Yahoo! Sports is taking an early look at each division in the days leading up to when pitchers and catchers report to spring training. Today, the National League West (in alphabetical order).
First impression: This, actually, is the same impression as last year, which was: Are the D'backs regulars ready to score some runs for the pitching staff? They're certainly athletic enough. They're certainly getting their at-bats. And they're certainly swinging a lot. This is the club that had five guys hit 15 home runs or more, and they all struck out at least 100 times. They are what management built, which is a young team that would both contend and help manage the organizational debt. So, a stunningly professional April gave way to five imprecise months, and a reasonable lead in the NL West gave way to Manny and the Dodgers, but some really good-looking players – Chris Young, Justin Upton, Stephen Drew, Mark Reynolds – got another year's education. Maybe that makes for two good months rather than one, or maybe even three good months, which might be enough in this division and with this starting rotation. Of course, that's only if the bullpen holds up, too.
Competition: Here's the loose plan, so far: Chad Tracy and Eric Byrnes, both coming off seasons made difficult by injury, will platoon. Against a right-handed starter, Tracy plays first. Against a lefty, Byrnes plays left. And Conor Jackson, who batted .300 and scored 87 runs last season, plays where the other guy isn't. But, and here's the thing, Byrnes doesn't seem too excited about the platoon thing, due to the fact he might have lost his full-time gig because of a tear-away hamstring. Byrnes is owed $11 million in each of the next two seasons, a lot for a part-time player (and the guy who starts against lefties gets the short end of it) on a mid-market team.
Hot seat: Away from the glare of a pennant race, big ol' right-hander Jon Rauch put together four nice months pitching for a team very few people went to see and hardly anyone watched on television. Away from Washington and acquired by the Diamondbacks to save a suffering bullpen, Rauch posted a 6.56 ERA and allowed a home run every four innings.
Next: Right-hander Max Scherzer has some of the best stuff in the game, starting with a fastball that touches 98 mph and offspeed pitches that meant 66 strikeouts in 56 innings last season. Two years out of Missouri, he's a near lock to make the Diamondbacks rotation.
First impression: Well, so much for the story lines of sustained Rockies revivals. The World Series season-after was rather a mess, the joy of Rocktober bottoming out before the first day of the following summer, and now an awful lot rides on the coming months. Lucky for them, the NL West welcomes the Rockies back for another shot, meaning hope for a club that goes to camp without Matt Holliday, without a real good feel for Jeff Francis' shoulder and with the usual concerns for Todd Helton's back. They have big decisions to make in left field, center field and at closer. In addition, GM Dan O'Dowd and manager Clint Hurdle enter their walk years together. Hurdle is in greater peril, but if the organization continues to struggle, O'Dowd might not last a lot longer.
Competition: The club believes it has great depth in its starting rotation, so there'll be a pitch-off for the fifth place in the rotation, the man who follows Aaron Cook, Ubaldo Jimenez, Jason Marquis and Jorge De La Rosa. In Denver, they're hoping Francis, who a year ago looked like he was growing into an ace, can recover from a sore shoulder, but that appears less likely by the day. So, they'll line up Greg Smith, Josh Fogg, Glendon Rusch, Jason Hirsh and Greg Reynolds, and see what happens.
Hot seat: Hurdle enters his eighth season on Broad Street, the previous seven resulting in one season over .500 and five at or near the bottom of the division. Hurdle goes to work without a contract beyond 2009 and with a redone coaching staff around him, including the additions of Jim Tracy as bench coach and Don Baylor as hitting coach. Ownership clearly is unsure if Hurdle, who so firmly and eloquently led the 2007 squad to the World Series, is its man going forward. Tracy is widely believed to be Hurdle's successor.
Next: Not only is Carlos Gonzalez but 23, not only was he traded twice in less than a year, not only does he possess what appears to be great physical skills, but there's a decent chance he'll stand exactly where Holliday did in five celebrated years in Denver. The Rockies are hoping Gonzalez, who throws and bats left, learns to make better and more regular contact, and that the job isn't too much too soon. His main competition comes from Ian Stewart, who's been "next" for a couple years himself, and Seth Smith.
First impression: What a winter the Dodgers have skipped/staggered across. Mere days after playing in the NL Championship Series for the first time in two decades, they made the first of what would become at least three contract offers to Manny Ramirez (including arbitration). With those negotiations as the backdrop, and with ownership measuring the benefits of a Hall of Fame hitter against community sandlot fields, the Dodgers rebuilt the left side of their infield when the market went soft on Rafael Furcal and Casey Blake. They released Andruw Jones before he was booed out of town or ate a utility infielder. They held a farewell news conference for Jeff Kent and it was nice. From the pitching staff with the second-best ERA in the game, they deducted Derek Lowe, Brad Penny, Greg Maddux, Takashi Saito, Joe Beimel and Chan Ho Park, and added Randy Wolf and Claudio Vargas. Fortunately, they get Jason Schmidt back for a third season. The first two seasons netted them one win. He could easily double that this season.
Competition: Schmidt vs. his shoulder. Jonathan Broxton vs. the ninth inning (4.25 ERA in save situations). Clayton Kershaw vs. his pitch counts. Matt Kemp vs. his potential. Russell Martin vs. his innings caught. Chad Billingsley vs. the ice patch. An awful lot depends on Ramirez, but Joe Torre generally won't be choosing between players but rather drawing what he can out of the players he has.
