In the weak NL West, not being very good may still be good enough
In 2005, the San Diego Padres won the National League West with a record of 82-80, the kind of accomplishment a division never lives down. It was the worst record ever for a division champion, and it was embarrassing, but it was also not likely to be repeated. The NL West was about to unveil a crop of new players who would make it impossible for anyone to win the division at 82-80 again.
Since that lean summer, the Dodgers debuted Russell Martin, Matt Kemp, James Loney, Andre Ethier, Chad Billingsley and Clayton Kershaw. They signed Rafael Furcal, Juan Pierre, Takashi Saito, Andruw Jones, Hiroki Kuroda, and of course, Joe Torre.
The Diamondbacks introduced Chris Young, Stephen Drew, Micah Owings, Justin Upton, Mark Reynolds and Max Scherzer. They signed Eric Byrnes, traded for Orlando Hudson and then swung the blockbuster deal last winter to add Dan Haren.
The Rockies did not make as many moves, but they found their shortstop of the future in Troy Tulowitzki. The Giants found their ace in Tim Lincecum. The Padres traded for Adrian Gonzalez and Chris Young. The NL West never looked tougher. Last year, the Diamondbacks and the Rockies both won 90 games and went to the playoffs. The Padres won 89 and fell just short. The Dodgers, with 82 wins, only finished fourth.
Coming out of spring training this year, the West was clearly the best division in the National League. The Dodgers, Diamondbacks and Rockies could all legitimately win it. The Padres and Giants could easily play spoiler. But now, more than halfway through the season, it looks as though 82-80 could be enough to win the NL West again.
The Diamondbacks, who had the best record in the major leagues at the end of April, are now tied with the Dodgers for first place, with identical 45-46 records. And they have given hope to the Giants, Rockies and Padres, who by all rights should have lost hope about two months ago.
The entire division has been a first-half disappointment, save the Giants, who could not have expected much anyway post-Barry Bonds. The Diamondbacks can blame their young hitters -- Drew, Upton, Reynolds, and Young -- none of whom is batting better than .253. The Dodgers can blame their latest free-agent expenditure, Jones, who is overweight, injury prone and batting .159. The Rockies can blame their pitching and their home field, two familiar culprits. And the Padres can blame whoever in their front office decided that Scott Hairston, Paul McAnulty or Jody Gerut could be regular outfielders.
There are as many alibis out west as scapegoats. The Rockies, Diamondbacks and Dodgers have all lost their emotional leaders for extended stretches of the season. Tulowitzki missed 46 games with a torn thigh tendon, and three weeks after his return, he sliced his right hand when he pounded his bat into the ground. Byrnes missed a month with injuries to both hamstrings, and eight days after his return, he strained his left hamstring again. Furcal went down in May with a bulging disc in his back and will need at least two months to recover from surgery. Tulowitzki, Byrnes and Furcal, among the most productive players in the division last year, have made no real impact this season.
But in the NL West, where organizations have been trumpeting their fertile farm systems for years, there should be enough talent to fill the void. In 2005, the West was a laughingstock because teams were old and their prospects were inexperienced. That year, Matt Cain appeared in just seven games for the Giants. Conor Jackson played in only 40 for the Diamondbacks. Ryan Spilborghs played in one for the Rockies. Eventually, those players would become contributors. At the time, though, they were just finding their way.
Players in the West like to say that the division beats itself up, and that the poor records are a sign of parity. Indeed, it is no easier to pick a winner now than it was in spring training. As the Rockies showed last season, a team can start terribly in the NL West and find itself in the World Series. While the Diamondbacks and Dodgers appear to be in a two-team race, the Rockies lurk just on the fringes, same as they did a year ago.
Playing in this division has its pros and cons. On the one hand, no team is out of the race at the All Star break. On the other hand, teams that should be trading veteran players at this time of year may be tempted to keep them. The Giants and the Padres, for instance, have several veterans that could help real contenders and net prospects. Judging by their record, they are clearly sellers. But in this division, it is hard to concede. The NL West has already crowned one champion at 82-80. They know it can happen again.