Tampa Bay Thunder
Tampa Bay managed to take this division last season with 90 wins, despite stiff competition by an 89-win New Orleans team that was in it until the end. But with 3 straight World Series appearances from seasons 7 through 9, with a win in season 8, it's hard to question the Tampa Bay gameplan, and the Thunder seem to be betting that last year's squad simply underachieved. There have been a few departures: decent players Daniel Porter, Felipe Romero, and Stewart Bryant all departed for free agency, and disastrous pitchers Wilson Thornton and Jimmie Otanez were released. But the Thunder have made a few additions as well, dealing prized prospect Danny Koch for lefty slayer Tom Gonzales and snagging mopup man Paul Glanville in the Rule 5 draft. All told, though, the core of last year's team is still here, and that's what's important; Will McCarthy, Hank Nelson, and Ben Hogg are just a few of the players Tampa is banking on to return to form this year, and if they play to their potential, there's no telling how successful the Thunder could be this year. At the moment, however, Tampa Bay's main focus needs to be winning the division over the Bead Busters (and potentially a breakout Nala Bears team), and one questions whether they've taken appropriate steps to ensure that outcome this season.
New Orleans Bead Busters
New Orleans went 89-73 games last season and missed the wild card by 10 games. They're not stupid; they know that the AL North will more than likely produce both wild card teams again this season, and New Orleans' goal needs to be to overtake Tampa Bay for the division crown. There has been a good deal of turnover this offseason in the Bead Busters' quest to make that happen, most notably the departure of aging former superstar Clayton Kennedy, who has yet to find a home. Hugh Hudson, Turner Spiers, John Huang, Tanner McKinley, and Rich Benoit are among the other faces that won't be seen around New Orleans this year, and many of those departures may constitute addition by subtraction. In terms of addition by addition, the Bead Busters' biggest improvements this year came with their new position players. Justin Johnson, acquired via trade, has the potential to be a difference maker on defense while still providing quality offense. And 6-time All-Star Einar Tatis, signed for a mere $8.4 million over two years, brings an .889 career OPS into the heart of the New Orleans lineup. Bounceback candidate Luis Seguignol was also a shrewd pickup, though the acquisitions of pitchers Carmen Franco and Rico Lee were patchwork moves that show this team still has holes to fill. It does seem to have been a positive offseason for this squad, and it might just be enough to overtake Tampa Bay, but if the Thunder's core players come roaring back this year, New Orleans may regret not investing in more of an eventful offseason. A big comeback year from $19.9 million man Steve Minor, who managed only 21 homers and 15 doubles last year, would also go a very long way toward a division crown.
Nashville Nala Bears
The Nala Bears' local ad slogan says it all: "The Time Is Now." Management truly believes that Nashville will shine this year, and with the team having increased its win totals over the past 3 years, they are certainly moving rapidly in the right direction. This team is a far cry from the ones that lost a combined 335 games from seasons 7 through 9, and they continued to shed reminders of their losing past with the departures of Doug Hall and Ken Abbott this winter. The brightest spots from last year, i.e. the youth, are all returning, and they look to show off their true abilities this year. Ben Morton, in particular, is ready to turn the corner and show that he can carry a franchise with his bat, and Tino House and Wilfredo Aquino will both look to establish themselves with their first full-season campaigns this year. The Nalas made only 3 notable new acquisitions: Rob Michaels (a Gold Glove fielder with a decent bat), Kevin Richardson (a fixer upper in the back of the rotation or long relief) and Junior Lee (a waiver wire pickup likely brought on for his defense). Pitching will be the weakness of this club; Andres Park (he's 28 already?) will be the anchor of the staff, coming off a 4.42 ERA last season, and they will look for rookie Bruce Fuller to contribute, but talent is a bit thin. While reinforcements are coming (and plentiful), the staff will be lacking this season, and that may torpedo the Nalas' playoff hopes before they ever get off the ground. This is undoubtedly a team headed in the right direction, and there is a possibility that they will shock everyone this year with a playoff run, but a run at .500 is more likely. Maybe the time isn't right now, but it's coming... and soon.
El Paso Illegals
There's not much to say about El Paso because, quite frankly, they haven't done much to better their situation this year. They let professional gopherballers Napoleon Kinkade, Benny Velazquez, and Pedro Batista all walk, but they went out and replaced them with the likes of Jaime Paronto (5.91 minor league ERA) and Catfish Rhodes. They signed minor leaguer Bing Maduro, though if he's getting paid more than the mascot, they got ripped off (and I doubt the mascot is making more than $6,000,000 this year). They also overpaid for throwaway Kane Dolan ($5.5 mil this year). I'm surprised the team bothered to show up to spring training following this display of apathy. At least El Paso fans will get to look forward to the draft.
1. New Orleans
2. Tampa Bay
4. El Paso
I have a hunch that New Orleans will win the division by a slight margin, just like Tampa did last year. An injury here, a lucky break there, and it could all change, but I don't think either team wins this division by more than 5 games. Nashville believes they have what it takes to compete this year, but with the wild card seeming like a real longshot, they'll have to leapfrog two established teams this season for the division title if they want to get a playoff berth, and it seems unlikely they'll add the 20-or-so wins it will require to make that happen. Fortunately, they'll still finish at least 25 or 30 games ahead of El Paso, who can start booking October vacations right now.