Season 18 Recap: Richmond won 88 (for the 4th time in 6 years) to take a close 3-way race. Little Rock improved by 9 wins (to 82) for second, and El Paso improved by 11 wins to 81. Jackson (now Austin) looks like it finally reached the end of its long dynasty (11 South championships in 13 years), falling 14 wins to 78. Richmond won its first-round series but fell to eventual World Champ Salem in the second round. The South was shut out of post-season awards last year.
RICHMOND made its biggest off-season move before off-season, snagging former NL ROY Ernest Farr off the waiver wirer at the end of last season. Other than that its only significant move was the release of SS Trent Gray, heralding the beginning of the Pat Hasegawa (Sea 14 IFA by Jacksonville) SS era for the Poor Men. Farr gives Richmond a wealth of bats at COF, 1B and DH (maybe too many...trade, anyone?). Farr, Redondo, Gallagher and Garland will jockey for COF time and backup Ennis and Olivares at 1B and DH. Clearly, scoring runs won't be a problem (813 last year - 6th). Pitching might be another story...Cosby and Gil at the front of the rotation are good, but whoever occupies 3,4 and 5 are potential trouble (although Todd Quinn has been very good his last 2 seasons). The bullpen looks very deep with Wiki Batista closing and 3 solid setup men in Juan Martinez, Rafael Tejada and Vince Valentine. Juan Fernandez (#10 overall pick in Season 14) will almost certainly get the call at Game 20 and could make a big difference for this team.
LITTLE ROCK: Pebbles fans are regularly consulting their scorecards this Spring; the team had 9 notable FA departures, and 8 new faces in from FA and waivers. The has a decidedly more defensive tilt, with slick-fielding Davey Molina likely the new SS, 2 CF's (Barry Snopek and Alex Woodson) among the FA signings, and a pair of superb pitch-callers (but light hitters) at C. They'll depend on old hands Frank Schmidt (1B) and Victor Perez (RF) to handle the bulk of the run production. Yamid Reynoso had a great (13-10, 2.50) first season in Little Rock - they'll need that and maybe more from him again to contend, since the rest of the rotation is iffy at best (Ozzie Dawley had a very nice Season 18 with a 2.71 ERA, but look for something more like his career average - 4.36). Good thing there's a deep, talented bullpen (Paul Shibata, Clyde Jackson, Vicente Rivera and sophomore Collin Prior closing). Their best ML-ready prospect is also a reliever - Season 15 #23 overall Zoltan Steinbach.
EL PASO: Wow, I thought Little Rock was hard hit by free agency. The Sun Kings lost 3B Quilvio Suarez and SP's Raul Arias and Jacque Butler along with a bunch of other guys. They countered by signing Jerry Bernero for 3B and starters Tomas Martin and Javier Batista, but I don't know if they came out ahead on this swap. Martin and Batista join Harold Bryant, Mickey Beckett and Hideki Martin in the rotation - you know, this could be a decent group in a pitchers' park (which theirs is). With rookie (1.15 ERA in a cup of coffee last year) David Campos and Quilvio Rodriguez in the 'pen, the staff could be OK. How they're going to score enough runs is another matter. For starters, they'll need a return to Season 15's near-MVP form by RF Lance Reed - he returned to a career norm last year after 2 terrible seasons. Next, they'll need better-than average seasons from 2 or 3 from 3b Bernero, DH Trenidad Guerrero, LF Tom Fischer, and the Romero/Maxwell 1B combo. Finally, they could really use a good leadoff man...maybe it's CF Davis, although his .317 career OBP isn't terribly encouraging.
AUSTIN also had a bunch of FA activity, but they mostly seem to be shedding salary to make an IFA play. Johnny Collier remains the best pitcher in Belle, but this could be the year - he has 3 years left on a favorable contract, and probably 3 more years before ratings declines start to erode his value. Del Mendoza, Butch Percival and Carlos Ramirez should be a capable 2/3/4 group, although they won't get much bullpen help initially. Jiggs Daniels (Season 15's #29 overall), Dan Nelson (Season 14 2nd-rounder), and Chris Snyder (Season 15's #18 overall) will provide significant bullpen help at Game 20. Watch Snyder...he's going to be very good. On offense, they'll depend on the threesome of Don Burns, Dennis Hewson and Carl Serrano for the bulk of the run production, although at 38, Wilson Costello may have a few more moments in the sun.
PREVIEW: Richmond will score runs, and if their pitching holds up they could run away with it. Even if their pitching falters, I think they have enough extra offense to make a deal to bring in an arm. Austin has 3 good rookies coming this year and more in the low minors, so their rebuilding effort is underway. They'll trail the field this year (and probably next) - whatever deal they make for Collier will be a key to their future. Little Rock and El Paso both had to do a lot of retooling - hard to predict. Both were only 5-6 games out of the wild card last year, so a hot season or 2 could put either in.
Will contend for the MVP: Ernest Farr (RIC), Lance Reed (ELP)
Will contend for the Cy Young: Johnny Collier (AUS), Harold Bryant (ELP)
Will contend for the ROY: Juan Fernandez (RIC), Chris Synder (AUS)