Last season saw a shift in the balance of power in the AL North. The Milwaukee Manic Maulers, the 6-time defending AL North champions and the 4-time defending AL champs, finished at 82-80, leaving them in 2nd place in the division and out of the playoffs. The St. Louis Silly Nannies (now the St. Louis River City RAGE) won 86 ballgames to take the division and managed to make an ALCS appearance. Will Milwaukee be back on top this season? Or did last season signify a changing of the guard? And what about the upstate NY teams, Buffalo and Syracuse?
St. Louis (last season- T-7th in AL) starts with maybe the best leadoff man in baseball in 1B/LF Nick Hernandez. He's not a prototypical slugging first baseman, but when you score 119 runs, steal 71 bases, walk 4 times for each strikeout (124 walks to 31 Ks), and get on base at a .461 clip, lack of power can be overlooked. Besides, in DH Chris Newson, 30-30 man 2B Rico Guevara, OF Pepe Martin, and 1B Rex Kent, there's enough power in the lineup. Look for Gary Nelson, brought over from Trenton last season, to flourish as the full-time CF.
Milwaukee (last season- 9th in AL) is not used to being in the bottom half of the league in runs scored, and I don't see it happening again. Former MVP CF Luis Martinez, RF Harold Lewis, LF Burt Stevenson, and young 1B Julio Silvia all drove in at least 90 runs. Add to that an aging but still somewhat dangerous Andre Eckenstahler, a full season of IF Nate Cox (traded from Salem last season), and speedy infielder Lorenzo Santana, and Milwaukee's lineup looks pretty deep- maybe not as deep as in the AL championship seasons, but definitely enough to compete for a playoff spot.
Buffalo (last season- 10th in AL) is likely to succeed or fail on the backs of their young players. Yes, they still have highly dangerous 1B Julio Diaz (.273-59-149) and slugging RF Henry Rogers (.239-48-105), but this team is going to belong to the likes of highly talented rookie OF A.J. Leonard, sophomores 2B Alex Saenz and SS Santiago Manzanillo, and LF Tito Martin (4th season). If they play up to ability, this could be the deepest lineup since the team was in Cleveland for seasons 1 and 2.
Syracuse (last season- 15th in AL) lacks depth in the lineup. They'll be led by star 3B William Nomo (who would probably be a superstar if he were playing for a contender). RF P.T. Lee (.313-28-75) had a nice rookie season and could be a star in the making, and C/DH Peter Sosa returns as one of the few consistent threats in the lineup. They signed free agent C/DH Willis Petrov from Trenton to add depth, but they could probably use a leadoff and/or table setter type hitter.
St. Louis (last season- 3rd in AL) has good depth in the rotation. They'll start with budding star Yogi Anderson and follow with quality depth in Russell Newson, Lloyd Freel, Antonio Perez, and free-agent pickup Billy Nation. The bullpen is in the best of hands in ace closer Carlos Carrasco- he had another season for the ages last season (42 of 43 saves, 0.88 ERA, 0,83 WHIP, .163 OBA). He's got reliable options in Vic Macias and Tino Okajima in the setup roles.
Milwaukee (last season- 8th in AL) has a rotation that's a lot like its offense- not at vintage quality, but definitely enough to win ballgames. They have veterans James Morton and Woody Hiller leading the way, and they'll be followed by somewhat inconsistent Joe Gleason and Alex Calvo. Paul Saarloos and Graham Costello shift to the bullpen this season, which could make it a big strength; they already have setup man King Burns and maybe the league's second best closer in Quinton Hughes.
Syracuse (last season- 12th in AL) has a new top two in the rotation. The somewhat controversial deal to land ace Steven Michaels may hurt long term as they give up promising prospect Kazuhiro Whang. Whatever the case, they'll be better this season with Michaels and former #4 overall pick Lonny Hernandez as the #1 and #2 starters. Michaels gives them a veteran presence on the mound and a legitimate #1 starter and Hernandez is a homegrown product who should be a very good arm for seasons to come. That will enable Louie Bolivar to slide to a #3 position, which is better fitting for him. The rest of the spots are wide open, as is the closer's role without Jared McMahon.
Buffalo (last season- 11th in AL) might experience some growing pains this season. They'll be relying on sophomores for 3/5 of the rotation in D'Angelo Martin, Miguel Hernandez, and George Hurst. Martin and Hurst both have decent upside (problem is, Hurst is already 26), but I don't see what the fuss about Hernandez is at all. Chris Lowry and Billy Spencer are veteran innings-eaters but far from aces. Closer Archie LeCroy was shaky last season, with an ERA over 5. "Everyday" Al Root is the main setup man.
1. I expect a good race between St. Louis and Milwaukee. I think St. Louis has enough to make it two in a row.
2. I think Milwaukee will be in wild-card contention if they fail to take out St. Louis for the top spot.
3. Going to hedge my bet for third. Syracuse needs some roster depth as of this post time. If they get enough quality arms (free-agency, minors, etc.) and if Steven Michaels stays in Syracuse all season (I'm not convinced he will), then I'll take Syracuse by a nose over Buffalo. If not, the Blue Cheese should get 3rd again.
4. Look for a Simpleton to be traded (Michaels and Nomo are the obvious candidates), but Julio Diaz has been on the block before and could be snatched up by a team looking for a bat if Buffalo falls out of contention early.