This past season, Salem claimed its 3rd division title, beating out Cheyenne by one game. Both made the playoffs- Salem beat Chicago in the first round before losing to Atlanta, while Cheyenne was downed by Houston. Can these two teams make it back to the playoffs? Can Salt Lake City, who won 84 games last season, get past one or both of these two? And what about our neighbors to the north up in Vancouver?
Salt Lake City: Would it surprise you if I told you that the NL's best offense last season played 81 home games in the state of Utah? While they don't necessarily have guys who are known around the league as superstars, their depth is second to none. They have RF Vic James, 1B Ruben Hernandez, 3B Jordan Newfield, and SS Che Bong leading the way, but they get contributions from every position. C Chris Barrett, 2B Carlos Batista, OF George Lowe, OF Ken Davis, and CF Jordan Black all made significant offensive contributions. This team had 9 hitters hit at least 10 HRs and at least 8 guys steal 10 bases.
Cheyenne: The third best offense in the NL last season returns plenty of firepower. Like Salt Lake City, no one person will be expected to carry the load. 3B Wendell Durrington, CF Dewey Greenwood, RF Bud Klein, LF Steve Sweeney, SS Willie Scott, C Yeico Solano, and 2B Steve Bako are all solid contributors. All 7 hit between 22 and 29 home runs last season.
Salem: They had the 7th best offense in the NL- not sure they can do that again. RF Melvin Taylor (.316-31-106) announced himself as a force in this league and Nate Cox had another good year, but there's little behind him. 3B Juan Valdez will be asked to provide some power to a lineup that has enough singles-type hitters like IF Reggie Ducati and Travis Bush.
Vancouver: They're grateful for Philadelphia in the NL, or else they would have finished last in this category as well as in pitching (see below). 2B Jerry Strickland has taken the torch from SS Brace Kroeger and 3B Tony Kwon as the best hitter on the team. Kwon in particular had a down year last season. Long-time LF Cody Lincoln is out the door and 36-year-old Tyler Post may not be far behind.
Salem: The big guns in the west pushed them to 4th in runs allowed last season. David Dunwoody and Dwight Salmon are still two of the best pitchers in the entire league. Philip Allensworth's return from elbow surgery could be a big factor in determining who wins the west this season. They have adequate back-end starters to choose from in guys like Carlos Bennett and Benji Stewart. Arthur Gates had a good season as the closer; he'll have Philadelphia import Jamey Dwyer and Chicago free-agent signee Clay Bell to set him up.
Cheyenne: The Nation gave up the 7th fewest runs in the NL last season, a respectable finish. There are some question marks, however. The ace is Mendy Blackley, but he pitched only 151 innings last season. The team leader in wins, Enrique Gutierrez, led the team despite a 5.51 ERA. Miguel Reyes and Mark Bong were solid in the middle of the rotation. The Nation is loaded with solid bullpen arms, with Wily Mo Owens, Paul Schwartz, Kenneth Schalk, and Willie Nunez.
Salt Lake City: If they had more pitching, they could have won the division. Instead, they finished 12th in the NL in this department. Gary Jackson, Albert Valdez, and Rene Alexander are average starters whose mediocrity is amplified in the four-man rotation. On the plus side, Rob Cepeda looks like a top flight starter. The bullpen is led by Bruce Phillips and Cliff Miller.
Vancouver: This was the worst staff in the NL by a mile last season. Damion Mays struggled after heading back to his native land from Trenton and will be out for the first two weeks of the regular season. The only pitcher to win in double digits, Oswaldo Astacio, had an ERA over 5. In fact, Glenallen Wehner was the only pitcher to make more than 20 starts and have an ERA under 5; he went 5-12. In the bullpen, Chris Jennings had another solid season as the closer
and Ted Reese (another setup man paid like a closer) is pretty good as well.
1. You could put the top 3 in a hat and pick. I think Salt Lake City gets it done this season. Although I'd be tempted to take Salem if they could find a bat or two, which is probably easier to trade for than a starter, which the other two could use.
2. The 2nd and 3rd place teams will be in the wild-card hunt.
3. Vancouver will be awful.
4. All 3 teams in the race will be looking for a starter, and I think Salem will trade for offense.
5. Most likely to be dealt near the deadline: Chris Jennings. There will be teams looking for bullpen help.