The South was the AL's top division last year, with Tampa Bay, Kansas City and Charlotte all making the playoffs. Although the Royals lost to the Yankees in the first round, the Knights scored upsets over Oakland and Chicago before losing to the Rays in the ALCS.
Can the young Royals or the resurgent Knights overtake the Rays this season? Can the Rangers retool to get into the race? Can the Rays make the long trek back to the WS and shed the "Bills" label? Here's how we break it down:
TAMPA BAY RAYS: Season 10 Record - 107-55; Hitting - 889 runs (2nd); Pitching - 3.50 ERA (1st); Fielding - .990 % (1st)
Given their commitment of nearly $200MM to FA's Branch Vitiello and Kordell Becker, the Rays' Season 10 - 107 wins but a timid 4-1 WS loss to St. Louis - has to be called a disappointment. Despite fairly steady trade talks all off season, they're bringing back the identical roster this year. Pitching and defense are the heart of the team - the 3-headed monster of Vitiello, Becker and Santos Lorenzo leads the rotation, with slick fielders Mariano Mateo (SS), Jamie Faulk (2B) and Scott Perry (CF) anchoring the defense. The key to their offense is getting good contribution from every spot in the lineup, although DH Vic Gonzalez seems poised to enter the ranks of the league's elite sluggers.
KANSAS CITY ROYALS: Season 10 Record - 91-71; Hitting - 909 runs (1st); Pitching - 4.53 ERA (9th); Fielding - .983 % (tie 8th)
The Royals boast having the best all-round player in the AL (and maybe all Kinsella) in 2B Lorenzo Manto. His .360/26/125/52 SB/131 Runs MVP Season sparked their playoff run and #1-ranked offense. With Manto in front of him, Hersh Taylor could eventually challenge for the all-time RBI leadership (159 last year). The Manto/Taylor production is a given - watch for 2nd-year 3B Malik Stokes to emerge as another key producer. The key to the Royals' fortunes, though, lies with improved pitching. Armando Taveras (17-7, 3.66) thrived in his first year, but Sun Wanatabe (12-10, 4.51) had some rookie struggles - he'll have to improve and likely will. KC went out and got some FA help in #5 starter Haywood Charles and setup man Joshua Edwards (both on economy 1-year contracts).
CHARLOTTE KNIGHTS: Season 10 Record - 84-78; Hitting - 792 runs (8th); Pitching - 4.34 ERA (6th); Fielding - .982 % (tie 10th)
The Knights' offense revolves around 2-time MVP Earl Jorgenson and Kinsella all-time RBI leader Jose Mondesi. B.C. Javier's production fell off badly last year and a comeback at age 36 is iffy. Charlotte will likely need a better solution at 1B/DH - and some big seasons from other position players - to contend again. The Knights tend to use a rotation-by-committee aproach - 7 pitchers got more than 10 starts last year. Of those Warren Justice (13-9, 3.42), Banana Klein (9-7, 3.97) and Sven Barclay (9-13, 4.87) seem most capable of breakout seasons. The late innings are in good hands with closer Ruben Sierra (no, not the village idiot - this one was a perfect 23-for-23 in save ops last year with a stunning 5.16 OPS against) and workhorse setup man Turner Mordecai (9 wins, 7 saves, 3.18 ERA in 153 innings).
TEXAS RANGERS: Season 10 Record - 69-93; Hitting - 883 runs (3rd); Pitching - 5.16 ERA (16th); Fielding - .987 % (tie 2nd)
The Ranger staff got off to a terrible start last year and never recovered, prompting the big Marraro/Fonville trade that netted prospects Sherman Cunningham, Harry Uribe and Justin Hitchcock plus pitcher Hades Ritchie. All are currently in AAA but could see big-league duty this season. Other new faces include FA's Carlos Solano (RP), Julio Romero (LR) and Vin Klaus (RF), plus rookie 2B Ivan Prince. Offensively, the main run production duties will fall to 1B Wolf Douglas and DH Chris Grimsley. Sherry Pierre anchors a pitching staff that, while it has some holes, could see a big improvement - Buck Barry and Branch Crosby especially.
The Rays don't look any less dominant than last year - they have to be the preseason favorite. The Royals could well get the pitching improvement needed to close last year's 16-game gap...maybe even enough to make it a race. The Knights are a wild card - a couple of career seasons and good breaks and they could be in the tournament again, or a few bad bounces and they could be considering selling veterans. It's not impossible to see Texas contending, but in all likelihood they'll shoot for gathering up some more young talent. Don't hold your breath waiting for a Sherry Pierre trade but don't be surprised if Texas moves him for an impressive bundle of prospects either. I'm predicting the Rays win it again, with the Royals finishing just 5 back. Charlotte will battle Detroit for the last wild card (it's a Carson Graves "on" year, remember), and I think they'll take it, giving the South 3 playoff teams for the second straight year.
THE ALL AL-SOUTH TEAM:
C - Bob Riggs the offensive C
C - Casey Larkin the defensive C
1B - Hersh Taylor 159 RBI...'nuff said
2B - Lorenzo Manto MVP...'nuff said
3B - Ismael Lopez OK, 3B is a weak position in the division
SS - Wascar Uribe best combo of offense/defense
LF - Ching-Lung Chang Lorenzo Manto starter-kit
CF - Scott Perry another weak position...Perry gets it for D
RF - Jose Mondesi nice comeback after 2 down years
DH - Vic Gonzalez even better things to come
UT - Earl Jorgenson all the way back from Sea 8 injury
UT - Jason Walls pretty nice 4th OF
UT - Mariano Mateo barely missed second straight GG
UT - Chris Grimsley gets PH duty
SP - Branch Vitiello 2nd-half surge won the CY for him
SP - Sherry Pierre the ultimate quality innings eater
SP - Kordell Becker fairly quiet but effective season
SP - Santos Lorenzo we're not including WS performances here
SP - Warren Justice strong 1st half puts him just ahead of the rookies
LR - Armando Taveras had a case for ROY
LR - Fred Lewis rare 20 wins for a rookie
SU - Turner Mordecai 9 wins, 7 saves, 3.18 ERA in 153 IP
SU - Karim Wallace 6 wins, 8 saves, 2.57 ERA in 94 IP
SU - Joshua Edwards 13 wins, 3.84 ERA in 75 IP
CL - Ruben Sierra 23-for-23 in saves ops, .516 OPS against