Charleston has won this division the last seven seasons by an average of 17 games. Could this be the season that they are knocked off their perch? San Juan and the expansion Texas Blue Stirrup Stockings would like to think so. They have both improved, so at the least this season should bring a much tighter race to the NL South. Tampa Bay will continue their rebuilding efforts this season.
Here are the team outlooks with last season's record, followed by projections for season 8:
(S7: 87-75, 1st place, lost to New York in 1st round; S8: 82-80, 1st place)
Key Additions: SP Dustan Brown, SP Tommy Branson, RF Yamil Veras, LF Stu Nixon
Key Losses: SP Keith Rando, 3B Jerome Malone, LF Felipe Garrido, RP Tom Saunders
The Charge's pitching staff will no longer be led by Rando, traded to Chicago for Branson and Brown. These two will now head a reliable rotation that lacks in star power, but has plenty of depth throughout. Don't expect their pitching to carry them this season, but it will not hurt them either.
At the plate, Charleston is young but has plenty of pop. After C Desi Glynn's breakout season 7, they have a nice heart of the order including RF Alex Belliard and 1B Peter Belliard. Much of the other regulars are unproven, so it may be feast or famine on many nights with this offense.
Despite unloading a couple big vets, this division is still Charleston's to lose. They won't be flashy, but should win enough games to get an 8th straight NL South title. How far they go will depend on how consistently their young position players produce.
X-Factor: The pitching is deep, but not great, so if SP Orel Spradlin can return to season 6 form (15-6, 3.00 ERA), the rotation will be much more imposing.
San Juan Wizards
(S7: 74-88, 2nd place; S8: 79-83, 2nd place)
Key Additions: RP Robinson Frederick, 2B Timo Kondou, P Dennis Seabol, CF Jeremy Beckett
Key Losses: SS Sammy Bonilla, 2B Marvin Adams, SP Robert Kerr
The Wizards are hoping they're ready to leapfrog Charleston atop the NL South. Along with new additions Kondou and Beckett, slugging 1B Rob Adams will round out a potent top of the order. But the remaining five regulars have 5 combined years of ML service, so they'll need some quick development from these prospects.
San Juan's problem will be keeping the ball in the park, not especially easy in this ballpark. Frederick should add depth to a decent bullpen. Seabol will start the season out of the pen as well, but don't be surprised if he's starting before long. If Tomas Polanco can cut down the HRs allowed, he'll be a great complement to last season's breakout SP Brent Shields.
This division will certainly tighten up this season. The Wizards have a young team, so their ability to challenge Charleston will come down to them staying fresh and injury-free late in the season. If the division is tight, San Juan may look for a mid-season trade to bolster their pitching.
X-Factors: There are 2 here, 2nd year slugging LF Howard Mashore and rookie C Tarrik Holmes. Management is expecting huge things out of these two, evidenced by them being plopped into the #4 and #5 spots in the lineup; their ability to drive in runs can make or break this team.
Texas Blue Stirrup Stockings
(S7: 70-92, 3rd place; S8: 75-87, 3rd place)
Key Additions: 1B Julius Kiner, 3B Jerome Malone, OF Stew Grace
Getting back to .500 for the second time in franchise history will be on the broad shoulders of this offensive attack. Adding Stew Grace (#5 career HR leader) will add some pop to the middle of the order, while Gold Glove CF Albert Lane will still man the #3-hole. This team will need to win some high scoring games to win consistently.
As solid as their lineup looks is as shaky as their pitching is. Young ace Danny Lennon will provide the only real trouble for opposing managers. Given their hitting and sound defense, they don't need to be great on the hill. But there are plenty of question marks throughout the staff.
More than San Juan, if Texas is in the midst of the division race toward mid-season they'll need to find more pitching to have a chance. Texas fans will certainly be entertained all season long with high scoring affairs, but may not be too happy with the results when all is said and done.
X-Factor: With the bats playing such a huge role for Texas, 1B Kris Richardson will need to forget a disappointing season 7 and put up big numbers hitting behind Lane and Grace for Texas to make some noise this year.
Tampa Bay Fighting Hampsters
(S7: 37-125, 4th place; S8: 42-120, 4th place)
Key Additions: -
Key Losses: -
The Fighting Hampsters will return many non-household names from a team that finished last in the NL in both runs scored and allowed. But they have improved each of the last two seasons, and Tampa fans are hoping that trend continues.
The bright spot of the Fighting Hampsters' lineup should be LF Hunter Hentgen, who hit well in his brief stint up with the big league club last season. Expect to see a minor league prospect or two come up and contribute at some this year.
Pitching will again be a weakness for Tampa, as they allowed over 7.7 runs per game last season. With some run support veteran ace Kent Sosa could be a 15-game winner, but he may be more beneficial to the club in reeling in a couple good young players if he's dealt to a contender at mid-season. Tampa Bay is looking to climb out of the cellar, but it won't be for at least another season.
X-Factor: 25-yr old SP Dave Thomas could develop into the #2 starter behind Sosa. To better their record from last year Tampa Bay will need two reliable starters, and Thomas looks like the best option.