Perpetual Post NL West Preview

Los Angeles Dodgers
The Dodgers should again be a 90-plus win team. While I think the loss of Randy Wolf does hurt (at least, the 2009 Randy Wolf), there are enough other pieces still in place- and capable of improvment- that the Dodgers should be fine without him.

Let’s start with Clayton Kershaw, who will win the NL Cy Young Award. Add the chance that Russell Martin will return and send that weird, cyborg Russell Martin who doesn’t hit away forever. Add improvements from James Loney in his age-26 season and Matt Kemp in his age-25 season, the likelihood of more than 104 games from Manny Ramirez, and that is a strong team.

JESSICA BADER: I think the Dodgers will be contenders this year, but they do have some weaknesses that I think Howard is overlooking. Beyond Kershaw, the rotation has its share of question marks – Chad Billingsley faded badly down the stretch last year, and the team is apparently counting on Vicente Padilla as its fourth starter. James Loney has shown few signs thus far that he can deliver the sort of offensive performance expected from a first baseman, particularly with regard to hitting for power. Joe Torre’s questionable decision to give Ronnie Belliard gobs of playing time late last year can now be repeated from Opening Day onward this season.

Perhaps more problematic than any one weakness is the problem at the very top. The team’s owners are going through a very messy divorce, and the contentious battle between Frank and Jamie McCourt is considered to be a major factor in the Dodgers’ lackluster offseason, which was marked by an unwillingness to spend money on player acquisitions. Don’t get me wrong, the Dodgers still have a very solid core of young talent, but there’s a good chance they will not be able to take on salary in a trade should the team need an improvement to solidify its status as a contender.

CHRIS PUMMER: This is a contending team, but without another starter or two I don’t think I like them to win the division. Like Jessica, I think their ownership situation will handicap them from making those additions. Which is too bad since this group of young players is so good.

Colorado Rockies
I think Colorado will be tight with Los Angeles, just like 2009, but will ultimately best the Dodgers, unlike 2009. Chris Iannetta will become a premier catcher in baseball. Ian Stewart will better his .785 OPS in 2009 by at least 100 points. Dexter Fowler will become consistently great, and Jeff Francis could become the best fifth starter in the National League.

JESSICA BADER: I think Colorado has to be looked at as the favorite to win the division this year. Many of the league’s best starting pitchers call the NL West home, including Ubaldo Jimenez, who is perhaps the Rockies’ first homegrown stud on the mound. The departure of Yorvit Torrealba  removed the major roadblock standing between the vastly superior Chris Iannetta and the playing time he deserves. I’m certainly excited to see what Carlos Gonzalez is capable of over a full season in the majors. The Rockies were able to hold on to most of the key players from last year’s playoff team, and much of the core is still under the age of 27, making them a force to be reckoned with for the foreseeable future.

CHRIS PUMMER: I also think this team is destined to win the division, and it might not be very close. Especially if Gonzalez, Iannetta and the pitching all live up to their abilities.

San Francisco Giants
The offense is no better than last year. The starting pitching is nearly as good, though Todd Wellemeyer is a clear step down from even late-career Randy Johnson. So why will the Giants win 82 games in 2010, instead of the 88 in 2009? The bullpen. The group overachieved last year- a 3.49 ERA- and I think that will go up by around a half a run. A shame, since Kung-Fu Panda will lock in his gains, and Tim Lincecum is as enjoyable to watch as any pitcher I can remember.

JESSICA BADER: San Francisco’s rotation is dazzling – Lincecum is a transcendent talent, Matt Cain is a worthy sidekick even if his peripherals suggest he’s not quite as good as the sub-3 ERA he delivered last year, and Jonathan Sanchez is Oliver Perez, only $10 million a year cheaper and with a no-hitter on his resume (and yes, I mean that comparison as a compliment). Barry Zito is grossly overpaid, but a team could do a lot worse than a league-average workhorse as its fourth starter.

What makes the Giants more likely to be a .500 team than a contender is the dreadful offense. Referring to the first eight lineup slots as Kung Fu Panda and the Seven Dwarves might be an insult to Sleepy and Dopey. This was a team that had a collective OPS+ of 81 last year, and it is now a team where Aubrey Huff is a middle-of-the-order bat and Mark DeRosa is a corner outfielder. Even a stellar pitching staff needs more run support than the Giants are capable of giving their starters.

CHRIS PUMMER: I’ve been a very tepid defender of Brian Sabean, which usually means I’m his biggest fan in most rooms. This team he’s assembled is pretty hard to defend.

By my tally he’s collected three or four utility infielders, or guys who should be for good teams (Edgar Renteria, Juan Uribe, Mark DeRosa, Kevin Frandsen) and will start two of them, including one in a position that demands some offense. And one will also cover for the injured second baseman he signed.

