Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Season 34 NL North Preview

Chicago Orphans

Season 33: 86-76

Season 33 In A Nutshell
Drop of 6 wins but still a solid 86-win season.  Nosed out by 1 game for the last Wild Card.  Topped the NL in runs scored (884) but the pitching flopped to a 4.61 ERA (13th in NL).
Big Offseason Moves
Some minor free agent losses, the most notable being OF Brad O'Connor (who looks like he'll be retiring but went out on a high note with an .820 OPS).  Poured some real money into defense with the John Shigetoshi free-agent deal, and made 1 free-agent swing at the pitching problem with Dustin McGee.

Season 34 Outlook
The offense has slumped a bit but at least the pitching has improved marginally to start Season 34.  On-basers deluxe Shigetoshi and Yoslan Goya (moved to RF wth Herm Stein's shift to CF) are setting the table; Stein (.351/11/31 through 30 games - how's that for an aging non power-hitter?) and C Ismael Vidal are driving them in.  Even with some poor starts (Bobby Michaels - .205) I think this offense will be fine and eventually move into the top 3.

2nd-year SP Kirk Marks is throwing aspirins.  He's started 3-0, 1.57 - less than half of last year's ERA.  Kazuhiro Lee has also started well, with an ERA almost a full run lower than last year's mark.  Only #5 starter Darwin Thornburg (6.61 ERA) and (surprisingly) Kurt Esposito are big anchors on the team ERA at this point.  Curious note: big FA acquisition Dustin McGee has only thrown 5 innings so far - perhaps he had a minor injury.

Even though they're 8 and-a-half back of red-hot Buffalo, I like where the Orphans stand.  I think their offense will warm up some more, and the pitching should improve as McGee works into the rotation.

Prognosis:  Likely 2nd (but don't count out Iowa City) and in the thick of the wild-card battle with #2 from the South and #'s 2 and 3 from the West.

Toledo EliteDucks
Season 33:  68-94

Season 33 In A Nutshell

Season 2 of the rebuild.  Hats off to jdrake for sticking it out through a total teardown/rebuild.

Big Offseason Moves
Savvy older free-agent signings for low-budget 1 and 2-year contracts were the order of the offseason for the Ducks. They also brought up prospects Darrell Lee (P), Jalal Carver (RP), and Tex McKnight (OF).

Season 34 Outlook
Not likely to be a big wins year, but vets like Gary Person (who's off to a great start at .303/7/19), Ivan Amezaga, and Matty Campos should keep them reasonably competitive.  3B Ross Geene is the first of the youngsters they'll build their next contender around; they really need him to return to the .240-.260 and 30-40 HR's of his first 2 seasons, rather than last year's .199/22 and this year's .197 so far.  He'll eventually be joined by last year's #14 overall, Stan Story, 3 more #1's from Season 33, and 5 #1's from Season 32.

Prognosis: 4th, but some real momentum building in the farm system.  They have the #8 and #29 in this year's draft, plus 2 more supplemental #1's.

Buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalobuffalo
Season 33: 96-66, Won Division, advanced to the World Series and lost to Huntington (now Washington D.C.)

Season 33 In A Nutshell
Oh so close for the buffalo last year as they swept through the NL bracket but lost a game 7 to Huntington (Now Washington D.C.).

Big Offseason Moves
Still a very young team, they needed only minor tinkering this offseason.  Signed FA Sammy Morales, re-signed Dan Dixon, and promoted Season 31 IFA Pascual Castillo.

Season 34 Outlook
Pretty nice start for Buffalo - after 31 games they lead all of Hobbs with 25 wins and lead the NL in both runs scored and team ERA. They build their offense around 3 switch-hitting, power-hitting IF/CF types - CF Charlie Moreno, 3b Esmailyn Reynoso, and 2B Jair Costilla - plus MVP-waiting-to-happen LF Carlos Valdivia.   Actually, any of these 4 are capable of winning an MVP.  Scary news for the rest of the NL - only 1 of these guys (Moreno) is off to a good start.

So far so good for Pascual Castillo after 2 starts - 1 run allowed in 14 innings.  The rest of the starters - Rabbit Fried, Robinzon Megias, Sam Gentry and Jaret, Paquette - aren't scary but they're effective: all are sporting sub- 4.00 ERA's early in the season.  Dixon and Glenn Coste are the stars of a solid bullpen. 

Prognosis:  I can't see anything slowing down this train; I think they'll win the North by 20+ and will be the favorite to represent the NL in the Series again.

Iowa City Hawkeyes
Season 33: 71-91

Season 33 In A Nutshell
Rebuilding a normal team is hard enough.  But the disaster wrought by jbugg has seen 7 long years of rebuilding. Season 33 gave us a few glimpses of a much brighter near future.

