2008 preview: NL West

ARIZONA DIAMONDBACKS

In general

There is only one certainty in the NL West this year: The Giants will not win the division. And they probably will finish last. After that, this group is a tossup. Arizona, Colorado, Los Angeles and San Diego can each win this thing, and each could finish anywhere from second to fourth. We could see all four within five games of one another at the end. Or we could see one or two of them crash and burn and fall a dozen games or more off the pace.

I don’t feel good about this one, but I’m going with Arizona because I like their balance. If Randy Johnson is healthy and can win 12 games — he needs 16 to get to 300 — that’s not a bad fourth starter, and a fourth starter is probably what you have to consider him to be now. Putting him behind Brandon Webb, Dan Haren and (my choice) Micah Owings gives the D-backs a deep rotation, and Doug Davis as a fifth starter is more than a lot of teams have. In the ‘pen, tabbing Brandon Lyon as the closer soon after Jose Valverde was traded was a move questioned by some — OK, maybe mostly fantasy folk — but if he can hold the job, it makes the relief corps that much deeper, because it keeps hard-throwing Tony Pena in a setup role. But if the two are switched, they might not see that much of a dropoff. They’ve also got Chad Qualls, acquired in the Valverde deal.

Arizona’s West title in 2007 was a bit of an anomaly. The D-backs went 90-72, but gave up more runs than they scored — scoring, on average, 4.40 runs per game but yielding 4.52. Baseball Prospectus put their expected record with that run differential at 79-83. In 2006, the Padres allowed more runs than they scored in winning the division, but in ’07, they collapsed down the stretch and gave up the Wild Card spot to the Rockies. But the young lineup Arizona enters 2008 with is similar to the one it finished ’07 with, meaning these young guys have a year under their belts and should see some improvement. They’ve experienced first place, a pennant race and two playoff rounds. Eric Byrnes, Chris Young and Justin Upton may be the finest young outfield in baseball and Stephen Drew will soon emerge into an infield leader as Orlando Hudson passes the torch. Mark Reynolds and Conor Jackson at the corners still have a little to prove over the course of a full season, but this does have the makings of a strong young infield. If Chad Tracy can recover from his injuries, he’s a viable backup or replacement at either third or first base.

What I’m looking forward to seeing

The Big Unit is the lynchpin. If he’s healthy and can fill out the rotation — pushing Edgar Gonzalez or whoever back into the bullpen — they’re better off. I’d like to see him get to 300 wins, but 16 this year is asking a lot. How will Haren handle the change from one of baseball’s best pitcher’s parks to one that’s not so forgiving? Can Lyon hold onto the closer’s job? Is Chris Young a 30-30 guy in his second season? Just how good will Upton be? And do the D-backs have a budding rivalry with the Rockies that will provide plenty of great moments for years to come?

COLORADO ROCKIES

In general

I love this club and I wanted to put them first, but with three-fifths of their starting rotation still having a lot to prove and the nature of their playoff appearance last year — winning 20 out of 21 in September and October will not happen in 2008 — I have to bump them down a notch. I’m tempted, in fact, to put them third, but I’m not going to; I’ll explain when I get to that third-place team.

I love the Rockies because they have two of the best hitters in the division. Matt Holliday is the top player out West and Troy Tulowitzki may soon battle him for that title. Tulo is 6’3″, 205 pounds — the same height and 20 pounds lighter (currently) than another former young shortstop star who began his career in the Pacific time zone. That would be Alex Rodriguez, and while I’m not saying Tulo is going to go on to hit 700 home runs over his career (as everyone can pretty much agree A-Rod will, I think), to me there are a lot of similarities between the two. Tulo is just as good a defender at short as A-Rod was, and in his first season he developed into a threat at the plate and a leader on the field and in the clubhouse, prompting the Rockies to come forward with the biggest contract for a player with such little experience in Major League history. Like the American League was in the 90s, the NL is now stocked with young star shortstops. With Tulo, Drew, Jose Reyes, Hanley Ramirez and Jimmy Rollins, at least two deserving players will soon be left out of most All-Star Games.

Jeff Francis will finish his career as, by far, the best pitcher ever to wear the purple and black and aside from the aforementioned sluggers, perhaps the best draft pick in the organization’s history. Yes, better than Todd Helton. But behind Francis and Aaron Cook, the Rox will be turning to Ubaldo Jimenez and two of these three: Franklin Morales, Mark Redman and Josh Towers. So that’s two youngsters and two veterans who don’t raise too much excitment in any fan. In relief, the emergence of Manny Corpas as the closer allowed three-time All-Star Brian Fuentes to become a setup man. Taylor Buchholz has had a strong spring, and Ryan Speier, Jose Cappellan and Luis Vizcaino help to make up a solid stock of reserve arms.

What I’m looking forward to seeing

Tulo, Tulo, Tulo. Love that guy. Plus, how does this team follow up last year? And how do opponents react? I can tell you that no one in the New York City area expected Colorado to sweep the Mets and Yankees out of Coors. In recent years, I’d looked at the Mets’ annual Denver trip as a chance to win two out of three or three out of four, with the ERAs taking a hit but the averages getting a boost. Now, it’s not such an easy W.

LOS ANGELES DODGERS

In general

Joe Torre switches coasts and takes on a new challenge. I wanted to put the Dodgers second just because of him. I considered them for the top spot as well, but I’m scared off by all the innings they want to give to Esteban Loaiza, Chad Billingsley and the unknown in Hiroki Kuroda. I don’t like all the at-bats they have tied into Jeff Kent, Nomar Garciaparra and Juan Pierre, either. We want to see the kids play — James Loney (he will), Andre Ethier and Matt Kemp. Takashi Saito, despite the 1.40 ERA in ’07, is considered shaky at 38 and no one ever praised Torre’s handling of the bullpen those last few years in the Bronx. Scott Proctor must’ve felt a slight sense of dread when the Dodgers signed Torre, figuring he had escaped him last year in the Wilson Betemit trade. Hopefully Torre doesn’t overuse Jonathan Broxton and ruin him for all of us.

