NL West Preview
March 22, 2014
By Matt Zylbert
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Los Angeles Dodgers
Serving as the Vegas favorite to win the National League, the Dodgers come into 2014 with some pretty lofty expectations. After coming up just short of a National League pennant a year ago, there’s good reason for that, as Los Angeles sports a stacked squad on both sides of the ball that should have enough ammo to make some sort of deep run come October. Within their pitching rotation, the Dodgers boast an immensely-talented group, led by arguably the best pitcher in the game, Clayton Kershaw, who just won his second NL Cy Young award last year. Zack Greinke follows right behind him coming off an excellent campaign of his own, and the same can be said for the No. 3 starter Hyun-Jin Ryu, who was everything the club had hoped for in his debut season when they pried him away from Korea. Right there, that’s a very effective trifecta to be the meat of the rotation, and it’s still relatively strong going downward, as the Dodgers also got Dan Haren, who struggled a bit last year before returning to form in the second half. If he can pick up where he left off, Dodger opponents will be in serious trouble no matter where you catch them in any three-game series. The team also acquired Paul Maholm, who will battle with the returning-from-injury Josh Beckett, meaning there are really no holes on this pitching staff. The same can be said of their bullpen, which theoretically should be better with the addition of Chris Perez, a former all-star closer. On this team, though, he’ll be a set-up man with another former all-star closer in Brian Wilson, and along with J.P. Howell and Paco Rodriguez, they’ll work in unison in getting the ball to Kenley Jansen in the ninth. In other words, there are pretty much no holes anywhere in the pitching department.
What good is outstanding pitching if you can’t hit? Luckily, the Dodgers don’t have to worry about that, as they were in the top five in baseball a year ago in team batting average. That effort was largely spurred by the arrival of Cuban defector Yasiel Puig, whose animated personality and enormous talents were among the memorable takeaway storylines of the entire 2013 season. Above that, his presence sparked an incredible run by the Dodgers, who were actually in last place in the division at one point in June, before going on a remarkable run that led them all the way to the NLCS. It wasn’t just Puig, though, as the Dodgers have a whole assortment of other bats that make this lineup as terrific as it is. Adrian Gonzalez and Hanley Ramirez are still located on the Dodger infield, each widely considered as one of the best players at his respective position in both hitting and fielding. Aside from Puig, Los Angeles also boasts a very good outfield, featuring Matt Kemp and Carl Crawford, who both are very dynamic players when at the top of their games. All is looking good in La-La Land, although this year, a berth in the league championship series simply won’t be enough to satisfy Dodger faithful. It looks like championship or bust for Don Mattingly’s squad.
Predicted Record: 91-71
If you really think about it, the Rockies are one of the few teams in baseball that actually have more than one centerpiece star, which is certainly the case when you boast the presence of both Carlos Gonzalez and Troy Tulowitzki, two of the most gifted players in the game. The problem, however, also sort of involves them, as injuries have been very prevalent through each player’s past few years, which ultimately would end up derailing the Rockies because of a lack of depth. Fortunately, Colorado might have more than enough now on their roster to spark some sort of resurgence for the franchise. Of course, the offense begins with Gonzalez and Tulowitzki, and if they can stay healthy for most of the season, this has the makings of a playoff team, but even if one or both goes down, the Rockies actually have their best supporting cast in years. Justin Morneau was signed to replace retired longtime first baseman Todd Helton, and he’s someone who has exceptional power potential in Colorado. Drew Stubbs was acquired, too, bringing over speed and pop to help fill the void left by the departed Dexter Fowler. One of the club’s secret weapons might be second-year man Nolan Arenado, who impressed in his rookie season last year, even winning a Gold Glove, but it’s his bat that might become the best part of his game. Wilin Rosario is another crucial youngster on this roster, as he’s already become one of the league’s top power-hitting catchers in just his first two seasons. Even someone like Corey Dickerson has potential to surprise people. Predictably, there will be no shortage offense in Colorado this year.
As always, though, it is the pitching that remains a huge question mark, a seemingly annual concern in Colorado. Last year, at least, the starting pitching did improve, thanks largely to the return of Jorge De La Rosa, who was fantastic. Perhaps most importantly, he managed to stay healthy the whole year after coming back from Tommy John surgery. Jhoulys Chacin was also a bright spot, although he’s slated to begin the 2014 campaign on the disabled list. The biggest shocker of all, however, may have been the performance of young Tyler Chatwood, who was remarkably consistent after being slotted into the rotation. With those three, the Rockies have a fine nucleus for a solid staff, and they made one significant upgrade by attaining Brett Anderson, who has displayed flashes of excellence during his time in Oakland when he was able to stay healthy. Additionally, back-end starter Juan Nicasio has been good in stretches and still has a lot of potential. The biggest obstacle might be in the bullpen, as Colorado relievers had the worst ERA in the NL last year, and they lost closer Rafael Betancourt during the offseason. Veteran journeyman LaTroy Hawkins was signed to take his place, while Rex Brothers and newly-acquired Boone Logan will be the set-up men, which is a decent pairing. If the relief corps improve, and everything else goes according to plan, the Rockies have enough to make the wild card play-in game - if not more.