Big Offseason Moves
Traded for B.C. Alfonzo, Oswaldo Seguignol, Yovani Guzman, and Benny Marquez.  Signed RF John Harper, SP Lou Donald, P Nate Lary,  C Calvin Uribe, RP Roger Cook, SP Slick MacFarlane, SP Vladimir Abreu, and RP Rick Roberts - all to low-$ deals.

Season 34 Outlook
The trades for Alfonzo, Seguignol and Guzman signal the coming-of-age of this franchise after 7 years in the wilderness. They haven't started terribly well (13-17), but I think they'll improve as the cold-starting Alfonzo heats up. On the last rebuilding move, they seem to be finding no takers for a .372 hitter.  Yep, Juan Aramboles is hitting .372 with 9 taters after 30 games.

The pitching is a respectable 7th in the NL with a 4.19 ERA. Fritz Wells has been terrific so far - 3-2, 2.56 ERA - although I wouldn't bet the farm on that holding up all year.  Donald (1-0, 3.32) has been effective in a long/mid relief role, and #1 starter Dan Keller is below his career ERA, even though he doesn't have a decision yet in 31 IP.  Abreu and MacFarlane are killing them so far...I don't know what to make of this staff, but If they keep that 4.19 ERA all year I think the fans will be pretty happy.

Prognosis:  3rd, with an outside shot at knocking off Chicago for 2nd.

Division Prediction
3.Iowa City

Friday, March 10, 2017

Season 34 NL West Preview

Scottsdale Cardinals
Season 33: 82-80

Season 33 In A Nutshell
Finnski seems to have uncovered the secret to a perennial winner.  Since his first season, he has had winning seasons every year and in the playoffs four of those seven years.  Season 33 was a low water mark, as he finished just a game over .500, but he made some good moves, and has the team to rebound.

Big Offseason Moves
Two major trades were made sending 3B Carlos Polonia (27/80/.327) and LF Tim Young (22/63/.271) to New Orleans for LF Tony Mullen (34/79/.272), 3B Wally Glover 17/47/.292 and Albert Gonzalez (13-4/4/3.65) in one deal.  The other sent RP Emmett Hogan (7-3/5.54) and SS prospect Wiki Guerrero to Trenton for SP Clyde Service (11-5/3.89) and RP prospect Javier Perez.  If Service can duplicate last season's numbers, count those as two good deals for Scottsdale. Polonia was probably the best player in the NO trade, but getting Mullen's power and a very good RP tilts the deal towards the Cardinals.

Season 34 Outlook
Bright indeed.  This is a much better team than what they showed last year.  They have a lot of good players and their best ones are largely in their primes.  CF and possible future HOFer Dwight Herzog (27/62/.299) has won Gold Gloves and Silver Sluggers.  He is flanked by Mullen who had a run of four straight 50+ HR seasons snapped by an injury last year, and RF Lou Trammel (60/147/.281) to make arguably the best outfield in Hobbs.  

In the IF, Glover at third joins  Armando Encarnacion (40/108/.299), Carlos Avilan (15/54/.235 as a rookie, with the promise of a lot more power) and rookie SS Vinny Leary who is not an overall great hitter and just adequate as a fielder, but again has big power potential.  Ted Stokes (6/23/.252) is an outstanding defensive catcher who looks to finally get his turn to start.  

Service joins a rotation headed by  Ivan Beltre (10-10/4.27) and Calvin Ratliff (10-8/3.34).  Danry Valdes (14-11/3.78) and Juan Lind (10-10/4.53) round it out.  Gonzalez is going to be a major factor in an already good pen.  He joins Marcos Presley (6-2/2/2.78), Louis Grim (7-2/4.58), Todd Kapler (1-1/4.75) and Howie Iannnone (0-5/40/3.72) as the main contibutors.

While the pitching is good, and Gonzalez and Marcos are better than good, this is clearly a team built on hitting.  And they define hitting as participating in the Home Run Derby! The chicks will most definitely dig this team.

Honolulu Brewed Kona in a Mug
Season 33:  80-82

Season 33 In A Nutshell
After spending his first 2 years loitering around .500 and grooming a nice group of young players, Kona looks to be ready to make a move.  

Big Offseason Moves
There was only one player of note that was acquired,   FA signee Rubby Franco (14-6/3.83) slots in the number two spot in the rotation for some stability.  1B Trenidad Cruz (28/69/.274) will almost feel like a new player as he was injured much of last season.  He should provide a big lift for the middle of the lineup, if he recovers as expected.  

