Last season this division saw Houston take its 6th straight division title and parlay that into an NLCS appearance, where they fell to eventual champion Atlanta. Can they become the first team to win 2 World Series trophies? What about the rest of the division (San Juan, New Orleans, and Atlanta) who finished within 5 games of each other?
San Juan: The best offense in the division, and maybe the NL (2nd last season), is in Puerto Rico. 3B Calvin Chang is the catalyst and is a perennial MVP candidate, but he's got plenty of help. C Junior Tabaka (.311-60-143) vaulted himself into stardom with his season despite the fact that he can't outrun a cardboard box. Those two along with RF Julio Castro all drove in at least 100 runs. 2B Derrin Hernandez is a young, talented player and 1B Frankie Brooks, CF John Baldwin, and SS Earl Hall can all hit (although Hall's fielding can be questioned). Rookie Shane Fletcher will get a shot in left and should fit right in the lineup- he's got speed.
Houston: The 6-time division champs checked in at 8th last season- they have a dynamite middle of the order but lack San Juan's depth. LF Bob Koplove is one of the league's premier power hitters, and C Cy Hughes, RF Orlando Franco, and 3B Monte Duvall all drive in runs- Duvall and Koplove combined for 127 HRs last season. CF Scott Diaz is the speedster who will be asked to score 100 runs or so.
New Orleans: They finished 9th in the NL, just behind the Riverdogs. 1B Matty Matos and 2B Ray Cepicky both drove in 100 runs, and they'll be joined by surefire future Hall of Famer LF Gregg Black. They need guys hitting in front of those 3, however; CF Dustan Cohen didn't get on enough for their liking, so they signed Hideki Tanaka as insurance. They could use some depth in the lineup.
Austin: The City Limits finished 10th in the NL, and added a huge bat in 1B Jimmie Williams. They'll need him, as this lineup possibly overachieved last season. 3B Julio Mendoza had arguably the worst 30-30 season in history (.237-34-84, .299 OBP, 149K)- he was one of 5 Austin hitters to strike out 100 times. He's got CF Ralph Phillips, C Sam Brumfield, and LF Gerald (not Willie) Stargell as the talented players in the lineup. They're not terrible, but they may struggle at times if they hit for low averages and strike out as often as they did last season.
Houston: One of the best staffs since the inception of the league, Houston finished only behind Atlanta and Fargo in runs allowed last season. The 1-2 punch of Lonny Gates and Jason Sprague at the top of the rotation is one of the best in the NL. Perry Herman seems to have things figured out and is a nice #3 option. Juan Cabrera has won double-digit games 3 seasons running. It will be interesting to see if the offseason loss of Jerome Oliver(see below) affects the 'Dogs in any way. In the bullpen, Matt Skinner is a top-notch closer, and Cristian Price is a good (if probably overpaid) setup man.
New Orleans: The Voodoo may have got Black and C Chuck Reed in the offseason, but the most important move may have been the signing of Jerome Oliver from Houston. He'll be counted on to boost a staff that finished 15th in the NL last season. Oliver will lead a rotation that also has Carlos Matos, and free-agent signing Felipe Cela. Kevin Pong had a tough rookie season, going 5-11 with an ERA over 6. The bullpen is in decent hands with Tom Hernandez, Billy Ray Hooper, and Vance D'Amico.
San Juan: They finished 14th in runs allowed last season, and will have the same major players in the rotation. Hipolito Pujols was 10-8 but pitched to a 5.02 ERA last season. Jerry Terry was 11-14 with a 5.84 ERA. Charlie White, the team leader in wins (13), had an ERA just under 5. Shooter Mahoney had a good season, but really isn't any better than these guys. The closer role may well go to a rookie, Jim Clyburn. The setup role could be shaky.
Austin: They somehow finished 10th in runs allowed last season, but I see them taking a step back. I have doubts about all of their top 4- Terry Pierre, Marc Bates, Ed Allen, and Endy Hasegawa. Rookie Delino Colon could get a shot at the rotation if he can find the plate. Nerio Little was shaky in the closer's role- there's no guarantee he'll get the job again this season.
1. Pitching wins. Gotta take Houston again, although it is getting monotonous.
2. I think San Juan can slug its way to a 2nd place finish.
3. New Orleans could be right there with San Juan. Atlanta, Fargo, Houston, and Chicago are the class of the NL. I'd put San Juan and New Orleans in the next tier along with Trenton, Salt Lake City, Cheyenne, and Salem.
4. Austin took a big leap (54 wins to 74 wins) last season and should be commended. I think they'll take a minor step back, but I say they're closer to 74 wins than they are to 54- they're not that bad.
5. I'd look for Houston to maybe get another bat at a middle infield position, optimally.
6. Most likely to be dealt- depends on who stays in. Jimmie Williams is a strong candidate, but Black could go if New Orleans falls out of the race (along possibly with Cepicky) and teams will call about Chang if San Juan were to drop out of the race early.