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AL West Season Seven Preview

Albuquerque Roadrunners
Season 6: 98-64, division champion

Since season three the Roadrunners have averaged 97 wins per campaign and four straight division crowns, yet the post-season has been less than kind to the turf burning birds. Seven game losses in the World Series in seasons three and four followed by an ALCS loss to Montgomery and a first round exit a year ago have Roadrunners fans thinking that flying objects aren’t the only things unidentified in New Mexico.

The outlook in Albuquerque remains bright with a plethora of young stars, and marked by the returns of reigning AL MVP and three-time All-Star Hal Randall (37 HR/149 RBI/.392/1.187) and young slugger Jeromy Wagner (26 HR/123 RBI/.366/1.021).

Backstop Patrick Hardy will handle the pitching staff after a solid rookie campaign in which he hit .340 while drilling 13 homers and 30 doubles; and third baseman Zachery Cohen (.314/30 HR) and left fielder Roger Scalici (.274/34 HR) should provide a potent punch for the Roadrunners in middle of the order.

Season seven also marks the arrival of uber-prospect Pablo Vicente. Who’s that, you say? He’s the Domincan first baseman that has mashed your minor league pitching to the tune of 122 homers and 345 RBIs over the past two seasons. Vicente’s bat is certainly major-league caliber but there are questions about the young star’s durability and health. If he can stay healthy he should be a legitimate threat to win AL Rookie of the Year.

On the mound, Albuquerque ace Tom Hudler is coming off of a personal-best 15 win season in which he tossed five complete games, and should again be a thorn in the side of his opposition. The staff will be bolstered by rookie Bud Simpson who went 17-9 with a 2.84 ERA in 29 starts at AAA last season; as well as returning veterans Charles Jang (14-10, 3.83); Max Bennett (16-10, 4.90); and Lewis Jameson (12-8, 4.97).

The single question mark in Roadrunners camp centers around the loss of closer and season six All-Star Harry Pena. Pena recorded 38 saves a year ago despite posting an ERA of 6.58 and blowing 11 leads in 56 appearances. He is succeeded by Lorenzo James who slides into the role after posting a 4.19 ERA and eight relief wins in 63 games.

Albuquerque will once again reign supreme in the AL West. Look for 105 wins, minimum, and a deep playoff run.

Honolulu Rain
Season 6: 83-79, second place

Blue skies and sunshine aren’t all that Hawaiians have to look forward to this year; a fourth-consecutive 80+ win season is on the horizon for the Rain, who continue to add depth to one of the most respected minor league systems in Capra while maintaining modest results at the major league level.

Closer Rob Ojeda was the lone representative for Honolulu at last season’s midsummer classic, his fourth invitation to the event. Ojeda, season one’s AL Rookie of the Year was also hailed as the Fireman of the Year is season six. Ojeda posted 46 saves in 56 tries and an ERA of 4.22 while appearing in 75 games last season, and, like a fine wine, appears to be getting better with age.

Honolulu appears to be buying time while some of its top-rated prospects mature in the minors, but with only three players on the major league roster over the age of 30, the youth movement is on in Hawaii.

All five of the Rain projected starters return from a year ago, and Hector Gomez (7-12, 6.15 ERA), Derrek Crawford (11-11, 4.85), Fonzie Clifton (9-14, 5.47), and Mark Zhang (6-10, 6.52) look to improve on sub-par performances in season six. If his results from a year ago are indicative, 25-year old Antonio Martin (10-5, 3.79) looks to be an ace in the making.

A pair of Canadian free agent defectors: first baseman Andrea Wagner (.254, 8 HR in 228 at-bats with Toronto) and left fielder Carlos Lopez (.253, 8 HR in 229 at-bats with Ottawa) should help to bolster the Rain offense; and third baseman Pat Cooper (.266, 28 HR) looks to rebound from a disappointing season six in which both his power and average dipped while his strikeouts reached a career-high of 115 in 613 plate appearances.

It looks doubtful that Saffron will have enough Hawaiian punch to wrestle the division crown from Albuquerque in season seven, but the efforts of his steady organizational rebuilding process are evident and it’s only a matter of time before the road to the postseason goes through our island friends to the west. Outlook: 75+ wins and a second place finish.

