NL West Preview

Arizona Diamondbacks

Despite winning the division, the Diamondbacks began showing cracks last season.  Without Luis Gonzales in the line-up, they were hapless against the Cardinals in the first round of the playoffs.  Lyle Overbay will inject some youth into the line-up, but it's hard to envision how he will be more productive than Erubial Durazo was.  Also gone are Jay Bell and Greg Colbrunn, who are not by any means indispensable, but did have better than average value off the bench.  Perhaps the biggest loss was Damian Miller, who was a stabilizing presence behind the plate.  Elmer Dessens replaces Rick Helling in the rotation, but has little track record to indicate he's anything more than a journeyman who had a career year last season.  Byung-hyun Kim will move into the rotation but stamina may be a concern as the season wears on; he has never thrown more than 100 innings and has just 7 career starts as a professional.  Ron Villone, Mike Jackson and Manny Aybar add depth to a bullpen in desperate need of it and John Patterson looks promising as a starter should someone go down with injury.  As long as the D-backs have a healthy Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling, they will be a threat in the division.  However, none of their supporting cast is outstanding and almost half of the offensive players are on the downsides of their careers.  Prediction: 87 wins, 2nd in the division

Colorado Rockies

GM Dan O'Dowd has yet to figure out what formula works best in Denver, but it's not for lack of trying.  This season, he will try to maximize the Rockies offensive potential with high strikeout/low walk power hitters, hoping to be aggressive and allow the thin air to do most of the damage.  To that end, he acquired Preston Wilson and Charles Johnson this offseason. Still, the problem remains: how to pitch at Coors.  Mike Hampton is gone and in his place will be an influx of young pitchers hoping to earn their spurs.  Jason Jennings was superb last season and looks to build on a strong rookie campaign.  However, the rest of the rotation does not look nearly as strong.  Shawn Chacon and Denny Stark have shown flashes of promise, but have come no where near the consistency needed to make the Rockies a contender.  Denny Neagle will continue to soldier on as the veteran leader, but his flyball tendencies are poorly suited to success in Denver.  The bullpen is solid with the additions of Rich Garces, Nelson Cruz and Steve Reed, but with a starting staff of 5-6 inning starters, they will be sorely tested in the second half of the season as the innings pile up.  Prediction: 74 wins, 5th in the division

Los Angeles Dodgers

The Dodgers surprised just about everyone last season with how effective their offense was despite having one of the worst on base percentages in the league.  Just like their crosstown rivals the Angels, that success won't likely continue.  They did do a little housecleaning this offseason, upgrading first base with Fred McGriff and the outfield with Daryle Ward.  But that probably won't be enough to offset the drop in run scoring efficiency they are bound to suffer, especially since no one on offense endured an off-year last season.  Adrian Beltre is the only hitter that can reasonably be expected to perform better and that's largely due to increased maturity; he'll turn 23 this season.  The starting pitching should be healthier with Kevin Brown hoping to put in a full season's work, but is Odalis Perez really this good and can Kazuhisa Ishii continue to work around so many walks?  Perez may actually be this good (or at least close to it), but it's highly unlikely that Ishii will continue to get away with so many baserunners.  The bullpen will also suffer a letdown; the additions of Calvin Maduro, Troy Brohawn and Yorkis Perez do not readily conjure up visions of the Nasty Boys.  The loss of Omar Daal may be the biggest blow.  He contributed 161 innings last year, most of it as a starter while Brown was injured and the Dodgers have not done anything to replace that insurance policy.  Prediction: 86 wins, 3rd in the division

(Update: Darren Dreifort has looked terrific this spring and will likely move Andy Ashby to the pen, strengthening the staff overall.  But it still won't help them score runs.)

San Diego Padres

Not many people remember, but Sparky Anderson was a coach on the very first Padre team in 1969.  He was allowed to talk with the Reds after that season, accepted their managerial job offer and the rest, as they say, is history.  But what would have happened had Padre management realized his potential, fired Preston Gomez (who finished in last place in 6 of the 7 seasons he managed in the majors and twice took starting pitchers who were throwing no-hitters out of the line-up in the 9th inning) and instead kept Anderson?  Would the Padres, whose uniforms were gold and brown at the time, have become the "Big Brown Machine"?  Is that any more embarrasing than playing at Petco Park, the name that was decided on for their new ballpark in 2004?  I don't think so.

