Fargo Wood Chippers
Hope springs eternal in Fargo, and why wouldn't it? Their fearless leader wasn't inducted into the Owner Hall of Fame for nothing, and indeed this offseason was a prime example of what you should do if you have a very strong team: very little. Robin Sanders is gone, but Fargo knew very early on that he wasn't coming back. Eric Presley got dealt, but he was a weak hitter anyway. The Chippers did deal young reliever Omar Sanchez, a former 2nd round pick, but with his career ML ERA of 6.39, I think we can all but declare him a bust. Other than that, Fargo's management seemed to take an extended vacation this winter. They promoted two decent young relievers in Miguel Gabriel and Grant Young, and they got touted shortstop prospect John Li in the Rule 5 draft, so in effect the team has in fact marginally improved-- but this is largely the same Wood Chippers team we saw last year, and seeing as how the franchise has won at least 93 games and won the division every year of its existence, resting on their laurels and cruising to another division title doesn't seem like a half bad idea. At 7-2 thus far, look for another 100-win season for the Chips.
Helena Ass Clowns
Helena had an easy road to the playoffs last year, finishing 5 games ahead of Kansas City to nab the 2nd Wild Card spot even while playing in a division that included the stellar Wood Chippers and the alright Clementes. That road may not go through Helena this year, and if it does, it may be a bit bumpier. The Clowns lost several major pieces this offseason, including 3-time All-Star catcher Antonio Zhang, 3-time All-Star CF Luis Valdes, and Albie Johnson, an excellent closer with a 2.89 career ERA. They attempted to replace the talent with inferior relievers Howard Fischer and Ruben Mesa and career underperformer Willis Walter, but their free agent acquisitions will fall short of the expectations set for them. The Ass Clowns are still a very effective team and are still capable of soaring to another playoff appearance this year, but they cannot continue shedding talent and expect to consistently win.
The Pittsburgh Clementes have often been the "sexy pick" of preseason pundits, only to fall short of expectations and miss the playoffs year after year. They have certainly set out to change that this offseason with a major overhaul of personnel. Harry Cedeno, Otis Hyers, and Samuel Calderon are just a few of the big names that are no longer present on the Clementes roster, and in their places sit guys like 2-time Cy Young winner Andre Plesac and 4-time All-Star Bob Wood. These would seem like dream pickups 5 years ago, but both of these players are aging rapidly and are clearly not the same players that once dazzled fans with their abilities. Still, they do potentially bring somethin to the table, expecially if they can recapture some of their old glory. Meanwhile, the highly decorated Einar Tatis, who is still in his prime, should provide a big improvement. Chris Thompson isn't the greatest pickup, but he will provide marginal depth at the back end of the rotation. It's difficult to predict whether the Clementes will climb out of the hole this year, and their early 3-6 record indicates that improvements still need to be made, but at least their fans can sleep soundly knowing that management is making an effort to reverse their fortunes.
Sioux Falls Canaries
If Canaries management has any sense of reality, they'll be the first to tell you that Sioux Falls is not winning the division this year. But that doesn't mean they can't try to make improvements, and the Canaries' offseason moves are proof positive that the club is heading in the right direction. The franchise cut ties with Danny Busby (who seems like he's been in decline forever), injury-riddled reliever Charlie Holdridge, and the aging Esteban Uribe. In their places are 2-time All-Star Alejandro Sierra, solid CF Toby Thompson, and shortstop Kirk Kirby. Alright, so they're not exactly building for the future, but if this team can go from 60 wins to, say, 75 wins, that would be a huge improvement and a great relief for the fans. Perhaps the team's greatest offseason victory was grabbing 22-year old Max Guillen, who has changed cities more times in the past 2 years than I can count, in the Rule 5 draft. Some thought he wasn't ready for the majors, including myself, but he hasn't let up a run thus far in the majors so a reservation of judgement may be warranted. Sioux Falls has the right idea, and as long as they draft and trade wisely, they could steadily climb their way up to .500 and beyond.