The AL South is the most competitive division in the junior league for season 33, with all four owners returning to King Felix, three of whom made the playoffs last season.
Safety’s streak of 7 straight division titles looks to be in jeopardy, but not if the Minute Men have anything to say about it. The Corky Jackson/Al Gardner trade with Scranton may have been the biggest move of the offseason. As mentioned in the AL North preview, only time will tell who won the trade, but as Jackson is a righty and nearly two years younger than southpaw Gardner, I think Monterrey will be just find. Safety also pulled off a trade for stud lefty Louie Li from Pawtucket, which should improve the fourth best ERA in the AL last season. Monterrey also splurged in free agency, bringing in another starter in Kevin Sobolewski and John Kirby, Cesar Mesa, and Jamie Graves to bolster the bullpen.
The best shot at taking the AL South crown from Safety would be the Santa Fe Brooks. Ever since Nelson joined King Felix, his young team has been on the rise clinching wild card births the last two seasons. The Brooks roster is staying just about the same this season, with the only one notable addition, closer Derek Fraser. In the meantime Santa Fe’s young lineup of second baseman Samuel Merrick (24 years old/94 overall), third baseman Al Espinosa (26/91) and left fielder Terry French (24/82) will continue to smack the cover off the ball. Add in a rotation including Edgardo Cruz, and 23-year-old Sammy Castillo, and Santa Fe could be in position for their first division title.
King Felix’s only team that has been in the league for 33 seasons snuck back into the playoffs last year after a 14 year drought. The Wichita Rocks 91 win season was led by young rotation of Brent Davis, Harold Snodgrass and Aurileo Romero, all of whom should only get better this season. Barjaz kept all of his moves in house this season, bringing back nine players through arbitration, while locking up centerfielder Ted Britton and third baseman Paul Hiljus to long term deals. Wichita has a long road ahead of them if they want to make their second straight playoff appearance, but behind a rotation that finished with the third lowest ERA in the American League, the Rocks are clearly a contender again.
The Durham Bulls finished in fourth in the AL South last season. Any other division would consider that a disappointment, but a 79-83 record in the toughest division in baseball is no small feat. However after spending lots of money the last two offseason’s on free agents, tony23 kept his team quiet this offseason. There is only one new face on the roster, second baseman Andy Latham, who is back in the majors after a year of AAA. The Bulls also made sure to keep their younger players in house, shelling out long term contracts for shortstop Frank Selman, left fielder Roscoe Pence, and relief pitcher Andrea Sheffield. However the roster could be changing this season, after Durham added 10 players to the trading block. They will be a team to keep an eye on come trade deadline time.
Our last preview, the AL West, features a clear front runner and three dark horses. A year after finishing with an American League best 108 wins and World Series title, 40’s San Diego squad remains in prime condition to repeat. Edward Jeffries was brought in from Trenton to replace Zachary Anderson at Centerfield, and Jason Matthews can eat some of the innings vacated by Kevin Sobolewski who left for league rival Minute Men. All Star and Cy Young candidate Anthony Aven bolsters a stingy bullpen in a stingier park, while “Sir” Gallahad Vogelsong and Horatio DeLeon hope lead another power surge on offense. Short of any injuries (knock on wood, sorry for the jinx 40) San Diego should easily makes their way back into the playoffs.
The other three teams in the division have a bit of a gap to close, as evident by their respective top 10 picks in the amateur draft. By far the most aggressive moves came from the expansion Fresno Falcons. New owner vdfizio made a huge splash by trading for first baseman Wellington Rijo and third baseman Walt Cook from Texas for starting pitchers Miguel Bennett and Chris King. Fresno’s lineup will definitely be improved next year alongside Steve Snow, Andy Lincoln and Ross Rodgers but after Victor Diaz and Heinie Tobin as a first and second starting pitcher, the staff begins to look shaky. However Fresno certainly has the hitting to take second place a push for a wildcard bid.
The Arizona Wild Kitty’s were forced to make some tough decisions this offseason. Daniel “X-File” Mulder, who hit and MVP worthy .323/.393/.633 slash line along 46 homers and 143 RBI was brought back on arbitration for nearly 9 million. However this meant having to let starter Robb Lockwood leave for Philadelphia. Tony Vizcaino was brought in from Seattle to take his spot in the rotation, and with Paul Evans finally able to spend a full season in Arizona and Skeeter Tanner back from injury, they may be able to pick up the slack. However someone on offense will need step up besides Mulder in order for the Wild Kitty’s to improve upon last year’s record.
Honolulu had the quietest off-season of all, with only one new face on the roster, right handed pitcher Rey Camili, who can start or eat up innings out up the bullpen. Otherwise freesteagle will continue to watch his young lineup led by third baseman Orval Moss (26 years old), left fielder Javier Sanchez (26) and second baseman William Berger (23) gain experience. Berger is an especially popular choice to finish as Rookie of the Year. The staff on the other hand isn’t very exciting. Enrique Concepcion and Albert Polonia are ok at the top, but after that the Swingin’ Jackwagons are in serious need for an upgrade to their pitching.