NL West 2015 preview: Can retooled Padres challenge Dodgers, Giants?

With opening day approaching, the Big League Stew crew is here to get you up to speed on the season ahead. We're examining each division over the next two weeks, looking at the big questions, the important players and making our predictions. Our series continues with the NL West.

The NL West is like a jacked-up gym rat who’s been skipping leg day for year — it’s very top heavy. We know the main players here: The big-spending Los Angeles Dodgers, the defending-champion San Francisco Giants and the upstart San Diego Padres

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They’re fascinating for different reasons. The Dodgers went savvy over spending this offseason, adding high-upside pitchers such as Brandon McCarthy and Brett Anderson instead of one of the bigger-name arms on the market. They’ve still got a huge payroll, but they've also got a smarter, rebuilt front office that's hoping to prevent another stall in the playoffs. The Giants don’t look like the team they were a year ago, after losing Pablo Sandoval and coming into the year with rotation questions, but as history has proven, you can’t count them out. The Padres were the biggest surprise of the offseason, making big trades to add Matt Kemp, Justin Upton and Wil Myers, plus signing James Shields

That brings us to the other side of the division, where the Colorado Rockies and Arizona Diamondbacks will take their lumps and try to find bright spots. Here to delve further into the division are Big League Stew’s Chris Cwik, Mike Oz and Mark Townsend:

New Dodgers shortstop Jimmy Rollins. (AP)
New Dodgers shortstop Jimmy Rollins. (AP)

After falling short of a World Series appearance for the second straight year, the Dodgers overhauled their front office and reshaped their roster this winter. Gone are regulars Matt Kemp, Hanley Ramirez, Dee Gordon, along with pitchers Dan Haren and Brian Wilson. Coming in, they'll have Jimmy Rollins, Howie Kendrick, Yasmani Grandal, Brandon McCarthy and Joel Peralta. That's significant turnover for a playoff team with a high payroll, but new president Andrew Friedman has a different vision that he believes will get them over the hump. Honestly, as long as Clayton Kershaw remains healthy and himself, the team's outlook should be mostly unchanged. And the biggest addition could come from Yasiel Puig taking the anticipated step to elite production.

The Padres made big changes his winter too, adding Kemp, Upton, Myers, Shields and several others to the roster. They might be able to claim the largest upgrade in major-league talent of any team in the league. However, they'll need these guys and others to stay healthy to have a fighting chance, and therein lies the concern. Kemp, Myers, Carlos Quentin and Will Middlebrooks were all slowed by injury last season. On the pitching side, Andrew Cashner, Brandon Morrow and Josh Johnson have extensive injury histories of their own. It's not a durable group, and it's possible keeping those players on the field will be a bigger challenge than leapfrogging Los Angeles and San Francisco.

[Don't miss our other division previews: NL East | AL East | NL Central | AL Central]

The Giants might not miss Sandoval's presence in the clubhouse this season, but there could be an overwhelming feeling of emptiness every time his old spot comes up in the order. The task of replacing the Panda falls to Casey McGehee, a 32-year-old journeyman with little pop and average defensive skills. Not exactly the inspiring choice Yasmany Tomas or Chase Headley would have been, but unquestionably better than the Giants' in-house candidates. A .264/.324/.400 career hitter over six big league seasons, McGehee might be a threat to single opponents to death, but the loss of Sandoval's production will need to be manufactured elsewhere.

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Being a Colorado Rockies fan has to feel like "Groundhog Day." Every year it's the same questions with the same unsatisfying answers. The biggest question remains: How often will the powerful duo of Tulo and Cargo be in the same lineup. Over the past three seasons, the former All-Stars have combined to miss 284 games. Now Tulowitzki is returning from hip surgery and Gonzalez is coming back from knee surgery. With a pitching staff that's constantly in shambles, it's impossible to be optimistic about a Rockies resurgence until their superstars prove some semblance of durability.

The Tommy John epidemic is widespread throughout baseball, but no team has been hit harder the past two seasons than the Arizona Diamondbacks. The biggest name is Daniel Hudson, who underwent his second Tommy John in 2013 and was able to return at the very end in 2014. Originally scheduled to be Arizona's opening day starter last season, Patrick Corbin's UCL subsequently popped in March. He's tentatively due back this June. Two key bullpen arms, Matt Reynolds and David Hernandez, reside on that list as well. That's essentially one-third of a staff, so getting even one or two back at full capacity would be a major lift.

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

BRANDON BELT: After four seasons in the majors, we still don't know much about Belt, the Giants' first baseman. After showing some strong skills in 2013, he appeared primed for a breakout in 2014. He delivered early, knocking seven home runs before the end of April. Soon after, injuries piled up, forcing Belt to miss a huge chunk of the year. He performed well in the playoffs, but, for the most part, 2014 was a lost season. The increase in power Belt showed early was encouraging, but it came with an all-or-nothing approach that caused his strikeout rate to balloon to 27.2 percent. Finding a middle ground will be the key. Belt can still be an above-average hitter at first base, he just needs to prove he can do it over a full season. It's starting to look like 2015 will be a make-or-break year. The Giants, in need of an offensive boost with Sandoval and Mike Morse gone, are sure hoping Belt steps up.

