Tampa Bay Thunder
The Thunder were devestated this offseason by their high-profile departures, most notably that of Warren Hargrave, last year's Cy Young winner and the subject of a bitter bidding war (and ultimately a trade) that sent him out of the division for good (after being signed originally by the rival Nala Bears). But they also managed to lose 2-time All-Star reliever Ron Owens, reliable starter Albert Farnsworth, and the still useful Trey Borland (who still hasn't found a home). Erubiel Bennett and Chuck Carson have been brought in to patch up those holes, but the Thunder's biggest move was trading for the young Clay Park, a former 6th overall pick who the Thunder hope will fully blossom this season in Tampa Bay. Rookie Lyle Stoddard will also be asked to pick up some of the slack for the team. The Thunder can expect to feel the losses of the aforementioned players, but they have done an admirable job of replacing them and they should still be good for a playoff appearance this year. The question is, will it be as a division winner or as a Wild Card team? With New Orleans in the division, the Thunder can't feel too safe this season.
New Orleans Bead Busters
Despite losing a few players (of varying usefulness) to free agency, New Orleans has improved slightly through various means. They made a shrewd Rule 5 pickup with former first rounder Bret Holzemer, signed big-time free agent Clayton Kennedy, and promoted a couple of talented role players in utilitymen Rogers Simpson and Bo Bailey. Their biggest coup, however, was capitalizing on Mark Matsumoto's surprising season and turning him into Hugh Hudson, an immediate upgrade at closer for the Busters. Management in New Orleans seems to have a clear idea of what it wants, and they are taking appropriate means to get it. This does not bode well for the other teams in the division, or in the league for that matter, as New Orleans is poised to cross the 100-win mark for the first time in franchise history. Getting to beat up on the Nala Bears and Illegals will only bolster their win totals, and this team should have very minimal trouble finding themselves in the playoffs once again.
Nashville Nala Bears
The day will come when Nashville, heretofore referred to as the laughingstock of the league, will be the most dominant team in baseball. With all their high draft picks and shrewd moves, they will easily become one of the deadliest teams in the league. Unfortunately, that day will probably not be today, although the team has made massive strides to bring itself to relevance. Big time prospects Brian Tomlin, Arthur Roosevelt, and Tommy Parker are ready for primetime and will start the season with the big club. Puzzling free agent signing Warren Hargrave has been dealt for superstar pitching prospect Jeremi Rice, a smart move for the future. Not much has been done externally to improve the team's chances this year, but the entire club is young and the development of core players alone from last season to this one will almost guarantee an increase in the Nalas' win totals. There's almost no way they lose 100 yet again this season, but 90 isn't out of the question until the reinforcements start to arrive over the next few seasons and push Nashville to the correct side of .500. They may surprise this year, but I would call a .500 record this season a supremely lofty goal.
El Paso Illegals
If I had to predict the team that would finish this season with the worst record, last year's 52-110 El Paso Illegals (formerly the Texas Express) would be the most likely guess. As bad as the team was last year, several players with glimpses of talent like Fernando Renteria are gone, and practically all the team's moves this year have been to allow players to leave or retire. Virtually the only positive move made this winter was the signing of journeyman Derrin McMillan (who's back in the majors for the first time in 3 years, although he did hit a combined 114 home runs in the past 2 AAA seasons). There's not much to say about this franchise other than that it's heading in the wrong direction. After an astonishing 31-win drop from season 8 to 9, El Paso enters the season after having had the 6th-lowest team OPS in the majors (.744) and by far the worst team ERA (6.80!) last year, and although Christopher Cora should bounce back from a disastrous season 9 campaign, there is frankly little significant help on the horizon on either the pitching or hitting side. This team will have to be rebuilt from the ground up for sure.