Cincy's offense went into an early coma, Madison's has them surprisingly in the race, and Augusta and Columbus are battling for the top spot. The AL North has the makings of a three-team race - here's how it'll unfold.
Augusta: The Polar Bears were 10th in offense and right on the league average of 829 runs - they're running 10th again but a shade under the league average this year. C Macbeth Crawford is still the primary power source, but he's being pushed by the recently-promoted Quilvio Nunez (.389 in 15 games). 2B Roy Drew was an All-Star, Silver Slugger and Gold Glove last season - Augusta's title hopes depend on his resurgence after a slow start. FA 1B pickup Larry Keisler has been a good run producer from the left side.
Cincinnati: The Waste Managers were 5th with 885 runs last year, but have inexplicably stopped hitting this year. Carlos Cairo's hitting .249, Christopher Booker's OPS'ing .758 (career .881), Carlos Pineiro's down...across the board, these guys are having off years. Certainly not too late to turn it around, and the talent is there...need a good "lollygagger" speech or something.
Columbus: The Criminals were 11th last year at just under 5 runs a game and are right about there this year. DH Matt Selby leads the attack at .330/10/39. LF Miguel Bautista (12 HR's, 33 RBI) and CF Emmett Green (10 HR's, 29 RBI) form the second line of run production. They might win the division with this lineup, but will need more oomph come playoff time - look for a deadline deal.
Madison: The Badgers have improved by more than a run a game from last year (4.57) to this year (5.7). The resurgence is lead by a pair of 2nd-year power hitters, Bartolo Olivares (.328/14/43) and Hack Bush (.277/15/32), with help from veterans Jimmie Castro (.314), Jose Polanco (.305/13/48) and Charles Bottalico (.302/9/38). They've also moved up frpm 14th to 5th in fielding percentage, thanks largely to shoring up SS and CF with Terry Owen and Tony Carrara.
Augusta: The Polar Bears are running right about at last year's ERA pace of 4.56. Heralded rookie SP Mickey Beckett is struggling, but vets Jacque Butler and Carter Jefferson are off to terrific starts. The bullpen is getting long in the tooth, and only closer Tomas Martin, LR Wolf Ellis and ageless wonder Daniel Grace are pitching well. With the Bears tied for the division lead, the JBT expects to see at least a move or 2 to add pitching before long.
Cincinnati: The Waste Managers' big trade of ace Gary Ramsay means more vets are likely to ship out soon. Alex Cruz has never really put it together in the bigs, but Roger Kirby could get some attention and Wilton Ashley is blowing hitters away with a 1.67 ERA in long relief. Cincy now turns its focus to the youngsters - after 120 innings in parts of 2 seasons Andy Newman is starting to figure it out (.99 WHIP, 3.07 ERA). Glen Wulf is promising, but still struggling in his second season. The big surprise may be Eduardo Valentin, a 27 year-old rookie who's flashing a 2.10 ERA. There's more bullpen help on the way in the form of AAA reliever Carlos Javier, but a big chunk of the Managers' future pitching may come in trades for the hitters they got for Ramsay.
Columbus: The Criminals' 4.86 ERA is also just about identical to last year's. This year's big-ticket free agent, Cookie Prieto, has refused to wilt under the intense pressure of the Columbus media and leads the team with a 2.44 ERA. Al Escobar and Fred West are pitching well, but last year's 2 13-game winners - McKay Casian and Yamid Reynoso - are sputtering along with only 6 wins between them. Closer Bosco Swann is 10-of-13 in save opportunities, but hasn't exactly been sharp. The Criminals could use some pitching help to, but their best bet for help is a rebound by Casian and Reynoso.
Madison: The Badgers are hanging around 4 games back despite their bloated 5.76 ERA. Basically, they have one guy on the team (Dan Cirillo) who looks like a legit ML pitcher; David Wilson has 6 wins despite his 4.85 ERA (thanks to the offense putting up 63 runs in those 6 wins). Don't know how it could happen, but if the front office could work half the magic with the staff they did with the offense and defense, they could stay in the race.
1. Tough call here...the Polar Bears, Criminals or Badgers could all win it. JBT says the Criminals' pitching kicks in and they pull away in teh 2nd half.
2. Augusta hangs tough but comes in second.
3. Gotta love what Madison has accomplished, but oh, that pitching staff. No miracles for these guys this year.
4. The Waste Managers have packed it in early - they'll call it a rebuilding year and finish 4th.
5. Rookie watch - Quilvio Nunez, Augusta.
6. Vets on the move - Cincy's already made the big vet move with the Ramsay trade, but they're probably not done. Given they now have a gaggle of hitting prospects knocking at the door, look for one of their big-name veteran hitters to change addresses. Bet on Christopher Booker.