I know we're now technically into the season, but we have to continue the previews, if nothing else so the AL South and AL West owners don't feel left out. Nothing has been decided 8 games into the season, anyway, so let's spotlight the AL South, which featured 2 playoff teams from last season (6-time division champion Monterrey and young Wild-Card team Jackson). We'll preview their chances along with rebuilding squads in Charlotte and Oklahoma City.
Jackson: The Vipers (3rd in AL last season) took the mantle from Monterrey as far as being the best offense in this division. LF Dennis Tamura, CF Brook Teut, and 1B Esteban Vega are a top-notch middle of the order. Tamura (36 HR, 47 SB last season) could be the next 40-40 guy in this league. C Chan Suh provides depth in the order and 2B Tony Johnson (25 HRs, 106 runs in his rookie season) appears to be a star on the way up.
Monterrey: The Sultans (5th in AL last season) were a top-5 offense despite missing one of their key cogs for the entire season. DH Tony Escuela did not take a swing last season- he'll be welcomed back into the middle of the order. On the plus side, C Rick Anderson basically duplicated his big rookie season, and SS Sammy Castro had his best season. 1B Timo Carter and talented 2B Del Lopez had nice seasons as well. They will miss RF Ryan Snyder, traded to Chicago in the offseason- he was their biggest run producer last season.
Oklahoma City: The Obese Supermodels (?!?) were 7th in the AL last season- whether they can duplicate that is in question. They've got some talent in the outfield, led by slugger RF Vladimir Rodriguez, speedster LF Brant Belle, and young multitalented CF Thurman Allen. DH Wille Sierra will be counted on to drive in those three.
Charlotte: The Princesses (OK, this has to be the worst division in baseball judging by team names) finished 12th in the AL last season and are a long way from the days when they had sluggers like Gregg Black and King Winn. The lone bonafide slugger is C Tony Stieb, and speedy LF Luis Melo is possibly the only real help he'll have in the lineup.
Monterrey: The Sultans (2nd in AL last season) won this division on the mound last season. Ace Albert Gonzalez wasn't as good as in his Cy Young season, but he was still good. The rotation has great depth, with talented Luther Brush and Johnnie Reagan as well as innings-eaters Jocko Keats and Patrick Clifton. Pablo Rijo is a good closer, and the setup crew is deep with Tony Merced, Vern Baez, and Stan Andrews.
Jackson: It's time for the young Vipers (10th in AL last season) pitchers to step up if this team is going to take the next step and supplant Monterrey atop the division. A large part of the success or failure of this season will rest on the right arms of Alex Samuel and Fausto Almanza. Carlos Martinez, Jimmy Cole, and Ivan Webster are decent depth guys in the rotation. The best pitcher on the staff may be in the bullpen- closer Garry Wright (26 years old) has already established himself as one of the best. Vic Molina and Joe Street will be counted on to get to Wright.
Oklahoma City: The OKC pitching staff (11th in AL last season) was a surprise last season, if only because they weren't worse. Lenny Durham came out of nowhere to go 13-3; that earned him a contract with Cheyenne. Remaining in the rotation are Heath "Wild Thing" Caufield and Wayne Wilson to lead the way- both would be #4 or #5 starters on contending teams. Jay Guiel is way overpaid. J.D. Wilkinson is intriguing as the closer; the setup roles are in flux.
Charlotte: The Princesses (15th in AL last season) pitched as if they actually were girls wearing dresses. Josh Gant, the big winner at 13-12, had a 4.98 ERA. Former ace Ham Bruske sure looked like he was near the end of his career after posting a 5-20 record. Starter Larry Cole had an ERA over 5 and Felix Comer pitched almost 175 innings at a 6.96 clip. Enrique Chantres finally lost his closer's role and setup Luis Piedra, who was worse (14 blown saves, 7.33 ERA).
1. I want to go with the trendy pick and take up-and-coming Jackson to finally take out Monterrey. But I just don't like their starting staff enough to do it. I'll take Monterrey again.
2. Jackson, as they have been the past two seasons, will be a serious wild-card contender again.
3. I'll take OKC over Charlotte for third, neither team anywhere near the playoff race.
4. I'd expect Monterrey to add another power bat in a trade.
5. It's possible that Tony Stieb could be dealt, but I wouldn't count on it- he's still 27 and just signed a new 5-year contract.