NL West preview: Will Rockies top this competitive pile?

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 standings and award-winners. Up next is the NL West.

David Brown: Well, Mr. 'Duk, these divisions won’t talk about themselves. What do you say we dive into the Western Division of the National League? I saw it tweeted that Adrian Gonzalez(notes) of the San Diego Padres thinks that even HIS team can compete out west and that no one is a clear pick. I think Adrian is a swell chap who probably misses his brother so much it’s affecting his judgment. Granted, the Friars did not finish last in 2009, no matter how much it seems like they should have. They were actually LUCKY last year to win 75 games. Now, this season, with Jon Garland(notes) starting opening day instead of Jake Peavy(notes), not so much. The fun is over.

Well, maybe not quite. They do have the league's funniest closer, Heath Bell(notes), and I am pretty geek’d to see what Kyle Blanks(notes) can do over 162 games, and what Chase Headley(notes) is about at third base. And how many sons of Jerry Hairston are enough. But Adrian was just being nice, right? Trying to sell one or two season-ticket deposits? Gonzalez won’t even be around long enough to see the Padres not finish at all, much less in first place. This division is coming down to the Los Angeles Dodgers and Colorado Rockies, and maybe the San Francisco Giants and the resurgent Arizona Diamondbacks. The Padres will be in the rear with the gear.

'Duk: Wow, that session with Bell really left some Padres pabulum on our brains, huh? Actually, I'm not sold on the Padres being a can't-miss basement dweller. It certainly seems quite possible when you consider that A-Gone and Bell have probably already made plans to share a U-Haul to points back east, but the idea that San Diego's young talent will be hungry enough to outkick a struggling Dodgers or Diamondback team doesn't seem impossible to me. No matter if Garland is getting the ceremonial start, there are a few things to like about their starting rotation — I just overdrafted Kevin Correia(notes) last night — and the young duo of Everth Cabrera(notes) and Blanks form a nice vision of the future if Jeff Moorad is really serious about building a winner in camouflage down the line.

I have to ask you, though: Why are we starting this discussion down here? I actually thought we'd start with the Rockies, because that's where I'm laying my reputation as America's most accurate baseball prognosticator. Coming off a surprise rally for the wild card in 2009, I think Colorado has all the pieces in place to claim the division crown that they almost seized from the Dodgers last September. They're heavy on pitching, heavy on defense and they can also hit the ball just a bit. I'm not going to reveal my World Series picks just yet, but I've been surprised that we haven't seen the Rockies emerge as more of a fashionable pick to end the Phillies' two-year reign in NL. Any ideas why that might be?

DB: I wanted to start at the bottom of the division because we sprinted away from the bottom of the NL Central and I didn't want to make that a habit. Cruddy teams are people too, 'Dukmeister. But if you insist on talking cream of the crop, fine. I, too, like the cut of the Rockies' jib, too. As for the Rockies, I think they're not getting more World Series love because the Phillies knocked 'em out last year and not even a Sports Illustrated jinx can stop it from happening again. However, Ubaldo Jimenez(notes) could end up being the second-best pitcher in the league behind Roy Halladay(notes) and, as you mentioned, the rest of the Rockies starting pitching is pret-ty solid. The return to form of Jeff Francis(notes) isn't 100 percent guaranteed, but De La Rosa, Hammel and Aaron Cook(notes)? I like them all a lot. Thank you, humidor and talent! I worry about the bullpen a little, mostly because of Huston Street's(notes) arm issues. The offense is not great, but it's OK. Troy Tulowitzki(notes) will make a run for MVP and Carlos Gonzalez(notes) is going to be a monster. A nice monster, though, like the Pixar movie.

'Duk: So we're agreed: The advent of Roxtober will once again try to distract football-obsessed Denver from Brady Quinn and the Broncos. But who's going to present the strongest challenge to Colorado? The NL West was the only division with three teams with 88 or more wins in 2009 and while I don't think we'll see that replicated in 2010, there should still be a lot of important divisional games down the stretch. I've pencilled in the Giants for second as a solid wild card contender and if they get their act together on offense, they can aim much higher. They're going to be counting on Pablo Sandoval(notes) and, uh, that other guy, a little too much for my liking, though.