Anyway, it is a metaphysical impossibility for the Padres to have as many injuries as they did last season, when they set a major league record for most players (and most pitchers) used in a season.  Thus they should improve quite a bit on their 66 wins in 2002 if they can simply stay reasonably healthy.  Their outfield should be much more productive, although not very good defensively, with Phil Nevin moving from the infield, and Xavier Nady and Taggert Bozied (bohz-aid) ready.  The production from the infield should also get a big boost from on-base-minded Mark Loretta and a healthy Sean Burroughs, who's been plagued by a shoulder injury for much of the last 2 years but got it cleaned up this offseason.  Mike Rivera will push Wiki Gonzales and Gary Bennett for playing time behind the plate with his home run bat, but the Pads are best served with a motivated Gonzales as their primary catcher.  The rotation lost Brett Tomko, but the Pads have a terrific nucleus of young starters in Jake Peavy, Adam Eaton and Oliver Perez.  Barring further injury, these three could become as good as Oakland's celebrated trio.  Brian Lawrence will again quietly eat up 200+ quality innings.  If they get any quality innings from rehabbing Francisco Cordova, Jaret Wright or Kevin Jarvis, the Pads' staff will be the deepest in the division.  Closer Trevor Hoffman will likely be lost for half the season, maybe more due to continuing pain in his throwing shoulder, but this is more a psychological loss than an actual one.  The Pads acquired Jay Witasick, who was spectacular with them in 2001, and they have a number of terrific young pitchers (Rusty Tucker, Mike Nicolas, Cliff Bartosh and Ben Howard) who have the stuff and possibly the mentality for closing.  Don't be surprised if the Pads package Dennis Tankersley in a deal with the Yankees for a salary-deferred Sterling Hitchcock, who is a Bochy favorite.  Prediction: 81 wins, 4th in the division

(Update: With Phil Nevin's season-ending injury, Sean Burroughs' continuing shoulder problems and the trade for injury-prone Rondell White (he's played 100 games in a season only 4 times in his 10 year career), the Pads look to be doing their dead-level best to surpass last year's M*A*S*H unit for days on the DL.  Even the signing of oft-injured Mark Quinn may not help significantly offset the blow to their run-scoring ability.  It will be a miracle if they finish close to .500.  72 wins, 5th in the division.)

San Francisco Giants

The Giants are still the favorites to win the West, but it should be closer than many think.  By my calculations, the acquisitions of Edgardo Alfonso, Ray Durham, Marquis Grissom and Jose Cruz falls almost 150 total bases short of the production they lost from the departures of Jeff Kent, Reggie Sanders, Kenny Lofton and David Bell.  Unless Barry Bonds hits 80 homers and gets on base 60 percent of the time this season, the Giants are going to experience a drop-off in run scoring.  And although Damian Moss is probably an upgrade (at least talent-wise) to Russ Ortiz in the rotation, it's not likely that Livan Hernandez and Kirk Rueter can continue their masquerade as quality starters for very much longer.  Their secondary ratios simply don't support their ERAs, despite pitching in one of the best pitcher's parks.  Jason Schmidt will continue to be an excellent starter and the Giants have three highly regarded starting prospects - Jerome Williams, Jesse Foppert and Kurt Ainsworth - who are ready for the show.  But with the inconsistencies of youth and the departures of Jay Witasick, Manny Aybar and Aaron Fultz, the Giants staff will surrender more runs this season.  With a healthy Bonds, this is still a winning combination, but not as a convincing one as they were in 2002. Prediction: 89 wins, 1st in the division

(Update: Livan is gone, more youth is served in the rotation.  Depending on how consistently they pitch, this could be a good or a bad thing.  Should injuries thin the bullpen, the Giants pitching inexperience could become their achilles heel.)