Last season the NL West only sent one team to the playoffs but they were the team that won the last playoff game. Can Salem repeat as World Series champions? Can the Arizona Diamondbacks rebound from a disappointing season? Will Boise or Salt Lake City be heard from at all this season? We'll starting with the (cue Michael Buffer) reigning and defending World Series Champions.
Salem Sacrifices (92-70 last season)
Major Additions: RP Walter Curtis, SP Tony Gao (trade-Toledo)
Major Losses: LF Travis Ryan (FA- Salt Lake City)
Offense (Last season: T-6 in NL): The offense was a little better than average last season. The production begins in the outfield, with CF Nate Cox (.291-33-121, 115 runs), RF Chip Young (.280-26-115), and LF Jorge Tejera (.395 OBP, 53 steals). They were buoyed by slugging 3B Macbeth Keller ( .258-48-133) and IF Frank Gant (.373 OBP, 55 steals), so they have a nice balance of speed and power in the lineup. Look for rookie 2B Derrek Bedard to find a spot somewhere this season and contribute. They may not be the deepest lineup in the NL but they have more than enough weapons to be a solid offense.
Pitching (Last season: 2nd in NL): Starting pitching is where they shine. The NL Cy Young vote was split but the trophies both belong in Salem. Starters David Dunwoody (20-7, 2.61 ERA) and Dwight Salmon (14-1, 2.04) were the two best starters in the NL last season. Dan Pederson (14-5, 4.14) is a solid #3 starter, which is all you need behind Dunwoody and Salmon. Domingo Nunez (8-12, 4.63) should be #4 and could improve a little. The 5th starting role could be up for grabs, with Gao (7-12, 5.07 with Cincinnati and Pawtucket), Darrell Carter (9-8, 3.41) and Carlos Bennett possibly filling the roles- I'd expect Carter to be given first shot based on last year's performance. As for the bullpen, Curtis (8-2, 3.61 with Pawtucket) bolsters a bullpen that needs some help; Bey Brinkley(16 out of 21 saves, 5.20 ERA) was shaky after coming over from Philadelphia and the rest of the bullpen wasn't much better. This is the one potential weakness of this team.
Outlook: They'd have to be considered the odds-on favorite to repeat as NL West champs, especially if they can somehow find a closer or if Curtis is the answer. Arizona will challenge, but I think they have too much with the two aces.
Arizona Diamondbacks (86-76 last season)
Major Additions: SS Lawrence Flanagan (trade- Houston)
Major Losses: SP Keith Cortes (FA- Toledo)
Offense (last season: T-2 in NL): They scored over 900 runs last season and added Flanagan (.293-38-128 with Houston), who was an MVP candidate for the first half of the season before tailing off. The big question with Flanagan is whether he'll return to that first half production or if the second half is the beginning of the decline of the 34-year-old third baseman. If he returns to form, this is a highly dangerous lineup, as he'll join superstar LF Oswaldo Johnson (.295-59-152), C Willis Petrov (.325-31-121), 1B/C Davey Barrios (.322-36-112 with Durham and Arizona), and 1B Eddie Greer (.275-23-98) as big-time RBI men, although finding a position for all 3 could be tough. CF Justin Hernandez (119 runs, 82 SBs) got on base at a .355 clip- if he improves that even slightly it will make the lineup even scarier. Arizona could use consistent production from RF R.J. Figueroa- GM deaconsoule is betting $7.5 million that he'll be better than he was after being traded from Boise last season.
Pitching (last season: 10th in NL): This is maybe the one team in particular where the ranking doesn't even begin to tell the story. The major story here is a giant question mark in the form of Hippolito Pujols- he was 11-7 with a 3.42 ERA last season in his 23 starts but is coming off of major reconstructive elbow surgery. It's unknown whether he can regain the form that he had before going down last season. Outside of Pujols, Kane Grahe (15-8, 3.69) is the only consistent starter left on this team. B.C. Bennett is another starter coming off of major surgery. As for the bullpen, closer Vic Trevino (39 out of 45 saves, 3.35) was effective, but the rest of the bullpen is shaky.