Predicted Record: 85-77
San Francisco Giants
One year after winning the World Series, the Giants endured a harsh crash back down to earth in 2013, as not only did they miss the playoffs by a wide margin, they were also an embarrassing-by-their-standards ten games under .500. To add insult to injury, they barely finished ahead of Colorado to avoid the NL West cellar. So how exactly did San Francisco regress so quickly? Arguably the main reason for their success in recent years has been strong starting pitching, but it was also starting pitching that led to their downfall a season ago, as it ended up surprisingly being an area where the club struggled mightily. In fact, their starters produced the third-worst team ERA in the National League, which seemed unfathomable entering the campaign. If there was one positive, it was the continued progression of Madison Bumgarner, who excelled in contributing the best season of his four-year career. Unfortunately, everyone around him disappointed, especially Matt Cain. He began as the organization’s Opening Day starter, and with good reason, but really slumped, given his high expectations, for much of the campaign. Tim Lincecum, as usual, was an unpredictable enigma, although the club is still holding out he can finally return to the form that won him two NL Cy Young awards not too long ago. The Giants added Tim Hudson to help upgrade the staff, a smart move considering the right-hander’s superb consistency throughout his lengthy brilliant career. Meanwhile, the bullpen remains a strength, still having Sergio Romo as the closer, and a trey of Santiago Casilla, Jeremy Affeldt, and Javier Lopez working as one of the best set-up crews in the National League.
Not only were the Giants held back by inconsistent pitching, but the same was the case within their lineup as well. Sure, Hunter Pence posted his usual solid season, and former MVP Buster Posey performed again like one of the best catchers in baseball, but they’re going to need more than that if they want to catch up to the competition in this feisty NL West. For instance, Pablo Sandoval has to provide steady production, which he has done in the past, rather than the up-and-down season he went through last year. Additionally, since the team has apparently settled on Brandon Crawford as their shortstop of the future, they need him to start recording significant numbers at the plate over a full season, rather than merely in stretches. The Giants also have to stay healthy, as notable injuries to Angel Pagan and Marco Scutaro wrecked an early-season barrage that had them at the top of the division through the first two months of ’13. The offense should be better in the upcoming campaign, as Brandon Belt was one of the few bright spots after a very pleasant breakout season. San Francisco also acquired Michael Morse, a highly underrated middle-of-the-order-type slugger. It’s definitely realistic to envision a bounce-back effort for the Giants, but with how competitive this division is, it may not be enough.
Predicted Record: 82-80
The 2014 season will be a critical one for the Diamondbacks, as they enter coming off consecutive campaigns that saw them finish 81-81, so this year’s results more likely should be a very telling sign for which direction the organization is headed. They certainly have the potential to do something special, considering they have one of the most impactful players in all baseball, Paul Goldschmidt, who enjoyed a monstrous ’13 that rightfully saw him finish as the runner-up in the NL MVP voting. Despite coming up short in the balloting, if Goldschmidt continues to perform like he did a year ago, he’ll certainly be winning that honor at some point in the future, while being the face of the franchise. Arizona added an equally-as-intimidating bat in Mark Trumbo, who has been one of the best home run hitters in baseball since his first full season three years ago. Without question, that’ll be one of the top heart-of-the-order pairings anywhere, but the key will be if the D-backs have enough beyond them. Despite coming off a season where he registered a career-low batting average, Miguel Montero has always been a solid catcher and should bounce back. Furthermore, Martino Prado and Aaron Hill are two of the better hitters at their respective infield positions, while Gerardo Parra has really been coming into his own the past couple of years. At shortstop, the team will have either Chris Owings or Didi Gregorius (Who may have the best walk-up music in baseball), both youngsters with high potential. Overall, the offense certainly should be good enough to hang with most on any given night.
