For the second straight season, the World Series champs have come out of this division, but this time last season we were talking about a possible Austin City Limits dynasty- not so anymore. Huntington won its second World Series title, winning the division title over Austin by 5 games and then overcoming Anaheim for the title. Which team wins it this season? What about New Orleans and San Juan- can they break the stranglehold at the top of this division?
Huntington (last season- 2nd in NL) has a well-rounded, deep lineup. They've got former MVP 3B Monte Duvall and a pair of 30-30 guys in 2B Willie Scott and LF Yorvit Terrero. RF Butch Russell had a very nice season last year and C Angel Marquez is starting to emerge. Expect young infielder Raymond Black, acquired in a trade from Montgomery, to add more depth to this lineup.
Austin (last season- 4th in NL) probably won't be far behind Huntington, if at all. 1B Jimmie Williams is still a big-time run producer, and CF Rich Porter and RF Ken Keagle both have 30-30 potential. LF David Cortes and 3B Mariano Terrero are big-time sluggers.
San Juan (last season- 8th in NL) isn't as deep as the big boys, but has a young emerging offense. CF Shane Fletcher was on his way to stardom before an injury cut his season short last year. OF Bob Meyer emerged in his presence, and they'll be joined by RF Tony Gutierrez and two good looking rookies in 3B Vic Olivares and Rule 5 pick Carter Pose. C Junior Tabaka led the team in RBI, and rookie Russ Glanville is a very similar player.
New Orleans (last season- 7th in NL) rose last season due in large part to their star. 2B Ray Cepicky had a bounceback season to lead the offense. 1B Brian Christiansen had a 30-30 season, but they'll need help. The Voodoo have talented players in guys like IFs Bud Clark, Pat Buck, and OF Alving Infante, but they have to step up and perform.
Austin (last season- 3rd in NL) has a very deep rotation and bullpen. Miguel Castilla, Louie Feliz, Dan Bernard, and Vladimir Bibby may not have the name recognition that some of their Texas rivals' starters have, but they're all quite good. They added former Trenton starter Jason Sprague to round out the rotation. The bullpen looks just as stacked, with Matt Skinner as a very good closer- he'll be set up by former closer Eduardo Moya and future closer Rey Jung.
Huntington (last season- 5th in NL) did very well in spite of losing their ace for most of the season. Ace Lonny Gates tore his labrum and missed more than half the season- all reports say he's healthy and ready to go. He'll be joined in the rotation by former Bandits and Bambinos ace Fred Carter and Kenneth Graves to form a very good top 3. The bottom is a little questionable- Cookie Cortes is solid but Damaso Ramirez (who led the team with 15 wins) really overachieved last season. The Riverdogs liked the job Chris Jennings did as the closer so much they decided to trade Cristian Price.
New Orleans (last season- 7th in NL) are going to miss their ace. Jerome Oliver, who won 18 games last season, left via free agency for Buffalo (as did closer Tom Hernandez). Mateo Guerrero had a solid season, but Orber Halter won 8 games last season (combined for Fargo and New Orleans), Rene Alexander pitched to exactly the same 5.56 ERA for two straight seasons (no bonus points for consistency here), and the back of the rotation is highly questionable. The loss of Hernandez doesn't hurt as bad, as Miguel Estalella seems ready to assume the closer's role. Joe Forrest had a nice season as the setup man.
San Juan (last season- 12th in NL) always seems to struggle in this area- expect this season to be no different. Hipolito Pujols remains and would be a solid #3 or #4 option on a strong staff, but he'll likely start Opening Day. Bert Pierre has been up and down in his career. After that, they have a bunch of mediocre to decent, sometimes overpaid guys like Willie Williams and Earl Biddle. The bullpen will be led by closer Jim Clyburn, who managed 40 saves on a 73 win team, which is quite a feat.
1. Call me crazy, but I'm going to pick against the champs. I like Austin to take back the division.
2. Whether its Huntington or Austin, the second place team in this division should grab a wild-card berth along with the second place team from the East.
3. San Juan is maybe a decent starting pitcher or two away from New Orleans- until they get it, I'll take New Orleans for third.
4. Look for Ray Cepicky to possibly hit the market if New Orleans can't stay in the race.