Outlook: It's hard to describe an 86-win season as a disappoinment, but Arizona was looking to not only make the playoffs but make some noise once they got there. If they get the pitching staff together they can make the playoffs and maybe overtake Salem; I don't think it will. Arizona may have to look outside for a starting pitcher, but they have very few prospects left to deal. For them to win the division, Pujols and Bennett would have to come back strong, Grahe needs a repeat performance, and they need one more starter and at least one bullpen guy to step up. That's an awful lot to ask; I think they're outside looking in again.
Boise Buckskins (73-89 last season)
Major Additions: SP Vic McCormick (FA-Houston)
Major Losses: None
Offense (last season: 11th in NL): Last season the offense revolved around 3B Cap Herrera (.324-36-110) and 3B/1B/RF Jeff Jennings (.282-21-110). If Boise has hopes of competing this season, they'll need some help. At the top of the list of people who need to bounce back are LF Yank Lohse, who actually posted decent numbers (.257-22-88, 51 SBs), but isn't being paid $7.5 million to hit for decent numbers. RF Rob Hengten needs to show more than his .241 average to justify his $4 million, and the Buckskins need to figure out if Torey Mota is the answer at SS and what they have in 1B Jumbo Gates.
Pitching (Last season: 12th in NL): The rotation still reminds of the movie "Major League" and wants me to cue the song "Wild Thing". #1 starter Kelly Downs (10-8, 3.70) would have easily won around 15 games on a playoff-type team and Vic McCormick (11-8, 3.29 with Memphis and Houston) comes over to probably be the #2 starter, but other than that they don't have a starter than can consistently find the plate. Heath Caufield (7-14, 5.66), Kerry Barber (7-11, 6.24), and Glendon Governdale (8-12, 5.87) just don't have enough control to be even decent ML starters- Governdale made 29 starts and walked more batters than he struck out. The bullpen may be stronger than their rotation, as Boise thinks they have something in young closer Andres Rivera (and they may be right) and Chris Jennings, Rob Gilmore, and Davy Judd all had very good seasons as setup guys.
Outlook: I can see some potential here- Herrera and Gates are 23 and Downs is relatively young at 28- but they don't have enough starting pitching to compete, even if the hitters like Lohse and Hentgen get straightened out. They stand in stark contrast to a team in their own division in Salem. I see a smiliar fate for them this season; maybe enough to threaten .500 but probably won't break it- definitely not a playoff team.
Salt Lake City Shakers (Last season: 48-114 as the Los Angeles Dodgers)
Major Additions: LF Travis Ryan (FA- Salem)
Major Losses: None
Offense (Last Season: 10th in NL): The offense was not to blame for the 48-win season. Any discussion of this team begins with CF Lynn Abernathy (.288-32-109); he was a viable Rookie of the Year candidate last season and is still only 27. 2B Marc Olson (.286-40-104) and C Ruben Hernandez ( .294-32-107) joined Abernathy to form a good middle of the order. 3B Vin Foulke drove in 99 and SS Edwards Pierre added 81 RBIs while scoring 99 times. Add LF Travis Ryan from Salem and this is a fairly deep lineup.
Pitching (Last season: last in NL): Last season's mound work was (unfortunately) unforgettable for this franchise. Chicago was the only team within a run and a half of the Dodgers. Vince Costello went 9-13 with an ERA of 4.85- he could have had better numbers on a good team. Daniel Norris and Duke Nielsen had decent efforts; Mark Grimsley was just awful. Neither Horatio Lecuona (7-11, 5.27 with Durham and Montreal) nor Clinton Skrmetta (6-9, 7.20 ERA with Huntington) are going to add the depth that they need. The bullpen was worse; two key relievers (Alfonso Quixote and Ted Weston) finished the year with ERAs over 14. The closer role is wide open, as Bo Hatfield was traded last season.
Outlook: They'll be better just because the turmoil with the ownership change and the rumors about changing cities has finally stopped. They'll compete on a game-to-game basis, but they can't challenge .500, never mind think about the playoffs, with this pitching staff.