Once a laughingstock, the NL West has remade itself with pitching and youth to become baseball's most heated division
DODGERS GENERAL MANAGER Ned Colletti, a former executive with the Giants, recalls greeting ex-Padres manager Bruce Bochy this winter and telling him how much he was going to appreciate righty Greg Maddux, who had recently left Los Angeles and signed with San Diego. Colletti for the moment had forgotten that Bochy had left the Padres to become the Giants' new manager. "You know," Bochy responded drolly, "I'm with your old club."
The two men enjoyed a rare chuckle between competitors of baseball's most heated division—one that has experienced so many internecine personnel moves that you can't keep track of the players or the front offices without a BlackBerry. A punch line just two years ago, when the Padres won the division with an 82--80 record, the 2007 NL West is a joke no longer.
Says Colletti, "You never play a game in this division without knowing you're going to have your hands full." He speaks from experience. In early April his Dodgers swept a three-game series in San Francisco; later in the month the Giants returned the favor at Dodger Stadium.
The matchups, especially between the three California teams, have become a procession of close, low-scoring affairs. (Through Sunday there had been 21 one-run games played between NL West teams, the most of any division.) With the Giants' off-season signing of free-agent lefthander Barry Zito, plus Randy Johnson's return to Arizona, the division is home to 11 Cy Young Awards ( Johnson, five; Maddux, four; Zito and Diamondbacks righty Brandon Webb, one each). Padres righthander Jake Peavy, who had a 1.52 ERA and a majors-leading 66 strikeouts, is a strong candidate to make it an even dozen.
Moreover, the NL West arguably has baseball's best young talent. The Diamondbacks lead the pack, boasting blue-chippers such as 24-year-old shortstop Stephen Drew and outfielder Chris Young, 23, who through Sunday had six homers and 18 RBIs. Also churning out good young position players are the Rockies, who have a slick-fielding shortstop in 22-year-old Troy Tulowitzki, and the Dodgers ( catcher Russell Martin, 24, has a .318 average and ranks 11th in the league in runs). Meanwhile, the Giants have produced prime pitching prospects in back-to-back years, with rookie Tim Lincecum joining fellow 22-year-old righty Matt Cain in the San Francisco rotation. "This division is going to be good for a long time," says Rockies centerfielder Steve Finley, who has played on all five NL West teams during his productive two-decade career. "In 2001, when [we] won [the World Series] in Arizona, it was more of a veteran division.... Now more of the teams have gone to building from within."
While the division features plenty of passion ( San Diego G.M. Kevin Towers's 15-year friendship with Bochy is on hiatus when the teams meet), it's lacking in pop. Through Sunday, San Diego's .697 OPS (on-base plus slugging percentages) was fifth worst in the majors, while Los Angeles's was not much better (.702). In the off-season both teams looked into acquiring the potent bats of Alfonso Soriano and Carlos Lee. L.A. had to settle for leadoff man Juan Pierre, who played for the Rockies from 2000 to '02 and who was hitting a punchless .290 with 15 stolen bases. The Padres, meanwhile, lost their leadoff man, Dave Roberts, to the Giants; last week Roberts, who was hitting .216, went on the disabled list with bone spurs in his left elbow.
At week's end the top four NL teams were bunched within 3 1/2 games of one another, with last-place Colorado a mere seven out. The rest of the NL West believes the underachieving Rockies eventually will make it a party of five. "When all is said and done, less than five games are going to separate everyone," Towers says. "It's going to be like a game of musical chairs." This is merely a continuation of 2006: Last year the Padres and the Dodgers tied at the top ( Los Angeles was awarded the wild card), and the majors' tightest division was separated by 12 games. Thanks to Towers's trading acumen—first baseman Adrian Gonzalez, 6'10" lefty Chris Young (3.11 ERA through Sunday), relievers Cla Meredith and Heath Bell, and catcher Josh Bard all came in deals since '06—the Padres have a chance to make it a three-peat. "They play the game right," Rockies G.M. Dan O'Dowd says admiringly. But Towers says if anyone should be favored, it's the Dodgers, who have the youth and depth to withstand injuries and an aggressive G.M. in Colletti. "There's a mutual respect for one another within the division," says Towers.