1. San Diego Padres
Pitchers: The Padres lose David Wells, but the starting rotation is still formidable. They signed Woody Williams (11-8, 4.18 in St. Louis) as a free agent. Typically a fly-ball pitcher, Williams should find some success in spacious Petco Park. 23-year-old Jake Peavy is a star in the making. He spent six weeks on the disabled list last year, but was very impressive when he was healthy (15-6, 2.27). Inning-eater Brian Lawrence (15-14, 4.12) is back, as is the inconsistent Adam Eaton (11-14, 4.61). The Padres hope Eaton will become more consistent. The team traded a minor-leaguer to Houston for Tim Redding (5-7, 5.72), who will serve as the fifth starter after Darrell May failed to impress in spring training.
When veteran Trevor Hoffman spent most of 2003 on the shelf, speculation became rampant that he was finished. Hoffman, 37, proved last year that he still has plenty of good pitches left in his right arm (41 saves in 46 chances). Hoffman allowed only 42 hits in 55 innings. He’s not quite as intimidating as he was a few years ago, but he’s still effective. The Padres have a good crew of relief pitchers to get games to Hoffman. Righthanders Akinori Otsuka (7-2, 1.75, 87 strikeouts in 77 innings) and Scott Linebrink work with lefthanders Dennys Reyes and Chris Hammond.
Position players: The Padres have adjusted to their new park. The 2004 lineup was built for power hitting, and this lineup still has some power hitters in it. But the aging Padres will use the spacious power alleys to their advantage, and the team figures to score more runs this year, especially at home. Dave Roberts (.254-4-35, 38 stolen bases) takes over as the leadoff man and everyday center fielder. He’ll use his speed to create problems for opposing defenses, and he’ll also use his speed in the huge outfield of Petco Park. Veteran Mark Loretta (.335-16-76) will bat second after an incredible 2004 season. The Padres need Brian Giles (.284-23-94) Phil Nevin (.289-26-105) to keep producing runs, and Ryan Klesko (.291-9-66) to return to past form. Third baseman Sean Burroughs only hit two home runs last year; more is expected in 2005 now that he will be hitting in the lower third of the order.
Overall analysis: The Padres’ big boppers spent a lot of time in the first half of 2004 wimpering about how hard it was to hit home runs in their new park. With Roberts setting the table and the whining over and done with, the Padres will score more runs. As Peavy continues to develop, the Padres have Williams and Lawrence, who are both capable of quality seasons. The bullpen is one of the better ones in the National League, especially from the right side. The Padres made some noise last year, and they’re ready to make the leap. Last year’s team was just 42-39 at home (45-36 on the road). If they can win 45 games away from home again this year, San Diego will win close to 95 games and walk away with the division title.
2. San Francisco Giants
Pitchers: San Francisco is poised to have a very strong starting rotation, with an established ace (Jason Schmidt), two solid veterans (Brett Tomko and Kirk Rueter), and two youngsters with great potential (Jerome Williams and Noah Lowry). Schmidt (18-7, 3.20) has really matured in San Francisco, using his high-90s fastball and nearly-unhittable sinker. Tomko (11-7, 4.04) and Rueter (9-12, 4.73) are steady, even though Rueter has trouble maintaining good habits on the mound. Lowry is 6-0 as a major-league pitcher, and Williams won ten games before elbow surgery ended his season. If Rueter can regain his control, the rotation is rock-solid in what can be a very tough park to pitch well in.
With Robb Nen having health problems that would eventually lead to his retirement, the Giants knew going into the offseason that they had to find a closer. They found one in Armando Benitez (1.29 ERA, 47 saves in Florida). Benitez has plenty of experience, and he give the Giants something they didn’t have last year: a legitimate fireballer to finish games. Setup men Jim Brower, Scott Eyre, and Matt Herges are all back, and veteran Wayne Franklin is available for long relief duty.
Position players: With veterans Ray Durham, Moises Alou, Edgardo Alfonso, and Marquis Grissom all on board, and all deteriorating defensively, the Giants answered the bell in the offseason. They signed shortstop Omar Vizquel, still a wizard with the glove, and Mike Matheny, who is as good a defensive catcher as you will find. However, much of this is meaningless, as the Giants’ best hitter, and possibly the best player in the game, Barry Bonds (.362-45-101) is out indefinitely with a knee injury. A recent press briefing seemed to indicate that Bonds will miss a significant period of time, and that he might not play this season at all. Without Bonds, the burden to produce runs falls on first baseman J.T. Snow (.327-12-60) and right fielder Alou (.293-39-106 with the Cubs). Even though Alou is a capable hitter, it’s hard to imagine the Giants being competitive for 162 games without Bonds. Matheny isn’t a great hitter (.247 last year), but he has come through in the clutch before. Pedro Feliz hit 22 home runs last year, and he may start in place of Bonds (Michael Tucker also contends for that job).
