Jacksonville won the East in style last year, going 102-60 and nearly breaking the franchise's all-time wins mark of 104. After making it all the way to the World Series (only to lose to juggernaut and favorite Ottawa), the Juice GM said this offseason, "Because we came so close to the title last year, we felt like we would bring the same group back for another run at it. But we also felt the one glaring need we had was in our starting rotation. This was never more apparent then in the World Series, when our top starters were severely gassed." As such, Jacksonville went out and nabbed two excellent starting pitchers in Russell Wheeler and Carlos Soto out of free agency this winter, making the Juice even more dominant than before. Those pitchers replace the vastly inferior Wesley Quinn and Placido Fernandez, both of whom left for free agency this offseason. 1B T.J. Harding is also gone, but he constitutes a relatively minor loss. On the whole, this Jacksonville team has been fine-tuned and improved in all the right areas to be considered a serious contender for a World Series run this year and a formidable foil for all opponents in the NL.
Kansas City Kardinals
When Kansas City dumped pitcher Phil Shaw this offseason, they had some wondering whether the Kardinals now lacked the chops to get back into the playoffs after a big 91-71 season last year. Those fears were quickly put to rest when they gave a 5-year, $100 million contract to 26-year old Alex Guerrero this winter, a surefire Cy Young Candidate who brings 2 Gold Gloves to Kansas City as well. There are some concerns about his health (he tore his labrum twice in the minors), but as long as he doesn't get injured, Kansas City has quietly got one of the most well-put together teams in the league. They have a few nice standbys in the batting order (Ichiro Pong, Kirby Page, Rafael Encarnacion) along with some solid starting pitchers (Robinson Maddux, Darron Herndon, Gregg Thomas) that give them a chance to win every night. And with the most durable starting lineup in the majors, they'll get more starts out of their best players than any other team in the league. That will go far for them down the stretch and around playoff time, and the Kardinals could be a big surprise this year.
New York Moneymaker
After an 88-win Season 10, New York has been busy this offseason... but it's mostly with contract extensions and arbitration hearings. Veteran Trent Sisler was a key loss for them, but at age 38, he wouldn't have much to keep, either. They replaced him with 36-year old free agent John Becker, whose upside is similar to Sisler's this year. Bruce Jodie and Milt Matthews were both scrap heap pickups this year, but other than that, New York has been sitting pretty. And after 2 straight playoff appearances, it might not be such a bad plan. New York management feels the pieces are in place to make the playoffs yet again this year, and it's hard to disagree with them. Sluggers Jorge Johnson, Lonny Infante (who just got a brand new deal), and Vicente Gonzalez only look to improve this year, and the Moneymaker were already 2nd in the NL last year with a .791 OPS. Their 4.47 ERA should have prompted them to pick up some more pitching, but that will be the make-or-break aspect of their season this year; if starters like Rob Murray and Ronald Leon can deliver this year, New York might just find themselves in 100-win territory. But with opponents OPSing .746 against New York pitchers last season, one has to wonder whether their pitchers can even reproduce last year's mediocrity this season.
After having losing seasons 4 out of the last 5 years, Cincinnati has decided that it's time to rebuild. Their biggest moves were losing Harry Lofton, Doc Daniels, and Jo-jo Loiselle, and their only major league trade was dealing for defensive catcher Jimmie Washington (which cost them the offensively superior Yuniesky Mercedes). Cincinnati looks like they will decline a bit this season as they try to rebuild for the future, though good pitchers like Pedro Baez and Felipe Lira may keep them afloat this season. But the fact that their leading home run hitter last year had 16 should tell you that Cincinnati won't be a serious threat this year.
2. Kansas City
3. New York
Jacksonville's offseason acquisitions are just too good to ignore, even in a fairly crowded division. They take the East again. Kansas City will finish second again this year but should easily take a wild card spot-- although they have some excellent team aspects that warrant great consideration, I just don't think they'll quite overtake Jacksonville this season. I wouldn't put a first-place finish past them, though; it's within reach. New York feels they have the pieces in place to make a real run this year, and while a wild card berth isn't out of the question, they haven't given me much reason to believe this team will be significantly improved from the Season 10 edition. Cincinnati is a non-factor as they haven't made any attempt to get immediately better this offseason.