Season 18 Recap: Chicago won 103 to top Ottawa by 2 games. New York won 85 and missed a wild card by 3 games, while Syracuse had its second straight sub-.500 year (74 wins). The Free Swingers advanced to the WS, losing to Salem; the Ice were a surprise first-round loser (Jacksonville). The North pulled off a rare sweep of the post-season awards: New York's Ellie Roenicke won the MVP, Ottawa's Clay Merritt and Chicago's Bruce Friend shared the Cy Young, Ariel Chantres of the Necromancers scored the ROY, and Free Swingers' Roger Lawson earned FOY.
CHICAGO: I won't even try to go through all the off season moves; let's just say the lineup is better than the one that lead the league with 996 runs last year. There are big-time run producers at spots 1-8 in the lineup - four (Ramirez in the AL, Coronado, Johnson and Stokes) were either All-Stars or Silver Sluggers (or both) last year, and Woo's .296/25/101 season (CF) couldn't have missed by much. The first three rotation spots (Friend, Ramirez, Starr) are solid (or better); Lind and Newman in the 4 and 5 spots should be adequate. If there's any question mark about this team - and I'm not sure there is - it's the bullpen behind closer Roger Lawson. Trent Durbin was solid last year and free agents Bosco Swann, Mark Martin and Ernest Larocca were brought in specifically to shore up the middle innings.
OTTAWA: Compared to Chicago, the Ice had a quiet off season, although it did see the departure of longtime stalwart run producer Ray Henley. Ottawa's strength begins with the Big 3 of the rotation: Clay Merritt (co-Cy Young winner last year), Jorge DeJesus and Albert DeJean - with that trio up front, they might contend if they scored 600 runs. But they'll do quite a bit better than that - their 880 runs was #2 in the NL (albeit by a distant margin to the Free Swingers). Rookie RF Les Johnson will be counted on to fill Henley's shoes - if he struggles against RHP (a distinct possibility), the Ice can call on AAA OF David James, a Season 14 IFA. Season 15's #1 pick, 1B Edgardo Nunez, is also ML ready and could elbow his way into the ML lineup this year. 3B Ceasar Liriano is one of the best on-base/leadoff men in the game; LF Johnny Hernandez, 1B Dion Vitiello and 2B Brandon O'Halloran are the primary RBI threats. The bullpen has its issues, but Mike Simpson and Joe Rolls are solid and will get most of the work.
NEW YORK has the distinct look of a team making a big push to contend. They released a bunch of arb-eligible pitchers, and upgraded the staff with FA signings (SP Raul Arias) and trades (relievers Harry Gumbert and Quentin Houston). They improved an already-excellent team defense with 2 more FA signings: CF Alfredo Mercado and SS Omar Freeman. On offense, they're led by 2-time MVP and slam-dunk Hall-Of-Famer Victor Morales, monster power hitter (116 homers in his first 2 seasons) Ellie Roenicke, and veteran C Richie Elder (although Elder could be made expendable by 2nd-year receiver Oswaldo Nunez). The staff is headed by the electric Ariel Chantres, who posted a 2.25 ERA in just his 3rd pro season last year. He's capably backed by Arias, Tommy Lloyd and George Titan at the 2, 3 and 4 spots. Fausto Cedeno is getting long-toothed but still has the closer job; Gumbert and Houston will get the bulk of the setup innings. To make matters even worse for the rest of the North, the Necros have 2 high draft picks from Season 16 ready to go in AAA: IF Alfredo Reyes (#2 overall) and SP Damian Figgins (#4) - they'll get the call by Game 20 at latest.
SYRACUSE looked like they were headed for all-out rebuilding after letting a bunch of older guys go FA (including career .332 hitter Marquis Seo) and trading 2B Theodore Maxwell for a trio of prospects. Then they stunned Belle by signing Jesus Gomez to a max deal, and the 4-team race in the North was on. They'll try to contend with pitching and defense: the Campbell/Kelton C platoon is call pitch-calling and no-hit, and the primary utility men Bundy and Lee are defensive specialists. The only sure-thing offensive contributors are Gomez at SS, Marte at 2B and Chong in CF - they'll hope for some run-producing surprises among 1B Walter Wills, RF Trenidad Medrano and AAA callups Buddy Offerman, Patrick Weaver and Rodrigo Pineda. They're ace-less, but the front 3 of Daniel Tankersly, Trent Diaz and Butler should be very good; the key to contention may be how well some combo of Dion Hull, Clark Jensen and Efrain Jhang perform in the 4 and 5 spots.
Tough to bet against Ottawa's pitching, but I think Chicago improved themselves on both sides of the line in the off season and has to be the favorite. New York will be much improved, especially on the pitching side - they look like a solid contender. If Syracuse was in the AL North, they'd run away with the pennant; in the NL North, I think they come in 4th with an impressive record. Chicago wins it, with Ottawa and New York taking wild cards.
Will contend for the MVP: Jesus Gomez (SYR), Ellie Roenicke (NY)
Will contend for the Cy Young: Jorge DeJesus (OTT), Ariel Chantres (NY)
Will contend for the ROY: Damian Figgins (NY)