The West has been one of the strongest divisions in recent years, but with few noteworthy upgrades it probably won't take much more than 90 victories to win it.
San Diego Padres
The Friars hope to follow the Giants' blueprint of moving into a spiffy new downtown ballpark and winning the division. It will be a more difficult task as the Giants were already competitive the year before moving into Pac Bell Park, but the Pads finished 34 games below .500 last season. Their mission is made easier by a wealth of strong acquisitions, such as first-rate starting pitcher David Wells, center fielder Jay Payton, and front-line catcher Ramon Hernandez, along with a relatively injury-free opening day squad. Closer Trevor Hoffman and slugger Ryan Klesko both return from shoulder injuries as they will try to help deliver the team their first winning season since 1998.
Standout rookie Khalil Greene earned shortstop duties by default with cancerous Rey Ordonez leaving camp in fear of losing the job. Along with steady Mark Loretta who set a team-record for hits by a second baseman last season, Greene will try to prove he belongs in the middle of the infield at Petco Park. Outfielders Brian Giles and Klesko will provide the big sticks, and Payton will try to keep pace after setting career highs in home runs and RBIs last year in mile-high Colorado.
Other than Wells, San Diego has some major question marks in the starting pitching department. Wells will be followed in the rotation by unproven young right-handers Brian Lawrence, Adam Eaton, and Jake Peavy, with veteran lefty Sterling Hitchcock manning the fifth spot. Hoffman should be back on form after missing most of 2003, and Rod Beck will be looked to for set-up duties, if and when he returns from an undisclosed leave of absence.
Despite being the only team in the division to improve their squad and high hopes from fans and players alike, the Padres will find it too daunting of a task to go from worst to first in the competitive NL West, but should increase their win total by 20.
San Francisco Giants
The G-men lost much more than they gained this off-season, but you can never count out a squad with shrewd GM Brian Sabean and superstar Barry Bonds on it.
The situation appears bleak as the season nears for the Giants with closer Robb Nen and lefty reliever Scott Eyre set to start the season on the DL. Nen is still recovering from shoulder surgery, while Eyre has a lower-back strain. In addition, All-Star ace Jason Schmidt will be replaced by lefty Kirk Rueter on opening day as he is still nursing a sore shoulder. To top it all off, the division winners must overcome the losses of fan favorite Rich Aurilia, ageless catcher Benito Santiago, reliable reliever Tim Worrell, and right fielder Jose Cruz. Despite the predicament, Giants fans don't seem to be overly worried because, since trading away the lovable Matt Williams in 1996, Sabean always appears to know what he's doing and the Giants are consistently in the thick of things until the end.
Chatty catcher A.J. Pierzynski represents the only notable acquisition for San Francisco, but the team will hope for career years from outfielder Michael Tucker and looks for starting pitcher Brett Tomko to repeat last season's second half success. Third baseman Edgardo Alfonzo, whom the team also hopes will play like he did after the all-star break last season, will get slotted in the cleanup spot to try to "protect" Bonds. This task will be nearly impossible as the patient Bonds may again shatter his own walks record.
Although the Giants appear much thinner this season and will be walking on eggshells praying for the health of Nen and Schmidt, they seem to have a knack for putting competitive teams on the field, and this season should be no different. Bonds will have another MVP season and Sabean will make his trademark mid-season moves to help put his team over the top once again.
Los Angeles Dodgers
Like a broken record, the perennially underachieving Blue-Crew will yet again hope their consistently sleepy bats can wake up and match their outstanding pitching.
As the change in ownership from Fox's Rupert Murdoch to Frank McCourt slowly progressed, the Dodgers' hands were tied in trying to acquire some much-needed offensive firepower. New GM Paul DePodesta, who worked under Oakland's Moneyball man Billy Beane, was unable to make any significant signings as a result. The loss of oft-injured Kevin Brown hurts, but he seemed to put more of a dent in the Dodgers' payroll than in the win column.
