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Saturday, March 12, 2011

NL West certainly not NL worst

As I begin my six part series on previewing each division in the Major Leagues, I start out west where there are several intriguing teams in the senior circuit. Today I'll start out with the National League West. I will list the teams in the order in which I think they'll finish.

Los Angeles Dodgers: I know the majority of you are thinking; "Is this guy crazy?!" but I really like the Dodgers this year. Los Angeles has a strong 1-5 in its starting rotation with Clayton Kershaw, Chad Billingsley, Ted Lilly, Hiroki Kuroda, and Jon Garland (although Garland will be placed on the 15-day DL because of a left oblique muscle suffered on March 9th) Also, the bullpen should be strong; led by Hong Chih Kuo and closer Jonathan Broxton even though Broxtan had an ERA over seven in the second half of the season, he should be able to bounce back. Broxton has a fastball that’s 97+ mph and a wicked slider that should keep him in the closer role. However, the guy I look at for the Dodgers is Clayton Kershaw. This guy is an ace already, and he's just 22 years old and not even at his prime. Last year he posted a 2.91 ERA in 32 starts. Also impressive is his 204.1 innings pitched where he allowed just 160 hits, while striking out 212. On the offensive side the Dodgers have a nice core of players including center fielder Matt Kemp, right fielder Andre Ethier, and first baseman James Loney. But, out of those three the Dodgers need Matt Kemp to have a bounce back year. Although Kemp had good power numbers, his batting average and stolen bases took a dip; dropping 48 points and 15 stolen bases when compared to the 2009 season. The real question for the Dodgers is with the departure of manager Joe Torre can the new manager, Don Mattingly lead the team to a championship? If Mattingly doesn't screw things up for the Dodgers they should be primed to make the playoffs for years to come.
San Francisco Giants: The defending champs will come into the season once again with more than their fair share of pitching across the board, but weak on the offensive side. The Giants got lucky last year in the postseason by getting clutch postseason performances out of unexpected sources including castoffs Edgar Renteria, who won the World Series MVP, Aubrey Huff, and Cody Ross, along with rookie Buster Posey, among others. But, the backbone of this team is its pitching with Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain in the front end of the starting rotation, to Sergio Romo and Brian Wilson in the back end of the bullpen. Although Tim Lincecum failed to win his third straight NL Cy Young Award, he was able to earn his third straight All Star appearance, and lead the league once again in strikeouts with 231. Also, in the World Series against the Texas Rangers, Lincecum was able to win two games, including the clincher; while posting a 3.29 ERA in the Fall Classic. Is this tough to top? Not really, just ask Matt Cain. Yes, Matt Cain won 13 games with a 3.14 ERA, but in the postseason he was in a league of his own because he didn't allow a single run in 21.1 innings pitched. He was clearly the best pitcher in the playoffs last year, and it will certainly be a tough act to follow. The question for the Giants is; will they have a hangover effect this season? The Giants were the clear underdogs going into the playoffs, so it will be interesting to see if they don't get ahead of themselves. I don't see them doing this, as I believe they finish second, and fail to earn the wild card.

Colorado Rockies: The Rockies failed to have another magical season, but they do have two magical players on their roster with shortstop Troy Tulowitzki and outfielder Carlos Gonzalez. Last year Tulo batted .315 with 25 homeruns, and drove in 95. But, his September was one to remember, as he belted 15 homeruns and drove in 40, while batting a solid .303. Because of his tremendous season, and his so far great career, he earned a new contract extension that will keep him in Denver through the 2020 season. In the outfield Carlos Gonzalez had a tremendous season as well; leading the National League in batting average and hits with .336, and 197, respectively. Also, Cargo hit 34 homeruns, drove in 117 runs, and stole 26 bases. All of that was good for third in the NL MVP voting. I believe these two guys could carry them to a National League West crown, but because of the Rockies lack of pitching the best they'll get is third place. They have a solid front four starting with Ubaldo Jimmenez--who struggled a bit in the second half with a 3.80 ERA when compared to the first half with a 2.20 ERA, and an impressive no-hitter. Behind the All Star is Jorge De La Rosa, Jhoulys Chacin, and Jason Hammel. The fifth spot in the rotation is currently up for grabs because former All Star Aaron Cook suffered a broken finger and could be out until May. Besides, Cook struggled quite a bit in 2010, posting an ERA of 5.08 while going 6-8 in 23 starts. Last year the Rockies starting pitchers ERA and bullpen ERA's were both in the middle pack at 18th place and 16th place, respectively. They'll need to improve on those two categories if they want to win the pitching heavy NL West. The question is simply; will they be able to get more out of their 2-5 spots in the rotation? The Rockies need to have Jorge De La Rosa, Jhoulys Chacin, or Jason Hammel step up and be an elite number two starter that can go out, eat innings, and win 15-17 games this season. If they can't, they will not win this division.

