One could call last season a disappointment for the Juice. A year removed from reaching the World Series, Jacksonville repeated as division champions but then failed to even get out of the play-in round, losing in upset fashion to Monterrey. Clearly shaken by the turn of events, Jacksonville has made several moves this winter in an attempt to avoid such a possibility in October, though they lost several good players in the process. Julius Sowders gave many good years to the franchise, but he got old, so the Juice sacked him. T.J. Harding, Carlos Soto, Will Bergen, and Jake Koch are also no longer with the franchise. Many of these losses hurt the Juice roster, so new acquisitions were in order. Antonio Morton is a key addition to the Juice bullpen, while Jeffrey Rivera, who was good with Syracuse last year, will fit right into the rotation. Rivera, however, cost the team Karl Shumaker, a productive batter and versatile fielder. Rafael Romero could be good for the rotation too, but he cost them Brian Biddle, who looked brilliant in limited action last year. The team will also go a bit younger this year, showcasing the rookie seasons of former first-rounders Hiram Franco and Davey Decker, both of whom could find themselves in the Rookie of the Year hunt. This may be the last hurrah for the Juice as we know them, with the impending free agencies of 2-time MVP Lloyd Patrick and former Silver Slugger Hector Cairo, so it's a must-win season for the impatient management and fanbase alike. But with so many pieces of the puzzle leaving this offseason, the Juice still have a hill to climb.
New York Moneymaker
New York missed a Wild Card berth by the slimmest of margins last year, and they believed all they needed was a minor re-tooling this offseason. Indeed, despite their noticeable lack of postseason success, they've made the playoffs 5 times, including twice in the last 3 years, and rarely seem to be in danger of slipping. This year has proved no different, with the Moneymaker making a few key offseason moves but not taking too many risks, so as to preserve the franchise's seemingly infinite supply of sturdy, but not outstanding, seasons. The only real losses this winter were John Becker, Melvin Guerrero, and Harry Nieves, none of whom are a threat to derail the franchise anytime soon; they were replaced by the equally mediocre Connie Stynes and Denny Lui (though Lui is a great candidate to have a big year after mysteriously losing his once-impressive power over the past two seasons). The big signing, however, was Samuel Dallaero, a longtime Philadelphia mainstay who will immediately improve a bullpen that saw several ERAs north of 5 last year. It may not be the most exciting offseason for Moneymaker fans, but that seems to be business as usual for New York, and indeed, it seems to be working, as there is little doubt that this team will secure at least 85-90 wins yet again and remain in the Wild Card hunt, as they do each season.
Kansas City Kardinals
I think I may have to tag the Kardinals as my most disappointing team of Season 11. In this space last year, I wrote that Kansas City had it in them to overtake Jacksonville the for the division, but that even if they didn't, they would easily secure a Wild Card spot. Well, one year and only 86 wins later, the Kardinals had a fine season but fell well short of expectations. That's not for lack of ability, though. I said that they were one of the most well-put-together teams in the majors, and they did not disappoint in that regard; they amazed most observers by using only 11 pitchers over the course of the entire season, and eight of their nine starting position players played in at least 149 games last year. So what happened? Well, the #4 and #5 starting pitchers were awful, including Darron Herndon, who is no longer with the team (though Robinson Maddux, who does have great natural talent, still is). Their hitting was decent, but with a .770 team OPS, it was exactly average in the NL (mostly due to the weaker hitters having down years dragging down the truly impressive ones). But other than that, the team seemed to perform as expected, and Kansas City seems determined to keep the gang together for another run, making virtually no acquisitions this offseason. Aside from Herndon, KC lost a few other relative disappointments in Wes Sanders, Harry Figureoa, and Louis Cruz, but overall, this still looks like a team bound to make a lot of noise this year, and it would not surprise me in the least if last season's expected success simply came a year late.
Cincinnati has been far from a devestating force in baseball over the past five years, but with a .474 winning percentage over that span, it's very surprising (and a testament to the strength of the division) that they've managed to finish in dead last all five years. But it's also encouraging, as Cincinnati's ability to remain at least mildly competitive makes them a yearly candidate to potentially break out, given the right offseason moves. They left a lot of people scratching their heads, however, at the moves the franchise made this past winter. It was bad enough seeing Alexander Grant and Patsy Cummings (bad as he was last year) file for free agency, but the team felt it had not seen enough departures, so it released Shep Rudolph and Stan Lowe, as well as a whole host of other players who spent some time on the big league roster last year. They did sign reliever T.J. Starr and promoted LF prospect Grant Tucker to the bigs, but Cincinnati once again failed to make the quality (or quantity) moves that would have allowed them to escape the cellar of a very competitive division. Aside from their two new faces this year and the slew of old faces who were shown the door this offseason, this still looks like the same 70ish-win team we've seen for years now, and they will likely remain solidly in 4th this year.
1. Kansas City
3. New York
It almost seems like I'm stubbornly saying "I'll keep making this Kansas City-will-be-really-good prediction until it comes true," but really, this does look like a team capable of finishing in 1st place, especially with other teams getting a bit weaker around them. Jacksonville is still a very good team, but they've suffered too many losses this season for me to remain confident in their ability to secure a division crown. New York looks like a fine team that may just narrowly finish in 3rd (or narrowly finish in 1st, frankly, in what looks to be a tight division). The only thing I'm sure of is Cincinnati's 4th place finish, as they've really made no moves big enough to convince me of their improvement this year.