Free-agency is done and it's almost time for spring training, so it's once again time to take a look at all 32 teams in The Bigs. We start in the NL East, where the Atlanta Bandits took a step into the big time last season, making the NLCS before falling to eventual champion Fargo. Will they win a 3rd straight division title? Can Trenton or Norfolk catch up to the Bandits this season? Will the Washington Blue Coats be heard from?
We start in Atlanta, the defending division champs. They made a bold trade last season, dealing reigning MVP Matty Matos to New Orleans. 1B Stan Starr took Matos's position admirably, falling short of an MVP but posting a .312-46-113 season. He'll be joined by fellow Silver Slugger Jason Walker at 2B, a young rising star. LF Albert Martin and 3B Albie Torres are good RBI guys who will provide depth. The lineup is not without question marks, as CF Lynn Abernathy and RF Hal Brinkley both had down seasons- if they can bounce back this will be a very deep lineup. Atlanta is also hoping C Al O'Shea can adjust to becoming the full-time starting catcher. This offense finished 2nd in the NL last season, behind only Chicago.
Trenton's lineup will have a very different look to it this season. The holdovers are all quality hitters in 2B Enrique Park, SS Carlton MacDougal, 1B Stephen Mills, and C Vasco Lopez- MacDougal and Lopez both won Silver Slugger awards and Lopez started the All-Star Game in his rookie campaign. The outfield is completely reconfigured, as free-agent signee Leo Miller will join rookies LF Magglio Perez and CF Gary Nelson. Miguel Cerveza, signed from Vancouver, will likely man third. Nelson will likely lead off- if he can get on base, this is a very deep lineup. If the rookies don't perform, it's a questionable offense. If the pieces fit, the 3rd best offense in the NL last season could get even better.
Norfolk struggled to score runs last season. They were 12th in the NL in runs scored, and the 4 teams behind them averaged 65 wins, so they felt they needed an upgrade. Enter 3B Jay Walker, who struggled in his only season in Chicago but otherwise has a good track record. Walker replaces the departed Tony Mays at third and joins the holdovers, namely C Tony Gutierrez, CF Carlos Cervantes, 1B Melvin Nakano, and 2B Justin Gordon, the only Destroyer to reach 100 RBI last season. If Cervantes is not what he once was, all three outfield positions could be a question mark offensively.
Washington's offense was 15th in the NL last season, behind only Austin. They finally made the decision to deal their best player, 3B David Rushford, and the offense isn't promising without him. Ozzie Masato replaces Rushford, but he isn't anywhere near the talent Rushford is. 1B Jimmie Williams is now possibly the only real power threat in D.C. SS Nick Ramirez had a nice season.
Here's where Atlanta excels- they finished 2nd in runs allowed last season. They and Fargo were just on another level, and I don't see anything changing. Their starting staff is deep from spots 1-5, as Fred Carter and Stephen Michaels are both arguably aces and Orber Halter, Matty Eusebio, and Alex Sanchez are all very good starters. Tex Howell and Trevor Watson are the two best arms in the bullpen.
Trenton was 8th in runs allowed last season and dealt Johnnie Reagan in the offseason. They will feature Damion Mays as the ace- he'll need to take the next step in his career. The four pitchers behind him- Will Piper, Vic Rincon, Bert Pierre, and Tito Mercedes- are all talented but unproven guys. Their success could determine the fate of this team this season. The bullpen also has young arms; Bernie Corino and Mitch Clark will likely set up Pablo Rojas.
Norfolk figures to take a step back from their finish in the NL pitching department (T-5) after losing ace Babe Broadhurst in the Walker deal. They return Rod Walters and Malcolm Lawrence to the staff- both are solid, neither is an ace. Jonathan MacDougal takes the 3 spot, and the end will be some combination of Ricardo Gabriel (talented, but maybe a year away from being good), Eddie Marquis, and Bobby Davenport. Del Aquino could very well take the closer's job this season from Ariel Lee- Acquino is a fireballing lefty with good stuff. Sal Cole is another good young bullpen arm who will be asked to take a big role this season.
Washington finished 11th in runs allowed last season after finishing dead last in the NL four seasons in a row. That improvement aside, there's not much to this staff. Jesus Estrada and Bip Brock are decent starters, but they're the best D.C. has- the rest is questionable. Their bullpen is a potential bright spot; they do now have the best closer in the division (and in a few seasons possibly all of baseball) in Alex Javier, and Nate McNamara is a solid setup man.
1. Atlanta takes its 3rd straight division title. Trenton should keep it close early, but I see Atlanta eventually pulling away to make it an easy win.
2. I'll give Trenton 2nd in a similar season to last season- right around .500.
3. Norfolk takes 3rd again. Not sure how much they have without Broadhurst anchoring the staff.
4. Washington resides in the cellar again. Just not enough talent.
5. Trenton and Norfolk could be interesting teams to watch around the deadline, particularly if they are out of the race, as they have some pieces that could be sought after by contending teams in both leagues.
6. Expect to see a host of young players come up late in the season for Washington. In particular, watch for 2B Willis Biddle, 1B Eddie Peters, LF Matt Pall, and SP Alex Samuel.