see also Eagan preview

Every spring, as the snow melts, the baseball teams take their first hacks, and the pitchers air out those arms, and hope always springs eternal.  Such is the way of things, and wiffle ball here in the Cities is no different.  One of the things we also do when this time of year rolls around is to wonder:  who will be the team left standing at the end?

With the eight original teams last year, by the time the playoffs rolled around, you could make a legitimate case for ANY of the eight teams to win The Cup. In the end, the two teams left standing—The Twins and A's—though not considered favorites to be there, certainly earned their places in the Big Dance.

And so, as we stand here on the cusp of another great season, we wonder: who will it be?  In some ways, we have a good idea, yet in some ways, we have absolutely NO idea.

Of last year's original eight teams, six return, and we'll be facing ten—yes, TEN—new teams, in a whole new quest for The Cup. To try and figure out who the contenders will be at this point is foolhardy and a total shot in the dark.  But I'm gonna do it anyway, division by division, starting in Hopkins.

Hopkins NL Division
This division, on paper at least, will be the toughest one to play in this year, not to mention the most interesting to watch. Of the six returning teams, three of them—the Braves, Brewers and Padres (formerly the Philles)—will be there. Factor in the new team, the Dodgers, and you have all the makings of a dogfight that's likely to come down to the final week.

The psychological warfare that's likely to happen both on and off the field will be great to watch, since the majority of the guys on these clubs will often be found sharing a pitcher or four at the local taverns after game nights, and as Brewer Joe Lawrence cited in his previous great article, you can bet that under the influence of the malted beverages, some inter-team strategy is sure to let slip by the time last call goes out.

And that's just the three veteran teams.

Perhaps forgotten in this uber-hip wiffle-clique of a division is the new entry, the Dodgers. These guys are sure to throw a monkey wrench in their division rivals' plans. Having been solid in their team showings at Spring Training thus far, they're no longer under the radar to those who have seen them.  Their skill level, especially at the plate, should make these guys a contender that the veteran teams will not be able to ignore, try as they might.

The Brewers return as a solid 4-man crew, having countered the loss of Jim West by adding rookie slugger Dave Halvorson.  With the steady pitching of Joe Lawrence and the dangerous bat of Paul "Hendi" Henderson, the core will make the Crew a force to be reckoned with. The biggest key, however, will be having Ted "Costa Rica" Spilseth on the roster for the full year.  A mid-season addition in 2004, Ted's a frickin' animal. Probably the best all-around athlete in the league. He can track down balls in the field like it's nobody's business, can hit with the best of 'em, and his playoff performance on the mound (including a no-hitter of the A's), showed that he will be the all-around go-to guy on this club, and more than anyone, will have the biggest say in where the Brewers end up in '05.

The Braves, hands down, were the most complete team in 2004. Then the playoffs happened. After a suprising first-round exit to the bottom-feeding Phillies last year, this team still has no obvious Achilles' Heel, likely the only team we can say that about.  The pitching will be strong, with Sean "Rocket" Pabon and Nick "Sanchez" Consoer anchoring the rotation once again.  Scouts have also seen Matt "Chops" Travaille, a southpaw, getting a lot of work in on the hill in Spring Training as well, leading one to believe that there will likely be a role for last year's MVP as a pitcher somewhere—closer, perhaps?  His imposing, Randy Johnson-like delivery could be a great complement to the Braves' righties in the rotation. Having added last year's top defensive player Larry "Cheezy" Storey and rookie Keith Pabon (Rocket's brother), the Braves will look to finish somewhere near last year's 21-9 record and get deep into the playoffs with what is, on paper, the most complete team in the league.