Hot seat: Men (and, for that matter, women) in Frank McCourt's employ have a funny way of not reaching the end of their contracts before wandering off looking for other work. And yet here stands Ned Colletti, one season from completing his four-year deal. In three seasons, he's gone to the playoffs twice, he's won a division and he's been a few wins from the World Series. Sure, there have been some missteps, but, anymore, these count as glory years in L.A. Colletti might be in his walk year, but at least he's wearing ostrich boots.
Next: All the important "nexts" are on the pitching staff. Assuming Billingsley returns from his broken leg without difficulty, Kershaw becomes the critical element. He'll be 21 next month. He has all the pitches. He has wonderful makeup. The next step, however, is a big one. The Dodgers say they will be mindful of his stressful innings but will not set a season max.
First impression: Last we saw the Padres, they were about the most inept team in baseball. Well, since then, things have only gotten worse. Two seasons since winning their second consecutive NL West title, their objectives are to clear payroll and rework a spotty farm system and get back to creating the formula that will work at Petco Park. Supporting the adage that in divorce it is better to be poor than rich (actually, I might have made that up), John Moores has a new partner in Jeff Moorad and in at most five years will be out altogether. That's actually decent news for Padres fans, as Moorad had a nice run in Arizona, operating the Diamondbacks on a budget while putting an entertaining product on the field. The never-ending story is the Jake Peavy availability. Moorad hasn't divulged his feelings on the matter. But while Peavy at $8 million in '09 seems reasonable, it's likely the next three seasons (at $48 million) aren't.
Competition: After 99 losses, it's fair to assume there aren't a lot of jobs spoken for. But, Bud Black's main emphases appear to be at the back end of the starting rotation and in the setup areas of the bullpen. For the moment, he's assuming Peavy, Chris Young and Cha Seung Baek in the rotation, and after that it's a bit hazy. Right-hander Josh Geer, 25, had a 2.67 ERA in five late-season starts, so he's a possibility. And the club likes lefty Wade LeBlanc, in spite of an alarming lack of command in five late appearances. What everybody would love is for Mark Prior to be healthy and effective, but, well, let's just say they're not going to plan on that. With Mike Adams out until mid-season because of shoulder surgery, the setup possibilities lie with Cla Meredith, Mark Worrell (from the Cardinals for Khalil Greene), Chris Britton and Joe Thatcher.
Hot seat: CEO Sandy Alderson has stepped down, and it doesn't seem Moorad tried to talk him out of it. Next up for consideration is GM Kevin Towers, whom Moorad praised during his introductory conference call last week. Towers' contract runs through next season. Moorad said everyone will be evaluated during the 2009 season. Much could ride on how Towers resolves the Peavy issue.
Next: Well, it ain't Matt freakin' Bush. The Padres lacked a high-end shortstop prospect and now with Greene gone and the climate just right for carrying a Rule 5 guy or two, plucked Everth Cabrera from the Rockies. The Nicaraguan is just 22 and, probably in the best scenario, sticks on the roster behind projected starter Luis Rodriguez.
First impression: The other team waiting – maybe – on Manny Ramirez, the Giants would seem to have a greater need for the moody slugger than the Dodgers, and the Dodgers only desperately need him. The Giants outscored only the Padres in the NL, hit 23 fewer home runs than the next-worst offense (Washington Nationals) and hardly ever got on base. Not surprisingly, since there was no reason to pitch around any of them, the Giants ranked 15th in the 16-team league in walks. Ramirez does all those things well, and he does them from the middle of the batting order, and for only a few million dollars more a year than the Giants used to pay Barry Bonds. Still, the Giants hang on the periphery; seemingly there in case the market goes softer and Ramirez stiffs the Dodgers in a snit. Either way, it will again be about offense for the Giants, who to a solid rotation added Randy Johnson, five wins from 300. They have to assume Barry Zito will lose fewer than 17 games and Matt Cain will win more than eight, though it's doubtful Tim Lincecum gets much better. In the meantime, the Giants remain an organization in transition; away from Bonds, toward whatever's out there, perhaps one moody slugger from returning to the top of the division.
Competition: The club expects Travis Ishikawa to win first base, but John Bowker could make a play for it. Likewise at second, Kevin Frandsen holds the slight edge over Eugenio Velez, Emmanuel Burris and Juan Uribe. Perhaps more interesting, Noah Lowry, after missing all of last season with a forearm ailment, is believed to be healthy and throwing without discomfort. He could challenge Jonathan Sanchez for the fifth place in the rotation. Sanchez will pitch for Puerto Rico in the WBC.
Hot seat: The string of losing seasons is at four. The new plan, the one without the contract or complications (or production) from Bonds, is more than a year old. Attendance is down. It's beginning to look like now-or-never time for GM Brian Sabean, who is in the final guaranteed year of his contract.
Next: Pablo Sandoval got a few too many at-bats in 2008 to be a rookie, but if you were looking elsewhere over the final six weeks of the season, you missed him hacking at everything and batting .345. Built low and thick, he's a bit of a project at third base, but the 22-year-old Venezuelan and former catcher probably wins the job coming out of camp.