Our whirlwind trip around the league takes us to the AL South, where Monterrey has won 4 straight division titles. Little Rock (now Oklahoma City) got the last wild-card slot, finishing one game ahead of Nashville, while Jackson began to rebuild their team . So what does this season hold for these four teams?
- Monterrey's depth is surpassed probably only by Milwaukee in the entire AL. They still have veteran hitters in 2B Del Lopez, 1B Haywood MacDonald, and LF Marcus Reboulet hitting at a fairly high level, but last season the torch was passed to two young hitters; RF Ryan Snyder (.284-45-129) and DH Tony Escuela (.308-42-118). Those two will be the fulcrum of the Monterrey offense for seasons to come.
- Nashville doesn't have Monterrey's depth, but has arguably the best two hitters in the majors. DH King Winn (.316-62-182) had a season for the ages and 2B Gregg Black posted his normally exceptional numbers (.342-49-146); the two ended up splitting the AL MVP award. Outside of the two monsters they also have CF Tyler Post, 1B Midre Santiago, and C Tony Stieb as legitimate offensive threats.
- Oklahoma City has made plenty of changes to its roster, but its offense revolves around holdover DH Keith Buckley. New acquisitions LF Vladimir Rodriguez and 1B Charles Tomko hope to help RF Hideki Nakano protect Buckley in the lineup. This lineup may not be as good as last season, however, losing 3 of their top 5 RBI leaders (including leader Leo Miller).
- Jackson's young players experienced some growing pains. 3B Brook Teut and 1B Esteban Vega put up decent numbers, but they need more from their talented LF Dennis Tamura. Rookie RF Herman Millard should add some more pop.
- Monterrey is far and away the best staff in the division. Ace starter Ajax Drabek is not what he once was, but he's still pretty good. He's backed by youth in Luther Brush and Jocko Keats, with Albert Gonzalez providing a veteran arm. Pablo Rijo is a solid closer, and Ted Reese and Tony Merced provide good setup work.
- Oklahoma City isn't nearly as deep. Joey Hubbard and Paul Saarloos would be solid in the middle of a rotation, but they are the top two. The #3 and #4 pitchers, Heath Caufield and Lenny Durham, were taken off the scrap heap. The bullpen will be headed by Glen Kelly, Luis Garces, and J.D. Wilkinson- I don't really see a lights-out closer in that group.
- Jackson's pitching was a lot like its offense- not quite performing up to its potential. They have the makings of a solid rotation in Alex Samuel, Ivan Webster, Jimmy Cole, and Daniel Jones- Samuel was the only one above .500 (11-10). Garry Wright, on the other hand, had a fine season as the closer, and Vic Molina and Dennys Miceli were solid as the main setup guys.
- Nashville has plenty of question marks. Ham Bruske has always been the ace, but he's 37 years old and not as dominant as he once was. Veterans Vin Bautista and Larry Cole are the best of the rest. In the bullpen, Enrique Chartres is still a bit of a question mark but did improve his numbers from season 3 to season 4. Setting up could be a major issue.
1. Make it 5 in a row. Monterrey wins yet again.
2. I don't like a lot of Oklahoma City's changes, so I'll take Winn, Black, and co. to slug their way to second place. I think their pitching keeps them home in October again.
3. I think the Sneaky Finger Puppet Mafia of OKC holds off Jackson for 3rd.
4. The best bet to be dealt is probably one of the Sounds veteran bats if Nashville falls out of contention early.