- Tony Jackson, ESPNLosAngeles.com
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Two years ago, the National League West was so bad the Dodgers could afford to go on an eight-game losing streak in late August and still bounce back to win the division with a modest 84 victories, a total that wouldn't have been good enough for second place in the other two divisions. They clinched with four games to go, fittingly when second-place Arizona lost an afternoon game hours before the Dodgers even took the field that night.
One year ago, the NL West was so good the Dodgers needed 94 of their 95 wins to seal the division title, not clinching until they finally beat the hard-charging, second-place Colorado Rockies head to head on the penultimate day of the season.
Since then, the NL Best has only gotten better.
It begins, of course, with those same Rockies who pushed the Dodgers to the brink last fall under the guidance of former Dodgers manager Jim Tracy. They have become the fashionable preseason pick to win the division for the first time in their history. They bring back virtually the same team, with a couple of tweaks here and there.
Gone is third baseman Garrett Atkins, whom the Rockies had been trying to trade for years, opening the way for Clint Barmes and Ian Stewart to play almost every day. Gone also is right-hander Jason Marquis, who won 15 games, pitched 216 innings and also posted a two-hit shutout against the Dodgers on June 30, one of only four wins in 18 games for the Rockies in head-to-head matches with the team that ultimately bested them by three games in the division race. But in Marquis' place is a healthy Jeff Francis, the team's one-time ace who missed all of last season while recovering from labrum surgery.
Colorado also boasts one of the deepest lineups in baseball. It is still anchored, after 14 seasons, by venerable first baseman Todd Helton. But it is the younger players, like speedster Dexter Fowler, established stars Troy Tulowitzki and Brad Hawpe and up-and-comer Carlos Gonzalez, that make this team dangerous.
"Colorado may have been the best team in the division the last two months of last season,'' Dodgers general manager Ned Colletti said. "They really aren't much different from what I can tell.''
The Arizona Diamondbacks are a lot different, starting with an upgraded pitching staff that eventually will get former Cy Young Award winner Brandon Webb back from shoulder surgery to join a group that includes three-time All-Star Dan Haren and newly acquired righty Edwin Jackson, an All-Star with Detroit last year who you may recall being the Dodgers' top pitching prospect until they traded him to Tampa Bay for Danys Baez and Lance Carter in 2006.
The Diamondbacks also are getting left fielder Conor Jackson back after he missed the final four months of last season with valley fever; they added respected veteran Adam LaRoche at first base; and third baseman Mark Reynolds is still one of the most feared hitters in the league when he makes contact, even though he doesn't seem to make contact very often -- he set the all-time, single-season record for strikeouts in 2008, then broke his own mark in 2009.
While shortstop Stephen Drew isn't the player he once was and center fielder Chris Young struggled last year, right fielder Justin Upton is an exciting player who is coming off a breakout year in which he hit .300 and made his first All-Star team.
The bullpen is a weak spot, especially at the back end.
The San Francisco Giants are sleepers in the division, mostly because their starting rotation is unrivaled. It includes a two-time Cy Young Award winner in Tim Lincecum, a one-time Cy Young Award winner in Barry Zito, an All-Star in Matt Cain and a guy who pitched a no-hitter in Jonathan Sanchez.
But the bullpen might be just as good. Closer Brian Wilson posted 38 saves last year, and lefty Jeremy Affeldt, now the primary setup man, allowed just 42 hits in 62 1/3 innings with a 1.73 ERA.
The lineup is said to be better, but not much. Veterans Aubrey Huff and Mark DeRosa have been added, but they aren't exactly game-changers, and second baseman and hit machine Freddy Sanchez isn't expected back from shoulder surgery until May. That leaves raw-but-dangerous third baseman Pablo Sandoval and three veterans -- catcher Bengie Molina, shortstop Edgar Renteria and center fielder Aaron Rowand -- to shoulder most of the load.
Likely to bring up the rear is San Diego, a team that won 12 more games in 2009 than it did in 2008 but now must adjust to life without Jake Peavy. There is speculation beloved first baseman Adrian Gonzalez is on the trading blocks as well, but that is tough to buy given that he is owed just $4.75 million this year with a club option for next year at $5.5 million, a relative bargain given his production, and that he is arguably the team's only drawing card when it comes to selling tickets.
The Padres have a decent rotation, with proven starters Chris Young, Jon Garland and Kevin Correia at the front, and they have some exciting young players in third baseman Chase Headley, shortstop Everth Cabrera and left fielder Kyle Blanks. They also have one of the game's best closers in Heath Bell, who on his way to an NL best 42 saves last season never flinched under the pressure of being the guy who replaced Trevor Hoffman.
Based on spring training, when they ran like crazy, the Padres appear to be trying to reinvent themselves as a team built around speed, stolen bases and manufactured runs. They won't be the disaster they were two years ago. Still, there is very little here to suggest that they can contend in a stacked division.
It all makes for what should be a riveting summer, although with this division more balanced than it was last year and with each of these teams playing each of the other four at least 18 times, it is tough to believe anyone can win more than about 90 games. That means it's also tough to believe that whoever finishes second in this free-for-all will have enough wins to qualify for the wild card.
And that means it could be a win-or-go-home year in the NL West, something that could make the ending even more intriguing.
Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.
There's no room for Dodgers to falter in the NL West.