At the moment, I'd handicap the 2006 NL West in this order:
- Dodgers. Added Furcal, Lofton, Garciaparra, Mueller. Outfield and pitching still seem to have a few issues.
- Padres. Reigning champs, but only marginal improvement in Mike Cameron, etc. Pitching largely sucks after Peavy.
- Giants. Bonds back should be a plus; adding Morris helps; but everyone else will be a year older, and not necessarily wiser.
- D'backs. Upgrade at catcher, that's it. Vazquez is gone, leaving Ortiz our #2.
- Rockies. Will be improved, but too big a hill to climb in 2006.
That might seem a bit harsh on Colorado, but Rox Girl says, "Last year the Rockies were fourteen wins off of a .500 pace. Even if they were somehow able to come up with the money to pick up the best available free agents at their positions of greatest need...I could see the team still struggling just to reach that mediocre barrier." And who am I to argue with the SportsBlogs expert! :-)
No, as far as next season goes, it's hard to look past LA. Dodger Thoughts gives their anticipated 2006 lineup and confidently predicts, "all should post OPSes of .750 or above." To put that into context, our overall OPS was .754, with three positions - second-base, shortstop and catcher - returning .722, .656 and .631 respectively. Our catching should be significantly better next year, but even Estrada's career OPS is only .720. Gonna be tough to compete with LA in hitting.
It's also interesting how pitching deficient almost all the teams in the division are. The Dodgers probably have the edge here too, with a good #1-3 in Lowe, Penny and Odalis Perez, but the remaining 40% of their starts...who knows? The Giants have two starters (Lowry + now Morris) with an ERA+ better than 95 last year. The Padres have Peavy, but dumped Eaton and haven't done much to improve what was already a weakness. We have Webb secretly training to start all 162 games, and Coors Field remains the Island of Misfit Pitchers.
No, it's not going to be pretty in the division next year, and 90 wins - possibly even as few as 85 - should be enough to win it. I do think the gap between first and last in the West will be pretty small, though it was only 15 games in 2005: that was the smallest coverage for the division since we were added in 1998. Next season, it could be even tighter, something like the NL East where only nine games covered top to bottom, the closest race seen in the National League since it went to three divisions.
With that degree of competitive balance, the key factor could be how teams play out of the division, and that's an area in which we need to improve. Last year, we were 28-43 against the rest of the NL outside our division, the worst record in the National League. If we'd posted just a .500 record there, we'd have beaten the Padres. However, the improvements on an objective level (rather than within the Division) that we've made so far don't give me much cause for optimism in this area.
Gazing further into my crystal ball, I'd not be surprised to see the Rockies and D'backs fight it out in 2007. Both seem to be taking the route of development from within, and have some excellent prospects on the cusp of making a real difference. The Dodgers farm system is also very well-regarded, but might be a year further from making a serious contribution.
But with the harsh light of realism currently sending our hopes for next year scurrying for the shadows, it's ironic that 2006 could easily see a new personal-best in the area of games being attended. I'm negotiating to become a season-ticket holder...or at least, a tiny fraction thereof! Probably going to get a 1/8 share, which would certainly see us at more games (ten) then were managed in 2004 (six) or 2005 (er, one).
These are pretty good seats: section 118, which is the lowest level, effectively looking up the third-base line, and only about four rows behind where they leap to the "expense account" tier of pricing. For some reason though, Tim the ticket-owner keeps insisting on actual money, rather than accepting my offer of a top prospect from among my children, and a dog to be named later. Some people are just tough to deal with... ;-)