Friday, July 13, 2007
Pitching driving force behind NL West's success
By Sean McAdam
Special to ESPN.com
The American League East might have the money and the game's two biggest payrolls. The American League Central might have the highest number of playoff-caliber quality teams.
But in The Other League, the National League West is quickly gaining notice as the game's most improved division and also its most underrated.
Heading into the season's second half, just 3½ games separate the top three teams. Last year, the division supplied half of the NL's postseason field and no one would be surprised if that happened again.
"The division is on the upswing, for sure,'' remarked a NL scout who works for a team outside the division. "Even Colorado, which has been down in recent years, has a lot of good young offensive players and some top pitching prospects on the way.''
"I definitely think it's the best division over there [in the NL],'' said an AL front office man, "and it's only going to get better.''
The division has come a long way from just two seasons ago when the San Diego Padres won the title with a mere 82 wins, one game over the break-even mark.
A look at some of the factors in how the West has won over believers:
Armed and ready
"What you have out West,'' said one prominent NL talent evaluator, "is a tremendous commitment to pitching.''
NL West clubs hold three of the four lowest staff ERAs in the league: San Diego (No. 1), Los Angeles (No. 2) and San Francisco (No. 4). Arizona isn't far behind at sixth and Colorado is 13th.
The division features two certain Hall of Famers among its starters (Greg Maddux and Randy Johnson), the two leading Cy Young Award candidates (Jake Peavy and Brad Penny), and last year's NL Cy Young Award winner (Brandon Webb).
The bullpens are less star-studded, but feature baseball's all-time saves leader (Trevor Hoffman) and another three who were good enough to make this year's All-Star team -- Jose Valverde, Brian Fuentes and Takashi Saito.
Already deep in pitching, the division got stronger last off-season when a couple of teams missed out on free agent hitters and decided to instead improve by adding pitching.
"We didn't want to get left out,'' said Padres GM Kevin Towers, "so we focused more on pitching.''
The Padres added Maddux, the Diamondbacks reacquired Johnson and the Dodgers landed Randy Wolf and raided the Giants staff for Jason Schmidt. Recent shrewd trades have resulted in the acquisition of prized young arms such as Chris Young (San Diego) and Jason Hirsh (Colorado).
Built to please
San Diego Padres
2007 Season Stats
The division features arguably the game's top two pitching ballparks: Petco Park in San Diego and Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles; a third, AT&T Park in San Francisco, isn't far behind.
With expansive playgrounds and deep power alleys, the Padres, Dodgers and Giants have rosters that emphasize pitching and utilize home field advantages.
"Most of the better [NL] offenses are in the other divisions,'' said one NL source. "But the teams in the West have been built around pitching. With the unbalanced schedule, you have to take into consideration where you're playing.''
The Dodgers, Giants and Padres play approximately 100 games -- minimum -- each season in roomy ballparks with forgiving outfield dimensions.
"All three of those teams have done a good job constructing rosters with their own ballparks in mind,'' said an American League assistant general manager.
One American League executive was confounded by the Padres' extraordinary bullpen numbers -- until he visited Petco.
"That place is like the Grand Canyon,'' he said in wonderment. "It's easy to trust your stuff when you have power alleys like that place. Confidence is a big thing for pitchers and I think pitchers know it's very, very hard to make a mistake there.''
Adds a NL advance scout: "That's what makes Maddux so perfect there. If you can command to the part of the strike zone where hitters can pull the ball, there's no way it's going to be hit out. And Maddux can still command.''
It used to be kind of cyclical. But now there's not a real big difference between payrolls. The teams that were rebuilding [Colorado and Arizona] are through, and now every team is basically in win mode. My sense is that everyone has a chance to win.
Padres GM Kevin Towers on the NL West
Unlike the game's two Central divisions, there are no small-market franchises in the NL West, no Kansas City or Pittsburgh crying poor mouth.
Not every market is as big as Los Angeles or San Francisco. Then again, Denver, San Diego and Phoenix aren't economic outposts, either.
"They all have money,'' noted an AL general manager.
Of the five teams in the NL West, only the Dodgers play in a facility older than 15 years, and because they are one of two franchises who own their own ballpark, the revenue stream flows freely.
"It used to be kind of cyclical,'' said Towers. "But now there's not a real big difference between payrolls. The teams that were rebuilding [Colorado and Arizona] are through, and now every team is basically in win mode. My sense is that everyone has a chance to win.''
That parity isn't just talk -- since 2002, every team but Colorado has won at least one division title.
General (manager) stability
Three of the five GMs in the division (Towers, San Francisco's Brian Sabean and Colorado's Dan O'Dowd) have been in their present jobs since before the millennium.
The Dodgers' Ned Colletti, who has been on the job less than two full seasons, was Sabean's longtime assistant in San Francisco. Josh Byrnes, in his second full season in Arizona, previously worked in Colorado and was an assistant to Theo Epstein in Boston. Epstein, in turn, was Towers' assistant in San Diego before being hired by the Red Sox.
That continuity and familiarity makes for better long-term planning and fewer changes in direction and philosophy.
Even the managers don't stray too far. When Sabean went looking for a replacement for Felipe Alou in the Giants' dugout, he didn't look far, hiring Bruce Bochy away from the Padres.
The talent pipeline
Other than the Giants, who are easily the oldest team in baseball, the division features some of the best young players in either league.
The Dodgers, having resisted numerous overtures for their highly-prized prospects, recently began working two rookies into the everyday lineup: outfielder Matt Kemp and first baseman James Loney.
The Diamondbacks boast a handful of top draft picks seemingly headed for stardom: outfielder Chris Young, shortstop Stephen Drew (first round), first baseman Conor Jackson (first round) and former No. 1 overall pick outfielder Justin Upton.
In Colorado, the Rockies have introduced shortstop phenom Troy Tulowitzki into a lineup that features talented 20-somethings such as Brad Hawpe, Garrett Atkins and Matt Holliday.
San Francisco sports a rotation that features Matt Cain (22), Tim Lincecum (22) and Noah Lowry (26).
Only San Diego has stalled when it comes to player development and Towers said that will change soon when the team's prospects in the lower minors mature some.
"I think, for the next five years, none of those clubs will fall off the edge,'' predicts one scout, "because of the talent they've got coming in their systems.''
"By 2010,'' said a major league talent evaluator, taking note of the prospects, "the NL West could be one of the two best [divisions] in the game.''
Of course, some have yet to be convinced of the upsurge.
"You hate to keep harping on it,'' said one AL GM, "but there's still a huge disparity between the leagues, it's incredible. Maybe I'm biased because I see our league so much more, but I think there's more sizzle than steak.''
Interleague success might help change some minds. The Giants took two of three from the Yankees, while the Rockies swept New York.
But true recognition might have to wait until the division shows its strength in October.
"One of our teams needs to win a pennant, then a World Series,'' said Towers flatly. "The Dodgers and our club have made the playoffs, but then we get knocked off in the first round. We've got to do better than that to convince people.''
Sean McAdam of The Providence (R.I.) Journal covers baseball for ESPN.com.
2007 Season Stats