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Unlike the divisions which feature bottom-feeders like the Royal, Orioles, Devil Rays, Nationals, and Pirates, the NL West is composed of five teams for which contention is a legitimate argument. Some critics will scoff at the elderly Giants, others at the pitching-poor Rockies, but even those teams have enough indisputable strengths that good luck (a.k.a. bad luck for their opponents) could provide enough momentum to jetison them into the playoffs. Last year the NL West sent two teams. Both of which got knocked out in the opening round. This year the Phillies and Mets seem like Wild Card favorites standing head and shoulders above the rest of the competition in the East, but it is not altogether unlikely that two teams could again slip in from the West.
There are no easy innings in the NL West. In a style more typical of the American League, this division is defined by its depth. Their are no elite 3-4-5 combinations (although Helton-Atkins-Holliday could become one), but unlike teams that have potent hitters in the middle of the order like Houston and St. Louis, no team in the NL West has a starting position player that is a glaring offensive liability. The Rockies may be an exception, depending upon the productivity they get from Kaz Matsui at 2B and Chris Iannetta at C, but both those players have upside and Colorado makes up for it with as much potency 1-6 as any team in the division.
It's a similar story with the rotations. The Dodgers have so much depth in starting pitching that they have had to convert top prospect Chad Billingsley into a reliever, even though he went 7-4 with a 3.80 ERA during the stretch run in 2006. The Diamondbacks have a quartet of perennial 200-inning horses, and five of the last eight Cy Young awards. The young, fast lineup behind them will have to prove that they are major leagure ready defenders, as none of these guys - even Randy Johnson - can depend heavily on the K. The Padres added David Wells and Greg Maddux as dependable, strike-throwing veterans behind the powerful young trio of Jake Peavy, Chris Young, and Clay Hensley. And the Giants bost a similarly diverse rotation with two of the greatest curveballers of the past decade - Barry Zito and Matt Morris - balanced by young power arms Matt Cain and Noah Lowry.
Division Champs - Los Angeles Dodgers
In a division as tight as this one (or similarly, the AL Central), unfortunately a lot hinges on luck. Or, to put a more positive spin on it, how one prepares for and recovers from bad luck. The Dodgers are in better shape than any team in their division (and maybe the league) to replace injured contributors with at least league-average capable backups. In some cases, Dodgers fans may be praying for injuries. I have a hard time believing that James Loney isn't already a better middle of the lineup option than Luis Gonzalez. Similarly, I would rather see a Chad Billingsley at the back end of my rotation than a Brett Tomko. Matt Kemp, Andy LaRoche, Jonathan Broxton, and Hong-Chih Kuo are all young players ready to step up when the opportunity presents itself. And with injury-prone veterans like Nomar Garciaparra, Jeff Kent, Jason Schmidt, and Brad Penny slated for key roles, there should be plenty of opportunities.
Key Player : Russell Martin - C
Be prepared to here a lot about Russell Coltrane Martin in this blog as he catupulted to the top of my most soulful players list with his impressive rookie campaign and his tear-jerking backstory. But, personal preference aside, this is the one position the Dodgers can't afford to turn over to the next in line. There was a time when Mike Lieberthal was a solid choice as an everyday starter and he's still an enviable offensive backup backstop, but even in his prime he never provided the combination of power, speed, discipline, and defense that Martin brings to the ballpark on a daily basis.
Runner-Up - San Francisco Giants
This is an unpopular choice. Besides the constant outrage towards the original Bay Area Barry, the Giants are now taking flak for paying too much for Barry Z. and generally not getting younger. I won't aim to invalidate those criticisms. Soon, very soon, San Francisco needs to shed the model which has brought it great success for over a decade and move in a new direction so they can keep filling those seats in that beautiful ballpark while Bonds is racking up a hundred or so homers in the American League. But this was not the year. The Zito signing aside, rebuilding your roster with free agents in the winter that Jason Marquis gets Jason Schmidt money, and Jason Schmidt gets Jason Giambi money is not a viable solution. The free agent crop next year includes Andruw Jones, Mark Texeira, and, possibly, Alex Rodriguez. Start with one of them.
The team they are putting on the field is mediocre at best on offense, but so was San Diego last year, and Oakland, and they both made the playoffs. The pitching staff, if the bullpen comes together, is potentially dominant. Cain & Zito are both Aces in 2007, mark my word. Zito will mow down unprepared NL hitters (and pitchers) in one of the hardest ballparks to hit home runs out of (unless you're you know who). Cain will make the next logical progressive step towards his inevitably strong-if-not-spectacular career and the Giants will get at least one unsuspected performance from either Noah Lowry, Brad Hennessy, or Jonathan Sanchez. There is too much talent there for none of them to step up. Granted, all this merely means getting a few games above .500, but in the NL, as St. Louis proved again last year, that may be enough.
