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This season the National League will provide a treat for people whose nostalgia for the '80s has gone unsatisfied by the current vogue of skinny jeans and rail-thin ties: a good old-fashioned East-West arms race. On one coast you have the Phillies and their rock-star rotation (page 64). On the other you have the defending world champion Giants, who had the lowest team ERA in the majors last season (3.36), the most strikeouts per nine innings (8.2) and the lowest batting average against (.236). Should Philadelphia put the World Series trophy engraver on retainer? Or will San Francisco and its four starters under age 29—like Philly's four aces, frontline arms all—emerge as the NL's next dynasty?
It's a fun debate, but the most pertinent question about the Giants is this: Can they even win their own division? History doesn't favor a repeat, even if San Francisco's roster is nearly identical to the one that won 92 games in 2010—perhaps because their roster is identical to last year's (more on that later). San Francisco and Philadelphia may be on the brink of an interdivisional cold war, but the more apt analogy for the NL West is another historical epoch. It's the Wild West, where anything can happen and usually does.
No other division has been more hotly contested over the past five years: Four teams have finished first, and the fifth—the Rockies—went to the World Series as the NL wild-card entry in 2007. (No other division has had more than three winners in the past nine years.) Since '06 the division title has been won by an average margin of 1½ games, four less than the average of the five other divisions. In a group like this, picking a favorite is like panning for gold. "Even though we're the defending world champions," Giants general manager Brian Sabean says, "it's going to be tough as hell to get back to the playoffs."
The parity of the NL West can be traced to one thing: pitching, and lots of it. The NL's three best staff ERAs over the past five seasons belong to the Dodgers, Padres and Giants. Of the past 12 NL Cy Young Award winners, nine have come from the West. "The biggest misconception is how weak the division is, how offensively challenged the teams are," says outfielder Tony Gwynn Jr., who signed with the Dodgers in December after two seasons in San Diego. "You've really got to lock in and have your best at bats, or the pitching in this division will make you look like you don't belong. You're happy with your 1 for 4s."
All that talent on the mound—as well as three of the more pitcher-friendly yards in the game, in Los Angeles, San Diego and San Francisco—keep games tight, creating an emphasis on fundamentals that doesn't exist elsewhere. Since 2006 NL West teams have averaged more sacrifice bunts (0.43 per game) and more one-run games (46.9 per season) than those in any other division. "You don't go into the dugout thinking, Let's wallop them tonight," Rockies manager Jim Tracy says. "You find yourself needing to manufacture a run."
"For a purist, it's great baseball," says third baseman Chase Headley, whose 11 home runs in 2010 were second most among this season's Padres regulars. (Outfielder Will Venable had a whopping 13.) "It's intense because every single pitch matters."
With its lack of star power and payroll might, the NL West can be easily overlooked—at least until its pitchers are dominating the postseason. "This division is a hidden gem," says Rockies first baseman Jason Giambi, who joined Colorado in September 2009 after more than 14 seasons in the AL. "It's a thinking man's game over here. You have to be three or four moves ahead, and a manager can make a huge difference because one or two games might cost you the division."
Into that maelstrom steps Don Mattingly, who takes over as Dodgers manager this season following Joe Torre's retirement and will be under a spotlight as bright as that following any player in the division. Mattingly's managerial résumé is short: It begins and ends with 32 games in the Arizona Fall League last year. He served as Torre's hitting coach for three seasons, but two gaffes last year gave ammunition to critics who say Donnie Baseball isn't ready for a big league managing gig. While he was running the team in a spring training game, a lineup card snafu led to the team's batting out of order. Then, while filling in for the ejected Torre in a game last July against the Giants, Mattingly started to walk to the dugout after a ninth-inning conference with pitcher Jonathan Broxton only to turn back to the mound. The return trip counted as a second visit and forced the manager to remove his closer, which proved especially embarrassing when L.A. blew a one-run lead and lost the game.
While the Dodgers, who finished fourth last year, did little to improve themselves following their first losing season in five years—the messy divorce of owners Frank and Jamie McCourt continues to raise questions about the franchise's financial stability—the roster is still much the same as it was in 2009, when L.A. won the division. A strong rotation headed by lefthander Clayton Kershaw, a deep bullpen and three potential stars still in their prime (centerfielder Matt Kemp, first baseman James Loney and rightfielder Andre Ethier) easily could be enough to keep L.A. in the race. Stranger things have happened. "It's that thought of a lighthouse out there," Mattingly says. "You may just have to go a little bit here and there while keeping your eye on the direction you want your club to go."
The NL West's parity is enhanced by a relatively level financial playing field. There is no behemoth on the order of New York, Boston or Philadelphia setting the spending pace, and on average over the past five seasons the gap between the division's highest payroll and its lowest payroll ($49.9 million) was smaller than that of any other division. (Compare that with the AL East, where the average gap was $153.7 million.) "You don't have one overpowering force like you do in other divisions," says Diamondbacks centerfielder Chris Young.