The NL West
The NL Champion San Diego Padres have had several big losses this offseason, none more crucial than Kevin Brown. In 1997, San Diego starters averaged fewer than 6 innings a start, one of the worst marks in the majors. Not coincidentally, the Pads finished at the bottom of the division. Brown and Dave Stewart were brought in to change that. They did so and the Pads ran away with the West by 9.5 games. Also gone is Joey Hamilton, who has had the label of potential #1 starter for nearly a decade. However, lost in his mediocre W/L record over the past 3 years is a second half ERA improvement of nearly a one and a half runs per game. Between the two, Brown and Hamilton accumulated 474 innings last year. In their place, the Padres have Woody Williams, who before 1997 had never pitched more than 135 innings in a year, and rookie Matt Clement, who many scouts compare to Brown in ability but who only averaged a little over 6 innings a start last year in AAA. The San Diego bullpen is in for a lot more work this year. One key move that has yet to be made involves Randy Myers. There are two rumored trades involving him, one to Seattle for Russ Davis and Bobby Ayala, the other to Chicago's south side for Jaime Navarro. Both potential deals involve the Pads covering some of Myers salary. I suspect the Pads will opt for the Seattle deal since they seem committed to giving Clement and late-bloomer Stan Spencer a chance in the rotation, and Ayala would help spread the workload in the bullpen. Ken Caminiti and Steve Finley are also gone. Caminiti will be missed more than Finley. Finley's offensive numbers will be replaced and possibly bettered by Ruben Rivera. Defensively, what Rivera lacks in Finley's instincts, he more than makes up for in raw talent. George Arias, Caminiti's replacement, will probably be as good or better than Caminiti defensively. Whenever he has played regularly, Arias has been at or near the top in fielding percentage and range factor. Although he doesn't have Caminiti's bazooka for an arm (who does?), his is well above average. He also has good power, averaging 24 homers a season shuttling between the majors and minors over the past 4 years. The numbers Arias is not likley to reproduce on the offensive side are Caminiti's walks. He does not have a particularly discriminating eye, which does not bode well for an offense that ranked 8th in the NL in runs scored, although it should be noted that Caminiti played injured for most of last year. All in all, the Padres have defintely taken a step backwards, but it doesn't look to be the giant step backwards that many in the media are making it out to be.
The San Francisco Giants haven't done much this offseason. They did bolster their bullpen with former D-Back closer Felix Rodriguez and lefty Alan Embree. However, the bullpen wasn't their problem. Their starters were among the league worst in complete games and quality starts and the Giants have done nothing on that front to improve. Their offense will benefit from a full season of having Ellis Burks in the lineup, but only if he stays healthy. That's a big if.
The Los Angeles Dodgers have improved their starting pitching with the addition of Kevin Brown. His influence should have a positive effect on youngsters Park (26), Dreifort (27) and Valdes (25). Brown's numbers, however, may suffer from the move. He is an extreme ground ball pitcher, inducing around 3 grounders for every fly ball he allows. With Grudzialanek and Young in the middle, the Dodgers offer two of the least effective fielders at their position in the league. Look for Brown's numbers to more closely resemble his days with Texas than those of his last 3 years, when he was backed by league leading defenses. The Dodgers also acquired Devon White and Todd Hundley. White's offense will probably negate any gains his defense brings to the team, as he is going from one of the better hitting parks in the majors to one of the toughest. He certainly doesn't help solve the Dodgers' achilles heel over the past 5 years which is getting guys on base. The Dodgers were dead last in OBP and 12th in runs scored. White's career OBP of .317 is in the bottom 20% among major league regulars. The acquisition of Todd Hundley also raises questions. Is his arm healthy enough to catch 120 games? If not, the Dodgers could be as disappointing as the '97 Blue Jays.
The Colorado Rockies have done about as much as the Giants, playerwise. Their big move so far has been the signing of starter Brian Bohanon, a flyball pitcher coming from 2 of the better pitcher's parks (Shea and Chavez Ravine) to the worst flyball park in history (Coors). They did replace Don Baylor with Jim Leyland as their manager, which will go a long way to preserving the Rockies' overworked bullpen. Whether any leads will be preserved remains to be seen. The offense had very few changes. Darryl Hamilton replaces Burks in center field and will bat leadoff, which alleviates the pressure on Neifi Perez and Mike Lansing, who shared that responsibility last year with only moderate success. As always, the Rockies will go as far as their starting pitching will take them.
Like the Dodgers, the Arizona Diamondbacks have doled out a lot of money. They addressed their shortcomings in the rotation by signing Randy Johnson and Todd Stottlemyre, to go along with Benes, Daal and Andersen. They have also upgraded each outfield position with the late season addition of Bernard Gilkey, the free agent signing of Steve Finley and the trade for Luis Gonzales. Granted, this isn't Mantle, Maris and Berra, but it's certainly an improvement, both offensively and defensively, over what they fielded for most of last year. After last season ended, Gilkey began the same eye therapy that Greg Vaughn began after his 1997 season. I don't expect Gilkey to suddenly show 50 homer power, but his production should more resemble what he did his first couple of years in New York. If Matt Williams can stay healthy enough to regain some of his 1997 form and their relatively thin bullpen can hold up, the D-Backs could sneak up on an unsuspecting NL West.
2) San Francisco
3) San Diego
5) Los Angeles