It was a good year for the AL South in Season 8, with Texas taking the crown and Charlotte getting to the division round as a wildcard. Kansas City and Tampa Bay advanced their rebuilding efforts with major international free agent signings, and the Royals' Lorenzo Manto took the AL Rookie of the Year.
Texas led the league with 993 runs scored last year and brings back largely the same lineup. All-Star and Silver Slugger CF Juan Marrero (.288/45/110) leads the balanced attack (9 players with 20+ HR's), with SS Ismael Lopez (.259/31/106) and C/DH Chris Mullens (.317/39/99) in supporting run-production roles. RF Jason Walls (.354 OBP) and the 1B platoon of Wolf Douglas (.393 OBP) and Brett Ross (.383 OBP) are the primary table-setters. It looks like 2 rookies will make the opening-day roster: Jerry Wilkinson (.252/34/89 at AAA) takes over at 3B for the traded Jerry Kaline, and Chris Grimsley (.280/37/95 at AAA) will get some AB's at DH. There are no holes in this lineup; 1000 runs is possible this year.
Charlotte dropped to 835 runs last year (from 936 in their division-winning Season 7), so they're looking for some punch. The first boost will come from the return of 2-time MVP Earl Jorgenson, who missed most of last year. Early reports say he's swinging the bat as well as ever but not running like he used to. RF Jose Mondesi had his lowest HR total (37) since Season 2, and could be another pick-me-up. And B.C. Javier could easily snap back from a .255 effort. 3B Adam Martin's power is slipping away, but he should still post solid numbers. C Frankie Spahn swings at everything...the good news is it goes a long way when he connects.
Kansas City scored 853 runs last year, good for 4th in the AL. The Royals' offense begins but does not end with super-sophomores Lorenzo Manto (.317/30/109) and Hersh Taylor (.280/47/115). Season 7 ROY Emil Pichardo "slumped" to .289/22/77 last year; a return to his rookie form would give KC a deadly trio of 3 of the league's best young hitters. They're counting on 2 more rookies for big contributions: CF Wilt Benes has a razor-sharp batting eye and handles RHP - the jury's out on how he'll do with lefties; C Harry James looks like a nice hitter...the question is where he'll play. The word around Spring Training is he'll takeover as the full-time DH early on.
Tampa Bay was dead last in runs last season but will turn over two-thirds of the lineup. Joseph Ishii and Izzy Jones (obtained for prospects), move in at CF and 3B. RF Cristobal Marquez signed a rich FA deal. They've already promoted SS Mariano Mateo and 1B Yonder Manto and handed them starting jobs; we can expect to see Season 7 mega-IFA Vic Gonzalez and LF/RF Geraldo Roque by the 20-game mark. This won't be one of the top offenses in the league...it may not even reach the top half...but it will be much improved.
Texas posted the AL's 3rd-best ERA last year (4.25) but looks to improve. The rotation stays intact, with headliner Sherry Pierre poised for a Cy Young run one of these years (yes, even in Ameriquest Field). The long relief corps is entirely rebuilt with rookies Branch Crosby and Jose Pizzaro, plus FA Ajax Patel. Patrick Michaels comes over from the Yankees as the main setup man to Gene Robinson, who established himself as a reliable closer last season. There are a few question marks in the pen...rumors have the Rangers shopping around for another setup man.
Charlotte's pitching was right behind Texas' last year at 4.26. Warren Justice and Hick Hernandez lead the workmanlike rotation; 2nd-year man Chipper O'Conner got 10 starts last season and could join the rotation full-time. Eugene O'Neill headed the closer committee last year with a fine 11-save, 1.89 ERA effort. With team ERA's of 4.24 and 4.26 the last 2 seasons and virtually same personnel, this group should be very predictable; which means they'll in all likelihood throw lights out or suck.
Kansas City posted a 5.17 ERA last year and needs some arms to go with all those bats. Damaso Palacios seems most likely to step up - he had a nice sophomore season (15-12, 3.72) but control problems and/or gopher balls have limited his effectiveness since. In the pen, Raymond Karsay posted a 3.24 ERA in 75 innings, but with a career mark of 4.88, I wouldn't count on a repeat. The good news resides in AAA on the arms of Armando Taveras (Season 7 #2 overall) and Sun Wanatabe (big-ticket Season 7 IFA) - both could use more development but could get the call if KC's bats put them in the race.
Tampa Bay put up a pretty good 4.25 ERA last year (4th), largely due to lefty SP's Stuart Wilson (13-11.3.69) and Blaine Lowry (11-13, 4.03), plus some good efforts by anonymous guys. There will be less anonymity this year: much-ballyhooed SP prospect Santos Lorenzo will debut around game 20, as will his IFA counterpart Javy Johnson. FA Karim Wallace was signed to a 5-year deal to steady the pen. The Rays also recently traded for promising-but-underachieving RP Houston Webb; he's put up sparkling numbers in Spring Training and could earn a setup role.
1. Texas 104-58
2. Charlotte 92-70
3. Kansas City 85-77
4. Tampa Bay 82-80
ROY Watch: Tampa Bay's Santos Lorenzo and Vic Gonazalez; KC's Harry James
MVP Watch: Texas' CF Juan Marrero, Charlotte's 2B Earl Jorgenson, KC's Lorenzo Manto and Hersh Taylor
Cy Young Watch: Texas' Sherry Pierre