Pitching driving force behind NL West's success
Originally Published: July 13, 2007By Sean McAdam | Special to ESPN.com
The American League East might have the money and the game's two biggest payrolls. The American League Central might have the highest number of playoff-caliber quality teams.But in The Other League, the National League West is quickly gaining notice as the game's most improved division and also its most underrated. Heading into the season's second half, just 3½ games separate the top three teams. Last year, the division supplied half of the NL's postseason field and no one would be surprised if that happened again. "The division is on the upswing, for sure,'' remarked a NL scout who works for a team outside the division. "Even Colorado, which has been down in recent years, has a lot of good young offensive players and some top pitching prospects on the way.'' "I definitely think it's the best division over there [in the NL],'' said an AL front office man, "and it's only going to get better.'' The division has come a long way from just two seasons ago when the San Diego Padres won the title with a mere 82 wins, one game over the break-even mark. A look at some of the factors in how the West has won over believers: Armed and ready
"What you have out West,'' said one prominent NL talent evaluator, "is a tremendous commitment to pitching.''
The division features arguably the game's top two pitching ballparks: Petco Park in San Diego and Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles; a third, AT&T Park in San Francisco, isn't far behind. With expansive playgrounds and deep power alleys, the Padres, Dodgers and Giants have rosters that emphasize pitching and utilize home field advantages. "Most of the better [NL] offenses are in the other divisions,'' said one NL source. "But the teams in the West have been built around pitching. With the unbalanced schedule, you have to take into consideration where you're playing.'' The Dodgers, Giants and Padres play approximately 100 games -- minimum -- each season in roomy ballparks with forgiving outfield dimensions. "All three of those teams have done a good job constructing rosters with their own ballparks in mind,'' said an American League assistant general manager. One American League executive was confounded by the Padres' extraordinary bullpen numbers -- until he visited Petco. "That place is like the Grand Canyon,'' he said in wonderment. "It's easy to trust your stuff when you have power alleys like that place. Confidence is a big thing for pitchers and I think pitchers know it's very, very hard to make a mistake there.''
It used to be kind of cyclical. But now there's not a real big difference between payrolls. The teams that were rebuilding [Colorado and Arizona] are through, and now every team is basically in win mode. My sense is that everyone has a chance to win.
Padres GM Kevin Towers on the NL West
Unlike the game's two Central divisions, there are no small-market franchises in the NL West, no Kansas City or Pittsburgh crying poor mouth. Not every market is as big as Los Angeles or San Francisco. Then again, Denver, San Diego and Phoenix aren't economic outposts, either. "They all have money,'' noted an AL general manager. Of the five teams in the NL West, only the Dodgers play in a facility older than 15 years, and because they are one of two franchises who own their own ballpark, the revenue stream flows freely. "It used to be kind of cyclical,'' said Towers. "But now there's not a real big difference between payrolls. The teams that were rebuilding [Colorado and Arizona] are through, and now every team is basically in win mode. My sense is that everyone has a chance to win.'' That parity isn't just talk -- since 2002, every team but Colorado has won at least one division title. General (manager) stability
Three of the five GMs in the division (Towers, San Francisco's Brian Sabean and Colorado's Dan O'Dowd) have been in their present jobs since before the millennium. The Dodgers' Ned Colletti, who has been on the job less than two full seasons, was Sabean's longtime assistant in San Francisco. Josh Byrnes, in his second full season in Arizona, previously worked in Colorado and was an assistant to Theo Epstein in Boston. Epstein, in turn, was Towers' assistant in San Diego before being hired by the Red Sox. That continuity and familiarity makes for better long-term planning and fewer changes in direction and philosophy. Even the managers don't stray too far. When Sabean went looking for a replacement for Felipe Alou in the Giants' dugout, he didn't look far, hiring Bruce Bochy away from the Padres. The talent pipeline
Other than the Giants, who are easily the oldest team in baseball, the division features some of the best young players in either league. The Dodgers, having resisted numerous overtures for their highly-prized prospects, recently began working two rookies into the everyday lineup: outfielder Matt Kemp and first baseman James Loney. The Diamondbacks boast a handful of top draft picks seemingly headed for stardom: outfielder Chris Young, shortstop Stephen Drew (first round), first baseman Conor Jackson (first round) and former No. 1 overall pick outfielder Justin Upton.