Season 34 Outlook
Cruz will be welcomed back to an above average lineup. CF Gabby Beckett (18/64/.250) is better than those numbers show and is joined in the OF by LF Jeckssen Bailey (17/63/.267) who draws walks better than about anyone else in the league, and BJ Dunwoody (34/107/.261).  Dunwoody suffered a serious forearm injury in ST and will miss most of the season.  He is replaced by rookie Javier Valenzuela, who may struggle early but has a nice bat.  

Another rookie, Tuck Howard looks to have won the starting 2B job, and should be a good hitter, but like Valenzuela jumped all the way from High A ball and may take time to adjust.  SS Hamish Durbin (15/57/.279) has a nice bat but questionable glove.  He might be better served manning 3B and opening up short for Bernie Guerrero, only a 4/20/.178 bat last year, but a much better hitter his first 2 seasons and a fine glove.  Javier Lopez (6/48/.208) is the starting C, mostly due to his glove and pitch calling.

Franco joins a rotation of Zachary McLaughlin (9-12/4.34), Earl Carraway (11-10/4.23), JC Piscotty (8-11/4.21) and Eduardo Johnson (11-14/5.13).  The main guys in the pen are  Polin Araujo (9-4/1/2.04), Del Guapo (5-4/4/4.68), Diego Romo (7-6/40/4.36), Chuck Everidge (1-10/2/3.48) and Alberto Henriquez (7-9/3.89).

While Honolulu is a rapidly improving team and should better last season's record, some of their younger players may not be ready and the pitching looks too mediocre to compete in a surging division.

Salem Witch Hunters
Season 33:  96-66, Won Division, advanced to Division Series and lost to Buffalo

Season 33 In A Nutshell
Another great season for Salem in season 33.  Tk has averaged over 93 wins per season since taking over the franchise and made the playoffs each season.  Will the string continue for season 34?

Big Offseason Moves
Sadly, more talent left than they could afford to replace. The big hit was 2B Jamie Brewington (32/89/.265) who set sail to Syracuse via FA.  Also leaving were pitchers Yank Stein (10-9/6/3.87), Sadie Miller (8-3/3.10) and Alexie Gardel (7-3/12/5.01).  Barry Tobin (1-1/3/7.60) and Talmadge Dillard (0-1/1/4.58 were brought in as replacements for the depleted pitching staff.

Season 34 Outlook
Any analysis of the Witch Hunters has to start with reigning MVP Ike Allen (51/136/.362) in LF.  He is supported by 3B Tito Cooper (29/99/.252), 1B Miguel Matos (35/105/.262) and C Saul Pinzon (33/79/.293).  

To see why Brewington will be missed so much, the best of the rest are 2B Raul Armas (7/33/.275), RF Albert McDowell (25/66/.247) and 2B Carlton Nieve (6/40/.225).  They do have a nice platoon at SS in Donald Moore and Miguel Mejias. Both have a little pop and are plus defenders.  Rookie CF Dolf Grissom has promise both with the bat and the glove.

Unlike the lineup, the pitching rotation is very strong one through five, with Yean Carlos Posada (7-3/1.61), Khalil McKenry (17-12/3.68), Derrek Finley (16-8/3.38), Geofferey Carter (12-10/4.05) and either Davey Rogers (10-6/3.32) or Diory Diaz (8-9/4.10).  I would be pretty tempted to use both Diaz and Rogers in the rotation and try out Posada as a super reliever, but admittedly it will be easier to get more innings out of him as a SP.

The rest of the pen consists of Guy Velarde (2-5/5/3.65), Japhet Buchholz (5-6/7/5.60), Jeanmar Ozuna (6-4/5/4.54), Pasqual Chavez (3-3/7/4.41), Dillard and Tobin.  Other than Velarde, a fairly subpar group.

All in all, a very mixed bag.  A great rotation balance by a weak bullpen.  A very good half of the lineup propping up a suspect bottom half.  I could see them being an 80 win team or a 100 win team, but best guess is a slight dropoff from last season.

San Francisco Fog
Season 33:  80-82

Season 33 In A Nutshell
From a 94 win playoff team to an 80 win also ran.  The Fog's fall was a head scratcher.  There didn't seem to be any one thing that was out of whack, just a little bit down across the board, both hitting and pitching.  Just goes to show what a tiny margin there is between winning and losing.

Big Offseason Moves
Departing were RPs Rio Molina (6-9/33/4.50) and Sean Collins (4-6/5.43) and RF Arthur Bryant (7/36/.258).  The new faces are RP Happy Brock (2-3/4/3.59), LF Kenny Wolf (16/53/.294) and SS Harry Mercado (4/19/.288).  Pfontaine made incremental improvement, but clearly expects a return to form from the holdovers.

