2006 WESTERN DIVISION PREVIEW
The 2005 Titans blew away all competitors en route to an historic title run. The Western Division should be different in 2006. While the Titans still appear to be favorites, instead of one team dominating and four trailing behind, the Western Division in 2006 should feature four teams in contention, with one team (the Stranglers) as a clear also-ran.
Here's how the Old Perfesser sees it all shaping up:
- Fairport Titans
- Penfield Coasters
- Bay City Blues
- Pittsford Plague
- Brighton Stranglers
In truth, any one of the top four teams is capable of winning the division, and I expect a tight pennant race. It would not surprise me if the Western crown were decided during the final series, that's how close these teams figure to be. The Fairport Titans are the choice to win it all, simply on the premise that they are the champions until someone else proves other wise. The team-by-team breakdowns follow:
1st Place - FAIRPORT TITANS
This team certainly can't be expected to approach their dominance of last year, but they are still very formidable. No team in the ESL has greater home run power, with Andruw Jones (51) Alex Rodriguez (48) Vlad (32) Giambi (32) Burrell (32) and Jeff Kent (29) giving the Titans a shot at the all-time ESL single season team HR record. Overall, the offense doesn't feature the high average hitting of 2005, but the on-basse percentage, along with the HR power, virtually guarantees that the Titans will lead the West in runs scored. And the pitching staff is deeper than it was last year, with Clemens (1.87) heading a formidable rotation, followed by John Patterson, Josh Beckett, Paul Byrd, and a rejuvenated Jose Contreras. This may not be the most glamorous rotation in the ESL, but check the batting average against these guys. No team in the enitre league allows fewer hits per nine innings in their starting rotation. Weaknesses? Well, there aren't many stolen bases here, although the team speed (aside from Giambi) is at least average. But this team will be playing for the Big Inning, and my guess is that there will be enough of them for the Titans to repeat in 2006, narrowly.
2nd Place - PENFIELD COASTERS
It has been a while since the Coasters were this good, and with the emergence of some of the team's young talent, there is a more hopeful future in Penfield. It just won't arrive in 2006. Featuring the deepest pitching staff in the West, and perhaps its finest rotation, the Coasters lack just enough on offense to prevent them from capturing the pennant this year. That's not to say they won't scare some people. Mark Teixeira (.301, 41-3-43) has finally justified being the #1 draft pick in 2001. The resurrection of Ken Griffey (.301, 35 HRs) couldn't have come at a better time. With the bats of Soriano and Peralta combining for 60 HRs in the middle of the infield, this team should be close to the Titans in runs scored. For speed there is Scott Podsednik (59 steals). But mediocre production at C, 3b, and RF will probably relegate the Coasters to a close second-place finish this year. If they do manage to sneak through to the title, it may be because no team in the ESL gets more quality innings out of the bullpen. This is not an inconsiderable factor, so I wouldn't be too surprised to see the Coasters win the West for the first time since 1998, the year of their last ESL Championship. But the betting here is they will just fall short of this goal.
3rd Place - BAY CITY BLUES
Mark my words: no team in the West has a brighter future than the Bay City Blues. They have been patiently rebuilding over the past few years, and while it has been a painful experience most of the time, they have become not only the youngest of the contending teams, but one of the best balanced. The recent acquisition of Chris Carpenter gives them the one major ingredient they lacked, namely a #1 starter. Whether the rest of the rotation will measure up is more problematic. The Blues have the best bullpen in the West, going four-deep in sub-2.50 ERAs, capped by closer Billy Wagner (38 saves, 1.51). The Blues' attack features good lefty-righty balance, good speed and decent on-base potential. What is missing is the kind of raw power to compete with the Titans and even the Coasters. But the emergence of Grady Sizemore (37-11-22-22, .289) and Chad Tracy (34-4-27, .308) are signs that the attack is developing and should get better in the years ahead. For now, veterans Glaus (37 HRs) and Delgado (33 HRs) will do most of the heavy lifting. The early favorites for 2007 maybe, but not this year.
4th Place - PITTSFORD PLAGUE
Any team with Pedro and Bartolo Colon heading a rotation that also has Mariano Rivera to close out games has to be taken seriously. And with household names like Jim Edmonds, Richie Sexson, and Magglio Ordonez added to a lineup that also features holdovers Gary Sheffield, and Derek Jeter this is a team of talent. Trouble is, most of the talent is on the wrong side of 30. Still, it should be a fun team to play, and that's really what this is all about, isn't it? And there is young talent on hand, as the emergence this past year of Brian Roberts (45-7-18-27, .314), Garrett Atkins (.287) and Jose Reyes (24-17-7-60, .273) attests. However, one of the Plague's traditional strengths of late has let them down. The pitching staff lacks quality depth, as the bullpen is mediocre after Mariano. This is a team in transition, and they will probably remain competetive while moving to a younger core of players. Trouble is, being competetive doesn't win you Western Division titles.
5th Place - BRIGHTON STRANGLERS
Somebody has to finish last, and in the 2006 West it is clear that that somebody is going to be the Brighton Stranglers. This is what happens when the young talent you had been building around (see Patterson, Corey and Burroughs, Jeff) craps out on you. So now it is on to Plan B. A few of the building blocks are in place: Miguel Tejada (50-5-26, .304) is a peerless shortstop, plus he can keep the team supplied with vitamins. Carl Crawford (33-15-15-46, .301) came over in the team's biggest off-season move. Billy Hall (39-6-17-18, .291) was a huge surprise and adds flexibility to the line-up. Rickie Weeks and Wily Mo Pena are on the cusp. The pitching staff is the youngest in the ESL and features some quality arms and a top notch closer in Brad Lidge (42 saves, 2.29). But Jason Lane and Tejada are the top power threats, with only 26 HRs each, and that doesn't get the job done. They figure to be last in runs scored, 1st in runs allowed, and last in the West. The Stranglers by and large eschewed the quick fix in the last two drafts and have accumulated a stable of young talented prospects. It's just going to be something of a nightmare until that talent develops. Mark down the Stranglers as a lock to lose at least 50 games next year. They may, in fact, be the only sub-.500 team in the West. The cry in Brighton now is "Wait 'til 2010!"