And now, the last of The Monk's divisional previews for 2005: The NL West. The absence of Barry Bonds is probably the difference-maker of the year. With Bonds, the Giants would be favored; without him, the division is up-for-grabs between the Dodgers, Padres and Giants. Here we go:
I'm picking the Padres, not because of any real comfort level with the pick, but because they are the least worse of the three alternatives. They have the league's most underrated pitcher, Jake Peavy, a nice end-game with Otsuka and Hoffman (which will be even better if Linebrink can come within an earned run of his 2004 7-3, 2.14 numbers), a ballpark that plays havoc with visiting power hitters and respectable pop for a HR-unfriendly field (Nevin, Giles, Hernandez, Loretta, Greene). With the addition of just-knows-how-to-win pro Woody Williams to the rotation, improvement from Adam Eaton (how DO you allow 28 bombs and an ERA over 4.50 when you pitch 1/2 your games at PETCO?), a season closer to 2003 than 2004 for Tim Redding and a repeat of 2004 from Brian Lawrence, this team can make enough noise to win the 92 that is probably the over/under mark for the 2005 NL West champ.
The Giants are next even if Bonds does not return at any time this year. Why? (1) Addition of Moises Alou; (2) Pedro Feliz's coming of age; (3) Ray Durham and Marquis Grissom are ageless; (4) Jason Schmidt; (5) a full season from Noah Lowry and Jerome Williams. Yes, they're old but they're not addled. The defense is better without Bonds than with him, Snow is a premier firstbaseman, and Vizquel is the Ozzie Smith of the AL but now in a new league. If Brett Tomko can post a season close to 2004 (11-7, 4.04) instead of his norm, and if Kirk Reuter can get his ERA out of the Eric Milton range (4.73 last year), this team could contend WITHOUT the BigHeadMan.
Third on this list are the Dodgers because it never rains in Southern California and without Brad Penny, this team has three viable starters: Odalis Perez (a ridiculous 13 decisions in > 30 starts in '04), Derek Lowe (who was FINISHED, DONE, TORE UP, A STIFF . . . until the '04 playoffs), and Jeff Weaver (who is still untrustworthy). If Edwin Jackson becomes the pitcher the Dodgers hoped for in 2003, not the off-of-injuries ineffective stiff of '04, and if Penny gets 25-28 starts at full power, this team can weather Gagne's injury and compete. Other questions: will Jeff Kent flake out, will JD Drew be the star he was in Atlanta in '04 or the perennial injuries-lead-to-disappointment underachiever he was in St. Louis? Will Yhency Brazoban adequately replace Guillermo Mota? Honestly, these three California teams are interchangeable in the standings at this point.
The Diamondbacks are a group reclamation project. Did Bob Melvin suck as the Seattle manager -- sure, but we'll give him a job here; did Shawn Estes have three straight years as a starter with an ERA over 5 in the NL -- sure, but he'll be fine here; did Javy Vazquez lose his head in NY -- yeah, but he's back in the NL; has Russ Ortiz been worse from year-to-year from 2002-2004 -- yes, but let's cough up a 4-year contract anyway; and throw in the oft-injured Troy Glaus and Shawn Green, whose slugging percentage and number of extra base hits has declined each year from 2001. Know this: the D'Backs will walk a LOT of hitters -- Estes (105), Ortiz (112) and Brandon Webb (119) were 3-2-1 in walks allowed and will probably finish in spots 2-4 in some arrangement this season behind the Mets' Victor Zambrano. Quite a recipe for failure.
The Rockies are proof that not every major city in the US should have a baseball team. Not that Denver does not deserve one -- the Rockies consistently bring big crowds and are fun to watch -- but because the Colorado elevation makes it impossible to pitch. It's not just the homers either: little flair pops that would barely make the infielders move back to catch them become bloop hits galore. And the pitches don't move: curveballs and sliders don't break, therefore they're just slower fastballs and easier to catch up to. The Rockies have Todd Helton, and Joe Kennedy (the rare pitcher who can pitch at Coors Field) and . . . that's it. My one question is whether a pure two-pitch speed-change-only pitcher would be the prototype for Denver: fastball/changeup, nothing that depends on curving.