Season 18 Recap: New Orleans won a franchise-high 107 and cruised to its 3rd straight South title. San Juan won 88 for second. Mexico City dropped off 8 wins (67), while Louisville improved by 5 wins to 56. had its second straight sub-.500 year (74 wins). The Senators knocked out Vancouver and lost to Chicago in the DCS; the Privateers topped Jacksonville in the DCS before bowing out to Chicago in the NLCS.
NEW ORLEANS lost a chunk of pitching in free agency (#1 starter Jesus Javier, swingman Tomas Cruz and setup man Tuck Barkley). Don't think they'll manage a 3.25 team ERA again, but they should still be good. Magglio Nunez, Fred West and Omar Chavez anchor the rotation. Wesley Telford is one of the NL's best closers (88 saves the last 2 seasons) - he's setup capably by Theodore Curtis and Kelly Nelson. If William Kim would pitch the way his rating suggest he could, the Privateers' staff might be special again. Former MVP Sid Selby (CF) ignites the offense; another former MVP, Richie Scheffer (.276/34/110), RF Kevin Grabowski (.280/46/118), 3B Clarence Richard (.313/35/99) and 1B Nap Myatt (.287/30/121) supply the power. The unheralded catching duo of Quilvio Nunez (a former 2nd-rounder) and Juan Vazquez (a former IFA who commanded a whopping $1.6MM bonus) combined for a remarkable .324/22/81 with 117 walks last year.
SAN JUAN didn't do a lot in free agency (although adding C Brendan Keeler for less than $2MM a year was a coups) because they didn't have to; they have one of the best young nuceli in the NL. It starts with the front 3 of the rotation: Season 17 Cy Young and ROY winner Rex Gragg (24), Season 14's top IFA Ramiro Fuentes (25), and Season 9's #6 overall Vince Cross. It continues with setup man extraordinaire Pascual Moya, 23, who notched 7 wins and 10 saves in 132 innings. It extends to the offense with 1B Phillip Cooke, who has 3 All-Star appearances, 2 Silver Sluggers and 2 Gold Gloves in 3 seasons; LF Kenneth Scoroposki (.270/27/99) and finishes up with rookie 3B Pablo Ortiz, a Season 14 supplemental pick. Mix in oldtimers Tim Murray (2B, age 38), SP Nick Rando (33, 2.80 ERA last year), SP Midre Jose (30) and the 3-headed catcher committee of Keeler (versus RHP), Ryan Adcock (versus LHP), and Marlon Linden (defense), and the Senators may have themselves a 95-win team this year.
MEXICO CITY is struggling with the out-year effects of big free agent contracts. They went all-out in Season 15, signing Gary Goodwin to a max deal and CF Wally Reid to a near-$10MM a year deal (it worked, they won the division), then added SP Frank Huff in Season 17 on a $50MM+ deal. Goodwin's still good at 32, although his power and durability (not high to stat with) are on the decline. Reid and Huff, though, have declined badly...Reid hasn't been a CF for a couple of seasons, and will barely hit 90 games this year. The team elected to re-sign FA starters Pedro Encarnacion and Luis Redondo (favorable contracts both), but the net result is they're maxed out on payroll, have no C's or SS's on the big-league roster, and have the 38-Dur Dicky Hudson at 1B and the 46-Dur Reid in CF. SO the Red Hots are incomplete at the moment...I think they'll end up trading Encarnacion, Redondo and Goodwin to get some cap space and prospects, but that remains to be seen.
LOUISVILLE will be leaning on some rookies to get things headed in the right direction. Timo Owings (Season 14 Supplemental pick) showed some nice power (26 homers) in his Season 18 LF audition. John Sauveur (Rule 5) could be the best bet at SS. Jair Barrios (Sea 14 IFA) and Brad Johnstone (Sea 17 #24) join the rotation but are probably just placeholders until they hit arb. Most of the ML roster is young and of marginal talent, so the payroll is headed down for awhile. The real focus for a couple of years is going to be on prospects like Damian Schmidt (#1 overall last year) and whoever they take at #2 this year.
New Orleans has had their way with the division the last few years, but this could be the season San Juan catches up. Season 17's rookie sensation (ROY and Cy Young) Rex Gragg has recovered well from last season's injury and is poised for a big comeback year; his supporting cast is generally young and on the way up. The Privateers' key players, on the other hand, are starting to see a few nicks in the ratings due to age - given their free agent losses, I think they'll slip a few games. I see a close race, with San Juan pulling it out. New Orleans be a close 2nd and will contend for a wild card. Mexico City is impossible to predict at this point; Louisville should improve a little but the focus is on building the minors.
Will contend for the MVP: Phillip Cooke (SJU), Sid Selby (NO)
Will contend for the Cy Young: Rex Gragg (SJU), Ramiro Fuentes (SJU)
Will contend for the ROY: Pablo Ortiz (SJU)