NL West: Healthy Giants should prevail

Healthy Giants should take the title

PHOENIX -- When we last left the National League West, all five teams were struggling below .500 as late as Sept. 27. Only the Padres made it by season's end, finishing at 82-80, the worst record for a division winner (or prior to 1969, a pennant winner) in Major League Baseball history. No worry. The Cardinals promptly swept the Friars out of a first-round playoff series, putting them out of their misery.

The other four teams finished a whopping 68 games under the mark of respectability. And to put that into context, nine of the 16 NL teams finished at .500 or better this past season, including the entire NL East. Call it the yin and yang of things. Yin: East. Yang: West.

It probably won't be as much of a yang season for the NL teams that mostly play west of the Rockies. But even with a lot of rearranging of the deck chairs in the offseason, it will be pretty close.

The favorite

Here we are again, going into a season when the average roster age is older than a baseball Methuselah. When Moises Alou turns 40 on July 3, the Giants will own the trifecta -- three potential starting outfielders in Alou, Barry Bonds and Steve Finley who are not yet old enough to join AARP in the real world, but in the baseball world are setting all kinds of longevity records.

Projected regular-season finish: NL West champions

Biggest Spring Training challenge: Keeping everyone healthy. Bonds missed 142 games last season after undergoing surgery three times on his right knee. At 708 homers, he's chasing Babe Ruth (714) and Hank Aaron (755), but he's also chasing Father Time. He'll be 42 on July 24 and the question is how many innings and games he has left in that arthritic knee.

Best position battles: Mostly set. With the departures of J.T. Snow and Edgardo Alfonzo, there will be a new look on the infield corners: Pedro Feliz at third and Lance Niekro at first. It's the younger Knucksie's time to shine. Or not.

Wild card: It may all come down to Armando Benitez, the closer who never pitched a big game he didn't blow. Give him props for coming back last year from an awful hamstring injury. But give him knocks for blowing several big games (home against the Padres and at Los Angeles) in September when the Giants had a glimmer of a chance.

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The challengers

They actually got older, adding Vinny Castilla, Mike Piazza and dethroned Red Sox second baseman Mark Bellhorn. Manager Bruce Bochy will finally shift Ryan Klesko from left field back to first base, a move he should have made last season as soon as Phil Nevin was traded. But as has been the pattern during his Padres years, you can't hide Klesko defensively.

Projected regular-season finish: Second place

Biggest Spring Training challenge: Mike Cameron was obtained from the Mets, which would have been a great deal to plug up that vast center field in two-year-old PETCO Park. But the last we saw of Cameron, he had his head crushed in a collision with Carlos Beltran this past August in the Mets' last game of the year in San Diego. He hasn't played since and has to prove that he hasn't lost anything after the injury.

Best position battles: Big fight for who's going to replace Mark Loretta at second base: Bellhorn, rookie Josh Barfield, the returning Geoff Blum, Eric Young or Bobby Hill. Padres general manager Kevin Towers thought so much of Blum he dumped him last summer on the eventually World Series-winning White Sox. Boston general manager Theo Epstein released Bellhorn, his starter on the 2004 World Series titlists, at midseason. Your choice.

Wild card: That great young starting staff of earlier in the decade has been decimated, with only Jake Peavy remaining. Brian Lawrence, Oliver Perez and Adam Eaton have been blown off by the trade winds. What's left in their stead is Woody Williams, free agent Shawn Estes and Chan Ho Park, although the latter wasn't even good enough to pitch down the stretch last season. The Pads spent their money to bring back Brian Giles and Trevor Hoffman, but gutting the pitching staff puts them in peril of winning again.

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New manager, new general manager, new third baseman, new first baseman, new shortstop, same old song. Seems like a rerun of last offseason. The Dodgers won a division title in 2004 with 93 wins and the dethroned Paul DePodesta retooled the team. The 22-game turnaround to 91 losses in 2005 was the worst for this franchise since the 95-win 1966 World Series losers dropped 89 games in 1967. The difference: Walter Alston survived; Jim Tracy didn't.

Projected regular-season finish: Third place

Biggest Spring Training challenge: Who are these guys? Bill Mueller is the third baseman and Rafael Furcal is the shortstop. Nomar Garciaparra, who hasn't had a healthy season since Bill Clinton was president (OK, that might be overstating it), is going to try to take a few new positions: first base and not stirring up any confusion about who's boss in the clubhouse. New manager Grady Little has been through his act once before in Boston.

