The National League West was -- no sugarcoating this -- a confederacy of dunces in 2005. The West was so bad last year that the Padres, the eventual division winners, were the only team in the West that finished above .500 (82-80).
In hopes of a better showing in '06 -- and, maybe, a little out of sheer embarrassment -- the Padres went about this winter tearing apart the team and building it up again. They know, as everyone else in the West knows, that mediocrity won't cut it this season, especially if You-Know-Who is back in San Francisco.
You-Know-Who is the single most important factor in the West. If Barry Bonds -- that's who -- returns relatively healthy, the Giants have a very good chance to unseat the Padres. The Giants, theoretically, still could win the division even with a mostly gimpy Bonds. They beefed up their pitching with the addition of Matt Morris. Closer Armando Benitez should be healthy. The team re-signed outfielder Randy Winn, who hit .359 with 14 homers and a 1.071 OPS after coming over from the Mariners in a midseason trade. Still, if Bonds is only average, the Giants will fall back alongside the madeover Padres and the formerly slap-dog Dodgers.
No one in the division suffered through the offseason throes that the team in L.A. did. The Dodgers fired manager Jim Tracy at the end of October and then, a few weeks into their drive to find a replacement, they fired the man heading the search, general manager Paul DePodesta. The team's fortunes began to change when longtime San Francisco front-office man Ned Colletti was hired as G.M. He picked former Boston skipper Grady Little to manage the team, and the two finally got to work swapping and signing a bunch of could-be finds, including shortstop Rafael Furcal, Nomar Garciaparra (who will play first), center fielder Kenny Lofton, third baseman Bill Mueller and pitchers Brett Tomko and Jae Seo. With closer Eric Gagne back and healthy, the Dodgers, who lost 91 games in '05, could be the surprise of the league in '06.
Back in San Diego, credit has to be given to G.M. Kevin Towers, who saw the flaws in last year's team and wasn't about to stand pat, division winners or not. The Padres went after hitters for big Petco Park (trading for third baseman Vinny Castilla, signing free-agent catcher Mike Piazza and re-signing right fielder Brian Giles); they beefed up their defense with a trade for center fielder Mike Cameron; they shook up their rotation, getting young Chris Young from the Rangers and Shawn Estes from the Diamondbacks; and they kept their closer by re-signing Trevor Hoffman. The Padres still have some good-sized holes to fill -- Hoffman needs help in the bullpen, San Diego is banking on a rookie (Josh Barfield) at second base, and the Padres still lack a big bat or two -- but at least they didn't sit still.
In the end, the West will come down to the Giants, Padres or Dodgers (the Rockies are still way too young, and the Diamondbacks don't have the firepower or pitching), and much will rely on the health of guys who had injury problems in '05. Included in that list are Giants ace Jason Schmidt and closer Benitez, Padres ace Jake Peavy and shortstop Khalil Greene, and the Dodgers' Garciaparra, Gagne and outfielder J.D. Drew, to name a few.
No one will assume a more important role than Bonds, who played in only 14 games last season. With Bonds in the lineup and producing for, say, 130 games, the Giants should win the West. If not, watch out for the Dodgers, who have the best pitching in a still shaky division.