Let's head to the wild west for the last of our NL previews. In what is possibly the best rivalry, Salem and Arizona have each taken a division title (although Salem has a World Series title to show for it, while the Snakes don't). Who wins round 3?
Offense: Arizona scored the most runs in the NL in Season 2 and could repeat that feat. Speedy outfielders Justin Hernandez (99 steals last season) and R.J. Figueroa should provide 2-time reigning MVP LF Osvaldo Johnson, 1B Eddie Greer, 3B Lawrence Flanagan, and C Willis Petrov. There is a bit of a question at 2B, where Kid Waters's best days seem to be behind him and rookie Willie Scott's best days seem to be in front of him. No matter who plays second, though, this is the deepest lineup in the NL West, if not the entire NL.
I'll put Salt Lake City next on the list, slightly ahead of Salem. 3B Vin Foulke and 1B Ruben Hernandez both drove in 100 last season and CF Lynn Abernathy drove in 95. They'll be supported by LF Travis Ryan and young speedy outfielder Paul Ingram- if he could be a good leadoff hitter this lineup should be in the top half of the league.
Salem checks in next, led by quiet superstar CF Nate Cox. Aging SS Macbeth Keller is the other power threat in the lineup. Infielders Frank Gant, Derek Bedard, and LF Jorge Tejera must be on base for this offense to work; Tejera's numbers declined sharply from season 1 to season 2.
Scottsdale should be a little better than their predecessors in Boise, although probably not by much. The big acquisitions, trading for SS Ivan Jones and signing LF Thomas Keisler, don't improve the Slammers all that much- Jones is 35 and slightly overrated, and Keisler is a good top-of-the-order type guy, but other than budding star 3B Cap Herrera, there are very few hitters with the ability to drive him in. Torey Mota had an OPS of .638 while accumulating over 563 ABs last season and RF Greg Cook was waived by San Juan for a reason, mostly his $5.5 million contract.
Pitching: This is where Salem excels. Dave Dunwoody and Dwight Salmon tailed off a little from their season 1 Cy Young seasons, but they are still both aces. Domingo Nunez and Dan Pederson both won 17 last season (compared to 14 apiece for the aforementioned aces) and provide very good depth. Tony Matos is a big-time closer and Walter Curtis is a pretty good setup man.
Arizona is next by default. Hipolito Pujols wasn't nearly as dominant last season as he was before his Season 1 elbow injury, but he was still solid. Kane Grahe won 19 games with an ERA just over 4. Brandon Small won 18 with a similar ERA. After that, the rotation is shaky. Japanese import Charles Tanaka may get a shot at the rotation, but he may be better served catching the next flight back to Haneda International Airport. The last spots in the rotation should be filled by some combination of Byron Duckworth, Octavio Calles, Doc Buhner, Tim Gonzalez (who should get on the same plane as Tanaka), and/or Patrick Billingsley. Closer Vic Trevino's ERA is a little high, but he closes out games. Setup man Alfredo Canseco comes over from Scottsdale to set up Trevino.
Salt Lake City had a decent staff last season, but it does have some holes. On the plus side, it does have Albert Valdez, who finished above .500 (11-10) for a bad team. Hard-throwing Rene Alexander may get a shot at the rotation, although he's often unsure where the ball is going. Speaking of control issues, Clinton Skrmetta got over his issues last season and posted a 13-7 record with an ERA under 4- can he do it again? On the minus side, Vince Costello is not reliable at the back of the rotation and the bullpen is in shambles. Bruce Phillips blew way too many saves last season and he has nobody to set him up.
Scottsdale also has holes. Kelly Downs leads the staff, and he is a solid starter. As for the rest of the rotation...hmmm...did I mention Kelly Downs? Jesse Bridges is decidedly average at best, and Footsie Lewis, Heath Caufield, Mendy Richardson, and John Gibson are pedestrian, bad, awful, and terrible, respectively. The bullpen can boast Chris Jennings, who signed for $4.5 million and should (deservingly) take over the closer's role. He, like Phillips, has no quality setup guys in front of him.
1. Seems to be a 2-team race between Salem and Arizona. I'll say that Salem's top two pitchers return to form, they get a bat sometime during the season, and eke out a division win.
2. If I had to pick right now, I'd give Arizona a wild-card spot to go with their 2nd place finish.
3. Salt Lake City takes 3rd. They seem to be further along in rebuilding than Scottsdale.