If there was a division that was more competitive than the NL North last season, it may have been the NL south, where a record of 82-80 would get you last place. The division yielded two playoff teams in Houston and New Orleans. How will it shake out this season? We'll start with the defending division champs and work from there.
Houston Riverdogs (92-70 last season as the Houston Oilers)
Major Additions: SS Ivan Jones (FA- New York)
Major Losses: SS Lawrence Flanagan (trade- Arizona), P Vic McCormick (FA-Boise)
Offense (Last season: T-6 in NL): The offense was pretty solid last season, although essentially exchanging Flanagan for Jones probably doesn't work out in their favor this season. Jones had a nice season for New York at .256-32-91, but Flanagan hit .293-38-128, scoring 132 times. With Flanagan gone SS/3B Leo Miller (.291-36-106) and CF Brian Satou (.266-45-125)become the unquestioned offensive leaders for the Dogs. LF Freddie Throneberry had a solid season, hitting .300 and driving in over 90 runs in support. 2B Omar Cruz is a speedster who has to get on base more, 3B Eddie Blank needs to strike out less than 133 times and OF Timothy Davis needs to contribute this season; if these things happen they could compensate for the loss of Flanagan.
Pitching (Last season : T-3 in NL): This was a strong point last season, particularly after the acquisition of Matty Eusebio. He only went 15-7 in 28 starts for Houston, but had an ERA of 2.88 and a WHIP under 1. He helped Jerome Oliver slide to the #2 spot, where he went 17-9 with a 3.38 ERA. Kent Hillenbrand is a fairly solid #3 and J.R. Guerrero is serviceable at the #4 spot. The bullpen was also quite good, with Tex Howell closing games and Vince Perez setting him up. There are some question marks in the bullpen beyond those two, however.
Outlook: If the question marks in the lineup work out and their starters can go right to Perez and Howell to close out games, they'll be fine and could very well repeat. If not, the division is wide open, as it was last season; they can't afford to falter.
New Orleans Voodoo (90-72 last season)
Major Additions: 3B Russ Blank, P Bob Delaney (trade- Philadelphia)
Major Losses: SP Stephen Mercedes (FA- Cleveland)
Offense (Last season: 8th in NL): The Voodoo made the playoffs but have made some moves to upgrade their middle of the road offense from last season. The Blank trade should help solidify the lineup behind All-Star 1B Lyle Barber (.326-45-140). Ray Cepicky ripped up Double A to the tune of 56 HR and 195 RBIs; he'll get his chance this season at the ML level. CF Don Jefferson scored 124 runs while hitting .316 and 2B Marcus Reboulet had a great year (.331-21-115). With the additions of Blank and Cepicky, the only weak spot in the lineup may be defenisive SS Vasco Mesa.
Pitching (Last season: 9th in NL): The rotation starts with Jose Merced, who won 19 games and probably needs to have a similar performance if the Voodoo are going to return to the playoffs. Carlos Matos is a decent 2nd option (12-7 last season). It will be interesting to see how Jayson Hennesey, a free-agent pickup from the (formerly)Pawtucket organization, will turn out in the middle of the rotation. This is a staff that could use some depth, however. King Burns won 11 games and saved 21 out of the pen last season. Tom Hernandez, the AAA closer last season, could get a shot at the ML role this season . Delaney could be asked to play a large role this season.
Outlook: I want to pick them, but there are too many holes in the pitching staff. If you pressed me, I'd probably pick them because I have a feeling that they will make a trade for a starting pitcher at some point during the season.
Memphis Short Grass (83-79 last season)
Major Additions: RP Chris Doster (FA- San Juan)
Major Losses: None
Offense (Last season: 15th in NL): Amazing that the teams with the two worse offenses (Memphis and Fargo) last season both finished over .500. The Short Grass are banking on 3B Karim Ortiz and LF Bum Duvall can supply power in their first full seasons. Rusty Rose is a 2B who hit over .300 in the bigs after starting the season in AAA; rumor has it he may be dealt to get some pitching help. Outside of the young guys, the roster is filled with guys like SS Carlton Beck, SS Al Rodriguez, and RF Walter McBride, guys whose production doesn't come anywhere near what their salaries would suggest they should be.
Pitching (Last season: 3rd in NL): Last season they finished only behind Fargo (led by Henriquez and Pierce) and Salem (Dunwoody and Salmon). They have their own future star in Jason Sprague, who went 9-3 with a 2.90 ERA after being called up. He'll have to step into the role of ace, as Claude Jacquez (13-9, 4.03) is already out for the season with an elbow injury. Pete Carr pitched well after coming over from Philadelphia last season. Charlie Miller should be a solid middle of the rotation guy in his first full season and Zach James may get a shot at the last starter role. In the bullpen, Dude Huskey had a great year, saving 44 of 51 tries, and Doster came over from division rival San Juan; it will be interesting to see which one closes. Jackie Simpson was good in the main setup role.
Outlook: Despite winning 83 games, they are still building for the future to an extent. They will have quite a few rookies starting this season. I think unless they make a move, the lack of offense and the loss of Jacquez keeps them a step behind Houston and New Orleans for now, although they are definitely a team to watch in the next few seasons. They have good young starting pitching, which is always a good way to build a team.
San Juan Dead Bunnies (82-80 last season)
Major Additions: RP Willie Nunez (FA- Cincinnati)
Major Losses: RP Chris Doster (FA- Memphis)
Offense (Last season: Best in NL): Offense should not be an issue for these guys. They have a big-time star in RF Calvin Chang (.319-49-148) and he will be helped by CF Jerome Grahe (.291-25-100) and 3B Julio Castro (.270-40-110). 2B Sammy Mack (.293 avg, 64 SBs) will be relied on to get on base in front of Chang, Grahe, and Castro. A full year of 1B Jaret Teut will add to the depth of this lineup, as he may beat out incumbent Curt Randolph, who drove in 82 runs himself last season. C Jolbert Calderon (.323-15-69) is a good hitter toward the bottom of the lineup.
Pitching (Last season: 14th in NL): The Dead Bunnies were not last only because the Dodgers and Cubs were absolutely putrid last season. Joey Adcock looked like a big-time prospect in AAA only to get called up and go 0-5 with an ERA over 7 in the majors. Buzz Linden won 12 games and Jordan Jerzembeck won 10 but each had an ERA over 5- these two are being paid too much money to be average/below average starters. Benny Alacorn also had an ERA over 5 but does have some potential to grow. Toby Sisler comes over from Toronto (Montreal) to round out the rotation. As for the bullpen, Nunez comes over to solidify the closer's role. Wally Lawton and Frank Martin both had a good year setting up Doster last season.
Outlook: They don't have enough starting pitching to contend, no matter how many runs they score. If they fall out of the race, they should try to trade some of their veterans bats for some young pitchers (easier said than done, I know) and rebuild around Chang and their minor league prospects.