The AL North is next on our trip around the league, and it will look very different than it did last season, as only Milwaukee remains. Are they still the team to beat in this division?
Offense: Milwaukee's offense was downright scary in season 2 and I don't see it being any different for season 3. Perhaps the deepest lineup in baseball, they return 40-40 CF Luis Martinez (24 years old, by the way), SS Ray Buchanan, 2B Bob Malone, and RF Ryan Snyder at the top of the lineup- all three guys can steal a base or hit a home run. If those guys don't get you, the thumpers will: AL MVP LF Burt Stevenson, 1B Andre Eckenstahler, and DH Homer Treadway. There is no break in this lineup.
The other three teams are fairly even offensively, but I'll give Toledo a slight edge over the other two, keeping in mind this is a distant second. They may not necessarily have a big-time power hitter, but they have enough quality hitters to sustain an attack a good percentage of the time. SS Orlando Franco is a good young player on both sides of the ball, CF Walker Guerrero is a fairly dependable RBI man, and they'll be supported by C Marc Strange and 3B Hal Brinkley (who may need to stop attempting to steal, making it only 10 of 32 times last season). CF Victor Gonzalez needs to improve his on base percentage to be a true leadoff hitter and 1B Daryle Van Poppel is coming off a groin tear (ouch!), so there are some question marks.
If they're not better than Toledo offensively, Syracuse should be pretty close. C/DH Emmanuel Guzman provides the power for this team, and they also have pretty good bats in IF/OFs Eli Jacquez and Peter Suzuki. IFs Alex Li and Earl Hall need to step up; Li is coming off an injury but is being paid far too much to put up mediocre numbers. Their defense should be pretty good.
St. Louis has some offensive talent, but not enough depth. LF Pepe Martin is the only consistent big-time threat. CF Henry Turner tailed off from season 1 to season 2 and 3B Gabe Millard's numbers are nice, but he strikes out a bit too much for my liking; OF Tony Bell has a similar problem. SS Torey Diaz comes over from Monterrey; he had a great postseason for the Sultans but has yet to prove he can sustain offense for an entire season.
Pitching: Milwaukee had both the Cy Young winner and Fireman of the Year winner; seems like a good place to start. Vin Solano, he of the 23-2 record and the 2.09 ERA, is the main man here, but he's not the only good starter they have. Control artist Woody Hiller won 22 games last season himself. Graham Costello is arguably more talented than Solano, although he doesn't have the gaudy numbers to match. Vic Chavez is easily a #2 or #3 starter on a decent team- here he's #4 at best. He and 5th starter James Morton each won 15 games. The bullpen is led by maybe the best closer in baseball, Quinton Hughes. Buddy Titan and Glen Kelly will again set up Hughes; they were solid, if unspectacular.
They may be the most overpaid starting rotation in baseball, but the Toledo Greensox do have some talent. Orber Marin and Steven Michaels are a legitimate 1-2 combination; Marin is under his rookie contract and Michaels, at $7 million, gives production worthy of his contract. Jacob Herrera is not worth $7 million, but will eat innings. He's had an ERA under 4 for two seasons; I say he doesn't repeat that, but should still have a decent record. Pete Rubel is the most overpaid player in baseball at $16 million, but he is still a decent starter. Steven Mercedes ($5.8 million) pitched himself out of the rotation. Pablo Rijo is a good closer, and they have a good righty/lefty setup pair in Vance D'Amico and Vic Lee.
St. Louis is a pitching staff in flux. One the one hand, they have veteran starters in 36-year-old Brad Clapp and Benito Martin- both had ERAs under 4 last season for a bad team. On the other hand, they are trying to work in some young starters who may or may not be ready. The most talented is 22-year-old Tony Rowan, who is another guy who could benefit from another AAA season. The rest of the rotation should be pieced together from some combination of Ryan Martin, Nick Canseco, Terry Pierre, Lewis Graham, and Pat Murray; I wouldn't expect much from any of those guys this season. Closer Carlos Carrasco saw his ERA spike two full runs from season 1, but he's still got big-time talent; I think he'll rebound. Torey Fernandez was great in the setup role.
Syracuse could struggle to get hitters out this season. Left-handed pitcher Louie Bolivar was rushed up to the majors last season and struggled as a result. Lefty Little has three more strikeouts than walks in his major league career. On the plus side, Russell Newson had a good season at 16-11 and Hayes Hill was 10-8, although both pitchers' ERAs were near 5. 24-year-old Jared McMahon is a talented closer and had a good rookie season. The question is whether he retains the job or if Banana Stein, brought over from Jackson, will get the role. Whoever doesn't win should be solid in the setup position.
1. Milwaukee wins this division easily. They'll be the first team in any division to clinch.
2. I'll take the current Toledo team to pass the former Toledo team (Syracuse) for second place. They'll be in the mix for a wild-card spot.
3. Syracuse made the playoffs last season in Toledo- I just don't see it happening again. I don't like what's going on with the pitching staff.
4. St. Louis won 75 games in Ottawa last season- this season could be worse. Look for them to be sellers near the deadline.