Like the first two previewed AL divisions, this one has been dominated by one team since opening day of the opening season. Monterrey has taken 3 straight division titles and took a World Series trophy south of the border. Will they be a team that ends up with a 4-peat? Or does rival Nashville finally step up past the Sultans? And what of Little Rock and Jackson?
Even with Cody Lincoln leaving town, this is still the deepest lineup in the division. They have so many weapons: IFs Haywood McDonald, Howard Murray, and Del Lopez remain along with budding star DH Tony Escuela and another big-time hitter, RF Ryan Snyder, comes over from Milwaukee. This lineup's only problem may be finding at-bats for guys like free-agent pickup Eli Jacquez.
Nashville has the two best hitters in this division, but depth is an issue. 2-time MVP and future sure-fire Hall of Famer 2B Gregg Black is back to terrorize AL pitching and DH King Winn had a monster year back in the American League. After those two, there's not much- C Tony Stieb is a good hitter (although he can be shaky behind the plate) and 1B Midre Santiago drives in runs but doesn't get on base enough and strikes out too much. I think Kris Clinton's days as a productive hitter may be reaching an end.
In Little Rock, the departure of IF Wendell Durrington (Cheyenne) leaves a big hole in the middle of the lineup, so they've brought in 1B Bernie Soriano (New York) to fill the gap. He'll join SS Jay Walker (signed to a huge contract from Colorado Springs) and LF Pete McGowan, who can drive in runs but needs the first base coach to put a giant stop sign in front of him at first base (4 for 27 in stolen bases). OF Abdullah Dillon is ultra-fast, but can get on base more.
Jackson is a team in the midst of a rebuilding process. They have veteran DH Ricky Beech who, at 30 years old, is the oldest player currently on the roster. The lineup's future is in the hands of the likes of 3B Brook Teut and LF Dennis Tamura.
I have to start down Mexico way again. The Sultans got recognition for their offense, but their pitching was a key components of all that success in the first three seasons of this league. Stalwarts Albert Gonzalez and Philip Allensworth are now joined by veteran ace Ajax Drabek and future star pitcher Luther Brush in the rotation. The bullpen is well-stocked as well, with Ted Reese and Tony Merced the most talented of the bunch.
Nashville comes in next. Ham Bruske is the only dependable starter- Vin Bautista struggled in his first season in Nashville and Miguel Gonzalez is decent as a #3. Josh Gant and Larry Cole need to step up their games. Nashville fans can only take so much of the roller coaster ride that is Enrique Chantres at the end of the game.
Jackson's top four starting pitchers are all under the age of 24. Alex Samuel may be the best of the bunch, and Jimmy Cole can be almost as good if he can find his control. Ivan Webster should have a nice career, but I don't think Carlos Martinez can cut it as a top-flight starter; he may find a spot at the bottom of a rotation. 5th starter Ralph Wilkins may be the most important man on the staff not because of his talent (he's maybe a #5 starter), but because he's 26- nobody else on the pitching staff can rent a car on road trips. Josh Drese and Garry Wright should get opportunities at the back of the bullpen. Wright is 23 and Drese is 24.
Little Rock realized that Marc Dubose, Wilfredo Colome, and Brent Holmes weren't going to cut it as a top three in a rotation, so they went out and addressed the staff in the offseason. Unfortunately, I don't think it helps. Hipolito Pujols hasn't ever been the same since his elbow injury and may never be, and I've never been a fan of Joey Hubbard- his reputation is better than his production (he's never had an ERA under 5 for any season). If Bo Hatfield is the best option you have in the bullpen, it's a mess.
1. Monterrey makes it 4 in a row. Nashville might be able to slug with them but no one can pitch with them.
2. Since Black and Winn couldn't slug Nashville to a wild-card spot last season, their season hinges on three players- Vin Bautista, Daryl Lyons, and Albert Reith. If the former can help Bruske and the latter two can help the mashers, the Sounds could find themselves back in the playoff mix.
3. Jackson takes third. They won't be near the playoffs, but Viper fans should be pleased as they start to see the future taking shape. I don't forsee a Tampa Bay Rays-type turnaround (but then again, who saw that one coming?), but there will be signs that this franchise is on the way up.
4. Little Rock can't pitch, so they get to sleep in the basement.
5. Breakout star: Dennis Tamura. I'm telling you now- remember the name.
6. Star most likely to be traded: probably one of Little Rock's position players. Jay Walker would be a good candidate if his contract wasn't enormous, so I'll say Pete McGowan.