Last season was a bittersweet one for the division champs, the Salt Lake City Shakers- they won a franchise-best 104 games but failed to win a playoff series. For the rest of the division, it was simply bitter- Cheyenne was felled by a major late-season losing streak, Salem traded away the stars that fueled their Season 1 title, and Vancouver had their third straight disappointing season after their surprise run to the World Series in Season 4. Can the Shakers win again and then contend in the playoffs? Can one of the other three teams shake off the disappointment from last season?
Salt Lake City scored the most runs in the NL last season and should be a very potent lineup again this season. They're one of the few teams that can hit home runs and steal bases. They return 6 players who stole 20 bases, but they've got pop as well, particularly 1B Ruben Hernandez and IFs Jordan Newfield and Vic James. The lineup doesn't stop there, as C Chris Barrett, IF Che Bong, CF George Lowe, and IF Carlos Batista provide a lot of length to the lineup. Don't be surprised if they finish first again.
Cheyenne (last season- 12th in NL) should be improved with the addition of IF/OF Lynn Abernathy. Abernathy, brought in from Atlanta, joins an offense that already boasts LF Steve Sweeney, 3B Wendell Durrington, IF Willie Scott, and the still dangerous, if highly overpaid, Bud Klein in RF. One big question for the Nation is OF Dewey Greenwood- he had his worst season in 5 years; if he can bounce back, this should be a much better lineup.
Vancouver (last season- 10th in NL) will be counting on the longball, as they won't steal many bases. Fortunately, they have a few sources of power, led by C Clarence Hartman, picked up from Helena last season. 3B Vin Foulke had a fairly successful first season in British Columbia, and they also have young players in IF Jerry Strickland and LF Donte Webb who can hit the ball out of the park. Expect 1B Brendan Taft (currently in AAA) to join this lineup at some point.
Salem (last season- 8th in NL) is a little short on bats since dealing Nate Cox. 3B Juan Valdes and RF Melvin Taylor are good players, but they need help. IFs Reggie Ducati and Travis Bush need to provide more offense for this club. It appears that Albert Duran will take Cox's position in CF, but he'll probably never hit like Cox- his game is predicated on speed and defense.
Salt Lake City (last season- 6th in NL) continues to go with a 4-man rotation. Rob Cepeda is the Opening Day pitcher, followed by Rene Alexander, Alex Sanchez, and Gary Jackson. None of the three are a big-time ace, but they're all solid pitchers and can log a lot of innings. SLC could very well be looking for one more starter at some point during the season. The bullpen is pretty solid, with Felipe Calles saving 43 of 48 and Cliff Miller poaching 18 wins in relief. Dude Huskey is still a viable option at age 36 and Bruce Phillips is also good.
Cheyenne (last season- 5th in NL) has talented arms but I'm not sure exactly how they fit together. There may be some holes in the rotation, which will be led again by Enrique Gutierrez and Miguel Reyes. Earl Biddle will be hard-pressed to win 14 games again, and Mark Bong is inconsistent. The bullpen is loaded with arms, but their roles need to be defined. Is Paul Schwartz still the closer after saving 44 games but blowing 13? How much does Wily Mo Owens have left? What exactly does Cheyenne have in mind for big free-agent pickup Christopher Siddall- is he getting paid $8 million as a setup man?
Vancouver (last season- 14th in NL) still has many of the same holes it had last season. They have some nice starters in Oswaldo Astacio, Jose Merced, and Glenallen Wehner, but there's no ace and the back of the rotation is shaky. They'll likely try Pedro Hernandez, Tyler Wilson, and/or Mendy Blackley. The bullpen is shaky after closer Ted Reese.
Salem (last season- 10th in NL) is starting over after dealing David Dunwoody and Dwight Salmon, the long-time aces, to Trenton last season. They'll be led by holdover Benji Stewart and Sammy Garrido, who came over in the aforementioned trade. After that is anyone's guess; they'll have to cobble together a rotation out of guys like Nerio Branson, Tito Mercedes (another pickup from the Dunwoody/Salmon deal), and Rule 5 pickup Nick Davis. The bullpen is a mess, as Jamey Dwyer inherited the closer's position from Arthur Gates- both had ERAs of at least 5. Their best setup man, Clay Bell, went to Washington.
1. Expect Salt Lake City to win this division again by double digit games.
2. Cheyenne should have enough to take second again- they should be in the playoff race for at least a while. If things break right they could be printing playoff tickets.
3. I'll take Vancouver over Salem for third. Don't expect either team to be near the playoff race.
4. Look for Salt Lake City and/or Cheyenne to try and swing a deal for an established starting pitcher.
5. Vancouver's Vin Foulke and Jose Merced could be candidates to be trade bait during the season.