Last season's NL North "race" was more like Secretariat against Mr. Ed. Fargo won the division by winnig 102 games- no other team in the division was above .500. Can Toronto, Chicago, or Philadelphia at least give the Dirtbags some competition?
Let's start this one in Fargo, who has finally shed the reputation of having great pitching and no hitting. They scored the 2nd most runs in the entire NL last season, with 5 players hitting over 30 homers- they'll all return. 3B David Rushford is the lynchpin of this offense, but he's got help in SS Tomas DeJesus, RF William Bolling, LF Alex Lim, and surprising 1B Ricardo Martinez. CF Stan Peterson is the table setter for the big bats.
Chicago (9th last season) checks in next- they're a little shorter on offensive firepower than they used to be. 3B Sean Simpson is still a superstar, but he hit below .300 for the first time in his career. RF Bernie Soriano is the only other returning player (besides Simpson) to hit over 17 homers. 2B Neifi McBride did score 98 runs in front of the big bats, but losing LF Osvaldo Johnson at the end of last season (traded to Seattle) hurts the offense.
Kansas City (11th last season) is going to try and work a couple of rookies into key positions in the lineup. SS Gustavo Contreras (who may be a year away from being a solid major league contributor) and LF Fernando Ibanez will try to help jumpstart a struggling KC offense. Those two will join OF Kevin Yamakazi to provide some help to a lineup that had two regulars with OBPs under .300 last season and stole just 32 bases all season.
Philadelphia (16th last season) may very well be led by a rookie this season. 2B Brian Sweeney is a talented young infielder who ripped up AAA last season, but he'll be joining an offense that finished last in the NL in runs, hits, doubles, home runs, batting average, on base average, slugging percentage, and struck out the most. They rely on speed- 6 guys stole at least 16 bases last season. Problem is, half of them had OBPs under .300 and none had an on-base percentage higher than .328.
Fargo (last season- 3rd in NL) still has the brand names to be in contention every single season. Javier Henriquez won his third consecutive Cy Young award (fourth overall ) and is still only 28 (it only seems like he's been around forever, especially to NL hitters). One could argue that Sammy Pierce was every bit as good as Henriquez last season, and midseason pickup Orber Marin and veteran Manny Christians give Fargo depth in the rotation. The bullpen is also so deep it could afford to lose Chris Siddall to free agency- they still have closer Bert Price and setup man Kevin Li. They also picked up Chris Jennings from Trenton to essentially replace Siddall.
Kansas City (last season- 7th in NL) rode a top half pitching staff to a second place finish in the division. The question is: can they repeat it? Rob Cather was the big surprise last season, going 15-6 for a below .500 team. Jeremi Gant and Hipolito Santana both pitched in double digit wins (they did have losing records). They'll add rookie Ozzie Acker to the mix and see if they can get another good season out of the rotation. In the bullpen, an unnamed source in the organization says the manager is leaning toward giving Mark Ott the closer's role over incumbent Cody Williamson, who only blew four saves but gave up 64 hits in less than 50 innings. Heath Rollins was very good last season.
Philadelphia (last season- 15th in NL) made a big free-agent signing last season with Harry Lee, and they did it again. They're going to gamble on the right elbow of Albert Herzog, late of the Louisville Legends, who missed most of last season after having Tommy John surgery. He'll join Lee and long-time ace Bernard Robinson to make a fairly solid top three. Turner Darr is way overpaid, but he now slides into the #4 spot, which is more fitting for him. Kid Johnstone had a decent season as the closer (he didn't get too many chances). Kenny Holmes is probably the best setup option, which isn't saying much.
Chicago (last season- 12th in NL) has issues in the rotation. Babe Broadhurst was very solid at 12-12, but he posted the fewest wins for his career (tied) and the highest ERA of his career. The sharp dropoff is a concern this late in Babe's career (he's 36)- if Chicago fans are worried he's going to fall off the proverbial cliff, they may have good reason to fear. No other Chicago starter posted double digit wins. Slash Ruffin was very good (6-5, 2.75) in half a season and should get a full-time gig this season. Willie Williams and Orber Halter are middling starters who probably can't pitch every 5 days anyway. Kenneth Graves may be struggling due in part to lack of a defined role, but he's got too much talent to post a 4-12 record with a 4.75 ERA. Graham Rivera seems to have the edge over Eduardo Moya for the closer's role.
1. Fargo in another runaway. They've got way too much for the rest of the division.
2. I think Chicago is going to find a way to place second. I don't think they're done configuring their roster. But unless they somehow quite a few big-time players, I don't see them challenging for a playoff spot. I just don't think they're as bad as they were last season, although their roster seems to indicate they are.
3. Kansas City should be close to second. They're still building and trying a slow approach. Time will tell if they have the right pieces.
4. Philadelphia will be last again. Their starting pitching will keep them in a lot of games this season. Their offense will be the reason they lose those games.
5. If you don't already, you'll probably know the name Slash Ruffin by the end of the season. I see him building off his 1/2 season into something big.
6. I'd nominate Yamakazi as the most likely to be dealt to a contender.