San Diego Padres (Last season: 64-98, 5th)
Player to watch: Jay Payton
If Payton's offensive production wasn't just Colorado-elevated, the Padres could really score some runs this year. Ryan Klesko, Brian Giles, Phil Nevin and crew will be notched up if Payton is a 20-homer, 90-RBI guy.
Burning question: Will Phil Nevin stay healthy?
Nevin will miss a few weeks mending a slightly separated shoulder. Under normal conditions, that would be no big deal. But he missed most of last season with the same injury. He needs a big year for the Padres to win the NL West
The Padres have quietly assembled an interesting bunch over the last six months. I recently commented on how new stadiums and new owners usually spur ownership to build a winner. Here is a new stadium in full effect.
Offseason additions include David Wells, Sterling Hitchcock, Ramon Hernandez, Ismael Valdes, Jeff Cirillo, Jay Payton and Antonio Osuna. That's not bad at all.
Add late-2003 pickup Brian Giles and a healthy Trevor Hoffman and Nevin to the mix, and this will be the team to beat in the West – if young pitchers Adam Eaton, Jake Peavy and Brian Lawrence step up.
San Francisco Giants (Last season: 100-61, 1st)
Player to watch: Robb Nen
The Giants hope to have the Robb Nen of old back this season, and the health watch continues. Even with Nen at full strength, however, getting to him will be tough – especially with Tim Worrell bolting to Philly.
Burning question: Is Jason Schmidt healthy?
Much of the Giants' run last season was spurred on by the dominance of Schmidt. Post-surgery throwing is always different and slight mechanical changes may occur.
Early spring results indicated that Schmidt still has his velocity, but may need to make a few minor adjustments to regain his form.
Overall, the Giants lost a lot. Worrell is in Philly, Jose Cruz Jr. is a Devil Ray, Sidney Ponson is back with the Orioles, and gamers Rich Aurilia and Benito Santiago are gone as well.
Felipe Alou gets his guys to play hard, which wins games. But the Giants will hang only because the division is down. The West will be a .500-fest for sure.
Arizona Diamondbacks (Last season: 84-78, 3rd)
Player to watch: Shane Reynolds
Coming off surgery, Shane Reynolds had a lukewarm season last year in Atlanta. However, he still can be a quality starter. If he regains his form of a few years ago, he will be a surprising No. 2 behind Randy Johnson.
Burning question: Will Roberto Alomar be productive?
No one suggests that Alomar's skills have decreased, but the numbers have dropped significantly. He has a lot to prove and the tools to turn things around. Alomar could prove to be a steal for the Diamondbacks.
Randy Johnson has carried this team before. But they only won a championship with Curt Schilling matching his excellence every five days. That doesn't bode well for Diamondbacks fans this season.
Adding Richie Sexson and Alomar to an adequate offense won't push Arizona over the top either. Let's face it: The Diamondbacks are in transition, with a mixture of young hopefuls and older hopefuls as well.
But the National League West is downtrodden, so where do we stand? If Johnson is the stud we all know he can be, and if newcomer Reynolds is a solid 14 or 16-game winner these guys will have a shot at playing in October.
Los Angeles Dodgers (Last season: 85-77, 2nd)
Player to watch: Robin Ventura
I am hearing too many negatives about a guy who has been consistently productive. If you are looking for 50 home runs and 130 RBIs, Ventura is not your man.
But he will win as many games with his smarts as with home runs. If he hits at a normal clip this season Robin will be a nice left-handed complement to Shawn Green.
Burning question: Is Hideo Nomo a real No. 1?
His numbers last season merit that status. But the loss of Kevin Brown at the top of the Dodgers' rotation will be glaring if Nomo isn't lights-out early and often.
The Dodgers couldn't score last year – and didn't do much to address the problem in the offseason. And they lost ace Brown. Only the Dodgers' pitching kept them alive all season in '03, and without adding a lot of offense, they will be down in '04.
Remember, Eric Gagne is only allowed to save games if the Dodgers are leading after eight innings.
Colorado Rockies (Last season: 74-88, 4th)
Player to watch: Todd Helton
Helton has put up tremendous numbers in the midst of Colorado's mediocrity, and heard all of the chatter about the advantag of light air. Either way, he's fun to watch hit. And offense is about all that Rockies fans will have to cheer this year in Colorado.
Burning question: Can Colorado pitch enough to support the home runs?
With the bats of Vinny Castilla, Jeromy Burnitz, Larry Walker, Helton and Preston Wilson, Colorado has enough offense. But unless Shawn Estes and Jeff Fassero catch a bolt of lightning, they'll need more.