Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Spotlight on: AL North

As we eagerly await the well-ballyhooed list of the top 100 Minor League prospects, scheduled to appear on this blog at some point tonight, we continue our ML "previews". We head up north today, as currently we have the Ottawa Naughty Kitties tied for first place with the Milwaukee Maniac Maulers at 8-4, and the Pawtucket Patriots and Cleveland Skidmarks tied at 6-6 (not a good day to have a team nicknamed the Patriots).

Will the Naughty Kitties continue to purr, or will they get Mauled? Will Peter Griffin's favorite brewery catch the two at the top or will Cleveland cause the rest of the division to skid? Let's start with the offense.

-We begin in the Land of Brats. The Maulers have a very balanced attack. starting with SS Ray Buchanan at the top. 2B Tim Harding is next- if he could only hit a little more he'd be a big-time offensive threat, as he draws walks and is already wreaking havoc on the basepaths. 1B Andre Eckenstahler is a professional hitter, but must be pitched to, as possible MVP candidate CF Luis Martinez (acquired in the big Henriquez deal) bats behind him. Pep Osborn and Homer Treadway should have plenty of RBIs and even the best defensive catcher in the division, Victor Gonzales, is not going to be an easy out.

- After Milwaukee there is a bit of a dropoff. I'll take Cleveland next, as CF Walter Guerrero is not a prototypical leadoff hitter- probably not a great average but does provide some pop. While not having as much depth as Milwaukee, they do have good hitters in C Marc Strange, LF Bret King, SS Orlando Franco, and DH Hal Brinkley.

- Pawtucket is going to be a feast or famine team. C Mac Schalk is maybe the only true well-rounded hitter in this lineup. After him are 3B Richard Little, 1B Francisco Javier, and DH Dicky Takahashi, who will all hit their fair share of home runs but can't be counted on to hit for a high average. If these 3 are going well Pawtucket can score enough runs- if not, they'll struggle.

- Ottawa has some question marks in the lineup- they have solid defensive players who may not hit enough to keep up with the likes of Milwaukee. C Hector Borland and 1B Clark Johnstone are the best all-around hitters in this lineup.

Now on to the pitching.

- I like Milwaukee's pitching the best out of the 4 teams here. They have 4 solid starters in James Morton, Graham Costello, Woody Hiller, and Vic Chavez. The have Vin Serano at the closer position and I like Quentin Hughes and Wally Lawton coming out of the pen to set up Serano. Although I can't fault them for making the deal, would anybody else like to have seen what this rotation would have looked like with Henriquez?
- Cleveland is the best of the rest. I like 3 out of their starting 5; Carlton Fleming, Orber Marin, and Steven Michaels can give quality innings to the Skidmarks. I think Hi Nolan maybe needs some better quality pitches but other than that, he's another solid pitcher. Pablo Rijo is the closer; although he is quite capable of getting righties out, he will be extremely nasty on lefties with his biting slider and big-time changeup. Tony Frank is the best setup arm in Cleveland's pen. That being said, a lot of pressure falls on Marc Strange, as he's not gifted at handling the staff.
- Ottawa has a deep bullpen but is not as deep in the starting staff. Brad Clapp and Jim Arnold are probably the two best pitchers for the Naughty Kitties, but I think Jerome Frank and Julian Gonzalez might have control issues. The pen has quality arms in closer Carlos Canseco and setup men Miguel Park, Benito Martin, and Craig Hughes.
- Pawtucket has question marks in the rotation from the top all the way to the bottom. The Patriots will be counting on Pete Rubel and Jared Bellhorn to anchor their staff; Rubel is unproven- he'd make a nice #3 or 4 starter, but I don't think he was given a 5 year- $73.5 million contract to be anything other than an ace. Time will tell if that's what he will become. Bellhorn may struggle to retire hitters. In the bullpen they have Vic Lee to close and Enrique Rijo to setup; both are solid.

Predictions (Don't hold me to any of this):

1. Hmmmm, best lineup and best pitching in the division? I think I'm going to have to go out on a limb and take Milwaukee to win the division here.

2. Cleveland could be an interesting team: if all goes well for them I think you'd have to at least throw them in the discussion for making the playoffs. They are going to need that top of the lineup in Guerrero and Strange to produce and could use another arm or two, particularly in the pen.

3. I think Ottawa finishes ahead of Pawtucket because of pitching.

4. Pete Rubel becomes our league's Barry Zito- decent pitcher who is way overpaid.

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