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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.

Arizona Diamondbacks

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.

Colorado Rockies

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.

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