Mailbag: Is the NL West title reachable?

Mailbag: Is the NL West title within reach?

What is pitcher Mike Esposito's future with the Rockies? He pitched late in the season and didn't do well.
-- Chris L., Riverton, Wyo.

The Rockies are not closing the book on Esposito, who went 8-9 with a 5.49 ERA at Triple-A Colorado Springs and 0-2 with a 6.75 ERA in three starts to end the 2005 season with the Rockies.

Esposito spent much of the time in Colorado Springs improving his offspeed pitches, and was not through with the work when he was forced into Major League duty because of Zach Day's season-ending thumb injury.

Manager Clint Hurdle said recently that he'll keep an eye on Esposito this spring, and he stands to get some innings against top hitters during Spring Training. If he performs well, I can see him serving as a safety valve in the case of early-season injuries.

In 2005, the Padres won the National League West with a dismal 82-80 record. All four teams, including Colorado, have been relatively quiet this offseason. So, is it a stretch to believe that the Rockies may have a legitimate shot at pushing for the division title?
-- Jeff W., Hamilton, Ontario, Canada

The winner was barely above .500 in 2005. If you're talking record, I think matching the Padres' mark last year, or doing better, is reasonable. Certainly, the Rockies' home is tough on pitchers, but they've had some do well there and the experienced bullpen is a plus.

But before addressing whether the Rockies can contend, let's address the chances of the division playing out the same way in 2006.

First of all, key injuries had something to do with the division's performance in 2005. San Francisco's Barry Bonds and Los Angeles' Eric Gagne, assuming they're healthy, could transform those two teams by themselves.

Also, each time that a close-to-.500 club has won a division, the winner of the same division the next year finished with an improved record. After the New York Mets went 82-79 to win the NL East in 1973 (one game wasn't played), Pittsburgh won it at 88-74 in 1974 -- admittedly not a great division-winning record, but a 5 1/2 game improvement is still significant.

Minnesota won the American League West at 85-77 in 1987, and Oakland raced to 104-58 to win it the next year. In 1997, Houston won the NL Central at 84-78, but repeated the next year with a 102-60 mark.

So, I'm going to approach it like a normal year in which 90 wins represents contention. A 22-game improvement for the Rockies might be too much to ask. But it's not too much to ask that the starting pitching and bullpen put forth a solid effort and the lineup make enough forward strides to keep Colorado in the running for meaningful September games.

If you were the GM, what one move would you make to most improve the Rockies?
-- Lloyd W., North Port, Fla.

The building of a winner in Colorado is more than a one-move proposition. Money spent and mistakes made in the past have dictated that the Rockies build with inexperienced players. However, the one spot I'd be proactive is in establishing a leadoff hitter.

Shortstop Clint Barmes and center fielder Cory Sullivan finished last season atop the lineup and the Rockies are looking their way again this year. If one of them develops, it's a huge step toward a strong offensive club.

If both players prove unsuited to the role, I look aggressively for a young (low-cost) player that has true leadoff skills, even if it means going outside the organization.

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Why did the Rockies let infielder Eddy Garabito go to the Orioles? He impressed me while in Colorado and his numbers weren't too bad, both in the bigs and in Triple-A.
-- Dylan P., Shiloh, Ohio

The emergence of shortstop Omar Quintanilla and the need for roster flexibility in order to make offseason moves led the Rockies to remove Garabito from their 40-man roster, making him a Minor League free agent.

Garabito had spent nine years in the Orioles system, often overlooked. Maybe the Orioles realized that Garabito went 6-for-13 in a three-game Interleague series at Camden Yards. Baltimore signed Garabito to a Minor League contract, and has invited him to Major league camp.

Thomas Harding is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.