National League West a Rockies road
There's a conspiracy theory that one reason Commissioner Bud Selig was so quick to welcome Frank McCourt as the owner of the Los Angeles Dodgers was it reinforced Selig’s effort to create competitive balance.
While McCourt would benefit from the revenue streams available to the Dodgers the rest of the teams in the NL West don’t enjoy, his pockets weren’t deep enough to overwhelm the competition. He might have desires, but didn’t have the dollars to become a West Coast version of George Steinbrenner, and that meant the rest of the division could have hope.
So far, so good.
Consider that in the last decade the Dodgers have made four postseason appearances, the most of any team in the NL West, but all five teams have made at least two postseason appearances. Meanwhile, in the NL Central, St. Louis went to the postseason seven times last decade, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh were shutout and Milwaukee's been only once.
Atlanta's won six NL East division titles, but the Washington franchise hasn't appeared in a postseason since 1981, much less in the last decade, while Florida made its lone appearance in 2003.
And the NL West is as balanced this year as it's ever been. There are three teams with a realistic chance to win the division, with a fourth, Arizona, that will argue it should be included in that mix as well.
The Rockies are one of only two teams — along with its 1993 expansion cousins in Florida — to have never won a division title. The Rockies, however, have earned the NL wild-card distinction twice in the last three years, and they're primed to end their division title drought in 2010.
The only key player missing from a year ago is 15-game winner Jason Marquis, who was allowed to become a free agent because the Rockies had Jeff Francis, coming off shoulder surgery, to step into that vacancy. Francis tied the franchise record with 17 wins during the 2007 season.
The rotation tied St. Louis for the NL lead in wins (69) last year and was second in the NL with 94 quality starts. The offense was ordinary, which speaks well for what could be in light of the fact the team won a franchise-record 92 games last year, and not one hitter had anything closed to a career year.
Key for the Rockies will be doing a better job against left-handed pitchers, which is a burden that'll fall on the shoulders of catcher Chris Iannetta, second baseman Clint Barmes and third baseman Ian Stewart, a left-handed hitter who went from leading the majors with a .380 average against lefties in 2008 to a miserable .178 last year.
2. San Francisco
The Giants are a team of contradictions.
The Giants have as deep a pitching staff - one thru 12 - as any in baseball. It has a rotation with the ability to dominate, led by the 1-2 punch of Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain, who people tend to forget is actually younger than Lincecum.
And in the final days of the spring the Giants reaffirmed their belief in their pitching staff, signing contract extensions not only with Cain, but also closer Brian Wilson and left-handed setup man Jeremy Affeldt. With the new deal for Cain, the Giants are assured of keeping the big four in their rotation — Lincecum, Cain and lefties Jonathan Sanchez and Barry Zito — together through at least 2012.
OK, but the offense is offensive, and there’s no defense for the defense.
In an attempt to dress up the lineup the Giants did bring in Aubrey Huff to play first base, Edgar Renteria to play shortstop and Mark DeRosa to play left field. They are nice role players, but there’s still no impact bat to help protect Pablo Sandoval, whose best asset is that he’s never seen a pitcher he doesn’t like and can’t hit.
That makes it difficult for pitchers to work around him. And they're adequate - at best - defensively at the positions they're being asked to play.
3. Los Angeles
The Dodgers aren't impacted by the pending divorce of owner Frank McCourt. Wink, wink.
The team still has all the resources it needs to get the job done. Wink, wink.
Everybody's on board with the direction the Dodgers are taking. Wink, wink.
Then why didn’t the Dodgers acquire or sign that top-of-the-rotation pitcher manager Joe Torre's been preaching they need ever since the end of last season? Why did Torre break off talks about a contract extension this spring? Why did Torre slight homegrown hopefuls Clayton Kershaw and Chad Billingsley and proclaim Vicente Padilla the Opening Day starter?
That's the same Padilla who was such a problem in Texas that the Rangers, still in the postseason race, released him in August and paid him nearly $5 million to not pitch for them the final weeks of the season.
Dodgers do have an offense that can be a factor, built around the emerging Matt Kemp, Andre Ethier and James Loney, but it doesn’t help that the bulked up Russell Martin strained his groin early in the spring and figures to miss at least the first month.
And don’t overlook the fact that the bullpen's now a question, with Cory Wade paying the price for a busy rookie season and sidelined by arm surgery and Ronald Belisario delayed by visa problems in his native Venezuela and not making it to spring training until the week before the season opened.
The Diamondbacks made offseason moves to reinforce the roster, bringing in first baseman Adam LaRoche and second baseman Kelly Johnson, as well as acquiring RHP Edwin Jackson in a three-team trade with the hopes of filling out the top of the rotation. Then they stressed stability during the spring by signing outfielder Justin Upton to a four-year, $51.25 million contract and third baseman Mark Reynolds to a three-year, $14.5 million deal.
Nice wrapping paper, but what about the package inside?
This is still a defensively challenged team with no reason to feel it's improved from last year, when it ranked second in the majors with 124 errors.
And that rotation depth? The Diamondbacks continue to pay the price for RHP Brandon Webb delaying surgery on his ailing right shoulder until August (even though he never pitched after his opening series start). Now the talk is they hope he can be ready by the end of April.
5. San Diego
The Padres are involved in a cost-cutting, youth plan. The cost-cutting isn’t hard, but the youth idea gets sidetracked because there’s not much to choose from in the farm system.
The focus on this team is when general manager Jed Hoyer will pull the trigger on an Adrian Gonzalez trade in hopes of getting a bundle of prospects to help speed up the rebuilding, and how quickly RHP Chris Young can show he's healthy enough to have a trade value, too.