A Life Sentence on Planet Earth

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Baseball Projections: NL West

Much of the National League West has the same décor, only many of the centerpieces have been moved around. The in-house shuffle was only begun by Bruce Bochy, the manager of the two-time division champ Padres who shifted north to the Giants. Eight prominent players also changed uniforms within the division (Jason Schmidt, Greg Maddux, Luis Gonzalez and Dave Roberts to name a few), and even a head trainer (Stan Conte, who left San Francisco for Los Angeles) didn't go far.
This will make things interesting, especially considering how bunched the 2006 final standings were. Two teams (Padres and Dodgers) won 88 games, and the other three each won 76. The 2007 formation may be as tight, but the order could change quite a bit.

Los Angeles appears to have separated itself from the scrum with a series of moves designed to build on the torrid momentum generated by the last two months. The Dodgers are poised to spoil the Padres' dreams of being the NL West's first three-peater since the Braves; that's right, no team has copped three straight titles since Atlanta (1991-93) was confounding geography students by being in the West.

The Diamondbacks got much younger on the field, while the G-Men hardly did, remaining on AARP's mailing list. And the Rockies stayed the course, hoping their bumper crop of 2005 rookies is ready to conquer the hump.

However the race is settled, every NL West-head will be burning candles in October. Since San Francisco's win in Game 5 of the 2002 World Series, division teams have compiled a postseason record of 3-17. They're tired of the West being the land of the setting sun and of one-and-done.

The Los Angeles Dodgers

The volume of the Dodgers' changes (six front-liners in, seven out) should not be surprising, given how hastily the '06 crew had been assembled following general manager Ned Colletti's December hiring. More stunning is how well Colletti was able to adjust to being blind-sided by J.D. Drew's opt-out. Drew withdrew on Nov. 9; within a month, Juan Pierre and Gonzalez re-stocked the outfield. Colletti kept at it, adding an ace (Schmidt), a high-upside lefty (Randy Wolf) and a savvy backstop (Mike Lieberthal).

The Dodgers have to come up with the new batting order, with a 50 percent overhaul of the starting lineup (including Andre Ethier moving into Drew's spot in right field). For starters, who's better to lead off, Pierre or incumbent Rafael Furcal?

The position battles are Left field -- only with a major collapse can Gonzalez play himself out of the position, but there is a long list of standbys (Jason Repko, Matt Kemp, Marlon Anderson). Set up man -- Yhency Brazoban isn't likely to return from elbow surgery until midseason, so the spot is up for grabs. No. 5 starter -- Chad Billingsley is penciled in, but more experienced arms are available in the bullpen pool (Brett Tomko, Mark Hendrickson, Elmer Dessens).

Wilson Betemit commandeered the third-base job with his dynamite performance following his late July acquisition from Atlanta, but he has never played a full season of more than 373 at-bats. If the pace gets to him and if age had more to do than injuries with Jeff Kent's decline, the Dodgers will take on water in the holes in their lineup and sink.

The Arizona Diamondbacks

General manager Josh Byrnes has made over (Doug Davis, Livan Hernandez) and re-made (Randy Johnson) the rotation -- a nice feat with a reigning Cy Young Award winner (Brandon Webb) able to greet the newcomers. But remember what drove Johnson out of the desert in the first place? Lack of run support. It may be déjà vu all over again.

The biggest Spring Break challenge is don't overreact to how the team looks/performs. The kids in the overhauled lineup (four projected regulars have started a combined total of 113 Major League games) may come out like young bucks or be toned down by new pressures. Either way, just let them settle in.

The biggest position battles are Left field -- coming off the first 25-25 season in club history, Eric Byrnes would seem up to filling Gonzalez's shoes, but prospects are crowded behind him and the club already has shown a tendency to go with youth where warranted. Set up man -- Luis Vizcaino was sacrificed to the Yankees for the Unit, so a couple of Brandons (Lyon, Medders) and Tony Pena will fight over the eighth inning. No. 5 starter -- this will be a cattle call.

