It's that time of year again! Spring training is just getting started and 32 teams (at least the fans) think they have playoff aspirations. We here at TBDN will tell you whose dream could become reality and who should just go back to sleep.
We'll start with the NL East, which houses the World Series Champion Atlanta Bandits. Can they repeat? Will Trenton make a move this season? Can Norfolk contend? How is the rebuilding process going down in Washington?
Atlanta: The Bandits had the 4th best offense in the NL last season and while mid-season acquistion Gregg Black has been dealt, many of the same faces return. 1B Stan Starr and 3B Albie Torres are the major power threats, but they have help; RF Calrton MacDougal, 2B Jason Walker, and CF Lynn Abernathy all hit over 25 HRs. 21-year-old Odalis Lopez inherits the catcher's job- expect a good rookie season from him; Trenton's Vasco may have to compete to be the best catcher in this division named Lopez.
Trenton: The Traffic's front office knew that having the 13th best offense in the NL again wouldn't get them a playoff spot, so they made some changes. Mid-season acquisition 2B Cap Herrera re-inked with the team, then they went out and got former Syracuse LF Bret King. The other major change is a full season from highly-touted prospect CF Watty Miller- they could very well be the top 3 in the lineup. Behind them are solid contributors C Vasco Lopez, 3B Enrique Park, and 1B Stephen Mills.
Norfolk: Norfolk finished 12th in offense last season, due in large part to a lack of support for star CF Justin Gordon. Gordon (.288-45-121) had a monster season, but only 2 other guys (C Tony Gutierrez and SS Ignacio Diaz) had more than 60 RBI. 3B Jay Walker had a solid season, but more was expected of him after coming over in the Babe Broadhurst deal last season. Longtime OF Carlos Cervantes struggled yet again-he's a free-agent. Destroyer fans are hoping RF Juan Chavez can take Cervantes's spot.
Washington: The 14th best offense ran on the bats of two guys- 1B Jimmie Williams and 2B Willis Biddle. This season could be even tougher: Williams has been traded to Austin. He'll need help from guys like rookie LF Matt Pall and RF Mark Schmidt. Schmidt and CF Tony Delgado both have blinding speed, but don't get on base enough to use it.
Atlanta: This was by far the best staff in the NL and it doesn't appear this season will be much different. Stephen Michaels, Fred Carter, Matty Eusebio, and Orber Halter are all top starters. The only question in those top 4 might be Eusebio's age (37). Talented rookie Stone Curtis looks to get a shot at the 5th starter's role. The bullpen is in capable hands with closer Tex Howell, free-agent pickup Rob Gilmore, and young gun Emmanuel Nunez.
Trenton: As the 6th best staff in the NL last season, this was a respectable unit. Former Bandit Alex Sanchez is the ace, and they just picked up former Shadow Wolves starter York Watson as a veteran arm. After that, they have talent which is a bit unpredictable in guys like Vic Rincon, Will Piper, and Tito Mercedes. Bernie Corino did a nice job as the closer, and guys like Mitch Clark and newly-signed former Blue Cheese Wesley Cora should form a good bridge.
Norfolk: They finished middle of the pack at 9th in the NL, even without Broadhurst. Malcolm Lawrence and Rod Walters are solid starters. After that, it gets shaky with guys like Eddie Marquis and Edgar Martinez. Del Acquino is a good closer, but the middle relief is a bit of a question. Dan Young was probably the best setup guy last season, but he may be a natural starter.
Washington: They finished 11th in the NL last season. Their best starter last season was Jesus Estrada, but he's now in Toronto. That leaves Bip Brock as the likely Opening-Day starter. He's solid- the rest of the starting staff (Stephen Greenberg, Dixie Reynolds, etc.) appears to be a mess. On the good side, they have young closer Alex Javier, who may already be the best closer in the NL.
1. Atlanta should win the division again. I'd say by at least 10 games.
2. Trenton's not going to catch Atlanta, but they should be right in the race for one of the wild-card spots.
3. Norfolk won't be in contention this season. They may not lose 92 again, but they won't be in the playoff race.
4. Washington won't take a step forward this season- they'll probably be about a 93 loss team again, if not a little worse. They'll be dangerous in a few seasons once their minor league talent develops.
5. Trenton will be looking to add another top starter at some point. Availability may be the only snag- they have the cash and they have young talent to trade.
6. Most likely star to be traded- I'd say Justin Gordon. Norfolk isn't likely to stay in the race. His contract (this season and next at $7.25 million) isn't cheap, but for his production, it isn't outrageous, either.