MLB Preview: NL West
Manny and the Dodgers started the 2009 season in first place in the NL West.
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Los Angeles Dodgers (84-78, first in division): Until a couple of weeks ago, the Dodgers were having one of the worst off-seasons in the country. They lost ace Derek Lowe to the Braves, the Red Sox practically stole All-Stars Brad Penny and Takashi Saito, and the biggest off-season acquisition was the once-solid Mark Loretta. Things were so bad, there was talk that the San Francisco Giants - the team's despised rival - might steal Manny Ramirez away from them. But then, relief: the Dodgers got back their "dreaded" slugger (as in, dreadlocked) and seized control of the NL West once again.
Season Outlook: If the Dodgers were in any other division in baseball, they'd be in trouble. But with the rest of the NL West in rebuilding phases it will be their division to lose. They're hardly a sure thing. The pitching staff will rely on kids, uber-talented and battled tested, but kids nonetheless. Chad Billingsley (age 24) is the de facto ace; No. 3 starter Clayton Kershaw has one of the nastiest curveballs in baseball but has been old enough to buy alcohol for less than a year; and flamethrower Jonathan Broxton, 24, who can hit speeds over four times his age, will have to prove he's mature enough to close games at the big league level. The offense is dominated by kids as well: All-Star Russell Martin, Matt Kemp, and James Loney are all under 26. These whippersnappers will be infinitely more important to this team's success than Man-Ram. If they can perform to their abilities, the Dodgers should win the division easily.
Keep an Eye On...SP Hiroki Kuroda. Kuroda, who will play his second year in MLB after 10 years in Japan with the Hiroshima Toyo Carp, will be the veteran of a still wet-behind-the-ears pitching staff. He put up an above-average 3.73 ERA and showed flashes of brilliance last season, but was susceptible to the big inning. If he can show more consistency, the Dodgers staff could mature into a dangerous rotation.
Key Additions: RP Guillermo Mota, 2B Loretta
Arizona Diamondbacks (82-80, second in division): I'll be honest. On paper, the Diamondbacks don't look any different than the Giants. They both thrive on superior starting pitching, have a lineup filled with young hitters, and have a bullpen anchored by a power-armed closer and two very good set-up men. The difference is that the Giants added two All-Stars this off-season and the D-Backs lost three.
Season Outlook: The D-Backs do have one thing the Giants do not: several young hitters with very high-ceilings. None has reached their potential, and if they can do so at the same time, as the D-Backs hoped they would last year, the Dodgers could have some company at the top. The question out of Phoenix these days is when 21-year-old Justin Upton will break out. It's hard to tell, considering the young phenom hasn't played a full season yet. But he managed 15 homers in an injury-shortened campaign last year and could easily hit 25-30 if he stays healthy all year. The other question mark on offense is Chris Young, who hit 32 home runs as a rookie in '07, but had a poor year at the plate in '08. And the pitching? Arizona has one of the best staffs in the major leagues. It's not as balanced top to bottom as San Francisco's is, but at the top, with Brandon Webb and Dan Haren, you get Cy Young-caliber stuff two out of every five days. If the Baby Backs can deliver this year - and only if they can deliver on time - the D-Backs could make some noise.
Keep an Eye On...SP/RP Max Scherzer. On raw stuff alone, Scherzer is in the same conversation as Joba Chamberlain, David Price and Clayton Kershaw as the best under-25 arms in the country. His electric 98 mph fastball and power slider, as well as some concerns about his longevity, make him best suited as a closer - that and his 10.6 K/9 rating last season. But he's got four plus-pitches and the D-Backs look like they'll be trying him out as the No. 5 starter this season.
Key Additions: SP Jon Garland, 2B Felipe Lopez, RP Tom Gordon
San Francisco Giants (72-90, fourth in division): The Giants suffer from the same Shaquille O'Neal Complex that the Texas Rangers do: brilliant at one thing (basketball) but embarrassingly bad at anything else (rap, acting). The Rangers had the best offense in the league last year but the worst pitching staff; the Giants have one of the most talented staffs but was the only team in the modern era to not hit more than 100 home runs in a season. Put the two franchises together and you'd have, well, the New York Yankees. Still, with a pitching staff as good as this one, in a division as wretched as the West, and the Giants have a solid chance.
