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In keeping with that trend, no NL West team significantly overhauled its roster this winter. Like the Dodgers, the Rockies and the Giants barely changed a thing. Colorado's biggest moves were locking up shortstop Troy Tulowitzki (seven years, $134 million) and leftfielder and reigning NL batting champion Carlos Gonzalez (seven years, $80 million) with contract extensions. The Giants re-signed a handful of thirtysomething veterans—first baseman Aubrey Huff, outfielder Pat Burrell, outfielder Andres Torres—who outperformed their career norms. But praying that the magic of 2010 carries over isn't necessarily a wise business plan. Neither was signing 36-year-old free-agent Miguel Tejada. A team that was below league average in runs per game and on-base percentage won't see its attack energized by the shortstop, who signed for a year and $6.5 million. Last year he had his lowest batting average (.269) since 2001, his lowest on-base percentage (.312) since '98 and his lowest slugging percentage (.381) since '97.
San Diego, of course, lost its best hitter, slugging first baseman Adrian Gonzalez, who was traded to the Red Sox. The team rebuilt its infield on the cheap, signing outfielder turned first baseman Brad Hawpe and second baseman Orlando Hudson for a combined $14.5 million and acquiring shortstop Jason Bartlett from Tampa Bay. None of those additions figure to vastly improve San Diego's offense, which was the division's worst (4.1 runs per game).
One team that did undergo a personality makeover is the Diamondbacks. Kevin Towers, who was the Padres' G.M. for 14 seasons, took over the same post in the desert last September. He inherited a club that won 65 games and was historically bad in two areas in 2010: Arizona's bullpen was the NL's worst ever (5.74 ERA), and its hitters struck out a record 1,529 times. In December, Towers traded third baseman Mark Reynolds, the team's leading home run hitter and the only player to strike out 200 times in a season (he's done it three times), to the Orioles for young power arms David Hernandez and Kam Mickolio. The same day he also signed free-agent closer J.J. Putz to a two-year deal worth $10 million. "You could score 900 runs," Towers says, "but if you don't pitch well, you're not going to win."
Predictions in the NL West are pretty inaccurate most years," says Headley. "We were picked to be the worst in all of baseball last year."
With good reason. The Padres finished 75--87 in 2009, and after two straight NLCS appearances the Dodgers were the division favorites heading into '10. Naturally, San Diego, despite having the second-lowest payroll in the majors, won 90 games and led the NL West by 6½ games on Aug. 25.
A 10-game losing streak that began the next day ate into that lead, and the Giants, who were in fourth place as late as July 15, caught San Diego and moved into first on the final Sunday in September. It was just another wild finish in a division that since 2006 has had four different winners and four different basement dwellers. All that tumult makes it easy to forget that the NL West trails only the AL East in World Series appearances (six to four) over the past decade, and that its 14 teams to finish above .500 since '06 ranks second behind the AL East (17). Over the past four seasons the Phillies have made three trips to the NLCS; the other five teams have come from the NL West. Maybe San Francisco's championship in 2010 wasn't an underdog victory after all. "Even after we won the World Series last year," says Huff, "I feel like people still don't give us the credit that we deserve."
To repeat, the Giants will have to be as flawless—and as lucky—as they were last season, when not one starting pitcher went on the disabled list. Called up from Triple A in late May, catcher Buster Posey provided an offensive spark and was named NL Rookie of the Year. San Francisco has another Rookie of the Year candidate in Brandon Belt, a sweet-swinging first baseman whose timetable to be promoted is similar to Posey's last season.
If Belt takes over at first, Huff will shift to the outfield—the sort of move that never created problems for the team last season. "We had a great cast of characters that coalesced into a team," manager Bruce Bochy says. "Guys set aside their own egos and asked, What's best for the club?"
Of course, nothing is better for a club than the kind of pitching the Giants had last postseason, when they tied a record with four shutouts and won six of their 15 games by one run. There's no reason to think starters Tim Lincecum, Jonathan Sanchez, Matt Cain and Madison Bumgarner can't continue their dominance. It's enough to make fans dream about an epic NLCS sequel between the Giants and the Phillies. Arms races are always hottest in October.
HOW THEY WILL FINISH