Best position battles: These aren't battles as much as medical revivals. Five players are coming off serious surgeries: closer Eric Gagne (elbow); cleanup hitter Jeff Kent (wrist); present and past shortstops Furcal (knee) and Cesar Izturis (Tommy John); and outfielder Jayson Werth (wrist). Furcal was damaged goods when the Dodgers signed him as a free agent. Go figure. Izturis is slated to move to second base when he returns about midseason, perhaps moving Kent to first, a position he doesn't like to play. And what, then, of Nomar? Left field? Good luck, Grady.

Wild card: The starting rotation could be problematic. Of their returnees, Brad Penny and Odalis Perez finished the season with nagging injuries. Derek Lowe gave the Dodgers fits with his off-field antics. Jeff Weaver went to free agency and is still unsigned; Brett Tomko takes his place. But Tomko showed little big-game heart in stops at San Diego, St. Louis and San Francisco. Jae Seo comes from the Mets with his 22-24 lifetime record and 3.85 ERA. The good news is that Gagne seems to be healthy. The bad news is that the starters have to get the ball to him and a revamped bullpen.

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The long shot

Once again, it's the Phoenix shuffle, greatly precipitated by the finances of a franchise that sold its soul to win the 2001 World Series and is now paying dearly every year because of it. Gone are veterans Troy Glaus, Royce Clayton, Javier Vazquez, Shawn Estes, Tim Worrell, Kelly Stinnett, Lance Cormier and Oscar Villarreal from a team that hung around the race for a good part of 2005, finishing in second place, only five games out. And most of the above were newcomers then.

Projected regular-season finish: Fourth place

Biggest Spring Training challenge: Integrating all the newcomers and staying injury free. Evaluating prospects like Stephen Drew, Carlos Quentin and Chris Young, who are all on the cusp, but probably won't make the big club.

Best position battles: Finding a fifth starter (as usual) behind the revamped rotation that includes Russ Ortiz, Brandon Webb, the returning Miguel Batista and Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez.

Wild card: Have to like the way new general manager Josh Byrnes has rebuilt the team up the middle, one of its weakest facets of 2005. Getting Johnny Estrada from Atlanta to catch, Orlando Hudson from Toronto in the Vazquez deal to fill second base, and signing free agent Eric Byrnes to play center field could pay big dividends. That gives manager Bob Melvin the opportunity to move Craig Counsell from second to short and Shawn Green back to his natural right field.

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Maybe next year

After finishing strong in 2005, the Rockies made a few adjustments over the winter that complemented the young core of players who surround veteran All-Star first baseman Todd Helton. Perhaps the biggest acqusition for 2006 will be a healthy Clint Barmes, who missed most of his rookie season with an injury attributed to a fall while carrying deer meat -- this, after by far the best start to the season by a rookie in all of baseball. With GM Dan O'Dowd and manager Clint Hurdle having their contracts extended through 2007 just before Spring Training, there's a sense of consistency the Rockies haven't had for quite some time.

Projected regular-season finish: Fifth place

Biggest Spring Training challenge: Putting together the right kind of pitching staff to weather the long season in Colorado. That means more than just relying on the strong young starting staff led by Jason Jennings, Aaron Cook and Jeff Francis, but having a crew of relievers to get the ball in the hands of All-Star closer Brian Fuentes.

Best position battles: The newfound presence of Jamey Carroll, primarily a second baseman but capable of playing third and short as well, creates an interesting mix in the infield that will play itself out during Spring Training.

Wild card: Watch out for the Rockies, who may have the best young talent in the division. They were awful during the first half of 2005, but played 31-22 ball from Aug. 1 on.

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You read it here first ...

1) The Dodgers will go through the season without any carping between Little and new general manager Ned Colletti, a hallmark of last season when Tracy and DePodesta lost touch from the get-go and never communicated.

2) This will be Towers' make-or-break season. He shopped himself to the Diamondbacks last offseason to no avail. The Padres then made it clear they had no intention of eating the final two years of his contract worth over $2 million. That might not be the case with only 2007 hanging in the balance if the Padres falter.

3) Bonds will play no more than 110 games and perhaps a lot less. He'll pass Ruth in late April or early May, but won't get close to Aaron this season. If he's not within 20 of the Hammer when the season is over, Barry will hang them up at the age of 42.

4) Melvin, who is going into the last year of his two-year contract, is the most susceptible of the managers in the division to lose his job early if the Diamondbacks get out of the gate slow. The other four managers have either just signed extensions, or are icons like Felipe Alou in San Francisco and Bochy in San Diego.

Barry M. Bloom is a national reporter for This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.