This division produced a team that improved by 38 games from season 1 to season 2 and a team that has won a combined 184 games in the first two seasons. And both teams have to compete with the defending NL champions in order to win a division title. So here's an idea as to how it could all go down.
Offense: We'll start in Chicago, where the Snake Tamers (formerly the Cubs) went from Season 1 laughingstock to Season 2 playoff team to Season 3 dark horse pick to win it all. CF Dewayne Castillo should score plenty of runs with IF/OF Denny Moss and RF Sean Simpson, who put up a .322-31-111 major league season before he was old enough to drink, behind him in the order. LF Orel MacFarlane and C Grady Smart, who drove in 10 fewer runs last season than season 1 but raised his average 58 points, provide nice depth. 1B William Farr needs to produce to his potential, and SS Darren Dessens is a defensive specialist but still needs to cut down on the strikeouts.
Fargo took Toronto's leadoff hitter and may have taken the second spot in offense along with it. Can't say I particularly like Fargo's offense, but I do like it a lot better with the signing of 1B Rico Valdez, who is a switch-hitting leadoff guy with a career on-base percentage over .400 and over 200 career steals. The question is who will drive him in; the Dirtbags don't have a big-time RBI hitter, like a Moss or a Simpson. The two most likely candidates both play the same position in young 3B William Bolling and veteran 3B Kurt Christenson. 2B Greg Burkhart may see his numbers spike with more RBI opportunities. That being said, the Fargo squad could still use a big bat in the middle of this lineup.
Toronto has the big bat in the middle of the lineup, but now perhaps not much around him. The Toros will rely on superstar OF Vicente Romero now more than ever. It may be tough for Romero to duplicate his gaudy RBI totals from seasons 1 and 2 without Valdez on base ahead of him. They do have some young competent hitters in 1B Davey Pena and LF Rolando James, both who can hit some home runs. The giant question mark in this offense, as it was at the beginning of last season, is CF Dewey Greenwood; Greenwood has a world of potential but can't keep himself healthy.
Philadelphia will be hard-pressed to keep up with the rest of the NL North. 2B Reid Colbert improved his average while maintaining his power, but most, if not all, of the big hitters in Philadelphia declined from season 1 to season 2. Colbert, CF Paul Lamb, OF Jack Wilkerson, 3B Paxton Coleridge, IF Harold Stroud, and LF Don Meng all struck out over 100 times last season. Their SS situation is unsettled, as the two Juans( Rodriguez and Nunez) will battle it out.
Pitching: Without question, we start in Fargo. The only thing better than good starting pitching is good young starting pitching, and Fargo has that in abundance. 23-year-old Cy Young Award winner Javier Henriquez highlights this rotation, which also boasts 25-year-old Sammy Pierce. Along with veteran Jim Arnold, this could be the best top 3 in the entire league. Willie Williams has struggled his first two seasons- is this the season he turns it around? The bullpen is also quite solid: closer Bert Price is one of the best in the game and will be set up by swingman Christopher Siddall and short men Kevin Li, Julio Ortiz, and Wilfredo Estalella.
Chicago has been trying to make moves to catch up to Fargo. The biggest move in the offseason was the trade for ace Matty Eusebio. He'll team up with Stephen Tucker for a pretty good 1-2 combo assuming Tucker can come back from elbow surgery to be at least close to his form from the beginning of last season. York Watson and Jorge Guzman will provide innings and wins from the 3 and 4 slots. The bullpen is led (for now) by Wily Mo Owens- he's a good, if overpaid, closer. Expect good things from Graham Rivera and Luis Piedra in the setup roles- I believe this is the season that one of them (if not both) finally puts it together.
Toronto doesn't have any stars on the pitching staff, but their starting staff is solid. Harry Lee, Jeremi Gant, Shooter Mahoney, and Patrick Clifton don't have the name recognition as a lot of the other guys in the division but they are all inning eaters and will keep the Toros in games. 22-year-old Russ Dawkins has decent potential, and shouldn't have much pressure on him in his rookie year. The bullpen is in somewhat of a state of flux. Daryl McKinley has struggled a bit in the closer role, so rookie Mark Ott may get a shot at the spot. McKinley and James Xavier would be decent setup men, although both would be somewhat overpaid for their roles.
It's hard to say that any rotation that has Bernard Robinson in it is the worst in the division, but here it is. The problem is there is nobody who is even solid after the spectacular Robinson. Victor Aybar to a 10-17 record last season- he's probably #2. The other potential starters, such as J.T. Zinter and Donaldo Sierra, don't belong anywhere near the major leagues. Jamey Dwyer closed 11 out of 12 opportunities last season, and Kid Johnstone will be good at the setup role. Rule 5 pickup Arthur Gates has a live arm, but his ERA of over 8 in AA last season would worry me about his prospects for this season.
1. You're going to have to knock the king off the pedestal. So I'm taking Fargo unless they prove to me that someone else has passed them.
2. I think it will be somewhat wide open, but Chicago should take a wild-card spot.
3. Toronto should have a similar season to the last one, although maybe a few games worse- they'll be around .500 and in wild card contention and ultimately fall short.
4. Philadelphia will finish at least 15 games back of third and will trade Bernard Robinson by the end of the season.