-2)
Marlins (-3)
3 Rangers (-3)
Reds (+18)

The upshot: The Reds got the most out of their big additions (Mat Latos and Ryan Ludwick), winning 97 games and the NL Central. The Marlins are probably the biggest cautionary tale. Their big additions more or less held up (except Heath Bell), but the incumbents faltered as a whole. Then again, we saw for ourselves that a distracted Ozzie Guillen isn't going to get everybody's best.

In hindsight: The White Sox were the "most unimproved," and yet they won six more games and led the AL Central most of the season. The last sentence in the preceding paragraph is relevant here, too.