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Biggest concern is the rotation

The season opened with the Giants and Dodgers as the popular picks to win the National League West, and the first week ended with the Rockies showing signs they might finally bust out of their familiar dwelling, the cellar.

What about the defending champs?

It's easy to forget who won the NL West in 2005 because the division was packed with sub-.500 teams until the Padres won five of six in the final week to finish 82-80, the worst full-season record for a postseason team in big-league history.

The Padres were so quickly swept by the Cardinals, it hardly seemed they were involved. But before their 2006 season opener, they hoisted their championship flag and celebrated their first division crown in eight years. It was their right, despite a record that would have equated to fifth place in the NL East or 18 games back in the NL Central.

A season later, they say they're a better team, though the six-month schedule will be the judge of that. No concrete conclusions should be drawn from the first week, which pleases the Padres -- they lost four of five games and were swept at home by the Rockies, who clobbered San Diego pitching over three games for 32 runs and 48 hits.

Nevertheless, the Padres think they could be young enough and healthy enough to win consecutive division titles for the first time in their history. In this division, with the Giants and Dodgers older and perhaps more susceptible to injuries, who can disagree?

"I still think the division and league are wide open," Padres catcher Mike Piazza said. "It's not like the American League, with the Yankees and Boston, or Chicago, who are all extremely stacked."

Several key injuries already hit the NL West. In the first week, pitcher Shawn Estes became the fourth Padre to go on the disabled list, weakening an already so-so rotation. But the Giants also lost a left-handed starter, Noah Lowry, and the Dodgers shelved Kenny Lofton and Nomar Garciaparra before their first games.

On the other hand, the Padres have what the Giants and Dodgers don't have: stability at the back end of the bullpen.

Two days before the opener, the Giants put closer Armando Benitez on the DL. Five days into the season, Dodgers closer Eric Gagne underwent elbow surgery. Meanwhile, Padres closer Trevor Hoffman remains available, if only the Padres could create some save situations and use him more than once a week.

Hoffman returned to the Padres, shunning a better offer from Cleveland, after converting 43 of 46 save opportunities in 2005, second in the league to Washington's Chad Cordero, who saved 47 games. In Hoffman's 60 appearances, the Padres went 51-9, so the trick, again, is to play the first eight innings with the sole mission of getting the ball to Hoffman in the ninth.

Hoffman, 38, is second in career saves with 436 -- 42 behind Lee Smith. Along with a reliable closer, the Padres have setup man Scott Linebrink, who was 8-1 with a 1.83 ERA and wasn't charged with any earned runs in his final 23 outings.

"We can play with anybody. It'll come down to health."
Outfielder Brian Giles

"We can play with anybody," outfielder Brian Giles said. "It'll come down to health."

Provided the Padres stay mostly clear of the sick bay, they'll showcase good, young players to accompany veterans Mike Cameron (once he's off the DL), Dave Roberts, Vinny Castilla, Giles and Piazza.

Both right-side infielders are 23. Second baseman Josh Barfield is the son of Jesse, the former Blue Jays All-Star, while first baseman Adrian Gonzalez has a swing reminiscent of Rafael Palmeiro, according to hitting coach Dave Magadan.

Shortstop Khalil Greene is a star waiting to happen. As Giles said, "We haven't seen the kind of numbers Khalil Greene can put up if he stays healthy for six months. For now, we've got a mix of veteran guys who can take pressure off the younger guys. It's a pretty solid team."

The biggest concern is the rotation, after ace Jake Peavy. Estes' injury brought Woody Williams back into the mix, and lots of crossed fingers are expected when former Rangers Chris Young and Chan Ho Park and ex-Devil Ray Dewon Brazelton take the mound.

Still, Peavy seems optimistic, saying, "We know we have what it takes to win the division."

After all, this is the NL West. It might not take much. Even the Diamondbacks have hope.

John Shea is the national baseball writer for the San Francisco Chronicle.