Last season saw the dethroning of a champion, as Austin came seemingly from out of nowhere to win 102 games and knock off Houston for the first time ever. Houston won 90 games but couldn't nail down a playoff berth. Can the Riverdogs, now playing in Huntington, reverse the standings and retake the division from the City Limits? What about the New Orleans Voodoo and the San Juan Dead Bunnies?
Austin (last season- 2nd in NL) was defined by its balance on offense, and that should continue this season. 2B Julio Rosa and RF Ken Keagle both had breakout years, joining 1B Jimmie Williams as 100+ RBI producers. The table is set by all-time stolen base champ SS William Satou, who scored 124 times. They're adding former Norfolk 3B Justin Gordon to the middle of the lineup to add even more depth.
Huntington (last season- 6th in NL) has a nice mix on offense. MVP 3B Monte Duvall and C Cy Hughes are the big run producers, but they also have table setters in LF Bret King and RF Abdullah Dillon. They'll add former Cheyenne (now L.A.) 2B Willie Scott to the lineup and are looking for big things from OF Butch Russell.
New Orleans (last season- 4th in NL) finished in the top quarter in the league in spite of a few key pieces having disappointing seasons. As long as they have 2B Ray Cepicky and 1B Matty Matos, they will always have a dangerous middle of the order. Even though Cepicky and Matos both drove in 100, one could argue the team MVP last season was really LF Bryan Christiansen, who hit 28 HRs, stole 56 bases, and scored 117 runs. On the down side, IF Carlton MacDougal only had 14 home runs, SS Alex Suh had an OBP under .300, and OF Gregg Black had by far the worst season of his great career, failing to even hit 10 home runs- he may be done.
San Juan (last season- 7th in NL) didn't fall off the map offensively even after dealing their franchise player last season. Calvin Chang may be gone, but 2B Derrin Hernandez, CF John Baldwin, 1B Hipolito Gonzalez, and RF Tony Gonzalez formed a nice middle of the order, even if they tend to strike out a bit too much. If 3B Tony Kwon hits like he did in Vancouver and LF Shane Fletcher realizes his potential, this could be a dangerous lineup.
Austin (last season- 2nd in NL) took a giant leap forward in this category last season. A big reason for the jump was Carlton Fleming, who was excellent in his first season in Austin (15-4, 3.23). He helped solidify a young, unproven staff (Louis Feliz, Delino Colon, Miguel Castilla, Vladimir Bibby- all 25 and under). Matt Skinner was acquired last season from the Riverdogs to close, and he'll be joined by former closer Eduardo Moya and former starter Manny Christians to form the back of the bullpen.
Huntington (last season- 7th in NL) has a solid front four in the rotation but could struggle after that. Lonny Gates (16-7, 3.27) is a borderline ace and he'll have Perry Herman, Ivan Castilla, and Juan Cabrera behind him. After that there are question marks, especially in the bullpen. The loss of Skinner opened the way for Cristian Price, who struggled mightily as the closer. Sal Cole is a solid setup guy, but after that there are more question marks.
New Orleans (last season- 14th in NL) lacks the depth of Austin and Huntington. Veteran Jerome Oliver has been a good starter for years and Kevin Pong had a breakout season, but there's little behind him. Stu McLaughlin was OK and Rich Gibson was dropped from the rotation after posting an ERA near 6. They signed former Shakers starter Rene Alexander and traded for Pittsburgh starter Mateo Guerrero to add some depth. In the bullpen, Tom Hernandez's Wild Ride continues, as he saved 35 of 40 games but had an ERA over 5. Setup man Vance D'Amico took a big step back last season.
San Juan (last season- last in NL) is very similar to New Orleans. Hipolito Pujols (13-9, 3.11) is not an ace, but he's good and the best they have. Bert Pierre finally flashed his potential, going 10-5. J.C. Green is a decent back of the rotation guy. The bullpen is a big question mark, as Jim Clyburn has yet to prove that he can handle the closer's role and setup man Mel Salmon pitched more than some of the starters.
1. I like Austin again- too much depth.
2. Huntington should be in the playoff mix if they don't sell off some of their players.
3. New Orleans and San Juan will race for third, far behind Austin and Huntington.
4. Look for a breakout year from Austin LF David Cortez.