Season 34 Outlook
The strength of this team is its rotation.  While they have no clear cut ace, they have quality in all five slots.  Nolan Duffy (9-11/3.68) is probably the most talented and certainly the most expensive, while Chili Baker (14-12/3.68) and Mariano Mendez (11-10/3.34) were the most effective.  Randy Krause (10-11/3.88) and Scott Atchley (8-12/4.65) are the fourth and fifth starters.

The pen is a different story.  Brock needs to provide a lot of help to incumbents Rondell Thomas (5-5/4/3.39), Mark Holmes (6-1/1/4.15) and Aurelio Fernandez (4-3/5/3.41) as the rest of the pen look like BP pitchers.  It is funny how the bullpens in this world seem to all be either very good or pretty poor, with little in between.  Clearly pens, like defense, is an area of team building that polarizes owners and some believe in spending lots of resources on it while others don't.

But on to the hitting.  Mercado will bring a fine glove to SS, but not so much bat.  The other members of the infield will make up for him though.  2B Jack Hayes (33/93/.247), Harvey Tracy (33/127/.325) and Mike Monroe (26/76/.243) can all hit the ball deep.

The OF is a little weak.  A lineup with Wolf (16/53/.294) or Keith Kohn (15/56/.271) at a corner spot would probably be a good OF with good production at the other spots.  The two of them together are a little shaky, especially given the poor production of CF Ronnie Wickman (4/40/.225).  Wickman is a good candidate for a bounce back season though.  C Vance Harris (13/58/.280) is adequate behind the plate and improving at it.

My gut tells me that this team will rebound to season 32 levels, but that still makes it hard to predict where they finish in a potentially very even division.  My best guess: Division Prediction
1. Scottsdale.  big time hitting and good enough pitching
  make this the one slot I am fairly confident about.
2. Salem.  Maybe the best rotation along with star hitters      
 should cover some of the holes.
3. San Francisco.  Actually, very similar to Salem.  The        rotation is just not quite as good, and the hitting stars are    just a little dimmer. 
4. Honolulu.  Just not quite there yet.  In a weaker division      they might shine, but too many question marks.

top's power rankings (win totals only)

New Orleans 115
Charlotte 98
Indianapolis 96
Austin 95
Philadelphia 94
Chicago 93
Washington D.C. 91
Buffalo 91
Salem 91
Las Vegas 90
Nashville 88
Durham 87
Scottsdale 87
Honolulu 82
Hawkeyes 81
Syracuse 78
San Francisco 77
Richmond 77
San Juan 76
Cheyenne 76
Louisville 75
Vancouver 75
Columbus 74
Kansas City 72
Texas 71
Montreal 71
Chicago 69
Trenton 69
Toledo 68
Burlington 67
San Diego 66
Jacksonville 55

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Season 34 AL South Preview

New Orleans has dominated the South for 4 seasons, but Nashville broke through with Hobbs' 2nd-best record last year.  Can the Legends take another step?  Will Richmond or Louisville make a contending move?  Can the Playoff Chokers do something to earn a new name?

Richmond High Rollers
Season 33: 59-103

Season 33 In A Nutshell

Total commitment to rebuild.  Added a nice prospect in the draft at #10 with Tracy Stearns.  The offense was competitive (732 runs) with OF Manny Saitou (.269/34/96) leading the way.  The pitching, on the other hand needs some touching up (5.49 ERA - 15th) to avoid mwr danger.

Biggest Offseason Moves
Waiver claims, Rule V pickups, but also some serious free agent moves:  2B Julio Mercado and  OF Manny Saitou were probably the most interesting.

Season 34 Preview
Another long year at the ML level, but not without its high points.  C Buck Ward (35 HR, 84 RBI) and SS Chick Ross (an off year at .687 OPS) will get some production help from Mercado and Saitou, but they might have to go some to top last year's 732 runs.

The pitching was dreadful last year and looks like it can't help but improve some.  John Punto (7-10, 3.58 in 140 IP) can't throw a huge number of innings, but he's a quality starter.  The rest of the rotation - Bennett, Roosevelt, Pillar and Gabriel - should be better than last year.  Nothing special in the bullpen except 1-inning specialist Al Troncoso and the terribly-wild but live-armed David Mercado.

The minors need more rebuilding, although there are some prospects.  Carter Altherr in particular looks good...he'll be a nice righty power hitter and a decent C by as early as next year.  The High Rollers have #1 this year - they really need to nail this one.

New Orleans Playoff Chokers
Season 33:  113-49, won Division, advanced to ALCS and lost to Huntington (now Washngton D.C.)

Season 33 In A Nutshell

Another 110+ win season, another early playoff exit.  On the bright side, the offense scored over 1000 runs and the pitching staff topped the team ERA ranking for the 3rd straight year.

