- Bob Klapisch, MLB
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The eternal debate over who's hot and who's not is driven by an even more maddening question: What, exactly, is the definition of hot?
In identifying baseball's hottest division, do we mean the trendiest (most attractive to free agents), the most talented (greatest star quotient) or the most competitive (tightest races)?
Let's face it, instant popularity is king in a world of short attention spans, which is why the NL West gets our vote. It's hot, at least right now, because it's the new home of the game's richest free-agent pitcher (Barry Zito), the most celebrated homecoming king (Randy Johnson) and the collective migrations of Jason Schmidt, Greg Maddux and David Wells.
It's enough to make you think the lure of the East is finally on the decline; Zito turned his back on what should've been an layup courtship for the Mets, just as Schmidt blew off the Yankees and everyone else to the right of the Mississippi. Had it not been for the Red Sox's snaring of Daisuke Matsuzaka, the East would've had its worst recruiting winter in years, although it can still be argued that the Sox and Yankees are still on the shortest path to October.
In the meantime, however, the NL West likely will post the majors' lowest overall ERA -- or as Dodgers general manager Ned Colletti told Peter Gammons recently, "[the division] is clearly a pitching-oriented division."
What made the West so tempting? For some, it was money. Zito obviously couldn't resist the $126 million he'll be earning over the next seven seasons. While it's true the Giants essentially were bidding against themselves -- one AL general manager called it "madness in a market that'd already gone mad" -- Zito opted for San Francisco's familiarity over, say, New York's energy.
Familiarity was also a critical factor in Johnson's request to be traded back the Diamondbacks. Soon after the death of an older brother, the Big Unit told a Yankees official he "wouldn't mind" if they could engineer a deal with Arizona. One club official said, "he didn't confront us and demand anything like [Gary] Sheffield, but it was clear Randy wanted to move on."
Johnson might or might not be the strikeout machine who averaged nearly 11 K's a game in 2004, his last year in the National League. Logic says no chance, considering he's 43, coming off back surgery and was working with a diminished fastball in his two years with the Yankees. But working in a friendly environment will make a real difference to Johnson, who was a virtual outcast in pinstripes, distancing himself from teammates and fans alike.
Favorable ballpark conditions no doubt made it easier for Maddux and Wells to end up in San Diego. What pitcher wouldn't love to have 402-foot alleys in both left- and
right-center? Maddux had a taste for how much more comfortable life would be after being traded away by the Cubs last summer; his ERA shrunk by almost a run and a half, thanks to the Dodgers' superior infield defense and being liberated from Wrigley's wind tunnel.
And as for Schmidt, it was a no-brainer. He opted for the pitcher-friendly National League, then narrowed his choice to the Dodgers, where he was reunited with Colletti. The two had a relationship that dated back to their days in San Francisco, which made the courtship that much easier. Now teamed up with Derek Lowe and Randy Wolf, another free agent who spurned the East (Phillies) for a chance to play out West, the Dodgers will enter the season as the favorites in this suddenly glamorous division.
The NL Central was actually a close second to the NL West in generating winter heat. The Cubs, in particular, put on a dazzling show, spending enough money to fuel a third-world economy. The new faces include Alfonso Soriano, Ted Lilly, Henry Blanco and Jason Marquis, not to mention Lou Piniella. All that was missing from the Central's coronation as baseball's hottest division was Roger Clemens' announcement that he's returning to the Astros.
Further down on the list is the AL East, which didn't undergo any radical makeovers but nevertheless played host to the global bidding war for Daisuke Matsuzaka. The Thousand Year conflict between the Yankees and Red Sox became even more more intense after Boston invested some $100 million on Japan's greatest pitcher. Can't wait for the first showdown between Matsuzaka and Hideki Matsui.
The AL Central isn't quite the bruising division it was two years ago. The Twins will be hard-pressed to replace starters Brad Radke (retired) and Francisco Liriano (Tommy John surgery). Actually, the division race will be determined by just how much leftover momentum the Tigers will have in '07. Their acquisition of Gary Sheffield was an intriguing one; his loyalty to Jim Leyland, his former manager in Florida, might be the tipping point in sending the Tigers back to the playoffs.
The NL East had a relatively slow winter; the Mets are no better today than they were last October. They might in fact be worse, having whiffed on their attempts to sign Zito and Matsuzaka as a replacement for the injured Pedro Martinez. The Phillies' acquisition of Freddy Garcia means that no one (meaning the Mets) is likely to run away with the division by June, as was the case in 2006.
Bob Klapisch is a sports columnist for The Record (N.J.) and a regular contributor to ESPN.com.
It may or may not be the best division in baseball, but the NL West is the trendiest place to be thanks to the migration of some star pitchers.