2006 NORTHERN DIVISION PREVIEW
This looks like the year the stars are aligned to bring the Stars their first Northern Division championship although not without a fight from the defending champs, the Wizards of Westwood. Look for the Metros to fall back to the pack after years of pennant contention as Barry Bonds will be missed. Things look bright for the Caps as their rebuilding efforts start to pay off, but not bright enough to challenge for the top. The Danes look to struggle again this year without dominant pitching, but a major roster reshuffling hopefully positions them to compete in 2007.
Bethlehem Stars (48-32): The best lineup in the North and one of the best in the ESL. Pujols-Ortiz-Cabrera-Martinez-Dye is a formidable middle of the order that is surrounded by decent tablesetters. The starting staff is built around Zito, Schmidt and Lee but would benefit from more reliable 4 and 5 starters as Seo and Hernandez combine for only 13 starts. The bullpen is deep with Cotts and Gonzalez fronting Ryan from the left side and Escobar, Speier and Madson providing solid right handed relief. The Stars look set to dominate the North for a few years with key players just coming into their prime and a talented minor league system. The only thing that can stop them is that the North is like Saratoga Race Track – the graveyard of favorites.
Westwood Wizards (46-34): The Wizards will test that old adage that good pitching stops good hitting. An outstanding starting staff led by Johan Santana is complemented by an effective bullpen as rookie Huston Street steps into the closer role. In any other year getting 60 starts from Santana, Garcia, Blanton and Halladay might assure you of a pennant, but I don’t know if even the Wizards can stop the Stars’ power. Moreover, the Wizards don’t have the offense to compete despite the outstanding years of Konerko, Winn and Floyd. Look for the Wizards to stay in the race to the end but not have the firepower to upend Bethlehem.
Metros (40-40): The Metros are a team wondering “If only..”. The loss of Barry Bonds will likely doom the Metros, which does not have the starting pitching to pose a serious challenge to the upper echelon teams. A healthy Bonds supported by the great years of Lee, Cantu and Ensberg would have made a considerable difference and likely led to the Metros being considered a real pennant possibility. The Metros will tread water another year or two as they transition from the Bonds era to the Delmon Young-Justin Verlander era. But don’t shed a tear for the Metros. For years this has been a veteran team that out performs pre-season expectations so they may hang around longer than they should given the below average starting pitching.
Delmar Danes (35-45): A major roster turnover (13 new faces on the active roster) is evidence that the Danes are a team in transition. Chone Figgins will have to get on base a lot and Manny Ramirez and Geoff Jenkins better deliver in the clutch or this team could be in freefall. Beyond Ben Sheets and Gustavo Chacin the starting rotation will be unreliable and the injury to Sheets (only 11 starts) will place further strain on the staff. The bullpen is decent but not deep. The draft and post-season trades are starting to bring in some young talent like Johnson, Beltre and Gomes but the Danes will struggle to stay ahead of the Caps. While picked to finish 4th, the Danes are the North’s team most likely to underachieve and could be in contention for the top pick in 2006.
Albany Caps (31-49): This may be a habit pick given the Caps dismal track record over the past few years. Likely, the Caps remain a year or two away from showing real improvement, but this is my pick for the surprise team of 2006. The building blocks are in place as the Caps followed a careful rebuilding plan the past three years. Prior, Sabathia, Lowry and Cain could be the best rotation in the league by 2007. The future infield of Prince Fielder, Robinson Cano, Henley Ramirez and Ryan Zimmerman offers great promise. Even the OF of Markasis, Gathright and Schierholtz could combine power, speed and average. The immediate future also brighten through the off-season acquisitions of Dmitri Young, Vernon Wells and Adam LaRoche – giving the Caps 7 players with 20+ HR’s. A sight rarely see in Capitaland. With a little luck, the Caps could climb out of the cellar, but this is a team that is not expected to hit enough to pose much of a threat. Not competing for the top draft pick next year would be a major accomplishment.