The Milwaukee franchise has been true to its name, manically mauling all comers in the division since day one of this league. Last season St. Louis finished 20 games back of the Bashing Bratwursts and still managed to snag a wild card spot. Can they do it again or even upset the Maulers? Can either team from the Upstate NY connection (Buffalo and Syracuse) break through?
A preview of the entire major leagues, never mind this division, would start in Milwaukee. They're loaded yet again, with big time stars up and down the lineup. 1B Andre Eckenstahler, IF Bob Malone, LF Burt Stevenson, CF Luis Martinez, and RF Harold Lewis are all big-time hitters. A scary thought is that it's possible that this offense, which has set the league record for runs two straight seasons, could score even more this season if SS Ray Buchanan reverts back to his season 2 form.
There's a big drop off from Milwaukee; I'll take Buffalo next. The Orlando Franco deal could hurt them at shortstop, but they do get Vladimir Rodriguez out of the deal. He'll join slugging 1B Daryle Van Poppel, CF Walker Guerrero, and C/DH Marc Strange in the middle of the lineup. 2B Jordan Ball and LF Jeffrey Evans could step up to provide RBI opportunities for the aforementioned 4; if not, they may struggle.
Syracuse won't be too far behind their upstate brothers. C/DH Emmanuel Guzman made his first season along I-90 a very successful one- he'll lead the offensive charge. LF Peter Suzuki, IF/OF Bret King, and free-agent import 3B William Nomo should drive in runs. OF Harry Silva was great in part-time duty getting on base and in the running game, but the question becomes if he can do it over 500-600 at bats.
St. Louis may struggle at times to put runs on the board. Young 1B Nick Hernandez appears to be the real deal, but he'll need help from the outfield duo of Pepe Martin and Benito Valdez to make this lineup viable at all.
Milwaukee still has the stars and the depth to match its hitting prowress. Vin Solano and Woody Hiller are bonafide aces, and Vic Chavez, Graham Costello, and James Morton are very good depth for the starting staff; they'll run out a solid ML pitcher every night. The bullpen is not neglected here, as Quinton Hughes is arguably the best closer in the league and Buddy Titan should have a better year setting up.
Now the question becomes; do I take the staff with one superstar and little depth, or the staff with depth and no star? Dealer, give me an ace. So Buffalo comes next, pretty much solely on the basis of Steven Michaels. The former Cy Young winner has been highly consistent in his three seasons. It's quite iffy after that; Orber Marin took a gigantic step back last season (although he is capable of bouncing back) and Pete Rubel has been terrible. On the upside, Steve Clay has a chance to become a good starter, and Pablo Rijo should be solid at the end.
Syracuse has a ton of starters and most of them are anywhere from serviceable to solid, but none I would consider to be really good. Louie Bolivar and Russell Newson are probably the best of the bunch, and you have your pick of Tony Rowan, Ryan Martin, Hayes Hill, Lefty Little, and Charlie Miller for the other 3 spots (I'd be tempted to go with Rowan and Martin just for the Laugh-In jokes that would inevitably follow). Jared McMahon will be the closer.
St. Louis got in the playoffs mostly on their arms last season. Based on their current roster, I just don't see it. They had 4 guys win in double figures last season, but 3 are gone (amazingly, they all went to Syracuse). Benito Martin led the way with 14 wins and is the only solid returning starter. The only other good news is Carlos Carrasco, who was lights out as the closer and Craig Hughes was almost untouchable as the setup guy.
1. As for who wins this, I offer only 2 words: Milwaukee. Landslide.
2. St. Louis goes from last playoff spot to last in the AL North.
3. Syracuse takes second- Buffalo is trying to build for the future. Neither gets anywhere near the playoffs.
4. Breakout star: Jordan Ball.
5. Star most likely to be traded: SP Steven Michaels. He's already rumored to be on the block, and the trade of Franco indicates that Buffalo sees itself as a seller, not a buyer.