Next stop on our AL tour is the AL North. The Milwaukee Manic Maulers have owned this division, winning 5 straight division titles and making 3 straight World Series appearances. Will they win again? Will the Buffalo Blue Cheese, the St. Louis Silly Nannies, or the Syracuse Simpletons upset the Maulers or at least make the playoffs?
We start in Milwaukee (last season- 2nd in AL) with the AL champs yet again. Mr. 40-40, CF Luis Martinez, is coming off an MVP season, and he still has plenty of help. LF Burt Stevenson, 1B Andre Eckenstahler, 2B Bob Malone, and RF Harold Lewis are all dangerous hitters, making it difficult to pitch around Martinez. They're maybe not quite as deep in the lineup as they have been in seasons past, but they will still score more than their fair share of runs.
After Milwaukee, it's pretty much a toss-up. I'll take Syracuse (last season- 12th in AL) barely over fellow upstate NY denizen Buffalo for the 2nd best offense in the division. C Peter Sosa is the best hitter on the team, and he's backed by LF Bret King, DH Ricky Beech and Galahad Paul, who are solid (if unspectacular) hitters. The lineup does have holes and if William Nomo hits .229 again, he might replace Pete Rubel as the most overpaid player in baseball.
I'll take Buffalo (last season- 10th in AL) next, based largely on 1B Julio Diaz's breakout season (.307-56-145) and subsequent passing of drug tests. LF Tito Martin struck out too much in a little more than half a season, but also flashed his hitting ability- his season could determine Buffalo's fate. 2B Jordan Ball is a veteran who needs to step up a little more.
St. Louis (last season- 13th in AL) lost their top run producer, 2B Pepe Martin, to free-agency. They signed LF Vicente Romero to try and help make up for the lost production. 1B Nick Hernandez is not a prototypical first baseman (he only hit 9 HRs), but he makes up for it with a high average (.334 last season) and speed (52 steals). He'll be joined by RF Benito Valdes in the middle of the lineup. 2B Rico Guevara had a nice rookie season, but he needs to raise his average and cut down on his strikeouts.
For all the attention paid to Milwaukee's offense, the Manic Maulers (last season- 1st in AL) have won with their starting pitching. Woody Hiller, Vin Solano, Quinton Hughes, and Graham Costello are right up there with the starting rotations of Atlanta and Fargo in the NL. King Burns and Buddy Titan are excellent out of the pen.
St. Louis (last season- 5th in AL) may have overachived a bit last season and may not finish this high again in the AL, but I'll take them slightly over Buffalo and Syracuse based mainly on two arms- starter Yogi Anderson and closer Carlos Carrasco. Anderson is a future ace who should be a ROY candidate this season. As it is, he'll start 3rd, with the capable Russell Newson getting the opening day start. Kelly Downs was signed as a free-agent and Lloyd Freel is in the rotation for now- he's a solid arm either starting or relieving. One could argue Carrasco is the best reliever in the league- he's saved more than 94% of his chances (160 for 169 for his career) and has a lifetime ERA of 2.22. Getting to him could be a concern- Craig Hughes isn't great, but he seems like the best setup option.
Buffalo (last season- 10th in AL) might have some trouble keeping runs off the board. Claude Jacquez and Steve Clay are two fairly good veteran arms, but it's the young Chris Lowry who will get the opening day start- I'm not crazy about him or the other two starters (Hi Nolan and Billy Spencer). Archie LeCroy may have the closer's role for now- expect Wesley Cora to take it back at some point during the season.
Syracuse (last season- 12th in AL) may have a Rowan (Tony) and a Martin (Ryan) in their rotation, but it won't be a Laugh-In for Simpletons fans. Charlie Miller and Louie Bolivar round out the rotation- none are big-time pitchers. Jared McMahon returns as the closer and was pretty good, saving 39 out of 49 (meaning he blew more saves than Carrasco has in 5 seasons). Steven Martin (no relation to Ryan) will be counted on to set up McMahon.
1. Milwaukee wins again in a runaway.
2. Something tells me Buffalo will take 2nd over Syracuse.
3. Milwaukee is the only playoff team in this division. None of the other 3 teams are ready yet.
4. Syracuse in particular could have some bats (Sosa, King) that could be dealt near the deadline. Hernandez and Valdes from St. Louis could also have some suitors.