Division Tour: NL West

Tim Brown
Yahoo! SportsFebruary 3, 2008

Yahoo! Sports is taking an early look at each division in the days leading up to Feb. 14, when pitchers and catchers report to spring training. Today, the National League West.

On the green lawn where Barry Bonds once stood, Dave Roberts.

In the dirt rectangle, oh, Randy Winn? Aaron Rowand? Somebody, anyway.

But, not Barry.

Clear the stands. Drain McCovey Cove. Stand down the press conferences.

While this means a little less excitement on Willie Mays Plaza and a lot fewer dangling chickens on the right-field brick wall, the NL West passed the San Francisco Giants by three years ago. It might have been Bonds' game, Bonds' record, but it's been everybody else's division.

The Arizona Diamondbacks and Colorado Rockies played in the NLCS, a week-and-a-half after the San Diego Padres were eliminated in a 163rd game. And so the West has grown up – with the possible exception of the Dodgers' clubhouse – into a top-to-almost-bottom force in the National League, capable of extending the World Series to almost five games. A pitchers' division added pitching (Dan Haren, Hiroki Kuroda) and welcomes back more (Randy Johnson, Jason Schmidt) and lines up defensive center fielders (Aaron Rowand, Andruw Jones, Jim Edmonds) that weren't there before. As it was last year (until the Dodgers went away), it's a four-way race, meaning everyone but the Giants.

ARIZONA DIAMONDBACKS

First impression: General Manager Josh Byrnes made the most significant move of the offseason, sacrificing prospects who weren't already winning the NL West for him in exchange for Haren, who has won at least 14 games and pitched at least 217 innings in each of the past three seasons. Haren isn't even due to start making big money until 2011, and he's only 27 years old. The Diamondbacks lead with Brandon Webb, who's gone 1-2 in the Cy Young voting the past two seasons, then could come back with Randy Johnson, Haren, Doug Davis and Micah Owings. That ought to at least challenge the Padres for the best rotation in the division, unless the best rotation is now the Giants', or the Dodgers'. It's that kind of division. Still, Byrnes did nothing to address the Diamondbacks' problematic offense, which outscored only the Washington Nationals and Giants in the NL. In fact, one of the season's great mysteries was the Diamondbacks being outscored by 20 runs in the regular season while winning 90 games. They were only outscored by 10 runs in the NLCS and didn't win a game. The organization is relying on continued production from Eric Byrnes and Orlando Hudson, continued growth from everyone else, and breakout seasons in a couple places. Until then, the pitching carries them.

Competition: It was one thing to count up Jose Valverde's saves, quite another to watch him do it. Lots of strikeouts, lots of emotion and, well, plenty of stress too. So, he was traded to Houston, setting up a spring-long battle between Brandon Lyon and Tony Pena. Lyon saved 14 games in 2005, came down with elbow problems and has pitched in setup roles since. He probably is the favorite. Pena gets points for durability. The Diamondbacks are talking to Keith Foulke about a possible spring-training invite, as well.

Healing: Third baseman Chad Tracy has suffered from complications from knee surgery, so there is a question whether he'll be ready for opening day. Mark Reynolds is standing by. Johnson, who will be 45 in August, has undergone two back surgeries within the year, so it's anyone's guess what the season will look like. Hudson, the second baseman, has recovered from the torn thumb ligament that ended his season in September.

Next: Justin Upton, 20, debuted early in August (then just 19), and got knocked around some, batting .221 with a .283 on-base percentage. That's perhaps to be expected after only 1½ minor-league seasons, the second of which carried him from Class A all the way to the big leagues. Right field is his to lose.

