Season 18 Recap: Vancouver improved by 6 wins (to 93) and captured its first-ever West title. Oakland fell off by 10 wins (84) and missed the playoffs for the first time since Season 11. Las Vegas dropped 14 wins (83) and missed the playoffs for just the 2nd time since Season 4, and Helena (now Scottsdale) picked up 1 win to 64.
VANCOUVER begins its NL West defense minus SP Dan Cirillo and IF Brad Hart, plus SP Dale Barker and IF Sammy Reyes. Otherwise, it's pretty much the same crew that won 93 a year ago. Carlos Cairo's big year (44 HR's) ignited the Victory last year - they'll need that again plus another good season from slugging C Derek Walker. 2B Troy Harris' best power days are behind him...same story for Reyes but between them 2B should still be a plus on offense. 1B Gerardo Rodriguez may be the best leadoff/on-base threat, although his .439 OBP (in 236 AB's last year) may be a little much to hope for again. Vancouver's best pitcher - Craig Hague - occupies kind of a swingman role, seeing long relief, the occasional start, and some short relief duties. Cesar Mendez, Carl Benson, and Midre Estrada were their most effective starters lat year (all under 3.25 ERA's in part-time starter roles), although Barker probably gets 32 starts. It's a very deep bullpen headed by closer Adam Lieber (36 of 39 save ops last year) - 7th-inning leads aren't a sure thing for any team, but they're in good hands with the Victory.
OAKLAND mounted a fairly active off-season campaign to regain the top spot in the West after a 2-year absence. Emil Morales joins the infield - he may get 500 AB's in a super-utility - role (think "Cesar Tovar" for those of you old enough to remember the guy who played all 9 positions for the Twins in a 1968 game). Rod Goldberg moves in at SS, John Tomko and Louie Paniagua join the rotation, and Benito Rivera and Odalis Torcato plug into the bullpen. The Surenos maintain a dangerous attack (819 runs last year- 4th); C J.T. Burns, LF Erubiel Maduro and RF Wilfredo Feliz are still 3 of the most dangerous hitters in the NL. Feliz and 1B Valerio Bonilla are 2 of the best top-of-the-order guys anywhere...both could get 95 walks. Haywood Maxwell and Humberto Roque complete the rotation, which leans toward groundballers with good pitches, rather than high-split guys. P.T. Lincoln handles the closing responsibilities...Brad Matusz will get his 100+ innings, but the other 6 relievers will all see a lot of action, too.
LAS VEGAS had some big FA losses but stayed quiet in the off-season. 1B Miguel Rios, C Bill Wengert and RF Hughie Bruskie are all plus bats; SS Lance Belitz and 3B Domingo Batista are better than average at their positions. If the 69'ers could get a good leadoff hitter in CF (currently no CF's on the roster), they'd have a pretty good-looking lineup. Luis Cortes and Adrian Jensen are a solid front 2 in the rotation...3, 4, and 5 should be OK but nothing special. Juan Gomez and Al Borges might be the best closer/setup combo in Belle. Vegas looks a little incomplete still - they may add another significant player or 2, or they may decide to
retool for a season.
SCOTTSDALE may have outdueled Chicago for the "Most Active Off-Season Team" award. When the smoke cleared, what came out was a much better offense than the one that only put up 583 runs last year, and maybe a little better staff than the one that was middle of the pack last year. There's really no hole anywhere in the lineup - 2B David Lee is the only one there purely for his defense, and he's at least adequate at the plate. Jim Olson is the best-hitting SS of his era. RF John Tamura may be the key to the offense this season: if he can stay in the lineup and play 140 games (a big "if")....400 OBP and 30 HR. Pitching starts with Kennie Frascatore. The 4th pick of the Season 11 draft had a fantastic rookie season (16-8, 2.62) - he's been good in the 3 seasons since, but not at that level. With a much-improved attack, his win totals will go up, but if he can get back to his rookie form this team is going places. #2 starter David Elcano has been very solid his first two seasons, and Fox probably improves the #3 spot. Closer Brett Holmes has good setup help in Tuck Barkley and Dingo Hawkins, but the rest of the bullpen is suspect.
This might be our best shot at a 4-team race, although right now it looks like Vegas is likely to fall out of it. I think Scottsdale will have the best offense of the group, plus the only real ace in the division (Frascatore). I think the Vipers will win it in a close race. Vancouver and Oakland will be motivated to battle all year...can't see #2 in this division getting a wild card.
Will contend for the MVP: Jim Olson (SCO), Erubiel Maduro (OAK)
Will contend for the Cy Young: Kennie Frascatore (SCO)
Will contend for the ROY: Tyler Wilson (LV)