Rejoice, rejoice, the baseball season is almost here! In an attempt to quickly get some of you slackers up to speed on the year ahead, Big League Stewards Kevin Kaduk and David Brown will again look at a division, hold a conversation about the issues therein and then issues some predictions on expected standings and award-winners. Finishing our series is the NL West.
David Brown: Well, Mr. 'Duk, we've covered 25 teams over five divisions and now it comes down to the final group — the National League West. A year ago, most prognosticators figured that the San Francisco Giants would take first place again and that the Arizona Diamondbacks would be lucky to go 73-89. And that's precisely what didn't happen. The Giants offense scored about 50 runs all season and they weren't even in the race, really, over the final weeks. The D-backs, on the other hand, were the surprise of the year and won 94 games. They challenged the Brewers in the playoffs. They were legit a year after finishing 27 games out of first. Was it all a a dream? Some kind of fluke? A hybrid fluke-dream? Did skipper Kirk Gibson simply scare the kids into first handing over their electronic toys and then into winning 94 games?
Here's why it might not have been so fluky: Figuring that Daniel Hudson and Ian Kennedy don't regress, along with the addition of Trevor Cahill's young but experienced hand to the rotation, and with over-hander Josh Collmenter and lefty hander Joe Saunders rounding things out, their starting pitching should be at least as good as it was. The bullpen (and who knows with bullpens?) but the bullpen should be a little deeper with Bryan Shaw and side-winder Brad Ziegler there for the entire season, supplementing David Hernandez and J.J. Putz at the back end. Their pitching should keep them in games. They've tweaked the lineup a little too, which you can talk about. Does it all add up to making them favorites?
Kevin Kaduk: I've seen my fair share of predictions that pick the Giants to bounce back in the NL West and I can see their reasoning. The starting rotation can still be dominant, Buster Posey has returned to the lineup and Pablo Sandoval appears to be winning his battle of the bulge after posting a stellar line in 2011. In that ballpark and in that division, maybe that's all you need to capture another flag.
At the same time, I have a hard time fully believing in an offense that touts Melky Cabrera and Angel Pagan as its biggest offseason "upgrades" and could still sentence Brandon Belt to another year of that confusing San Francisco-Fresno shuttle. I've already pre-written a couple of "Giants lose 1-0 despite Lincecum gem" posts for the inevitable occasions when they will be necessary.
To answer your question, though: I believe the D-backs are favorites in that one. While their pitching staff may have some questions marks, they also have a few possible answers in the minor leagues with Trevor Bauer, Tyler Skaggs and Pat Corbin waiting in the wings. They have a potential MVP candidate in Justin Upton. They have an in-season upgrade whenever Stephen Drew fully recovers from that devastating ankle injury last season. They're just a well-rounded baseball team and you can win a lot of baseball games that way. As opposed to the Dodgers, who have Clayton Kershaw and Matt Kemp. Those two are unbelievable and can win you a decent number of games on their own, but probably not enough to win a division title.
DB: We all know what the best move of the offseason was for the Dodgers, and it rhymes with "Stank McFort." GM Ned Colletti might have made noises about adding Prince Fielder, but who the Dodgers actually added doesn't add up to much. And they needed some help. It's possible that Kemp and Kershaw improve on their respective 2011 seasons, and Andre Ethier could return to health and James Loney could "win a batting title" as manager Don Mattingly hopes, and they're still no better than 85 or 86 wins. The left side of the infield is anemic offensively, no matter how exciting Dee Gordon might be running on the bases. Don't even look at what Mark Ellis put up as an OPS in Denver, because it's not encouraging for what he could produce at Chavez Ravine. A.J. Ellis behind the plate — good for him, getting a chance to play every day, but is the team any better for it?
The Dodgers are in a holding pattern. But it's better than free fall, isn't it? The Rockies, on the other hand, actually do have the tools to contend. And with manager-for-life Jim Tracy on the top step of the dugout, how can they fail?!
'Duk: Ah yes, the Rockies. Like the Dodgers, they have two great building blocks for the future in Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez. Unlike the Rockies, they don't have a cadre of hot-to-trot new owners willing to open their wallets for a team around them. It's great fun to watch Tulo play — thank god Ubaldo Jimenez's jealousy didn't send him to the DL — but the only player who arguably comes at a higher opportunity cost to his franchise is Joe Mauer.
And yet you mention that they have the "tools to contend." If you're talking about the AARP Fall Classic, I'd agree with you as Jamie Moyer, Todd Helton and Jason Giambi give them an excellent core. But competing for an actual division title? I know you're Michael Cuddyer Super Fan No. 1 over there, but there's no way a pitching staff helmed by Jeremy Guthrie and a 49-year-old is going to survive in Coors Field. Juan Nicasio is a great comeback story and Jhoulys Chacin still has plenty of potential, but what am I missing here? I wouldn't be surprised if the Padres finish ahead of Colorado this season.
DB: Hey, Michael Cuddyer might just be the best photographer in the majors. Imagine what he'll make the Rocky Mountains look like. In all earnestness, I'm just never willing to count the Rockies out of contention in April. And I bet you an order of the best fish tacos in San Diego that the Friars are pulling up the rear in the NL West. With Jeremy Guthrie and young blood Drew Pomeranz added to the rotation, you mentioned, these guys might have the second-best starting staff after the Giants. The Padres can't keep up with that yet.
Clayton Richard and Cory Luebke are swell left-handers, and Tim Stauffer would make for a great No. 4 guy somewhere, but a lot of pitchers look better in the vast confines of Petco Park. Carlos Quentin is already hurt, and the rest of the lineup is very ordinary no matter how much everyone smiled after the Cameron Maybin extension. I'm being nice. The Padres have one of the best-ranked minor league systems but it will still take time for it to bear fruit, for whomever the owner will be. The Padres can't even get themselves on TV in half of San Diego right now. But maybe that's not such a bad thing.
* * *
Predicted order of finish in the NL West
'Duk: 1. D'Backs, 2. Giants, 3. Dodgers, 4. Padres, 5. Rockies
DB: 1. Giants. 2. D'backs. 3. Rockies. 4. Dodgers. Padres
NL West MVP
'Duk: Matt Kemp, Dodgers
DB: Pablo Sandoval, Giants
NL West Cy Young
'Duk: Madison Bumgarner, Giants
DB: Tim Lincecum, Giants
NL West ROY
'Duk: Trevor Bauer, D'Backs
DB: Nolan Arenado, Rockies
* * *