NL WEST

Three things are certain in the wild West: Games will be taut, the race will be even tighter and the Giants have the pitching to repeat
April 03, 2011

This season the National League will provide a treat for people whose nostalgia for the '80s has gone unsatisfied by the current vogue of skinny jeans and rail-thin ties: a good old-fashioned East-West arms race. On one coast you have the Phillies and their rock-star rotation (page 64). On the other you have the defending world champion Giants, who had the lowest team ERA in the majors last season (3.36), the most strikeouts per nine innings (8.2) and the lowest batting average against (.236). Should Philadelphia put the World Series trophy engraver on retainer? Or will San Francisco and its four starters under age 29—like Philly's four aces, frontline arms all—emerge as the NL's next dynasty?

It's a fun debate, but the most pertinent question about the Giants is this: Can they even win their own division? History doesn't favor a repeat, even if San Francisco's roster is nearly identical to the one that won 92 games in 2010—perhaps because their roster is identical to last year's (more on that later). San Francisco and Philadelphia may be on the brink of an interdivisional cold war, but the more apt analogy for the NL West is another historical epoch. It's the Wild West, where anything can happen and usually does.

No other division has been more hotly contested over the past five years: Four teams have finished first, and the fifth—the Rockies—went to the World Series as the NL wild-card entry in 2007. (No other division has had more than three winners in the past nine years.) Since '06 the division title has been won by an average margin of 1½ games, four less than the average of the five other divisions. In a group like this, picking a favorite is like panning for gold. "Even though we're the defending world champions," Giants general manager Brian Sabean says, "it's going to be tough as hell to get back to the playoffs."

The parity of the NL West can be traced to one thing: pitching, and lots of it. The NL's three best staff ERAs over the past five seasons belong to the Dodgers, Padres and Giants. Of the past 12 NL Cy Young Award winners, nine have come from the West. "The biggest misconception is how weak the division is, how offensively challenged the teams are," says outfielder Tony Gwynn Jr., who signed with the Dodgers in December after two seasons in San Diego. "You've really got to lock in and have your best at bats, or the pitching in this division will make you look like you don't belong. You're happy with your 1 for 4s."

All that talent on the mound—as well as three of the more pitcher-friendly yards in the game, in Los Angeles, San Diego and San Francisco—keep games tight, creating an emphasis on fundamentals that doesn't exist elsewhere. Since 2006 NL West teams have averaged more sacrifice bunts (0.43 per game) and more one-run games (46.9 per season) than those in any other division. "You don't go into the dugout thinking, Let's wallop them tonight," Rockies manager Jim Tracy says. "You find yourself needing to manufacture a run."

"For a purist, it's great baseball," says third baseman Chase Headley, whose 11 home runs in 2010 were second most among this season's Padres regulars. (Outfielder Will Venable had a whopping 13.) "It's intense because every single pitch matters."

With its lack of star power and payroll might, the NL West can be easily overlooked—at least until its pitchers are dominating the postseason. "This division is a hidden gem," says Rockies first baseman Jason Giambi, who joined Colorado in September 2009 after more than 14 seasons in the AL. "It's a thinking man's game over here. You have to be three or four moves ahead, and a manager can make a huge difference because one or two games might cost you the division."

Into that maelstrom steps Don Mattingly, who takes over as Dodgers manager this season following Joe Torre's retirement and will be under a spotlight as bright as that following any player in the division. Mattingly's managerial résumé is short: It begins and ends with 32 games in the Arizona Fall League last year. He served as Torre's hitting coach for three seasons, but two gaffes last year gave ammunition to critics who say Donnie Baseball isn't ready for a big league managing gig. While he was running the team in a spring training game, a lineup card snafu led to the team's batting out of order. Then, while filling in for the ejected Torre in a game last July against the Giants, Mattingly started to walk to the dugout after a ninth-inning conference with pitcher Jonathan Broxton only to turn back to the mound. The return trip counted as a second visit and forced the manager to remove his closer, which proved especially embarrassing when L.A. blew a one-run lead and lost the game.

While the Dodgers, who finished fourth last year, did little to improve themselves following their first losing season in five years—the messy divorce of owners Frank and Jamie McCourt continues to raise questions about the franchise's financial stability—the roster is still much the same as it was in 2009, when L.A. won the division. A strong rotation headed by lefthander Clayton Kershaw, a deep bullpen and three potential stars still in their prime (centerfielder Matt Kemp, first baseman James Loney and rightfielder Andre Ethier) easily could be enough to keep L.A. in the race. Stranger things have happened. "It's that thought of a lighthouse out there," Mattingly says. "You may just have to go a little bit here and there while keeping your eye on the direction you want your club to go."