Overall analysis: Barry Bonds hasn’t won all those MVP awards by accident. He’s the most feared hitter in baseball, and his loss for an extended period of time will hurt this offense. The Giants simply don’t have the weapons in the middle of the order if Bonds isn’t available. Felipe Alou will be challenged to find ways to manufacture runs, which is not a strong suit of this team. The pitching staff is good, but the Giants won’t go far if they can’t hit and score runs. It will be a season-long struggle with the Padres, and the Giants don’t have enough weapons to win the division, unless Bonds comes back and is effective – something we can’t answer definitively right now.
3. Los Angeles Dodgers
Pitchers: The Dodgers wanted to bring in a quality arm during the offseason, just in case Brad Penny’s nerve problem was serious enough to sideline him this season. They settled on Derek Lowe (14-12, 5.42 in Boston), who helped the Red Sox to the World Series win last October, but had a very nondescript contract year. Odalis Perez (7-6, 3.25) appears to be the ace of the rotation. Penny (9-10, 3.15) should be ready sometime in April, if not by Opening Day. Veterans Wilson Alvarez and Scott Erickson bring up the rear of the rotation, with youngster Edwin Jackson waiting in the wings. Jackson’s ERA in AAA was almost six last year, so chances are he’ll start the season in the minors.
The bullpen is all about the closer. With Eric Gagne (2.19 ERA, 45 saves in 47 chances), the Dodgers have the best “Game Over” bet in baseball. Getting Gagne in the game with a lead became a problem after setup man Guillermo Mota was dealt to Florida. The Dodgers hope Yhency Brazoban, Giovanni Carrara, and others can fill in effectively. With veterans like Alvarez and Erickson, who haven’t been known lately for eating a lot of innings in their starts, in the rotation, the Dodgers are putting a lot of pressure on their middle and long relievers. But outside of Gagne, this bullpen is not very impressive.
Position players: General manager Paul DePodesta made some big-time moves to upgrade his team’s offense. Unfortunately for DePodesta, the moves might not work as well as he had hoped. Former Brave J.D. Drew (.305-31-93) will start in right field, former Astro Jeff Kent (.289-27-107) will play second base, and Hee Seop Choi (.251-15-46 overall), who was acquired from Florida in the Penny trade, starts at first base. Choi is in the last year of his contract, and the Dodgers hope he’ll hit better than the .161 average he put up in 31 games there at the end of last year. Milton Bradley needs to hit for a higher average and behave himself, and Jose Valentin has to improve after hitting .216 for the White Sox last year. The Dodgers traded pitcher Kaz Ishii to the Mets for catcher Jason Phillips, who has developing to do as a hitter, but is sound defensively.
Overall analysis: The Dodgers have made a lot of moves since the midway point of last season, and it doesn’t appear that they’ve really gotten better. Manager Jim Tracy has done a good job, but he will have a difficult time getting this team over the hump as long as he has Choi and Valentin in the lineup. The signings of Drew, Kent, and Lowe were too costly for the talents of the players signed, especially Drew (who didn’t consistently produce at this level until his contract year) and Lowe (who didn’t produce in his contract year until the playoffs). Management needs to figure out a direction for this franchise before it’s too late to right the ship. For now, the Dodgers will flounder in the middle of the West.
4. Colorado Rockies
Pitchers: The Rockies will never field an elite pitching staff, but things are getting better, as the organization has done a much better job of developing young arms. 2002 National League Rookie of the Year Jason Jennings (11-12, 5.51) has won double-digit games for three straight years. Lefthander Joe Kennedy (9-7, 3.66) was a castoff from Tampa Bay that turned in a very good season for Colorado. After a failed (understatement) stint as closer, Shawn Chacon (1-9, 7.11, 35 saves in 44 chances) is back in the starting rotation. As long as his 2004 season doesn’t affect his performance, Chacon should be a pretty effective starter for the Rockies (11-8, 4.60 in 23 starts in 2003). Youngster Jeff Francis and veteran Jamey Wright round out the rotation for now, with Aaron Cook (6-4, 4.28 in 16 starts) expected back in the first half of the season after surgery to repair a blood clot.
