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April 1, 2003
NL West Preview
The best division in the National League features three solid playoff contenders, and two teams that might be no more than a year away.
San Francisco Giants
I'd feel better about this pick if I was more comfortable with Felipe Alou's lineup and personnel selection. It looks, right now, like Barry Bonds will bat fourth and have the team's second-best OBP guy hitting behind him, not in front of him. The idea is to maximize the performance of Jose Cruz Jr. and Edgardo Alfonzo, but it seems like another good way to make the Giants underperform their projected runs scored for a third straight season.
The other concern is that the Giants may not be as good defensively, having swapped Tsuyoshi Shinjo and Jeff Kent for Marquis Grissom and Ray Durham. They've also exchanged Livan Hernandez for Kurt Ainsworth, though, which will mean fewer balls in play, and the staff could be even more K-centric by the end of the season, with Jesse Foppert and Jerome Williams lurking.
Overall, the Giants have the most depth and the fewest question marks of any of the three NL West contenders. They don't need Bonds to have yet another Best Season Ever; if he stays in the lineup and contributes a .300/.470/.610 performance, the Giants will be well on their way to a division title.
Los Angeles Dodgers
Jim Tracy, who has done a great job for two years with everything going wrong around him, may finally get the chance to manage a $110-million roster. With both Kevin Brown and Darren Dreifort healthy, the Dodgers should have the starting rotation they've been paying for for the first time since April of 2001.
They'll need the two big right arms, because it's hard to see where the runs will come from. Dave Roberts and Alex Cora were nice stories in 2002, but expecting them to post acceptable OBPs again is optimistic, and without those contributions, the Dodgers will struggle to have enough runners on base to sustain an offense, given that they're committed to Cesar Izturis at shortstop and Brian Jordan in left field.
Tracy will get an opportunity to again assemble an offense from assorted parts. Daryle Ward and Todd Hundley are the kind of incomplete players who can help a team in limited, sharply-defined roles, the kind of guys Tracy has had success with. Finding 600 at-bats for the two could add 40-50 runs to the Dodger total over just running out Jordan and Paul Lo Duca every day, and the Dodgers will need those runs.
The Diamondbacks are slowly infusing some youth into what has been one of the game's oldest teams. Last year, it was Junior Spivey; this year, it's Lyle Overbay and John Patterson, with Byung-Hyun Kim moving into the rotation. (Well, it was going to be Patterson; he lost the #4 starter spot he held all winter, and will open the season in Tucson. Don't ask me.)
I think the next two seasons will mark a transition for the D'backs, as they suffer through the declines of their older players. Perhaps Randy Johnson continues on his way, but Steve Finley, Luis Gonzalez and Curt Schilling, as well as lesser lights like Tony Womack and Craig Counsell should decline as a group, and that will be enough to keep the D'backs out of October this year and in the years to come. They'll still do a good job of preventing runs, but I don't see how they'll score enough to keep up with the Giants.
San Diego Padres
No, even if Phil Nevin and Trevor Hoffman had made it to Opening Day unscathed, I wouldn't have picked the Padres to win the West. I learned from two years of overestimating the ability of a young team to gel, as well as the reduced acumen of a management team that hasn't been the same since Theo Epstein left town.
I wish I was more confident in my dismissal of the Padres. I look at the roster and I see a team that's going to get league-average OBPs or better from at least six positions, with just right field and catcher likely to be offensive holes. They can play defense competently, if not spectacularly, led by Mark Kotsay's underrated glove in center field, and their starting rotation could be one of the best in the league if Adam Eaton makes a full recovery.
That said, the Padres have a serious power shortage with Nevin gone, and their bullpen is missing not just Hoffman, but two other key pitchers to start the season. While the rotation has upside, it also has two 21-year-olds; young pitching is what got me a seat on the bandwagon last year, but it can blow up in a team's face just as easily.
This will be another interesting season at altitude, as the Rockies get back to their Blake Street Bombers days. They've brought in three right-handed hitters with good power in Preston Wilson, Charles Johnson and Jose Hernandez. The imports should upgrade the defense as well, especially with Hernandez sliding to shortstop in Jose Uribe's absence. With Ron Belliard winning the second-base job, I think this will be the best offense the Rockies have had in a while.
Unfortunately, the rotation doesn't match. This isn't just a perception thing, where the environment makes the pitchers look bad. This really isn't a good rotation, and it looks even worse with Dennis Stark and Denny Neagle--nothing special themselves--opening the year on the DL. Aaron Cook isn't ready, Darren Oliver was done forever ago, and Nelson Cruz is a set-up man who hasn't started in years. None of these guys do what the Rockies need most; get the precious strikeouts that keep the ball out of play. No humidor is going to help this group, and even when the two Dennys come back, it's going to be an awful staff.