Last season was a banner year for the AL South. Jackson took its 1st division title and established itself as one of the elite teams in the AL before flaming out in the playoffs. Oklahoma City and Monterrey both grabbed wild card berths. Can Jackson hold off the OKC and Monterrey challenges again this season? And what's happening in Charlotte?
Jackson (last season- 3rd in AL) continues to bring up talented, young hitters. As if having a nucleus of 3B Brook Teut, 2B Tony Johnson, DH Esteban Vega, and LF Dennis Tamura wasn't enough (Vega is the old man of the group at 28), they have potential rookie of the year candidate CF Raul Vallarta this season. If RF Brandon Rhodes could get thrown out stealing less and get on base more, this could be a league-leading type offense.
Oklahoma City (last season- 4th in AL) has an interesting dilemma. They've got quality batters at the COF/1B positions in Vladimir Rodriguez, Victor Mercado, Richard Moreno, and DH Willie Sierra. But it's hard to believe there's no room in the lineup for Brant Belle, who led the team in homers and RBI last season. But that seems to be the worst coming out of the OKC papers. The aforementioned players and CF Thurman Allen make this a fairly deep lineup, no matter how it's configured.
Monterrey (last season- 12th in AL) struggled offensively for maybe the first time in their history last season. They'll bring back a balanced lineup, featuring 2B Del Lopez, DH Tony Escuela, 1B Emmitt Yearwood, and LF Marcus Reboulet. They're very high on C Vin Logan, so much so that they traded C Rick Anderson to Boston. Logan should be a very good power hitter in this league.
Charlotte (last season- last in AL) is starting to rebuild its lineup, but there's just not enough there right now. In addition to veteran C Tony Stieb, they have good young hitters in LF Luis Melo, CF Thomas Rasmussen, and DH Mel Messner. Problem is, after those four there are no consistent threats. This team could finish last in offense again.
Jackson (last season- 1st in AL) has a deep staff from top to bottom. The top of the rotation is manned by Alex Samuel, who is good for only about 160 innings but can be phenomenal, and 15-game winner Fausto Almanza. The back three (Jimmy Cole, Carlos Martinez, and Ivan Webster) provide quality innings. Garry Wright is one of the best closers, and there are plenty of good setup arms: Joe Street, Josh Drese, Daniel Jones, and Vic Molina are all good options.
Monterrey (last season- 7th in AL) isn't as deep as Jackson, but has some good veteran arms. Patrick CLifton (19-8, 3.01) had a very good year last season, and he'll be backed by Johnnie Reagan, Albert Gonzalez, and Luther Brush. Pablo Rijo had a fine year as closer, and he'll be backed by Patrick Sullivan in the bullpen.
OKC (last season- 5th in AL) somehow had a top half staff that won 89 games despite walking over 100 batters more than any other AL squad. Their rotation will be led by the erratic but successful Heath Caufield and Teddy Hennessey. Sadie Witt comes over from Boston to provide some innings. Leading winner Wayne Wilson will start the season in the bullpen trying to get to J.D. Wilkinson, who had an excellent season last year (38 of 38 saves, 1.84 ERA).
Charlotte (last season- 13th in AL) can't compete with the rest of the division in this category, either. Heath Duffy probably had the best season despite only going 7-13. Josh Gant is trying to come back from elbow surgery that ended last season forhim before it began. Felix Comer had a tough season, and rule 5 guy Alfredo Veras isn't a star, so this rotation is a bit short. Longtime starter Ham Bruske opted for retirement. Jerry Taylor, who needs to work on his control a bit, will get first crack at the closer's role. The setup positions are very thin.
1. I like Jackson for their second straight division title.
2. Monterrey should beat out Oklahoma City for second this time. They've got too much talent.
3. I don't see the OKC Obese Supermodels (?!?) using last season as a springboard to the big time, as Jackson did a few seasons back. They probably have enough to contend for a playoff spot, though.
4. Charlotte should finish miles behind the other 3.
5. Don't be suprised if both Jackson and Monterrey stand more or less pat. Jackson has increased its payroll dramatically over the seasons, but mostly by paying their young stars, not importing talent. Monterrey is already spending the most money in the league on its payroll at almost $105 million, so it's doubtful they'd find the cash to swing a major deal.
6. As for possible departures, look for Charlotte C Tony Stieb to be shopped.