02/05/2003 08:36 am ET
NL West Spring Training preview
Arizona to division: We'll be D-Backs
There are still five teams in the division, but the NL West has become a bit of a three-team race the last few years.
| John Schlegel|
Both the Arizona Diamondbacks and the San Francisco Giants have emerged from tight regular-season division battles to reach the World Series, and the Dodgers have kept the race lively into September each of the past two seasons.
This year probably won't be too much different, although the Padres and Rockies are making some strides toward joining the party. It just might take another year for one or both of them to really make an impact.
Heading into Spring Training 2003, here's a snapshot of the NL West:
The Diamondbacks aren't getting any younger, but the window of opportunity at The Bob isn't closed just yet. Even if they have a lot of guys who were born in the '60s, the Diamondbacks boast the best balance in the division. With the unparalleled combo of Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling at the top of the rotation and a healthy Luis Gonzalez leading a strong if not spectacular lineup, there's no reason to believe the Diamondbacks can't make it a three-peat in the NL West.
Biggest Spring Training challenge: Staying healthy -- that means you, Matt Williams.
Best position battles: The Diamondbacks finally may have gotten a reliable No. 3 starter in Elmer Dessens, but there are still mound questions left unanswered. From the back end of the rotation to the question of how best to use Byung-Hyun Kim, there's plenty to consider in Tucson.
Spring outlook: Eager to put their sweeping disappointment of last October behind them, the Diamondbacks enter 2003 having to prove themselves a little less vulnerable. Having a solid, healthy spring is a first step toward that.
Projected regular season finish: First place in another tight battle.
San Francisco Giants
Simply put, this isn't the same team that went to the World Series a year ago. There's a chance it might be better in some ways, but also a good chance it will fall short of getting another shot at the World Series. Sure, Barry Bonds is still there, and the Giants made some solid acquisitions by picking Edgardo Alfonzo, Jose Cruz Jr. and Ray Durham out of the free agent pool. Considering all the changes needed, the offseason went well. This is still a formidable club, but not the slam-dunk contender it was a year ago.
Biggest Spring Training challenge: Making the myriad changes work for the better under the new management of Felipe Alou. They're all pros, but they all have to work together -- and you only know how that'll pan out once they try it for a while.
Best position battles: The signing of Cruz wrapped up the position battles, although it'll be interesting to see how Alou uses utilityman Neifi Perez. The bullpen still has some question marks -- among them: Will Robb Nen be fully recovered from surgery?
Spring outlook: It'll be interesting to see if Rich Aurilia and J.T. Snow can pick up where they left off at the end of 2002, because the Giants will be all the better if they can. In general, if the Giants can adjust to their new, more speed-oriented offensive strategy in Arizona, they will reap benefits once the season starts.
Projected regular season finish: Second place -- but the NL East will take the Wild Card this year.
Los Angeles Dodgers
Is this the year the Dodgers get over the hump? Part of a three-way battle atop the division into September the last two years, key injuries to the likes of ace Kevin Brown eventually took their toll. The Dodgers shook things up a bit while juggling some payroll constraints, bringing in Fred McGriff to bat alongside Shawn Green for as tough a lefty-lefty power combo as there is around. They're hoping for more offensive production to support what could be a stellar staff, from a deep rotation all the way to phenom closer Eric Gagne.
Biggest Spring Training challenge: Getting recuperating starters Brown and Darren Dreifort -- and let's not forget Kazuhisa Ishii -- healthy as soon as possible without rushing them. They'll need all hands on deck to get off to a good start in this division.
Best position battles: All eyes will be on second base, even if rookie Joe Thurston has been virtually anointed as the new man there. Finding a platoon mate for center fielder Dave Roberts is also on tap.
Spring outlook: Manager Jim Tracy will re-establish his trademark sense of consistency and positive thinking when the team's in Vero Beach, but the club should have a higher level of expectation than the last couple of years, too.
Projected regular season finish: Third place by a game or two.
Maybe Next Year
San Diego Padres
The biggest offseason move the Padres made was the one they didn't make -- the Ken Griffey Jr. deal that wasn't. Phil Nevin, who nixed the trade with his no-trade clause, will have to step up in a big way after a down 2002 season marred by injury, and he's starting out by embracing a switch to left field for 2003. Nevin joins with Ryan Klesko, Mark Kotsay and Sean Burroughs for a solid core to the batting order, but the Padres' hopes will ride on a few very talented but green starters.
Biggest Spring Training challenge: Making sure the "musical positions" works out this time. Last year, Burroughs' arrival moved Nevin to first and Klesko to right. This time, they'll try Nevin in left and Klesko at first.
Best position battles: The development of the rotation will be key to the Padres' fortunes, and we'll find out a lot in Arizona. With a healthy Adam Eaton, another model season from Brian Lawrence and further development from Oliver Perez and Jake Peavy, the Padres could wind up with one of the best young rotations in the game -- or that could be another year away.
Spring outlook: This spring can't help but be better than last year, when the tragedy of Mike Darr's death took the wind out of the Padres. We'll also be keeping an eye on Trevor Hoffman's recovery from shoulder surgery.
Projected regular season finish: Fourth place.
The Rockies are reinventing themselves (again) and are now more focused on using the altitude at Coors Field to their advantage by trying to win with power. (In other words, the humidor might be mysteriously out of order this year.) While they picked up some talented players with the likes of Preston Wilson, Jose Hernandez and Charles Johnson, these guys aren't exactly reincarnations of the Blake Street Bombers of years past. The Rockies' biggest offseason maneuver was actually the subtraction of failed star Mike Hampton, essentially making 2002 Rookie of the Year Jason Jennings the ace of the staff by default.
Biggest Spring Training challenge: Settling on a rotation, and whether or not it will include veteran Denny Neagle, will help other things fall into place. The bullpen appears to be improved.
Best position battles: It's all up to Juan Uribe. If he snaps out of last year's funk and starts making contact, he'll be the starting shortstop. If not, the Rockies can go with Hernandez there.
Spring outlook: Now manager Clint Hurdle can really put his stamp on this club with a full Spring Training. If the Rockies do start to click early on, it'll be in large part because of his leadership and ability to establish a cohesive unit among all the changes.
Projected regular season finish: Last place, in a tight battle with the Padres.
1) Due to a lack of protection, Barry Bonds won't hit 50 home runs. He will exceed the single-season record for walks for a third straight season while battling for a second straight batting crown.
2) Luis Gonzalez will rebound with a more healthy and productive season, and beat out Bonds and Sosa for the most homers in the NL.
3) The Padres' Adam Eaton will emerge as one of the league's top right-handed starters, pushing 20 victories.
John Schlegel is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.