It's that time of year again- spring training. 32 teams have World Series aspirations, although some are delusional. We'll once again walk through all 8 divisions, looking at all 32 teams and assessing their fortunes this season, making predictions that never go wrong.
We'll start, as always, in the NL East. Last season Atlanta won 100 games in its bid for a 7th straight division title, but came up short as Washington won 101. Trenton had won 90 games for 3 straight seasons but fell back to 83 last season. Norfolk finished last for the 4th straight season at 70-92. Does Atlanta come back to win this season? Can Washington make it 2 in a row? What about the Traffic and Destroyers?
Washington (last season- 3rd in NL) traded its leading run producer, Willis Biddle, from last season but could still be dangerous. They'll return young 2B Andrew Clayton, CF Luis Martinez, and RF Matty Pena. They added a key piece in C Vasco Lopez (from Trenton in the Biddle trade), but the offense could depend on whether guys like IF William Bolling, IF Peter Guerrero, and OF Neifi McBrde can step up and provide depth for the lineup.
Atlanta (last season- 7th in NL) should be an interesting team to watch on offense to see if the pieces fit. 3B Mitch Sobkowiak is a bonafide star and 2B Jason Walker is an all-around talent, but they'll miss Albie Torres's bat (traded to Scranton). RF Alex Lim is a good hitter, but not worth $11.3 million. DeWayne Castillo takes over for Paul Turnbow in center- it remains to be seen if Atlanta ends up on the plus side of that deal.
Trenton (last season- 6th in NL) is a team in transition. They've lost their #3 and #4 hitters from last season (1B Stephen Mills went to Mexico City and C Vasco Lopez was dealt to Washington). They gain IF Willis Biddle to partner with 2B/CF Watty Miller, but they'll need more than that. Their free-agent crop from last season (1B/LF Bret King, OF Dewey Greenwood, RF Ryan Snyder) is starting to look old. They'll take a flyer on SS B.C. Stone and hope for the best.
Norfolk (last season- 11th in NL) is quietly assembling some good hitters. 1B Al Cruz and LF Dave Hodges look like bonafide middle of the order hitters and SS Nigel Acosta made the jump from A ball to the majors about as well as could be expected. They need more from their veterans- RF Melvin Nakano still gets on base at a great clip, but doesn't score enough runs and 2B Del Hernandez gives mediocre stats for his contract.
Atlanta (last season- 1st in NL) is always loaded in their starting rotation, and this season should be no different. They'll return Cy Young winner Santiago Perez, future Hall of Famer Dave Dunwoody, and 18-game winner Kazuhiro Whang. They've got plenty of options for the last two spots in guys like Rico Mangual, Roy Walker, and Ivan Castilla. The bullpen may be a slight question mark, as Tex Howell's ERA jumped two full runs despite saving 33 games last season.
Washington (last season- 4th in NL) isn't as deep as Atlanta in the rotation but still has talent. Carter Leonard bounced back from a subpar season to win 21 games and remains a Cy Young threat. John Balfour reached a career high in wins (11) in what was, ironically, probably his worst big league season. He and veteran Graham Costello provide quality innings, but maybe not enough innings. To that end, they brought in Woody Hiller from Trenton to add depth. I wouldn't be surprised if Adrian Shipley (AAA) winds up in the rotation at some point during the season. The bullpen is in good hands with Alex Javier closing and former Trenton closer Bernie Corino setting up.
Norfolk (last season- 13th in NL) returns stalwarts Bobby Davenport, Rod Walters, Malcolm Lawrence, and Eddie Marquis to anchor the starting staff. Like their starters, the bullpen is not great, but okay with Del Aquino coming off maybe his best season and veteran arm Ariel Lee
to set up.
Trenton (last season- 8th in NL) finally hit the plunger and exploded the pitching staff. The 3 aces (Dunwoody, Salmon, and Sprague) are all gone, as is closer Bernie Corino. Alex Sanchez was signed from Salt Lake City to lead the staff- this is his second stint with Trenton. Steve Elster is a solid starter but an injury risk, and the rest of the starting spots are up for grabs with guys like Dan Linden, Dan Yount, Juan Diaz, Matthew Nelson, and Isaac Smith vying for the spots. The bullpen has yet to anoint a closer, although Andres Rivera is likely to start the season in the spot.
1. Tough call as to who wins the division- might as well flip a coin. I'll take Washington- even if their offense and bullpen doesn't trump Atlanta's starters, I think Washington will find it easier to add pieces due to their minors (either plugging guys in or via trade).
2. Other than the race for first, the team to watch is Trenton for two reasons- one, to see how far off their pace they fall (they've never won fewer than 80 games) and two, what they do on the trade market. They still have two giant trade chips in Watty Miller and Willis Biddle.
3. Norfolk will continue the rebuilding process, adding to Hodges and company with another high draft pick. It's possible another team may want one of their veteran arms later in the season.