1 – Los Angeles Dodgers
2 – Arizona Diamondbacks
3 – San Francisco Giants
4 – Colorado Rockies
5 – San Diego Padres
Los Angeles Dodgers
Last year's NL West race came down to the final week of the season, with L.A. just edging out the Diamondbacks. This year's race looks about the same, with the Dodgers and 'Backs pacing the division. What really separates the two is L.A.'s great opportunity for improvement; they've got the young talent to take the division by storm.
It starts in the rotation with ace Chad Billingsley. The Dodgers will miss Derek Lowe, but Billingsley should be able to step up and do just as well, if not better. Last year, Billingsley posted a 3.14 ERA and struck out 201 batters in 200.2 innings. The only concern here is the big increase in innings pitched in 2008 (65.1 more than in 2007, including the postseason) as well as his 80 walks allowed. The other young stud in the L.A. stable is Clayton Kershaw. Long-term, Kershaw's ceiling may be higher than Billingsley's, but he's still quite young; he just turned 21. But while he may not top 200 innings, Kershaw looked pretty sharp as a 20-year-old rookie last year, managing a 4.26 ERA with 100 K in 107.2 IP.
These young aces are backed up by the capable Hiroki Kuroda, who had a fine 2008, and Randy Wolf, added as a free agent for a modest cost. The #5 slot will probably go to young James McDonald, who proved himself capable in the role last year. The only problem will be if the Dodgers insist on starting Jason "Walking Wounded" Schmidt in an attempt to salvage something from his woeful contract.
The Dodgers are taking a hit in the bullpen with the loss of closer Takashi Saito, but they have a fine replacement on hand in Jonathan Broxton. And behind Broxton, they've got reliable arms such as Hong-Chi Kuo, Cory Wade and perhaps McDonald if Schmidt ends up starting.
The lineup isn't such a sure thing, although it did receive a tremendous boost with the return of Manny Ramirez. Manny won't hit like he did down the stretch last year (396/489/743* with L.A.), but he's a huge upgrade over Juan Pierre (who isn't?). Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier round out a group that may not be very strong defensively, but has the potential to be the best-hitting outfield in the league.
* -- Slash stats indicate (Batting Average/ On-Base Percentage/ Slugging Percentage)
The Dodgers have a star behind the plate in Russell Martin, but they will need to resist the temptation to overwork him. Martin played in 155 games in 2008, a staggering number that took a toll on his offense as the year went on. Joe Torre will have to find more opportunities to rest his young star, although it would be nice to have a better backup than Brad Ausmus.
The infield is problematic, but still pretty strong. Rafael Furcal and Orlando Hudson provide great defense up the middle, even if both are starting to show signs of age. James Loney is an All-Star waiting to break out at first, and the only non-star is Casey Blake at third. The Dodgers signed Blake to a silly contract in the offseason, but considering the lineup depth around him, it shouldn't hurt them too much (although they'll regret trading away these guys to get Blake). Any gaps in the middle infield can be filled immediately by prospects Chin-Lung Hu and Ivan DeJesus, Jr.
There's still a lot here that can go wrong: injuries, personality clashes, as well as a stronger NL West than we've seen in a while. But the Dodgers are well-positioned to ride their young talent to another postseason berth.
The Diamondbacks, like the Dodgers, are a team that's relying on its young guns to lead the charge into October. The difference is mainly one of depth; the D-Backs have more holes than the Dodgers, with little help coming up from the farm. But there's still a lot of unfulfilled potential on the club, which could lead to some surprises.
The D-Backs begin and end with their 1-2 dynamic pitching duo of Brandon Webb and Dan Haren. Webb is one of the best and most consistent pitchers in the entire league, and Haren isn't far behind them. The only question is what kind of support they'll get along the way. The way things look right now, it will be Doug Davis, Jon Garland and Max Scherzer backing up the big two. Scherzer is young but has great potential. The trouble is with Davis, who is reliable if unexceptional, and Garland, who's just unexceptional. The big drop-off in talent after Webb and Haren means that Arizona relies on them more than ever; if one of them goes down for any real length of time, the team's October hopes go down with them.
The great untapped potential – and thus the great hope – lies in the lineup. Arizona has potential All-Stars playing at least four positions, and no one on the team is an easy out. But getting any sort of consistency from their young stars has been a real struggle. The poster boy for this problem is Justin Upton. Upton has as much potential as any young player in baseball; consider that he has two big-league seasons under his belt and is still just 21. The frustrating thing is what he's done in those seasons, which isn't a whole lot. He took a step forward last year after a forgettable rookie campaign, hitting 250/353/463, but he's capable of much more. The big problem is his 121 strikeouts in just 356 at bats. If Upton can improve his plate discipline, he'll hit for a better average and be better able to take advantage of his power.
