It's time for Spring Training again, so for the 5th season in a row I provide previews for all 32 teams. We start, as always, in a division near and dear to my heart- the NL East.
The NL East has been a competitive division since day 1- last season it was decided by 2 games for the 2nd time in 3 seasons. 3 out of the 4 teams own division titles. So who comes out of the division this season?
- Trenton led the division last season in runs, and could very well do it again. RF Denny Moss grabs most of the headlines and most of the league has known about 1B Steven Mills for a while, but 3B Enrique Park (.274-40-123) put up the biggest numbers on the team. The big news is the acqusition of speedster LF Rico Valdes from Fargo- if he can be a force at the top of the lineup the RBI totals could go up for the middle of that order. The unknown in the lineup is rookie C Vasco Lopez- he's a switch hitter and should turn out to be a good two-way catcher, but can he produce this year at the plate? Their defense could be a bit questionable at times with their projected lineup.
- Atlanta wasn't far behind Trenton last season. None of the Trenton boys could claim the title as best hitter in the division last season- 1B Matty Matos took a big leap up to superstar level(.315-55-134); can he replicate those numbers this season? 3B Hal Brinkley provides support for Matos in the lineup and, like Trenton, they have good complementary parts like CF Lynn Abernathy, LF Albert Martin, and RF Stan Starr. Trenton's star power probably gets them a little higher but this should be a solid lineup.
- Norfolk took a bit of a step back last season. The core of the lineup is still there with speedy 1B Melvin Nakano, 2B Ignacio Diaz, and RF Justin Gordon. But CF Carlos Cervantes and 3B Tony Mays both had off years- they'll need more production from those guys to keep up with Atlanta and Trenton. Gordon moves to right to make room for Juan Chavez- he probably won't be a star but should provide some depth in the lineup.
- Washington D.C. is in full rebuilding mode. 3B David Rushford and 1B Jimmie Williams would get far more attention playing anywhere else- they both had outstanding seasons for a 63-win team. The problem is it's not going to get much better immediately, as these guys have no help in the lineup. Expect current AAA denizen IF Willis Biddle to get a shot at the majors at some point this season.
-Atlanta won the division based on their starting pitching and could do it again. They pulled off two megadeals; one for Matty Eusebio, and one for Steven Michaels. One could argue they have the best rotation in baseball, with Fred Carter and Orber Halter following the big two, so they should get a quality outing almost every night. The bullpen could be an issue- they have Tex Howell, Trevor Watson, and Alex Sanchez as potential closers.
- Trenton doesn't match up with Atlanta's rotation, but this could be their best starting staff in their history. Johnnie Reagan returns (Trenton needs to get more innings out of him), and last season's deals for Damion Mays and R.J. Toca solidified the #2 and #3 slots. Enrique Rijo will return as the #4. The bullpen returns 40-save man Rob Gilmore and rookies Pablo Rojas and Mitch Clark will take most of the setup duties. Bo Hatfield was signed to help set up from the left side.
- Norfolk and Trenton finished almost in a dead heat in runs allowed last season. The Destroyers will return ace Babe Broadhurst, who couldn't match his near Cy-Young form of season 3, but was still very good. Malcolm Lawrence and Rod Walters are solid veterans in back of Broadhurst. Ricardo Gabriel and Dan Young will get the first cracks at the last two spots in all likliness; they both have talent but may not be ready for the big time quite yet. In the bullpen, Ariel Lee has completely turned his career around; he went from a 6.18 ERA in season 2 (his first as the closer) to winning the NL Fireman of the Year Award last season. Veteran Jae Brea willl again log innings setting Lee up.
- Washington is in dire need of pitching help. They don't return anyone who won more than 8 games last season. Matty Grimsley and Steven Greenberg headline the starting staff; they'd have trouble cracking the rotation of the majority of teams in the league. Rico Mangual and Andruw Little combined for 33 saves but both had ERAs over 6.
1. The division comes down to Atlanta and Trenton. Atlanta's advantage in pitching is probably better than Trenton's advantage at the plate, so I'll go with the Bandits.
2. Trenton again is in the wild card fight for the last spot with about 3-5 other teams.
3. Norfolk, if things break right on offense, could be back in contention. They may still need to add a pitcher.
4. Vasco Lopez, whether or not he is a Rookie of the Year contender, will have a lot to do with Trenton making or missing the playoffs.
5. Jimmie Williams and/or David Rushford will be traded out of Washington D.C. as the Blue Coats fail to crack the 70 win mark for the 4th straight season. Most calls to D.C. area sports talk radio shows will be to ask when Carter Leonard is arriving.