Salem Silver Shockers
Season six: 64-98, third place

The move down the Pacific coast to Salem has been anything but kind to the Silver Shockers, who have averaged 95 losses in the two seasons since being relocated from Tacoma under the control of Sparrow31 prior to season four. Like most of the Silver Shocker’s competition in the West, the foundation of future success in Salem is being built through the draft, and the construction is far from complete.

Left fielder Cliff Griffin slugged 33 homers and drove in 134 while hitting a modest .287 in an All-Star campaign during season six and will again be called upon to lead a meager offense. Likened to Dale Murphy in the 1980’s, Griffin is the lone star on young team that is still years away from being regularly competitive.

Some of the younger stars who drive the Silver Shockers’ hit and run offense are second baseman Jim Heathcott (.330, 16 HR, 89 RBI), first baseman Terry Evans (24 HR, 87 RBI, 39 SB) and third baseman Aramies Tapies (108 runs, .297, 33 SB).

Management is hopeful that 24-year old shortstop Neil Valentine will handle the starter’s duties with all of the aplomb he showed in his stop at AA; where he hit .348, with 24 Hrs, 167 RBI, and 157 runs scored.

The move toward respectability in Salem may have started with the signing of two veteran arms in the off season. 32-year old Glen Hillenbrand posted 26 wins in two seasons with El Paso before signing a four-year deal this off season; and Daryle Naulty joined Salem after three mediocre seasons in Washington. Neither is expected to vie for individual honors, but both are significant upgrades to a Silver Shockers rotation that has served up more taters over the past two years than a waiter at an Irish pub.

Salem will not contend in season seven, but improvement is expected. Look for 70+ wins and a third place finish.

Las Vegas Longballers
Season six: 53-109, fourth place

Long has Las Vegas been hailed "The city that never sleeps" and former league commish jrnyfn01 stepped down from his post to focus all 23 waking hours per day on rebuilding a Longballers franchise that last posted a winning record in season three. Perhaps the team’s 109 losses a year ago alerted our crooning friend that his franchise had fallen on hard times.

With no All-Stars a year ago, the Las Vegas offense will have to rely on talented but Tin Man-like outfielder Dustin Scott to set the table for some viable offensive additions. Scott has posted less than 600 at-bats in the past two seasons due to separate ACL tears. Scott has performed well when healthy and was hitting .357 with a .447 OBP before being sidelined in season six.

Bereft of high-level prospects that were major league ready Las Vegas opened the wallet this off season, dumping millions into high-priced but talented bats that should help to improve one of the league’s worst offenses from season six.

29-year old shortstop Geronimo Ordaz was the crown jewel of the free agent crop and after six seasons toiling in Boise his bat will be the brightest light on the strip. Ordaz posted 31 homers and hit .326 last season. Third baseman Carson Houston (.273, 23 HR, 28 SB with Toronto), catcher Dale Dickey (.311, 23 HR, 91 RBI with Washington), and center fielder Scott Ritz (.299, 17 HR, 114 RBI with St. Louis) are not as flashy as the Ordaz signing but are definitely upgrades at their respective positions.

While making significant upgrades to the lineup, the Las Vegas pitching staff will count their rosaries among standard issue equipment. 25 year-old southpaw Kevin Jung is the most experienced starter in the rotation, going 1-15 in 41 games (28 starts) while posting a 5.82 ERA last season. Kip Herges (3-9 in 58 games, 7.57 ERA), Josh Sosa (4-13, 40 starts, 4.28 ERA), Howie Clark (9-4, 64 games, 10 saves, 5.26 ERA), Don Chang (8-6, 66 games, 5.85 ERA) will all see significant time, and three rookies: Darrell Payton (2-11, 5.34 ERA in AAA), Gregory Palmer (3-6, 3.47 ERA in AAA), and Tony Molina (7-15, 6.81 ERA, 7 complete games in AAA) will all look to make immediate impacts.

Much improvement was made after a disappointing season six, but there is much work to be done in Las Vegas before they become the one-armed bandit stealing any AL West loot. At best the Longballers finish with 65 wins and remain in the basement.


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