The NL West was the best race in Belle last year, with Oakland, San Jose and Las Vegas battling until the last week and all three winning 90+ games. An infusion of young talent propelled the division to 26 more wins last year; can they repeat that performance? Who'll come out on top?
Oakland: The Surenos improved by over 100 runs (5th in league) thanks to excellent rookie campaigns by rookies J.T. Burns (.279/41/98) and Erubiel Maduro (.256/39/88); Wilfredo Feliz' best season yet (.318/30/100, plus 54 SB); and big years from Zhang (.313/27/98), Rivera (55 HR's) and Kwon (9th straight season of 20+ HR at SS). No off-season losses of note, and they added Valerio Bonilla as a backup and Al Trinidad (23 HR in part-time duty last year) as a backup C/pinch hitter. It would be easy to predict a little falloff this year, but they're young and still improving. I see 950 runs and possibly the league's best offense.
San Jose: The Bees improved even more (by 120 runs to 850 - 6th), due to a monster ROY campaign by Derek Walker (.302/46/116), a bunch of small improvements by familiar faces (York Wilson up 100 OPS points, Tim Murray up 75, Patrick Bell up 80, Emil Guerrero up 115 points), and nice contributions by budget free agents Frank Nicholson (.274/15/69) and Bart Hall (.261/17/47). I love how they did it last year...just call me a little skeptical that they can do it again. Watch for a falloff to 830 runs this year.
Las Vegas: The 69'ers were 4th in runs last year (894) and return pretty much intact. They lost part-time C Al Trinidad to free agency; Brendan Keeler was the primary catcher and he'll get help from rookie Bill Wengert, a 2nd-round pick in the Season 9 "Mother of all drafts". SS Magglio Pineda is also gone, although his .968 fielding percentage and 9 "-" plays didn't recommend him much. Aurelio Ortiz won't be much better, but AAA SS Tony Garces could help defensively. COF's John Li (.322/32/115) and Hughie Bruskie (.300/48/132) remain the prime run producers. Look for them to be right around 894 again this year.
Tacoma: The TIE Fighters brought up the rear with 588 runs last year, but things are looking up with a slew of promising young players. Free agency yielded perhaps the league's best defensive CF (and 30-HR man) Vic Pascual and SS Tony Soriano (an upgrade both on offense and defense. They'll also showcase the best rookie crop in the division, with C Jacob Nomura, 1B Sammy Gonzalez, RF Ernest Farr and possibly 2B Cookie Corder ready to make the jump. Some growing pains still to come, but I'll say 735 runs.
Oakland: The Surenos were 4th in ERA last year at 3.96 and have concentrated on rebuilding their pen after the FA defections of Grace, Martin and Parnell - Patsy White, Russell Forest and Clyde Jackson should be a slight improvement but won't replace all the innings. Joe Hodges kicked around for 5 years before finding it in Oakland - last year was his best yet with 17 wins and a sterling 2.66 ERA. Andy Wilson remains a top closer, but the rest of the starting roles are up in the air. Hard to see a repeat of last year.
San Jose: The Bees jumped from 6th to 3rd last season with a 3.87 ERA. Midre Estrade (16-8, 3.12) heads a solid staff that's joined by Bernie Tejada (12-11, 4.49). Deion Corbin heads the closer committee that soread saves around to 8 pitchers last year. Watch for rookie Craig Hague to make a big impact when he comes up from AAA.
Las Vegas: Vegas stayed in the race last year despite its 4.54 ERA (1oth) and needs a boost from somewhere. So far they're sticking with last year's plan: start ace Adrian Jensen as many times as they can and somehow get it to late-inning guys Al Borges and Juan Gomez with a lead. Gomez was terrific as a rookie and has all the signs of a truly dominating closer. Their key to the season may be recoveries from off years by SP's Yamamoto and Miyakzi.
Tacoma: Tacoma trotted out a respectable staff (4.28 ERA - 8th) and needs repeat performances from (especially) 2nd-year SP Dale Barker (32 starts, 2.96) and veterna lefty Barry Carew. While some pundits question a 61-win team signing the 36 year-old Rafael James, he should provide some short-term help. Mike Simpson is a solid closer and is capably set up by Richard Mayne and Brett Holmes. Their rookie arms don'tmatch the rookie bats, but Javier Batista could see action with the big club this year.
1. Another 3-way race coming down to the last week: for no great reason, I'm gonna pick Vegas.
2. Oakland's offense carries them to 2nd place and a wild card.
3. San Jose will be in it all year, but they miss the 2nd wildcard by a whisker.
4. Tacoma's rookies get them over 70 wins.
5. Rookies to watch: Hague (San Jose), Wengert (LV), and Nomura (Tacoma)
6. Deadline sellers take note: all 3 contenders will be scrambling for pitching after the break.