Equally frustrating has been center fielder Chris Young. Young has a great deal of raw power, but his plate approach tends to be all-or-nothing. Young struck out 165 times last year and hit just .248. He did notch 22 homers and 42 doubles, but even that isn't enough to compensate for a .315 on-base percentage. Even a small improvement would go a long way toward making Young a star, especially since his speed makes him a real asset in center field.
The veteran of the group is left fielder Conor Jackson. Jackson was moved to left to accommodate the return of Chad Tracy, who was forced off of third base by Mark Reynolds. Both Tracy (durability) and Reynolds (204 strikeouts) have their faults, but Jackson turned in a pretty impressive 2008, hitting 300/376/446. But while he's a good contact hitter with a keen batting eye, Jackson just doesn't have the power associated with a left fielder. He hit 12 HR last year, and his career high is just 15.
And then there's the infield, where the only sure thing is shortstop Stephen Drew. Drew took a big step forward in 2008, but has yet to become the all-around star the D-Backs drafted. I mentioned the problems with Tracy and Reynolds above, and second baseman Felipe Lopez is only has a job because of a lucky 43 games with the Cardinals last year.
The potential is there for this team to win 90+ games and play in the postseason. But you can't count on another step forward from so many prospects in one year. It doesn’t look like the D-Backs can compete with the Dodgers, which leaves them hoping for a Wild Card berth.
San Francisco Giants
Giants GM Brian Sabean is finally getting it. For years, he neglected the draft and threw money at aging free agents, hoping to make one last run to the World Series before Barry Bonds retired. Well, Bonds is gone now, and Sabean seems to have learned his lesson. The 2008-2009 off-season saw no contracts to rival the hideous deals handed out to Barry Zito, Aaron Rowand, Randy Winn, Dave Roberts, Omar Vizquel, Matt Morris, and Armando Benitez in years past. Instead, Sabean plugged a hole at shortstop with Edgar Renteria and made the best deal of the off-season by snagging Randy Johnson for a bare $8 million. This, along with the arrival of some amazing young pitchers, actually has the Giants creeping onto the scene as contenders, despite the millions in bad contracts still on the balance sheet.
We start, naturally, with the pitching staff. There's not much else you can say about Tim Lincecum, who won the Cy Young Award last year and became the first Giant to lead the league in strikeouts (ponder that). He's also the first real pitching star the team has developed since . . . John Burkett? Bob Knepper? Mike McCormick? Or do we have to go all the way back to Gaylord Perry? The only thing that will keep Lincecum from stardom is if his arm breaks down under the pressure (227 IP in '08; led NL in Pitcher Abuse Points).
Backing up Lincecum is Matt Cain, who's an excellent youngster in his own right, and Jonathan Sanchez, a promising arm who was much better last year than last season's 5.01 ERA would indicate. Adding Randy Johnson to the mix makes this a pretty scary starting rotation. And the Johnson contract is no nostalgia trip by the Giants. The big lefty may not hold up for 35 starts, but he made 30 last year with Arizona and was still pretty impressive. This leaves Barry Zito as the #5 starter, which may be a painful thought given his salary, but it's where he ranks on this deep staff. Noah Lowry, returning from injury, gives the Giants a pretty nice back-up. The only thing Giants fans should really worry about, pitching-wise, is how their mediocre bullpen is able to support these stars.
The Giants are blessed with the best bad lineup in all of baseball. That may not sound like much of a compliment, but if you look at what they've had to work with, it's pretty impressive. Other than Rowand and Winn, it's a remarkably cheap bunch, but with some real upside. Fred Lewis has finally gotten a chance to play every day in the outfield and has acquitted himself well; well enough that the team released Dave Roberts. And Bengie Molina has aged remarkably well for a full-time catcher who's not going to make the cover of Muscle & Fitness anytime soon.
At the infield corners, the Giants are going with homegrown players. Travis Ishikawa will take over at first, and Pablo Sandoval will man third. Ishikawa doesn't have a whole lot of power, and he's not going to hit for much of a batting average, but he can take a walk and has a good glove. Sandoval hits for a great average, but he's short on power, too, and has terrible plate discipline. As this graph shows, Sandoval swung at pitches out of the strike zone more often than any other hitter in 2008. As if that weren't worrisome enough, he's a converted catcher who's still learning third base. With him at third and Renteria at shortstop, the Giants will suffer from poor infield defense on the left side.
