Season 31 was memorable in the NL South due to Texas' massive choke job, closing out with an L9 and allowing Charlotte to Steam into the post-season like a runaway train, finishing out on a 9-1 run of their own to reach .500 for the season. The fun stopped rather abruptly, as Charlotte played like their season-long record in getting eliminate 3-0 by Chicago. The former Santa Fe (now Austin) and San Juan kept the overall division tightly packed to 10 games between everyone.
Early returns have San Juan flipping the script, starting out with 3 big wins over last season's division Champs, looking to recapture their very recent successes Seasons 29 & 30. Pretty significant turnover on the ML roster should be expected after a 4th place finish follows two pennants, and the Padres held to that form. Modest FA signings like Omar Gutierrez and Jorge De Aza compliment returning vet Matty Campos and young up and coming stud Branden Clarkson, and should make for a solid line-up, if perhaps lacking in strong gloves outside Orlando Mendoza.
San Juan's starting staff will be led again by steady vets Raymond Patterson and Vladimir Duran with hopes that Harry Bautista can live up to the hype around his "stuff", but their bullpen may hinge on the delicate deployment of some odd fits like potential stud Preston Granderson and Rickey Leary.
The early shine may be coming off their hot start now, but San Juan should avoid the basement this season.
The biggest news in Charlotte this off-season was their gutting of the spirited team that finished the regular season on such a high note. Moving Zoltan Keppinger and Rich Kohn to Nawlins, then George Camilli and Yean Carlos Gonzalez to Indy basically gutted the major league roster, but the Steam will rise again with an embarrassment of riches in their minors.
Focusing on this season, though, the only new ML piece added on the major moves was Matt Hunter from the Test-Icicles (also a former Indianapolis whatever-they're-called-this-year farm hand... you know, just to close the circle). He should anchor a reasonable collection of gloves which may not be enough to carry a patchwork pitching staff, hoping to get the ball to Jim Hinchliffe with a lead.
Late blooming Brett McMahan should more than outpace his 11th round draft pick status, but he may be a lone bright spot in a thin lineup.
While it may be a long Season 32 in Charlotte, the future is hot as a kettle.
The heartbreaker of an ending to last season aside, Choades are making their way back up the standings, after a sustained run under the previous regime. Bob Tucker leads a deep, versatile lineup that should fare well in their hitter friendly home park.
Heavy inning horses Joe Cunningham, Al Servet, and Kennie Bonilla will shoulder much of the load getting the ball to a deep (if unspectacular) 'pen led by Norberto Lecuona. The pitching staff should be helped by a strong defence.
Nobody likes a sweaty Choade, but in Texas this season, the sweat might be starting to pay off. A second consecutive bridesmaid finish should be looked upon favourably if their overall record continues to take steps forward.
Our geography-challenged Road Trip now takes us from Santa Fe to Austin, who look primed to take a big step forward. If the pundits weren't sure, then the big off-season move to bring in John Small to anchor the hot corner and pair with incumbent stud P.T. Feliz was the anvil to the forehead.
Subtler observers might have read the tea leaves earlier with in the arrival of Willie Matos and Torey Izquierdo last season to go with (relative) greybeards Juan Martinez and Willie Tepera, forming a formidable foursome in the starting rotation, with nobody over 25.
Austin look like the team to beat, and the first couple of weeks are looking like the final payoff of a long time in the wilderness for this franchise.