We quickly approach Opening Day and still 3 divisions remain. St. Louis was the undisputed king of this division last season, winning 110 games (and winning the division by a staggering 46 game margin), but their postseason performance likely has River City Rage fans deeming last season a disappointment. Can they claim a third straight division crown and rebound in the playoffs? Or will the rebuilding of the once-great Milwaukee Manic Maulers, the relocated Cincinnati Simpletons, or the playoff-starved Buffalo Blue Cheese come to fruition this season?
St. Louis (last season- 2nd in AL) doesn't have a big home run threat in the middle of the lineup, but they have plenty of good hitters who get on base. 1B Nick Hernandez may be the best leadoff man in baseball; he and LF Placido Sanchez are atypical corner position players but their strengths are getting on base and scoring runs, which are good strengths to have. C Pep Woo led the team with 24 homers and 104 RBI; CF Gary Nelson and 2B Rico Guevara are also good major league hitters. Scouts around the league are saying this may be DH Rex Kent's season to break into the category of big-time run producer.
Milwaukee (last season- 9th in AL) is undergoing a facelift on offense. Long known as a power-hitting team, they seem to be trying to load up on speed for this incarnation of the team. Gone are the familiar names- Stevenson, Martinez, Eckenstahler, and Cox- they left via trade or free-agency, as did second leading run prodcuer from a season ago Benji Barcelo . RF Harold Lewis is the holdover from the salad days of the franchise, and he's still a bonafide run producer- he and 1B Julio Silvia will be counted on to provide the thump in the lineup. But the talented young players- 2B Lorenzo Santana, IF Bobby Ferguson, and CF Tony Delgado- lack power but have a lot of speed.
Buffalo (last season- 13th in AL) has some talent in the middle of the order but needs help at the top and with its depth. 1B Julio Diaz is always a threat to go deep, and Buffalo added highly touted rookie RF A.J. Leonard, who put up eye-popping numbers in the minors which didn't quite translate to the majors. Although it's hard to label any rookie season that includes 31 homers and 101 RBI a failure, Buffalo hopes he can improve on his .230 average. These two need guys like IFs Alex Saenz and Tito Martin to get on base more consistently and give them more RBI opportunities.
Cincinnati (last season- 15th in AL) has some holes to fill. They have some talent in RF P.T. Lee, C Willis Petrov, and 1B/DH Peter Sosa, but the only player to steal a base for them last season, Miguel Baez, has gone to Philadelphia. The top of the lineup is a huge question mark, as is the depth after these three.
St. Louis (last season- 1st in AL) has the talent and depth to stay in any game. Young ace Yogi Anderson went to his second All-Star game in 3 seasons, and he'll have veteran arms such as 19-game winner Billy Nation, Antonio Perez, and a resurgent Russell Newson behind him. The inhuman run of Carlos Carrasco came to an end last season, as he posted a 4.30 ERA despite a 1.09 WHIP by giving up too many extra-base hits, but Lloyd Freel, Tino Okajima, and Vic Macias were all outstanding- all four will be back.
Syracuse (last season- 8th in AL) has a decent rotation but issues in the bullpen. They have a nice mix in the starting rotation, with veterans Stephen Michaels, Louie Bolivar, and Tony Rowan and young guns Lonny Hernandez and Andres DeLeon, who still can't have a beer with the team after the game. The bullpen was addressed somewhat in the offseason, with the signings of veteran arms Dave Stewart, Achilles Hume, and Clay Bell- one of those three is likely to win the closer's job.
Milwaukee (last season- 11th in AL) still has a veteran presence on this side of the ball, but they struggled collectively last season. Veterans Alex Calvo, James Morton, and Joe Gleason remain-Woody Hiller left for Trenton in free-agency. They picked up starter Barry Rader as the main component in the Luis Martinez/Burt Stevenson deal- he's a promising young lefty who will start this season in the rotation. They have Paul Saarloos and King Burns as the two best arms in the bullpen, one of which will likely close.
Buffalo (last season- 12th in AL) had three starters all go through the sophomore seasons with varying success. D'Angelo Martin (11-13, 3.78) had a solid season, Miguel Hernandez (8-14, 4.78) struggled a bit, and George Hurst (7-18, 5.24) was awful. Veteran Billy Spencer (2-19, 5.71) was worse- he may get dropped to the pen this season. The bullpen is as much of a question mark, with the highly flammable Archie LeCroy (6.56 ERA) as the closer and swingman Steve Clay gone to Anaheim.
1. St. Louis should win in another landslide, as in Secretariat at the 1973 Belmont Stakes or Reagan vs. Mondale in 1984.
2. I'd have to see Cincinnati's final roster before picking second- if they fill some holes, they're good enough for second place in this division. We're not talking anywhere near a playoff spot, however.
3. Milwaukee is good enough for third, but they may decide to deal some of their veterans, such as Lewis, Calvo, and Morton for prospects to rebuild the franchise.
4. Buffalo misses the playoffs for a ninth straight season.