Even with all these concerns, the Giants are in better shape than they've been since Bonds left town. Not only that, but they've reinvigorated their farm system and cut down on wasteful spending at the major league level. Credit the San Francisco brain trust for their willingness to admit their mistakes and start over.
The Rockies' 2007 NL pennant was in tatters by the end of the 2008 season. The hitters took a step back, and the pitching staff fell apart, dropping the team to a disappointing 74-88 finish. As if that weren't enough, the team traded their best hitter (Matt Holliday) to Oakland and lost their best pitcher (Jeff Francis) to injury.
And yet there is still a lot left from that 2007 team to inspire some hope. Another October appearance is a long shot, but if the Rockies can just get their young players back on track, they can be competitive again as soon as this year.
This begins and ends with the pitching staff. Aaron Cook returns as the veteran staff leader, and Ubaldo Jimenez is coming off a strong 2008 (albeit with a troubling 103 walks allowed). It's after that that the challenge awaits. Getting Franklin Morales back where he was in late 2007 would be a great start. And the team sees a lot of potential in reclamation project Jorge de la Rosa. But that still leaves one spot open, and the Rockies will come to regret reserving it for highly hittable pitchers like Jason Marquis and Greg Smith.
The team's best hope is its offense. Getting Todd Helton and Troy Tulowitzki back and (relatively) healthy would give the lineup a big boost. Adding in Ryan Spilborghs as the starting center fielder gives them a decent leadoff man. Catcher Chris Iannetta arrived as a star in 2008, and the hole left by Holliday won't be a total loss, with Seth Smith and/or Carlos Gonzalez filling in. Mix in solid hitters Brad Hawpe and Garrett Atkins, and this could be a surprisingly potent lineup.
But it doesn't come without questions, specifically about Helton's health and the ability of several players to step into full-time roles. Together with their battered pitching staff, this makes the Rockies a real long shot in '09.
San Diego Padres
The state of the Padres is so bad that they've become a surrealist metaphor. This is the baseball team Salvador Dali would paint, except without the melting clocks. With previous owner John Moores going through a tough divorce, the team was forced into cost-cutting mode. This meant that fan favorite Trevor Hoffman was shown the door. Ace Jake Peavy nearly followed him, except that the Padres painted themselves into a corner with their public negotiations. Even before the fire sale, this was a team that had gotten by on a few canny trades, some low-level free agents, and a lot of luck. The only real hope is that they don't totally embarrass themselves in 2009.
Okay, focusing on the positive: Manager Bud Black still has his two best hitters in the lineup, Brian Giles and Adrian Gonzalez. But apart from disappointing prospects Kevin Kouzmanoff and Chase Headley, that's all the team has in the lineup. Giles will be trade bait in August, and for all I know, any other veteran on the roster will be, too.
That puts the focus on Peavy. The Peavy negotiations were almost instantly narrowed down to Atlanta and Chicago, removing (at least publicly) a lot of room for maneuvering by GM Kevin Towers. The central problem was that neither Atlanta nor Chicago really needed Peavy. The Braves settled on Derek Lowe as Plan B, and the Cubs decided that they had a damn good rotation as it was. This isn't to say that the trade won't still happen; word is that Towers was eventually able to reach out to some other clubs, but there's nothing on that front yet. Unless new owner Jeff Moores reverses course and decides to keep his ace, you have to figure that this will be Peavy's last season in San Diego.
Chris Young, the Padres' #2, is a good pitcher, but one who keeps going down with injury. He also has a lot of trouble away from roomy Petco Park; his 2008 ERA at home was 2.35. On the road, it was 5.27. In 2007, those numbers were 1.69 and 4.52, respectively, so this isn't really news. And with little money left to spend, the Padres will fill out the rest of the rotation with whatever players they can scavenge. Granted, this is a team good at scavenging, but that's a strategy best reserved for the #5 spot in the rotation rather than the #3 spot.
Basically, this is a transition year for the Padres, who have to rebuild their thin farm system and start from the bottom of the heap again under Moores. The management team has shown itself capable of meeting challenges before, but this one is a real doozy.
The Dodgers and Diamondbacks aren't too far apart on talent level, but there's just so much less risk with L.A., not to mention much more depth. The race should come down to these two, although the Giants and maybe even the Rockies could stay in the Wild Card race into September. But my guess is that Manny & Joe Torre get to raise another NL West Championship banner together.