Key Player : Matt Morris - SP
Obviously, the Barrys have to be the Barrys. But that goes without saying. If Bonds, Zito, or Cain goes down, that's the ballgame. See you next year. Morris is the key, because if Morris steps up the Giants posses among the best rotations in the league, that alone makes them a contender. I don't have any delusions of Morris becoming the pitcher that was in 2001 & 2002 for St. Louis. But how about the one he was in 2004 & 2005. If he can stabalize the back end of the rotation with another 200 innings and an ERA below 4.50, he has a legitimate shot at 15+ wins, and there are still some days when that 12:30 curveball is nearly unhittable (even last year he threw two complete games). He does that and it takes a hellavu lot of pressure off the newbies.
3rd Place - San Diego Padres
Yes, it's a good rotation. Yes, it could be a great rotation. But on the other side of the ball: Could it be a great lineup? No. Every starter would have to hit his ceiling for San Diego's offensive production, particularly at Petco Park, to look anything better than league average. Of course, they haven't even been that good and they've advanced to the playoffs two years in a row on the backs of their pitchers. The competition is stiffer this time around. Don't look for it to be a three-peat.
Key Player : Adrian Gonzalez - 1B
Other than Gonzalez, the sources of power in San Diego's lineup are swift-footed doubles hitters like Mike Cameron, Khalil Greene, and Brian Giles, none of which are likely to surpass 20 dingers (again, especially at Petco). Adrian Gonzalez bested all of them with 24 HR in 2006. There is no more Mike Piazza, so Gonzalez is going to have to step up and prove that he can be the big bopper position in San Diego's lineup.
4th Place - Arizona Diamondbacks
They have those four horsemen: Brandon Webb (2006 Cy Young), Randy Johnson (5 Cys, 3 Runner-Up, 280 W), Doug Davis (630 IP with Milwaukee '04-'06), and Livan Hernandez (7 straight seasons of 216+ IP). Every one of them was an opening day starter in 2006. They compiled a 57-43 record. Not bad. Take away Webb, it falls to 41-35. Still fine. Of course, Johson was pitching in front of one of the most potent lineups in baseball history, but...O. K. I digress. The problem here is not the pitching. The pitching will be reliable, possibly excellent. This is last year's Florida Marlins, but they won't get as much credit because they aren't exactly doing it on the cheap. I expect at least two or three players from the Diamondbacks to be in the running for Rookie of the Year honors, with center-fielder Chris Young the obvious favorite. It will be a fun team to watch. Besides the horsemen and the rookies, they have Chad Tracy and Conor Jackson, two potent young corner infielders coming into their prime. But, the D-Backs are still at least a year away from returning to the postseason.
Key Player : Eric Byrnes - LF
As the most veteran presence in the everyday lineup (at the ripe old age of 31), Byrnes will have to build off his own breakout year - in which, as a guest commentator during the playoffs, he coined the term "tickler" in reference to a peculiarly long soul patch - and keep his twenty-something teammates heads up during the inevitable dry stretches. We know the Big Unit isn't going to do it, but Byrnes is a suitable candidate, so long as he doesn't suffer through his own prolonged slump.
5th Place - Colorado Rockies
Last year, the pitching improved, drastically. Their 5.01 R/G was the best since their inception in 1993, by almost half a run! And, for the first time they were not among the two worst in the league. They continued to score runs even as their longtime centerpiece, Todd Helton, struggled with various ailments and offensive inconsistencies. If he returns to a moderate .320-25-90 plateau (moderate for him), the middle of the lineup will begin to rate among the best in the league, up with New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, St. Louis, and Houston. The pieces are falling into place in Colorado, especially if the swap of Jason Jenning to Houston for Willy Tavarez, Jason Hirsh, and Taylor Bucholz turns out to be the bonanza it appears to be. If the pitching makes another significant step forward, Colorado could be this year's Detroit Tigers.
Key Player(s) : Aaron Cook & Jason Hirsh - SP
Nobody believes that Colorado can put together a strong starting rotation, but they continue to try. The traded the winningest pitcher in franchise history for some additional pieces. Hirsh is apparently ready now and will be inserted the #4 slot, behind emerging Ace, Jeff Francis, journeyman, Rodrigo Lopez, and Aaron Cook. Lopez and whoever the #5 is, Josh Fogg or B. Y. Kim, will undoubtedly have difficulty keeping their ERAs around 5.00. Cook and Hirsh must do considerably better than that.