Next up is the AL South, which was one of the more interesting divisions in baseball last season. The Monterrey Sultans won their 5th straight division title and overtook Milwaukee for the best record in baseball. A young Jackson Vipers team ended up finding its way into the playoffs, and a veteran Nashville Sounds team ended falling one game short in their last season in Tennessee (they'll play this season as the Charlotte Princesses?!?). Oklahoma City was the also-ran. How does this division shape up this season?
Monterrey (last season- 1st in AL) has a deep lineup yet again. 1B Haywood McDonald, 2B Del Lopez, RF Ryan Snyder, and even SS Sammy Castro are all home-run threats. LF Marcus Reboulet is a good average hitter and can hit some home runs, but the biggest news last season was the ROY performance of C Rick Anderson (.344-30-96) to add another big bat to the lineup. They'll be hampered by DH Tony Escuela's season-ending injury, but Timo Carter should fill in nicely- he hit 39 homers in only 367 ABs (which works out to 1HR/9.4AB).
Charlotte (last season- 3rd in AL) has to hope their big bats don't get too old too fast. 2B Gregg Black and DH King Winn are still arguably the two most dangerous hitters in the league, but they are 34 and 33, respectively. That being said, I still think they have a few good seasons left. They'll be buoyed by C Tony Stieb and 1B Midre Santiago in the lineup. LF Luis Melo could be the guy to get on base ahead of all those thumpers and make this an even more dangerous lineup.
Jackson (last season- 11th in AL) probably has to do better than 11th to make it back to the playoffs. 3B Brook Teut and LF Dennis Tamura are both bonafide hitters, but the rest of the lineup has question marks. Rookie 2B Tony Johnson will be counted on to help the T and T brothers. They have plenty of talent, but who else will step up?
Oklahoma City (last season- last in AL) could very well finish last again. They have a few decent pieces, like LF Vladimir Rodriguez and C Rick Buckley, but no stars and little depth. DH Willie Sierra was brought in from Vancouver to help- Sneaky Finger Puppet Mafia fans do seem to have a little sense of excitement over this rookie.
Monterrey (last season- 3rd in AL) has always been deeper in this spot than the rest of the division- this season's edition is no different. Sure, they have Cy Young Award winner Albert Gonzalez, but they also have talented York Burnett, innings eater Luther Brush, and acquired Johnnie Reagan in a trade from Trenton. The bullpen is also deep, with Tony Merced, Vern Baez, and former Louisville closer Tom Beltran setting up veteran closer Pablo Rijo.
Jackson (last season- 8th in AL) would have to be next- they have fewer question marks than Charlotte or OKC. Alex Samuel will start Opening Day- look for him to win a lot more than 5 games this season. He's got talent. Ivan Webster was the big winner last season with 15 wins, and Carlos Martinez chipped in with 14, although their ERAs were a bit high. Daniel Jones had a terrible season. The bullpen may be better off than the starting staff, as Garry Wright saved 51 games and deservingly won the Fireman of the Year award. He has Dennys Miceli and Vic Molina in front of him, who are good arms.
Charlotte (last season- 11th in AL) needs more depth in the rotation. Ham Bruske is still the best starter, but he's 38 and can't pitch forever. Larry Cole and Josh Gant are OK starters. Felix Comer was pretty good after coming up from the minors- it remains to be seen if he can be that good over a full season. Either way, they could use another arm. The bullpen is in flux, as long time closer/roller coaster ride/walking heart attack for managers Enrique Chantres will start the season as the setup guy to Luis Piedra. This is another area where the Princesses could use more depth.
Oklahoma City (last season- last in AL) will likely struggle again. Paul Saarloos is a good starter and Lenny Durham is a middle of the road-type of starter, but that's about all they have. Heath Caufield still walks far too many batters, Earl Biddle (from Nashville) has a career ERA of almost six and a half, and Wilfredo Colomo went 8-23 last season- it's possible that more than half of their starts come from these three guys. Glen Kelly (31 for 33 in saves, 2.43 ERA) was the pitching staff's bright spot, so of course that means he loses his job. Tony Frank was brought in from Vancouver to close- even if he doesn't hold down the job, he's another good arm out of the bullpen.
1. Monterrey has too much talent to not win this division.
2. Something tells me Jackson takes a little step back this season- I'll give Charlotte 2nd place over the Vipers by very little.
3. Oklahoma City should get a top 3 pick in next season's draft- I don't think they'll finish behind Austin.
4. Look for Buckley and Saarloos (OKC) to possibly be dealt.