BRANDON MCCARTHY: Despite some strong peripherals, McCarthy posted awful numbers in Arizona. A midseason trade to the Yankees seemed to fix those issues. McCarthy's luck rebounded, but he also altered his pitch usage in New York. After throwing his cutter just 14.32 percent of the time with the D-Backs, McCarthy saw that figure climb to 18.81 percent after joining New York. The results speak for themselves. McCarthy posted a 2.89 ERA, with a 3.22 FIP, with the Yankees. He still had some issues with the long ball, but pitched in small parks throughout the season. With the Dodgers, that's less of an issue. Health has often been a question with McCarthy, but it looks like his second half surge was real.

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WIL MYERS: Perhaps no player saw his stock fall more than Myers' last season. After a slow start, Myers fractured his wrist, and never seemed to regain his pop once he was finally healthy. Wrist injuries are tough on hitters, and there's some evidence Myers altered his swing in order to compensate. There were also some questions about his work ethic in Tampa Bay, though those conveniently leaked after he was traded. Motivation shouldn't be an issue this season. Myers has made it clear he has a chip on his shoulder after hearing what was said once he was shipped West. If he can regain his old swing, and the wrist is no longer an issue, there's a chance the Padres got a huge talent at a discounted price this offseason.

New Cuban import Yasmany Tomas didn't have a great spring for Arizona. (Getty Images)
New Cuban import Yasmany Tomas didn't have a great spring for Arizona. (Getty Images)

YASMANY TOMAS: Early returns on the Tomas experiment have not been positive. He not only struggled at third base for the D-backs, but he failed to show much at the plate this spring. With just a few days to go before the season starts, it's unclear if Tomas will open the year in the majors. Making the transition from Cuba to the United States is a lot to ask, and it's probably unreasonable to expect Tomas to excel immediately. While a minor-league stint wouldn't make him a failure, it would be surprising considering his $68.5 million price tag. There's no reason to panic yet, but it's pretty discouraging when people are already comparing him to Dayan Viciedo. 

COREY DICKERSON: Dickerson broke out in a big way last season. Despite his strong performance, there are still a couple reasons to question whether he can do it again. For one, Dickerson was mostly used as a platoon player, with most of his at-bats coming against right-handers. He was fantastic against them, hitting .328/.379/.606 over 345 at-bats. That's one heck of a performance in a relatively small sample, leading to some doubt about a repeat. On top of that, he may be a product of Coors Field. Away from his friendly home park, Dickerson hit just .252/.305/.431. He hit .363/.415/.684 at home. Those numbers are Bonds-ian, and it's completely unreasonable to expect Dickerson to do that again. He'll still play half his games at Coors this season, so you can't expect a full collapse, but it would be shocking if he performed this well again.

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

• Best case: 
The Padres really do have the best outfield in baseball, the pitching is just as good and everybody stays healthy. The Padres are serious challengers for the postseason.
• Worst case: 
GM A.J. Preller bought damaged goods in Myers and Kemp. Shields finally breaks down. And this hot-stove fairytale is too good to be true.

• Best case: L.A. skates through the division with its stacked lineup, finally beats the Cardinals and advances to its first World Series since 1988.
• Worst case: Everything goes wrong for the Dodgers’ pitching staff and they miss the playoffs when the upstart Padres and defending champion Giants surge past them. 

• Best case: Pablo who? The Giants don’t miss the Panda as Belt has a breakout season. Their pitching, even Tim Lincecum, carries the team as always and they’re back in the postseason.
• Worst case: The Giants can’t score many runs, their pitching is inconsistent and everyone decides the even-year/odd-year stuff is REAL.

• Best case: Paul Goldschmidt plays like an MVP, Yasmany Tomas is a stud, Archie Bradley makes a serious impact and the D-backs challenge for third place.
• Worst case: People get to eat Churro Dogs while watching the losses pile up.

• Best case: They stay healthy, their pitchers keep the ball in the yard and the Rockies don’t finish in last place.
• Worst case: The Rockies have the worst record in baseball. Cargo and Tulo get traded in July.

Order of finish: Dodgers, Padres, Giants, D-backs, Rockies
NL West top hitter: Yasiel Puig
NL West top pitcher: Clayton Kershaw
NL West top rookie: Joc Pederson

Order of finish: Dodgers, Padres, Giants, D-backs, Rockies
NL West top hitter: Buster Posey
NL West top pitcher: Clayton Kershaw
NL West top rookie: Archie Bradley

Order of finish: Dodgers, Giants, Padres, Rockies, D-backs
NL West top hitter: Yasiel Puig
NL West top pitcher: Clayton Kershaw
NL West top rookie: Joc Pederson

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