Last Season: 103-59, 2nd in division, Wild Card, Lost in World Series
The Pirates have been to the playoffs in every season of League Majors, but have won their division only once. Last year, however, Pittsburgh had the last laugh, as they beat their division rival Milwaukee in the Division Championship Series. And this Pittsburgh team is even better than that one. Watch out Milwaukee.
35 homeruns and 143 runs batted in. Slim Houston’s consistency has been amazing, and Pittsburgh will get more of the same this season. He’ll be driving in Ken Simon, who scored 135 runs last season. Yamil Cueto and Del Matsui are the current and future stars of this lineup, and will man right and left field. Between them is Dwight Lockhart, acquired from the Red Legs in the offseason. He had a down year last season, but the Pirates are betting that will change. Pittsburgh also welcomes free agent signee Olmedo Franco, who handles a pitching staff better than most. He will likely split time with last year’s starter, Mac Burrell. And let’s not forget about Ross Perez, who brings power, but may very well lead the league in strikeouts. This probably isn’t the best in offense in the division, but scoring runs should come easy.
Pittsburgh also hit the free agent market on the pitching side, and acquired a gem in Kenneth Garcia. At 37, Garcia can still bring it, and if he stays healthy, will be a key addition to the rotation. The younger Garcia, three time all-star Vernon (no relation), gives Pitt one of the best one-two punches in baseball. The likely 3-5 starters are youngsters Mariano Flores, Ales Vargas, and Orlando Alverez. All are international signings, and big things are expected from this group.
Long relief will be handled by veterans John Webb and Daniel Wynn. Ron Priest and Rex Burroughs provide a solid setup for closer Darryl McCartin. McCartin sported a 6.29 ERA last season, which is a concern. Pittsburgh will keep an eye on him.
Pittsburgh made some significant moves in the offseason. However, it will be the performance of their young 3-5 starters that will determine the course of their season. They’re good, they should produce, and Pittsburgh should take the division.
105-57, Division Winner
Last Season: 110-52, 1st in division, Lost in Division Championship Series
The first order of business for Milwaukee Manager Alexander Wilson this spring training, was to hang in the clubhouse a framed (yes, framed) copy of the boxscore of the final game of last year’s Division Championship Series. Losing that game to their division rival Pittsburgh apparently did not sit well with the skipper. That wasn’t supposed to happen to the winner of six straight division titles and the Season 5 and 6 World Series Champion. The skipper says things will be different this year.
There are no offensive holes in this lineup. They all hit and most of them hit it far. Dan Jordan and Dan Person hit bombs. Former three-time MVP Ronnie Hodges hits them to, and can play every outfield position. Joining this offense fulltime is Otis Rueter, who after two years in AAA, is ready for the bigs, and looks to take over at first base. He injured his hamstring in the preseason, but should be ready for opening day. Ricardo Castillo is one of the best in the league behind the plate, and with Emil Rodriguez, they make up the best catching combination in the league. This team will again score more than enough runs.
15 game winner and Season 7 All-Star Curtis Smith anchors the rotation. He is in the final year of his contract and will be paid $15 million. If he wins 15 games or more, he may be worth it. Scott Holt is in the #2 spot in the rotation, but is really a co-#1. He probably won’t equal last year’s 20-2 record, but he’ll easily win 15+. The rest of the rotation is solid. Look for veteran David Candelaria to once again be a major contributor as well.
Albrto Padilla and Alex Aoki are the main long relievers, and both should have a fantastic year. They are the bridge from Milwaukee’s great starters to Milwaukee’s mediocre relievers. O.K., mediocre is too harsh an assessment, but the short relief is not to the level of the rest of the staff. Kevin Young is the closer, but opponents hit .275 against him last year. He needs to return to Season 6 form, where opponents hit for an average of only .225. Brinkley and Long will set up, and should be solid. However, if Milwaukee is to make a late season pick-up, look for it being in the pen.
