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Big League Stew

NL West preview: Geared-up Giants look to defend throne

Big League Stew

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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 look at a division, hold a conversation about the issues therein and then issue some predictions on standings and award-winners. Let's start our series in the division of the defending champions, the National League West.

David Brown: 'Duk, my dear colleague. Is it me, or was that the shortest offseason in the long history of offseasons? Do you think the world's champion San Francisco Giants agree? It seems not more than a couple of weeks ago that Aubrey Huff was yanking the Famous Rally Thong from the secret hiding place in his pants at the crescendo of the streetcar parade. And now, here we are, about a week from OPENING THURSDAY. Oh, squeal!

So, based on where we ended up in 2010, the Giants have clear sailing for another NL West title in 2011, right? I mean, the San Diego Padres can't be expected to jump them now -- not with Adrian Gonzalez in Boston. And the Colorado Rockies finished nine games back of the Giants. And that's a team that lost 50 — FIFTY! — games on the road. Did they address those flaws sufficiently in the offseason? And the Los Angeles Dodgers are in no position to do anything because the leadership is being paralyzed by a divorce. And the Arizona Diamondbacks are just now getting around to banning toy airplanes in the clubhouse 30 minutes before the first pitch. This is not a team ready for takeoff, either.

So why don't we just fast forward to October, save everyone some grief, and just put the Giants in the playoffs? Crown them! {YSP:MORE}

'Duk: Hey hey! Is that Dave Brown I'm welcoming back to baseball or Buster "Put The Giants Back Into the World Series" Olney? Let me know if it's the latter, because I'd like to direct all Philadelphia hatemail toward your Twitter account.

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Look, I like the Giants to repeat in this division, too, but let's not lose sight of the fact that this is a team that redefined torture for their fans in 2010. They trailed the Padres for most of the year, had an offense so bad that they lost two games where their pitcher gave up only one hit, and didn't clinch a playoff spot until the final weekend of the season. If you're looking for more reasons to be pessimistic, they're still counting on Aubrey Huff, Cody Ross and Pat Burrell to be big producers on offense, they just replaced one fossil at shortstop (Edgar Renteria) with another (Miguel Tejada), and already have some injury concerns heading into the season with closer Brian Wilson.

That's not to say that I'm not excited for all the possible positives: A full season of Buster Posey and Freddy Sanchez, the emergence of prospect Brandon Belt and the best pitching staff in baseball from top to bottom (all complaints to @bigleaguestew this time, Phils fans). It's just that I'm hesitant to fast forward a season and completely overlook a good team like the Rockies. There are things that can go wrong with this Giants squad that don't involve Tim Lincecum's evil twin running him over with a cab in the parking lot of an In-N-Out.

DB: You didn't even mention the Incredible Shrinking Panda over at third base! Can he regain his figurative form at the plate while having lost so much of his figure? Who's ever heard of a skinny Panda? And what about the conundrum of what Belt making the team means to the other dominoes on the roster? Huff in left field? Burrell in ... short center? Mark DeRosa roaming around, wherever. It's too bad one of their outfielders/second basemen can't play short.

Ah, but these are nice problems to have, aren't they? And there's not much reason to worry when Wilson shows up with a sore arm; all he has to do is transform into another of his personalities — such as the Sea Captain — and he'll be OK.

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Now, the Rockies. They hurt my personal feelings last year when they didn't finish the season winning 19 of 20 like they're always supposed to. What was Jim Tracy doing? You've got Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez locked up until their early 40s. You've got Ubaldo Jimenez reigning mass socks destruction on the mound. What else could a boy want in a Major League Baseball team?

Well, here's the problem: They've gotten below-average production at first base, third base and right field. Plus, after Jhoulys Chacin, Jorge De La Rosa and Jason Hammel, their entire pitching staff is questionable. Can we expect the Seth Smith-Ryan Spilborghs platoon to bear juicier fruit? Is Ian Stewart going to develop? Is Todd Helton on the verge of a revival, or retirement?

'Duk: Hey, Chacin is on the verge of becoming a superstar once everyone figures out how to pronounce "Jhoulys" and there are a lot of teams that would love to have two MVP candidates and a "questionable" pitching staff helmed by four pretty good starters.

But I do get your point. The offseason imports of Matt Lindstrom and Felipe Paulino from Houston don't answer many questions about a bullpen that wasn't anything special in 2010. We're much closer to everyone writing a Hall of Fame case for Todd Helton the minute he retires than we are to another good season like the one he put together in 2009. And the search for that third consistent presence at the plate is growing longer than the Rockies would like it to be. Looking at this team from afar and weighing all their positives and negatives, it appears to be the type of squad where one of their patented 19 of 20 game runs would put them in a position to take the wild card — but not the division.

DB: Hail, Jhoulys Caesar!

So, we've crowned the Giants as champs, and the Rox will challenge for the NL Wild Card. Maybe. Does that mean we're already counting the Padres out? Nobody seemed sure how they managed to lead the division as long as they did in '10. And then they had us at a loss when they lost 10 straight games at one point and eventually fumbled away the playoffs. Is that the most disappointing successful season in recent memory?

