Once a laughingstock, the NL West has remade itself with pitching and youth to become baseball's most heated division
DODGERS GENERAL MANAGER Ned Colletti, a former executive with the Giants, recalls greeting ex-Padres manager Bruce Bochy this winter and telling him how much he was going to appreciate righty Greg Maddux, who had recently left Los Angeles and signed with San Diego. Colletti for the moment had forgotten that Bochy had left the Padres to become the Giants' new manager. "You know," Bochy responded drolly, "I'm with your old club."
The two men enjoyed a rare chuckle between competitors of baseball's most heated division—one that has experienced so many internecine personnel moves that you can't keep track of the players or the front offices without a BlackBerry. A punch line just two years ago, when the Padres won the division with an 82--80 record, the 2007 NL West is a joke no longer.
Says Colletti, "You never play a game in this division without knowing you're going to have your hands full." He speaks from experience. In early April his Dodgers swept a three-game series in San Francisco; later in the month the Giants returned the favor at Dodger Stadium.
The matchups, especially between the three California teams, have become a procession of close, low-scoring affairs. (Through Sunday there had been 21 one-run games played between NL West teams, the most of any division.) With the Giants' off-season signing of free-agent lefthander Barry Zito, plus Randy Johnson's return to Arizona, the division is home to 11 Cy Young Awards (Johnson, five; Maddux, four; Zito and Diamondbacks righty Brandon Webb, one each). Padres righthander Jake Peavy, who had a 1.52 ERA and a majors-leading 66 strikeouts, is a strong candidate to make it an even dozen.
Moreover, the NL West arguably has baseball's best young talent. The Diamondbacks lead the pack, boasting blue-chippers such as 24-year-old shortstop Stephen Drew and outfielder Chris Young, 23, who through Sunday had six homers and 18 RBIs. Also churning out good young position players are the Rockies, who have a slick-fielding shortstop in 22-year-old Troy Tulowitzki, and the Dodgers (catcher Russell Martin, 24, has a .318 average and ranks 11th in the league in runs). Meanwhile, the Giants have produced prime pitching prospects in back-to-back years, with rookie Tim Lincecum joining fellow 22-year-old righty Matt Cain in the San Francisco rotation. "This division is going to be good for a long time," says Rockies centerfielder Steve Finley, who has played on all five NL West teams during his productive two-decade career. "In 2001, when [we] won [the World Series] in Arizona, it was more of a veteran division.... Now more of the teams have gone to building from within."
While the division features plenty of passion (San Diego G.M. Kevin Towers's 15-year friendship with Bochy is on hiatus when the teams meet), it's lacking in pop. Through Sunday, San Diego's .697 OPS (on-base plus slugging percentages) was fifth worst in the majors, while Los Angeles's was not much better (.702). In the off-season both teams looked into acquiring the potent bats of Alfonso Soriano and Carlos Lee. L.A. had to settle for leadoff man Juan Pierre, who played for the Rockies from 2000 to '02 and who was hitting a punchless .290 with 15 stolen bases. The Padres, meanwhile, lost their leadoff man, Dave Roberts, to the Giants; last week Roberts, who was hitting .216, went on the disabled list with bone spurs in his left elbow.
At week's end the top four NL teams were bunched within 3 1/2 games of one another, with last-place Colorado a mere seven out. The rest of the NL West believes the underachieving Rockies eventually will make it a party of five. "When all is said and done, less than five games are going to separate everyone," Towers says. "It's going to be like a game of musical chairs." This is merely a continuation of 2006: Last year the Padres and the Dodgers tied at the top (Los Angeles was awarded the wild card), and the majors' tightest division was separated by 12 games. Thanks to Towers's trading acumen—first baseman Adrian Gonzalez, 6'10" lefty Chris Young (3.11 ERA through Sunday), relievers Cla Meredith and Heath Bell, and catcher Josh Bard all came in deals since '06—the Padres have a chance to make it a three-peat. "They play the game right," Rockies G.M. Dan O'Dowd says admiringly. But Towers says if anyone should be favored, it's the Dodgers, who have the youth and depth to withstand injuries and an aggressive G.M. in Colletti. "There's a mutual respect for one another within the division," says Towers.
James Shields's Quick Change
An AL scout sizes up 25-year-old Devil Rays pitcher James Shields, who, after going 6--8 last season, has been one of this year's biggest surprises with a 3--0 record and a 3.10 ERA through Sunday. The 6'4" righthander also ranked fifth in the AL in strikeouts (49).
"He is a top-of-the-rotation starter with an average breaking ball and enough fastball, one that can touch 93 mph. But it's his changeup that's unbelievable—as good as [Twins ace Johan] Santana's. It does a late dive in the hitting zone. Shields can throw it on any count, and he can double and triple up on it. It's refreshing to see a young kid grow this quickly. He can pitch against first-division clubs and keep Tampa Bay in the game for seven innings."
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Touching 'Em All
According to executives from other clubs, Indians ace C.C. Sabathia and DH Travis Hafner will most likely test the free-agent market after 2008. Sabathia and Hafner (right) have publicly stated their affection for Cleveland, but contract talks were halted when the season began, and the sense now is that neither will take a discounted deal to stay.... The Rockies haven't rekindled trade talks over first baseman Todd Helton, but with the 33-year-old slugger's resurgence (through Sunday he was second in the NL with a .383 average), there's bound to be interest. The Red Sox, Angels and Rangers are possible pursuers.... My choice to own the Cubs would be Chicago-area native and former Diamondbacks owner Jerry Colangelo. But some MLB folks are annoyed that Colangelo ran up a mountain of debt in winning the World Series in 2001 and would prefer Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban. Chicago-based groups are also in the bidding, and they may be joined by commissioner Bud Selig's buddy John Canning, a Brewers limited partner.
Consider This by Baseball Prospectus
With interleague play moving away from matchups in which all teams in a division play essentially the same clubs from the other league (with a few exceptions for natural rivalries), the schedule is increasingly affecting a team's chance of making the postseason. Look at the NL East, where the surging Braves ended the week in first place. Over the next month Atlanta will play the Twins, Indians, Red Sox and Tigers, four teams that combine for a projected winning percentage (PWP) of .577, based on records through Saturday. (PWP is calculated by using actual and PECOTA-projected records, and counting repeated series each time.) This is the most difficult interleague slate in baseball. The Mets don't have it much easier. They play the Tigers, Yankees, Twins and A's. The combined PWP of those squads, .537, presents the second-most-difficult interleague gauntlet. The unfairness is evident when examining the Phillies, who have played well since starting the season 3--10 and have to be considered a threat in the NL East to New York and Atlanta. Philadelphia plays the Blue Jays, Royals, White Sox, Tigers and Indians (a combined .493 PWP). That makes it a lot easier for Philly to close a large gap (seven games at week's end) in the standings. This inequity shows up in most divisions. In the AL Central the Indians' interleague opponents have a .463 PWP, while the Twins get foes with a .523 PWP and the Tigers have to face opponents with a .512. That's what comes of Cleveland's natural rivalry with the Reds, as well as missing the Mets. In the NL Central, the Cubs (whose opponents' PWP is .472) and the Cardinals (.470) play two of the five easiest interleague schedules, which might help them catch the front-running Brewers (a somewhat soft .491).