In Season 10, Salt Lake City took down its 4th straight division title, taking out all comers by at least 15 games. Does Salt Lake City make it 5 in a row, or can Salem, Vancouver, or Las Vegas get the job down and knock off the kings of the mountain?
Salt Lake City (last season- 1st in NL) has led the NL in offense for 5 straight seasons. Does that change with the loss of 1B Ruben Hernandez, The Bigs's all-time RBI leader? It seems like a significant loss, but it's not likely to drastically change what the Shakers do. Expect C Nick Robertson to take over Hernandez's run-producing role and they still have all the professional hitters besides Ruben in IFs Che Bong, Jordan Newfield, Carlos Batista, and OFs George Lowe and Vic James. They may not score quite as much-and I expect Houston, Washington, and Austin to give them a run for it-but they're still the odds-on favorite to lead the NL in runs yet again.
Vancouver (last season- 13th in NL) is going to build its offensive future around its keystone combination. SS Jim Gibson and rookie 2B Virgil Vega are two very talented players. Vancouver fans are hoping the young players such as LF Jerry Powell, CF Roscoe Rigby, and 3B O.T. Wagner step up to help those two guys. Veteran C Clarence Hartman is still quite productive.
Salem (last season- 14th in NL) needs some more consistent players. 1B Paul Uchida hit 50 homers and RF Melvin Taylor has been a solid hitter for years, but 3B Juan Valdes's numbers have declined since his All-Star Season 7 performance, and for the last 4 seasons SS Reggie Ducati hits over .300 in even numbered seasons and under .260 in odd numbered seasons. Rookie RF Jimmie Lincoln could be the next breakout hitter for the Sacrifices.
Las Vegas (last season- last in NL) could use some consistent power hitters. C Yeico Solano (26 HRs) and Rick Foster (20) are the only returning players who hit more than 10 homers for the team last season. They added talented CF Gerald Duran in free-agency, but he's not a home run hitter.
Salem (last season- 10th in NL) won't be confused with Atlanta, KC, or Austin, but they've got some talented pitchers. Starters Benji Stewart and Sammy Garrido are both good pitchers and Nerio Branson had a good season last year. The back of the rotation is a question mark. Kevin Li was solid as the closer, although getting to him could be an issue.
Salt Lake City (last season- 11th in NL) has seen its pitching regress over the last few seasons.
As usual, the lines blur between starter and reliever for this team. Rob Cepeda, Felipe Calles, and Cliff Miller are the best of the bunch. Lefty reliever Steve Cook has some promise.
Vancouver (last season- last in NL) should be better this season, although it would be hard to do worse. Nobody had double digit wins, so the Golder Otters added Juan Cabrera (traded from Huntington) and 21-year-old rookie B.C. Macias, who has the potential to be a real ace someday. They'll join veterans Jose Merced and Orber Marin in the rotation. With Ted Reese gone to Scranton, Paul Zhang is likely to get the first shot at the closer's role.
Las Vegas (last season- 15th in NL) has a decent bullpen and a very shaky rotation. Hi Fox led the team in wins (10) while losing more than he won and walking almost 6.5 batters per 9 innings. The rest of the rotation- Will Piper, Miguel Reyes, Ricardo Gabriel, etc.- is below average. The bullpen is led by closer Kenneth Schalk and still has former closer Paul Schwartz, although the question is for how long.
1. Salt Lake City is still the class of the division- they should slug their way to a 5th straight division title.
2. I like what Salem and Vancouver are doing- they'll be back in the hunt soon, but not this season. I'll take Vancouver for second this season, slightly over Salem.
3. Las Vegas is likely to finish last again- that squad is going to need some time to rebuild. It is most certainly not a disaster, but it's not a quick fix, either.
4. Due to his contract, Paul Schwartz might be easier to deal later in the season. His remaining contract still makes it difficult, although I would anoint him most likely to be dealt- he's still talented.