This has been a highly competitive division the past few seasons. Last season, Fargo followed up its World Series appearance with a second straight division title, but couldn't get past eventual champion Houston in the NLCS. Chicago grabbed a wild card spot and knocked off the best in the west (Salem) before succumbing to Fargo. Toronto failed to make the playoffs despite winning 86 games. So what does the division hold this season?
The top 3 teams are fairly close offensively. We start in Fargo, where for the second straight season the Dirtbags take a key offensive component from a division rival. Last season they plucked 1B Rico Valdes from Toronto and he stole 100 bases. This season they acquired 3B Bud Klein from Chicago. He'll join RF William Bolling, CF Stan Peterson, C Arnold Hunter, and 2B Greg Burkhart as the key ingredients here. LF Guy Ford is hit-or-miss, and SS Shawn Butler isn't an offensive threat.
We'll look at Chicago next, which was easily the best offense in the NL last season. The losses of Denny Moss (Trenton) and Bud Klein (Fargo) bring them right back to the pack. As long as they have league MVP Sean Simpson, they will score runs. CF Dewayne Castillo and LF Trever Russell will help Simpson to drive in runs. The infield could be a bit of an unknown quantity, and it's unsure who the leadoff hitter or table setters are here.
Toronto can score with Fargo and Chicago if their players play up to their potential. CF Dewey Greenwood is one of the league's biggest enigmas, as he stayed healthy for the first time but put up basically the same numbers as he did in season 2 (which was shortened to 88 games). RF Vicente Romero is the only truly known quantity here- he's a quiet star. LF Roland James was solid, but 3B Oswaldo Armas was a huge disappointment last season. Look for Rule 5 guy Achilles Parris to contribute this season.
Philadelphia has a lot of contracts and little talent to show for it. 1B Lynn Stewart is basically on his own here. There are a lot of underachieving, overpaid players here, led by CF Paul Lamb. They outscored Fargo last season- don't expect that to happen again.
Any surprise we start in Fargo? If you've been paying attention the last few seasons, you shouldn't be. This team is built on starting pitching, and this edition is no different. They still have the big 3 of Javier Henriquez, Sammy Pierce, and Jimmy Arnold. Willy Williams provides depth, and their bullpen is dynamic behind closer Bert Price and setup men extraordinaire Chris Siddall and Kevin Li. If Hunter catches the vast majority of games his pitch calling may drag the staff down a bit, but not enough- they should still be dominant most of the time.
I'll take Toronto's staff next (barely) over Chicago and Philly. They have potential in starters Jeremi Gant and Russ Dawkins, but the staff will be led by Harry Lee and Patrick Clifton. Hipolito Santana is a good depth guy to have. One of only 5 guys to have over 100 saves, Jackson Hayes continues to get it done, which is good because Daryl McKinley can be very iffy. Mark Ott should be good setting up Hayes.
Chicago takes a step back in this department too, as they lose Matty Eusebio and Ajax Drabek off last season's team. They have decent starters in York Watson, Jorge Guzman, and Claude Jacquez. If Chicago's front office expects anything out of Graham Stark I think they're delusional. Wily Mo Owens and Graham Rivera form a good 1-2 punch at the end, although Owens has been rumored to be leaving town.
Philadelphia has an ace in Bernard Robinson and a possible #2/#3 guy in Victor Aybar (8-15, but a 1.20 WHIP and 3.57 ERA), but little else. They'll need Stan Thompson, Jacob Gilbert and/or (preferably "and") Alex Valdez to step up. Donaldo Sierra is not a big league pitcher. Closer Jamey Dwyer had a terrible season- Kid Johnstone may take his job.
1. Fargo takes the division. Even if their offense doesn't pan out, there's still more than enough pitching to cover up their weaknesses at the plate.
2. Call it a hunch, but I think Toronto passes Chicago this season. Not sure if that's enough to get them back into the playoffs. The wild-card race will likely be jumbled, as basically any team that won't win its division will have a flaw that could be fatal.
3. Chicago has enough to stay in contention- I think they come up short, however.
4. Philadelphia is likely to stay right where it is- not awful/unwatchable, but likely to have another high draft pick.
5. Expect Wily Mo Owens to be traded close to the deadline.