Biggest Offseason Moves
Paid a huge price for slugging Scottsdale IF/CF Carlos Polonia:  franchise career HR leader Tony Mullen, underrated 3B Wally Glover, and rubber-armed RP Albert Gonzalez. Signing Rio "Wild Thing" Molina for $1.8MM/year may have been one of this year's FA bargains, but we'll have to see how that control plays in a more hitter-friendly park.

Season 34 Preview
The addition of Polonia gives them the option of a lineup with 9 ++ run producers (when Rich Kohn plays SS), although they'll likely go more often with the Suzuki/Torres shortstop platoon and get Kohn plenty of AB's backing up 3B, CF and RF.

With Joe Wilk taking over LF (from Mullen) they may gain a little pop but will definitely lose some depth (which came in handy last year when Mullen was hurt).  But at this point the Chokers couldn't afford to keep 4 COF's making $5MM+ (with Nick Green due for a raise next year).  Barring injury, the lineup seems capable of 1000 runs again.

The staff will once again lean more its deep and talented stable of relievers than its starters, although they may see Vic Merced go deeper into his starts (to get him closer to 200 innings).  Sam Stock will return to his familiar role of locking down the mid-game every other day.  With the addition of short relievers Matt Naulty and Boots Snider they now have even more late-game options.  This is potentially the best New Orleans staff yet.

Prognosis:  Tops in the South again, although Nashville will be tough competition.

Trade I'd Like To See:  Tim Young for a solid prospect who can defend 2B, 3B and maybe CF.  Young needs to be starting somewhere, and the Chokers need a few more minimum salaries.  It would leave them with 1 less bench bat, but solidify the late game defense for Duran, Wilkerson et al.

Nashville Legends
Season 33:  104-58, Wild Card, lost in Round 1 to Philadelphia

Season 33 In A Nutshell
Jumped from 95 to 104 wins (2nd best in entire world) in bighead 34's first season.  The offense improved by 91 runs (moving from 9th to 6th) despite no big breakout seasons. Rather, they got contributions from a bunch of players (6 players had 20-29 HR's, 9 drove in 60+ runs).  While the pitching was not quite up to Season 32's 2nd-ranked ERA, it was still excellent behind Jayson Haywood's 16-6, 3.13 campaign and Felipe Garza's 6 wins, 7 saves, and 3.15 ERA in 123 innings.

Biggest Offseason Moves
Had to navigate some FA losses - Nelson Jordan, Happy Brock, and 3 other pitchers, plus 3B Jim Salazar (career-high .837 OPS last year).  They signed starters Footsie Anderson and Andy Richmond to modest contracts and nabbed an overlooked Takahiro Hasegawa for 2 years, $6.7MM (total, not per year, for his age 33 and 34 seasons).

Season 34 Preview
Most people probably wouldn't guess the Legends had the 2nd-best record in all of Hobbs last year.  Despite the FA losses, it will be much the same team this year.

It's a contact-based offense with decent power and excellent base-stealing skills.  It's a bunch of .280 hitters with some pop, typified by vR 1B Jamie Osborne (.289/21/65) and mostly-everyday C David Simmons  (.284/29/87).  vL 1B Jered Smith leads the base-stealing parade (64) despite only playing against lefties.  Hasegawareplaces Bert Thompson (47 SB) in RF this year, so that's going to give the lineup more pop and less theft.  Oswaldo Alberro shifts from 2B to 3B and Corey Allen gets the 2B gig full-time.  The offense should be as good or better than last year's.

The pitching staff has been no worse than 4th in Team ERA in each of the last 3 seasons.  It might be a challenge without Nelson, even though his 5-year stay in Nashville was only moderately successful (2 seasons under 4.00 ERA, 3 season over).  Jayson Haywood is still money at age 36, but they'll need a repeat from Thomas Kingman (14-8, 3.67) plus a good surprise from 1 of their other 3 SP's (Rosario, Anderson and Richmond).

It's a deep, talented bullpen of short-haul relievers, although Chad Reid and Peter Sonnanstine can stretch out to 2-3 innings occasionally.  It looks like the way to beat Nashville is to pick on their starters and get ahead early - their 30-9 record in 1-run games last year hints at a superior bullpen. But even superior bullpens don't seem to repeat those kinds of 1-run records; keep a carful eye on the Legends to see if they can hang with New Orleans without it.

Louisville Sluggers
Season 33:  74-88

Season 33 In A Nutshell
The Eovaldi/Hannity/Champion free agent signings by previous owner Astro had a distinctly odd aroma right from the beginning.  Once we had evicted astro (again), gmlear stepped in and did a great job righting the ship.  Hannity (4.01 ERA) and Eovaldi (4.39 ERA) both struggled; their comebacks could signal big jump in wins.

