Season 4 is upon us: spring training begins tomorrow. So it's time to take a look around the league and visit each team before the regular season takes off. We start, as always, in the National League East. This has been a hard to predict division since day 1 of the league, but this much we know: unless Washington can rise from the ashes, we will not have a first time winner of the division for the first time ever. Who will win division crown number 2?
We'll start in Trenton. Norfolk scored 19 more runs last season, but I think the addition of RF Denny Moss makes them the best offense in the division when he's on the field. He should help drive in the speedsters (LF Ken Davis, 2B Carlton MacDougal, and SS Scot Hutton, all of whom also have power) and take some pressure off of the two young sluggers (1B Stephen Mills and 3B Enrique Park- over 100 RBI each). Add CF Phil Nakajima (.378 OBP) and this is a lineup that's 7 deep with only defensive catcher Deivi Sierra the only non-RBI threat.
Norfolk is not far behind. While LF Justin Gordon, 3B Tony Mays, 2B Ignacio Diaz, and CF Carlos Cervantes all drove in more than 85 (although none hit 100), the key to this offense is leadoff hitter 1B Melvin Nakano. If he gets on at a .394 clip as he did last season, this offense will score plenty of runs. They could also use some help from guys like SS Joel Crosby and RF Donne Meacham- Crosby will likely get a shot to start for the first time while Meacham had a solid rookie season in season 2 and took a big step back last season. I'd take Trenton's middle of the order over this offense, but Nakano is better than anybody Trenton can throw in the leadoff spot.
Washington checks in next. Last season they were not too far behind the big boys in offense. They should be led again by one of the biggest stars in this league that no one knows about in 3B David Rushford (.249-48-100). Their big hitters (Rushford, RF Irv McCallum, LF Harry Belliard) strike out too often to really sustain long rallies and they lack a true leadoff hitter or table setter.
Atlanta struggled mightily last season to score runs. They have some speed in OF Matt Rivera and talented 2B Johnny Holt, but 1B Manny Matos and LF Albert Martin are the only true HR and RBI threats. They lack the depth of Trenton and Norfolk
Atlanta probably has the most raw talent, particularly in the rotation. The young trio of Fred Carter, Orber Halter, and Alex Sanchez makes them a team that could easily win big if the offense could support them. Cory Schneider and Cristian Lyons will help eat innings and provide depth in this rotation. 23-year-old Nate MacNamara could get the closer's role, although Trevor Watson is still there in case McNamara falters.
Norfolk isn't far off the pace. They don't have the young studs Atlanta has, but they have veteran stalwarts Babe Broadhurst (who had an excellent season last season), Malcolm Lawrence, and Jesus Estrada. Rod Walters is the young guy on the staff and Larry Springer, Zephyr Palmer, and Dan Young all could step in and do a decent job at the back end of the rotation. The bullpen can be iffy; Ariel Lee saved 40 games but had an ERA of 4.46.
Trenton's rotation will be held together very similarly to the way it was the first three seasons: with bubble gum and Scotch tape. Johnnie Reagan is the young stud, but there's little around him. Duffy Parnell provides quality innings but isn't great, and after that it's some combination of Tony Satou (yikes) and either call up guys like Will Piper and/or Vic Rincon from AAA, find someone still unemployed, or make a trade. The bullpen could be solid, with Rob Gilmore taking the closer's role from Justin Beverlin; Beverlin and Harry Candelaria are solid in the setup role. The question is can the starting staff give these guys a lead.
Washington's pitching was brutal last season, providing 1001 reasons to cringe (one reason for every run they gave up). It could be better, but not by much. Buzz Linden was brought in from San Juan to be the ace- he's not an ace, but he is better than what else the Blue Coats have. Is he worth $32.7 million over 4 years? That remains to be seen. Terrence Gryboski and Matty Grimsley are very average pitchers. Lance Rodgers will be solid, but he's possibly a year away. The bullpen is iffy as well: closer Andruw Little blew 1/3 of his save opportunities. There are some decent setup pieces in Duke Nielsen and Mule James.
1. I'll have to take a Norfolk repeat. Trenton may be a step ahead in offense and Atlanta may be a step ahead in pitching, but they're by far the most balanced team in this division.
2. Trenton (conditionally) finishes second again. Unless they get a legitimate starter to help Reagan, they don't sneak into the playoffs as they did last season.
3. Atlanta will finish third unless they make a deal for a bat or two. If they do, they could pass Trenton.
4. Washington will make little strides toward improvement. They won't approach the other three but won't be as bad as last season.
5. Albert Martin is a name everyone will know around this league at the end of the year after he has a breakout season.