Chicago Wind Tunnel
That Chicago (née Philadelphia) won the AL East last season is no great surprise. While I predicted them to come in 2nd last year, I also noted that it was very possible that they would finish 1st, commenting that age was their main problem (a problem that they overcame). What did surprise was how well they did-- an 89-win season isn't spectacular, but it is a far cry better than many people expected from a franchise that only won 72 games in Season 10 and didn't make many offseason moves. So which year was the fluke, last year or the year before? The new Chicago management decided not to find out, opting instead to give the franchise a new look that it so painfully needed and transforming the team this winter. Potential Hall of Famer Rich Meyers is gone and is expected to retire if he doesn't get a new contract this spring. So are Alfredo Casey, Ramon Shigetoshi, and Samuel Dellaero, players who were beginning to serve as little more than wrinkles for an old team. One-time MVP candidate Paul Wang is gone, too, having lost much of the devestating power that once made him so formidable; he was traded for Harry Lunar, a young project who has the potential to be a pretty good starting pitcher. 1B Charlie Thomas was dealt for more pitching help in Alex Meng (who the franchise then oddly left open to the Rule 5 draft, allowing him to be snatched away by Colorado Springs) and the inconsistent Rafael Romero was traded to Jacksonville for youngsters Brian Biddle and Yorvit Diaz. 2-time Silver Slugger CF Julio Tavarez and former All-Star Stevie Forbes constituted the team's major free agency acquisitions, further showing their commitment to youth. It will be interesting to see how well this team performs with so many new faces, but a transition year might be unavoidable here. Two of the team's top four hitters from last season are gone, and the team's pitching has been gutted (and wasn't great to begin with). The new faces will be the key to the team's success, although the relative weakness of the rest of the division won't hurt either.
The lights are on, but no one seems to be home. Check that... the lights aren't even on, and the cobwebs have descended on Durham Bulls Athletic Park, where the only thing active this winter has been the fanbase voicing its displeasure on a daily basis. After winning the team's first-ever division crown in Season 10 with a surprising 89-73 season, the team backslid horribly into a 77-85 campaign last year. Apparantly content with a second-place finish, the Doormats have done virtually nothing to improve the team this year, leaving fans to wonder whether management cares at all. Key players Bob Stewart and Fergie Gray were allowed to walk, and the team has replaced them with... sock puppets? Scare crows? No one really knows, but it certainly isn't free agents. Durham has poured more money into its prospect budget this year, perhaps signalling that the team is more interested in the future than the present, but for a team that won the division only two years ago, the sight of white flags seems like a cruel gesture to the fans. If the Doormats don't make some kind of move to improve their situation in a hurry, they might just finally live up to their team name this season.
Atlanta Red Tide
Young fans barely remember the halcyon days of this franchise, when they would routinely make the playoffs and even managed to bring home two World Series titles. Sadly, those days are in the rear view mirror now, but management in Atlanta is making an effort to restore the franchise to its former glory. Pitching was a major concern last year, so the team sought to bolster their efforts on the rubber. All-Star Jorel Austin was wisely traded at the height of his value for Don Li, who performed poorly last year but has some great tools and is only 23. Austin will be replaced by Rudy Jameson, another live young arm who should develop into an important piece of the puzzle in Atlanta. The young Victor Rijo, acquired in another deal this offseason, will likely crack the rotation and is hoping to help immediately, while Jorge Figureoa will likely be called up to start this season as well. It's also do-or-die time for Chet Spencer, as management has openly said that he must live up to his hype (and his contract) this season if he wants to keep his job in Atlanta. The Red Tide's pitching problems aren't nearly solved, however, so the team decided to focus on improving its offense as well this winter. Charlie Thomas and Kennie Borland are both big upgrades at the plate, and Rey Rossy was also acquired as the team waits for Robin Risley to break into the majors (which should happen sometime this year). The Red Tide are far from a complete team, but they have made moves this offseason designed to at least catapult them into 2nd place. It may be several years before this team makes real waves in the AL, but for now, they are certainly heading in the right direction.
This franchise has been a disaster from day 1. The team has finished under .500 in every year of its existence, ownership has changed more often than Diana Ross' outfits, and the franchise is coming off back-to-back 100-loss seasons. For a history like that, management seems awfully optimistic about this team's future, but maybe they have reason to be. Free agency losses gave the team six picks in the top 100 in last year's draft, and their system is now stocked with talent. Free agency losses this year include Jin Pan and Joshua Meyer-- not exactly crippling for the team. And while they traded away several pieces in Santiago Mercado, Felipe Rosario, Ryan Gonzales, and Connie Stynes, they have acquired loads of new talent. Trades have delivered them Jose Martin and Darin Newfield, both of whom will start this year and both of whom will be immense upgrades for the team. Meanwhile, the team has made a slew of free agent acquisitions, including Geraldo Domingo, Daniel Alexander, Andrew Page, Farmer Davis, and Pedro Balboa, constituting a total overhaul of Toledo's pitching this year and turning last season's weakness into a potential bright spot this year. Rule 5 selection Josias Ontiveros, a former 2nd-round pick, should also help with that mission. The team's few true pitching talents from last year remain, including Orber Torres (currently slotted in as the Opening Day starter) and Jesus Amezaga (an intriguing pitcher who will likely be tried in several roles this year). Management believes the team will be a winner in Season 15, and is looking to build up the franchise's talent base until then. The current veterans are keeping roster spots warm for future stars like Christian Lee, Houston Baptist, and Brian Sveum, and in a few years, this team might really be something to behold. But despite their improvements this season, it may be another long year for Toledo fans.
Chicago wins the division by default, given the amount of games they won it by last year and the fact that the teams below them haven't made sufficient improvements to pass them. Atlanta will pass the stagant Durham, though it may be closer than people think. Toledo has the biggest potential to surprise this year; there is virtually no way they'll win the division, but I wouldn't put it past them to have a surprise year given all the positive moves they've made. For now, though, I will be slotting them in 4th, and I will leave it up to them to surprise me.