The NL South is next on the tour list, and this division has some talent. Austin is the reigning World Series champions and would likely be the odds-on favorite to win this season as well. Can they repeat? What about perrenial playoff team Huntington? Can San Juan or New Orleans crack the dominance of the top two?
AUSTIN CITY LIMITS
Last season: 117-45 (1st in NL South, 1st in NL, World Series Champions)
Offense: 4th in NL
Pitching: 1st in NL
Summary: They were not only 1st in the NL in pitching, they led everyone by over half a run per game. In other words, they were absolutely dominant. Their top 4 starters (Dan Bernard, Miguel Castilla, Vladimir Bibby, and Louie Feliz) won 19, 17, 17, and 13 games respectively and none had an ERA more than 3. What has the NL worried is the fact that Feliz, at age 25, is the oldest of the four. Matt Skinner was stellar as the closer, and Eduard Moya and Delino Colon was quite good setting up. All 7 guys will be back this season.
The offense was overshadowed by the pitchers but was also formidable. RF Ken Keagle, CF Rich Porter, 3B Justin Gordon, and IF Mariano Terrero all have both speed and power. SS William Satou is a major stolen base threat, and thumpers LF David Cortez and 1B Jimmie Williams are there to drive in runs. This is a balanced lineup.
Outlook: Don't pick against them to repeat- they should cruise to a division title, as good as Huntington is. Their balance makes them dangerous and this could be the makings of a dynasty.
Last season: 94-68 (2nd in NL South, 5th in NL)
Offense: 7th in NL
Pitching: 3rd in NL
Summary: Their biggest strength took a big hit in spring training. Longtime ace Lonny Gates has a labrum tear in his shoulder and will be out for about half the season. Couple that loss with the signing of 18-game winner Ivan Castilla with Atlanta and suddenly the 3rd best staff from last season doesn't look so formidable. They will have Juan Cabrerea and Kenneth Graves, so at least their top two is ok for now. They need more than 1 win from Perry Herman. On the plus side, closer Cristian Price finally had the breakout season most scouts had been predicting for a long time.
The offense should be in fairly good shape. They will again revolve around MVP candidate 3B Monte Duvall, but they also have RF Butch Russell and 2B Willie Scott to help. The organization is really high on LF Yorvit Terrero, enabling them to trade Bret King back to Trenton. And OF Abdullah Dillon is still a big-time stolen base threat.
Outlook: Gates's injury changes things in a major way. They had to win 94 games to hold off both Trenton and Vancouver by 2 games. I didn't see them catching Austin with a healthy Gates, but this may keep them out of the playoffs. If they can tread water for the first half of the season and stay close with the other wild-card contenders (i.e. Vancouver, Trenton, maybe Washington or Philadelphia), they could be ok.
NEW ORLEANS VOODOO
Last season: 64-98 (3rd in NL South)
Offense: 10th in NL
Defense: 15th in NL
Summary: This team is proof that stolen bases doesn't always translate into runs. They finished 2nd in the NL in steals but only 10th in runs. 1B Bryan Christiansen and IF Kent Fischer both stole 41, but someone needs to drive them in. They do have C Ted Robertson and 1B Matty Matos, both of whom had good seasons. On the other end was 2B Ray Cepicky (the face of the franchise and a borderline future Hall-of-Famer), who had the worst season of his 8 year career. They are taking a gamble on LF Bob Koplove, dumped by 3 teams in a span of less than two years, to provide some of the pop they need.
The pitching is in worse shape. Jerome Oliver was the only double-digit winner, and his ERA was over four and a half. Kevin Pong won 7 fewer games and had an ERA two full runs higher than the season before and earned himself a one-way ticket to St. Louis. The rest of the rotation is a huge question mark. Tom Hernandez is the closer for now- he was awful last season and it was a toss-up between Joe Forrest as for who was worse. My prediction is that rookie reliever Miguel Estalella takes the closer's job before season's end.
Outlook: I don't see this team being much better than last season. 70 wins might be a stretch.
SAN JUAN DEAD BUNNIES
Last season: 58-104 (Last in NL South)
Offense: 11th in NL
Pitching: Last in NL
Summary: They're not as dangerous as they were back in the early days of the franchise when Calvin Chang wore a Dead Bunnies uniform, but it's hard to imagine this team not being at least in the middle of the pack offensively. They've got talent in IF Derrin Hernandez, LF John Baldwin, C Junior Tabaka, and CF Shane Fletcher. The problem was they had a lot of guys with low OBP and a propensity to strike out. In addition, Fletcher had a down season and 3B Tony Kwon was downright awful.
The pitching staff is a mess. Hipolito Pujols was the only double digit winner (right at 10 wins). Bert Pierre went from solid in season 8 to horrible last season. The rest of the options (Earl Biddle, Joey Adcock, Willie Williams) are retreads, although Williams has had some success elsewhere. Jim Clyburn is an ok closer.
Outlook: I think their offense may be better than last season, but I don't see the pitching staff rounding into form. They could challenge New Orleans for third if things fall right, but anything beyond that would be an outright miracle.