Another step forward for the already-strong AL South last year, which improved by 22 wins (19 by Richmond) and boasted 4 teams over .500. Richmond and Little Rock have already made big moves...can they close the gap on Jackson?
Jackson: The Holes were 3rd in runs scored last year with a healthy 913. The only off-season loss was LF Carlton Carroll, who should be easily replaced by free-swinging rookie Carl Serrano (no relation to Pedro Cerrano of "Major League" fame but the same kind of hitter). Season 9 1st-rounder Omar Freeman also joins the interchangeable-parts IF/CF rotation in a lineup that will likely see 13 players get 200+ AB's again. Repeats of career seasons by 1B Wilson Costello and 2B Geronimo Perez probably aren't in the offing but not impossible; don't hold your breath for a big offensive falloff.
Little Rock: The Pebbles slid from 5th to 8th last year, although they scored only 12 fewer runs (845). And they did it without a lot of power (12th in HR's). Pretty uneventful off-season in Arkansas - 1B Larry Keisler moved on but the Pebbles added Troy Harris to play CF (roughly a push in the power department). Look for similar production this year, although they could be looking for a bat or 2 if they stay in contention.
Richmond: The Poor Men jumped from last to 6th last year, scoring an incredible 132 more runs (857). They'll have a tough time matching that, as SS Alan Leach defected for the big bucks in Tucson. That leaves DH Tony Ueno (.295/56/130) and 2B Tomas Cruz (.260/35/106) as the only big-time run-producers. Career HR leader Skip Leon will help, but at 36, ain't the deep threat anymore.
Nashville: The Music City Ramblers scored 18 more runs last year (846) but dropped from 6th to 7th. Notable additions include rookie RF Lance Reed, a Season 9 1st-rounder, and 1B Derek Foster, who should find the dimensions of Herschel Greer more to his liking than those of Citibank Field. They join C Elder, 2B Cordero, 3B Post, and LF Schmidt to make it 6 players capable of 30+ HR's. 900 runs is a distinct possibility.
Jackson: The Holes improved their league-leading ERA to 3.53 last year (in a year when scoring was up a little). They return the staff almost entirely intact: 3-time Cy Young winner Johnny Collier leads the rotation, with 3rd-year man Del Mendoza at #2. Victor Sosa handles setup duties and Orlando Diaz is the Mitch Williams-like (only more effective) closer. I just have 1 question about the best pitching staff in the league: how do they get a LR with a 37 vR to produce ERA's of 3.71 and 4.06 the last 2 seasons?
Little Rock: The Pebbles also improved their ERA (to 4.21) but fell from 3rd to 4th. Their only offseason move was to bring up Keith Benson to replace the departed Dutch Pavano in the pen. Del Ramirez (13-7, 2.86) heads the young rotation, and Quentin Houston (3.31 ERA in 119 IP) and Geoff Sosa (42 of 52 saves, 3.29 ERA) form one of the league's best late-inning combos. No reason to expect any big changes in production, but here's another team that could be looking for pitching if they're in the hunt at mid-season.
Richmond: The Poor Men also knocked some points off the ERA (4.28) and stayed at 5th. With one of the youngest and most promising rotations in the AL, they concentrated on shoring up the pen this offseason. They traded for Dutch Pavano (3.36 ERA in 61 IP) and Patrick Shaw (4.88 ERA in 62 IP), and are counting on a return to Season 11 form by closer Jacob Franklin (45 of 47 saves, 2.06 in Season 11). Billy Ray Buford and Charlie Cosby made impressive starting debuts last year, and Wascar Encarnacion has now posted solid numbers in his first 2 seasons. Ronnie Johnstone has the stuff (right at a strikeout an inning), but needs to tame the walks (one every other inning). Look for a move up this year.
Nashville: The Ramblers improved their ERA slightly (4.97) but were still well below the league average at 13th. Remember "Spahn and Sain and pray for rain"? Well, last year's Ramblers mantra was "Harold Bryant and pray for 4 days of rain", as the ROY runnerup with the handlebar moustache posted a 16-13, 3.91 in an impressive 230 innings of work. And despite wholesale changes, it's likely to be a similar mantra this year. The only other particularly promising arm on the staff is 2nd-year man Yorvit Manuel, who gets a shot at the closer job after struggling there last year (.288 OAV). Still, we expect some improvements as Manuel matures and they get a couple of nice surprises from the newcomers.
1. Jackson had everything go right last year; we see them coming off those 113 wins a bit but still winning the division comfortably.
2. Richmond and Little Rock will battle for 2nd and both top 90 wins again (although I thik both will have to make more moves to get there); right now we see the Poor Men by a whisker.
3. The Pebbles take third in Belle's toughest division.
4. The Ramblers improve on 82 wins - it's not beyond belief that this division could have 4 90-game winners.
5. Rookies to watch: Jackson's LF Carl Serrano, Little Rock's 2B Frank Baker, Richmond's AAA CF Albert Harmon, and Nashville's AAA SS Emil Morales.
6. Big names on the move: if the Pebbles fall behind early, the temptation to get something for Lon Andrews may become overwhelming.