Around the Horn: The NL West

The news so far isn't bad out of Arizona where the Diamondbacks hold their breath as one of their star players recovers from injury, The Rockies have a who's who in competition on the mound, the Dodgers finally have ownership in place, but what kind of changes will be forthcoming, the San Diego Padres are starting anew...literally while masking their concerns about Portland, and the awards keep coming for the Giants' Barry Bonds.

Arizona Diamondbacks: LF Luis Gonzalez has not had any setbacks in his workouts as he tries to rehabilitate the Grade 2 sprain (slight tear) of the ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow. Gonzalez has been throwing with head trainer Paul Lessard for about a month and hopes to be close to full strength by Opening Day. If things should take a turn for the worse, Gonzalez could require "Tommy John" elbow-ligament replacement surgery and be lost for the entire season. How Gonzalez progresses could determine whether the club attempts to sign or trade for another outfielder.

There had been some peripheral interest in Minnesota's Jacque Jones, but that appears to be only lukewarm at best. The Diamondbacks still would like to unload the $7 million salary of RHP Matt Mantei, the team's closer, and the Twins might be in the market after losing LHP Eddie Guardado via free agency to Seattle.

Colorado Rockies:

Ten pitchers will get a shot at the four other spots. Denny Stark combined with Jennings in 2002 to give the Rockies a quality rookie twosome. But after that 11-4 season in which he was 7-1 at Coors Field, Stark missed the first 84 games last year with a strained upper back muscle and never found consistency once he returned.

Chin-Hui Tsao is the top prospect in the system and was jumped from Double-A to the big leagues last July. It was evident he had some learning to do. Unless he overpowers in the spring, he'll get his first exposure to Triple-A to open 2004.

Aaron Cook was the disappointment of last season. Managers and scouts in the Southern League two years ago ranked him as having better stuff than Mark Prior. Cook never got comfortable in the big leagues and wound up working long relief. He has to dominate in the spring or he'll go back to Colorado Springs for a refresher course from Bob McClure, who was his pitching coach in his breakthrough season at Class A Salem in 2001. He won't spend another summer sitting in the bullpen getting service time.

Jason Young is the long shot this spring. He remains highly thought of but would have to overwhelm to pitch himself ahead of Tsao and Cook.

Scott Elarton was a 17-game winner with Houston in 2000 but is 8-14 in the big leagues since. He battled shoulder problems in 2001-2002 and didn't have his command last year, but he stayed healthy and after a strong winter of workouts is the sleeper. He has shown he knows how to win and is a Colorado native.

Joe Kennedy was the Opening Day pitcher for Tampa Bay last year but finished 3-12 with a 6.13 ERA. He is a left-hander with solid average stuff and something to prove. In his one career appearance at Coors Field, he showed determination.

Shawn Estes was the third veteran signed to a minor league deal. An All-Star with San Francisco in 1997 and a 15-game winner in 2000, Estes is only 22-31 while bouncing from San Francisco to the Mets to Cincinnati and finally the Cubs the last three years. He does have a live arm and turns only 31 on Feb. 18, the day before pitchers and catchers report to spring training.

Jeff Fassero is 41 and has primarily worked in relief the last three years, but he wants to start again and is willing to gamble enough to sign a minor league deal with the Rockies, which means they don't have to pay him anything if he doesn't make the team. He has a great changeup, a key to Coors Field success.

Brian Tollberg underwent reconstructive right elbow surgery two years ago and was working to regain his strength last season, most of which was spent at Triple-A Portland. He feels ready to return to the big leagues now, and the Rockies were a team he contacted quickly after becoming a minor league free agent last fall. He had success against the Rockies and in Coors Field, where San Diego won three of the four games he started.

Adam Bernero was acquired at the All-Star break a year ago from Detroit. A starter with the Tigers, he worked out of the bullpen in Colorado but will get a chance to reclaim a rotation role in the spring.

Los Angeles Dodgers:

Frank McCourt said he hasn't made any decisions from a distance. But on his first day as owner of the Dodgers, he made it clear that he is dissatisfied with many of the organization's current strategies and personnel. Saying the team on the field "lacks excitement" and the team upstairs "lacks innovation," McCourt pledged to be a hands-on owner determined to "bring a sense of urgency around here."

Those words couldn't have sounded good to president Bob Graziano, general manager Dan Evans or manager Jim Tracy.

A day after taking control, McCourt informed Evans that he would open the position to other candidates. McCourt said he had not asked for permission to speak with Oakland GM Billy Beane. He also had not spoken to Oakland owner Steve Schott, who was quoted as saying he would not grant the Dodgers permission to speak with Beane if it were requested. Former Seattle GM Pat Gillick could be the top candidate to replace Evans, who also will be a candidate to remain.

McCourt said he wanted to have his baseball operations staff in place before Feb. 19, when pitchers and catchers report to Vero Beach, Fla. Evans and Tracy have contracts that run through the end of this season. Tracy's job status won't be determined until a final decision is made on the GM situation.

San Diego Padres:

Ken Caminiti will rejoin the Padres for at least six weeks as an instructor when the Padres are in spring training at Peoria, Ariz.

The Padres have promoted Dick Freeman to the combined roles of CEO as well as club president. Freeman had served as president and chief operating officer since returning to the Padres in 2002. "Elevating Dick to CEO is really a natural fit for the organization based on the leadership he has shown moving us toward the opening of Petco Park," said club owner John Moores.

"The 2004 season holds many new and exciting opportunities for the Padres," said Freeman. "I will continue to work closely with Kevin Towers, as well as the rest of Padres management on what we hope will be a tremendous season."

GM Kevin Towers said he has no concerns about the financial problems facing the Portland Beavers. The Oregon team of the Pacific Coast League is the Padres' Triple-A affiliate. The PCL had a special meeting Friday (Jan. 30) in Colorado Springs to study the Beavers' finances. "I haven't heard anything to make us believe we have to find a new home," said Towers. "I like Portland. I wish there was a little more stability with their ownership. But it's been a good arrangement for us." The Padres are in their final year of their working relationship with the Beavers.

The number of holdover players from last year's 40-man roster going into spring training is 16. The number of members of last year's Opening Day bullpen still on the 40-man roster. 4 -- Opening Day starters in 2003 still on the 40-man roster is zero.

"Health. It's all a matter of health," says Phil Nevin when talking about the 2004 team. "If we stay healthy, I think we're going to have a good team."

San Francisco Giants:

The Baseball Writers Association of America presented its postseason awards at a function in New York. Barry Bonds, who won his sixth MVP award, didn't attend but sent a comment via video.

An excerpt:

"I have a message from my father. He expressed his thanks for all the gifts you have given me."

Bobby Bonds died of cancer in August.

The Giants' pitchers report to spring training in Scottsdale, Ariz., on Feb. 19 and begin workouts Feb. 20. The rest of the squad reports Feb. 24 and works out Feb. 25.

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