Every team in this division is flawed, some egregiously so. My pick to win it is the Dodgers, as much because they have fewer and less serious weaknesses than the other four teams.

That’s not to say that the Dodgers aren’t a pretty good team. For all the abuse Paul DePodesta has taken in the local media–you’d think he was responsible for the rain this winter, from the press coverage–he’s executed a plan that leaves the Dodgers a more talented team than they were a year ago. Even after losing Adrian Beltre–who I don’t expect to post a .331 EqA or be an 11-win player again anytime soon–the Dodgers return a team that, if healthy, should score more runs, allow somewhere close to last year’s total of 684, and win the division title.

J.D. Drew was within one win of Beltre last season, and had been better than him in each of the previous three season. His value last year reflected a great player staying healthy, and was a level he’d reached once before, in 2001. While three years older than Beltre, he’s still just 29. His track record suggests that he’ll be a better hitter than Beltre for the next few years, and an overall better player.

The Dodgers need him to be the OBP machine he’s been for much of his career, because they’ll be starting low- or no-OBP types behind the plate (Jason Phillips and Paul Bako) and at third base (Jose Valentin). Left field will be a patchwork until Jayson Werth returns, and Cesar Izturis only had a .330 OBP is his nominal career year.

The rotation will be better as the year progresses, as Brad Penny returns from injury and Edwin Jackson rises to claim the spot currently held by Scott Erickson. Erickson’s ERA in the 21st century is 6.42, so this should be a quick and bumpy ride. The Derek Lowe signing was a bad one for its length and cost; that said, he’ll eat innings for the team, and as Erickson’s presence shows, they needed the bulk starts.

The injury to Eric Gagne isn’t devastating. No matter how good a closer is, it’s 80 innings, maybe 50 of those legitimately high-leverage ones. That can be replaced, and the Dodgers have plenty of right-handed relief pitching with which to do so.

Despite the tons of column inches printed to the contrary, DePodesta has proven he can make substantial, positive changes midstream. He’s not Walt Jocketty or Billy Beane just yet, but when he identifies the Dodgers’ needs come July, he’ll be able to make a deal that addresses them and makes them better. That’s an important skill. The Dodgers will be the best team in baseball over the last two months of ’05, and win the West going away.

The Padres have picked up steam as a popular selection, especially in the wake of the injury to Barry Bonds. There’s a perception that this is a young, up-and-coming team, a perception that I’ve fallen prey to a number of times in the last few years. They’re not. When Dave Roberts comes back from his groin injury, five of their eight positional starters will be 30 or older. Jake Peavy and Khalil Greene are the face of the team, but Phil Nevin and Mark Loretta are more typical Padres. Given how important the older players were to last year’s offense, expect some falloff from their 768 runs scored last season.

The pitching staff is still very good, better for the recent addition of Tim Redding and, quite frankly, for Roberts’ presence. With a real center fielder patrolling the vast expanse of Petco Park, the Pads should be able to cut down on their hits, doubles and triples allowed, helping them shave runs off of last year’s 705. That bodes well for ball-in-play guys like Brian Lawrence and flyball pitchers like Woody Williams

The regression offensively should eat up the improvement defensively and then some. Kevin Towers has some trade chits he can move, but when you look at the Padres’ lineup, who do you replace? There aren’t obvious holes–like center field was last year–so much as guys unlikely to match their ’04 performance, and this is an organization fiercely loyal to its veterans.
They’ll come up short.

Nate Silver evaluated the Giants without Barry Bonds and concluded that they’d be about one win worse for every 15 games he misses. That seems about right. This is a .500 team, maybe a bit less, without Bonds, and I say that despite the research by Alan Schwarz that showed truly old lineups–the Giants will be one of the oldest teams in baseball history–as having had considerable success. Every single Giants regular will be worse in 2005 than he was in 2004, costing them 50-60 runs as compared to last season.

They will make some of that up on the mound, where a healthy Jerome Williams returns and Jesse Foppert could join him in the second half. Armando Benitez won’t match last year’s ERA; he will be the strikeout short reliever this team dearly needs. Strikeouts are going to be critical for the Giants, whose age, especially in the outfield, will manifest itself in poor range and a very high average allowed on balls in play and high totals of doubles and triples relative to fly balls allowed. They could give back all the pitching gains and more on defense, leaving them allowing about the same number of runs that they did last year. Unless Bonds can come back very quickly and stay in the lineup for 125-135 games–which isn’t going to happen–the Giants aren’t going to win.

The Diamondbacks have improved, no thanks to a ridiculous contract handed to Russ Ortiz. That said, they’re going to be so bad up the middle that it’s not even funny. The back of their rotation–Ortiz, Shawn Estes, Mike Gosling–is terrible, and the bullpen, while potentially a strength, has very little in the way of sure things. The D’backs are going to serve up a ton of runs, approaching the 899 they gave up last year.

They will score more in ’05. Troy Glaus is a legitimate monster with an apparently healthy shoulder. He could prove the people who criticized his signing–me foremost among them–wrong by staying in the lineup and staying at third base. Chris Snyder and Koyie Hill upgrade the catcher spot, and Jose Cruz Jr. is an underrated player in center. The added offense won’t make up the gap between 51 wins and contention, however.

The Rockies aren’t very good, transitioning as they are from the last vestiges of the Great Change-up Experiment to whatever Plan G is. While they wait for the real prospects to arrive, guys like Ian Stewart and Chris Nelson, they’ll call Matt Holliday and Clint Barmes and Garrett Atkins a youth movement and hope Denver fans like them.

An optimist might suggest that the Rockies are about where the 1990 Yankees were, when Kevin Maas and Jim Leyritz and Dave Eiland made the team younger and changed the product without materially affecting the Yankees’ chance to compete. That team eventually washed away and left a dynasty in its place, with real prospects such as Derek Jeter, Andy Pettitte and Mariano Rivera developing into superstars.

A ten-year run at the top of the game seems a bit much to expect, but the comparison is useful for tempering expectations.

Projected standings:

             Record     RS    RA
Dodgers       93-69    755   685
Padres        87-75    743   672
Giants        83-79    810   769
Diamondbacks  76-86    853   880
Rockies       67-95    875   951

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