Salem Witch Hunters
Salem hasn't been a truly competitive franchise, even in the now-perennially weak AL West, in quite a while. The team is coming off a division crown in Season 11 (their first in 7 years) but with a pathetic 78-84 record that the team (and the entire division) should be ashamed of. Fans of the franchise surely did not want to enter the playoffs for the first time in 7 seasons like that, and Salem management has done all they could to at least help the team finish above .500 this year. House was cleaned, with wastes of roster space like Rudy Grey, Domingo Calvo, William James, and Wayne Tanner all getting the boot. A couple of useful parts, namely Sammy Lee and Andrew Page, were also jettisoned, but their departures made way for a wave of free agent signings. The team's prize acquisition, T.J. Harding, should be immediately inserted around the middle of the order and provide the lineup with a solid anchor. Clay Henderson is usually reliable as a platoon catcher. Shep Rudolph and Jumbo Appier both bring quality relief skills to the table, while Gordon Graves is a work in progress who nonetheless could be useful in long relief or as a mopup man. Wiki James has consistently fared well in the minors and could be an intriguing bat off the bench for the Witch Hunters as well. Salem failed to make a true marquee move this winter (unless you count Harding) but has clearly gotten better, both in the bullpen and at a few key positions, and I have little doubt that they will crack .500 this year. They still have a long way to go if they want to advance deep into the playoffs, but making the postseason is half the battle, and the Witch Hunters have bettered their chances this offseason.
A team that would have finished fourth in the North and South (and would have been one precious game away from doing so in the East), Arizona nevertheless finished second in the hopelessly weak AL West last year with 73 wins, and only 5 games out of first. Not about to take their failings lying down, the BUTCHERS have taken steps this offseason to win now, seeking to leapfrog an also-improved Salem team for the spoils of the division. They did suffer a few key losses in pitchers Bingo Baker, Bob Howard, and Jumbo Appier, but they may have improved upon last year's staff anyway, signing Omar Siqueiros, a much-touted young arm who curiously flamed out after an excellent first full season. If he is able to live up to his potential in Arizona, he will be a steal at only $6 million a year for five years. Arizona will also be harvesting their talented crop of prospects this year, calling up several youngsters for their rookie seasons. No fewer than three former first-rounders (Rex Billingsley, Hal Burns, and Rondell Kirwan) will be starting the year in the big leagues, and all three will be called upon to bring this team above .500. Jesse Guerrero and Tom McMillan are two players who likely won't be competing for Rookie of the Year honors this year, but could contribute positively to the team's efforts. The BUTCHERS' theme this year is clearly youth, and the team's reliance on their young talent could prove to be either a blessing or a curse. But either way, a year closer to their Season 10 division-winning 82-80 season seems more likely than a repeat of last year's debacle.
Anaheim Anabolic Amigos
One look at the initials of this franchise's new name tells you all you need to know about it. Indeed, this team has looked like a AAA organization for the better part of the last 10 years, and last year's 67-95 finish left a sour taste in the mouths of fans in Honolulu, the city where the team unsuccessfully moved in an attempt to rejuvenate interest in the franchise. The team is back on the mainland now, but after 7 straight losing seasons, little fanbase to speak of, a depleted minor league system, and discord in the clubhouse, this team has got a long road to walk if it wants to get back to respectability. The people of Anaheim seem to be cautiously optimistic, buying into the new management's plan for the future but recognizing that it may take a long time to restore the team to prominence. A couple of warm bodies were signed this winter (Antonio Reid and Matt Leius) but the focus this offseason was clearly on the future, with the team pouring its resources into a new scouting department, new coaches, and a new state-of-the-art training and health facility aimed at keeping the team healthy and on the field. Perhaps it's one of the first truly smart offseasons this team has had in a while, though only time will tell if the new GM will be any good at retooling a completely hopeless franchise. For now, however, the smart money is on Anaheim to finish nowhere near the top of the division this year... but in 5 years? We'll see.
It's still hard to say exactly where this franchise went wrong. The boneheaded loss of Alex Guerrero last season still smarts, and could be a big reason for the continued losing. I said last year that I would eat my hat if the team repeated the previous season's 95-loss performance, but they went and did exactly that, finishing with a 67-95 record for the second year in a row despite winning more than 90 games each of the previouw 5 years (anyone know of a good hat sauce?). The fan outrage forced them to flee north of the border, where new management seeks to turn this team around fast. Adam Podsednik, J.R. Spooneybarger, Darrel Prince, Gordon Graves, and Samuel Calderon all contributed to the team's losing ways last year, so management left them behind in the States this winter. Peter Whang was also given his outright release despite having a decent ERA last year. Their replacements will likely be cheap Rule 5 roster fillers; Chien-Ming Pong actually has decent power, but Trevor Stahoviak, Deivi Quinones, and Octavio Cedeno are clearly just keeping roster spots warm while the team looks for long-term solutions. I may sound like a broken record, but despite not making any major improvements this year, I fail to see how a team with stars like Jim Byrne, Eli Mercado, and Gold Glover Tyler Torres can't at least be remotely competitive, which is why I will give them the benefit of the doubt... again. I'm not counting on them to be in the division title hunt this year, but there is no reason why this team can't finish comfortably in 3rd.
Salem and Arizona both look improved this year, but Salem's improvements are more of a sure thing. Arizona is relying on young players, which as I said above, could help them or haunt them. I would rather toss my support toward Salem, a franchise that made smart free agent signings and is steadily moving upward. Arizona may well win the division, but I'll believe it when I see it. Meanwhile, Vancouver seems to have the pieces in place to avoid another 90-loss season, but a complete failure to make any consequential moves this offseason means they will be firmly in the bottom half of the division no matter what. Anaheim will probably finish fourth, and any wins this year will likely be gravy for them.