COLORADO ROCKIES

First impression: Seriously, they were in the World Series last year. Won the National League and everything. It was done, of course, in an eye blink, gone in a flash of Josh Beckett and layoff lethargy and wrong-way leans. But, before Seth Smith whiffed and Jonathan Papelbon went loopy, the Rockies were a great story of young men growing strong and old men becoming believers. The Rockies painted their town purple in the hours before the Red Sox redid it in crimson, but, as Rockies fans would agree, better to have gloved and lost. So come the spoils. Troy Tulowitzki and Matt Holliday were papered in contract extensions. Brad Hawpe could be next. And the Rockies are sure to climb from 25th spot in big-league payrolls. As you'd expect from a team both young and cheap and (now) decorated, the Rockies' offseason changes were limited to side issues. Blessed with the rare long-term plan whose outcome actually resembled the artist's rendering, GM Dan O'Dowd now puts the back end of his rotation into the hands of Franklin Morales, Jason Hirsh, Kip Wells, in lieu of Josh Fogg and Rodrigo Lopez. Second baseman Kaz Matsui went off to riches in Houston, creating an opening there. But, those who stood in the middle of one of the wonderful September-October runs in baseball history – Tulowitzki and Holliday, Todd Helton and Hawpe, Garrett Atkins and Willy Taveras – nothing's changed. Well, nothing but the familiarity with it.

Competition: The Rockies might need to add on to their spring clubhouse just to house the second-base candidates. Without having performed a single drill, management appears to be leaning toward Jayson Nix, a long-ago first-rounder who, at 25, might have blossomed. Nix is judged to be the best defensive option. He runs well and has started to show reasonable power potential. Other options: Ian Stewart, Clint Barmes, Jeff Baker, Marcus Giles, Omar Quintanilla.

Healing: The Rockies are counting on Jason Hirsh – stolen last season in the Jason Jennings trade – to secure one of the last two places in the rotation. The big right-hander missed the final eight weeks of the regular season because of a broken leg, but is expected to be healthy for camp.

Next: They certainly are hoping it's Nix. After a rough go in New York, Matsui performed well for the Rockies, particularly getting on base and stealing bases, and then he batted .304 in the postseason. Taveras (and, to a degree, Holliday) is the only remaining player who is a threat to steal. Ubaldo Jimenez reportedly has put on 15 pounds of muscle (doubt it, but OK) with designs on staying stronger through the season and going deeper into games.

LOS ANGELES DODGERS

First impression: Here's the thing about a suddenly flush and productive farm system: At some point, all these guys show up wanting to play baseball. Unsure quite what to do with this, the Dodgers have rattled around, agonizing over big-league projections, who to trade and who to protect, who to season and who to promote. Fortunately, the owners have a firm grasp on the process, allowing the baseball people to figure this out and focusing themselves on re-tooling the public relations department several times. The Dodgers this season will celebrate the 50th anniversary of baseball's manifest destiny, a nice event that happens to coincide with the 20th anniversary of their last playoff series victory. So, it was as good a time as any to steer away from last season, when the club indelicately turned a mid-summer's 53-40 record (and first place) into two months of losses and chaos. That was enough for Grady Little. The Dodgers turned Little's indecision into Joe Torre, who gets a roster with enough talent and depth to win the division, but also with emotional cracks that need to be filled. Torre will have to talk some confidence into newcomer Andruw Jones, who is coming off the worst season of his career, and some innings out of Jason Schmidt, who got a massive contract, only to discover a couple months later that his pitching shoulder didn't work.

Competition: The plan is to have Matt Kemp (.342 batting average in 292 at-bats, .382 in September) play right field every day and Jones, of course, play center, leaving Juan Pierre and Andre Ethier for left. Being that they're both left-handed hitters, a typical platoon won't work. But, they are such different players – Ethier has decent power, Pierre stole 64 bases, Ethier is the superior defensive player – Torre could use them both. Schmidt, if healthy, fills the rotation behind Brad Penny, Derek Lowe, Kuroda and Chad Billingsley. Otherwise, Esteban Loaiza gets the fifth spot.

Healing: Rafael Furcal sprained his ankle last spring and never was the player he could be. From his first season in L.A. to the second, most of his numbers declined significantly.

Next: The Dodgers figure this could be the year for third baseman Andy LaRoche, who has been an offensive force for four consecutive minor-league seasons. Two big-league stints last season resulted in a .226 batting average over 93 at-bats, but even then his on-base percentage was .365. He'll be given every chance to take the job from a fading Nomar Garciaparra.

