MLB.com Columnist

Richard Justice

A New Year's toast to Hot Stove's top movers and shakers

Cheers to the 8 ballclubs who've taken the biggest leaps forward entering 2015

A New Year's toast to Hot Stove's top movers and shakers

What else do you have for us, A.J. Preller? Don't go getting timid. It has been more than 72 hours since your last deal.

How about Cole Hamels? He'd be a nice finishing touch to one of the great offseasons any general manager has ever had. Do it, A.J. You know you want to.

While we wait for the Padres' new general manager to work his magic again, let's pause on this New Year's Day to reflect on the larger meaning.

Baseball surely has never had an offseason like this one, in which club after club worked furiously to position themselves for a postseason run in 2015.

These teams aren't working on a two-year plan or a five-year plan. These clubs see an opportunity to win now.

Wrap your minds around what these last two months have been like. Matt Kemp and Jon Lester have changed teams. So have Nelson Cruz, Pablo Sandoval and Jeff Samardzija.

At this very minute, how many teams think they're going to contend for a postseason berth?

Answer: Almost all of 'em.

Likewise, almost all of 'em think they've still got work to do. Or do they?

Maybe the Red Sox do need a true No. 1 starter. On the other hand, haven't Clay Buchholz and Justin Masterson looked like No. 1 starters at times in the past?

If both are healthy, they're surely capable of leading the Red Sox on another worst-to-first journey.

The Yankees are fretting about their rotation as well. They need Masahiro Tanaka healthy and CC Sabathia to polish his cutter and make the kind of middle-age adjustment every pitcher must make.

As for the Cardinals, Angels and Nationals, they entered the offseason in the best place of all. All three were already solid clubs, all three positioned to contend in 2015. Only the Cardinals -- with the acquisition of Jason Heyward -- made a head-turning move.

On this New Year's Day, let's consider eight clubs who appear to have improved themselves the most. Some teams improved more than others. The Blue Jays and Mariners were already close. Others, though, took huge steps forward.

Here goes:

1. Padres

By Opening Day, Preller may have changed every starting position. To the lowest-scoring team in baseball, he added Kemp, Justin Upton, Wil Myers, Derek Norris and Will Middlebrooks. There are baseball people stunned that he traded away so many of his best young players, but they're also impressed. Here was a first-time general manager operating fearlessly and letting Padres fans know a new era of San Diego baseball had begun. In a division with the Dodgers and Giants, the Padres have guaranteed themselves nothing. But they're way better, and along the way, they've gotten people's attention.

2. White Sox

General manager Rick Hahn has had two tremendous offseasons in a row. First, he acquired an assortment of young talent a year ago, including American League Rookie of the Year Jose Abreu. And now he has added Melky Cabrera and Adam LaRoche to the lineup, David Robertson to the bullpen and Samardzija to the rotation. The Tigers still appear to be the best team in the AL Central, and the Royals and Indians are also really good. Don't be surprised if these four teams enter September an eyelash apart.

Merkin on AL Central in 2015

3. Cubs

Nothing Theo Epstein did this offseason is as important as hiring Joe Maddon to manage the Cubs. Maddon will put all those talented kids in position to succeed, and when they struggle, he will nurture their confidence. The Cubs also added Lester, the best starting pitcher on the market, as well as Jason Hammel and Miguel Montero. Forget that talk about the Cubs winning in 2016. Who knows what all those young players are capable of? To count the Cubs out in 2015 would be a mistake.

4. Marlins

When team owner Jeffrey Loria signed Giancarlo Stanton to a 13-year, $325 million contract extension, he promised to upgrade the lineup around him. So the Marlins went out and put Dee Gordon in front of Stanton and Michael Morse behind him. They also added Martin Prado to the infield and Mat Latos to the rotation. They were still in the postseason mix in September last summer. They're better now.

5. Red Sox

Worst to first again? Yeah, the Red Sox appear to be capable of doing it after adding Sandoval and Hanley Ramirez to the lineup and Rick Porcello, Wade Miley and Masterson to the rotation. General manager Ben Cherington may yet snag Max Scherzer or James Shields off the free-agent market, but the Red Sox are already dramatically better.

MLB Tonight: Red Sox outlook

6. Mariners

Having won 87 games last season, the Mariners didn't have far to go. General manager Jack Zduriencik has had another impressive offseason in adding J.A. Happ to the rotation and Cruz, Justin Ruggiano and Seth Smith to the lineup. If the young starting pitchers take a step forward, the Mariners could wrestle the AL West away from the Angels.

7. Blue Jays

Like Seattle, the Blue Jays were in contention in September, finishing with 83 wins. General manager Alex Anthopoulos added arguably the best third baseman in the game in Josh Donaldson and a tremendous catcher in Russell Martin. He also got Michael Saunders for one of the outfield spots and is now shopping for a closer. Whether he succeeds in that or not, the Blue Jays have had a great winter.

8. Dodgers

It takes guts to blow up a team that won 94 games, but Andrew Friedman, the new president of baseball operations, wasn't brought in to be timid. Gone are Kemp, Ramirez and Gordon. In adding right-hander Brandon McCarthy, shortstop Jimmy Rollins, second baseman Howie Kendrick and catcher Yasmani Grandal, Friedman hopes he's guiding the Dodgers back to their time-tested values of pitching and defense. Rookie Joc Pederson will take over for Kemp in center, and 20-year-old shortstop Corey Seager is on a fast track to the big leagues. Friedman has been wildly second-guessed for parting with Kemp and Gordon, but as long as Kershaw, Zack Greinke, Hyun-Jin Ryu and McCarthy are healthy, the Dodgers still appear to be the best team in the NL West.

Kendrick happy to be a Dodger

This isn't a complete list. Billy Beane has remade the A's again. The Rangers are hopeful a healthy Prince Fielder will be a ticket back to contention. The Astros are better, too.

The Giants? One thing we've learned these last five years is to not doubt them. So while they have not won the offseason, history says they're capable of winning everything else.

This is baseball's new world. Happy New Year to one and all. Pitchers and catchers begin reporting to Spring Training in 49 days. Opening Day is April 5.

Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.