The NL West's parity is enhanced by a relatively level financial playing field. There is no behemoth on the order of New York, Boston or Philadelphia setting the spending pace, and on average over the past five seasons the gap between the division's highest payroll and its lowest payroll ($49.9 million) was smaller than that of any other division. (Compare that with the AL East, where the average gap was $153.7 million.) "You don't have one overpowering force like you do in other divisions," says Diamondbacks centerfielder Chris Young.

In keeping with that trend, no NL West team significantly overhauled its roster this winter. Like the Dodgers, the Rockies and the Giants barely changed a thing. Colorado's biggest moves were locking up shortstop Troy Tulowitzki (seven years, $134 million) and leftfielder and reigning NL batting champion Carlos Gonzalez (seven years, $80 million) with contract extensions. The Giants re-signed a handful of thirtysomething veterans—first baseman Aubrey Huff, outfielder Pat Burrell, outfielder Andres Torres—who outperformed their career norms. But praying that the magic of 2010 carries over isn't necessarily a wise business plan. Neither was signing 36-year-old free-agent Miguel Tejada. A team that was below league average in runs per game and on-base percentage won't see its attack energized by the shortstop, who signed for a year and $6.5 million. Last year he had his lowest batting average (.269) since 2001, his lowest on-base percentage (.312) since '98 and his lowest slugging percentage (.381) since '97.

San Diego, of course, lost its best hitter, slugging first baseman Adrian Gonzalez, who was traded to the Red Sox. The team rebuilt its infield on the cheap, signing outfielder turned first baseman Brad Hawpe and second baseman Orlando Hudson for a combined $14.5 million and acquiring shortstop Jason Bartlett from Tampa Bay. None of those additions figure to vastly improve San Diego's offense, which was the division's worst (4.1 runs per game).

One team that did undergo a personality makeover is the Diamondbacks. Kevin Towers, who was the Padres' G.M. for 14 seasons, took over the same post in the desert last September. He inherited a club that won 65 games and was historically bad in two areas in 2010: Arizona's bullpen was the NL's worst ever (5.74 ERA), and its hitters struck out a record 1,529 times. In December, Towers traded third baseman Mark Reynolds, the team's leading home run hitter and the only player to strike out 200 times in a season (he's done it three times), to the Orioles for young power arms David Hernandez and Kam Mickolio. The same day he also signed free-agent closer J.J. Putz to a two-year deal worth $10 million. "You could score 900 runs," Towers says, "but if you don't pitch well, you're not going to win."

Predictions in the NL West are pretty inaccurate most years," says Headley. "We were picked to be the worst in all of baseball last year."

With good reason. The Padres finished 75--87 in 2009, and after two straight NLCS appearances the Dodgers were the division favorites heading into '10. Naturally, San Diego, despite having the second-lowest payroll in the majors, won 90 games and led the NL West by 6½ games on Aug. 25.

A 10-game losing streak that began the next day ate into that lead, and the Giants, who were in fourth place as late as July 15, caught San Diego and moved into first on the final Sunday in September. It was just another wild finish in a division that since 2006 has had four different winners and four different basement dwellers. All that tumult makes it easy to forget that the NL West trails only the AL East in World Series appearances (six to four) over the past decade, and that its 14 teams to finish above .500 since '06 ranks second behind the AL East (17). Over the past four seasons the Phillies have made three trips to the NLCS; the other five teams have come from the NL West. Maybe San Francisco's championship in 2010 wasn't an underdog victory after all. "Even after we won the World Series last year," says Huff, "I feel like people still don't give us the credit that we deserve."

To repeat, the Giants will have to be as flawless—and as lucky—as they were last season, when not one starting pitcher went on the disabled list. Called up from Triple A in late May, catcher Buster Posey provided an offensive spark and was named NL Rookie of the Year. San Francisco has another Rookie of the Year candidate in Brandon Belt, a sweet-swinging first baseman whose timetable to be promoted is similar to Posey's last season.

If Belt takes over at first, Huff will shift to the outfield—the sort of move that never created problems for the team last season. "We had a great cast of characters that coalesced into a team," manager Bruce Bochy says. "Guys set aside their own egos and asked, What's best for the club?"

