We move to the South this evening, where the Houston franchise has won all 5 division titles. Can they make it 6? San Juan, New Orleans, and Austin all finished well below .500- can any of them take a step up to challenge the Riverdogs?
We'll start in Houston (last season- 10th in NL), where sluggers 2B Bob Koplove and 3B Monte Duvall fuel the offense. CF Scott Diaz is responsible for getting on base in front of them and is always a threat to steal (70 SBs last season). Newly acquired C Cy Hughes adds length to a lineup that also includes steady hitter RF Orlando Franco. They won't be anywhere near Chicago's offense, but expect them to move up into the top half of the league in offense this season.
San Juan (last season- 4th in NL) has a giant hole to fill in the lineup with MVP Osvaldo Johnson departed for Chicago. 2B Derrin Hernandez, acquired from Chicago, is young and talented- I don't think he'll put up the numbers Johnson did. He'll join RF Calvin Chang in the middle of the Dead Bunnies lineup. 1B Julio Castro put up the worst numbers of his career- he'll have to bounce back if San Juan hopes to compete this season.
New Orleans (last season- 13th in NL) made a huge deal in the middle of the season to get season 4 MVP 1B Matty Matos from Atlanta. He put up big numbers, but he needs help. 2B Ray Cepicky is maybe the only other consistent force in the Voodoo lineup. LF Don Jefferson is coming back from an injury that cost him all but two games last season- whether he can return to his old form is questionable at this point.
Austin (last season- last in NL) is trying to go the route of Jackson by having an incredibly young team (all 25 guys on the roster have less than 3 years experience) and hoping it can compete. Unlike Jackson, I don't think the City Limits have the talent to pull it off. 1B Tony Percival is the only slugger capable of putting up big RBI numbers, and none of the everyday players can get on base consistently. I'm not sure how much of a difference it would make, but losing CF Lee Kennedy and OF William Farr to free-agency won't help.
Houston (last season-3rd in NL) is likely to be one of the "best of the rest" in the NL again after Fargo and Atlanta, who are in a class by themselves. Rookie of the Year Lonny Gates should be a force for years to come, and Jason Sprague comes over from New York to provide a very good #2 starter. Jerome Oliver is quite good, and Perry Herman, Juan Cabrera, and Jose Merced are good options at the back of the rotation. Matt Skinner and Cristian Price both have the ability to close- whoever wins will be backed by the other and by Victor Vargas to form a nice end of the bullpen.
New Orleans (last season- 14th in NL) and San Juan are a toss-up in pitching- I'll take New Orleans first. Carlos Matos needs to win more than 6 games this season. Bobby Ray Hooper and Cookie Alvarez are decent starters. Tom Hernandez is a capable closer.
San Juan (last season- 15th in NL) realized it needed to address the pitching staff in the offseason, hence grabbing Hipolito Pujols from Chicago in the Johnson trade. I'm not sure he cures what ails the Dead Bunnies pitching staff. Jerry Terry is unlikely to win 12 games again. Joey Adcock and Charles White will likely be counted on again for big innings, but they combine for a career 50-94 record for the Bunnies. The bullpen is in just as much of a state of flux.
Austin (last season- last in NL) is counting on Rule 5 guys to solidify their staff, which is always a tad iffy. The holdover options, Delino Montanez and Endy Hasegawa, are not top-of-the-rotation guys, but were asked to be. Denny Mann and Chet Boehringer are the Rule 5 guys- I don't see either as being anything special. This could be just as bad as last season for the City Limits.
1. Houston wins again in a runaway. The only team in the this division with any semblance of a staff should win by double digit games again.
2. It should be a toss-up between San Juan and New Orleans for second- I'll take New Orleans on a hunch. This will be a division with only one team in the playoffs again.
3. Austin holds the #1 pick in this season's Amateur Draft- don't be surprised if they do it in back-to-back seasons.
4. Chang, Matos, and Cepicky would be the biggest names on possible non-contending teams. If I had to pick one to be dealt, I'd say Matos, although it's no sure thing. All 3 could be on the move; all 3 could stay put.
5. Expect to see C Sam Brumfield and RF Ken Keagle late in the season for Austin. Reliever Jim Clyburn and LF Shane Fletcher might see some action for the ML squad in San Juan.