DB: The Giants have way too mant "ifs" on offense for me. And it's not like all of their starters are going to replicate a typical Tim Lincecum(notes) start every time. Matt Cain's(notes) looking strong but Barry Zito(notes) and Jonathan Sanchez(notes) aren't shutout machines. And make no mistake, they'll need to throw a few shutouts. I like Mark DeRosa(notes), but he's not a great hitter for a left fielder. Aaron Rowand(notes) has been batting leadoff, and it's not like there's a really good alternative. Edgar Renteria(notes) needs to bounce back from a surgically repaired elbow and he's logged a lot of innings in his life. Freddy Sanchez(notes) starts the year hurt. They're going to need to score more runs than I fear they're capable. I could see them finishing second, but only if second place drops to them.

'Duk: So you're saying that the Dodgers will have to play down to the Giants' level for San Francisco to have a chance? The same Dodgers that spent their offseason watching their owners hurl divorce dirt at each other instead of addressing needs like another reliable starting pitcher? The team that's handing the ball to Vicente Padilla(notes) for an opening day start? The one that will count on a possibly-disgruntled and definitely defensively deficient Manny Ramirez(notes) to roam around in left field? If those are the same Dodgers you're talking about, then I'd be feeling pretty good if I were a season ticket holder at AT&T Park.

And it's not because the Dodgers don't have bright spots — Matt Kemp(notes), Andre Ethier(notes) and Clayton Kershaw(notes) are all breakout guys and maybe James Loney(notes) and Blake DeWitt(notes) will make similar leaps in 2010 — but that rotation gives me the creepy crawlies and I don't have enough faith that the McCourts are willing to take a break from writing checks to their lawyers when the time actually comes to write a check for some midseason help.

DB: No, I don't like the Dodgers for many of the reasons you just listed. I also worry about how Joe Torre handles pitchers sometimes, and the chaos at the top of the organization isn't going to be helpful come the time Ned Colletti needs to make additions. But all of that's not going to help the Giants, or anyone else in the NL West — except for the Rockies — make the playoffs, because the wild card's probably coming out of the NL East.

The D'Backs are in this mix somewhere. I'd like them more if Brandon Webb(notes) weren't coming off surgery. They were bad last year, but so was their luck with injuries. Conor Jackson(notes) should be himself again after getting Desert Fever (I get dessert fever, which is different). And it sure seems like they should be getting much more out of Chris Young and Stephen Drew(notes). Justin Upton(notes) and Mark Reynolds(notes) (despite the K's) are two of the better young players at their positions in the majors. I like the starters after Webb, but the bullpen? Every time Chad Qualls(notes) pitches, I imagine Paul Konerko(notes) hitting a grand slam against him in the 2005 World Series. And then it happens again in real life! I think we're finishing up in the middle of the division.

'Duk: Your guess is as good as mine on the D-Backs because they definitely look like that classic team that could easily overachieve or underachieve by 8-10 games. I'm leaning on the side of underachieving, though, because Webb still isn't healthy and we're assuming that C-Jack will be his pre-illness self. As much as we'd like to pretend it's always the second half, the addition of Adam LaRoche(notes) can't solve everything, you know.

I do have to say this, though: As someone who resides in the central time zone, I couldn't be happier to see the NL West give us a reason (other than Vin Scully) to not feel guilty about staying up late to watch games. It arguably boasts the best collection of young talent in the game and there are real good rivalries developing between almost all of the teams — something that's not easy to do when you have two teams that are less than 20 years old. No, it might not produce the NL champion, but it's going to be awfully fun watching them decide who gets to compete for the honor. The NL West is fine by me.

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NL West predicted order of finish
'Duk: 1. Rockies, 2. Giants, 3. Dodgers, 4. Padres, 5. Diamondbacks
1. Rockies, 2. Dodgers, 3. Diamondbacks, 4. Giants, 5. Padres

Troy Tulowitzki, Rockies
DB: Troy Tulowitzki, Rockies

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

Buster Posey(notes), Giants
Kyle Blanks, Padres