Last season was an interesting one in the AL South, as the ascension of the Jackson Vipers into the league's elite came to a crashing halt; the Season 7 division champs fell back to .500 and watched a resurgent Monterrey Sultans team win 98 games. Oklahoma City (which will be playing this season as the Montgomery Alibamu) also slid back out of the playoffs. Can one of those two make a move past Monterrey? And what of the struggling Charlotte Lions?
Monterrey (last season- 7th in AL) made by far the biggest move in the offseason by grabbing perennial MVP candidate LF Sean Simpson from Chicago. This will upgrade an offense that ranked in the middle of the pack last season. Simpson will join C Vin Logan, CF Del Lopez, and 2B Nate Cox to form a formidable middle of the order. They'll be even more dangerous if RF Trot Turner could get on base more and if DH Tony Escuela comes back from an off year offensively.
Montgomery (last season- 6th in AL) return a core of young stars. 25-year-old CF Thurman Allen and 26-year-old 1B Brant Belle lead the way for this offense. LF Vladimir Rodriguez and 2B Bartolo Barcelo will be counted on to lengthen the lineup. Nobody hit more than 25 homers but they had 5 guys steal over 20 bases. It will be interesting to see what 3B Matty Clemens can provide in his first full season.
Jackson (last season- 8th in AL) also has talented young hitters. 1B Kevin Nakano (.304-31-105) had a breakout season and he'll have CF Raul Vallarta, LF Dennis Tamura, 2B Tony Johnson, and veteran C Chan Suh around him. Jackson brass is high enough on rookie 3B Steve Lofton that they felt they were able to trade Brook Teut to Trenton.
Charlotte (last season- 14th in AL) needs depth. C Tony Stieb is still a very dangerous all-around hitter, but he and DH Mel Messner were the only consistent RBI threats. For that reason, the Lions signed 1B Andre Eckenstahler to see how much he has left. LF Luis Melo is a solid table setter.
Monterrey (last season- 3rd in AL) has no standout starter but has excellent depth in the rotation. Albert Gonzalez, Patrick Clifton, Jocko Keats, Luther Brush, and Johnnie Reagan are all solid starters and all will return to Monterrey this season. Pablo Rijo had a solid season as the closer and Tony Merced will be the main setup man. It remains to be seen if they will miss Dennys Fox out of the bullpen.
Jackson (last season- 9th in AL) doesn't have the depth Monterrey has, but they do have some young talent. Fausto Almanza and Alex Samuel seemed to have finally figured things out last season. Ivan Webster and Jimmy Cole are the other main starters; they struggled last season. Garry Wright is one of the top closers in the game and Vic Molina is a solid setup option.
Montgomery (last season- 14th in AL) has major question marks in their rotation. Sadie Witt won 16 games but had an ERA of 4.11- he's the opening day starter. He'll be followed by the inconsistent Wayne Wilson and the unknown commodity rookie Bo Langerhans. On the plus side, J.D. Wilkinson didn't have quite the season he had last season (would have been tough to duplicate 38 for 38 with a 1.84 ERA), but going 37 for 41 with a 2.51 should prove he's not a one-year wonder. Trevor Watson and Leonardo Lloyd will be counted on to set Wilkinson up.
Charlotte (last season- last in AL) will try to get it done with retreads this season. Felix Comer (10-11, 3.83) did about as well as could be expected with this team last season- he'll lead the rotation again. After him, the options are highly questionable. Alfredo Veras had an ERA of 7.22, Kenneth Stafford had an ERA of 8.60, and free-agent signee Jerry Terry struggled in Scranton last season. Dante Buckley struggled to close games last season and may not win the closer's job back.
1. I like Monterrey to repeat. The Simpson trade was huge.
2. Jackson should be in contention this season, as their offense should rebound a little.
3. Montgomery is solid, but not playoff-worthy.
4. Charlotte is still in rebuilding mode.
5. Look for teams to ask Charlotte about Tony Stieb near the trade deadline.