Longtime Rivalry Takes Center Stage In NL West
PHOENIX—Bruce Bochy has those sleepy eyes, and that slow speech pattern.
Do not, however, be deceived. He is among the elite managers in the game.
He has taken the Giants to two World Series championships in the last three years, giving him six postseason trips in his career. While Jim Leyland of the Tigers leads active managers with 1,676 regular-season wins in a 21-year career, and Dusty Baker of the Reds is second at 1,581 in 19 seasons, Bochy ranks third with 1,454 wins in three fewer seasons than Leyland, and one less than Baker.
Not that anybody seemed to notice. Bochy was beaten out for the National League manager of the year award last season by Davey Johnson of the Nationals. It's not a huge concern for Bochy, however.
"I'm not doing this for attention or accolades," he said. "I'm in this to win and get to the postseason and try to win another World Series. This game isn't about the manager. It's about the players, and how they play the game."
And more than ever, the players in the National League West are as talented as any in the game. The NL West has long been one of baseball's most balanced divisions, with every team in the division having made the playoffs twice—and only twice—since 2005. The Giants have cashed in on their two appearances with World Series titles, while the Rockies reached the World Series in 2007 (defeating the Diamondbacks in the NL Championship Series).
So the Giants are clearly in the midst of the most successful period in their franchise's history, and the Dodgers have seriously upped the ante, with new ownership and a new local television contract giving them money to burn. At the same time, the Diamondbacks won the division in 2011 and think they have found a winning formula again, and the Padres and Rockies both have interesting pieces.
At the top of the division, though, it would be foolish to overlook the Giants. Bochy keeps his team focused on what it has to do. Never was it more evident than last summer, when the Giants lost Melky Cabrera to a drug suspension and the Dodgers kept adding bodies.
The Giants didn't blink. They pulled away in the final six weeks of the season.
And now the organization has the feeling that the team could be better in 2013 than it was in 2012. For one, Sergio Romo has settled into the closer role, easing concerns from last spring when the incumbent closer, Brian Wilson, had Tommy John surgery and was lost for the season.
What's more, catcher Buster Posey proved he was healthy and claimed the NL MVP, and third baseman Pablo Sandoval remained one of the most feared hitters in the game.
And while the Giants got the boost from a reinvented Barry Zito in 2012, their ace of previous seasons, Tim Lincecum struggled, and found himself in the bullpen in the post-season, where he rediscovered the value of his fastball. An impending free agent Lincecum expects a return to form in 2013.
"This is a team that played very well together, and played for each other," Bochy said. "It's good to have that back. A big part of putting the roster together is the character of the guys. It's why (general manager) Brian (Sabean) wanted to keep everyone together. It's not just the tools, but the makeup."
The Giants' hated rival, the Dodgers, have shaken the financial foundation of the game since new ownership took over last spring. The Dodgers have made the Yankees, of all teams, look like pikers.
Now the Dodgers want a payoff. They want a division championship.
They put together a roster that projected to have a $215 million payroll on Opening Day. The current record was set by the Yankees at $209 million in 2008. And these aren't short-term commitments. The Dodgers go into the season with five players—outfielders Matt Kemp, Carl Crawford and Andre Ethier, first baseman Adrian Gonzalez and righthander Zack Greinke—who have five or more years remaining on their contracts, which carry a combined guarantee of $611.5 million.
That's why the Dodgers have become the talk of the game, just like it used to be for the Yankees when Dodgers manager Don Mattingly wore pinstripes.
"It was like if you didn't win it all, you had a horrible season," he said. "We'd have teams play hard, battle their way through Boston, get into the postseason, and if you lost in the postseason it was like you didn't do a thing. That's a tough measuring stick."
And it's even tougher when the team doesn't even make the playoffs, which is what happened last year despite a series of in-season additions that began with acquiring Brandon League from the Mariners to add bullpen depth and was capped by the Aug. 25 mega-deal that brought Gonzalez, Crawford, Josh Beckett and Nick Punto from Boston.
In between were two trades with the Phillies, acquiring outfielder Shane Victorino on July 30, and four days later righthander Joe Blanton, and a July 25 deal with the Marlins that landed lefty reliever Randy Choate and shortstop Hanley Ramirez.
The payoff? A Dodger team that was two games out of first place in the NL West when the Boston bombshell dropped went 17-18 the rest of the season, eight games back of the Giants by the end of the regular season.
Mattingly thinks an offseason to adjust will help the in-season additions, particularly the guys from Boston.
"(Last August) our guys were just fighting every day, and all of a sudden you've got a whole new club and (the new guys) don't really know the fight that you're in," he said. "They're coming from a different fight. They're happy to be out of the one they were in. The Boston guys were so happy to be in L.A. that they didn't care what happened. It's just nice to get these guys together and set a common goal."
