Augusta won its 2nd straight Division crown, but the buzz was all about Madison's 26-win improvement (2nd in the entire league). Cincinnati started slow and never got it going - too much talent there not to see a rebound. Traditional North power Columbus (5 division titles) looks like they're starting a rebuilding phase, but we could very well see a tight, 3-team race here.
Augusta: The Polar Bears' 842 runs was only good for 10th last year, but it's a pretty young lineup with a balance of skills: Crawford, Drew and Keisler hit 30+ HR's; and Nunez, Bell and Weeks all reached base at .379+. Bargain-basement FA signee Blake Byrd takes over in RF for the departed Sid Bogar and could be a nice upgrade. Got a feeling they're going to miss George Sweeney in CF once they get a good look at Rick Sandberg. George is still out there, Bears. Trend (+)
Cincinnati: The Waste Managers were 13th with 781 runs last year and expect a big rebound. 3 of their Big 5 - 2B Carlos Pineiro, 1B Carlos Cairo, and C Odalis Gutierez - had down years and are good bets to bounce back. They join LF Christopher Booker (.296/31/109) and RF Karim Martin (.294/21/69) as the frontline run producers. The "Crash Davis of Belle" (10 years in the minors), Stephen Bland, gets his shot and will add some punch, if not a high OBP, at 3B. Ivan Maranon is a welcome addition at SS - Alfonzo Diaz may become the fulltime CF with Larry Davis out for most of the season. Trend (+)
Columbus: The Criminals were 12th with 817 runs last year and seem to headed for a couple of rebuilding years. They traded C Pat Ramirez and lost 3B Pablo Cerveza and DH Pablo Padilla to free agency. Matt Selby (.295/28/112, mostly as DH) will make up for the loss of Ramirez; FA Frank Nicholson will be adequate at 3B but he's 34 and has a 1-year contract. Miguel Bautista had a nice season (38 HR, 101 RBI), but it remains to be seen if he can handle righties adequately. Trend (-)
Madison: The Badgers put across 877 runs last season, good for 7th. They feature a strong power game (Bush, Polanco, Riggs and Olivares all hit 36+ HR's) comnied with decent on-base skills (.343 OBP - 7th). Rookie Pedro Sierra should be an upgrade at 2B, although with both splits at 46, he may not be great. They traded C Charles Bottalico and lost SS Terry Owen FA; Owen may be the greater loss to the offense, although Cookie Martin should be his equal defensively. Trend (even)
Augusta: The Polar Bears were 5th with a respectable 4.44 ERA last year. Jacque Butler has won 18 2 straight seasons and leads the rotation. Mickey Beckett won 15 and could easily improve. FA signee Ozzie Calderon should be an improvement over departed SP's Wolf Ellis and Cedrick Waters, but the last rotation spot is unsettled. Thomas Martin pitched pretty well last year but managed to blow 13 saves. Oswaldo Escuela and Mendy Justice are getting long in the tooth, but can still get it done as setup relievers. Trend (even)
Cincinnati: The Waste Managers checked in 7th at 4.89 last year. Andy Newman (10-8, 3.57) leads a rotation that welcomes rookie Carlos Javier, Season 9's first rounder and a potential ROY. Gerald Lackey, a Season 9 supplemental pick, may also get a shot at starting. The bullpen is suspect, although FA signee Sherman Morris will help, and Eduardo Valentin had a promising rookie season(2.89 in 43 innings). Trend (+)
Columbus: The Criminals' ERA ballooned to 5.64 last season (15th). Not a strong point of the team even in their Season 9-11 division champs, it's likely to get worse before it gets better. Their one top-quality starter, Cookie Prieto, is on the block, but his contract is a roadblock. It'll help if he gets off to a strong start. Ditto Fred West, who has crackling stuff but also the control problems that frequently accompany it. Bosco Swann has the potential to be a top reliever - just hasn't quite put it all together yet. FA signee Benito Rivera is still young enough to return to his Season 11 FOY form. Trend (even)
Madison: The Badgers came in 14th in ERA with a 5.49 last year, making their 26-game improvement even more impressive (or maybe suspect). Dan Cirillo is coming off perhaps his best season (17-7, 3.48) - the Badgers need a repeat. J.J. Little was a disaster when he did pitch, then blew out his elbow; a return to something around his career numbers (4.43 ERA) is critical - and likely. The #4 and 5 spots are unsettled and could stay that way all season. Madison doesn't use a closer...Damaso Arias appears to be the best option of the committee. Expect more moves here as the season progresses. Trend (+)
1. This is a tossup. The smart money probably goes with Augusta to 3-peat...for no great reason I suspect a strong Cincy rebound and narrow win.
2. Augusta 2nd in a close race.
3. Madison 3rd with a strong showing.
4. Columbus launches all-out rebuilding effort.
5. Rookies to watch: Cincy's Carlos Javier
6. Vets on the move: anyone on the Columbus roster; with pitching at a such premium, have to think someone finds a way to take Cookie Prieto's salary.