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NL West 2014 preview: Dodgers raise the bar while rivals attempt to keep pace

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(Getty Images, USA Today)

With opening day coming soon, the Big League Stew crew is here to get you up to speed on the season ahead. We'll examine some of the big questions in each division, point out a few key players and predict the final standings, division award-winners and breakout stars. Next: The National League West.

FIVE BIG QUESTIONS

1. CAN THE DODGERS STAY HEALTHY?
Health concerns may be the only thing that can slow down this juggernaut, and the early returns should give them plenty of reason to worry.

Zack Greinke, Matt Kemp and Josh Beckett all began the season on the DL, though all are expected back early in April. Clayton Kershaw, Adrian Gonzalez and Yasiel Puig have been slowed by back ailments, possibly related to traveling to Australia. Not to mention Andre Ethier, Carl Crawford and Hanley Ramirez are all guys with a recent poor history of staying on the field. 

The Dodgers' depth can carry them through the regular season If the injuries stay limited, but even they will be challenged if two or three guys from that list miss extensive time. Not having all hands on deck is part of what led to their demise in the NLCS loss to the St. Louis Cardinals, so manager Don Mattingly will be playing a true role of manager as he attempts to steer the ship toward October with a healthy crew.  

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(USA TODAY Sports)

2. WHAT’S THE OUTLOOK FOR TIM LINCECUM?
The former "Freak" flashed brilliance in 2013, even delivering his first career no-hitter against the Padres on July 13. But he’s a long way from the dominant pitcher we grew accustomed to watching when he burst on the scene in 2007. A long-term free agent contract never materialized, but San Francisco still brought Lincecum back on a two-year, $35 million deal over the winter. After which, Lincecum immediately recommitted himself to working out by renting out a warehouse near Seattle to train. 

The spring results haven’t been overly encouraging, especially after he allowed three homers and 11 hits in a recent outing. But it all comes to two important factors for Lincecum: Reclaiming his confidence and maintaining consistency with his mechanics. If he can establish both, he can be effective again. 

3. WILL THE ARIZONA DIAMONDBACKS PUT 2013 BEHIND THEM?
Despite tough talk from owner Ken Kendrick about seeking retaliation against the Dodgers for last season’s swimming pool incident, the D-Backs were on their best behavior in Australia. That could be a sign that they’re finally over their disappointing finish in 2013 and the embarrassment they felt during L.A.’s celebration. If not, some type of closure better come soon, because staying relevant in the standings will require their full attention. Especially now that their scheduled opening day starter Patrick Corbin is lost for the season. 

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(AP)

4. WILL THE COLORADO ROCKIES STARTING ROTATION FINALLY TAKE A STEP FORWARD?
It could, but it won’t initially with Jhoulys Chacin expected to miss the first month of the season. Assuming he comes back healthy and picks up where he left off in 2013, and as long as Jorge De La Rosa stays on track, they have a good foundation. Top  prospects Jon Gray (last year’s third overall pick) and Eddie Butler are expected to make the leap at some point during the season, which will give Colorado an intriguing and exciting mix of youth and experience and more depth than they may know what to do with. Brett Anderson, Tyler Chatwood, Juan Nicasio and Jordan Lyles round out their likely opening day rotation. 

5. CAN THE SAN DIEGO PADRES CONTINUE THEIR CLIMB?
Over the past three seasons, San Diego has climbed from fifth to fourth to third in the NL West standings. If they can take the next step to second place, that should put them in the mix for a wild card spot. It won’t be easy. San Francisco and Arizona won’t fold and Colorado figures to remain unpredictable, but San Diego’s offensive core of Chase Headley, Yonder Alonso, Carlos Quentin, Everth Cabrera and Jedd Gyorko is solid. Losing Josh Johnson from their rotation early won’t help, but a run at 82-84 wins seems plausible, if not likely. 

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(Getty Images)

 FIVE PLAYERS TO WATCH

1. Mark Trumbo: The permanent shift to left field didn’t get off to a promising start in Australia, but the Diamondbacks are obviously committed to it with no DH position available and Paul Goldschmidt manning first base. Trumbo will often outslug his mistakes in the field, but the D-Backs could still struggle to overcome them if they start piling up. His defense could decide a few games. 

2. Brian Wilson: The Beard is back after missing most of the 2012 and 2013 seasons following his second Tommy John surgery. He brings with him a new pitch, a knuckleball, because he obviously thrives on being unpredictable. The Dodgers have him penciled in as their setup man ahead of closer Kenley Jansen. If Wilson even approaches his form as Giants’ closer, the Dodgers have a devastating duo.  

3. Alex Guerrero: The Dodgers won’t count on their rookie infielder from Cuba early on as he works through his transition from shortstop to second base. Once he’s comfortable, he should provide an upgrade over Dee Gordon on both sides of the field and strengthen an already overpowering lineup. The Dodgers win again. 

4: Nolan Arenado: Colorado’s slick fielding third baseman took home a Gold Glove in his rookie season. Together with Troy Tulowitzki, they form the best left side defense in the division and possibly the entire league. It might not be long before the same can be said offensively. Arenado didn’t hit for a lot of power last season, hitting just ten homers, but plans to be a more aggressive swinger after striking out only 72 times in 133 games. He has 25-home-run potential.  

5. Andrew Cashner: The 27-year-old right-hander broke through in 2013, posting a 3.09 ERA over 175 innings. An even bigger breakthrough could be coming in 2014 now that he's no longer focusing on his hitting triple digits with his fastball and is comfortable mixing in a change up with his breaking balls and his sinker. It's an impressive repertoire, and pitcher-friendly Petco Park should help his confidence. We're looking at a potential All-Star. 

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(Getty Images)

PREDICTIONS 

NL West MVP: Yasiel Puig

NL West Cy Young: Clayton Kershaw 

NL West Rookie of the Year: Archie Bradley

NL West breakthrough star: Nolan Arenado

Order of Finish

1. Los Angeles Dodgers: The best team money can buy.

2. San Francisco Giants: Poised for a rebound after disappointing 76-win season. Even years have treated them well recently.  

3. San Diego Padres: Finished strong in 2013 and feature roster with several potential breakout players.  

4. Arizona Diamondbacks: Gritty roster has led to mediocre results under Kirk Gibson. The more they stay the same, the better the division around them seems to get.  

5. Colorado Rockies: Can’t figure out if they’re rebuilding or making a push. Perhaps that’s a side effect of having two general managers. 

PREVIOUSLY: AL East, NL East, AL Central, NL Central | NEXT: AL West

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Mark Townsend is a writer for Big League Stew on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at bigleaguestew@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

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