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Identifying True Improvement in MLB Teams

Typically, it takes several years for a baseball team to develop and grow from a pretender to a contender. Every so often, though, a team is able to go from the basement to the penthouse in just one year. The Twins made a habit of it in the 1980s and early 1990s, and Arizona, Colorado, Tampa Bay and others have pulled it off as well. It’s very exciting to watch one of these miraculous recoveries. It can also be extremely profitable to jump on the bandwagon early on these teams and ride them as long as you can. Of course, that’s much easier to say than it is to do. Here are five characteristics that can make one of these teams stand out when making your baseball picks:

Quietly improved rotation – I should start by qualifying this – a dramatically improved rotation would be a great sign, too. The difference is that a dramatically improved rotation would get noticed by the betting public right away, so it wouldn’t offer betting value. A more subtle, quiet improvement wouldn’t get noticed as quickly, though, so there is value to grab before people do catch on. There are a lot of ways a rotation could improve in such a way. Young pitchers with a little experience under their belt could be ready to come into their own. A key pitcher could come back strong from a serious injury – like Tommy John surgery. A bullpen fixture could be moved to the rotation. Veteran leadership could be added to strengthen a young rotation, or to elevate the back end of the rotation. The reasons don’t matter as long as there are a few different reasons to believe that the team’s starting pitching will dramatically better.

Leadership injection – Sometimes a roster has the talent to achieve big things, but they lack the discipline, focus, commitment and intensity to put it all together and reach their potential. Sometimes all it takes, though, is a guy with the right mix of leadership and experience to command respect in the clubhouse and spark the team. If you think about times when a team has improved dramatically you can usually think of a player who was a quintessential leader on the team. Those players aren’t necessarily the biggest stars or the most productive players, just the ones who can get the team on task and keep them there. An addition of a player like this is particularly significant if he joins a team that is generally one, or one that clearly doesn’t seem to be playing up to their potential.

Coaching staff changes – When making picks in football we spend a lot of time looking at offensive and defensive coordinators and the impact they could have on their teams with their comings and goings. For some reason, though, comparable moves in baseball are virtually ignored. People spend a lot of time looking at managers and their impact on teams, but pitching coaches and hitting coaches hardly get any attention. A big upgrade in pitching coach can have a huge impact on a pitching staff, though, and a hitting coach can help a roster take a huge step forward in productivity. Teams that have kept the same manager but shuffled their coaching staff can improve dramatically without getting noticed.

Young stars – When the Rays went from last in the AL East in 2007 to the World Series in 2008 the most impressive addition to their roster was rookie Evan Longoria. He was named Rookie of the Year, and was very productive in his 122 games. He’s certainly not the only young star that has been key in the performance of a team – Buster Posey had a lot to do with San Francisco’s World Series win last year. Both players were good examples of the power of rookies to improve a team significantly. Underwhelming teams with impressive youngsters coming along could take a big jump forward as well. (Incidentally, the emergence of young stars is why the Royals could be impressive in a couple of years – they are loaded with the under 23 set).

Weakening division – You play the teams in your division a ridiculous number of times during the season, so it only makes sense that the easiest way to improve significantly is if the rest of the teams – or at least a couple of them – are notably worse than they were the year before. If a couple of teams are hit with free agent defections, injuries, retirements and the like then a team could win several more games during the season just by playing as well as they did the previous year.

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