Repeat business hard to come by in NL West
PHOENIX — Kevin Towers brought his experience in the NL West into play this winter.
Towers knew not to leave well enough alone while plotting a defense of the Diamondbacks’ division title.
History has shown that repeating in the NL West, more so than in any other NL division, is never a sure thing, no matter how successful the previous season might have been.
Four of the five NL West teams have won the division in the last six seasons; the one that did not, Colorado, made it to the World Series as a wild-card team.
“That’s why it is always called the wild, wild West,” said Towers, hired to turn the D-backs around in late September 2010.
“It has been a pretty volatile division, which is good. It gives you hope. A lot of divisions, like the AL East, that’s not going to happen.”
Towers’ resume suggests a D-backs’ repeat is possible. When Towers was the general manager in San Diego, the Padres came within an injury and a volatile argument of becoming the first team in the history of the division as currently aligned to three-peat.
If Mike Cameron had not suffered a hand injury and Milton Bradley had not suffered a left knee injury while being wrestled away from the first-base umpire in a loss to Colorado on Sept. 23, 2007, San Diego might have caught the division-winning D-backs that year after winning in 2005-06. As it played out, the Padres were eliminated from postseason competition by Colorado in a one-game playoff.
“Sunday, bloody Sunday,” Towers still calls that September day.
There are several theories for the division’s unpredictability, salary parity being the most prominent. Starting in 2005, the division has had two teams in the top 10 of Major League payroll only once, when the Los Angeles Dodgers ranked sixth and San Francisco ranked 10th in 2005. Neither won the division; Towers' Padres prevailed with a budget of about $63 million, some $35 million less than Los Angeles. While the disparity was noticeable, it was not like Toronto ($46 million) trying to compete with the Yankees ($208 million) or Boston ($124 million).
The Dodgers spent $118 million and $100 million after taking on Manny Ramirez’s large contract (and fertility drugs) to repeat in 2008-09, but that is the most money any NL West team has spent in any season. At the same time, Philadelphia has averaged $123 million in payroll while winning the last five NL East titles. Money is not everything, but Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee can help. And the Phillies’ expenditures are dwarfed by those of the Yankees and Boston Red Sox. In the NL Central, St. Louis has made the playoffs five times in the last eight years with an average salary of about $95 million a year.
“Even though the Dodgers and Giants are generally at a higher payroll, there is not quite the disparity you will see in other divisions,” San Diego general manager Josh Byrnes said.
“There is not as much discrepancy between the haves and the have-nots in this division,” Towers said.
The division also places a premium on pitching, in part because it has three of the most pitcher-friendly parks in the majors — San Diego’s Petco Park, San Francisco’s AT&T Park and Los Angeles’ Dodger Stadium. Petco has yielded the fewest runs in four of the last five years.
Whether the park shapes the pitching or the pitching the park, lower-scoring games put a premium on execution and timely hitting. In 2010, San Diego and San Francisco were ranked as two of the best teams in the majors in productive outs and in taking the extra base on hits. They played into the 162nd game before the Giants won the division and carried that momentum — and the strong pitching of Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain and closer Brian Wilson — to a World Series title.
San Francisco and San Diego were 2-3 in team ERA in 2011 after finishing 1-2 the previous year. The Dodgers and Giants were 1-2 in 2009.
In contrast, Arizona’s Chase Field and Colorado’s Coors Field are two of most hitter-friendly parks in the league, but the addition of the humidor in Colorado has brought offense down to the high range of normal at mile-high altitude instead of promoting slow-pitch softball scores.
“Everybody has kind of loaded up with pitching, and everybody has strong pitching staffs and solid bullpens, and that’s why it probably changes from year to year,” Towers said.
With better pitching and less margin for error, a team that gets hot seems able to sustain its run. Colorado won 14 of its last 15 regular-season games down the stretch to catch the Padres in 2007. San Diego won 28 one-run games in 2010, and won 17 in its last at-bat. Similarly, San Francisco won 28 one-run games and 37 come-from-behind victories that season.
At the same time, those numbers are not an end-all. The Giants won 33 one-run games and had 36 comeback victories in 2011, but those numbers were compromised by an anemic and injury-plagued offense that scored two or fewer runs 71 times, the most in the majors. The Giants also lost 33 games in which they surrendered a lead while finishing eight games behind Arizona. The D-backs had a major league-high 48 comeback victories in 2011 and won 18 games in their last at-bat. They were 84-0 when leading after eight innings.
“With some of the California ballparks there are a lot of low-scoring games, and the team that kind of gets hot in the one-run games and two-run games seems to have a good season,” Byrnes noted.
So it was that the D-backs added middle-of-the-order bat outfielder Jason Kubel and strengthened the starting rotation by acquired Trevor Cahill and re-signing Joe Saunders after winning 94 games last year before falling in the first round of the playoffs to Milwaukee.
“History has told us it is somebody different each and every year. That’s why we didn’t stand pat," Towers said. "We added to what we already had, and we have to play better baseball to come in on top last year. The division is better than it was in 2011. If it’s better than it was in 2011, that means we have to be better in 2012.”