It's that time of year again! The winter meetings are finished, all players have reported, and spring training is well underway. Before the season gets started, we here at the official Pine Tar League blog will give you a complete rundown of all 32 teams, and, unlike last year, I'll be tossing some predictions into the mix as well.
The AL North seems as good a place as any to start-- after obliterating the MLB record for most single-season wins by a division, this division somehow seems like it will be even better this season. Let's take a look at all four teams in the North:
Ottawa led the majors with an astounding 113 wins last year and capped off their incredible season with the franchise's first World Series victory. They could have simply kept their team intact and produced similar results this year... but naturally, they had to keep their division rivals on their toes (after all, the last-place team was a 95-game winner) so they decided to step up their game even more this offseason. Starting pitcher Don Corey is unquestionably the Otters' biggest loss, but the Otters quickly filled that hole by dealing for bona fide stud Felix Wilson. They did give up reliever Chick Linden, but to make matters worse for the Otters' opponents, Ottawa also dealt for Richard Tanaka to anchor an already excellent rotation. They even replaced Linden with free agent signing James Gibbs. The Otters had a few other losses-- most notably Jesus Roque, who was released when Ottawa decided not to offer arbitration-- but the addition of these pitchers while maintaining their brutal offensive core makes Ottawa again the favorites to win the World Series this year and, dare I say, top their win total from last season barring injury.
Simply put, the PeaceFrog were devestated this winter by the departure of future Hall of Famer Jonathan Grebeck. Though he just had his 36th birthday, Grebeck went 15-6 with a 3.04 ERA last season, clearly showing he's got plenty left in the tank. Surprisingly, Minnesota has done little to replace their departed ace, singing the equally aging (but more rapidly declining) Phil Shaw, whose 4.06 ERA over the past three years pales in comparison to Grebeck's 2.87 ERA over the same span. Other than those developments, however, all has been relatively quiet out of Minnesota this winter. The PeaceFrog lost CF Rob Buckley, but gained a very similar player in Victor Ramsay to replace him (though Ramsay is the markedly better fielder). They also released servicable reliever Antonio Reid, now a member of the Red Tide. Time will tell if Minnesota's strategy works-- they did win 100 games last year, so even with the loss of one of baseball's best pitchers, it's hard to imagine them taking a large backslide-- but there is little question that unless Minnesota finds some more help, either externally or internally, they might be in danger of falling behind in this crowded division.
Syracuse Snow Pirates
Syracuse finished 4th in the majors in team ERA and 1st in opponents' batting average last year, and that was without mega-fielding SS Aramis Aybar for the first few weeks. The Snow Pirates' OPS was a respectable .786, but at only 7th in the majors, this, not pitching, was clearly the area Syracuse felt needed improvement. Enter Rob Lee, arguably the best hitter in the majors and, with a contact totalling nearly $110 million, decisively the biggest free agent signing this season. Lee brings his lifetime .993 OPS into a Snow Pirates lineup that sometimes had trouble scoring runs last year and gives them a desperately-needed jolt against right-handed pitchers. He is a huge upgrade over Daryle Moran who, despite OPSing .810 last year, was shipped to Oakland with longtime Snow Pirate Chris Damon for John Wolf, a hitter who Syracuse is banking will give them a bit more stability in the middle of the order. A few other pieces have been cast off too, like Marino Fuentes (who has yet to find a home) and Charley Shelley (who was quickly given a large payday by Atlanta), but Fuentes was a disaster last year and Shelley's role will be made obsolete when young fielding phenom Yorvit Ortiz makes his way onto the roster sometime early this season. It seems clear that Syracuse is in win-now mode, and with the moves they've been making and with stud Cyrus Torres returning to the fold after missing much of the season with an elbow injury, winning is something Syracuse may just have to get used to this year.
Milwaukee Cream Citys
Much of Milwaukee's fortunes this year may rely on the play of right fielder Frank Martin, who sat out nearly all of season 10 with a devestating neck injury. Martin is back now, and his first two spring training games seem to hold promise, but some are questioning whether Martin will return to old form this year, and more importantly, whether he can manage to stay healthy the entire season. To be fair, none of that really mattered last year, when the Cream Citys managed to win 95 games even without the services of Martin. Great pitching years by the likes of Walt Stark and Zephyr Wasdin, coupled with a well-rounded offensive attack, kept Milwaukee's playoff hopes alive for most of the year, but Milwaukee isn't taking any chances this year. They've gone out and made a flurry of free agent signings, including innings-eater Placido Fernandez and infielder David Bako (who replaces the departed Footsie Gray) and the re-signings of Archie Metzger and minor leaguers Al Aguilera and Lewis Cloud. The offseason did not, however, come without its share of losses-- reliever Richard Moreno, SP Patsy Cummings, and 1B/DH Ichiro Kondou are all gone, leaving possible holes for Milwaukee this year. But of course, it all comes back to Martin-- if the 4-time MVP can play well enough to add another trophy to his mantle, he just may give the Cream Citys a chance to earn him a ring as well. If not, this has the potential to be another bittersweet season for Milwaukee.
Ottawa is scary good this year and doesn't seem like they're planning to slow down. Syracuse addressed one of their few issues from last year and, with a few stud prospects ready to come up soon, only look to improve. Minnesota lost a big piece which may allow Syracuse to leapfrog them, but they should still be strong enough to easily contend for the 2nd wild card spot. Milwaukee figures to be the odd team out again, as I believe Frank Martin's best days are behind him. But then again, in this division, you just never know...