The Wild West
April 1, 2005

San Francisco Giants
One name determines the Giants' chance of making the playoffs: Barry Bonds.  If he plays four months of the season this year, they have a chance.  If not, they don't.  Last year, the Giants barely missed out on the playoffs despite having one of the most talent-bereft bullpens in recent history and a line-up that would have a hard time competing against AAA All-Stars and the only reason they were able to pull off the near miracle is because opposing managers felt compelled to let Bonds get on base nearly twice per game.  Even with the "upgrades" that GM Brian Sabean managed to pull off this offseason, that won't be enough to offset the likely geologic shift back to the norm of the rest of the regulars.  Or does anyone really think that JT Snow will continue hitting nearly .400 as he did after the All-Star Break (.387).  With the exception of Ray Durham and Moises Alou, it's quite reasonable to look at the Giant's line-up this season and expect not a single player will post an OPS over .750.  Moreover, Alou is just as unlikely to a) stay as healthy as he did last year, playing in the second highest number of games of his career, or b) be as productive moving to one of the tougher pitcher's parks in the majors.  It was just two years ago that Alou posted a .756 OPS.  The fact is that the Giants were historically lucky last year to stay competitive for as long as they did and the bill has come due.  It's true they have some decent talent in the rotation after Jason Schmidt in Noah Lowry and Jerome Williams, and that Armando Benitez will give them the bullpen stopper they lacked, but the line-up is one of the oldest in history and the rest of the bullpen is still many of the same guys from last year who benefited from an abnormally high percentage of at-'em balls.  Omar Vizquel will add some cache to the infield defense's reputation but his defense isn't significantly better than that of Deivi Cruz.  Mike Matheny will help the young staff with his skills behind the plate, but his lack of offense will offset any of those gains.  The Giants might very well end up in contention, but it's just as easy to see this team finishing 4th.

Los Angeles Dodgers
After having a successful run as a pitching and defense team last year, the Dodgers decided to alter their formula to include more offense.  Thus the additions of Jeff Kent and JD Drew.  Of course, their production merely replaces the lost numbers of Adrian Beltre and Shawn Green, so the net effect could be a wash.  If Drew follows his career trend and spends significant time on the DL, the Dodgers will score even fewer runs.  Jose Valentin takes over at third, where he essentially replaces Beltre's defense.  His bat, however, pales in comparison and his increasing strikeout trend and plummeting batting average over the last four years don't bode well for a significant rebound.  Paul Bako and Jason Phillips add more punch behind the plate than Brent Mayne, but one has to wonder why the Dodgers are so determined to always rid themselves of good catchers.  While Mike Piazza and Paul LoDuca were not outstanding defensive catchers, at least with respect to throwing out opposing baserunners, they did manage the game reasonably well and were well above league average for their positions on offense.  Bako and Phillips are not.  Derek Lowe should have a nice run moving to the NL and to a bigger park than Fenway.  He'll miss the run support and if Gagne is out for very long, the strong bullpen to finish games, but he should put up respectable numbers.  The latest Japanese import in LA is Norohira Nakamura, who has a somewhat intriguing pedigree.  He's hit as many as 46 homers in a season and draws a decent number of walks.  However, his career average in Japan is .267 and he has so many moving parts in his swing that it won't be too difficult for major league pitchers to foul his timing.  I watched him flail helplessly against Livan Hernandez this spring who, with the exception of 2 curveballs, threw him nothing but fastball and change. 

San Diego Padres
The door is always open for the Padres to take the division with one bold move, but Kevin Towers never makes it instead preferring to nickel and dime his payroll with players who at best make only a marginal impact.  This winter wasn't much different.  Instead of spending some of the new revenue from the opening of Petco on a free agent like Carlos Beltran, or JD Drew (either of whom would have fit nicely in the void that has been centerfield) or bring in starting pitcher entering his peak years like Matt Clement or Odalis Perez or Eric Milton, he opted to roll the dice with lesser players and waste millions on fungible parts like Geoff Blum, Chris Hammond, Mark Sweeney and Eric Young.  The two "major" acquisitions he made were Dave Roberts and Woody Williams.  Roberts is a useful player, but as the Red Sox capably demonstrated last year, he's better used as a fourth outfielder/pinch runner than the guy who's supposed to ignite one's offense.  Williams had some good years in San Diego and St. Louis, but at this point in his career he's really just a glorified long reliever.  Petco will make him look decent, but he really isn't.  Granted, Towers is much better than just about any other GM at moving players he affectionately calls "sludge" - that is, players who have only marginal impact like he did with the Terrence Long/Darrell May trade - and so he almost always gets the better end of such deals.  But when did anyone win a division or a pennant because they got a better utility infielder or long reliever than they had previously?  Divisions are won with impact talent.  Towers did acquire one player who at one time looked as though he might be such a player: Tim Redding.  As a 22- and a 23-year old pitching in the minors, Redding's numbers resembled those of Roy Oswalt but for whatever reason he has failed to live up to that expectation.  Perhaps Petco will help him get back on track.

Arizona Diamondbacks
My one preseason prediction this year is that the Diamondbacks will improve in the standings more than any other team.  Not only were they abysmal last year, but the moves that they made this winter were actually pretty good.  They re-tooled the offense with the additions of Jose Cruz Jr, Shawn Green and Troy Glaus, but they got a pretty good deal in trading Randy Johnson away in netting Javier Vazquez to boot.  Cruz is a much better player than he's given credit for, both offensively and defensively and if the D-backs troop of youngsters can be relatively productive, he could be in for one of his best years.  Green posted a strong second half last year and Glaus showed little effect from his shoulder injury when he returned in September.  Vazquez will have to reign in some of his gopheritis to reclaim his title of best pitcher no-one has ever heard of, but without the ever-present New York media glare facing him all season, he could do it.  Royce Clayton and Craig Counsell were brought in to add defensive stability in the infield, but are probably best suited as mentors to more talented players who should take over for them by season's end like Alex Cintron and Scott Hairston.  The bullpen still has too many question marks but Brandon Lyon will act as closer du jour for as long as he can until the torch is passed to one of several talented relievers: Brian Bruney, Mike Koplove, Greg Aquino and Jose Valverde.  Valverde probably has the best stuff, but his inability to stay healthy lessens the chance he'll keep the job if he gets it.  

Colorado Rockies
The Rockies really didn't do much this offseason.  They rid themselves of Charles Johnson, presumably because he had become a headache, but then acquired Byung -Hyun Kim, an even bigger headache, in the deal.  They brought in Desi Relaford and Alfredo Amezaga for infield to support farm products like Clint Barmes and Garrett Atkins.  Matt Holliday and Brad Hawpe will have to contend for at bats with Dustan Mohr.  In all, the offensive players the Rockies brought in look more along the lines of the "Chris Truby plan" - bring in marginal talents to act as show ponies to be beaten out for regular jobs by motivated prospects - rather than players who can help them win.  And frankly, that's not a bad plan if the prospects are top level talents who can mature into the type of impact players who will help the team win.  But both Atkins and Barmes - much more so for Barmes than Atkins - achieved their accolades after repeating a level in the minors and as a player older than the average competition.  But since the Rockies still haven't figured how to play to their ballpark, there's no sense throwing money away with high-priced free agents who might not be able to help, a la Mike Hampton, Denny Neagle, etc.