The bullpen lost 39 saves and blew 34 saves in 2004, so there’s nowhere to go but up. Chin-hui Tsao appears the favorite to take over as closer. Tsao made 18 appearances in the Rockies’ system last year (10 with the big-league club), so the jury is definitely out on whether he can handle being the team’s closer. The Rockies have some young candidates if Tsao fails, including Scott Dohmann and Allan Simpson. Also in the bullpen are setup men Brian Fuentes and Javier Lopez.
Position players: The Rockies have six losing seasons in seven years, largely because of a philosophy that had them adding cheap veterans on short-term deals. This year’s team is different, as veteran star Todd Helton (.347-32-96) will be surrounded by mainly young players. Besides Helton, 30, the oldest player in the projected everyday lineup is 30-year-old Preston Wilson (.248-6-29 in 58 games). Colorado has high expectations for young infielders Aaron Miles (.293-6-47), Clint Barmes, and Garrett Atkins, who hit .357 in 28 at-bats late last season. New starting catcher J.D. Closser hit .319 in 113 at-bats. He’ll be pressed to improve his work behind the plate, as well as his hitting fundamentals. But the team will be patient while he develops. The Rockies also picked up free-agent outfielder Dustan Mohr (.274-7-28 in San Francisco), who can play all three outfield positions well, and isn’t a terrible hitter (he should only get better in Colorado).
Overall analysis: Things are looking up in Colorado. The Rockies have some nice young pitchers (the team posted a starters’ ERA of 4.86 after the All-Star break) with plenty of upside. The commitment to a younger lineup should reap some benefits, even if it isn’t immediately. They need Wilson to stay healthy and put up numbers similar to 2003, when he hit 36 home runs and led the National League in RBIs. If he’s hurt again, the team might not have enough run production available to remain competitive. If the team can keep hitting and scoring runs, they might be on their way to getting the pitching they need to make a move in this division.
5. Arizona Diamondbacks
Pitchers: Javier Vasquez (14-10, 4.91) is the new ace of the pitching staff in Arizona. Vasquez crumbled in the second half of the season for the Yankees (4-5, 6.92), but the Diamondbacks are betting that those numbers are a fluke. His career numbers were solid before his disastrous second half in New York, a fact that has club officials optimistic. However, asking anyone to take a spot (staff ace) that was previously occupied by Randy Johnson is asking a lot. Russ Ortiz (15-9, 4.13) was signed from Atlanta to take the second spot in the rotation, with effective youngster Brandon Webb (7-16, 3.59), who was the victim of terrible run support in 2004. Veteran Shawn Estes, who won 15 games for Colorado last year despite an ERA near 6.00, will serve as the fourth starter. Youngster Mike Gosling will serve as the fifth starter to open the season. Gosling impressed the organization in a late callup last season.
The Diamondbacks have a young and inexperienced group of relievers, led by a new closer who will have to prove that a solid late-season run wasn’t a fluke. Greg Aquino picked up 16 saves in 19 chances and allowed opponents to hit just .194 against him on the season. For now, the closer’s job is his to lose. If Aquino falters, the club will probably turn to Jose Valverde (1-2, 4.25), who had eight saves last season before suffering a torn labrum. Valverde, Mike Koplove, Casey Fossum, and Randy Choate should see most of the setup work.
Position players: Two major offseason acquisitions will be asked to carry a significant amount of weight in this offense. Injury-prone third baseman Troy Glaus (.251-18-42 in 58 games) got a huge contract despite shoulder surgery that cut his 2004 season short. Veteran outfielder Shawn Green (.266-28-86) comes to the Diamondbacks from Los Angeles, where he had his ups and downs after getting a huge free-agent contract. Veteran Luis Gonzalez (.259-17-48) was able to play in over 100 games last season, but the club needs more out of him. Chad Tracy takes over at first base, and veteran Craig Counsell, who hit .241 in Milwaukee, will likely take over as the leadoff hitter. Veteran Royce Clayton (.279-8-54 in Colorado) will man the shortstop position.
Overall analysis: The first key to the season is the pitching. Ortiz had his ups and downs in Atlanta, but he’s a durable workhorse pitcher who should do just fine. Vazquez is a wild card because of how his first and only season with the Yankees finished up. Also in question is the ability of Glaus to stay healthy and avoid the strikeout bug. Gonzalez and Green have both had ups and downs recently. Counsell and Clayton are in the decline of their careers, and the Diamondbacks are asking them to set the table for the meat of their lineup. Bob Melvin takes over as manager after the Wally Backman fiasco, which is quite fitting of an organization that grossly overspent for some players, and got less than full value for the best pitcher in the National League.