Season 18 Recap: Pittsburgh won a Belle-best 109 to end Cleveland's run of 12 straight East titles. The Katanas "slumped" to 102 wins (their worst since Season 7) but claimed a wild card. Washington D.C. fell off 13 wins (87) but still took a wild card for the 5th straight year. Scranton appeared to be finally getting somewhere with its rebuilding, and improved 11 wins to 72. Cleveland and D.C. both went out in the first playoff round. The Katanas' Edgardo Valdes won the AL Cy Young - the 3rd (different) Cleveland hurler to do so in the lat 4 seasons (Lorenzo Rodriguez in Season 17 and Aaron Torres in Season 15) - and the Alleghneys' Kaz Lim took the FOY.
PITTSBURGH: The Alleghenies' only significant off-season moves were to re-sign Rafael Brogna and say "sayonara" to Kaz Lim and Maximo Cota...with their farm system spewing out talent every year, no FA moves were needed. With Jung Wanatabe (Season 12's #1 overall), D'Angelo Cerda (Season 11's #1 overall), and Douglas Burnett (Season 14's #5 overall) at the 1,2,3 SP spots, Pittsburgh has Belle's best starting rotation (and probably a guaranteed playoff ticket for the next 8 years or so). They have a young bullpen that hasn't proven itself at this point - if there's a weak spot on the Alleghenies, this is it. On offense, career SB leader Neifi Foster leads it off; Brogna (107 RBI last year), 1B Gene Cuddyer (100+ RBI each of his first 4 seasons), RF Joaquin Alvarez (45 HR's last year) and 3B Bucky Daal (105 RBI last year) form a stout run-production nucleus. There's a wealth of talent chomping the bit at AAA: last year's IFA prize, 19 year-old C Orlando Aguilera, could contribute but probably spends this year in AAA; SS Neftali Rodriguez (Sea 16 IFA) is ready but blocked by ML SS Pedro Mendoza; Season 15 IFA Ruben Villanueva could probably help the bullpen and will likely get the chance.
CLEVELAND manged to hold off time a little longer by re-signing LF Jacque Fitzgerald, SP Billy Brocail, SP Lorenzo Rodriguez and RP Chris Lofton. Fitzgerald (.290, 34 HR's), along with 1B Luke Joyner, (.324), 2B Bill Priest(.383 OBP), RF Otis Langston (33 HR's, 103 RBI), the Johnson/Wheat C platoon (41 HR's combined), and DH Scott Becker (35 HR's, 113 RBI), lead a still-dangerous offense. The staff is starting to get a little age, but still sports 3 CY winners (Rodriguez, Edgardo Valdes and Aaron Torres, although Torres has moved to the bullpen). Brocail and Luis Gabriel are excellent as starters 3 and 4; Lofton is solid in the bullpen but may not have enough help.
WASHINGTON, D.C. brings back Season 18's roster intact. Miguel Mesa was having a monster season last year when herniated disc surgery interrupted it; he makes his return and triggers the offense. RF Mark Gang has been terrific (and consistent...OPS's of .882 and .874) in his first 2 seasons. They'll hit in front of perennial All-Star, 1B Eric Brantley. The Revenge count on DH Matt Flores and C Brutus McKinley to protect Brantley in the lineup. D.C. put up 937 runs last year (3rd) and should be around that total this year. The rotation is high-quality and very deep: Omar Carraso at #1 (14-6, 3.06), former Cy Young and ROY winner Rob Workman at #2, Esteban Velaquez (12-10, 3.27) at #3, talented but yet-to-reach-his-potential Al Aybar at #4, and steady Fausto Ontiveros at #5. Larry Sutton is solid as a setup guy, but Allen Reynolds struggled in his first year as closer (5.03 ERA).
SCRANTON is looking to the future, although they posted a nice 11-win improvement last year. They may have gotten the best player in last year's draft in CF Brent Hartzell at #3; he murdered rookie pitching last year and plays in Low A this season. They have a bunch of prospects at AAA - most will spend the year there, although SP Alex Lee (SEA 15 IFA) and LR Wellington Pizzaro (SEA 15's #22) are close to ready and could get the call this year. The ML offense benefits from the addition of free agents C Odalis Gutierrez and CF Albert Harmon, who finally gets a chance to be a full-time player at age 30. 2B Sandy Weston is their most accomplished table-setter (.365 OBP); LF Ricardo Pulido (.303/22/77) and DH Ralph Bryant (.263/21/86) are the primary power threats. The Stranglers' young staff wasn't very good last year (5.24 ERA). I'd expect some improvement, although it's not a super-talented group. RP Shep LaRue did have a nice rookie season, and probably is the best bet to put up good numbers long-term. Veteran Hector Martin might be the best pitcher on the staff - he could be a decent trade chip at the deadline.
Pittsburgh has the best starting rotation in Belle, led the AL in runs scored last year, and a farm system that keeps pumping out talent. It's a tough combination - I think they'll win the division by more than last year's 7 games. Cleveland may slip a little, but they're still dangerous; D.C. had an off year last year - with their rotation they could easily win 100 (like they did 2 years ago). 2nd is a tossup here - Katannas and Revenge could both win 95-100 and might both get wild cards. Scranton may not improve much or any at the ML level, but their cadre of young talent gets a year closer.
Will contend for the MVP: Gene Cuddyer (PIT), Eric Brantley (WAS)
Will contend for the Cy Young: Jung Wanatabe (PIT), Omar Carrasco (WAS)
Will contend for the ROY: Alex Lee (SWB) and LR Wellington Pizzaro (SWB)