Houston pulled off a little bit of an upset by taking out Fargo and Milwaukee en route to the World Series title. Can they repeat? Can someone else in the division take them out?
One might think we'd start with the champs, but I'd take San Juan's offense slightly over Houston, based mostly on depth. They have the big names in superstar RF Calvin Chang and power hitting 3B Julio Castro, but there's more to this offense than just those two. SS Mike Henderson and CF John Baldwin provide a mixture of power and speed, and LF Jackie Wheeler drove in 99 runs. 2B Felix Pryce is a young player who should improve this season, and IF Ronald Spurgeon was brought over from Washington to add depth- 1B Frankie Brooks could end up being the odd man out of this lineup.
Houston isn't far behind, as they have some name recognition of their own in 3B Leo Miller and RF Brian Saitou. With these two along with LF Placido Sanchez and 1B Monte Duvall, they have four guys who are threats to steal bases and hit home runs. If recent pickup CF Scott Diaz (from Chicago) can get on base, this lineup could be downright scary.
New Orleans also has run-scoring capability. 2B Ray Cepicky is the big-time all around hitter, but he's backed by SS Albie Torres and CF Don Jefferson, who is also a stolen base threat. Russ Blank had a nice season at 3B- he'll need to repeat that and LF Mark Jung needs to step up. Former MVP candidate Lyle Barber left via free-agency, so 1B Tim Radlosky will get more at-bats.
Austin has some talent, but has yet to put it all together. They have some nice players like CF Lee Kennedy 3B Karim Ortiz, and 2B Jerry Strickland, but there's no superstar, no huge power threat, and they strike out way too much to sustain innings.
Houston was good last season and gets even better with the addition of SP Stephen Tucker. He'll anchor a staff that also includes Jerome Oliver, Jose Merced, and Damon Thompson. The bullpen has Tex Howell still at the back, and watch for Cristian Price to have a big year setting up Howell.
San Juan has a few stalwart starters in Wally Lawton and Buzz Linden. I don't like the rest of the staff, as Joey Adcock has struggled and I'm not as high on Charlie White as some of the scouts seem to be. Willie Nunez had 48 saves but needs to lower his ERA under 4. Kenneth Schalk had a good season setting up in Season 3. Joaquin Cordero could be valuable as the "swing man".
The addition of R.J. Toca puts Austin ahead of New Orleans in my book. They may regret overpaying for him, but for now he's their best starter and will team with Oswaldo Astacio to form a good 1-2 punch. If Brandon Small and Olmedo James pitch to their potential, this could potentially be a solid, if unspectacular, staff. The bullpen needs help, as Joel King couldn't cut it as the closer and there's no clear cut solution if King falters again.
New Orleans is thankful Washington was in the league; if not, they would have given up the most runs in the NL last season. Carlos Matos is a good starter, but he's the only decent one. Tony Marquez and Jayson Hennesey are (maybe) #5 starters and I'm not a big fan of Jim Brown. Tom Hernandez only blew 5 saves out of 36, but needs to lower his ERA. Bobby Ray Hooper struggled last season but would be the most likely setup man to step up his game this season.
1. Houston wins. Too much balance.
2. San Juan should be right there at the end again (they lost the tiebreaker to Trenton for the last spot) in a bunch of about 3-6 different teams for the wild card. It could be their year to break through and get in.
3. Austin finished 2 games back of New Orleans for third- I'll take them to pass the Voodoo for third this season in what amounts to a "pick 'em" situation.
4. New Orleans drafts a starting pitcher in the first round.
5. Tim Radlosky will make New Orleans fans pine for the Lyle Barber era.