SAN DIEGO PADRES

First impression: With none of the fanfare of the Mets, the Padres blew what seemed to be a sure place in the playoffs in the season's final week-and-a-half. They lost seven of their last 11 games, including the play-in game in Colorado. In fact, four of the seven losses were to the Rockies. And yet, Bud Black finished fifth in the Manager of the Year voting and GM Kevin Towers got a contract extension. Half the payroll, half the aggravation. True to their ballpark, the Padres leaned on their pitching staff and took runs when they came. They scored fewer runs at home than any team in the National League and batted .235 at home, by 24 points the worst in the league. Their home on-base percentage also was lowest in the league, but, in a ballpark the size of Petco, there would be no reason for pitchers to avoid the strike zone. On the other hand, the Padres got plenty of strikes to hit and did little with them. In an offseason with little to offer in the way of impact hitters, the Padres emerge with what looks like an outfield of Scott Hairston, Jim Edmonds and Brian Giles. Because of injury or circumstance, none played more than three-quarters of last season. Edmonds, one of the great athletes in the game, will be 38 in June and can't seem to stay on the field anymore. Giles is coming off knee surgery. Only Adrian Gonzalez and Khalil Greene consistently produced runs for the Padres last season, and Greene has had his injury issues as well. So, it looks like another season in which the Padres will count on a strong pitching staff, led by Cy Young winner Jake Peavy and closer Trevor Hoffman.

Competition: Mark Prior is 27 years old. And while his body – particularly the parts that have to do with throwing a baseball – might seem considerably older, there's still time for Prior to make something of his baseball life. Peavy, Chris Young and Greg Maddux lead the rotation, with Randy Wolf likely to follow. After that, Glendon Rusch, Justin Germano and Shawn Estes have a shot at the fifth spot. The Padres hope Prior can compete for a job sometime early in the season, perhaps in May.

Healing: Rusch missed all of last season because of a pulmonary embolism. Wolf had cleanup surgery on his left shoulder in September. Hoffman had offseason surgery to remove bone chips from his elbow. And Giles had microfracture knee surgery in early October.

Next: After getting little production out of second base, the Padres signed Tadahito Iguchi to a one-year contract, effectively buying Matt Antonelli another year of seasoning. Given the lack of depth in the outfield, the Padres are looking at Antonelli, once a third baseman and lately a second baseman, in center field. They also will try third-base prospect Chase Headley in the outfield.

SAN FRANCISCO GIANTS

First impression: Life begins anew on the bay, where the only Bonds Watch will be to and from federal court. Try as he might, Peter Magowan probably won't be able to sell tickets to that, meaning the Giants and one of the oldest and least productive offenses in baseball are on their own. Meanwhile, Giants management isn't completely free of Bonds and all that trails him. The Mitchell Report accused GM Brian Sabean and Magowan of knowing a lot more about Bonds & Co. than they let on, and Congress is asking around about it, and now Bud Selig might actually have to thump one of his own. No, this post-Bonds transition was never going to be easy – not on the field or off – which is why it took so long for the Giants to get around to it. Even on 43-year-old legs, Bonds changed a lineup and frightened a pitching staff like few others, and still the Giants outscored only the Washington Nationals in the NL, and then by only 10 runs. Now second-year manager Bruce Bochy has to align Bengie Molina, Rowand, Ray Durham and Winn into something that looks like the middle of an order, unless they can go get Joe Crede, who hit 30 home runs two years ago. On the bright side, the Giants potentially have a dominant starting rotation. Barry Zito, somehow, became a worse pitcher in the NL, and certainly can be better. Matt Cain and Tim Lincecum have ace-like stuff, Cain having the most perplexing 16 losses in recent memory. And lefty Noah Lowry had 14 wins to go with a tidy 3.92 ERA.

Competition: The Giants have questions at third base, second base, first base, the outfield and in the bullpen. Otherwise, they're fine. In the infield, Omar Vizquel is set at short. In a nutshell, Durham and Kevin Frandsen vie for second base. If Durham wins there, Frandsen could go to third, which he might share with Rich Aurilia. Or, Aurilia could play first, unless Dan Ortmeier does. Then again, the Giants could trade for Crede and rework the whole thing.

Healing: They are reasonably healthy. Lowry, who had a sore elbow and didn't pitch in September, has recovered.

Next: In the best scenario, Nate Schierholtz has a strong spring, wins the right-field job and develops into a middle-of-the-order hitter. That likely would leave Winn as the fourth outfielder, unless Sabean can move Roberts.