Ready To Challenge
Diamondbacks GM Kevin Towers is aware of the way the Dodgers are spending money. He knows San Francisco has been a major force. He, however, is not intimidated by the competition in the NL West.
"We've got to rely on (farm director) Mike Bell and (scouting director) Ray Montgomery to supply us the players so we can compete with large-market clubs that can go out and bid on free agents," Towers said. "You see in baseball and other sports that the team that wins is not always the one who spent the most."
Towers is accustomed to competing against big spenders. Before becoming the GM in Arizona midway through the 2010 season, he was GM of the Padres from 1996-2009. The Padres made the playoffs six times during his tenure, the most of any NL West team in that stretch. (Colorado made it twice, and the Dodgers, Giants and Arizona four times each.)
In Towers' first full season in Arizona, 2011, the Diamondbacks won the West. He sees the challenges in front of his team, but Towers has his sights on another trip to October in 2013.
He had an offseason checklist, and got all his shopping done before Christmas. Then he sent ripples through the division when he finally dealt right fielder Justin Upton to the Braves. While some wondered about the loss of a premium talent, Diamondbacks officials said they think they will be a better club this year than last.
The Diamondbacks signed a proven starter in free agent Brandon McCarthy, who went 17-15, 3.21 in Oakland over the last two years, and came back from being hit in the head with a line drive to pitch without trepidation late in the 2012 season. They added lefthanded-hitting depth for the infield with Eric Hinske, who can play first, and Eric Chavez, who can play third.
They lost Stephen Drew but think they found both the short-term and long-term solutions at shortstop by acquiring Cliff Pennington from the A's and prospect Didi Gregorius from the Reds. The addition of Heath Bell from the Marlins provides depth behind closer J.J. Putz, and Matt Reynolds and Tony Sipp fill the void of lefthanders in the bullpen.
The Padres found new owners last year, and the group even has Dodger ties, including sons and nephew of Peter O'Malley. But while the new owners in Los Angeles came out spending, the new owners in San Diego have taken the same approach as the old owners, careful in their spending, looking for their diamonds in the rough.
"The best thing we can be as an organization is aware of who we are and feel good about it," GM Josh Byrnes said. "This is competition. We are out here to win games, and most important we want to win championships. But we have to understand how we are going to do it."
It's about building, and long-term commitment in San Diego. While the Dodgers reworked their roster in the final three months of 2012 and then signed free-agent Zack Greinke, the Padres re-signed journeyman Jason Marquis and altered the outfield dimensions at Petco Park, where pitchers have flourished and hitters have faded into oblivion.
The Padres do have worries, and in stark contrast to recent history the concern is with their rotation, a longtime strength that unraveled last year. They went into the offseason expecting lefthander Clayton Richard and righthanders Edinson Volquez and Andrew Cashner to anchor the 2013 rotation.
Cashner, who has a triple-digit fastball, was added to the list of questions marks in December, however, when he cut a tendon in his right thumb while dressing out a deer on a hunting trip. The injury is not major but will keep him from being ready on Opening Day.
The Padres suffered another major setback when catcher Yasmani Grandal, who hit cleanup at times in the second half last season, got a 50-game suspension for violating baseball's performance-enhancing drug rules.
The Padres do think their offense is coming around, and it was a key part of why they played so well in the final months of last season. They were 76-86 overall but won 49 of the final 86 games, which undoubtedly was a factor in the team picking up the options in manager Buddy Black's contract for 2014 and 2015.
"Now we have to take it a little farther and be the team we want to be," Black said. "We're getting to a point where we feel good about our talent every night."
Most pundits expect the Padres to battle the Rockies at the bottom of the division, and Colorado was among the least active teams in the game this offseason. The one significant addition was righthanded reliever Wilton Lopez, who came over from the Astros. Not much for a team coming off a 98-loss season.
The Rockies, however, feel they can improve from within and that their main problem last year was injuries.
"There were people who thought we could win the division last year," general manager Dan O'Dowd said, "and this team is not much different than a year ago."
Jorge De La Rosa, Jhoulys Chacin and Juan Nicasio, who are expected to be the top three starters, were beset with injuries that virtually eliminated any impact they could have last season. Shortstop Troy Tulowitzki played less than a third of a season, and Carlos Gonzalez, Todd Helton and Mike Cuddyer also battled nagging injuries.
Would good health be good enough to make the Rockies a factor?
The Rockies, like the rest of the division, have a 162-game test to find out, and in the NL West that test is becoming increasingly difficult.