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02/14/08 10:00 AM ET

How did NL West go from worst to first?

Pitching and youth give the division four legitimate contenders

What used to be known as the NL Worst might now have to be dubbed the NL Best.

Who'd have thought that a division that hit rock bottom in 2005 with a champ that finished only two games over .500 could put on a win-or-go-home thriller in the 163rd game of the 2007 regular season and place two teams in the National League Championship Series?

And, entering 2008, who'd have thought that the NL West might stand alone as a division that has as many as four legitimate playoff contenders?

It's become clear that the NL Best, er, West is baseball's "it" division as 2008 begins.

"It's been the most improved and the most balanced division in the league, even with the trade of [Johan] Santana to the Mets," said Dodgers general manager Ned Colletti.

"I feel we're in the best division in baseball now," said Giants manager Bruce Bochy, who led the Padres to four NL West titles before moving north.

Two or three years ago, such a statement about the NL West would have drawn howls. In 2005, the Padres won the division title with an 82-80 record, needing to win five of their last six to even get there. Once they did, they were merely a three-game speed bump on the Cardinals' road to an all-NL Central NLCS.

But last year the Padres and Rockies were deadlocked at 89-73 through 162 games and battled into extra innings before Matt Holliday's slide sealed the Wild Card bid for Colorado. The Rockies soon earned a trip to the World Series by beating NL West champion Arizona in the NLCS, but were swept by the Red Sox in the Fall Classic.

Despite all that excitement out West, Arizona first baseman Conor Jackson's workout buddies this winter -- Boston's Manny Ramirez, Kevin Youkilis and Dustin Pedroia, and the Rays' Carl Crawford -- remain, shall we say, East Coast biased.

"They all talk about the American League East and what a tough division it is," Jackson said. "I tell them to come out here and see the pitching in the National League West. Once again this year, the pitching in our division is going to be ridiculous."

A mound of evidence
There is definitely one area that sets the NL West apart, all would agree.

"Pitching has been the big thing," D-backs manager Bob Melvin said.

Just check your box scores to see how good the pitching is in the NL West.

"You see a lot of low-scoring games in our division, you see a lot of one-run games in our division," Melvin said. "That all starts with the guys out on the mound, and I feel our division, from top to bottom, is as good as any division in baseball."

Consider the vote for the 2007 NL Cy Young Award: The Padres' Jake Peavy won the award, his first -- and you can use that term loosely, because he's still just 26 going on 27. Arizona's Brandon Webb, the 2006 winner, was second in the voting, followed by the Dodgers' Brad Penny.

Consider the rest of the pitching picture, especially the rotations:

• The D-backs already had Webb, and now they have another ace with the arrival of Dan Haren from the A's. Oh, and there's Randy Johnson and his five Cy Young Awards back in the mix.

• Peavy not only won the Cy Young but also claimed the pitching Triple Crown -- leading the league in wins, ERA and strikeouts. He has a future Hall of Famer in Greg Maddux and a 6-foot-10 gem in Chris Young alongside him.

• The Dodgers signed who many considered the best free-agent pitcher on the market when they brought in Hiroki Kuroda from Japan, adding him to a mix that includes Penny, Derek Lowe and -- if he proves healthy -- Jason Schmidt.

• The Giants have 2002 Cy Young winner Barry Zito and a talented young tandem in Matt Cain and Tim Lincecum.

• And then there are the Rockies of Coors Field, long known as a pitcher's worst nightmare. Suddenly, pitching -- and a record-breaking defense in 2007, it should be noted -- has replaced bashing as the main focus in the Mile High City.

"The Rockies have come a long way with what was a younger group a couple of years ago," Melvin said. "They are much more experienced now with [Troy] Tulowitzki and Holliday to go along with [Todd] Helton.

"But I think pitching was key for them last year."

Youth serves
And what was the key to the Rockies' pitching? Youth.

Lefty Jeff Francis, 27, won 17 games in the regular season. Ubaldo Jimenez, 24, had a 2.25 ERA in 16 postseason innings. Franklin Morales, 22, made a big impression late and into October. Manny Corpas, 25, took over as closer midseason and had five postseason saves. Heck, Aaron Cook is the graybeard of the staff now, at 29.

Youth has become a hallmark throughout the NL West, not just in Colorado.

Said Colletti: "The division has some of the better young players, and players in the prime of their careers."

The Diamondbacks went as far as they did last year on the strength of their Baby 'Backs, as such ultra-talented youngsters as center fielder Chris Young (24), shortstop Stephen Drew (24) and outfielder Justin Upton (20) burst onto the scene.

And the Dodgers are flexing -- and protecting -- their youth with catcher Russell Martin (24), first baseman James Loney (23), outfielders Matt Kemp (23) and Andre Ethier (25), and pitcher Chad Billingsley (23) making their mark.

"I think last year we saw the rise of the young player in our division, probably more so than any other division," Padres manager Bud Black said.

It isn't by accident. For the most part, the infusion of youth in the division is the product of years of work and planning.

"It's the talent in the farm systems, specifically Los Angeles, Arizona and Colorado," Padres GM Kevin Towers said. "The best players have arrived at the big league level. We're a year or two years behind them. I think what's changed is that good, young talent has arrived at the big league level and been successful."

Does it all add up to a dominant division in baseball's landscape? Perhaps, perhaps not. But it certainly adds up to a division that demands attention, not only in 2008 but beyond.

Wherever the 2008 road brings us, it's becoming clear that the NL West is much more the driver than the speed bump these days.

"I think expectations are high," said the Rockies' Francis. "People got a taste of it last year. But our division is so tough, it could be any one of the five teams that ends up getting in. It's going to be a tight race for six months."

John Schlegel is executive editor for the West Divisions for MLB.com. Reporters Corey Brock, Steve Gilbert, Ken Gurnick, Chris Haft, Thomas Harding and Jim Street contributed to this report. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.