Season Outlook: For all the accolades, pre and post-season, that the Giants pitching staff received last year, they were still only a middle-of-the-pack group in MLB, putting up the 17th lowest ERA in 2008. Most of that can be chalked up to an awful bullpen, which has been bolstered this year into one of the NL West's best. Jeremy Affeldt and Bob Howry will be vital set-up men for All-Star closer Brian Wilson. The starting rotation is the team's strength. Led by Cy Young winner Tim Lincecum, the Giants were second in MLB in strikeouts and sixth in team shutouts. Matt Cain would be an ace and a fifteen-game winner on many teams and Jonathan Sanchez bolstered his minor league cred with a solid season as well. As far as the lineup...it can't be worse than last year. Remember the name Pablo Sandoval. The 22-year-old utility man shined in a late-season call-up and looks like the real deal. He'll get ample opportunity to prove it this season.
Keep an Eye On...SP Randy Johnson. Having seen this 45-year-old marvel pitch in person, I highly doubt that he's only with the Giants for a shot at 300 career wins. He's tenacious, aggressive, hyper-competitive, and even after 20 seasons, he is somehow still a power pitcher. If his back can hold up, he's got a shot at 15 wins. No joke.
Key Additions: SS Edgar Renteria, SP Johnson, RP Affeldt, RP Howry, INF Juan Uribe
Colorado Rockies (74-88, third in division): Over the past two seasons, the Rockies have shown us both the joys and the tragedies of being a well-run, small-market team. They won the NL pennant in 2007 with a roster filled predominantly with players they drafted. But their strengths proved to be a double-edged sword for the cash-strapped Rockies, and by the end of 2008, many had been shipped elsewhere to teams that could afford their talents. Through trades, the Rockies have assembled an equally precocious core of young players, which should be very competitive in a year or two.
Season Outlook: Of all the teams that sent players to the WBC, the Rockies may have seen the best returns. SP Ubaldo Jimenez, a nasty Dominican bat-breaker, broke a WBC record with 10 strikeouts in one game and has pitched well this spring. C Chris Iannetta hit .462 with an OPS of 1.357, solidifying his title as one of the best young catcher prospects in the pros. The bullpen can go in one of two directions, depending on how Manny Corpas and the newly-acquired Huston Street, two of the more promising relievers of the past three seasons, bounce back from poor seasons. Losing perennial MVP contender Matt Holiday will hurt. But with as talented a roster as theirs, and with the home-field air to benefit them along the way, the Rockies could surprise this year.
Keep an Eye On...SS Troy Tulowitzki. In 2007, he had offensive splits of .291/.359/.470 and hit 99 RBI, en route to placing second in the Rookie of the Year contest. Last season, he hit a measly .263 with 46 RBI in an injury-plagued season. Will the real Troy please stand up? Even if the Rockies get a mash-up of the two offensively, defensively Tulow is one of the best shortstops in the game.
Key Additions: OF Carlos Gonzalez, SP Greg Smith, SP Jason Marquis, RP Street
San Diego Padres (63-99, last in division): The Padres were the second-worst team in the league last season. The Padres started the summer getting rid of Trevor Hoffman, the best pitcher in franchise history and one of the last who had ever played an entire Hall of Fame career in one city. Whoops! Then they spent the rest of the off-season trying to send their current best pitcher, Cy Young winner Jake Peavy to the Cubs or Braves...and failed. Ouch! Then the Pads scrambled, found the best available free agent, and settled on, drum roll please...David Eckstein. Bonk! It sounds like comedy, but it isn't.
Season Outlook: The Padres and Pirates will battle all season long for the title of worst pro sports franchise that starts with the letter "P." If you have to pick one Padre to star on your fantasy baseball team, choose Adrian Gonzalez, who's long been the most underrated first baseman in the NL. He hit .279/.361/.510 with 36 homers and 119 RBI last year, which earned him a long-deserved All-Star selection. Peavy will bounce back from a rough WBC and pitch his same brilliant self, though he'll likely be in another uniform by mid-season. Sorry Padres fans, but the word of the year will be "bleak".
Keep an Eye On...The Garlic-Parmesan fries on the Mezzanine level at Petco Park. Wash them down with a craft beer or two. Or five, if you're a Padres fan.
Key Additions: SS Eckstein, OF Cliff Floyd, C Henry Blanco