Dodgers Picked to Win West Title

Troy Reneck of the Denver Post has picked the Dodgers to win the N.L. West Championships. He writes: The National League has something to prove, dismissing its status as mobiles in baseball's classroom after getting schooled by the American League in the past two World Series. For those keeping score at home, the AL has produced back-to-back sweeps.

Consider 2006 as the "after" picture in a late-night infomercial. Health willing, Barry Bonds will pass Babe Ruth in career homers (likely insulting him as well), Roger Clemens will keep mocking history and the Mets will keep pace with the Yankees in New York's back-page headlines.

The fearless (or foolish) prediction is that the Atlanta Braves' magic-carpet ride will end, the Houston Astros will unseat the St. Louis Cardinals in their division and the Los Angeles Dodgers of Los Angeles will win their turf war against the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim.

NL West Division
(Predicted order of finish)

Los Angeles Dodgers (71-91 last season, fourth)
Notable additions: Rafael Furcal, ss; Nomar Garciaparra, 1b; Bill Mueller 3b; Kenny Lofton, cf; Sandy Alomar Jr., c; Danys Baez, rhp; Brett Tomko, rhp; Jae Seo, rhp; Grady Little, manager.

Key losses: Jim Tracy, manager; Milton Bradley, of; Jeff Weaver, rhp; Duaner Sanchez, rhp.

You grow, boy: Young catcher Dioner Navarro needs to improve in two areas: calling games, which pitchers privately groused about last year, and power, which he has displayed little of during his pro career.

Spring's tall order: Getting everyone on the field without a doctor's permission slip, namely closer Eric Gagne and potential 30-home run threat J.D. Drew. The Dodgers also need to find out if Tomko can replace Weaver, a notorious innings gobbler.

San Diego Padres (82-80, first)
Notable additions: Mike Cameron, cf; Vinny Castilla, 3b; Mike Piazza, c; Chris Young, rhp; Shawn Estes, lhp; Doug Mirabelli, c.

Key losses: Mark Loretta, 2b; Ramon Hernandez, c; Adam Eaton, rhp; Brian Lawrence, rhp; Akinoro Otsuka, rhp; Rudy Seanez, rhp; Chris Hammond, lhp; Joe Randa, 3b.

You grow, boy: Young morphed from the Princeton Project into an effective starter (12-7) last year for the Texas Rangers. For the Padres to repeat as division champs, they likely will need 15 wins from the 6-foot-10 former basketball player.

Spring's tall order: The motto should be "Go for the Old!" The Padres could have as many as seven thirtysomething everyday position players, so managing their workload is critical. Finding suitable bullpen replacements to form the bridge to closer Trevor Hoffman will be high on the to-do list.

San Francisco Giants (75-87, third)
Notable additions: Matt Morris, rhp; Steve Finley, of; Steve Kline, lhp; Tim Worrell, rhp; Mark Sweeney, inf-of; Todd Greene, c; Jose Vizcaino, inf.

Key losses: Edgard Alfonso, 3b; Brett Tomko, rhp; J.T. Snow, 1b; LaTroy Hawkins, rhp; Scott Eyre, lhp.

You grow, boy: While the Giants repeatedly have traded prospects to quench a win-now thirst, they have a star in the making in 21-year-old starting pitcher Matt Cain. How quickly he develops confidence in his off-speed pitches will determine his growth chart.

Spring's tall order: Figuring out a game plan to maximize the impact of Barry Bonds and Jason Schmidt. If both are healthy, the Giants could snare first place. If they aren't, the Giants could contend for last place.

Arizona Diamondbacks (77-85, second)
Notable additions: Orlando Hernandez, rhp; Orlando Hudson, 2b; Johnny Estrada, c; Eric Byrnes, cf; Miguel Batista, rhp; Jason Grimsley, rhp; Luis Vizcaino, rhp; Terry Mulholland, lhp.

Key losses: Troy Glaus, 3b; Javier Vazquez, rhp; Tim Worrell, rhp; Shawn Estes, lhp.

You grow, boy: Conor Jackson, a sweet-swinging first baseman, must demonstrate the plate prowess that made him one of baseball's top prospects to justify taking at-bats away from ageless Tony Clark.

Spring's tall order: Two issues hang over the Diamondbacks. Can they generate enough power with Glaus gone? And will "El Duque" hold up to pitch at least 110 innings, providing much-needed leadership for a staff that's dangerously thin after Brandon Webb? Having the guy that used to be Russ Ortiz walk into training camp sure wouldn't hurt.

Colorado Rockies (67-95, fifth)
Notable additions: Jose Mesa, rhp; Ray King, lhp; Yorvit Torrealba, c; Eli Marrero, of-inf; Josh Wilson, inf; Tom Martin, lhp; Keiichi Yabu, rhp.

Key losses: Dustan Mohr, of; Todd Greene, c; Jamey Wright, rhp; Dan Miceli, rhp.

You grow, boy: Of the Rockies' biggest questions, perhaps none looms larger than Brad Hawpe. Ideally, a right fielder playing half his games at Coors Field would reach 200 combined runs and RBIs. Hawpe, injured much of the second half, finished last season with 85.

Spring's tall order: Developing trust in the starting pitchers so they have extended leashes when the season opens. Also finding a way to score runs, which starts with Cory Sullivan and Clint Barmes reaching base more often.

Dodger Blue Notes-- Bill Palmer alerted us to the obituary of Lewis Hula who died January 31 in Des Arc, Arkansas. A typical war-time story of a promising young (19) lefthander that was signed by the Dodgers out of high school and pitched in the KOM League against Charles (Mickey) Mantle but was sucked into the Korean War and never returned to professional baseball. He was 3-2, 4.11 for Ponca City, Oklahoma, working 51 innings and allowing 42 hits (7.4 per nine innings) over 13 games, two of them complete games. Ponca City finished fourth in the league and was eliminated quickly in the playoffs three games to one. This wasn't a Hugh Casey or Don Newcombe losing full, prime-of-career seasons to a war, although he might have eventually been that caliber, but nevertheless Hula should be remembered as another of countless thousands who interrupted their lives and so their futures that we wouldn't have to learn German, Japanese, Korean or Arabic. Thanks, Lewis, requiescat in pace.