Season 18 Recap: Salem won 101 to handily take the West for the 4th straight time. Ottawa by 2 games. Portland gained 5 wins (80) for second, and San Diego had a nice pickup of 16 wins (78) for third. Boise (now Omaha) also improved, getting 5 more wins for 72. The Goonies didn't have an easy playoff run - they lost 2 games each to Richmond and Pittsburgh - but got hot at the right time, sweeping Chicago in the WS for their first Belle Championship. On the awards front, the Goonies' Carlos Escuela won his second consecutive MVP.
SALEM didn't rest on any laurels during the off-season - the roster has changed quite a bit due to free agency, trade and promotion. The Goonies scored 941 runs last year and led the world in HR's (298) - the offense should be equally as proficient this season. It looks like LF Christopher Booker will lead off and DH Jose Vargas will hit #2 - you know you've got a lot of sluggers when a guy with 600 career homers is a table-setter. Marquis Seo (against RHP...platoon partner Terry Schafer will do the honors against lefties), 2-time defending MVP Carlos Escuela (gunning for his 3rd straight 140+ RBI season), rookie CF Placido Chavez (Season 14's #7 overall) and RF Ray Krause occupy the RBI slots. There's not a soft spot anywhere - rookie SS Charles Richardson (Sea 14 supplemental) was a .300 hitter for his minor-league career. Former Cy Young winners Ruben James and Vic Benitez anchor a rotation that gets a boost from the promotion of Sea 15 #1 overall Tim Branson. 18-game winner Rudy Merritt and Ernest Terrell round out a very deep rotation. What has happened to closer Jacob Franklin? He's posted 3 straight 5+ ERA seasons...a poor start may prompt the Goonies to turn to Geoff Sosa for closing chores.
PORTLAND: Considering their extreme pitchers' ballpark, the Bar & Grillers offense is doubly impressive (814 runs last year - 5th). Sharp-eyed 2B Victor Miller and old pro Roy Drew lead off...2nd-year SS Hong-Gu Kim, 1B Brant Cooney, LF Ray Henley, and 3B Frank Suzuki follow and will be the prime power sources.
They'll definitely do some running - 8 players had 10+ stolen bases last year. Portland depends on a huge ballpark to keep their rather low-caliber pitching staff from getting shellacked. Among the starters, #1 Augie Fujiwara seems to have the best stuff for the big park, while setup man Mule Hampton may be the best of the relievers. Of the AAA talent, C Willie Picasso (Sea 15 IFA) appears most capable of helping this year...likely as a DH.
SAN DIEGO trailed the field in runs last year. Some of that was due to the ballpark, and with the signings of Carlos Manzanillo and Quilvio Suarez, the lineup's looking pretty good. Suarez and LF Alberto Pinzon are both solid #3-type hitters; 1B Stan Burnett, Manzanillo, and RF Corey Anderson supply ample power; even the SS and CF positions - Archie Blake and Eduardo Sierra - offer a little offense. The 4th-ranked pitching staff gets a boost from FA signees Tomas Cruz, Eduardo Valentin and Glen Moore. Jimmie Feliz is the #1 starter...Cruz probably becomes #2 with Fernando Nieto at #3. Closer R.J. Quevedo is a good bet to improve...Glen Moore and Eduardo Valentin should be solid as setups.
OMAHA was one of our more active off-season traders, moving longtime franchise centerpiece P.T. Navarro and bringing in OF Benj Cooper, 3B Thomas Lambert, RP Andres Sierra and 1B Jolbert Cruz. The Middle Americans were an average-ish offense last year; they'll hope for some power from Lambert, Cruz, and DH Macbeth Crawford; some nice on-base numbers from CF Andrew Corino and SS Fred Ruffin at the top of the order; and more steady production from 2B Robb Stein (.280/24/80) to improve that. The pitching needs more improvement - they need a big season from Gail Henry, the #7 overall pick in Season 16. Omaha may have rushed him a little, but he's their best bet from the farm system. Wayne Evans is the other starter who looks capable of breaking out...he's also the rare player whose current overall rating is higher than his projected, without any of his individual current ratings being higher than projected (???). Jorge Feliz (Season 10 2nd-rounder) gets a shot at the show after 9 minor-league seasons...he joins what has to be termed a mediocre bullpen.
Salem is clearly the class of the division and should handily repeat. San Diego might make things interesting for 2nd, and a wild-card berth is not beyond belief. I'll pick the Surf Babies for 2nd and Portland for 3rd, with Omaha improving some but still taking 4th.
Will contend for the MVP: Carlos Escuela (SAL), Hong-Gu Kim(POR)
Will contend for the Cy Young: Ruben James (SAL), Tomas Cruz (SD)
Will contend for the ROY: Placido Chavez (SAL), Tim Branson (SAL), Gail Henry (OMA)