Substandardly Competitive To Freaky Competitive In Only A Few Years: The NL West Story

It seems like forever that the National League West was the butt of every baseball fan and baseball writer’s jokes. One of the biggest stories of September 2005 was whether or not the team that won the West division would end the season with a winning record. The San Diego Padres ended up with NL West title after finishing 82-80 (a .506 percentage).

Flash forward to last season, and the NL West was MLB’s most competitive division (and in a good way). 1.5 games separated the division winner Arizona Diamondbacks, the second place Colorado Rockies (wild card winner), and the third place San Diego Padres. Even the Los Angeles Dodgers remained in the race until its second half collapse. I won’t mention the San Francisco Giants; I’m too embarrassed to. The next closest competitive division was the NL East with only 5 games separating the top three teams.

The NL West looks to match, if not surpass, the competitiveness for this upcoming season. Each team (yes, Giants included) feature talented young players who have the ability to improve, which makes preseason predictions hard and pointless.

But I’ll try.

1. San Diego Padres

The Padres will finish second (as the team should have done last season) based on their pitching staff. The starting rotation sports reigning Cy Young winner Jake Peavy, Chris Young (who should be fully healthy), the “professor” Greg Maddux, and dark horses Mark Prior and Randy Wolf. Take into account MLB’s best bullpen and future Hall of Famer Trevor Hoffman closing and I don’t think it’s much of a contest.

Surprisingly, the Padres don’t have too much of a problem scoring runs, but replacing former Gold Glove Mark Cameron with an aging and recently surgically repaired Jim Edmonds doesn’t help in spacious Petco Park. Tadahito Iguchi is an instant upgrade at second base over Marcus Giles, but it’s hard to imagine RF Brian Giles not getting worse at the plate. But Giles’ production woes will probably be offset by bigger years (if you can imagine) from SS Khalil Greene and 1B Adrian Gonzalez.

2. Arizona Diamondbacks

The Diamondbacks won’t repeat as NL West champions, even after their trade for Oakland Athletics ace Dan Haren, who despite a second half slump still ended up with a 3.07 ERA. What’s scary about the trade is that Haren won’t be Arizona’s ace. That distinction belongs to former Cy Young winner Brandon Webb. Add the possibility of 150 Randy Johnson innings, and you have a pretty formidable big three. The starting rotation ends there unless someone thinks Doug Davis can pitch better.

This doesn’t include the impact that the infectious playing style of Eric Byrnes will further have on potential 30-30 man Chris Young and former No. 1 overall pick Justin Upton. SS Stephen Drew and 1B Conor Jackson should have better years, but I imagine by midseason Arizona would want a more established closer than Brandon Lyon.

3. Colorado Rockies

I might be the lone person to actually think last year’s National League Champion Colorado Rockies won’t finish first or even second. Yes, I know the Rockies had that unbelievable win streak, but the feel-good Rockies wouldn’t have even made the playoffs if the Padres had won just one more game in their final seven.

This isn’t meant to take anything away from the team’s incredible run, but instead to remind everyone that they more likely than not overachieved. Did anyone think Jeff Francis would ever start a World Series opener? Their entire starting rotation doesn’t match up even remotely to any top two starters from any NL West team, and that’s after the offseason acquisitions of Kip Wells and Josh Towers.

The team’s strength is its offense, which might even be deadlier than the New York Mets’. I think the Rockies are banking on MVP-caliber seasons from many of their players, including 2007 MVP runner-up Matt Holiday, RF Brad Hawpe (did anyone else know he had 116 RBIs?), 3B Garrett Atkins (who should’ve been re-signed to a multi-year deal for his 111 RBIs), SS Troy Tulowitzki (MLB’s newly appointed one), and the always reliable 1B Todd Helton (who surprisingly doesn’t have a nickname). The bullpen might be able to make up for the rotation, but unless the starters pitch better than I think they will, not even an MVP season from Holliday will get this young team playing in October.

4. Los Angeles Dodgers

The biggest concern about the Dodgers is whether Jason Schmidt can rebound from shoulder surgery to regain his former All-Star form. A healthy Schmidt would be welcomed as the No. 3 starter following the awesome Brad Penny and Derek Lowe duo.

The team’s biggest offseason acquisition was Andruw Jones and he gives the offense a much needed jolt. With the bullpen’s backend comprised of closer-in-waiting Jonathan Broxton and Takashi Saito, it’ll be hard for the team to not think win every time the rotation hits Penny and Lowe. Russell Martin is arguably the best catcher in the National League, and 1B James Loney and RF Matt Kemp figure to have breakout seasons.

The second biggest concern (and it might even be the main concern) is the clubhouse. I don’t think many people know that Jeff Kent wasn’t much liked in the Giants’ clubhouse any more than Barry Bonds was. Add that to his bashing of the team before the end of last season, and you can see that the tension had somewhat reached its breaking point. Not even Luis González could work his veteran experience magic.

5. San Francisco Giants

The Giants have always been seen as Bonds’ team. 2008 will be the first year of the post-Bonds era and it doesn’t look too bright. For years, the team had relied on veteran signings instead of player development to build on. And in recent years, the effect was clear.

Chances are the Giants will be bottom dwellers for the next few years. But it’s hard to imagine the team being any worse than they were last year. No one should underestimate the constant distractions and other negative effects that Bonds had on the team. Bonds should have been the team leader and wasn’t. No other veteran (and I think Omar Vizquel tried) could step up without trying to one-up Barry. Consider the terrible seasons that the 2006 Florida Marlins and the 2007 Washington Nationals were predicted to have, and the 2008 Giants might join them with a better-than-expected year.

Barry Zito should bounce back. Add him as the third starter to the young and talented Matt Cain and Tim Lincecum, and you have a pretty good 1-2-3 (4 if Noah Lowry improves his control). Bengie Molina was one of last year’s best signings. The team welcomed Aaron Rowand as their new CF and forced Dave Roberts to LF. While the underrated Rowand should help boost the second-worst offense in baseball, the signing doesn’t help the supposed youth movement.

Kevin Frandsen should finally get his shot at as a full-time player, but OF Rajai Davis and OF Fred Lewis should be getting their chances as well. No one likes to see young players struggle, but looking at 2B Dustin Pedroia’s success proves how being patient with a rookie like the Boston Red Sox were can be rewarded. I’m not saying Davis or Lewis is as good as Pedroia, but you can never tell how a young player will handle the big leagues until you let them.

It all boils down to pitching. The NL West has it. The Sporting News recently ranked them as having five of the top six best National League rotations. The NL West has become the American League Central division, part deux. The 2008 season will be pretty exciting, and the only disappointment will come when another down-to-the-wire September finish ends.

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