MLB Preview: NL West

Opening day has come and gone, but there is one preview left.  I’ve gone back and forth on the west, and had all but settled on a winner when a closer examination forced me to change my mind.

1. San Francisco Giants: It’s a bit tempting to write off the Giants world championship by noting they got a lot of clutch hitting from unexpected sources during their playoff run, and that there is no way they can expect their offense to sustain that level of luck for an entire season.  On the other hand, an argument can be made that the Giants offense underperformed a year ago and is in fact much better than people think.

Naturally the strength of the team is their starting pitching.  They are led by one of the best 1-2 combos in the game in the persons of Matt Cain and Tim Lincecum.  Lincecum had what may be considered a bit of a down year in 2010 and yet he still wound up posting numbers that would have most other teams drooling.  There’s some concern that the innings that he and Matt Cain are poling up could lead to some regression, but until they show the ill effects, they still have to be considered elite aces.  The back of the rotation is a bit iffier.  Jonathan Sanchez had a fine post-season and on any given day can pitch a masterpiece, but he has been prone to inconsistency.  Last year was the first time he showed sustained success for an entire season, and the Giants will need another big year out him if they expect to repeat.  Meanwhile the bullpen has taken a minor hit with closer Brian Wilson starting the year on the DL, but it’s only a minor setback, and the Giants bullpen should remain fairly solid.

Now about that offense.  There are certainly a fair number of question marks, especially up the middle with an aging an increasingly unproductive Miguel Tejada at short and the consistently average Freddy Sanchez at second.  Pablo Sandoval is also coming off a down year.  He shed some weight in the off-season with the hopes that he can raise his game without the extra weight, but Major Leaguers always seem to find a way to find that lost weight as the season progresses.

But there’s quite a bit of upside.  With a full season behind the plate, Buster Posey should clearly establish himself as one of the top three catchers in the game.  Andres Torres should take a step forward and be an energizing force at the top of the lineup.  But perhaps the biggest anticipation is with top prospect Brandon Belt.  Belt starts the year at first, with Aubrey Huff sliding over to right to replace the injured Cody Ross.  There are giant expectations for Belt, and many are forecasting him as a leading rookie-of-the-year contender.  Of course you never know if a rookie will live up to the hype, but if he does the Giants will boast a pretty solid middle of the lineup for once.

2. Los Angeles Dodgers: The Dodgers remind me of the Mets in a lot of ways.  They are a big market team that is experiencing financial trouble due to a precarious ownership situation (though the stories are not exactly similar).  They were a big disappointment a year ago and most “experts” have written them off.  But like the Mets, the Dodgers should fare better than most people expect.

For all of their troubles, they still boast one of the best rotations in baseball.  Like the Giants, the 1-2 punch at the top features two exceptional young hurlers just entering their respective primes.  Clayon Kershaw showed what he could do just last night when he out-pitched Tim Lincecum.  Chad Billingsley has amazingly flown under the radar, but he’s been a stud ever since he debuted and I’d expect a breakout season from him.  And the back of the rotation isn’t so bad.  Hiroki Kuroda returns, and along with Ted Lilly, gives the Dodgers four very good starters, which should be enough to keep the Dodgers in the thick of things.

The real question mark for LA is its lineup.  There is no more important player for this team than centerfielder Matt Kemp.  When the Dodgers won back-to-back division titles just a couple of years ago Kemp had established himself as one of the five or so best outfielders in baseball.  He comes off a disastrous season.  If his 2010 season was a complete fluke and not a sign of a player crashing before our very eyes, then the Dodgers should be well-positioned to make a run at another title.

Two other once future stars are also entering what could be their make or break seasons.  Neither Andre Ethier or James Loney have consistently lived up to the hype, and if both continue to struggle this could be their last seasons with the Dodgers.  A fourth critical component is Rafael Furcal.  When healthy, Furcal is still one of the best shortstops in all of baseball.  But like his former teammate Chipper Jones, that “when healthy” is becoming less and less frequent.  The Dodgers need Furcal in that lineup if they are going to overtake the Giants.

3. Colorado Rockies: I originally had the Rockies penciled in as division champs but got cold feet at the last second.  I feel like the same story keeps repeating for the Rockies: slow start, great finish, and heightened expectations for the year to come.  And make no mistake about it, this team could very well make me regret my change of heart.

