Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Preseason Questions - NL South and West

NL South
Florida Storm
Can Florida hold off Monterrey and Atlanta?
Florida has won the NL South the last two years and have lost in the second round of the playoffs in both of those seasons. This season the Storm traded for Casey Morris to give them another all star bat to compliment their pitching staff which had the best ERA in hometown last year. But Florida couldn’t extend Brandon Thompson as he wanted to test the free agent market so they made a controversial move to trade him. The trade for Howard Fitzgerald and Nolan Hartzell doesn’t make them a better team this year, but will give them a true lead off hitter next year as they plan on keeping the newly acquired Fitzgerald in the minors for the entire season. So the pitching that returns is exactly the same except with the addition of Hartzell and the loss of Jeff Waters. The batting will be just as mediocre as last season with Casey Morris essentially replacing Brandon Thompson in the lineup. If the hitting is lackluster which it could be Florida might find themselves out of the division hunt and could be shopping players like Dennis Hunt and Pedro Guerrero.

Will Peter Roth step up and erase an awful season last year?
Roth was the fifteenth overall pick in season two’s draft and had an excellent rookie season for Florida, so good that he made the all star team as a rookie. Roth hit 291 with 32 homeruns with an OBP of 359. He helped carry the lackluster offense to the division title and handled their pitching rotation with great poise and maturity. However last season was definitely the “Sophomore jynx” as Roth had a season to forget. His power and average dropped off significantly he finished with a 244 average with 25 homeruns and an OBP of only 300. With the Storm moving Thompson if they have any shot of winning the division again Roth needs to find his game ASAP.
*As of this article being posted Roth was hitting .059 in 17 AB with 6K’s*

Monterrey Rayados
Can Monterrey win the division for the first time in four seasons?
They were definitely a pleasant surprise last year as they competed for the division and lost by only three games to Florida. They shocked the league with the signing of Norman Mantei perennial all star in free agency. The most impressive thing about Monterrey’s success was they did without him. He was injured for more than three quarters of the season and yet the team still hung around and was leading the division for half of the year. If Mantei can stay healthy that should make them a lot better and if their pitching staff can hold up they can definitely compete with the Storm and Southern Boys.

Can Mantei return to form?
Last season just a few weeks after signing a massive deal Norman Mantei herniated a disk in his back and was lost for most of the year. As devastating as that injury was the Rayados banned together and put together an impressive year. Mantei was brought in to Monterrey to be the leader and franchise cornerstone. Look for him to bounce back and have an excellent season for the Rayados.

Atlanta Southern Boys
Can Atlanta bounce back from two tough years and get back to their playoff form?
Two seasons ago Atlanta represented the NL in the World Series. However in the last two seasons Atlanta hasn’t even finished 500 despite having a pitching staff that was in the top five in ERA league last year. In one of the best offseason moves the Southern Boys added a legit bat in Douglas Stafford. He is coming off a season in which he hit 45 homeruns with an average of 307. He individually makes them so much better. It is obviously a team sport but he makes their lineup so much better. Their pitching staff is still very solid and could finish in the top five again, if the bats are enough look for Atlanta to make some real noise in the NL. They will be at least 500 this year and I know I already stated Columbus as a dark horse team, but nobody should overlook Atlanta this season.

Will Stafford be the key to success for Atlanta?
The addition of an all star caliber bat Atlanta looks to be better this year and Douglas Stafford will have a lot to do with that. Clearly the last two seasons the batting has been subpar and was the reason that Atlanta couldn’t build on their playoff success from two years ago. He has never not hit 40 homeruns in a season, if you looked up consistent in the dictionary Douglas Stafford’s picture would certainly be there. Atlanta will go as far as Stafford takes them, which could be a trip back to the playoffs.

Houston Not So Nice
Can Houston avoid a second straight season finishing fourth?
The last two seasons Houston has finished with the exact same record. They finished 79-83 which was good enough for second place and then fourth. Their history shows the tightness of the division. To go from second to fourth with the exact same record shows the improvement of the rest of the division. However this season should be worse for them, mainly because of the improvements of the other teams. Especially with Atlanta’s improvement Houston will most likely be looking up from the basement. They have talent but the homage you’re only as good as your starting pitching will likely ring very true in Houston.

