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NL West Preview: Colorado's turn, at last

This article appears in the April 5, 2010, issue of Sports Illustrated.

Though intricate in its design, the calligraphy across Matt Kemp's shoulders curls and twists into a simple slogan: LIVING FOR THE MOMENT. The tattoo is the center fielder's mantra and a fitting description of the two-time defending NL West-champion Dodgers' situation. If division history is a guide, the team's reign will be over come October.

No team has won the NL West three straight years in the wild-card era, though four of the five members have won the title twice or more in the past decade -- the best example of divisional parity in the majors. And after doing virtually nothing to improve their roster this winter -- thanks in large part to the contentious divorce of owner Frank McCourt --the Dodgers are vulnerable. They failed to re-sign their most reliable starter, left-hander Randy Wolf (3.23 ERA in a team-high 214 1/3 innings), who went to the Brewers as a free agent. And L.A.'s potent lineup, led by the league's best-hitting outfield (Kemp, right fielder Andre Ethier and left fielder Manny Ramirez), must produce in a division that is more pitching-rich than any outside of the AL East. "It's not fun as a hitter," Colorado first baseman Todd Helton says.

The Giants boast two-time Cy Young winner Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain (2.89 ERA, 171 strikeouts in 2009), Barry Zito (2.82 ERA after July 18) and Jonathan Sanchez (a no-hitter last July, plus 177 strikeouts in 163 1/ 3 innings). The Diamondbacks have Dan Haren (the NL's best WHIP and strikeout-to-walk ratio), Edwin Jackson (seventh in the AL in ERA with the Tigers last year) and 2006 Cy Young winner Brandon Webb, who is expected back from shoulder surgery by mid-season. Those teams have flawed lineups, though: San Francisco's is punchless, with only one hitter (third baseman Pablo Sandoval) who had 25 homers last year, and Arizona is inexperienced and barely reached the league average in runs scored in 2009.

The Padres, who will be closely watched only because the baseball world is waiting for them to trade slugging first baseman Adrian Gonzalez, have no such problems with imbalance. They're equally poor on the mound and at the plate.

But the Rockies, who won a franchise-record 92 games last year and finished three games behind L.A., are in good shape to win the first NL West title in their 17-year existence. The homegrown roster features patient hitters, who were second in the NL in runs in '09 (804), and the league's best infield -- Helton at first, Clint Barmes at second, Troy Tulowitzki at short and Ian Stewart at third. As Dodgers third base coach Larry Bowa says, "Colorado is probably deeper than anybody."

And it has a rotation that's young, talented and not the least bit shell-shocked from pitching at Coors Field. The ace is 26-year-old Ubaldo Jimenez, who had a team-best 3.47 ERA last season and the NL's fifth-lowest home-runs-per-nine-innings rate (0.54). A 6' 4", 213-pound righty, Jimenez has some of the best stuff in the league and throws harder than any other starter in the majors (average fastball: 96.1 mph).

The key, however, is that the drop-off after his turn in the rotation isn't precipitous. There is 28-year-old left-hander Jorge De La Rosa (193 strikeouts in 185 innings); righty Aaron Cook (4.16 ERA), who beat the Phillies in the playoffs and, in the words of Dodgers first baseman Doug Mientkiewicz, throws "a shot put for a sinker"; and 29-year-old lefty Jeff Francis, the hero of the 2007 team that went to the World Series, who's back from shoulder surgery after missing all of last season. "We're in a lot better place than a lot of teams are," says pitching coach Bob Apodaca, who likes to compare his staff to the mid-'90s Braves. "We're deep and we don't fear anybody."

Last year the Rockies caught fire in May, after longtime manager Clint Hurdle was fired and replaced by Jim Tracy. Colorado went 74-42 under the new skipper, who was named NL Manager of the Year, and for the first time the club had a winning record (41-40) away from Coors. The Rockies were also the only team in the majors to rank among the top seven in both OPS (.784, fourth) and OPS against (.733, seventh). "They're kind of off in their own world," Giants infielder Mark DeRosa says. "They're a team that won't beat themselves."

That balance, plus another year of experience for a young and talented crop, should be enough for them to overtake the Dodgers.

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