This entry marks the third of a series of previews by division for the young 24th season of Upper Deck. A run down of each team will be followed by an overall analysis of the division. We will continue with the AL South.
The Sultans had one of the more complete teams in season 23, with a top 10 offense, defense, and pitching staff, leading them to their consecutive division title. After two consecutive first round exits, however, some changes were in order.
SP Josh Shaw, a 17-game winner just a season ago, was allowed to walk via free agency. A combination of pitchers have been tapped to pick up valuable innings - most recently the new acquisitions Travis Stripling and Daryl Wohlers, the latter being a veteran with nearly 3,000 career IP and 177 career victories. The bullpen was strengthened by the signing of groundball pitcher Antonio Richardson and the retention of RP Pepe Beltre.
Offensively, the trade of Edgardo Colon, who made 79 starts at short in season 23, to Scottsdale ceded the position to promising youngster SS Steven Roosevelt. Defensive stud Doug Lloyd was signed to split catching duties with Jhoulys Canseco. Gerald Hoffman (.303/.362/.472 in season 23) made starts at a number of positions last season, but was let go and remains unsigned. Chris Knoblauch, another bench bat who hit 22 bombs in season 23 to pad his .251 ISO, suffered a similar fate. Those roles have been filled by 2B Moe Stanifer and 3B Miguel Cervantes.
Key losses: LF Ren Fujiwara
Though New Orleans had an offense that was roughly in line with the middle of the league last season, its pitching staff surrendered a league-worst .488 slugging percentage, while its defense committed nearly an error per game. However, this is not without reason; the team, which has been under .500 since season 17, is deep within a rebuild that has garnered top prospects such as SS Ralph Walker and SP Bill Stuart, and trade acquisition RP David Johnson recently debuted as well.
The Crawdaddies let 1B/LF/DH Ren Fujiwara walk this offseason, and experienced some minor losses to the rotation. These innings have been accounted for in part by free agent signee Fausto Romero, but largely through the promotion of SP Gary Beresford, who is averaging more than six innings per start in his young career. The club also hopes that Gorkys Sosa will stabilize the bullpen.
The Crawdaddies’ most significant moves came in the form of contract extensions to several players. RF Willie Ontiveros received a five-year extension that buys out his first three seasons of free agency, 25-year old 2B Hernan Lee received a three-year renewal, and 3B Donnie Morris received five-year pact that buys out his first four seasons of free agency. These extensions provide a long window during which the Crawdaddies can compete.
Oklahoma City has placed a premium on defense, an important feature of a team that relies as heavily on the ground ball as the Cowboys. And it may be that combination that led the club to 91 victories and its second consecutive wild card berth - despite a pitching staff and offense that rate in as just slightly above average.
One of the team’s greatest strengths from a season ago was a late innings bullpen that featured Roscoe Barkley, who converted 47 of 49 save opportunities last season and was recognized as Fireman of the Year. However, general manager rkdixon saw an opportunity to upgrade, trading Barkley for Davey Torres, a serious offensive and pitch calling upgrade for the club behind the dish. As for the bullpen, RP Pepper Cumberland has stepped into the closer role, thus far with great success.
In a move that corresponds to the Torres acquisition, the Cowboys dealt Johan LaHair, a fine offensive catcher, for Ted Park. In nearly two full seasons since leaving Pittsburgh, Park has emerged as a reliable everyday option, hitting .288 and bashing 45 home runs. The club hopes that he and shortstop Ramiro Pujols can improve an offense that lost DH Omar Blasco while maintaining their defensive integrity.
Key losses: SP Bob Leyritz
The Water Dogs won 84 games last season, tied for their second highest total since season 16. Unfortunately, the team and its top 10 OPS were hobbled by a defense that committed 17 more errors (121) than the league average and pitching staff whose peripherals rate slightly below average.
The team did not suffer many major losses, with the most damaging being starter Bob Leyritz. Over the past three seasons, Leyritz has contributed more than 600 innings to the Tampa rotation, 36 starts of which resulted in wins for the southpaw. Fortunately, the spot of resident lefty has been filled by 28-year old tongue twister and starting pitcher Greg Craig, who has thus far filled in admirably with a 1.29 WHIP. The club also signed Mark Matsui to eat innings out of the bullpen.
Many of the team’s moves came in the form of extending current talent. Identifying players that give the club the best chance to win, GM jmaese extended DH John Buddie, owner of a career .291 batting average and 347 career HR, 3B C.J. Mitre and his 366 career long balls, and defensive wiz SS Turner Snopek. All three are extended through at least season 26 and extend the team’s window to build around its core.
AL South Analysis
Though New Orleans may not contend this season, prudent moves should allow the team to couple its well cultivated minor league pipeline with its current talent in the near future and validate its long rebuild. Tampa Bay has also positioned itself to build around its current core, ideally reversing an up-and-down trend that has left them out of two of the previous three postseasons. Just how soon the Water Dogs make the playoffs will largely depend on the rotation’s ability to stay healthy and effective.
Meanwhile, Oklahoma City and Monterrey seem well positioned to compete once again, though perhaps one (or both) may take a step back this season. The Cowboys took some risks this offseason - namely in trading Barkley - but worked hard to improve its offense without hurting its defense. The Sultans, meanwhile, made a fully of moves this offseason while simultaneously committing to players already within the system, but may find itself rather active at the trade deadline should they need to replace lost production.
The division may once again come down to Monterrey and Oklahoma City, though the division should be competitive like last season, when the Sultans and Cowboys both finished with 91 wins - just seven ahead of the Water Dogs.