Division Preview: National League West

If you like drama, the NL West should deliver. The division is home to some of baseball’s most contentious rivalries, including one between the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Arizona Diamondbacks that reached a high at almost the last possible moment last year, when the Dodgers celebrated clinching the division title by jumping in the pool at Arizona’s Chase Field.  However, there isn’t a real race between contenders, with most teams lacking sufficient depth to make a real run.

The Contenders:

Los Angeles Dodgers

The “Showtime Dodgers” might best describe the current Los Angeles squad.  They started 2013 30-42, 9½ games behind the Diamondbacks, before catching fire in June, eventually winning the division by 11 games.  Powered by Clayton Kershaw, Hanley Ramirez, Adrian Gonzalez, and Yasiel Puig, the Dodgers enter 2014 as favorites in the division, but the NL West bulked up this offseason perhaps more than any other division, and the Dodgers have issues worth watching.

The Dodgers made a push to resign Michael Young to play second base as a stopgap for Cuban-signee Alex Gurrero, but instead opted for a light-hitting platoon of Dee Gordon and Justin Turner. Former MVP Matt Kemp’s slow return from ankle surgery has been well documented, but if healthy, Kemp gives the Dodgers a loaded outfield.

After Kershaw, Zack Greinke, and Hyun-Jin Ryu, the Dodgers used eight different starters last season.  To solidify the final two spots, they signed Dan Haren to be the fourth starter and Paul Maholm as insurance for Josh Beckett and Chad Billinglsey. Pitchers not named Kershaw, Greinke, and Ryu went 17-25 with a 4.75 ERA in 372.4 innings in 2013. Those eight pitchers had a combined 1.3 WAR, which means Haren, coming off a strong second half for the Washington Nationals, and the fifth starter only need to be average to be better than what the Dodgers got last year.

The Dodgers season has already started, having played the Diamondbacks twice in Australia last weekend. It will take more time for the division race to be decided, but Los Angeles looked like the division winner the experts predicted.  It didn’t take long, but Puig-related drama has already started, and while reports of a rift between manager Don Mattingly and Puig are overstated, the Dodgers cannot afford to throw away a division title that belongs to them.

San Francisco Giants

The Giants 2013 season was a disaster. A year after winning the world series in five games, San Francisco finished 76-86; ranked 21st in runs scored, 22nd in ERA, 20th in starting pitcher innings, 23rd in walks (including last in intentional walks); and suffered from injuries to Pablo Sandoval, Marco Scutaro, Angel Pagan, and Andres Torres. Rather than overhaul the roster, general manager Brian Sabean made tweaks, signing outfielder Michael Morse and pitcher Tim Hudson, banking on rebound seasons by almost every core member of the 2010 and 2012 teams.

San Francisco might seem like an also-ran in a division with the Dodgers but they believe in their ability to contend. Despite the weak offense, individual Giants hitters had good seasons.  Scutaro hit .297/.357/.369 in 127 games and will hit second in the lineup when he returns from the disabled list, Hunter Pence posted career highs in home runs and stolen bases, and Buster Posey followed up his MVP 2012 by hitting .294/.371/.450.

Surrounding those three with support in the lineup is going be critical for the Giant’s chances in the division. Pablo Sandoval is in the best shape of his life for the second or third time of his career and is in his walk year. At 27 years old, a good season will net him a big contract in free agency.  Angel Pagan was limited to 71 games last year, and his presence was sorely missed. If healthy, his career .756 OPS should jump-start the leadoff position, which ranked 24th in baseball last year.  While Brandon Belt’s power numbers were pedestrian for a first baseman, he hit .346 with seven home runs in the final 52 games of the year.  The Giants believe the adjustments he’s made and the weight gained will make him an all-star this year.  Add in Morse, who if healthy could use right field at AT&T Park to his advantage to post excellent power numbers, and the Giants have a postseason-caliber offense.

It is always difficult to predict how a team built around a catcher will fare over the course of a 162-game season, but if right, the Giants can challenge the Dodgers for the division.  Matt Cain’s second half ERA was 270 points lower than his first half ERA, and the peripheral statistics suggest he can repeat that success. The key for the Giants success is a rebound season from Ryan Vogelsong, who has been the lynchpin of the rotation since arriving in San Francisco in 2011, because most of the organization’s best pitching prospects are going to open 2014 at the lower minor leagues.

The Pretenders:

Arizona Diamondbacks

The Diamondbacks may be the antithesis of the Dodgers. They opened the season 47-41 and looked like they had the Dodgers on the run before sliding in the second half. Patrick Corbin had a dominant first half with a trip to the all-star game, but lost seven of his last 11 starts while the rest of the team went 29-26 in the final two months to finish 81-81, 11 games back in the division.

General manager Kevin Towers has shipped a lot of talent out of Arizona in the last two years, trading Justin Upton, Trevor Bauer, Ian Kennedy, Adam Eaton, and Matt Davidson for mostly less talented returns. It is not because they do not value their ability, but because they would rather have players that fit their system than stars.  They look at the Boston Red Sox’s World Series winning team as a model for success, relying on cohesion and depth instead of talent; valuing Pollock, Martin Prado, and Paul Goldschmidt higher than Upton, Eaton, and Bauer.

Unfortunately for the Diamondbacks, their equity did not get them far during the offseason.  They were aggressive in their pursuit of talent, making a large offer to Carlos Beltran, submitting a bid for Masahiro Tanaka, and exploring a trade for Jeff Samardzija, but were unsuccessful.  Instead, they settled for Bronson Arroyo and Mark Trumbo.

