CHRIS NEEDHAM: While sometimes it still feels like the Manny to the Dodgers extended foxtrot is still going on, he did, in fact, sign. And with that, the Dodgers are likely to return to the top of the division.
Before his signing, it seemed like it could’ve been a three-team race — a race, more or less, to .500. Reach 81 wins, and you could punch your team to October.
LA has some decent pitchers, but they also had to play Juan Pierre. San Fran has Tiny Tim and the Big Unit, but they also had Fred Lewis. Arizona has Dan Haren, but they also have Dan Haren’s injury history.
That’s three decent teams, with some very interesting parts — but all three with flaws.
Manny’s signing fixes one of those big flaws for the Dodgers — mainly the lack of punch — and gives them the best chance to win the division.
LA lost Derek Lowe, but all isn’t lost. Chad Billingsley is some people’s darkhorse Cy Young candidate. Hiroki Kuroda probably isn’t an ace, but he’s a perfectly durable #2-type starter, giving the teams innings while rarely losing it for them. And Clayton Kershaw has all the potential in the world — if he can harness that gorgeous lollipop curve, he’s got a chance to carry the staff.
It’s a strong offensive team, with no real weak spot. Russ Martin, Raffy Furcal and Matt Kemp are all likely to be well above average for their position. Andre Ethier and James Loney figure to be average at the very worst.
Above average offense. Solid pitching. Seems like a recipe for success.
Arizona isn’t a slouch. They were a favorite last year, as many figured the previous year’s middle finger to Pythagoras would be overcome by the team’s young core. But the old Greek had the last laugh, and Arizona slumped.
Now, many are writing them off. But should they?
It’s still the same team, more or less, that everyone raved about last year.
If Brandon Webb and Dan Haren give them 65+ starts, that’s a huge leg up on most other teams in baseball.
And their young offensive core disappointed last year, but that happens with kids. They’re just as likely to bust out this year. If Justin Upton takes the step forward this year that everyone thought he would last year, they’ll be playing meaningful baseball long into September.
Same goes for the Giants. Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, and Randy Johnson are going to make some teams curse their luck when they catch all three on a weekend series.
But that offense is, well, offensive. New shortstop Edgar Renteria is the only position player you should be comfortable betting on to be much above average at their position. Otherwise, it’s basically a defense-focused roster that hopes to scratch out a whole lot of 3-2 wins.
Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t.
If it works long enough, maybe they’re still in it in July, and they’re able to get that missing piece that changes the division, the way the Dodgers did with Manny.
The Rockies? Meh. With their MVP candidate gone, they’re relying on bouncebacks from Todd Helton and Troy Tulowitzki. They’ve got what appears to be a decent pen. And their starters are mostly young (though not the high ceiling guys of the others in the division). Maybe they won’t be terrible, but player-by-player there aren’t a lot of guys you could envisioning being in an awards race if they max out their potential.
The Padres? Double Meh. Some people picked them to win the division last year. Nobody’s picking them this year. They’ve, perhaps, got a higher ceiling than Colorado. Jake Peavy’s still an ace-type pitcher. Adrian Gonzalez is perhaps the game’s most unappreciated superstar. Kevin Kouzmanoff has breakout potential. So there’s some interesting parts.
But then they’ve got Jody Gerut in CF. And David Eckstein’s playing 2B. That’s whole lot of ‘meh’.
Overall, it’s a division with a lot of high-quality talent. Some of the league’s best players — and certainly most of its best pitchers — work far out west, toiling away while the East Coast sleeps.
HOWARD MEGDAL: While we agree on most of what you said, I do take issue with a few things, particularly your team at the top. I believe Arizona will win the NL West, not the Dodgers.
Make no mistake, there are no awful hitters in the Dodger lineup. But how many great ones are there? Sure, let’s assume Manny Ramirez is closer to his Dodger self than his Red Sox self. He’s still turning 37 in May, and he’s irreplaceable offensively. Russell Martin, of course, is inarguable- and I wouldn’t want to try.
But just how much offense are we expecting from Loney, Hudson (who looked awful this spring off of surgery), Furcal and Blake? Will both Kemp and Ethier build on 2008?
And if any of them go down, the Plan B at any position is a pretty poor one.
I’m also not in love with that rotation-love Billingsley, like Kuroda, and that’s about it. Until Kershaw shows command, a pretty curveball doesn’t make a number 4 starter. And counting on Randy Wolf as a 3 seems like a misread of his value at this point.
And that bullpen has Broxton, who is fantastic. But getting to him means Cory Wade, who is already on the Joe Torre Throwing Program to Oblivion, Guillermo Mota, who nearly single-handedly ruined the 2007 Mets, and Hong-Chi Kuo, who simply hasn’t displayed the ability to pitch as often as he’ll need to if he’s to lock down the eighth inning.
Again, the Dodgers aren’t horrible- I just don’t think they have enough to hold off Arizona. The starters are fabulous up top with Haren and Webb, and good at 3-4 with reliable Doug Davis (who pitches well, even while battling cancer!) and Jon Garland, who is what he is. The back end of the bullpen is solid with Qualls/Rauch/Pena, and Schoeneweis, used as a lefty specialist, should be an asset.
That offense also has so many young players ready to burst onto the scene, just a few need to pop this year to make Arizona special. Stephen Drew, I’m looking at you in particular.
I will also disagree with your denigration of Fred Lewis, who put up a .282/.351/.440 line in 2008, and Bengie Molina, who is the Old Man River of comically slow catchers. Sandoval, Rowand and Winn could also put up league average years- the Giants could surprise. Probably two bats short, though.
Colorado is definitely Meh, though I do have high hopes for Ryan Spilborghs, and believe Chris Iannetta won’t be hitting eighth in that lineup for very long.
Poor San Diego. And this is before they trade Peavy and Giles. Interesting question, though: is Adrian Gonzalez, all told, the best overall player in the division?