Wild, wild NL West should be improved

Wild, wild NL West should be improved

A strong finish enabled the San Diego Padres to capture the National League West regular season title with a winning record (82-80), which tells you a) the division was extremely well-balanced or b) the division was heavy on mediocrity.

Based on all the moves made within the division during the offseason, the NL West could be just as competitive as a year ago, but with more wins from practically every team in the division. A team might even win 90 or more games.

Mark this down: it will take more than 82 wins to win the West and get to the playoffs.

SCENARIOS

The Padres win if ...
A group of veteran players (Mike Cameron, Mike Piazza and Vinny Castilla) acquired during the offseason provides ample offense and a suspect middle relief corps performs well.

Possible pitfalls
Piazza doesn't catch as many games as expected, rookie second baseman Josh Barfield scuffles or Hell's Bells rarely plays at PETCO.

The Giants win if ...
Barry Bonds plays between 135-140 games and opponents pitch to him more than once a game.

Possible pitfalls
The attention surrounding Bonds becomes a distraction to everyone on the team and within the organization.

The Dodgers win if ...
Nomar Garciaparra returns to the All-Star form he had in Boston and new shortstop Rafael Furcal plays up to his $13 million per year contract.

Possible pitfalls
Lack of power could become the Dodgers' most glaring weakness and diminish their playoff hopes.

opening day 2006
Battle for the Division Titles
• American League: East  |  Central  |  West
• National League:   East  |  Central  |  West

The Diamondbacks win if ...
The revamped bottom of the lineup injects some offensive life into the team and moves runners along much better than last season.

Possible pitfalls
The back end of the bullpen makes a habit of losing late-inning leads, which would sap the energy of a relatively young team.

The Rockies win if ...
The NL West is so well balanced that breaking even becomes a challenge. Oh yeah, that happened in '05, didn't it?

Possible pitfalls
The team ERA goes as high as the highest peak in the Rocky Mountains.

IMPACT PLAYERS

Top pitcher
A Barry Bonds-led offense and good heath could make Giants right-hander Jason Schmidt the league's biggest winner in 2006.

MVP
As long as Bonds' knees hold up and he ignores the media circus around him, there could be one final hurrah remaining in a storybook career.

NEW FACES

Brett Tomko, Dodgers -- The right-hander could have a good year as a fourth or fifth starter.

Matt Morris, Giants -- The cool summer weather in San Francisco will help keep him fresh all season.

Rafael Furcal, Dodgers -- His streak of consecutive seasons in the playoffs (six) could be in jeopardy.

Nomar Garciaparra, Dodgers -- The end of the road apparently goes through Chavez Ravine.

Steve Finley, Giants -- Anaheim, Los Angeles, San Diego, Phoenix and now San Francisco. He sure must enjoy the West Coast.

Mike Piazza, Padres -- The power numbers are sure to decline at PETCO Park, but he still is a leader.

Mike Cameron, Padres -- The natural center fielder returns to his favorite position and he has Gold Glove defense.

Ray King, Rockies -- After the Cardinals used him 77 times last season, he could easily reach the 80-plus game appearance mark this season.

Johnny Estrada, Diamondbacks -- If only he can hit the way he did in 2004 when he was with the Braves.

Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez, Diamondbacks -- Might be fired up by his homeland's success in the World Baseball Classic.

ROOKIES TO WATCH

1B Conor Jackson, Diamondbacks -- Expectations are sky high on the offensive-minded player who hit for power and average at Triple-A Tucson last season.

RHP Matt Cain, Giants -- As long as Cain is able to have fewer baserunners than innings pitched, which he did last season in his first seven MLB appearances (24 hits and 19 walks in 46 1/3 innings), he'll succeed.

2B Josh Barfield, Padres -- Son of former MLB star Jesse has a bright future of his own.

C Russell Martin, Dodgers -- Taking over behind the plate might be just a matter of months away.

LHP Hong-Chih Kuo, Dodgers -- Left-handed reliever has what it takes to become valuable member of the bullpen.

Jim Street is a national reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.