While adding Arroyo, Trumbo, and Addison Reed significantly improves their competitiveness, the team lacks sufficient star talent and significant depth to compete with the star-studded Dodgers. While teams can win when built around pitching, defense, and timely hitting, the Diamondbacks most important hitters not named Goldschmidt are not satisfactory when compared to their Los Angeles counterparts.  While Trumbo is one of baseball’s most underrated sluggers, he is going to have to do more than hit home runs for the Diamondbacks to be competitive. Unfortunately, he enters his age-28 season a career .250/.299/.470 hitter and -1.7 WAR in 75 games in left field, his everyday position this year.

The real nail in the coffin for the Diamondbacks was the news that Corbin will miss the entire season after having Tommy John surgery earlier this week.  Corbin was originally going to be the opening day starter and anchor a staff that desperately needed an ace.  His injury may be the single biggest loss suffered by any team this year.  While top pitching prospect Archie Bradley, the 21-year-old who opened 2013 pitching in High-A, could debut this season, he cannot reasonably be expected to lead their pitching staff to contention this year.

San Diego Padres

San Diego entered spring training the trendy pick for 2014.  2013 was thought to be their chance at contention, with Chase Headley returning to a team that if healthy, could come together for a run at the division title. Instead, they lost 1883 man-games to injury, bringing their two-year total to 3,776 games lost. The Padres have quietly acquired a stable of underrated talent, but have never been able to get them on the field at the same time.

Last year's midseason trade for Ian Kennedy gives the Padres a very good rotation.  Led by Andrew Cashner, the pitching staff could surprise.  Unfortunately, injury-prone offseason signee Josh Johnson is already hurt and expected to miss five weeks.  The Padres pitching staff allowed 80 home runs in 81 games at Petco Park, but did rank fifth in home ERA in all of baseball.

Because of their difficult first half schedule -46 games versus teams that finished2013 .500 or better before the all-star break- the Padres season is going to be in jeopardy early.  Corey Luebke is going to miss his second straight season, Joe Wieland is going to be out until June, and talented but perennially injured Cameron Maybin will miss at least the first two months with a biceps injury. In a division that lacks real depth, the Padres have as good a chance as any to contend if they can outlast injuries.  However, history suggests the only title the Padres will win is man-games lost for the third year in a row. At least San Diego is a pleasant city to live in.

Colorado Rockies

The Rockies have not been relevant in the National League since 2009, when Jim Tracy replaced Clint Hurdle as manager after 46 games, winning 20 of his first 25 games including a 17-1 stretch and finishing the season with 92 wins.  Since then, and in 18 years since Coors Field was opened, the Rockies have consistently been one of the best offensive teams in baseball, and project to be one this year as long as Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez stay healthy, anchoring a lineup that has both power and depth.  The problem, same as every year, is pitching.  Pitching in Colorado has been mostly unsolvable, leading Rockies management to try everything from big-name free agents to four-man stating rotations in an attempt to remain competitive.

In 1997, the Rockies signed 19-game winner Darryl Kile to a three-year contract that made him the fourth-highest paid pitcher in baseball.  His two years in Colorado were a disaster; he had a 5.20 ERA in 1998 and 6.99 ERA in 1999; the second-worst season by a starting pitcher in history.  Giving up, Kile was traded to St. Louis in 2000, and went 41-24 with a 3.54 ERA in two-plus seasons for the Cardinals.  Kile isn’t the exception; Mike Hampton, Jeremy Guthrie, and Greg Maddux all had forgettable experiences at Coors.  According to Hardball Times, the Colorado air takes 10 percent of the velocity and 20 percent of the spin off a pitch. That means a fastball that leaves a pitcher’s hand at 95 miles per hour will arrive at the plate at 86 miles per hour. It also means a good curveball can arrive at the plate a cement mixer waiting to be put in the seats. Scouts surmise the best pitches to throw at Coors Field are sliders and cutters; also considered the two most fatigue-inducing pitches.

To the Rockies credit, they appear to have potentially their best rotation in years in Jhoulys Chacin, Jorge De La Rosa, Juan Nicasio, Tyler Chatwood, and Brett Anderson.  However, Chacin is going to start the season on the disabled list and De La Rosa has only two complete seasons in 10 years.  If Anderson, once considered a promising pitching prospect, can sustain success, the Rockies will have a passable rotation. The problem is they are going to need that group to stay healthy, because pitchers that can sustain success in Colorado are few and far between.

To make things harder for the Rockies is even though Tulowitzki and Gonzalez have five all-star appearances between them, each only has one full season in the last four.   While the offense is augmented by the addition of Justin Morneau and the defense should be good, the Rockies narrow chances at contending in the division will be non-existent if their two most important players do not play every day.

The Verdict:

Dodgers win the division.

It is hard to argue with a reigning division champion with as much talent as the Dodgers.  The Dodgers are in a rare position where they will be able to lean on a deep and hard-throwing bullpen to offset a potentially troublesome back of the rotation because of the reliability of the first three starters; if Ryu's weight-loss equates to improvement, the Dodgers will have one of the best starting-three in the game. There are questions about the outfield configuration when Kemp returns, and he has already said he is not a fourth outfielder.  While they are downplaying reports of contention between Puig and his manager, clubhouse drama has derailed championship-caliber teams before.  Even though it is improved, the division is the Dodgers’ to lose so long as they do not combust.

One name everyone has ignored with potential to impact the division race is Daniel Hudson.  Working his way back from his second Tommy John, Hudson has not been healthy since 2011, when he threw 222 innings and won 16 games. While he will not be available until after the all-star break, if at all, he is only 27 and could provide a boost to the Diamondbacks late in the season if they are in the hunt. If healthy, he has the ability to impact the division race.

© 2016 Citizens of Natstown