Biggest Offseason Moves
Nothing extravagant in free agency for the Sluggers, just budget-stretchers like Glenallen Ward for 1 x $2.6MM and Curt Backe for 2 x $3.2MM, plus elder statesmen like Sammy Ethier and Kurt Marte.

Season 34 Preview
With Eovaldi and Hannity at the front of the rotation, the Sluggers have the potential for 470 innings of 3.00 ERA pitching right there.  And if...just if...they should make the playoffs, is there a scarier 1-2 combination in the AL? They'll need some help, but there is help available.

Despite hitting only 162 HR's last year (15th in AL), Louisville trots out  pretty good offense.  They return 2 players (Raul Villa, and Ajax Williams) who OPS's .800+, and Pablo Valbuena (career .767 OPS) and Douglas Spivey (career .707 OPS) are decidedly plus bats at CF and SS.  Ward roughly makes up for the loss of Wellington Calles, who after not securing a DH role in Spring Training found himself back in AAA.  So far this year they're a bit under last season's scoring (4.29 rpg vs 4.98).

The big question is whether the pitching will improve (a lot) over it's disastrous 5.63 ERA of Season 33.  Eovaldi and Hannity can't do it all, but their returns to form would go a long way.  Al Montgomery (Season 29 #9 and still a rookie after 97 innings last year) is off to a good start and is a better-than-fair bet as a #3 starter.  The bullpen is hit-and-miss; FA additions Marte (even at age 39) and Backe are likely their best bets to contribute.  

Division Outlook:
1. New Orleans
2. Nashville
3. Louisville
4.  Richmond
With the additions of Carlos Polonia and several (more) high-quality arms, the Chokers are as good as ever. Nashville had some free-agent losses but snared a huge bargain in RF Hasegawa; I can see them being very good again but unlikely to overhaul N.O.  Louisville seems to be straddling the rebuild/improve fence and will probably be pretty good as Eovaldi/Hannity bounce back, and Richmond is clearly rebuilding.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Season 34 AL North Preview

Kansas  City Jayhawks
Season 33: 84-78

Season 33 In A Nutshell
The Jayhawks have slowly whittled away at Philadelphia's divisional lead the past three seasons -- cutting the advantage from 11 games in S31 to 8 in S32 to 6 last season. Despite winning three less games last year, they managed to nudge closer simply because Philadelphia won five less games. But you have to give the Jayhawks credit, they managed 84 wins despite a makeshift starting rotation that featured just three starters, three long relievers, a promoted prospect, and a late trade addition -- none of whom logged more than 97 innings. For the second season in a row, the bullpen played a significant role, finishing with 52 saves, which was second in the league to (you guessed it) Philadelphia. The Jayhawks needed all the pitching help they could get as the offense scored 49 fewer runs while putting up a .261 team batting average that was less than the .271 clip of the previous season.

Big Offseason Moves
Kansas City made no major moves in the offseason, but added a couple of pitchers and a utility infielder. One of the free agent signees -- Vicente Prieto (117 IP, 4.83 ERA for Louisville) will join the list of long relievers that do swing duty for the Jayhawks. Set-up man Yeico Ortiz (98 IP, 3.49 ERA for Iowa) could become an integral cog for the oft-used relief corps. A trade with New Orleans brings in SS Dave Leonard, who played in AAA last season but the three previous seasons hit in the .250s while sporting a .981 fielding percentage. He could push starter Matt Redmond for playing time if Redmond can't shake off his sophomore hitting jinx (.206 BA).

Season 34 Outlook
Starting pitching continues to be the question mark for the Jayhawks. KC lost two of last season's three main starters -- Tomas Estrada (136 IP, 3.37) to free agency, and Khalil McKenry (125, 3.96), who was traded to Salem late in S32. Pascual Cordero (128, 5.26) returns, but the staff ace duties will likely fall to Don Bagley, who was a late-season trade acquisition from Trenton. Bagley compiled a solid 3.55 ERA in 200 IP and 34 starts between the two clubs he pitched for in S32. Free agent Prieto is a good bet to join the rotation as well. But of the five other spot starters to see action in S32, only two remain -- Olmedo Silva (67 IP, 5.67) and Dave Waters (94, 5.53). That means the bullpen will be called upon a lot in S33. The seven returning veterans combined for a 3.46 ERA in 474 innings of work. Ortiz adds another trustworthy arm to the group.

If the Jayhawks hope to end the dominance of Philadelphia in the AL North, they'll need the offense to soar to new levels in S32. They have the nucleus to match or better the .266 team batting average of a year ago.

