The Fargo Wood Chippers seem to always get the press in the National League. They undoubtedly deserve the praise, considering their rich tradition of winning and the fact that they had the best record in the NL last year. But although Fargo ended up winning the NL pennant and advancing to the World Series, it is very possible that Charleston, not Fargo, was the NL's best team in Season 11. Their .834 OPS easily led the NL, and their pitchers led the league in opponent BA (.251), opponent OBP (.311), and opponent slugging percentage (.380), not to mention strikeouts (1198) and WHIP (1.28). Given these numbers, it's easy to see why the Riverdogs enter the season as an easy favorite to win the South, even over the ALCS-appearing Monterrey Jacks (more on them below). But what's even scarier is that Charleston figures to be even better this year after making one of the biggest free agency signings of the winter, nabbing future Hall of Famer Frank Martin and bolstering an already intimidating lineup. The team's only real losses were space-wasters Bobby Donahue and Glenn Mercedes, probably constituting addition by subtraction. And Enos Jones will likely see his rookie season this year and immediately compete for Rookie of the Year honors. Toss in the acquisition of stud prospect Carl Esposito this winter, and Fargo may have to move over as the most celebrated team in the NL. Charleston is loaded with talent and hungry for a championship this year, and it's not a stretch to say they'll finally do just that.
Announcers used all sorts of adjectives to describe the Jacks last year as they launched multiple upsets en route to an ALCS appearance-- "scrappy," "pesky," "sneaky"-- but their postseason success should have come as little surprise to most baseball fans, as this team was clearly built for the postseason, not the regular season. Go into a short series with Dock King, Oscar Osterbrock, and Dean Harvey as your starting pitchers and drop your mediocre #4 and #5 guys, and suddenly the Monterrey Jacks have one of the best rotations in the playoffs. But making the playoffs is half the battle, and the Jacks almost missed them last year due to those very bottom-of-the-rotation pitchers going a combined 19-20, as well as a bullpen that went a mediocre 30-26 with a 5.30 ERA. Changes were clearly on the horizon, and the most important was bagging starter Bill Richard and replacing him with phenom rookie Willie Jacquez, a move that will give the team a much more consistent set of pitchers from top to bottom. Reliever B.C. Nunez also left, but the Jacks responded by signing Willie Pearson and Robin Schalk, both of whom will strengthen a weak bullpen. Monterrey improved offensively as well, dumping part-timers Bobby Valent and Craig Howell but signing Jared Brown and Willie Ayala and promoting catching prospect Max Perez. Like Nashville, Monterrey is a young team that, through sheer maturity and development, probably could have improved by doing nothing this offseason. But with these moves, the Jacks have given themselves great reason to believe they will make a return to the playoffs this year, and if they play their cards right, they may even manage to give Charleston a run for their money.
Once a yearly threat to make the playoffs (though they seldom delivered), Texas has played third fiddle in the NL South for 3 years strong, and while they have no chance of finishing fourth this year, they still have little chance of catching up to the division's top two teams. That hasn't stopped them from making a slew of roster moves, however, to improve their chances and add to last year's fairly disappointing win total. Tom Chambers, a borderline MVP candidate as recently as Season 10, all but vanished last season and has now left for free agency, as have the solid Willie Barajas and William Davenport. They've promoted several youngsters, including Dean Podsednik, Brooks Schalk, and Miguel Morlan (though only Podsednik really looks like he'll be a big help this year). But the intriguing aspect of the Beavers' winter was the many trades that were made. They nabbed slugger Juan Torres from Ottawa, but had to give up relievers Clarence Cain and Alex Ordonez to get him. They got Paul Wang (who seems to have lost some of his pop) from Chicago, but gave up pitcher Harry Lunar. To make up for these pitching losses, they also dealt for Atlanta's Jorel Austin and Toledo's Santiago Mercado-- but they had to give up Don Li (another pitcher) and Jose Martin, respectively, to get them. It seems to be that Texas is going for a more offensive-minded approach this year, and they should certainly see an increase in runs scored with these acquisitons. But with the lack of improvements to their pitching staff, the Beavers probably won't have much hope to reach the playoffs this season. Another third place finish looks like Texas' destiny, but an increase in wins to around 85-- or even as many as 90 if they're lucky-- also seems to be on the horizon.
Richmond Red Devils
My mother always said that if you have nothing to say, you should say nothing at all. Well, I can't just leave this preview blank, so I'll say the nicest thing I can think of: Richmond fans likely have a great amateur draft to look forward to, with the franchise holding the first overall pick. Other than that, though, this year looks like another summer of misery for fans of this cursed franchise, which is on its eighth ownership group in nine years. Last year, while the franchise played in Iowa City, the team blew away the bottom of the barrel and finished dead last in the majors with a disgusting 6.35 team ERA. They placed only ahead of Toledo in the majors with an unsightly .724 team OPS, and were also terrible in the field, finishing second-to-last in the majors with a .975 fielding percentage. The team did make some moves this offseason, but at this point, it feels like they're just rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. A parade of miserable players including the likes of Brian Frey, Dusty Dorsey, Frank Wang, Wilson Thornton, Al Pinzon, and Jay Spencer all either left for free agency or were given their walking papers this winter. Their two major signings, B.C. Nunez and Max Padilla, are both coming off poor seasons but sadly will be enormous upgrades for the team. Andrew Wilkerson was promoted and should improve the team with his bat and glove, but oddly, the team's best move this offseason was a Rule 5 pick, selecting the supremely talented Pedro Cordero, who immediately becomes the second- or third-best hitter on the team. This franchise has still got years before it can ever hope to be in the playoff discussion, but after losing a National League-record 119 games last season, this team looks sure to at least surpass the rock-bottom depths it dealt with last year. Before this team ever thinks about championships, it has to climb the very high ladder toward 63+ wins.
Charleston should take the division and may lead the NL in wins this year, though Monterrey should put up a good fight. Last year's Wild Card drama in Monterrey may disappear this season as the team slides much more comfortably into the playoff picture, and 100 wins is not out of the question. Texas should be just fine, and should finish well over .500, though playoffs will not be in the cards for them. Richmond will still lose north of 100 games, but has still made improvements from last year. This is a rare division in which all four teams should improve upon their win totals from last year, though only Charleston and Monterrey look like true playoff contenders. And once again, if the Jacks do make the playoffs, don't be surprised to see them go far again with their ever-improving rotation.