Loaded for bear: Toronto Blue Jays
Here's the obvious one. No team underwent a more radical transformation than Toronto this winter, and the result is that the Jays aren't just hoping to win. They're expecting it.
The whole team received an overhaul, with Jose Reyes and Melky Cabrera joining the lineup and R.A. Dickey, Mark Buehrle and Josh Johnson added to the pitching staff. Plus there's the return from injury of Sergio Santos, and it's expected that Jose Bautista will be healthier and more effective.
The result is a team that should be much improved, even though it was already not bad. Additionally, the rest of the division appears not to have improved much. The Yankees and Orioles had relatively quiet winters, and the Red Sox improved, but not nearly as much as Toronto. The new-look Blue Jays probably have more pressure and higher expectations than any team coming off a 73-89 season in history.
Prognosis: Excellent, arguably the favorite in the American League East.
One step closer: Seattle Mariners
Seattle hung around the fringes of contention last year, but ultimately fell well short in the ferociously competitive AL West. The M's had an aggressive winter, and it was clearly geared toward winning in the short term. They brought in a number of players who can be free agents after the year.
To an extent, they addressed their needs on offense, adding power in the form of Michael Morse and Kendrys Morales. Seattle didn't address it's on-base percentage problems, though, and in fact might have made them worse by trading John Jaso.
The Mariners also traded away some stability in their starting rotation, shipping Jason Vargas to Anaheim in the Morales deal. However, reports indicate they're close to a deal with Joe Saunders, which would help alleviate that situation.
Still, while hopes are high and the plan is to win now, it's hard to see how the M's closed the gap enough to make real noise in the AL West.
Prognosis: Probably improved, but probably not enough to narrow the gap.
Still waiting for the breakthrough: Pittsburgh Pirates
At first glance, it may appear that the Pirates ran in place this winter, but the truth is they're likely better than they were. The main upgrade they made, at catcher, was enormous. The downgrade, in the bullpen, is smaller than it probably seems.
Replacing Rod Barajas with Russell Martin instantly makes Pittsburgh a better offensive and defensive team. Replacing Joel Hanrahan with Mark Melancon in the bullpen might not make that much difference. And if Francisco Liriano's deal ever gets done, he provides an intriguing risk/reward option in the rotation.
The third-place Brewers appear to have improved less than Pittsburgh did, and the second-place Cardinals recently took a big hit with the news that Chris Carpenter will be unavailable. The Bucs, whose minus-23 run differential was the best of any sub-.500 team last year, may at least get back to a winning record in 2013.
Prognosis: Closed the gap on third place, but maybe not on a playoff spot. Could finally top .500, though.
On the rise: Kansas City Royals
Without doubt, this is one of the most intriguing teams in ball. The Royals were thought to be on the verge a year ago, only to have a biblical plague of injuries in their starting rotation, along with a distressing number of young hitters who didn't develop as planned.
They brought in a slew of starters in hopes of securing some innings -- headed, of course, by James Shields. They didn't do much to the lineup, figuring that they would sink or swim with those young hitters, guys like Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas.
The Royals' pitching should be better. Their lineup might be better, but it's not the slam dunk it might have been with Wil Myers still around. The bullpen should still be stout. They're improved; the question is whether the gap was too big.
Prognosis: First is probably not realistic, but dreaming of second place is not unreasonable.
The really long shot: Colorado Rockies
OK, let's be honest here. The Rockies are farther away than any of the teams above. They're in one of the game's toughest divisions, they were 64-98 last year, and they were outscored by 132 runs. They need to improve by an awful lot to get into any kind of contention.
But if you squint, you can see how it happens. A lineup core of Troy Tulowitzki, Carlos Gonzalez, Dexter Fowler and Todd Helton could be championship-caliber if everyone is healthy. Youngsters like Chris Nelson, Wilin Rosario and Josh Rutledge could be nice complementary parts.
As for the rotation, similar caveats apply. It's a long shot -- a whole lot has to go right. But at least the pieces are there, where, if things do go right, it could be a strong unit. Jorge De La Rosa, Jhoulys Chacin and Juan Nicasio have all shown excellent ability in the past.
It's a really long shot. It's a longer shot than drawing to an inside straight-flush. But out of all the teams that had really rough years last year, none has as much chance to be the Orioles or A's of 2013 as the Rockies.
Prognosis: It's probably going to be a long year. But if you're looking for reasons for hope, they're there.