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.

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