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But without the big stick in the middle of the lineup — No, Adrian! — there's not going to be a lead to lose this season. The Padres still have strong pitching but, as Mat Latos wistfully pointed out, they're missing a few mercenaries. The additions of Jason Bartlett and Orlando Hudson definitely shore up the "run prevention" strategy, but I look around the rest of the offense and wonder if they'll go Seattle Mariners on us.

Brad Hawpe at first base? He might have as much tread left as Garrett Atkins. Cameron Maybin? Maybin he'll hit finally, and Maybin he won't. No matter who plays right field -- Will Venable, Chris Denorfia or Aaron Cunningham -- nobody is going to be reminded of Dave Winfield.

Their big slugger is Ryan Ludwick! Come ON!

'Duk: Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on Jed Hoyer for again fielding offense with the combined power of a La Jolla ladies' club meeting.

I still do like that rotation and bullpen, though.  The one easily written off team that I find interesting is the Los Angeles Dodgers. While the McCourts are ruining the good names of rich people, Donnie Baseball is trying to mount a winning season at Chavez Ravine. Baseball Prospectus' PECOTA system currently has the Dodgers pegged for 87 wins, which would put them in second behind the Giants (91 projected victories) and in front of the third-place Rockies (84).

They do have some pieces that make that prediction believable. Clayton Kershaw and Chad Billingsley can be an effective 1-2 punch, if they're thowing at the top of their games. That duo is followed by Ted Lilly, who is putting together a pretty underrated career, if you haven't noticed. Matt Kemp, Andre Ethier and Rafael Furcal can anchor a lineup, and if you get a hold-the-line season from Giants defector Juan Uribe and coax James Loney into producing anything at the plate, maybe you start to talk about getting into the upper 80s.

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But I can't get past that left-field platoon of Jay Gibbons and Marcus Thames, plus that back half of the rotation — Hiroki Kuroda, Jon Garland and Vicente Padilla — is going to have to either get or stay healthy. A great season would require a lot of players turning in career years and I don't see that happening. Combine that with a possible reluctance to spend at the trading deadline and I have a hard time thinking that Don Mattingly's first season will be a good one.

DB: I happen to like the platoon of Gibbons and Thames -- no matter what T.J. Simers thinks. But I think there's real possibility of messy implosion here. The Dodgers need to have Kemp, Ethier, Furcal and Broxton functioning at full capacity or else there's no way they're reaching 87 victories. The top of their pitching staff is really, really good, but Broxton is a nightmare as a closer right now. And Hong-Chih Kuo's arm is making weird noises. (He's back for now.) The dysfunction of the front office won't really show up on the field until later — unless you count the overpaying of  Uribe in free agency to play second base. If the Dodgers don't happen to win this season, it's going to be a long time until they do again

'Duk: That's a shame, really, because the fine baseball fans of Los Angeles deserve better. And to think this is all going down after they watched their neighbors to the north finally break through for a World Series title after years of harboring a home run cheat and then throwing the GNP of a small nation at Barry Zito and Aaron Rowand! Do you figure that we're a few years away from the McCourt Curse becoming a "thing?"

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At any rate, let's finish things out with the Arizona Diamondbacks. A few seasons after thinking they were on the right path with a core of Justin Upton, Mark Reynolds and Dan Haren, only Upton remains with fellow building blocks Stephen Drew (left) and Chris Young. The Snakes have seen a drop in season ticket sales — even in a year when they're hosting the All-Star game — and there seem to be few incentives to sign up and watch this team in 2011. Maybe even beyond. Any reason to think this team can finish any higher than fifth this season?

DB: Do the baseball fans of Los Angeles deserve better? Prove it! I'm kidding. Well, if the Dodgers tank early and sell off some of their parts, perhaps they could sink to the bottom of the NL West. But I think the D-backs are bound to have squatting rights.

What *I'm* excited about, however, is how Kirk Gibson is going to manage the team? While I agree that a hard-ass approach seems right for a club in this state, I also know that hustle, bravado and a lack of electronic leisure devices in the clubhouse isn't going to make up for a lack of talent. I like a few of their pitchers — notably Daniel Hudson, Ian Kennedy and ... OK, I like a couple of their pitchers. But if Gibson pushes these guys too hard, they're going to lose 100 games and be miserable while it's going on.

It will also be fun to keep an eye on individual performances; Will Upton blossom into a superstar, or will he simply settle on pretty good? Can Drew make an All-Star team at last? Will left-handed mustache specialist Clay Zavada reclaim his major league career? Lots of interesting individuals to follow.

Collectively, though, they will be terrible.

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Prediction time!

Order of finish
'Duk: 1. Giants, 2. Rockies, 3. Dodgers, 4. Padres, 5. Diamondbacks
DB: 1. Giants, 2. Rockies, 3. Padres, 4. Dodgers, 5. D-backs.

NL West Cy Young
'Duk: Tim Lincecum, Giants
DB: Tim Lincecum, Giants

NL West MVP
'Duk: Buster Posey, Giants
DB: Troy Tulowitzki, Rockies

NL West Rookie of the Year
'Duk: Brandon Belt, Giants
DB: Cory Luebke, Padres

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