The Riverdogs have quietly been one of baseball's best teams over the past 5 years; they've only failed to win fewer than 90 games once, made the playoffs 5 years in a row, made the World Series back in season 8, and managed to make it to the NLCS 3 straight times coming into this year. Everyone has come to expect that Charleston will be a competitive team each year, but I believe few realize just how rock-solid the franchise is. Consider their savy offseason moves: they've had six departures this offseason (Kevin Xaio, Casey Nielsen, Walter Miceli, B.C. Nunez, Willie DeLeon, and Denny Wang) but only one of those players (Nunez) was any sort of an asset for them last season. That's efficiency. Now take a look at their only two major league acquisitions this year: Jonathan Grebeck (a pitcher still so freakishly good at age 36 that they're likely reserving his parking spot in Cooperstown as we speak) and Bobby Donahue (a reliever with a 3.32 ERA over the past 3 seasons). So this franchise, which has been built to win for the past 5 seasons and won 101 games last year complete with a trip to the NLCS, has shedded 5 useless players, replaced a decent reliever with an even better one, and added arguably the best pitcher on Earth this offseason. Is there any question whatsoever that this team is a favorite to at least reach their 4th consecutive league championship series? Not in my mind.
The good news last year was that Monterrey finished with their best record in seven seasons. The bad news was that that record was 78-84, good for a .481 winning percentage. Toss in the fact that they're unfortunate enough to share a division with Charleston and it's easy to see why this franchise's fans have some gloomy prospects for this season's playoff chances. But all hope is not lost for the Jacks this year; last season was a major improvement, and it's important to remember that this is a very young team with some very bright prospects in the pipeline. The departures of Bob Howard and Carmen Franco through free agency saw two positively mediocre pitchers walk away from Monterrey, but the Jacks weren't done. Billy Ray Diaz, Cristian Governale, Rich Sheets, and David Bako were among the mediocre players handed their outright release this winter by a franchise desperate to prove it's ready to take the next step in finally becoming a contender. The Jacks' free agent signings, Johan Martin and B.C. Nunez, are a sure step in the right direction, but Monterrey is clearly relying on its young talent to get the job done this year. Dock King, Oscar Osterbrock, Miguel Mesa, and Robert Tannehill are just a few of the players age 24 and under who Monterrey is expecting big things from this season. One wonders if the Jacks have prevented these players from truly reaching their full potential by throwing them to the wolves so quickly, but Monterrey should find out this season whether these young players are the answer or it's time to start the rebuilding process yet again.
We all knew the state of Texas was feeling the heat of the recession, but apparantly, the Beavers aren't immune to economic problems either, as they laid off a grand total of 31 players this offseason, young and old, some of whom were major leaguers. Max Padilla walked away on his own for free agency as well. To fill all those holes, the Beavers made a bottom-scraping free agent signing (Vicente Ayala) and then promoted 6 players to the majors, some of whom actually belong there. Alex Ordonez looks poised to be an outstanding 1-inning closer, even if he's had a rough go of it in the majors in previous tries. Matty Coco and Vic Diaz are both patient righty smashers who will give opposing pitchers absolute fits. And Don Li has a shot to be a good ML starter, even though his minor league handling never allowed him to reach his true potential. They also promoted Tomas Martinez (who has issued 100 or more walks 3 of his last 4 minor league seasons) and Pete Valentin (a below-average fielder who has, I admit, hit well in the minors), but I don't expect either of these players to be huge contributors. Still, no one they promoted is awful, and most of the players they released are, so it's hard for me to believe this team won't improve markedly from last year. Many of their best players (like Jorge Rincon, Peter Mullin, and Lorenzo Guerrero) are 27 or younger, and in fact their current ML roster contains only 3 players older than 28. Given the youth and continued development of this roster, while I don't think Texas quite yet has what it takes to be a playoff contender, I believe they may be the most improved team in the NL when all is said and done.
Iowa City Crystal Innseekers
In their one season in Mexico City during season 9, this franchise surprised most pundits when they finished 2nd in the division with a 73-89 record, improving upon their previous season by 16 wins. However, instead of continuing their upward trend, this team backslid horribly last season, decreasing their win total by 14 and finishing dead last in the NL South for the first time since season 4. Sadly, Iowa City doesn't look like they'll be much of a surprise team this season, though a few positive offseason moves could have given them hope to avoid another 100-loss season. The Innseekers lost Ron Forbes to free agency and will attempt to replace him with Trevor Hitchcock, whose 6-year minor league career has yielded a 5.31 ERA. They also signed Wilson Thornton, owner of a 9.15 career ERA, though his "stuff" shows he can bring that number way down with hard work. It seems Iowa City is biding their time while they wait for recent draftees like Jeff Moore and Bryant Clayton to develop, but until reinforcements arrive, this is still a bottom-dwelling franchise.
4. Iowa City
No surprises here; it looks like everything will be in its place from last season. Charleston comes back stonger than ever, while Monterrey and Texas have made moves designed to improve themselves but not become dominant just yet. Monterrey has an outside shot at a wild card slot, but more likely the only team going to the playoffs from this division (and the only truly playoff-caliber team of the bunch) is Charleston.