The A.L. South is chock full of great starting pitching and I believe that's what's going to decide who wins the division this season. Charlotte's still building, Jackson has some great, young arms and Richmond and Jacksonville have the veteran hurlers looking for one last (or first) title run. Richmond has owned the division over the last several seasons, but that could change this season. Let's take a look at the teams.
Season 10: 2nd Place (86-76)
Season 11 Prediction: 1st Place
For 6 straight seasons, the Seminoles have been the division bridesmaid. For 5 of those seasons, they've finished behind Richmond. I think this season is when Jacksonville finally gets over the hump. Hmmm...sound familiar? That's because I thought the same thing last season, but this pitching staff is simply too good to not get a division title at some point. mbooker did a smart thing in the offseason and that was extending the contracts of starting pitchers Vance Collier and Gene Hayes and accepting the option on Ahmed Sanford's contract (a no-brainer). Add rookie Craig McMillan to that rotation and it'll be very tough for teams to score runs on the Seminoles.
Offensively, I still give the edge to Richmond, but it's only a small advantage. The Seminoles are led by a couple young guns in 25-year old 2B Cesar Urbina and 24-year old 3B Alex Maradona. Add in the veteran leadership of Luther Taylor, Hector Castro and Luther Howard and this team may finally have what it takes to be the bride.
Season 10: 1st Place (90-72)
Season 11 Prediction: 2nd Place
Richmond and owner dgtrache spent the offseason doing quite a bit of free agent shopping, however, they quickly discovered that some of the best players on the market wore Generals uniforms last season. The Generals initially let Albert Lecuona and Odalis Lopez file for free agency, but were then able to re-sign them at a lesser price which was a smart move by the club. They also hit up Atlanta for a pair of free agents including former General Claude Buckley and Charlie Joyner. While these guys will all play major roles in the Generals offense, the future is 22-year old Marino Tejera. In his rookie campaign last season, Tejera scored and drove in over 100 runs while hitting 27 home runs and stealing 54 bases. Those are some serious numbers for a rookie.
Richmond boasts a veteran pitching staff and it became older with the addition of J.P. McEnroe, but these guys still have what it takes to win games. 36-year old Clay Runyan returns to the staff after winning 19 games last season and 31-year old Gerald Krause is signed through Season 13. All-time saves leader, Andy Scott (311 career saves) is also back again to shut the door in the 9th. I expect these guys to be in the A.L. South race to the last game of the season. They simply know how to win games.
Season 10: 3rd Place (78-84)
Season 11 Prediction: 3rd Place
Much like the Generals, the Bootleggers spent a lot of time and a little money on free agents in the offseason. The offense will benefit from the signings of Ringo Anderson, Charles Mulder and Tom Daly, but these guys aren't the long term answer for Jackson. They're merely filling in the gaps while the young talent such as Alving Cruz and Ted Gonzales matures in the Bootleggers minor league system. And it's not just bats that the Bootleggers are grooming. They've got a couple young arms in Sam Atchley and reliever Stan Salazar that should be future stars if given the time to develop.
As for this season, the Bootleggers will probably sit tight in 3rd place. The talent is better than what Charlotte has, but it's just not enough to compete with the Seminoles and Generals. Look for Carmine Byrd, Max Guerrero and Magglio Cedeno to win some games for this team though.
Season 10: 4th Place (63-99)
Season 11 Prediction: 4th Place
Patience is a waiting game. In his 3rd season as owner, jmil's probably getting more used to losing than he'd like, but he should also be enjoying the high draft picks and watching his young team grow. The Moose Hunters hit a franchise low for wins last season with 63, but in order to turn around a team, sometimes you have to get worse before you can get better. This season, I think they get better.
With a young nucleus of players, it could be a fun season in Charlotte. They've got all-or-nothing sluggers in Johnny Olson and Justin Ohka and some other really solid talent in home grown product Warren Gibson and Jose Blanco.
The talent of the pitching staff is still miles away from the offensive talent, but a couple trades at the right time could put the Moose Hunters on the map. Mark Parker is probably the best arm on the staff, although Louis Hennessey should win some games as well. It's going to be tricky, but if jmil can figure out how to matchup his talent, this team could be pretty good in a few seasons.