In wild NL West, it’s anyone’s game
San Diego began its offseason rebuilding plan last July, sending outfielder Ryan Ludwick and his contract to the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Then, once the offseason officially began, they let closer Heath Bell leave as a free agent, despite his public proclamation he would take less money to stay with the Padres. And they dealt rotation ace Mat Latos to Cincinnati for prospects.
Not totally surprising. After a last-place finish, and with budget constraints, the Padres were looking at cutting costs while they rebuilt.
But then . . . they acquired closer Huston Street from the Colorado Rockies, agreeing to pick up $7 million of his $7.5 million salary, and dealt two pitching prospects to the Chicago White Sox for outfielder Carlos Quentin, who, like Street, is a potential free agent at season’s end.
The Padres are definitely sending mixed messages.
But then that’s part of life in the National League West.
It has been a division that underscores baseball’s bid for parity.
It’s the only division in baseball in which all five members have made a postseason appearance in the past six years. The NL West, in fact, has had nine postseason entries in that stretch.
Colorado is the only NL West team that hasn’t won a division title, but the Rockies were the NL wild card in 2007 and 2009, advancing to the World Series in 2007. Los Angeles has won three division titles and Arizona two.
While San Diego and San Francisco have only one postseason appearance each in that stretch, the Giants made good on their opportunity, claiming the world championship in 2010. The Padres, who shared the NL West title with the Dodgers in 2006, have been eliminated from the postseason in the final game of the regular season two other times — in Game 163 against Colorado in 2007 and Game 162 against the Giants in 2010. Both times the team that eliminated the Padres won the NL pennant.
More to the point, five times in the past six years, an NL West team coming off a losing season has advanced to the postseason the following year.
So it comes as no surprise that the NL West has been the most active in baseball this offseason. It’s a division in which there’s always hope, and the offseason hype has no carryover to regular-season success.
A year ago, the offseason debate was whether the Giants or the Rockies would win the NL West, and the three other teams in the division were an afterthought.
Arizona was the consensus to finish in last place.
Arizona won the division title.
That’s why this offseason Arizona general manager Kevin Towers has not hesitated to tinker with his roster. Arizona’s only significant offseason loss was left-handed starter Joe Saunders to free agency. Towers, however, filled that rotation void by acquiring right-hander Trevor Cahill along with left-handed reliever Craig Breslow from Oakland in a deal for prospects. The D-backs GM then fleshed out the bullpen by signing right-handers Takashi Saito and Joe Martinez and provided a right-handed power bat with the signing of free-agent outfielder Jason Kubel.
"Fans like a team that plays hard-nosed baseball, that doesn’t quit, and we were all of those things," Towers said, "and I think we can be even better this year."
The Giants have been the least active team in the division. Their big deal was a head scratcher. They dealt the live left-handed arm of Jonathan Sanchez to Kansas City for journeyman outfielder Melky Cabrera, continuing to search for an answer to the mystery that has been center field at AT&T Park.
The Giants, however, still have a pitching staff that is among the game’s elite, a rotation built around the potential Cy Young arms of Matt Cain, Tim Lincecum and Madison Bumgarner and an offense that is expected to get a boost with the return of catcher Buster Posey, limited to 45 games last year because of a broken leg suffered in a home plate collision.
The Dodgers are the real puzzle. They finished third in the division in 2011 despite featuring Cy Young winner Clayton Kershaw and MVP runner-up Matt Kemp, which underscores the lack of a strong supporting cast.
General manager Ned Colletti has tried to address that this offseason with the signing of second basemen Mark Ellis and Adam Kennedy and versatile Jerry Hairston, known more for on-field acumen than raw ability. He has looked to fill rotation holes created by the free-agent departures of Hiroki Kuroda and Jon Garland with the additions of Chris Capuano and Aaron Harang.
Colorado, meanwhile, is looking for a different mix in the clubhouse with moves such as the signing of free-agent outfielder Michael Cuddyer, who provides a much-needed right-handed run-producing bat in addition to a take-charge personality.
It took creative work from general manager Dan O’Dowd to come up with the money to pay Cuddyer $34 million over the next three years without a payroll hike.
Gone are Street, third basemen Ian Stewart and Ty Wigginton, second baseman Mark Ellis, outfielder Ryan Spilborghs and starting pitcher Aaron Cook. Added are starting pitchers Tyler Chatwood and Kevin Slowey, catcher Ramon Hernandez, third baseman Casey Blake, second baseman D.J. LeMahieu, and outfielder Tyler Colvin, in addition to Cuddyer.
And the Rockies have one major move left — dangling outfielder Seth Smith as the basis for a package to land an experienced starting pitcher.
Will that be enough to give them an opportunity to win the first division title in franchise history?
Well, in the NL West, anything is possible.