On to the AL North, which holds the 6-time division champions and 4-time AL champion Milwaukee Manic Maulers. Last season was the closest race in the history of the division, as St. Louis finished only 4 games back and joined Milwaukee in the playoffs. Can the Silly Nannies finally upend the Milwaukee juggernaut? What about rebuilding squads from Buffalo and Syracuse?
Milwaukee: The Manic Maulers led the AL in runs last season. This season's version may not be a vintage Milwaukee offense, but they've still got the best offensive outfield in the game with MVP LF Burt Stevenson, CF Luis Martinez, and RF Harold Lewis. The infield still has 1B Andre Eckenstahler, but loses 3B Brian Dunham (107 RBI) and 2B Bob Malone (78 RBI) to free-agency. Expect 1B/DH Julio Sivilla to be asked to do more this season.
St. Louis: The Silly Nannies (13th in AL last season) lack a bat like Buffalo's Julio Diaz in the middle of the lineup, but may have a little more depth. Chris Newson (.241-41-108) is the major power threat, and C Pep Woo, LF Pepe Martin, and 2B Rico Guevara are all solid contributors. 1B Nick Hernandez is not a prototypical 1B, stealing 55 bases and scoring 99 runs.
Buffalo: The Blue Cheese finished 11th in the AL last season, largely on the monster numbers of 1B Julio Diaz (.257-60-143). After Diaz and LF Henry Rogers (.239-54-113), there's a big drop-off. 1B/OF Tito Martin has a world of talent but has yet to put it together. CF Victor Gonzalez has the speed to be a good leadoff hitter but doesn't get on base enough.
Syracuse: The Simpleton offense was pretty simple last season, finishing last in the AL in runs. 3B William Nomo (.255-52-116) had a good year and C Peter Sosa played a nice second fiddle, but they lose their leading hitter and run scorer LF Bret King to Trenton- King was the only Simpleton hitter besides Nomo to drive in 90 runs. OF Alfredo Hogan stole 60 bases- imagine if he got on at more than a .274 clip (that's OBP, not batting average).
St. Louis: St. Louis gave up the fewest runs in the entire AL last season. They'll be led by young ace Yogi Anderson, but there's plenty of depth here. Russell Newson and Antonio Perez each won 16 games, and Lloyd Freel, Benito Martin, and free-agent pickup (from Helena) Buster Charles are all capable starters. In the bullpen, Carlos Carrasco had arguably the best season ever from a closer and nearly won a Cy Young Award, saving 51 of 52 games with a 1.80 ERA- right now he's as good as it gets. Julio Navarro had a very good season in the setup role.
Milwaukee: The 5th best staff last season will be led by old stalwarts. Graham Costello and James Morton led the way last season. James Calvo won 14 games but with a 5.15 ERA. They're hoping Woody Hiller, who was off to a great start before elbow surgery cut his season short. In the bullpen, Quinton Hughes and King Burns are maybe the best 1-2 combo out of the pen, but it remains to be seen if the loss of Buddy Titan will be felt.
Buffalo: The Blue Cheese (12th in AL last season) could struggle again. Claude Jacquez was the big winner at 13-12. Chris Lowry was the only other double-digit winner, but he was 11-16. Hi Nolan and Billy Spencer both had ERAs over 5. Archie Lecroy had an up and down rookie season, saving 35 but blowing 9 saves. Someone has to inherit setup man Wesley Cora's spot, as he followed Bret King to Trenton.
Syracuse: They hold the distinction of being the worst staff in all the majors (not just the AL) last season, being the only team to yield over 1000 runs in the process. Louie Bolivar (4-24, 6.99 ERA) and Charlie Miller (3-20, 5.92 ERA) competed for the Cy Yuk award- Miller was not brought back by the team, but Bolivar remains. Last season's biggest winner was Chris Langston out of the bullpen at 10-10; he may get a starter's gig this season. Tony Rowan (5-4, 4.29 in 20 starts) and Ryan Martin (8-10, 4.50 ERA in 26 starts) weren't terrible. The bullpen was awful. Closer Jared McMahon only had 7 saves, and had a 7.01 ERA. No reliever had an ERA under 5.
1. I'm going to go out on a limb and call for the upset here. I'll take St. Louis to win the division.
2. The second place team (Milwaukee or St. Louis) should be in wild-card contention.
3. I like Buffalo over Syracuse in the New York Thruway battle for 3rd.
4. Look for the two contenders (Milwaukee especially) to look to add a bat near the deadline.
5. I'd say Nomo would be the most likely to be dealt, although his contract ($10 million next season) might scare some people off. Diaz from Buffalo is only 27, has a reasonable contract ($4 million this season, arbitration-eligible next season), and the Blue Cheese seem to think they can build around him. Therefore, I wouldn't necessarily count on him going anywhere, although I'm sure the Buffalo front office would listen to offers.