Seattle has been all over the place for the past few years. After winning 79 games in Season 8, the team exploded with 98 in Season 9. Then, they disappointed with only 76 wins in Season 10, but surprised yet again with 90 wins and another division title last year. So which Seattle will we see this year? The answer is a much different one, given the flurry of changes that occurred this offseason. Vince Jefferson, a surprisingly good bat from last year, is gone, as is Pedro Batista, who had a career year as a reliever and starter for the Strikers last season. Taylor Standridge, Greg Tomlinson, and Louie James were among those who followed. The trading of Efrain Matsumoto and Brooks Mullins for prospects seems to indicate that the team is in rebuilding mode, but management insists that this isn't the case... yet. And this claim seems to be backed up by the fact that Seattle was one of the most active teams on the free agent market this winter. Julius Sowders, Casey Nielsen, Jake Canseco, Jayson Crawford, Peter Whang, Jorge Cueto, Kirk Kirby, Preston Williams, and Donaldo Torrealba are all brand new faces on this year's team, yet there is not a single marquee name among them (unless you count the past-his-prime Sowders), which says that Seattle was more interested in quantity this year than quality. The Strikers may still have it in them to win north of 90 games-- their pitching, the core of which is still around, was 4th in the NL last year with a 4.11 ERA-- but time will tell whether all the new additions will help the team's chances or hurt the clubhouse chemistry. The division was exceptionally weak last year, and if Seattle wins it again, it will be because of the NL West's weaknesses, not Seattle's strengths.
San Francisco Giants
Last year I wrote that with their overachievement in Season 10, plus an injury to their best player, pitcher Bret O'Leary, San Francisco would disappoint and only finish in 2nd place. And that is exactly what they did, regressing toward a win total more befitting their situation and level of talent. After losing Denny Lui, Bill Cohen, and Willie Pearson to free agency, one would have expected the Giants to go out and inject some new blood into the team for the upcoming season, but San Francisco largely decided to stand pat this year, signing only a handful of minor league free agents and making no major league trades. The team did call up a couple of non-prospects in Stevie Moseley and Darrell Bland, but other than that, the major league squad will look much like it did last year. Perhaps the Giants are hoping that a full season from O'Leary, plus player performances similar to what they got in Season 10, will make them a playoff team again, but that is a bit of a risk when you're talking about a team that won a mere 79 games last season. It's hard to know whether they're correct, but the team is far from complete top to bottom, making this a year when San Francisco could be particularly vulnerable.
Colorado Springs Night Watchmen
Just four years ago, Colorado Springs was celebrating their eighth straight playoff appearance (never having missed the postseason in franchise history) and were only one year removed from a World Series victory and their second straight World Series appearance. But that was a long time ago, and three straight Octobers sitting at home-- with a mere .473 winning percentage over that span, including only 67 wins last year-- is enough to make any fanbase question the direction of the franchise. After losing a host of players to free agency, including Barry Gibson, Steve Brock, Alex Melendez, Roy Hiatt, Danny Busby, Rob Buckley, and Albert Polanco, it certainly looked like it was spiraling downward. But the Night Watchmen had an ace up their sleeve, trading for 3-time MVP Steve Minor, a powerhouse bat who's enough to turn any team's pessimism into optimism. They also dealt for Ryan Gonzales and claimed Ronnie Miller off waivers, bolstering their pitching staff this season. And they promoted a bit of talent as well, bringing up defensive whiz Flip Mills, slugger Polin Romero, and catcher Kelvin Easterly. It seems diffcult to believe Colorado Springs will be as bad as they were last year, and with the addition of Minor and some other key components, they are likely to improve upon their record from Season 11. But unfortunately, many of the problems that plagued the club last year (like a 5.35 team ERA) still largely remain, making this a potential year to forget for the Night Watchmen.
Ah, last but not least, the team that seemed to make headlines every other day this past winter with their marquee offseason moves. New management came in last year, watched this team go 65-97, and immediately vowed never to come close to such a dismal record again. So they tossed aside many of the players responsible for last year's disaster, including Homer Browning, John Huang, Anthony Stroud, Alex Grey, Toby Thompson, and Leo Priddy, and went out and got themselves some shiny new free agents. Vic Servet, decorated with Rookie of the Year honors, four All-Star games, and Silver Sluggers at 2B and CF, will give the team defensive versatility and offensive firepower. Omar Siqueiros, an MVP candidate last year who boats five Silver Sluggers at SS and five All-Star game appearances, gives them a great bat in the lineup and a good glove up the middle. Tim Juden, an All-Star with four different clubs, looks to continue his solid career with the Scorpions. All-Star Victor Daly brings two World Series rings to the table, as well as a great 3.45 career ERA. Former Rookie of the Year Steve Brock also has a World Series ring, not to mention a stellar track record as a starter. And the usually-reliable and very talented Esteban Dotel looks to rebound from an off year and aid Scottsdale as well. They've even added youth, trading for stud Darren Bailey and promoting Damaso Infante, two guys who could easily compete for Rookie of the Year honors, with several other prospects in the minors looking to come up soon as well. And let's not forget about the first full season of the guy Sports Illustrated called "the greatest international free agent of all time," Jorge Renteria, who put up a ridiculous 1.157 OPS last year in 230 major league at-bats and is already looking like a favorite to win a couple NL MVP awards before he's done with arbitration. All in all, Scottsdale is unquestionably the most improved team of the year, and ownership has said that their goal is to make a run at the playoffs as early as next season. But don't count them out of the playoffs as early as this season.
3. San Francisco
4. Colorado Springs
Scottsdale goes from worst to first this year as they make moves that put them leaps and bounds ahead of the competition. Their starting pitching will be the biggest concern, but if Raymond Simmons pitches like I know he can and some of the other starters come through, Scottsdale's potent offense should carry them to enough wins to clinch the division and secure the team's first playoff appearance since Season 4. Meanwhile, Seattle will likely put up a good fight despite making so many roster changes, while San Fran will likely struggle a bit as they return a duplicate of the team that was so disappointing last year. Colorado Springs will be much improved with the addition of Minor, but with such poor pitching, I just can't see them competing at all this year.