Season 18 Recap: Jacksonville got a little better for the 4th straight year, winning 86 and taking its 3rd straight division title. Pawtuckett improved by 8 wins (to 79) and edged Burlington (up 5 wins to 76) for second. Toledo struggled, dropping 16 wins to 45. The Jinxed surprised Ottawa with a sweep in the first playoff round, but lost to New Orleans in the DCS.
JACKSONVILLE: the defending champs didn't do a whole lot in the off-season, signing SP Domingo Guillen and trading for RF Hack Bush (although they may not be done with their roster yet). Bush joins a competent offense that does a little of everything but is superlative at none. 2B George Kipling picked up his 2nd Silver Slugger last year and is the best overall hitter on the squad. LF John Li (29 HR, 28 SB) and 3B Matthew Ryan (28 HR, 23 SB) both bring power and speed to the attack. C Jason Griffin is quietly building a near-.300 lifetime batting average. Although not much of an offensive contributor, SS Julio Jose has won 4 straight Gold Gloves. Gary Ramsay is slowing down a little at 36 but still commands "ace" status. After him the rotation is a grab-bag of #4 types - the Jinxed will hope for 1 or 2 to get hot. Eric Langston looks like a starter, but has excelled in a middle relief/super setup role. Russ Guthrie was superb as a setup man last year...Emmanuel Matos was shaky in his closer trial. There are some potential reinforcements at AAA: RF Nick Mottola (Sea 15 supplemental) is ready if Bush falters and RP Joseph Kidda (Sea 16 IFA) looks like he could be a boost to the 'pen.
PAWTUCKETT welcomes #1 starter Mike Franco back from a season lost to elbow surgery. Is Franco worth 7 wins (# of games they finished behind Jacksonville last year) to the Slater Paws? Like the Jinxed, the rest of their rotation is sketchy, although Vinny Suzuki has been pretty consistent (4.10 career ERA) over his 3 seasons. Jesus Diaz really came into his own as a closer last season (35-of-38 saves, 2.22 ERA). If he can repeat that the race could tighten up considerably, although he could really use some better setup help. Derek Foster's power is slipping, but he loves McCoy Stadium and his HR totals should still be impressive for a year or 2. Lefty-throwing Ricardo Delgado would be better off defensively in CF, rather than 2B, but is verging on superstar status either way. CF Luis Diaz is also a 40-HR threat, and rookie DH Eliezar Rivas (Sea 15 IFA) should be able to more than replace the production lost with the departure of Joe Rivera. Rivera apparently ends his career #1 on the all-time HR list (710) and #2 in RBI's (1907). Pawtuckett has some nice prospects in AAA - IF Amp Faulk (Sea 17 #4), SP Jerry Strong (Sea 17 #8), and RP Yovani Velazquez (Sea 18 IFA) - but they're all likely to stay in the minors all season.
BURLINGTON: the Lake Monsters' no-name pitching staff has always been pretty good in cavernous Mustain Stadium - this year should be the same. They usually end up working in 6 starters - R.A. Everett, Sammy Canseco and Jim Mitchell may be the best bets for breakout seasons. Closer Carl Hume and setup men Tommy Fabregas and Carlton Locko are quietly effective. You wouldn't expect Burlington to be a big run producer in that ballpark, but they need to find a way to manufacture more runs. RF Theodore Beckett defected to Chicago; replacing him with Rule V draftee Rich Foster is a big step back. The LF platoon of Harris and Bell should be pretty good in the on-base department. 1B Wilt McDowell and C Daryl McDonald are about the only threats to drive the ball...there are a few too many holes in this lineup for any offensive improvement.
TOLEDO has some interesting new faces, both from free agency and promotion. SP Jesus Javier and RP Victor Sosa will bring some veteran talent to the pitching staff. Season 15 #2 overall, Matty Coco makes his much-awaited full-season debut - he's the pre-season favorite for ROY. Season 14 2nd-rounder Phil Feller and Season 17 #2 overall Alexander Browning will also break camp with the big club. It might be a season early for Browning, but the Mud Hens hired him a good pitching coach and are settling back to watch him grow up on the job. Closer Tomas Martin rounds out a pretty nice bullpen. This isn't a great team yet, but they'll give Hens fans some exciting moments this year...keep an eye on their record in 1-run games.
This looks like a dead heat between Jacksonville and Pawtuckett to me. Franco's return narrows the gap for the Slater Paws, but I don't think it's quite enough to get them over the top...Jinxed take their 4th straight by a narrow margin. Burlington gets 3rd again; Toledo makes a big jump and might give the Lake Monsters a scare.
Will contend for the MVP: Ricardo Delgado (PAW), Matty Coco(TOL)
Will contend for the Cy Young: Gary Ramsay (JAX), Mike Franco (PAW)
Will contend for the ROY: Matty Coco (TOL), Eliezar Rivas (PAW)