Burlington won the division again and improved by 4 games, while Jacksonville posted a nice 15-game improvement. Indianapolis is still rebuilding (although some young talent started arriving last season) and Toledo is likely to be, so the suspense here is whether the Jokers can gain enough ground on the Lake Monsters to make it a race.
Burlington: The Lake Monsters were 11th with 709 runs last year. Wilt McDowell took a nice step up in his second season, hitting .307 with 27 HR's. RF Theodore Beckett notched his second straight 30+ HR season (although his average slipped badly), as did the just-resigned Hong-Jin Kobayashi. Ivan Ruiz is a potential All-Star or Silver Slugger at SS. 1B and 3B are badly sub-par offensively, though. Trend (even)
Toledo: The Mud Hens trailed the field with 631 runs last year - they need some bold moves. Ted Stein packs a wallop at C, Rafael Carreras is solid at 1B, Gary Goodwin is a perennial All-Star candidate in RF, and Samuel Scarsone is a nice bat at SS. The rest of the lineup is pretty sketchy, and the only near-term help in the minors is AA 2B Yorrick Fassero. Trend (even)
Jacksonville: The Jokers tied for 12th at 700 runs last year. Any discussion of the Joker offense begins with George Kipling, their leadoff hitter who hit .309 with 32 long flies last year (and made his first All-Star appearance). With Kevin Grabowski gone, Orel Gardner (33 HR's last year) becomes the top power threat. Tim Milton was a nice Rule 5 pickup and will add some punch at 3B, but not enough to make up for the loss of Grabowski. Trend (-)
Indianapolis: The Sluggers improved by over 100 runs scored last year (10th, 733). 1B Matt Flores hit 40 HR's as a rookie and has a promising future. He could use a little help in the power department, as the team was 15th in HR's last year. 2B Roosevelt McGowan and SS Neal Stone are competent table-setters, and LF Elroy Gant is occasionally productive. Going the right way, but they might hit a little plateau this year. Trend (even)
Burlington: The Lake Monsters were 2nd with an excellent 3.70 ERA last year. Frank Huff is one of the top starters in the NL (and most prolific - 9 straight 200+ innings seasons). Mark Fisher was "Mr. Hard Luck" last year, posting a 3.23 ERA but only winning 9 - he could double that with some luck. Teddy Nelson got away with putting runners on last year...don't count on a repeat. Fausto Cedeno had mixed results as a closer in Cincinnati, but thrived as a 100+ inning setup man last year. Juan Romero moved into first place on the all-time saves list last year (398) and shows no signs of slowing down. Tommy Fabregas has put together 2 straight excellent campaigns and gives the Lake Monsters a 3rd top-notch short relief option.
Toledo: posted a 4.80 ERA last year - 15th. They tried 14 different starters last year - none were especially effective, although Trever Fielder managed a 3.41 ERA in 21 starts. Of the 4 rookies who will probably gets starts, Bailey Anderson looks to have some potential. Short relief is a mess. Domingo Guillen and Cristobal Sivilla in AAA have a lot of promise, but won't be ready this year. Trend (even)
Jacksonville: 9th with a respectable 4.39 ERA last year. Christy Harper and Norm Rose lead an unheralded but effective rotation. Rookie Cyrus Keller and Rule 5'er
Hector Reyes get a shot this year. C.C. Taguchi had a great year in relief, but don't hold your breath for a repeat. FA Wolf Ellis and rookie Sammy Lopez will be counted on (with some justification) to improve on last year's woeful pen. The primary dividend of the Grabowski trade, Efrain Zhang, starts in AAA and should probably spend the season there. Trend (+)
Indianapolis: nowhere to go but down on last year's 5.40 ERA. Mike Franco got 48 ML innings last year and seems ready to step tp the head of the rotation, and Enrique Velasquez should easily improve on last year's 8-13, 5.28. Julian Lopez showed some flashes as a closer, adn is also a good bet to improve. Jesus Diaz in AAA will provide some help this year, but Fonzie Tessmer (also AAA) is probably 2 seasons away. Trend (+)
1. Burlington wins the division for the 3rd straight year
2. Jacksonville may take a little step back, but still takes 2nd
3. Indianapolis continues to patiently rebuild and comes in 3rd
4. Toledo 4th whether they commit to all-out rebuilding or not
5. Rookie Watch: keep an eye on Indy's RP Jesus Diaz, currently in AAA
6. Vets on the move: Toledo's Gary Goodwin remains one of the most valuable...and elegible...hitters in either league