Wilson indicates that the box score will be brought to Milwaukee and will hang in the clubhouse all season long. That motivational tool won’t be enough to make for some big moves in Pittsburgh. With a great lineup and great starting pitching, look for Milwaukee to make the playoffs once again, but it won’t be enough to win the division.
99-63, Wild Card.
Last Season: 62-100, 4th in division, did not make playoffs
Its tough being in the same division of two of the National League’s power houses, and that is the unenviable position Montreal finds itself in, year in and year out. However, GM reggiedeal has accumulated some of the best young players in the majors, and they are just waiting to break-out. But will this be the year?
It starts and ends with the guy with the funky glasses. Alex Stein is a complete stud. He’s going to hit 50 homeruns, drive in over 125 runs, and hit around .300. And there is more, as Montreal is running a horse farm: Slim Wise, Oscar Womack, and Byron Terry: stud, stud and stud. Ed Morris isn’t too shabby either. And Albert Rodriguez might turn out to be better than any of them. Scoring runs will not be an issue.
Pitching has always been an issue for Montreal. However, this year they went out and got veterans Lucas Allen (free agency), Julian Gomez (free agency) and Shane Palmer (claimed of waivers from Cinci). They are solid, inexpensive pickups, and should provide some needed stability in the starting rotation and/or long relief. Likely starter Lyle Sosa has great potential, but was probably brought along too fast. He would benefit from more time in the minors. Paul Stoops is young as well, but appears ready. Veteran Allan Levis appears to have put his early career injury bug behind him, and could have a big year. David Zapata is another youngster who could be big. And Robert McMurtry is solid. Overall, this should be a much improved rotation and long relief corp, compared with last year’s group.
Short relief is a weakness. Lonnie Kline was the closer last year and struggled. Look for Ismael Santayana to reclaim that role which he held in Seasons 5 and 6. Montreal has as much young talent of any team in the league, so look for a deal that brings in veteran short relief help.
Pittsburgh and Milwaukee are still in the way, and a division title is out of reach. But this should be the year that Montreal makes great strides. They probably won’t challenge for the Wild Card, but that will come soon enough.
Last Season: 68-94, 3rd in division, did not make playoffs
Just like Montreal, Hartford has to deal with Pittsburgh and Milwaukee in their division. No one foresees a run at the division, but this is an improving team, who along with Montreal, has made the NL North Division one of the best in the League.
Doc Kingman in left and Ed Sierra in right are the offensive leaders of the team. Sierra had a bit of a down year last season. He needs to get back to form. Chuck Abercrombie is back for his sophomore season, and should improve on his rookie numbers. Hartford hopes he doesn’t swing and miss as much this year. Brooklyn, NY native Chris Long takes over at first this year. He was great in AAA last year for Hartford, and bigs things are expected from him. Posiedon Reese is one of the better hitting catchers in baseball, and needs to see more at bats this year. Overall this is a very young offensive club, and in this division, they need to grow up quickly.
Pitching could be a problem for Hartford, especially when considering the offensive powerhouses in the division. Rico Ortiz probably has the best stuff on the staff, but tends to be wild. Ewell Mercedes is solid. So are free agent signees Miguel Renteria and Hector Acevedo. Morgan Reagan, a Rule 5 draftee, could also contribute in rotation. Stability is the key. Too many starters had ERAs over 5.00 last year. In order for Hartford to be successful, the starters have to do better.
Hulk Estes will be the main long relief guy. He should provide a solid bridge between the starters and the short relievers. But who are the short relievers? The only true short guy on the squad is Red Ramirez, another Rrule 5 draftee. He was a fantastic pickup. But who else is there? In AAA, there are some possibilities, but likely what you will see is Hartford using their pitchers with the best stuff in a setup role. Will it work? We shall see.
The offense is young, but should be good. But not good enough to make up for a pitching staff that is solid, but needs some help. In another division, this team might fair better, but the going will be tough in the NL North.