The Rockies have a pitching staff that matches up with everyone else in what is a division loaded with great pitching.  Ubaldo Jimenez receives most of the attention, but Jorge De La Rosa, Jhoulys Chacin, and Jason Hammel can all more than hold their own.  Hammel in particular has a real shot to be the breakout star.  His traditional stats don’t tell the whole story, as his 3.70 FIP was a full run lower than his ERA.  Hammel is at least a 4-win (in terms of WAR) pitcher, and could rate even higher with just a bit more luck.

As is also the case with their main competitors, the real concern is with the lineup.  Carlos Gonzalez and Troy Tulowitzki are bona fide studs, but after that it gets real dicey.  The Rockies have experienced the same frustrations with some of their young players that the Dodgers have with Kemp, Ethier, and Loney.  Ian Stewart, Chis Ianetta, Dexter Fowler and Seth Smith have all shown flashes at one time or another of being superstars, but none of them yet have shown enough consistency to be classed with their superstar teammates.  If these guys take a step forward, then the Rockies are going to be a truly tough out.  Otherwise they are going to be hoping and praying for another wild, late-season dash, especially with a right-side of the infield that features an aging Todd Helton and a sub-par Jose Lopez.

4. San Diego Padres: The Padres have a great staff, but perhaps not on the level as the top three teams in the west.  What’s more, there isn’t even a hope that their offense can be productive, not with Adrian Gonzalez playing in Boston.

It’s always tough to score runs in Petco, but when the best hitter in the lineup is a fourth-year player in Chase Headley whose career high is 12 home runs, then it’s even more difficult to envision how the Padres can stay in ball games.  There’s some hope that former top prospect Cameron Maybin, acquired during the off-season, can demonstrate the abilities that made him the prized haul in the Miguel Cabrera trade.  And there are other decent prospects in the lineup, especially leadoff hitter Will Venable in right.  Orlando Hudson has been one of the more consistently good second basemen in the game, but he’s not getting any younger.  The rest of the lineup features a patchwork of average-ish players that have little upside.

Just as Petco punishes an offense it helps a pitching staff, and the Padres have three great arms that should be able to pitch anywhere.  Unfortunately Mat Latos will miss the start of the season, but the Padres expect him back shortly.  Latos is backed by Tim Stauffer and Clayton Richard, two young guns with promising futures.  I’m a little less bullish on Richard if only because his peripherals suggest he was a bit lucky last year.  Still, the Padres pitching, which features a very good bullpen as well, should keep the Padres in most games.  If they can get any sort of offensive production at all, they can remain in the hunt deep into the season.

5. Arizona Diamondbacks: In a division featuring teams that have spectacular pitching and suspect offenses, the Diamondbacks stand in sharp contrast.  The Diamondbacks have a fairly potent offense, at least by NL West standards.  Chris Young finally had the sort of breakout season people were waiting for a year ago, and hopefully he can build off of that.  Stephen Drew is one of the best all-around shortstops in the Majors, though some injury concerns could hamper his production in the early goings.  Justin Upton hasn’t quite had that standout season quite yet, but he’s at worst a well above average player, and could potentially be a 5+ win outfielder.  And though they lost Mark Reynold’s bat, the rest of the lineup is good enough to put some runs on the ball.

Unfortunately the pitching will struggle mightily to keep runs off the board.  I continue to be baffled by the Dan Haren-Joe Saunders trade.  Danny Haren had consistently been one of the top arms in the game, and any struggles he may have had had more to do with the defense behind him.  Joe Saunders is the type of guy who won a lot of games in Anaheim/Los Angeles because he received a lot of run support and had a stellar defense behind him, but who is at best a mediocre pitcher.  And now Saunders is expected to front a pitching staff?  Seriously?

Daniel Hudson is one bright spot in the rotation, and he could be the centerpiece of an eventual renaissance in the desert.  Ian Kennedy is another decent arm, but not someone who really figures to be a front-line starter.  And yes, Armando Galarraga (almost) pitched a perfect game, but several other career mediocrities have accomplished that feat.  And that near moment of perfection was a lone bright spot in what was another sub-par season.

Well, at least Diamonbacks games should be fun to watch.

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And that concludes my pre-season preview.  To recap, my division winners are the Red Sox, Twins, Rangers, Braves, Cardinals and Giants.  The Blue Jays and Phillies are my Wild Card picks.  I don’t do post-season predictions because the playoffs are a crapshoot, but I’d be more than mildly surprised if the Red Sox did not win the whole thing.

Enjoy the season.  PLAY BALL!!!

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