The Diamondbacks had pretty good starting pitching a year ago, but have a major void to fill after it was announced that ace Patrick Corbin will need to undergo Tommy John surgery, a crushing blow for the left-hander after he broke out in 2013. Luckily, Arizona does sport depth in their rotation, especially after adding the usually reliable innings-eater Bronson Arroyo, who was a last-minute pickup for the club. They also still have Wade Miley, Trevor Cahill, and Brandon McCarthy, all three being established arms capable of picking up the slack in the absence of Corbin. Randall Delgado, meanwhile, had a pretty good showing in his first year with the Diamondbacks, something the club hopes he can build off of in the upcoming slate, being just 24-years old. Arguably the major weakness in Arizona last year was within the bullpen, which led the major leagues with 29 blown saves. Thus, they immediately addressed those woes, making a trade early in the offseason to acquire Addison Reed to be the new closer. His predecessors, Brad Ziegler and J.J. Putz, will be his set-up men, which is what they are better suited for anyway, and that should ensure an improved performance for the team in that department. If that is indeed what happens, it’ll be likely that the D-backs finally soar over .500 again.
Predicted Record: 79-83
San Diego Padres
Over the past couple of years, the Padres have been a very good team in the second half, posting one of the better records in baseball over that particular time period. The problem, unfortunately, is that they get out to lackluster starts in the first half, hence why they’ve finished 76-86 in consecutive seasons. If they are to improve upon that, they will need a better offense, which has held them back in the recent past, especially last year when they finished in the bottom four of the National League in team batting average and runs scored. The club only made one offseason adjustment, adding Seth Smith, a fine power hitter, but they’re confident that the foundation currently in place is enough to spark some sort of run. One key name part of that is Jedd Gyorko, who was very impressive in his freshman season last year, so much so that he led all rookies in home runs and was second amongst them in runs batted in. Chase Headley is another one from San Diego’s main core, and while he’s coming off a down performance that was plagued by injury, the fact remains that he led the NL in RBI only a couple of seasons ago. Carlos Quentin is a positive in this lineup as well, as he’s one of the more feared power bats when he’s healthy. Also featuring speedster Everth Cabrera, Will Venable, and the returning Yasmani Grandal, who actually has considerable potential in developing into one of the best hitting catchers in baseball, the offense has very notable pieces that could definitely have them surprise people overall.
Pitching has never really been a problem for the Padres, although a main reason for that is the fact that they play half their games at one of the most extreme pitcher’s parks in the game. Regardless, there’s a pretty good staff assembled in San Diego this year that could help them keep up with the other talented pitching rotations possessed by their fellow division residents. Andrew Cashner has made significant progress in converting from a reliever into a starter, and thus far, it’s a move initiated by the Padres that has paid off greatly. Now, he assumes the role of ace. San Diego also acquired a former ace in Josh Johnson, who is seeking to rebound from a nightmarish 2013. He’s healthy now so odds are that will happen, especially while making a lot of his starts at spacious Petco Park. With a respectable trio of Ian Kennedy, Eric Stults, and Tyson Ross located behind them, there’s all the reason to believe that the Padres will continue to get solid starting pitching in the upcoming campaign. Interestingly, the bullpen might be even better, as despite losing top set-up man Luke Gregerson, they were able to replace him with free agent Joaquin Benoit, who will assist in the effort with solid relievers Dale Thayer and Nick Vincent in getting the ball to Huston Street, one of the more underrated closers in the game. The Padres definitely have potential to make some noise in ’14, but the NL West is so competitive that it will be a real difficult challenge keeping up with their rivals.
Predicted Record: 72-90
Final Say on the NL West: Most people are pegging the Dodgers to win the NL West once again, and who could blame them? Their roster is pretty loaded everywhere. However, that’s not to say the other division residents have no chance, as some of the other teams here are pretty talented in their own right. Look at Colorado, for example. Offensively, they have the potential to be better than the Dodgers, let alone all of their other division rivals. It’s just a matter of staying healthy, and if their starting pitching can continue its improvement from 2013, the Rockies have to be considered potentially as one of the surprise teams for this season. Meanwhile, the Giants and Diamondbacks certainly shouldn’t be counted out. The Giants won the World Series as recent as two years ago with much of the same roster, so there’s every reason to believe they can bounce back from last season’s disappointing effort. A similar claim can be made for Arizona, which has hovered at exactly .500 the past two years, and won this division in 2011. And you can’t forget San Diego, who has played like a playoff team in the second half of each of the past two seasons. If they can just maintain that over a whole season, they’ll definitely be in the mix as well. The Dodgers are clearly the surest pick to repeat as division champs, but at -250, it’s probably not even worth it. If you’re looking for a futures bet from the NL West, you might want to invest in Rockies +1250, which is very salivating if they can just stay healthy.
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