Can their pitching be productive?
Last season their starting pitching wasn’t awful by any stretch of the imagination but at the same time it wasn’t that great. No starting pitcher had an ERA better than Davey Sanchez at 4.35. If Houston is going to avoid a cellar finish for the second straight year they’re pitching will need to be better. But can it? Is an excellent question because I don’t think they have the talent on the pitching staff that Florida, Atlanta and Monterrey have.

NL West
Honolulu Warriors
Will they repeat to win the division?
In one of the toughest divisions in hometown your guess is as good as mine. Honolulu boasts some major talent and won the division last year by a single game. In fact the first second and third place finishes in the division were all separated by only a single game. Honolulu will need some similar performances by key players if they want to repeat as the division winner. It is very easy for Honolulu to go from first to third. The division is just that good. I can’t even call it between the three teams so I’ve always emphasized pitching and I don’t think their staff is as good as Cheyenne’s or Arizona’s so I think this season they’re going to finish third.

Why Scot Service will be the key?
I’m sure you’re wondering why I’m talking about a fifth starter at best. Last year he started in 12 games and finished with a record of 3-4 with a remarkable ERA of 3.84. It was a major shocker because he has never showed that level of skill in the minors. He beat out Pat Masao for that fifth starting spot as his ERA was almost a whole two points better. If Service can be a steady fifth starter and repeat his success from a year ago then he could be the single most important reason that Honolulu makes or misses the playoffs.

Cheyenne Sandors
Will they avenge last years collapse and finally win the division?
I’m going out on a limb and saying yes this will finally be Cheyenne’s season. They have tons of talent and boast an excellent pitching staff and after the collapse they suffered last year they should come out strong this year and finally win the division. After 93 and 92 wins in the last two years it’s hard to believe that they haven’t seen the playoffs in either of those years but that is the case. The pitching is the key, and with the talent on the staff and in the lineup should lead Cheyenne to their first division win ever.

Can Carlos Fernandez step up?
Fernandez a defensive stud had a bit of a drop off with the bat last year. He only hit 269 which is very surprising because with his speed and skill he should be beating out a lot of infield singles and batting at a higher level. If Fernandez can hit better it would make them a lot better. They have a lot of power hitters, four players hit over 30 homeruns last year. What they need is people to get on base for those guys to hit them home. If Fernandez can be that guy Cheyenne could be a whole lot better and the hopes of winning the division can rest on his ability to get on base.

Arizona High Heat
Will they be on the outside looking in?
The short answer is No. I think Arizona will likely finish second right behind Cheyenne and just in front of Honolulu. After many years of winning the division they were almost out of the playoffs entirely last year but snuck in by a game. With their strong pitching staff and balanced attack I think Arizona will finish second again. However it is going to come down to the pitching. If they’re pitching performs better than Honolulu’s which I think it will then they should be punching a ticket to the postseason.

Can Shep Beck do it again?
Beck has clearly been one of the most consistent pitchers in hometown over the past several years. A future hall of famer the question is now being raised if he can keep it up. Last year he finished with an ERA of 2.80. He has been a legit ace for years and Arizona’s success will hinge on his arm. If he can put up another great year it is hard to believe that Arizona could miss the postseason. They have never missed the playoffs and Beck will likely carry them to another postseason birth.

Oakland Seals
Can they get to 60 wins?
Unfortunately for Seals fans the answer is most likely no. The division is just so good they are just unlucky they are in it. They have some talent but it pales in comparison to the other teams in the division. Oakland will likely finish with a very similar record to last seasons. The stockpiling of young talent is underway the draft prospects and scouting of IFA’s are underway in Oakland. This will be another long season for Oakland but at least the hope is there that in a few seasons they can be competing with the powerhouses in the NL West.

Can the pitching improve?
When looking over the division Arizona, Cheyenne and Honolulu all have great starting pitchers unfortunately Oakland doesn’t. Three starting pitchers last year finished with an ERA over six. Yamil Fernandez was their best starting pitcher as he finished with an ERA of 4.74. He is only 23 years old and can improve. The future is definitely bright for Fernandez. Oakland fans are certainly hoping that he might develop into the starting pitcher that they so desperately need. Look for Fernandez to be the teams best starting pitcher again. However Oakland is going to have to make some moves down the road to bring some more talented arms if they hope to compete with the powerhouses in the NL West.