Of course, nothing is better for a club than the kind of pitching the Giants had last postseason, when they tied a record with four shutouts and won six of their 15 games by one run. There's no reason to think starters Tim Lincecum, Jonathan Sanchez, Matt Cain and Madison Bumgarner can't continue their dominance. It's enough to make fans dream about an epic NLCS sequel between the Giants and the Phillies. Arms races are always hottest in October.

HOW THEY WILL FINISH

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TEAM W--L GB
1 GIANTS 91--71 --
2 ROCKIES 90--72 1
3 DODGERS 82--80 9
4 PADRES 76--86 15
5 DIAMONDBACKS 71--91 20

BEST BETS

MVP: TROY TULOWITZKI, ROCKIES

Had he not missed six weeks with a broken wrist, the All-Star shortstop might have added the MVP to his Gold Glove and Silver Slugger awards last season, when he had career highs in average, OBP and slugging. There may not be a better all-around player in baseball.

CY YOUNG: TIM LINCECUM, GIANTS

In a division rich with Cy contenders, the Freak is still the favorite. Last season was the first time in three years that Lincecum didn't win the award (it was won by Roy Halladay), but he still led the majors (for the third straight season) with 231 strikeouts and punctuated the year with a dominant postseason.

MR. IRREPLACEABLE: HEATH BELL, PADRES

The Padres surprised everyone by winning 90 games last season, thanks mostly to the NL's best bullpen. To have a prayer of doing it again this low-scoring team needs another stellar year from its closer. Bell had 47 saves and the league's best save percentage (94%).

ROOKIE TO WATCH: BRANDON BELT, GIANTS

If he doesn't make the Opening Day roster, look for this mature-beyond-his-years lefty to be at first base within a few months. A fifth-round selection in 2009, Belt hit .352 with 23 homers as he progressed from Single A to Triple A last season. His ability to hit for average and power turned heads in camp this spring.

STAR ON THE RISE: JUSTIN UPTON, DIAMONDBACKS

His average dropped to .273 and his slugging to .442 last season, and he was rumored to be on the trading block this winter. But the former No. 1 pick is still just 23—five months younger than last year's NL Rookie of the Year, Buster Posey. Upton should benefit from working with new hitting coach Don Baylor.

DECLINING STAR: RAFAEL FURCAL, DODGERS

There was a spring chicken in his locker one day during camp—he never fully explained why he had the live fowl—but it certainly wasn't Furcal himself. In 2010 the 33-year-old shortstop made two DL trips and played fewer than 100 games for the second time in three years. He hit .300, but his durability is a question.

THE PAYOFF PITCH ...

BEST CASE

Pablo Sandoval (career-low .268 average in 2010) and Barry Zito (nine wins) rebound and energize a roster that hasn't changed much. That and the stellar staff are enough for a postseason return.

WORST CASE

Injuries in the rotation leave them with even less margin for error than last year; an overworked bullpen and an offense that is again below average make 90 wins a stretch.

BEST CASE

Ubaldo Jimenez is dominant in the first and second halves, and No. 2 starter Jorge De La Rosa has a breakout year that helps the Rox challenge for the wild card.

WORST CASE

Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez dive from their stellar 2010s, and a sputtering offense puts pressure on a pen with the majors' fourth-worst saves rate in '10.

BEST CASE

Clayton Kershaw (212 K's last season) leads the division's best rotation, and resurgent years by Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier help them challenge the Giants for the division title.

WORST CASE

The negativity of L.A.'s ownership controversy seeps into the clubhouse, Don Mattingly loses control, and a team that played in the NLCS two years ago slips further away.

BEST CASE

Their bullpen remains the best in the majors, and Brad Hawpe comes close to replacing Adrian Gonzalez at first base. The result: The Padres play meaningful games in September.

WORST CASE

Mat Latos's late-season skid (five straight losses to end '10) continues, and the bullpen can't make up for a thin rotation. The result: The Padres stop playing meaningful games in August.

BEST CASE

Kirk Gibson changes the culture of a team that averaged 68 victories and finished last the past two seasons. The team finishes near .500, with realistic hope of contending in 2012.

WORST CASE

J.J. Putz, a setup man the last two seasons now being asked to close, isn't up to the job, and another year of blown leads and dismal relief work destroys a rebuilding team's spirit.

PHOTOPhotograph by AL TIELEMANS PHOTOTIM DEFRISCOBEST WESTERN In a pitching-rich division, Posey and Tulowitzki stand out for their mashing. FIVE PHOTOS

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
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