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LBS 2011 MLB Preview: NL West

The NL West, top to bottom, is probably baseball’s most interesting division.  You have the defending world champion Giants trying to make it back to the top of the division, a division where the second place team is unlikely to make the postseason.  Even the Diamondbacks could out-do their projections and compete in a winnable division.

1) Los Angeles Dodgers (projected finish: 88-74)

If the Dodgers make the playoffs this year, they may do so as the weakest of any of the eight playoff teams.  They spent the 2010 trying to find ways to produce offense; any sort of offense.  This year, things may only be a little bit better for them, but in the power-sapped NL West, the Dodgers should easily outscore the Giants and the Padres this season, finishing somewhere around the middle of the pack in terms of runs scored amongst NL West teams.

The biggest improvement could be on the pitching end, where a Clayton Kershaw-Chad Billingsley led rotation leads a massive improvement in runs against.  The Padres and the Giants last year were able to outpace the Dodgers on the preventative side because they both committed to defense and the Dodgers did not.  The Dodgers still really haven’t improved their defense, but their rotations should pick up a lot of the slack, and move them towards the top of the league in preventing runs.

Andre Ethier, Matt Kemp, and James Loney will lead an offense that lost it’s catcher, Russell Martin, to the Yankees after they non-tendered him following a dreadful offensive season in 2010.  LA is going to be competitive because it’s young talent from many seasons ago is finally matured, and while there doesn’t appear to be a lot left behind in terms of a farm system — a system that has largely been gutted by some feeble attempts to compete in past years — the Dodgers and Rockies are neck and neck in terms of ‘win now’ ability.

2) Colorado Rockies (projected finish: 87-75)

This projection for the Colorado Rockies has them coming up just one game short of the NL West title, and one game short of the wild card berth, held by the Atlanta Braves.  The Rockies, led by an improved defense, will remain around the top of the division as long as they continue to win a hair under two thirds of their home games.  They compete in a tight division, one they are no doubt good enough to win.

As always the Rockies struggle to have enough quality pitching to compete.  Ubaldo Jimenez and Jorge de la Rosa are back, and Aaron Cook could rebound, but the staff’s former injury-prone leader, Jeff Francis, is a Royal now.  The year of the pitcher skipped this team, as Coors Field (following a few years as a neutral run environment thanks to a humidor for the baseballs) has gone back to being a hitter’s paradise.  That makes Jimenez’ 2.88 ERA all the more impressive (161 ERA+).  He’s not exactly Zack Greinke, Felix Hernandez or Roy Halladay, but he’s still one of the best pitchers in baseball.

The declining ability of Todd Helton should be less of a factor this year for the Rocks then it was as it crippled them last year.  He will make the team because he’s on the payroll.  But the team has acquired Ty Wigginton to take some of the first base duties away, and will let Eric Young Jr. and prospect Jonathon Herrera compete at second base for the open position.

3) San Francisco Giants (projected finish: 83-79)

The Giants won only 92 games a year ago, which isn’t at all out of character for a world series champion.  But it’s not dominant, and it’s largely out of character for a team like that to sustain it’s success.  The Giants have little to worry about on the pitching end with Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, Jonathon Sanchez, and Brian Wilson coming out of the pen, but the hitting, while improved in the playoffs, just doesn’t seem sustainable.

If you were to tell a Giants fan that Pablo Sandoval would have had the year he did, but the team would win the world series anyway, the most important question would have been, “how?”  Defensively, the Giants may have been one of the better teams, ever.  This team will play the aging Miguel Tejada at shortstop.  To be fair, the Giants employed Juan Uribe and Edgar Rentaria in the position last year, so it’s not a huge downgrade to Tejada (if one at all).  But is Aubrey Huff going to carry the offense again?  If not, the Giants will need more pop out of Sandoval’s bat.

Buster Posey is the team’s best position player, and perhaps the best catcher in the NL already, but the Giants are left hoping from offense from last year’s waiver pickups: OFs Pat Burrell and Cody Ross.  Chances are, the defense will regress towards the mean, and the rotation will stay strong while the bullpen blows a few more close games and the offense reverts back to the rut it has been in since the middle of the last decade.

4) San Diego Padres (projected finish: 76-86)

The Padres ran with the Giants all season long because as good as the Giants defense was, the Padres were maybe just a little bit smoother with the gloves.  And if the Padres happen to once again feature the best bullpen in baseball — like they did in 2010 — they will finish above .500 for the second straight year.

With that said, it becomes a little tougher to compete losing ones best player, and the Padres lost Adrian Gonzalez to the Red Sox in an offseason trade.

Looking at the Padres roster, they are very deep, and rather veteran (as opposed to young and improving).  The real improvement is happening down on the farm.  It’s important for the future for the Padres rotation to continue pitching at a high level and preventing runs, because if the Padres — who play at pitcher friendly PetCo Park — find that they can’t stop the bleeding on the run prevention side, they may be one of the worst teams in baseball this year.  Luckily, they have continued to commit themselves to defense, so another 80 win season is well within their reach.

5) Arizona Diamondbacks (projected finish: 71-91)

The D-Backs’ roster is a mess, but not in the talentless sense.  It’s a mess in the sense of that they don’t know exactly where (if anywhere) the production is going to come from.  Middling pitching prospects are widely interspersed with failed reclamation projects and veterans.

The hitters are going to do their job, yet again, this season.  With Justin Upton, Chris Young, and Xavier Nady in the outfield, they can generate runs with the bats.  The problem will be the infield.  2B Kelly Johnson is coming off a fantastic season, but that performance was highly unexpected.  Stephen Drew is a very talented shortstop.  But this team may be too weak at the corners to compete immediately.

Unlike the Dodgers, the team decided to tear down and rebuild before they wrecked the farm system, so things should only get better from here.  The problem is that players like Upton, Young, and Drew have a window of opportunity before they become very expensive to retain, and the Diamondbacks could next find themselves sellers on their top young talent instead of just their vets with old player skills.  As alluded to above, the D-Backs can run with the leaders in this division because they won’t necessarily need to get to 90 wins to stay in it to the middle of September.  But this is the first spring in a long time that the Arizona baseball club has lacked the talent that it’s NL West competitors have.  And a teardown of the (remaining) internal structure of the major league roster is more likely that a team that immediately contends with Drew, Johnson, Upton, and Young at it’s core, and little help from it’s pitching.

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