Just when Giants fans thought they’d dodged a bullet when Adam LaRoche turned down a rumored contract that would have overpaid for his services, Sabean found a less efficient use for his available cash by throwing it at Aubrey Huff. At least LaRoche would have been likely to play well.

One move I won’t rip is bringing back Bengie Molina on a fair deal. Maybe Buster Posey is ready to take over at catcher, but there’s not too much harm to be done by bringing him around slowly. Especially since Molina might just be the cleanup hitter again this year. Though again, that says less about Molina’s skill that Sabean’s approach.

San Diego Padres
HOWARD MEGDAL: I love Adrian Gonzalez, obviously, and Luke Gregerson/Heath Bell is a fearsome combo out of the bullpen. There’s just not enough other talent there. The starting pitching will put up decent numbers, particularly playing half the games in San Diego’s spacious Petco Park, and I like Kyle Blanks to be such a good hitter, San Diego will move to trade Adrian Gonzalez to give him a chance to play at first base. (Or something like that.) But this is a 75-78 win team, just like last year, and it could be worse than that in San Diego if Gonzalez gets dealt around July 31.

JESSICA BADER: I think it’s a given that both Gonzalez and Bell will be dealt by the trading deadline. Once they are gone, so is any reason to watch the Padres, except perhaps to see what Blanks is capable of. No other member of the starting lineup is a good bet to slug over .400, and the rotation aside from top prospect Mat Latos is a bunch of nondescript guys who can be thrown out there to post ERAs in the low-to-mid fours thanks to the power-sapping nature of Petco Park. One thing the Padres have been quite good at in recent years is putting together really solid bullpens without spending much money to do so, and I expect that this year will be no exception, with last year’s find Mike Adams ready to step in as the closer if Bell is traded.

CHRIS PUMMER: I think that if the Padres can’t find a new home for Gonzalez in the next couple weeks, they should just keep Gonzalez at least until the offseason. If Tampa Bay makes Carlos Pena available midseason, that probably diminishes what San Diego can get, even with an extra half season of the slugger. Blanks can lumber around left field in the meantime.

That this is a hotter topic that anything else in Padres camp right now says everything about where this team is going.

Arizona Diamondbacks
Really, the difference between good and great will be based on how healthy Brandon Webb is. If he’s Cy Young-caliber Webb, this team will blow away the Dodgers and Rockies.

The D’backs had a terrific offseason. Adam LaRoche is a solid contributor at first base, and they got him on a one-year, $4.5 million deal. Kelly Johnson is as good a candidate for comeback player of the year as anyone I can imagine, with the possible exception of left fielder Conor Jackson. Or shortstop Stephen Drew. And Miguel Montero will be monstrously good in 2010. He will start the All Star Game at catcher if the voters don’t screw it up. That’s how good he’ll be.

Both Edwin Jackson and Ian Kennedy will be solid complements to Dan Haren. Add in Webb, and it might be the best rotation in the National League. Chad Qualls is a strong closer, and Aaron Heilman is a solid bet to rebound as he approaches his walk year. There is reason to believe the Diamondbacks will win the National League pennant. Should Webb return at full strength, there will be little reason not to believe it.

The Diamondbacks do have quite a few talented players who should bounce back from disappointing 2009 performances (perhaps Chris Young can be added to this list, provided that I steer clear of him in my fantasy draft for the first time since 2007), as well as the phenomenally gifted Justin Upton. If Webb is healthy, he and Haren are among the best one-two punches in all of baseball.  However, I think they made a big mistake in trading Max Scherzer for Jackson and Kennedy.

I’ll be the first to admit that I tend to fixate on peripherals, but Scherzer struck out over a batter an inning last year while maintaining respectable walk and homer rates. Jackson outperformed his peripherals last year thanks to a .281 BABIP, and Kennedy is a flyball pitcher with underwhelming stuff  whose solid control in the minors has deserted him at the major-league level, making him a poor fit for a hitter’s park like Chase Field. I still do not understand why the Diamondbacks made that trade, and I suspect that it will come back to haunt them as soon as this year.

CHRIS PUMMER: The Diamondbacks are a team that a lot of people seem to love because they think the front office “gets” statistical analysis and because they’ve picked up some hot-shot prospects for their respected farm system.

I think this is a team that really doesn’t have a cohesive plan in place other than hoping everything works out.

Forced into trading Javier Vazquez years ago, they picked up the touted Chris Young from the White Sox. But they undid their advantage by throwing money at Eric Byrnes and shipping Carlos Quentin — a better player than Young or Byrnes — back to the White Sox. Now they’re counting on Young to put a dismal season behind him and exceed the potential he showed the previous two years.

That’s just one example, but it illustrates how this team is running in place.

Now this year they’re betting on quantity (Jackson, Kennedy) over likely quality (Scherzer). Maybe that’s necessary with Webb’s questionable health. But it seems like a poor bet to me, and one that says they think they’re going to win this year.

Don’t consider me an optimist.

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