Another year, another season of Pine Tar baseball! Last season proved to be a whirlwind, with Tampa Bay taking home their 2nd World Series trophy by beating the heavily favored Fargo Wood Chippers in 6 games. This season is shaping up to be even more fierce and exciting, and as always, your favorite (and only) official league blog has preveiws for all 32 major league teams. Read on as we take a look at our first division, the AL North, which handily broke its own record for most wins by a single division last year, with the Syracuse Snow Pirates taking the division crown with a major league-record 121 wins.
Syracuse Snow Pirates
All has been mysteriously quiet out of Syracuse this winter. It does get mighty cold up there, but management has braved the snowstorms to acquire marquee players each of the past 2 years (namely Warren Hargrave in season 9 and Rob Lee in season 10). This year, however, the franchise has decided to hold off on making any major acquisitions, deciding to keep payroll lower this year and instead pour more money into their prospect signing efforts to ensure a bright future. The Snow Pirates weren't totally quiet, of course, dealing a member of last year's vaunted rotation, Jeffrey Rivera, to Jacksonville for Karl Shumaker, who is expected to replace the departed Vic Servet in center field. There has been a bit of an "out with the old" vibe this offseason, with the team seeing franchise mainstay Servet and veterans Alex Garrido, Willie Ayala, Don Wang, and Vince Baker all exiting Syracuse, but the team has made efforts to replace them by claiming Otis Hyers off waivers and announcing that stud prospects Omar Gabriel and Jose Moreno will likely find their way to the majors this year. The team has a bit of a new look, but the core of a roster that recorded an AL-record 3.22 team ERA last year (1st in the majors), an .831 OPS (3rd in the majors), and a .989 fielding percentage (2nd in the majors) is still around, making this look like another year of legitimate title hopes for the Snow Pirates.
Otter management made it clear last year that anything other than 1st place would be considered a disappointment to their fans. Despite recording 104 wins, the 4th-highest total in the majors, Ottawa managed to disappoint, losing the North by a whopping 17 games (not much to be ashamed of with such a dominant Syracuse team in the division). Perhaps content to rest on their laurels, the Otters haven't made their usual effort to gain leverage in the arms (and bats) race that is ever-escalating in the AL North. Ottawa saw some tough losses, including MVP candidate Omar Siqueiros, durable #5 starter Jake Canseco, Stevie Forbes, and Esteban Dotel. No major free agency moves were made (other than the re-signing of their own players) but the Otters attempted to bolster their bullpen by dealing Juan Torres for Alex Ordonez and Clarence Cain, and they made an effort to fill their gap at SS by trading Vic Guzman to division rival Minnesota for Ossie Gibson. This year may be a true test of Otter management, as they try to prove that they can make winning moves and not merely rely on the players acquired by the last regime. After breaking out with 113 wins two years ago after taking over the franchise, ownership saw their victory total dip to 104 last year, and another decline may make fans worry that the current GM is merely weakening the team he inherited. In an AL North where any team can emerge at the top of the division, the Otters should be feeling the pressure of the fanbase this summer if they don't deliver.
Milwaukee Cream Citys
Milwaukee found themselves in the playoffs for the first time in 3 years last season, with the franchise's first-ever campaign of 100+ wins. They may have trouble reaching that plateau again after losing several of their key pieces this offseason to free agency. 4-time MVP Frank Martin, despite his season 10 neck injury and subsequent decline, is undoubtedly the Cream Citys' biggest loss after posting a .985 OPS last year. Julian Martinez's power will also likely be missed, but the departures of pitchers Zephyr Wasdin and Tim Juden will likely be even more of a hindrance if the team can't find suitable replacements within the organization. Milwaukee did find some hitting help in free agency, signing Jorge Rincon and slugger Kenny Beard, so offensively the team should be at least similar to what we saw last year. Rule 5 pick Miguel Quixote should also help out defensively in a big way. But it will be the pitching that should be the most interesting twist in the equation. The top 3 of AL Rookie of the Year Malik DeJean, Placido Fernandez, and Walt Stark seems all but assured, but DeJean and Fernandez may have pitched over their heads last year and Stark isn't getting any younger. The most worrisome positions are #4 and #5, which don't seem to exist on the Cream Citys' current roster. They have a few guys in AAA like prospects Orlando Gutierrez and Collin Hardtke, as well as journeymen William Hiro and Julian Hernandez, who could compete for those spots, but Milwaukee would surely feel safer if they had two more reliable options on the roster. The fate of the bottom of their rotation could be the difference between the Cream Citys being a playoff team or an also-ran this year.
Last year was a disappointment for Minnesota, plain and simple. The franchise's 86-76 record, while sturdy, was tied for the lowest in franchise history, and the team missed the playoffs for just the second time ever, finishing dead last in the AL North for the first time. It wasn't particularly close, either, with the team finishing 35 games behind the Snow Pirates and 17 games back of the Otters and Cream Citys. The PeaceFrog looked woefully outmanned last year in a deep AL North, and much of it had to do with pitching-- the PeaceFrog's 4.88 team ERA placed them below the curve in the majors, and not even their team OPS of .823 (4th in the majors) could save them. It's a surprise, then, that Minnesota seems to have done so little to improve their pitching. They did dump some underperformers in Wesley Quinn and Willie Webber, but they didn't sign anybody to replace them. Some of their problems stemmed from Blake Robinson missing the year after undergoing elbow surgery, but he can't be trusted to put up his past numbers after sustaining that type of injury. An overall lack of stamina and ability will hurt the PeaceFrog, as they didn't have anyone pitch at least 200 innings last season and only had one pitcher on the whole roster (the aging Phil Shaw) manage an ERA under 4. They may be hoping their offense will save them, but they allowed Gary Dolan and his .505 slugging percentage to walk, and their big acquisition this year was Vic Guzman, a capable player who nonetheless has only 119 ML at-bats to his name and cost them CF/SS Ossie Gibson. Overall, unless Minnesota's pitching becomes a revelation and their hitting manages to outdo their Season 11 numbers, the PeaceFrog will again be looking up at the rest of the division this season.
As the great Clubber Lang once said, "My prediction? Pain!" The AL North looks to be tough once again this year, though curiously, it wouldn't be surprising to see each team lower their win totals from last year. Syracuse seems like the only lock to reach 100 wins (as long as everybody stays healthy), especially as they return the top 3 AL Cy Young finishers, the AL MVP, and the AL Gold Glove winners at SS and 2B. Minnesota seems virtually destined to finish 4th this year after a disappointing offseason. The more interesting fight will be between the #2 and #3 teams, especially if there's a legitimate Wild Card challenger from another division (thus making it even more vital not to fall behind). I give the edge to Milwaukee because their biggest question mark, the bottom of their rotation, has a good chance to be ably filled by their minor league talent. Ottawa's problems cut a bit deeper, and they haven't done enough this year to make up for their relative shortcomings. Anything can happen in this division, but unless the Otters have several surprises or Milwaukee really drops the ball with their pitching, I am fairly confident in this prediction.