San Diego Padres: If the Padres didn't go on their 10 game losing streak last year from August 26th to September 5th they could have won their division. The losing streak really killed this team, especially when they averaged just 2.3 runs per game and is probably why the Padres will finish fourth this year due to their lack of offense. Also, the loss of Adrian Gonzalez is absolutely a crushing blow. He was pretty much their offense; hitting nearly a quarter of the teams homeruns, and 16% of the team's RBI total. That is an insane amount of production out of one player for one team, and his loss is essentially a death blow to this team. But, something the Padres didn't lose this offseason was their pitching. Guys like Mat Latos and Clayton Richard will bolster the rotation. Both Latos and Richard had 14 wins this season, and Latos had a sparkling 2.92 ERA, while Richard had a solid 3.75. However, with the loss of Jon Garland, the Padres will have to get more out of Wade LeBlanc and newly acquired Aaron Harang in order to even have any hope of winning this division. One strength the Padres do have is their bullpen. Closer Heath Bell, setup men Mike Adams and Joe Thatcher all posted ERA's under two. Meanwhile, Luke Gregerson led the team in appearances with 80, and a WHIP of 0.83 and Edward Mujica led the team with a strikeout/walk ratio of 12. This bullpen is clearly the strength for the Padres, and it could be the best in all of baseball. The question for the Padres is really obvious; what will they get out of their offense? With Adrian Gonzalez now in Boston, everyone on their roster will have to step up big time if they want to make the playoffs.

Arizona Diamondbacks: Last year the Diamondbacks had the worst bullpen in the majors by far with a 5.74 ERA, over a run more than the second worst team in the Chicago Cubs, who had a 5.74 ERA. But, the D'backs added veteran closer J.J. Putz to bolster the back end of the 'pen. However, the D'backs do have a very underrated starting rotation. One of those underrated arms includes Daniel Hudson who was acquired by the Chicago White Sox and had a 7-1 record, with an impresive 1.69 ERA. This guy should be starting on Opening Day for Arizona. Behind him are a couple of former American League hurlers in former New York Yankee Ian Kennedy, and former Los Angeles Angel Joe Saunders. Kennedy had a solid year last year for Arizona; posting a 3.80 ERA in 32 starts. And in his 194 innings of work, Kennedy gave up just 163 hits. Look for Kennedy to build on last year's performance. Also, Saunders has shown he can be a good pitcher in the big leagues. In 2008 and 2009 for the Angels, Saunders won 17 games and 16 games, respectively. Like Kennedy, watch for Saunders to have a good season. But, the which was once a strength for the Diamondbacks, could now be a weakness. With the losses of third baseman Mark Reynolds and first baseman Adam LaRoche, the Diamondbacks could have a season long power outage. I wouldn't count on outfielder Chris Young to setup up and be the teams main hitter, due to the fact he strikes out way too much. In 2010 Young struck out 145 times, and he's struck out over 130 times in a season four seasons in a row. Plus, shortstop Stephen Drew can't be that guy either, over the last four seasons Drew has averaged just 63 RBI. Due to all the weaknesses across the board, look for Arizona to finish last in the National League West, but possibly improve.

There you have it; The National League West preview. This division is better than people give them credit for, I believe. I also believe there is a lot of good talent in this division like Troy Tulowitzki, Carlos Gonzalez, Andre Either, Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, Clayton Kershaw, and Heath Bell, among many others. In my next preview I'll take a look at the American League West. Stay tuned!

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