RF Hugh Pierre (.347, 48 HR) and 2B Miguel Ramirez (.307, 23 HR) should lead the charge once again. S32's surprise was OF/3B Jensen Helms, who in his first year up from AAA hit .297 with 23 HRs in 397 ABs. Two other youngsters penciled into the lineup are 3B Beamer Summers, who hit .266 with 15 HRs, and 1B Adys Bethancourt (.293 with 24 HRs). 

Improved seasons from CF Matt Buddie (who's average dropped to .257 from .297); C Jackson Parris (.249 from .259); SS Matt Redmond (.206 compared to .225 in S32); and utility man Julio Villafuerte (.171 and 14 HRs compared to .250, 42 the prior season) would boost the chances for a title run. 

Burlington Bodacious
Season 33: 63-99

Season 33 In A Nutshell
Burlington's fortunes took a decided turn for the worse in S32 as the Bodacious suffered through a 19-game season-ending losing streak. That wiped away any chance for downboy to finish the first year of his ownership with an improved overall record. Instead, the Bodacious dropped eight games from the win column, and slid back into last place in the division standings, the worst performance for the franchise in 10 seasons.

Big Offseason Moves
The Bodacious stayed out of the free agency market during the offseason, but claimed four players in the Rule 5 draft, which was the same strategy downboy used last season. All four could be on the opening day roster. The best of the lot is contact hitting corner outfielder Hugh Munson, who was picked up from Nashville.

Season 34 Outlook
The Bodacious could be in for another long season. The retooled offense was one of the worst in the league in S32 -- finishing 31st in batting average at .239; 31st in runs scored with 599; 27th in homeruns with 158, all while piling up a dubious 1,128 strikeouts, sixth worst in the league. They also stole 55 fewer bases.

1B Peter Wall (.263, 19 HRs, team-leading 66 RBI) and RF Edgardo Mercedes (.265, 14 HRs, 46 RBI) were the only two returning starters to finish with batting averages above .250. The second-best power source on the team, rookie Buzz Bunning (20 HRs), has been demoted to AAA, leaving 2B Stan Magadan (.242, 21 HRs) and Wall as the best long-ball options.

It doesn't get much better on the mound for the Bodacious. Only three proven starters return -- Ruben Martinez (252 IP, 5.01 ERA), youngster Aroldis Urbina (243, 5.25), and Carlos Tavarez (180, 2.94), who is 37 this season. Alex Daniels started 24 games for Burlington last season, but he compiled just 94 innings of work -- less than 4 per outing.

The bright spots of the pitching staff are relievers Dillon Donatello (56 IP, 2.26 ERA), and Trey Reid (96, 4.20). Two other S32 relievers who had ERAs under 4.50 filed for free agency -- David Almora (69, 4.06) and Alvin Timlin (50, 3.44) and a third -- Henderson Farrell (91, 4.47) -- was released. Their departures leave the Bodacious with just 10 total pitchers on the roster heading into the season.

Philadelphia Erffdogs
Season 33: 90-72; Won Division; advanced to Division Series and lost to New Orleans

Season 33 In A Nutshell
A rock-solid bullpen and a steady starting rotation lifted the Erffdogs to their third straight division title in S33. Led by 22-year-old rookie set-up man Bralin Kohn (160 IP, 2.76 ERA), the bullpen combined for a collective ERA of under 3.75, and had a league-leading 53 saves. The 625-plus innings of work by relievers enabled Philadelphia to utilize a four-man starting rotation for the entire season. And for the second season in a row, three of the starters -- Doug Holt, Alex Quixote and 33-year-old veteran Happy Blue -- improved their ERAs.  

Big Offseason Moves
The Erffdogs were busy in the preseason, acquiring three players via trades, picking up one free agent, and promoting two AAA players. The trade acquisitions include reliever Carlos Johnson (65 IP, 5.65) from Columbus; 2B Trace Federowicz (.253, 18 HR) from Montreal; and prospect LF Nicholas Wilkins (.325/40 HRs in AAA) from Charlotte. The free agent signee is former Toledo reliever Ivan Belisario (47 IP, 3.66). In-system prospects Ordomar Estrada (114 IP, 2.99) and C Tony Penny (.308, 6 HR) were promoted from AAA, and both could vie for playing time.

Season 34 Outlook
For two seasons the fortunes of the Errfdogs have hinged largely on the success of their pitching -- especially the bullpen. They will need that mound consistency to continue in S34 if they hope to claim their fourth straight division title.

The pitching staff trimmed its ERA from 4.19 in S32 to 3.90 last season, which was the sixth-lowest ERA in the league. Starters Doug Holt (206 IP, 3.50) and Alex Quixote (202, 3.44) anchor the four-man rotation that also features Glenn Bako (185, 4.97) and 34-year-old Happy Blue, whose 181 IP, 4.43 ERA season certainly left management smiling.

