Tampa Bay Thunder
Tampa Bay had every right to come into this season confident in their chances at a successful title defense; in taking down juggernauts Syracuse and Fargo last October en route to the franchise's 2nd World Championship, the Thunder showed that even with only 89 regular-season wins, they were a durable and well-built team. A such, Tampa Bay's moves this offseason weren't so much sweeping changes as they were minor tweaks and adjustments to an already meticulously-assembled franchise. Longtime reliever Trey Borland, easily the franchise's career saves leader with 187, was allowed to ride off into the sunset after several disappointing seasons, and former All-Star Rafael Cervantes was dealt to Austin. The team also declined the option of Jayson Crawford, but other than those losses, Tampa Bay has kept last year's core intact, with a few additions. Einar Gil, a touted Dominican prospect, will make his rookie debut this year after being acquired in a trade, and outstanding Kabul native Efrain Matsumoto will play his first full ML season as well. C.J. Tucker has a bit of power and may be used in a utility role. As per usual, Tampa Bay doesn't look like a 100-win team-- their team ERA of 4.63 was about league-average last year and their .798 OPS was solid if not quite elite-- but they have very few glaring weaknesses and might go deep into the playoffs again this year... if they win the division, of course.
Nashville Nala Bears
For perhaps the first time in franchise history, Nala Bear fans have something to be excited about. With zero playoff appearances under their belt and zero seasons of at least 85 wins, it's no surprise that Nashville has had a hard time drumming up fan interest in recent years. But that is very likely to change this year, as the team is coming off a well-earned 82-80 season (their first above .500 in 10 years) and what would have been an opportunity to claim the AL South crown had it not been for a devestating late-season collapse. Nashville is nothing if not young, and the players to watch this season are all in their 20's. Perennial MVP candidate Ben Morton and Season 11 sensations Tino House and Wilfredo Aquino will continue to lead the offense, but they'll have a full season of help from Gustavo Medrano, who showed much promise in 360 at-bats last year. The cornerstone of this team is starting pitching, with Max Mateo, Andres Park, and Bruce Fuller looking to improve upon their Season 11 numbers, but the real story this year might be Dan Siebert, a former #1 overall pick whose studly minor league numbers may force a midseason callup this year. The team didn't make any major offseason moves, but with a franchise built on youth development, free agents may not be necessary at this time. Nashville has all the talent in the world, but this season will tell whether their players are ready for primetime.
New Orleans Nighthawks
After two straight seasons of missing the playoffs, including a woeful 75-87 season last year (a franchise worst), New Orleans ownership went out and got themselves a shiny new GM and a shiny new name on the uniforms in an attempt to turn the corner and get this team back to the playoffs. With the new GM's trade of future Hall of Famer Steve Minor to Colorado Springs, the name of the game seems to be "re-tooling." The winter saw a slew of other names take their last walk down Bourbon Street as well, including Ronnie Payton (an All-Star coming off one of the greatest defensive years for a 2B in history), former All-Star Bobby Perez, former Gold Glover Bo Bailey, and a bunch of other guys who weren't too helpful to New Orleans last year (including Clyde Burns, Hunter Powell, Clay Henderson, Carmen Franco, and Max Padilla). Sergio Hull and Donaldo Torrealba were released outright, and then the signings began. Alex Escuela has had limited ML experience, but is a good defensive catcher with a bit of a bat. Bob Stewart won two World Series rings with Fargo and could come back to prominence in New Orleans. Frankie Herman and Vince Baker are both way over the hill but might have something to offer for the bullpen. Hunter Healy and Barry Gibson may be looked upon to fill SP roles this year, and Rob Michaels brings a decent bat, a World Series ring, and a Gold Glove to the mix. John Wolf, acquired in the Minor deal, looks to really break out this year. Overall, it may be hard to judge the Nighthawks because the team has undergone such a radical change, but the problem of age has been dealt with and the new management has made some relatively shrewd moves to improve upon last year's disaster. Losing Minor will be a big problem for the Nighthawks, but they shouldn't be totally counted out just yet and could improve upon last year's win total with luck.
For years, fans of this franchise prayed to be able to escape the yearly mediocrity that befell them, constantly finishing around .500 and not making any noise in their sole playoff appearance. Well, they got their wish, as for the past three years, this franchise has gone from mediocre to frighteningly awful, with three straight seasons of more than 100 losses. Unfortunately, fans might have to pray extra hard to escape the mire that will be Season 12, as the team has done precious little to improve the franchise's short-term chances. Karim Franco, one of the team's only exciting players from last year, is gone, as is two-time Gold Glove 1B Reggie Bowman. Miguel Pena was claimed off waivers as a stopgap, but the only really interesting move made by the Tumbleweeds this winter was a deal for Rafael Cervantes, whose two World Series rings and loads of talent will be wasted on this team. Perhaps management is counting on their prospects to help them in the future, and to be fair, they do have a few intriguing names down on the farm. But if Austin doesn't get their act together soon, they may soon have some true Tumbleweed mascots at Dell Diamond, because the fans won't be there forever if the franchise keeps losing.
2. Tampa Bay
3. New Orleans
The only certainty here is Austin finishing in the cellar, and probably eclipsing 100 losses for the fourth year in a row. New Orleans projects to finish third, but it's hard to see how the new team chemistry will serve them this year, and they may surprise some people; I do stand firm with my prediction for them, though, as they still seem very far behind Nashville and Tampa Bay, both of whom look like good bets to win between 90 and 100 games this year. For now, I will tip my hat to Nashville, a team that had some bad luck last year and that is continuously adding young talent to the roster from their plentiful minor league system. Tampa Bay is a good team, but in taking a nonchalant approach to their offseason they risked leaving open a few vulnerable aspects to their game, especially pitching. Of the AL East, AL South, and AL West, this division seems to be far and away the most likely bet to achieve a Wild Card berth, though beating out the AL North teams is still going to be a tall order.