Speedy outfielder Juan Encarnacion brings 94 RBIs and a winning attitude after helping the Marlins defeat the Yanks in the World Series last year. The Dodgers will also require a healthy Dave Roberts to get on and steal bases because he is only average in centerfield. Milton Bradley, added on Sunday, could make Roberts shift to a corner outfield spot and his offense is welcome even if his attitude is not. Shawn Green, who moves to first base this season, should return to his All-Star form, but I question the acquisition of Jose Hernandez to try to help the offense—he had the worst average in the league last season!
The pitching should be as good as advertised with innings eater Hideo Nomo returning to the rotation, along with lefties Kaz Ishii and Odalis Perez. Jeff Weaver, who came over from New York in the Kevin Brown deal, has been having a great Spring and figures to win a spot in the rotation. Record-setting closer Eric Gagne will look to continue his consecutive saves streak which now stands at 63. The Canadian may come out even stronger after losing his arbitration case in the off-season.
Los Angeles last year scored only one more run the Boston Red Sox had scored by the all-star break. Despite the always stingy pitching, the Dodgers will lose out to their hated Bay Area rivals due to their inability to significantly improve their miserable offensive situation.
The D-Backs must deal with the departure of All-Star workhorse Curt Schilling to Boston and the prospect of cutting payroll after falling into debt with a number of long-term contracts.
The loss of one of the best pitchers in baseball will definitely hurt Randy Johnson as well as the team. A healthy Johnson will need to lead the staff, along with starters Brandon Webb, Shane Reynolds, and Steve Sparks, who will look to pick up the slack left by Schilling. Webb should continue to provide consistency after posting a 2.84 ERA with a deceiving 10-9 record in 2003. The health of closer Matt Mantei will be a pressing question as he tries to conquer his fingernail problems—just another in the long list of injuries since he arrived in the Grand Canyon state.
On the offensive side, the team acquired slugger Richie Sexson, who brings 45 home runs to complement the still effective Luis Gonzalez. Fellow addition Roberto Alomar will need to return to his All-Star form with the bat to help out the D-Backs ailing offense. With Alomar tabbed at second base, Arizona must adapt to a whole new infield with first baseman Sexson, shortstop Alex Cintron, and third base acquisition Shea Hillenbrand. Veteran centerfielder Steve Finley will need to keep playing heady defense and guide the youngsters on the team.
Whether the 6'10" Johnson will return to his dominating form is the biggest question for the D-Backs—but even if he does it won't be enough as manager Bob Brenly won't be able to bring another pennant to the BOB.
The Rox would love to have the Dodgers' pitching, but it's a rare occasion when any good hurlers choose to designate Coors Field as home. Want proof? Inconsistent journeyman Shawn Estes is projected to be the opening-day starter.
Offense has never been a problem for the Blake Street Bombers and this year should be no different with the additions of sluggers Jeromy Burnitz and Vinny Castilla to an already potent lineup of six hitters with over thirty home runs. The Rockies need more than 16 home runs from right fielder Larry Walker and he has been working out at Coors all off-season to return to his 2001 form. Centerfield Preston Wilson will be hard-pressed to increase his NL-leading 141 RBIs in 2003, but should continue to use his speed on the base paths and in the field. First baseman Todd Helton needs to keep his spot among the game's best hitters.
As always, pitching and winning on the road are the big question marks for Colorado. Along with Estes, 2002 Rookie of the Year Jason Jennings remains in the rotation and must prove his difficult 2003 season was an anomaly for the Rockies to have a chance. The team's best starter, Shawn Chacon, has been moved to closer, but how many times will they be able to hand the ball to him? Other than that, spots in the rotation are up for grabs with Joe Kennedy, Scott Elarton, and Denny Stark among the candidates. The last time the Rockies tried to bring in proven pitchers to Coors, the results were disastrous: remember Mike Hampton and Denny Neagle?
The big contracts given to these pitchers still hamper the Rockies today. The lack of continuity in the organization seems to hold them back, as GM Dan O'Dowd keeps changing up the team and searching blindly for the right group of players. With no improvement in the areas they needed, the mile-high team will finish a mile down in the standings.
Prediction: 2004 Final Standings