But the real stars are the relievers who averaged about 4 innings of work per game. The pen got an unexpected boost from rookie Bralin Kohn, whose 160 innings of work topped all relievers, and his 2.76 ERA was better than everyone except veteran closer Yardano Valdes (41 saves), whose 2.24 ERA in 64 innings was slightly up from the previous year. Young star Che-Hsuan Woo suffered no sophomore jinx (3.61) despite increasing his workload by 21 innings. At 38, Rick Roberts remained a major contributor, hurling 84 innings for a respectable 4.06 ERA. And free agent pickup Norberto Lecuona was a stellar addition (84 IP, 4.16).

The addition of free agent relievers Ivan Belisario (47 IP, 3.66 for Toledo) and Carlos Johnson (65 IP, 5.65 for Columbus) could signal that 23-year-old Cesar Benavente will get more starts this year.

Philadelphia's offense lost a bit of its punch in S33 as the team average dropped from .271 to .261, and the lineup scored 49 fewer runs. But one key measure to the team's success was a lower strikeout rate -- 35 fewer whiffs in S32.

The most notable offensive drop-offs were from 1B Yamil Ibanez, whose average dropped 29 points to .290 with 7 less homers; CF Gene Cummings, who had 9 less homers and hit .256 compared to .279 in S32; and LF Lefty Simon, whose average slid 66 points from .317 to .251.

The thing to keep in mind with this offense is the age of most of the starters. Seven of the 11 players who had 300-plus ABs are under the age of 29. That includes DH Dario Stults, who clubbed 49 HRs and hit .289 last season.

One other youngster could have an impact this season. Tony Penny, 26 (.308 in AAA) could pressure veteran C Esmerling Tabaka for playing time, especially against right-handers.

Montreal Shamrocks
Season 33:  67-95

Season 33 In A Nutshell
The Shamrocks' transition slowed in S33 but they still managed to win 3 more games than they did in S32. JMercer managed to cobble together a decent lineup despite losing three key starters to trades and free agency prior to S32's first pitch. The pitching improved incrementally, reducing opponents' OAV from .284 to .272 and slicing the team ERA to 5.04 from 5.45. That coupled with Burlington's late season collapse was enough to lift the Shamrocks out of last place in the division, a position they had settled into for four consecutive seasons.

Big Offseason Moves
The Shamrocks lost 2B Trace Federowicz and C Carlos Polanco, but managed to sign free agent Cesar Olivares (177 AB, .266), C from Texas. Long reliever Aroldis Guerrero (2.41 ERA in 60 IP at AAA) was picked up from New Orleans in the Rule 5 draft, and in-house AAA prospects Tito McDade and Tony Gao were promoted.

Season 34 Outlook
Offensively, the Shamrocks should continue to improve. Veterans DH Victor Ramirez (.262, 29 HRs), 1B/LF Terrell Young (.304, 28), CF Terry Sears (.283, 20), and 3B Josh Gates (.267, 11) return to anchor the lineup. Second year players Dillon Crosby and Peter Dorsey will battle for the 2B job vacated by Federowicz. New addition Olivares and holdover Jack Saunders will likely platoon at catcher. Light-hitting Yorvit Ortiz provides defensive stability at SS. Reserves Fautino Mercedes (.291 in 227 ABs) and Chad Buller (.265 in 279 ABS) will vie for playing time in RF. 

The key to further improvement this season is the starting pitching. Heading into the season, the Shamrocks' roster lists four starters -- veteran Vin Gonzalez (191 IP, 5.22 ERA), Phillip Nunnally (168, 3.80 in his rookie season), Juan Marichal (147, 6.05) and J.R. George (120, 6.23). All but Nunnally need to lower the number of runs they are giving up to give the offense a fighting chance to keep the Shamrocks in more games.

Four members of the 7-man bullpen also sported ERA's north of 5.00 last season, including the two called on most frequently -- Elmer Randolph (109 IP, 5.60) and Gregory Starling (99, 5.16).

Division Prediction
For the fifth straight season, this should be a two-team race for the division title. On paper, Philadelphia has the upper hand and should win its fourth consecutive title. The Erffdogs continue to have the top pitching in the division, and just enough offense to keep them slightly out of the reach of the Jayhawks. If Kansas City's platoon pitching strategy holds up for another season, the Jayhawks should easily outdistance Montreal, even if the Shamrocks manage to improve their overall record for the third year in a row. Unfortunately, the chances of any type of "Bodacious" finish for Burlington is slim at best.
1. Philadelphia
2. Kansas City
3. Montreal
4. Burlington

 -- editor21