The AL East improved by 38 wins last season, thanks to big moves by D.C. (19 more wins) and Rochester (23 more wins - most improvement in Belle). But the Katanas won 109 and looked as strong as ever (at least during the regular season). Can Hartford hold off the challengers? Can the Phantom and the Revenge join the elite of the AL?
Hartford: The Katanas' off-season highlight, of course, was the big trade with Syracuse - the offense end of that brought in Luke Joyner, John Tamura and William Pierce for Al Cortez, Marquis Seo and (potential free agent) Rico Brogna. Hartford looks like they're going to lap the field in runs scored and might have 5 or 6 Silver Sluggers this year.
Washington D.C.: the Revenge made a big jump to 4th in runs scored last year and should continue to improve. Victor Morales signaled his approval of the shift to RF by winning the first Player of the Week. He joins 1B Eric Brantley and 3B Vinny Ma as the big run producers in a primarily OBP-oriented offense.
Rochester: The Phantoms trailed only the Katanas in runs scored last year, and have continued to improve. They brought in Wally Reid, one of the league's best CF's, in a trade with Syracuse, and gave the 3B job to 21 year-old Jesus Gomez. Gomez hit .282 in 30 games after signing as an IFA last year. Jose Zurburan was a nice free agent signing and will share the catching duties with Melvin Vina.
Pittsburgh: Clearly a rebuilding year for the Alleghenys, but they have some players to build around. CF Neifi Foster made the All-Star team as a rookie in Season 11 and last year set a new single-season stolen base record with 91. IB Terry Kent finally came into his own as a run producer with 110 RBI. More than immediate offense, the Alleghenys need a long-term plan and the patience to see it through.
Hartford: The Katanas were 2nd in ERA last season, but expect some inflation this year with the move to a cozier park. Luis Gabriel, Edwin Hill and Felipe Seneca came over in trades: Gabriel joins the 6-man rotation, Hill is the lone long reliever, and Seneca jumps into what is likely to be a much-used late-inning crew. So far, runs allowed are even with last year (with runs scored up 23%), so the plan's working.
Washington D.C.: The Revenge was 3rd (but in a virtual tie with Hartford) in ERA last year; their only off-season addition was the promotion of Season 9 1st rounder (#10 overall) Jimmie Feliz. Feliz will likely move into the #1 role shortly on a rather nondescript but highly effective rotation. Brook Wengert shifts from SP to the prime setup role this year, and Benji Martin continues to handle closer duties. Rob Workman probably should stay in AAA all year but could provide some late-season help. Look for a move to get bullpen help by the deadline.
Rochester: The Phantoms' 4.30 ERA was good for 6th this year - they'll have to improve on that to contend in this division. They lost last year's best SP, Ken George, to the Polar Bears in free agency. Rookie Ozzie Johnstone is trying to fill those shoes, but he's struggling so far. Rochester had 9 pitchers record saves last season and continue to go with the committee approach. AAA hurlers Dwight Graham and Jose Guardado could provide some help and may be called on sooner rather than later.
Pittsburgh: The Alleghenys are trotting out a staff of waiver wire guys, rule fivers and AAAA promotees this year, and their numbers will show it. Help is a couple of seasons away, but when it arrives it'll be big: AA SP's Jung Wanatabe (last year's #1 overall) and D'Angelo Cerda (Season 11's #1 overall) are both future Cy Young contenders.
1. At the moment, I like Hartford's pitching better than D.C.'s - Katanas take the division in a close race.
2. The Revenge keep it close by making moves for pitching, but finish #2.
3. Rochester will have to swing some major moves for pitching to get higher than 3rd - seems a tall order.
4. Pittsburgh waits for their future to arrive in 2 seasons nd patiently rebuilds.
5. Rookie watch: Rochester's 3B Jesus Gomez and D.C.'s SP Jimmie Feliz.
6. Vets on the move: Even though they just acquired him, the Phantoms' CF Wally Reid is the guy who could bring a significant prospect haul shoyld Rochester exit the race early.