And the long-awaited season previews begin, as we have for the first two seasons, with the NL East.
Offense: The title for best offense in the division is a toss-up. I'll take Norfolk by a nose over Trenton. The Destroyers will be led by leadoff man 1B Melvin Nakano and the trio of LF Justin Gordon, CF Carlos Cervantes, and 2B Ignacio Diaz should drive in the runs. If 3B Tony Mayo can continue to progress as he has his first two years, he'll join C Ray Canseco and RF Donnie Meacham in providing depth throughout the lineup.
Trenton is a very close second. They don't exactly have a traditional leadoff hitter like Nakano, although sticking LF Ken Davis in the slot isn't such a bad option. The Traffic essentially have three shortstops in Carlton MacDougal, Scot Hutton, and Phil Nakajima, so in addition to lineup depth one would have to imagine their defense up the middle should be excellent. If MacDougal finally reaches his offensive potential, this lineup could be better than Norfolk- he could bat 1st or second and with the aforementioned three along with future stars 1B Stephen Mills and 3B Enrique Park, their lineup would run 7 deep.
Atlanta doesn't have the established veterans in their lineup that Norfolk and Trenton can boast, but they have some young talent. 1B Matty Matos was a good acquisition from Toronto; he'll likely bat in the middle of the order and be counted on along with LF Albert Martin and 3B Randy Ferguson. SS Eric Baker and CF Matt Rivera both took steps back offensively last season; they both need to step up.
Washington is rebuilding, but they're not completely barren offensively. 3B David Rushford is one of the best hitters in the league, and Buzz Gaillard can still drive in runs. The problem is there are just as many Emmanuel Guzmans (collosal waste of money last season) and Ronald Spurgeons (too many strikeouts) as there are good hitters.
Pitching: Atlanta won this division with their young starting pitching, so it's hard to take anyone else over them. Fred Carter and Alex Sanchez are two big-time young starters, and they're complemented by veterans Larry Springer and Cory Schneider nicely. Cristian Lyons might be a little overpaid at $6 million a year, but he at least provides depth and innings. Hard throwing closer Trevor Watson closes a good percentage of his games, although his ERA is a little high. The rest of the bullpen is somewhat suspect.
Norfolk still boasts ace Babe Broadhurst and #2 starter Malcolm Lawrence at the top. After those two, the rotation has some question marks, mainly the health of Rod Walters. The 14 game winner from season 1 did not throw a pitch in season 2. Zepyhr Palmer and Jesus Estrada are decent in the back of the rotation. The bullpen has more questions; first and foremost is who will close. Is it season 1 closer Jae Brea, or season 2 closer Ariel Lee? Both are somewhat suspect.
Trenton is an enigma on the mound. This is a team with very much the same type of rotation that both won 100 games in season 1 and collapsed down the stretch in season 2. Johnnie Reagan had a down season last year and is not yet an ace, but probably starts Opening Day. The rest of the rotation is Tom "Wild Thing" Griffith , Tony Satou, Vernon Coscarat, and Enrique Rijo. These are not names that keep hitters up nights, but they've all won games in this league. If they all put it together pitching to defensive specialist Deivi Sierra this season, they could contend. The bullpen is solid, with Justin Beverlin starting as the closer. He'll have Rob Gilmore, Jim Bell, and Osvaldo Alou setting him up. Gilmore could easily close should Beverlin struggle.
The difference between decent and rebuilding is often the pitching staff. This is no exception. Terrence Grybowski lost 20 games last season. Rico Mangual and Lance Rodgers, probably no better than #5 starters on a good team, will lead the pitching staff. Having Andruw Little start is pretty much the same as taking $5 million and flushing it down a toilet. Andrew Bird also makes too much, but at least can eat innings. In the bullpen, Bill Evans is a decent setup guy- too bad Mule James can't close.
1. Expect a 3-way race between Norfolk, Trenton, and Atlanta all the way to the end. In-season moves could end up deciding this, but I'll go with my gut and say it's Norfolk's turn to win this. Atlanta doesn't have enough offense to repeat in my opinion, and Trenton's loaded with talent but just has too many question marks in the rotation.
2. Any team with wild-card aspirations in this division should know they'll be, at best, in a jumble with 4 or 5 other teams; at worst they'll be far behind the 2nd place teams from the North and West.
3. Washington will not yield 1000 runs this season, as they did last season, but they may threaten.
4. Atlanta will be rumored in deals for a big bat, and Trenton will be after any good starting pitching that becomes available.