That said, Torre pretty much did it all with the Yankees. He won when he had everything he needed and was able to coast through a season and he managed against injuries and adversity to recover from early deficits to reach the postseason. I’d like to think he can come to L.A. and be a quick fix, but he clearly doesn’t have the personnel he did when he arrived in New York.

What I’m looking forward to seeing

Saturday’s exhibition game against the Red Sox at the L.A. Coliseum. I love the historical nod to kick off the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the team’s move west. Also, can Torre make this a memorable anniversary? Does Andruw Jones bounce back after a tough final season in Atlanta? Do Nomar and Kent have anything left? Can the rotation veterans — Brad Penny, Derek Lowe and Loaiza — put together a full season? Penny’s had second-half issues in the past and Lowe’s in a contract year at 35 (on June 1) after going 12-14 last year, albeit with a decent 3.88 ERA.

SAN DIEGO PADRES

In general

When the minor leaguers show they’re ready for the Majors, yet the organization insists on sending them down to start the season, it frustrates us as fans. Imagine what it does to the players. We saw it with B.J. Upton in Tampa, and a bit with Delmon Young, too. Young spoke out about it and Upton took three years to finally stick — and thrive. So it’s maddening to see Chase Headley sent to Triple-A in favor of Jody Gerut in left field in San Diego. It’s understandable that the Padres want to see him gain more experience in the outfield (they have Kevin Kouzmanoff at third base, Headley’s natural position), but for a team that could use a strong outfield bat, it’s a tough decision. San Diego’s starting outfield — Jim Edmonds (when he’s in there, and he probably won’t be to start the season), Brian Giles and Gerut — should probably be batting sixth, seventh and eighth in the lineup. It remains to be seen if they actually will, so if they don’t, that may not be a good sign. Particularly if Giles is the leadoff batter.

There’s more to like in the infield, where Kouzmanoff, shortstop Khalil Green and first baseman Adrian Gonzalez are all capable of 20-30 home runs (or more, in Gonzalez’s case) and 90-100 RBIs. Second baseman Tadahito Iguchi brings a little speed and a contact bat to the equation.

But pitching is this team’s strength, as it should be in the hurler-friendly confines of Petco Park. A defending Cy Young winner leads the rotation (Jake Peavy), a potential one follows (Chris Young) and a former one is third in the rotation (Greg Maddux). Fourth starter Randy Wolf is now entering his second season after Tommy John surgery (always a benchmark). If Mark Prior reaches the Majors this year — and stays there — then what a steal. San Diego is also home to one of the best bullpens in the game, so if you manage to knock out the starter, you’re going to have to deal with career saves leader Trevor Hoffman, setup men Heath Bell and Cla Meredith and a group of other reliable arms.

What I’m looking forward to seeing

Does Headley come up to stay? Ever since I heard a minor league report mentioning Gregg Jefferies on a Mets postgame show in 1987, I love watching careers bloom. Does Young win 20? Been a fan of his since 2002, when he pitched for the Hickory Crawdads in the South Atlantic League and a road trip to Lakewood, N.J., just happened to come on the weekend of Princeton’s graduation, which meant Young got to attend the ceremonies with his class. Does Hoffman still have it? His struggles in the final week of the 2007 season cost the Padres the Wild Card. They had it sewn up with a win on the final Saturday, but Tony Gwynn Jr. doomed his dad’s former team with a triple off Hoffman. And then T-Hoff couldn’t keep the Rockies off the board in the Wild Card playoff (whether or not Holliday has yet to touch the plate).

SAN FRANCISCO GIANTS

In general

Bye-bye, Barry. No one is sorry to see him go, including, I suspect, team brass. They may be out a few million in revenue from an empty ballpark with a last-place team, but even with the stadium payments to make, they may prefer at least one season of quiet despite the financial issues. Plus, they get to finally see what the future holds as they weed out the past-their-usefulness (“prime” has long passed some of these guys by) holdovers like Ray Durham and Omar Vizquel. Another one of those, Rich Aurilia, is penciled in as the third baseman; Dave Roberts takes up left field with OK speed but little else; and Randy Winn is in right. Bonds’ departure brought the team’s average age down a bit, but not by much. Oh, and they overpaid for Aaron Rowand, who most certainly was bouyed in 2007 by the extremely favorable conditions of hitting in Citizens Bank Park in a contract year.

There’s more to like on the mound, at least after you get past Barry Zito. OK, that’s not fair — it was just one year in San Francisco. But AT&T Park isn’t that much more of a hitter’s park than Oakland’s Coliseum, and he didn’t have to face the DH anymore. He shouldn’t have been that bad last year. This was also a team on which Matt Cain went 7-16 with a 3.65 ERA — with Barry Bonds. Now, Bengie Molina is hitting cleanup. Coming off a season with 19 home runs. Yeah.

What I’m looking forward to seeing

Mainly, do they make a trade for a third baseman? That speculation would be more exciting than some of the Giants’ games. And the club is high on outfielder Rajai Davis, so does he wrestle a starting gig from someone? After Zito, Cain and Lincecum, I have little interest in the rotation, but with each five-run outing, I’m happier and happier that the Giants opened the bank and scared off the Mets. If Zito was in New York now, Johan Santana wouldn’t be. And does Brian Wilson keep the closer’s job? I only care for fantasy purposes.

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