Saturday, January 3, 2009

What a Long, Strange Offseason It's Been Out in the NL West

The dawning of a new year means that Spring Training in Major League Baseball is just around the corner. January usually flies by for sports fans because of the National Football League playoffs, culminating in the Super Bowl. Then it's only a couple weeks or so until players must report for the exhibition season.

Teams usually like to have the core of their rosters in place before practice starts to allow maximum time for chemistry to develop and players to acclimate.

That means the window's closing on the period that customarily sees the biggest moves. Seems like a good time to take stock of what's happened (with an eye on what's likely to happen before players report).

Looking at the National League West, you can only ask yourself, "what in the world is going on?"

This was arguably baseball's weakest division last year. Shoot, some people will tell you that 60 games from Manny Ramirez was enough to net the Los Angeles Dodgers its pennant. I'm not one of them, but I can't mount a conclusive counterargument.

And that makes the hand-sitting by 80 percent of the division all the more absurd.

The aforementioned and defending division champs, those Bums in blue, have watched almost half their 2008 payroll walk out the door. Brad Penny and his bloated $8.5 million price tag are gone. Apparently, so are Derek Lowe (another $10 mil), Esteban Loaiza ($7 mil), Joe Beimel (~$2 mil), Jeff Kent ($9 mil), and Nomar Garciaparra ($8.5 mil). Rafael Furcal was re-signed, but half his '08 salary of $13 million walked.

LA has a very good young nucleus, but you certainly can't argue they've gotten stronger. Even when they re-sign Manny (interesting how anonymous rumors always pop up that a rival is interested in a negotiating Scott Boras client), they will have regressed.

Scott Boras is trash. Sorry, just had to throw that in there.

The Bums also re-signed Casey Blake in the lone offseason acquisition that I'd really like if I didn't get nauseous every time I think of the Dodgers.

The story is no different if you look at the Arizona Diamondbacks (already lost Randy Johnson and Brandon Lyon, figure to lose Adam Dunn and Orlando Hudson), the Colorado Rockies (gone are Matt Holliday, Brian Fuentes, and Willie Taveras), and the San Diego Padres (didn't really have too much to lose in the first place and they seem resolved to cash out on Jake Peavy).

These teams, which weren't very good to begin with, all figure to lose significant pieces without replacing any of them (although the Dodgers may grab Dunn if they don't get Manny).

In a division ripe for the taking, where only a couple astute moves could move you to the top, four out of five teams have been jettisoning important pieces rather than acquiring them. It's like they think the New York Yankees play in the NL West and are waving the white flag.

The San Francisco Giants are the only team to have made any noise, and they've made a lot of it.

The Orange and Black has brought in Edgar Renteria, Jeremy Affeldt, Bobby Howry, and Randy Johnson. Of course, none of those players wields a fearsome bat and that's what my boys needed most so the improvement hasn't been galactic.

But, in the relative sense, it may have been.

All four teams that are standing pat expect to see improvement from the natural maturation of promising young players. But San Francisco is no different in this regard - Pablo Sandoval, Emanuel Burriss, and Freddie Lewis all figure to get better with the splinter while Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, and Jonathan Sanchez should do likewise toeing the slab.

In other words, San Fran figures to see improvement that other clubs are expecting in tandem with the improvement via the free agency market. Of course, the franchise had some ground to recover. However, as I said, the other NL West squads have given almost as much back as the Giants have retaken.

And what if I'm wrong?

What if Ramirez re-signing with the NL club in LA isn't a foregone conclusion as the story plant in the Denver Post seems to indicate?

What if Manny lands in another city? GOD, I hope it's not SF.

Then the Bums (again, the class of the 2008 division) plummet back to the pack. Maybe even to the depths of it, considering all the other losses.

Maybe I'm missing something. I don't think I am. Even if I have—even if this is all a prelude to a wild finishing flurry of moves—that just makes these winter months all the more bizarre.

As a San Francisco Giant die-hard, I'm loving every minute of it.

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