NL West

March 29, 1996|By Buster Olney

Los Angeles Dodgers

Where they're coming from: They made the playoffs, winning the West at 78-66, but it was a frustrating season. The Dodgers never played to their own expectations, hurt by a porous middle defense, and after they finally clinched the division, they were blistered by the Reds in the playoffs.

Where they're going: The Dodgers may have the NL's second-best rotation (behind Atlanta's), they have an imposing offense and their defense is much improved. They are prohibitive favorites to win the West and may be the biggest challenge to Atlanta's NL dominance.

Key newcomers: Steady shortstop Greg Gagne, who replaces the erratic Jose Offerman.

What must go right: They must get Brett Butler and Delino DeShields on base to set up the boppers in the middle of the


What could go wrong: The Dodgers have a lot of mediocrity and youth in support roles for closer Todd Worrell. If Worrell breaks down -- and he has done that repeatedly during his career -- there isn't much of a Plan B.

X-factor: Hideo Nomo had the kind of rookie season that Fernando Valenzuela had in 1981, dominant in the first half, not quite as good in the second half. Hitters began laying off his split-finger fastball (just as hitters began laying off Valenzuela's screwball) and knocked him around when they waited on his fastball. The Dodgers need Nomo to make adjustments.

Key stat: For all the power in the middle of their order -- Mike Piazza and Raul Mondesi and Eric Karros -- the Dodgers finished 10th in the league in runs.

San Diego Padres

Where they're coming from: San Diego had its best season since 1992, finishing 70-74. Nevertheless, the Padres finished in third.

Where they're going: This is a critical season. Despite steep financial losses in 1995, owner John Moores spent a lot of money after the 1999 season, and they could be on the move soon.

Key newcomers: Rickey Henderson, who will play left field and lead off; first baseman Wally Joyner, acquired from the Royals; Bob Tewksbury, who could stabilize a relatively young rotation.

What must go right: As always, Tony Gwynn must stay healthy. Steve Finley must perform close to his 1995 level: .297 with 36 steals. Joey Hamilton and Andy Ashby must be big-time winners, between 12 and 18 games apiece. Closer Trevor Hoffman must rebound. Inexperienced middle relievers Ron Villone, Doug Bochtler and Bryce Florie must pitch to their potential.

What could go wrong: The bullpen, fragile in depth and makeup, could disintegrate. The Nos. 4 and No. 5 spots in the rotation could be problems. Third baseman Ken Caminiti plays so hard that he always seems in jeopardy of hurting himself. With Henderson, there's the potential for a personality conflict with the manager and front office.

X-factor: Shortstop Andujar Cedeno, a talented player who had off-field problems in '95 and suffered through a miserable season. If he keeps focused, he has the ability to hit 20 homers, drive in 80 to 90 runs and play decent defense. If he doesn't . . .

the Padres may have trouble. (That's why they signed utility player Craig Shipley).

Key stat: The Padres never got rolling. The most games they won consecutively was four, tied for the fewest in the NL.

San Francisco Giants

Where they're coming from: The Giants believed they had a shot at the West title last year but finished last at 67-77. Third baseman Matt Williams was hurt, second baseman Robby Thompson was terrible in those rare moments he played, and the pitching was abysmal.

Where they're going: They should have an impressive offense, the load shouldered by Williams and left fielder Barry Bonds. But their pitching staff, particularly the rotation, is a mess.

Key newcomers: Shawon Dunston takes over for Royce Clayton at shortstop. Stan Javier was signed to be the everyday center fielder. The Giants also added pitchers Allen Watson from the Cardinals and Osvaldo Fernandez, a defector from the Cuban national team.

What must go right: Ace Mark Leiter won 10 games a year ago; they'll need 15 wins this year. No. 2 starter William VanLandingham has to have a big year, and closer Rod Beck must be more consistent. And, of course, Williams and Bonds must stay healthy.

What could go wrong: Beck, overused in '93 and '94, could break down for good. The rotation could be a joke. Thompson has played effectively at times this spring, but he never has been the same since getting hit by a pitch at the end of 1993.

The middle relief could be as bad as it was in '95.

X-factor: Fernandez. If he's legitimate, he gives the Giants depth in their rotation. However, most scouts think he eventually will be mediocre No. 4 or No. 5 starter. The Giants want and need more.

Key stat: The bullpen had a cumulative ERA of 5.35 and converted just 68 percent of its save chances (34 of 50).

Colorado Rockies

Where they're coming from: The Rockies finished 77-67 and qualified for the NL wild card in just their third year. They gave the Braves a bit of a scare in the postseason before getting knocked out.

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