Fargo Wood Chippers
Fargo runs like a well-oiled machine. They are the only franchise to win their division in every year of the league's existence, and they have failed to win fewer than 100 games only 3 times (and fewer than 98 games only once). As such, it's no surprise that year in and year out, they make shrewd moves throughout the offseason to keep their team at the top. Their GM has publicly stated this year that "they had better win the series this year because I don't like playing golf with domi. He plays by 'Winter rules.'" Ouch. Fortunately for the Chips, their World Series aspirations are not without merit. They saw no major free agency departures this year, though they did deal Desi Fernandez and John Li to Toledo for superstar catching prospect Pablo Maduro (just another example of this Hall Of Fame ownership team striking while the iron is hot). But other than that, last year's 101-61 team is coming back to the party, with many of their young players like Tony Guerrero, Al Nen, Karim Ontiveros, and Roland Sweeney getting a year older (and a year scarier). Other franchises must envy the nonstop train of success that runs through Fargo, but with such an eye for talent, it's hard to see this unstoppable locomotive ever slowing down.
Helena Ass Clowns
What has happened to Helena? Last season, the team went 86-76, missing their annual wild card berth for the first time in 5 years. They know they can't compete with Fargo, but is that any reason to throw in the towel? Apparantly it is, because the Ass Clowns have done little to improve themselves this year, and in fact look poised to either stagnate or backslide. The team allowed former Cy Young winner Carlos Soto and former All-Star Russell Wheeler, two of their best three starting pitchers from last year, to walk, and they've made no attempt to replace them. Hunter Powell and Ruben Mesa have also been let go, but they weren't much to write home about to begin with. Aging reliever Frankie Herman was their only indulgence this offseason. It's not even as if they can use the excuse that last year was a fluke; Buck Leonard hit 43 homers with a .382 OBP, while Willis Walter matched a career high with an .850 OPS; on the pitching side, Wayne Perez had a career year with a 3.14 ERA. It's puzzling to figure out exactly what Helena's game plan is for this season, but if it's to win the division or even contend for a wild card spot, the Ass Clowns will be sorely surprised this year.
After eight seasons of losing in Pittsburgh, the Clementes picked up their bags, changed their name to the Royals, and shipped off to Rochester in search of the franchise's first-ever playoff appearance. Unfortunately, they must have forgotten to load several of their good players into the U-Haul van, because the likes of Bob Wood and Einar Tatis seem to be history in Rochester. 2-time Cy Young winner Andre Plesac is also gone and likely headed for retirement if he doesn't get a contract this Spring. Granted, these men were all getting old, but they may have been the best hope this team had for improving upon its 97-loss performance last year. The "youth movement" angle also doesn't work when you consider that their two free agent pickups, Aurelio Rodriguez and Brandon Jacobs, are 31 and 34, respectively. Rodriguez may still have some gas left in the tank, but Jacobs is nearly finished as a hitter and should certainly never suit up as a shortstop again (he seems to be more of a right fielder type now). Otto Plesac was also selected in the Rule 5 draft, but let's face it: Rochester hasn't added any difference makers this year, and at that point, bringing in middling free agents and rule 5 picks is like re-arranging deck chairs on the Titanic. Until Rochester finds a player or two to build around, both on offense and in the rotation, they will never end Fargo's reign in the division.
It's actually a bit surprising that this team fared as poorly as they did last year. Sure, a team OPS of .733 and a team ERA of 4.77 aren't great any any measure, but they don't seem "100 losses" bad. Nevertheless, this franchise finished 62-100 in season 10, and turnover was expected by the fanbase when the franchise was bought by new ownership and moved to beautiful Trenton, NJ. Naturally, the franchise hasn't made one impactful free agent signing this offseason. Veterans Gordon Graves, Toby Thompson, Samuel Hughes, Alejandro Sierra, and Hod Adams are yesterday's news in Trenton, and every last one of their seven free agent signings were 24-year old rookies. Power hitter Desi Molina is comparatively the most talented of the bunch, but Jim Magee, Jalal Mayne, Alvin Mahler, Kurt Aldridge, Rabbit Cox, and Walt Walters would all get cut from the Bad News Bears. Hopefully Chico's Bail Bonds agrees to sponsor Trenton's minor league system, because that's where these guys belong (as filler). The recently promoted Vince Brock may give them a small measure of help offensively, but overall, it'll be news when this team strings 2 wins together this season.
Interchange numbers 3 and 4 however you wish. Other than that, I'm about as sure of Fargo's 11th-straight 1st place finish as I am about taxes being due in April. Don't be shocked to see the Chips win this one by at least 25 games. And by the looks of things, it'll be a while before they're even really challenged in this division.