Hello all, and welcome to another exciting season of Continental League baseball! Over the next 8 posts, I will be going division-by-division, taking a look at each of the teams and ultimately making predictions for the playoff teams, LCS winners, and eventual World Series Champion. In this edition, we will take a look at what was undoubtedly the strongest division in baseball last year: The AL North.
The 'Frog won baseball's strongest division last year with 101 wins, went 22-8 within the division, and employed 3 All-Stars. They could have stood pat and coasted to another playoff appearance, but instead they have made offseason moves to strengthen their already dominant roster. They traded for Del Moya to give themselves a power boost at catcher, then promptly made him a backup when they went out and signed Antonio Zhang. Felipe Ibanez (despite coming off a down year) should prove to be a steal for the Peacefrog in the same deal. Minnesota cast off some dead weight this offseason, but last year's core still remains, and the team looks to be even deadlier this time out. The biggest strength of this team is its pitching-- a rotation consisting of Jonathan Grebeck, Dan Shipley (coming back from elbow surgery), William Busby, Blake Robinson, and Omar Siqueiros? Forget a playoff appearance; I wouldn't count Minnesota out of the running for its first-ever World Series appearance this season.
Benito Terrero, Jose Bravo, and Ober Torres all had down years last season. So when the Detroit Red Dogs moved to Ottowa, they decided not to take the trio with them, trading them to Las Vegas in a massive deal that sent three minor leaguers to the Otters. Wolf Ramsey will be on the 25-man for Ottowa this year after posting a 1.039 OPS in 3 minor league seasons, so he could provide an offensive boost for this team, but the loss of the three aforementioned players could prove disastrous if they reach their true potential in Sin City. Meanwhile, players like Lou Cassidy and Stone Faulkner have been promoted to patch holes at the major league level, skipping minor league levels along the way. The Otters signed a bunch of free agents as well, including pitcher Jake Canseco (who spent last season in the minors) and Miguel Aguilera (who has aged very rapidly over the past few years). Miguel Sierra will start for the O's, but will likely log only the 22-25 or so starts per years he saw in Oakland after having fatigue issues. It sounds like Ottowa is making a lot of moves to improve the team, but truth be told, this season's moves seem oddly like those of a team preparing to rebuild rather than one looking to make another run in a very crowded division. To be fair, this team won 102 games two season ago, so perhaps they believe last year's 89 victories were an anomaly and that the team will have no trouble making the playoffs this year despite taking a few downgrades. But even with an explosive offense that ranked third last year in runs scored, their lack of true pitching depth might cause the Otters to be the odd team out in the division this season.
Milwaukee Cream Citys
The Cream Citys saw several players from last year's roster, including former Cy Young candidate Earl Hammonds, file for free agency or get released this offseason. The solution? Go on a free agency spree. They resigned most of their departed players, plus a few new ones, like former Tampa Bay workhorse Ron Owens and former Snow Pirate Tim Juden. The biggest blow to Milwaukee this offseason would have to be the injury of superstar slugger Frank Martin-- while he is expected to be back in 2 weeks, his age and injury history beg questions regarding whether he will be as effective (and healthy) this season. Overall, the Citys look to be in a similar position to the one they were in last year, when they won 85 games and missed the playoffs by a nose-- but in this division, where it's often sink-or-swim, did the Cream Citys do enough to keep up with the Jonses? They don't strike most people as a team that can compete for the AL North crown this season, and unless they bring up some prospects or strike a big trade, this season may be another of scrapping for a Wild Card slot.
Syracuse Snow Pirates
After tying an AL record by winning 80 games as a last-place team in season 8, the Snow Pirates outdid themselves by breaking the all-time ML record by finishing last in season 9 despite recording 84 victories. After a much-publicized failure to land last year's Cy Young winner Warren Hargave during free agency, the team made a block buster deal that sent phenom Jeremi Rice to Nashville, ultimately snagging Hargrave before the Nalas had time to stitch his name into a uniform. Other than that, Syracuse has been very quiet, making only one other acquisition (reliever Frankie Herman) this offseason. Are the Snow Pirates doomed to improve upon their win total but finish last yet again? Well, with a better second half from Cyrus Torres and the additions of key minor leaguers, coupled with the fact that Syracuse is still maturing as an offensive team, expect the Snow Pirates to be improved this season, especially with their addition to the starting 5. Will they win the division? Probably not. Will they take a Wild Card spot? If a few things go particularly well, it's not out of the question to expect them to find themselves in the postseason for the first time in years.