Much of the D-backs' hopes ride on their new set of lefties, and Johnson and Davis indeed bring lush credentials. Last season, however, was a weed bed. In fact, Johnson (5.00) and Davis (4.91) ranked last and third-to-last in ERA among all Major League left-handed starters. Unless those numbers go on a crash diet, the D-backs crash.

The San Diego Padres

The division's lowest-scoring team (731 runs) has lost about 30 percent of its offense without matching replacements, and old guys David Wells and Maddux don't seem enough to make up for it on the pitching end. Getting Marcus and Brian together is nice, but while the J. Giles Band sang "Centerfold," barring a lot of good breaks, the Friars' Giles Band will be humming a different kind of fold.

Hold onto Scott Linebrink. Aaron Rowand is out there for the asking, but GM Kevin Towers shouldn't react rashly to any early troubles by Terrmel Sledge. Rowand wouldn't be a defensive improvement in center, where the Padres already have Mike Cameron, and new manager Bud Black showed in Anaheim he can do wonders with a stacked bullpen.

There are two big position battles: Third base -- the Padres thought enough of Kevin Kouzmanoff to get him from Cleveland for Josh Barfield even before Marcus Giles was in place, but Russell Branyan is an available veteran fallback, and Catcher -- Josh Bard did a standout job as Mike Piazza's top reserve, but Rob Bowen has comparable experience and is in line to at least share the job.

If Jake Peavy can stay away from freak injuries, Chris Young remains the best 6-foot-10 pitcher in the division and Maddux has one more 15-win season in him, the Padres can remain in the Black.

The San Francisco Giants

There's been little renovation around the centerpiece (Barry Zito). The Giants shed 40-somethings Steve Finley, Moises Alou and Mike Stanton, but they kept the Gray in G-Men by retaining Barry Bonds among other vets and loading up on guys in their mid-30s (Rich Aurilia, Ryan Klesko, Dave Roberts).

There is one big Spring Training battle, dealing with, and making good use of, the Barry distractions. While Bonds and Zito will be centers of attention, Bochy will be able to mold his new cast into a unit.

The major position battles are Closer -- Armando Benitez still is in the house but inspires little confidence, and both substitute closers (Stanton and Tim Worrell, who has retired) are gone. Kevin Correia and Brian Wilson will get shots, as well as first base -- Aurilia is penciled in to start, but Klesko looked reborn at the end of the season and Lance Niekro still is on hand.

Giants fans gulped when Schmidt went south, but Zito will take over a rotation that has a high ceiling. If Matt Cain consistently shows the goods he flashed last season and Matt Morris rebounds from his career-worst year, the Giants can be a force.

The Colorado Rockies

Ownership quickly decided against shaking up things by dealing Todd Helton, but general manager Dan O'Dowd already had made a splash by turning one pitcher (Jason Jennings) into two potential starters (Jason Hirsh, Taylor Buchholz) and one center fielder (Willy Taveras). Part Coors, part sea-level talent, this young team will have the division's best offense, but the pitching staff could be just as scary.

It isn't in Helton's nature to be a vocal leader, but as the team around him has gotten younger, he has grown as its obvious anchor. Happy that his long-shot move to Boston fell through because it meant he could keep striving to bring a winner to Denver, Helton must now learn to speak up.

There are position battles here as well: No. 5 starter -- in addition to Hirsh and Buchholz, the field includes Byung-Hyun Kim, Oscar Rivera, Ubaldo Jimenez and Brian Lawrence, who will try to resurrect his career after major shoulder tears in both the labrum and rotator cuff. Keystone -- the Rockies would love for Kaz Matsui's work the last two months (.352) not to have been a mirage, but Jamey Carroll is shadowing second just in case, and Clint Barmes will fight to keep Troy Tulowitzki from taking his job at shortstop.

Yes, we've read and heard enough about how changes in certain conditions have made Coors Field more pitcher friendly, but the ERAs posted by incumbent starters Aaron Cook (4.23) and Jeff Francis (4.16) still were darned impressive in the context of the place's history. With Josh Fogg, Rodrigo Lopez and the survivor of heated competition for the final berth, they give the Rox the makings of an over-the-top staff.

1. LA Dodgers
2. San Diego Padres
3. Arizona Diamondbacks
4. Colorado Rockies
5. San Francisco Giants


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