Padillies, Phadres, call them what you like, but this year's Padres club hopes to change more than just their name. As the Phillies in 2004, they trudged their way to last place with a 10-17 record, only to awaken in the playoffs, stunning the top-seeded Braves before falling to the eventual World Series champion Twins.  Luring West away from the Brewers in November, presumably to add a closer and reliable top-of-the-order presence, where the Padres go will ultimately depend on how they choose to use Bryan "Shirls" Shirley, one of the top arms in the HRL. Last year's record was deceiving in that the Phils used a 4-man rotation, despite the rules stating that Shirls could have pitched every other game. While this was a great political move in that everyone got a chance to pitch, (leaving us feeling warm and fuzzy all over), the rotation's reliability and subsequent results were a sharp dropoff after Shirls, resulting in a less than stellar record in a year where everyone made the playoffs.  This time around, that same strategy could backfire, since only 4 of the 8 Hopkins teams will be playing in September.  Should the Fathers decide to use Shirls as often as possible, his presence every other game makes them a virtual lock for at least a .500 record, and a major threat in a short series.  Look for Nine to be the frontrunner for the #2 spot over Peeks or Pace in the rotation after his strong late-season performances in 2004.  Pitching will be biggest key for the Pads, as they were among the bottom of the league in many offensive categories last year.

Let the Hopkins NL war begin.

The Commish's call:  Hopkins NL Division:
1. Braves
2. Brewers
3. Dodgers
4. Padres

Hopkins AL Division:
This division is the home of the 2004 champs, the Twins. Beyond them, the rest of the division is largely unknown, so we'll tell you what we DO know.

It’s entirely possible that this scene could play out again in 2005.
It's entirely possible that this scene could play out again in 2005.

The Twins return intact, plus one, with the addition of rookie Matt Balster. These guys played their best ball in 2004 once the playoffs started, and despite a 13-14 record, played the best when it mattered, and ultimately took home The Cup.  The club's strength was hitting and aggressive baserunning, and while nobody expects their prowess in those departments to change, it was their pitching improvement that ultimately put them over the top last year, and that will be their biggest question for 2005:  will the pitching be that of last year's regular season or playoffs? The rotation should be the same, with Andy "K-Mart" Gillund and Jim "Edgar" Renneberg alternating on the hill. Expect K-Mart to get his fair share of Cota-esque requests to cut back on the flame-throwing, as he frequently teetered on the edge of acceptable pitching speeds, more so as the playoffs came down to the end.  Nick Nelson will be a super reliable DH and spiritual presence as always, and is always quick to feed beers to teammates and to the opposition in order to keep them off balance—literally. A great team strategy. Dependable bat and outfielder Jon Herdegen should be there as well.  Look for the Twins to be the favorites in this division. To be the champ, you've gotta beat the champ.

Red Sox
The Red Sox are an all new bunch led by Rian "The Man" Heaslip.  Unintentional comedy aside…  Assumed to be a group of twenty-somethings, literally not much else is known about this 5-man crew, but recent contacts with The Commish's Office has confirmed that the Sawx are indeed ready and rearin' to kick some wiffle tail—or die trying.

Hopkins A & B
The two Hopkins teams—named A and B until they name themselves, will be fun to watch.  The A club is a crew put together by Peeks' cousin—whom we've been told we must refer to as Cousin Dave. With their registration confirmed, CD has told us that he's psyched and can't wait to get at it this year.  As for the B club, the roster is still filling (at 3 guys as of the time of this posting), but one member of the team is interesting to note. Dave "Gus" Gustafson, a member of last year's Yankees, is confirmed to be playing and will no doubt be a valuable experience factor for the B team, making them a solid choice to contend.  You may recall Gus has some pretty good wiffle game, both at the dish and on the hill, so this could go a long way.

The Commish's call:  Hopkins AL Division:
1. Twins
2. Hopk B
3. Red Sox
4. Hopk A

In the playoffs, I see the Braves as the top seed, knocking off Gus' upstart B team, while the Twins should dispatch the Brewers in a tough battle.

The Braves get the tough nod over the Twins to be the Hopkins champs and play for The Cup.

That's my call, and I'm stickin' to it.  Later this week:  Eagan Preview.

Posted in: HRL

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