The AL South has another budding rivalry in the defending World Series Champion Monterrey Sultans and perennial playoff contender Nashville Sounds. Will Monterrey make it 3 for 3 in this division or does Nashville pass them? Or can upstart Iowa City or Jackson pull the monumental upset and pass them both?
Offense: We'll start with the champs. CF Cody Lincoln put up MVP-type numbers and 2B Howard Murray drove in 100 while hitting .300. They've also got 1B Felipe Ortiz, IF Marcus Reboulet, and IF Haywood McDonald, all who can be counted on for production. The Sultans front office was confident enough in SS Sammy Castro to let both Moose Coleman and Torey Diaz go in free-agency, and young DH Tony Escuela should provide another big bat. LF Benito Tavarez needs to step up.
Nashville isn't far behind Monterrey, if at all. 2B Gregg Black tailed off a little from his Season 1 MVP performance, but that brought him from superhuman to simply great. 3B Bud Klein, CF Tyler Post, and C Tony Stieb are all good RBI guys- the question is who leads off. The question of who will bat cleanup and protect Black in the order has been answered emphatically with the acqusition of DH King Winn.
Iowas City has some nice pieces, but can't compete with the big boys in this division. 3B Wendell Durington quietly hit 30 HRs and drove in 113 last season, and CF Hideo Tanaka is a legitimate leadoff hitter. Veteran OF Emil James comes over from Toronto to provide some depth and rule 5 pickup Dave Kingston should provide some power at the DH spot. They'll need better performances from LF Pete McGowan, 2B Ken DuBose, and all-name team member Dweezil Marquis at 1B.
Jackson's talent is mostly unproven. They could very well start four rookies in SS Marty James, 3B Brook Teut, 1B Jose Mercado, and IF/OF Bernie Seanez. Part of the reason is that the veterans, like RF Del Domingo and DH Ricky Beech, have not proven themselves to be terribly successful. C Peter Sosa is the exception, as he could be the only consistent hitter in the Jackson lineup this season.
Pitching: Again we go south of the border to begin. Max Jacquez was 20-10 with an ERA of 3.63, Phillip Allensworth followed up his season 1 20-win performance with a 19-5, 3.37 season. R.J. Toca rebounded from elbow surgery in season 1 to win 11 games with an ERA under 4. Albert Gonzalez and Dennys Fox combined for 28 wins and both had ERAs under 4, so this is a very deep rotation. Larry Stokes didn't quite turn the question mark going into last season into an exclamation mark, but he was much better and established himself as a good closer. Ed Adkins won 14 games in relief and Vern Baez had a great season himself.
I'll take Iowa City by a hair over Nashville for second. Mendy Blackley, York Burnett, and Paul Saarloos make a nice, if not great, top of the rotation. Tiny Mayne should be the #4 guy and is a decent starter. Brent Holmes will likely get a shot at the rotation, but he's a fairly big question mark. The bullpen is anchored by Bo Hatfield who, after bouncing around the league a little, seems to have found a home in Iowa City. The rest of the bullpen is mediocre, at best.
Nashville still has some stalwarts in the rotation. Ham Bruske and Larry Cole dropped off a little from season 1 but they're still solid starters. Vin Bautista comes over from Arizona and should fill the #3 spot. Josh Gant was the swingman and ended up winning 14 games- he may start full-time this season. Enrique saved 35 out of 43 but was pretty shaky at times. Dan Porter ended up winning 14 games out of the pen.
Things could get ugly in Jackson. Lenny Durham went 15-12 last season; he's the only proven pitcher on this entire staff. Cookie Rijo went 5-18 with an ERA of 5.69 and he'll be counted on heavily. Charlie Bailey has control issues, Shaggy Anderson has never pitched above AA, and they may be pulling fans from the stands for the fifth starter spot. As hard as this may be to believe, the bullpen may be in more disarray than the starting rotation. There's no clear-cut closer, although Wilfredo Vizquel has at least had two decent seasons at setup. The job could go to Josh Drese, who's more talented than Vizquel but has thrown exactly 3 innings above AA. Jackson pitchers should be prepared to "chuck and duck" this season, because it will probably be better than watching where the ball ends up.
1. Monterrey makes it 3 for 3 by taking the division again.
2. Nashville slugs its way to a 2nd place finish and takes their customary wild-card spot.
3. Iowa City will be better than their 76 wins from last season and, if things break right, could be in the wild card race.
4. Jackson won 69 games in Durham last season- this situation gets worse before it gets better. They easily lose 100 games.