Hello again everybody...
We've reached the home stretch!
But Dan... it's Monday?! What “home stretch” can you possibly be referring to?!
If you haven't figured out by now that the count-down to Opening Day is on, I'm not sure what else I have to do to to convince you to pay attention. Yes, there's that silly little basketball tournament going on, and I'm sure some of you are distracted by it. But the single greatest day in sports happens one week from today, and I can't wait.
Last year I wrote about the joys of Opening Day, so I won't rehash it all for you today. (Though if you'd like to relive the wonder of it all, feel free to do so here.) Ah, memories.
Before we get to Opening Day, however, we've got to complete the 2010 MLB Preview columns. Today, we look at the NL West. I wanted to pull the trigger on a new Western champ in Friday's preview of the AL West, but I couldn't bring myself to do it. What about today? Do I think the Dodgers will repeat? Or will another team grab the title? I'll break it down for you...
Off we go!
”The truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it.”
- Mary Flannery O'Connor (1925 - 1964), American novelist, short-story writer and essayist.
Four columns in and I've picked four repeat champs. It's not impossible that they'll all repeat, but it's not the norm either. So if you're having trouble stomaching my picks so far, just know that it doesn't change their potential truthfulness. Or is that “truthiness” (copyright Stephen Colbert)?
«Read the rest of the column by clicking on the title»
It's time for my...
2010 MLB Preview: NL West
Last year's preview of the West can be read here.
In 2009, I got the division winner right, but was woefully wrong about the placement of one of the DFT's, the Arizona Diamondbacks. In 2010, I've seen some punditry that's been bullish on the Snakes' chances. I'm not so sure I agree. Could they be improved? Sure. But enough to contend for the division title? Mmm, not so much.
How do I think the five Western teams will finish? I think it'll go something like this...
1. Colorado Rockies: Last year the Rockies went 92-70, won the NL Wild Card and were beaten by the Philadelphia Phillies in the NLDS.
And what a 2009 it was for the Rockies. After a dreadful start to the season manager Clint Hurdle was replaced by Jim Tracy and the Rockies took off. I see no reason to think that they won't ride that momentum to the top of the NL West this season.
LF Carlos Gonzalez is the favorite to hit lead-off for the Rocks this season. He hit .300 with a .379 on-base percentage when batting first last season. CF Dexter Fowler is the other candidate to set the table. He's got more speed than Gonzalez - and showed it by swiping 27 bags last year - but strikes out a fair amount, and that will likely lead to him batting second. 1B Todd Helton hits third. I've heard several comparisons of Joe Mauer's new contract to the big deal that Helton signed several years ago. Some folks are concerned that the size of Mauer's contract could hamper the Twins' abilities to surround him with talent, and they point to the Rockies as an example. I'm not sure I buy it. Helton was worth the money when he signed, and the Rockies have made the post-season in two of the last three seasons. Doesn't sound like they were all that “hampered” to me. SS Troy Tulowitzki hits fourth and looks to make “the leap” this season. After a injury-plagued 2008, Tulo bounced back with his best season yet in 2009 hitting .297/32/92, and if you believe the hype, could be even better this year. RF Brad Hawpe made his first All-Star game last year, and will be counted on to provide some pop hitting fifth. 3B Ian Stewart made Garrett Atkins expendable prior to last season, and justified Colorado's faith by producing 25 home runs and 70 RBI. He'll need to raise his average, however, to stick and stay in the six-hole. 2B Clint Barmes and C Chris Iannetta round out Jim Tracy's line-up card.
The Colorado rotation doesn't have the biggest names in the division, but their depth is their strength. Ubaldo Jimenez sits atop the rotation after a 15-12/3.47 season in 2009. Those numbers don't blow you away, but his better than 2:1 strikeout-to-walk ratio indicates how good his stuff can be. Jorge De La Rosa struggled in his first four years in the majors, but has found something in Colorado going a combined 26-17 over the last two seasons. His ERA is still a little high, but he's a solid number-two man for the Rockies. Aaron Cook was an All-Star two years ago. He wasn't quite as good last year, but his numbers still justify his pitching third. Jeff Francis had a dreadful 2009 after having a stellar 2008. Colorado's counting on Francis to regain his '08 form, and so far this Spring, he seems to be pitching well. Jason Hammel will likely pitch fifth.
Huston Street will be the Rockies closer... eventually. He's had some shoulder trouble early this Spring. Tests have shown no structural damage, so Street is rehabbing and strengthening the muscles in his shoulder and should be good to go sometime in late April. Fortunately, the Rockies have plenty of candidates to fill his spot until he does return. Franklin Morales, Manny Corpas and Rafael Betancourt are all capable arms. Former Twin Juan Rincon, and Joe Beimel will help bridge the gap from the starters.
Bottom Line: Any team can be unraveled by injuries, but so long as they stay healthy, I love the Rockies prospects in 2010.
2. Los Angeles Dodgers: Last year the Dodgers went 95-67, won the NL West title, beat the St. Louis Cardinals in the NLDS and lost to the Phillies in the NLCS.
I'm not saying the Dodgers can't repeat in the West, I just think they've lost a little, which should open the door for Colorado. In fact, if the Giants can find a way to score some runs, I think they might have a shot at finishing second. But for now, we'll leave the Dodgers here.
SS Rafael Furcal returns for his 11th big league season and takes over the lead-off spot from Juan Pierre who was traded away. He's not an ideal table-setter (.335 OBP and only 12 stolen bases), but he's the best option L.A. has. CF Matt Kemp is a super-star in the making. He'll hit second for now, but when Manny Ramirez's contract ends after this year, I fully expect him to be the Dodgers' 3- or 4-hitter for years into the future. For now, RF Andre Ethier hits third. Ethier hit .272 with 31 home runs and 106 RBI in 2009, and will need to duplicate that production this season for L.A. to contend. The previously-mentioned LF Manny Ramirez hits clean-up. After Manny's 50-game suspension for treating ED (so he claims), he was never really able to regain his form at the plate. Whether he becomes the Manny of old this season, or pouts his way to the bench/out of town will have a significant effect on how good the Dodgers can be. 1B James Loney hits 5th. Loney doesn't have a lot of power, but has driven in 90 runs the last two seasons running. 3B Casey Blake hits sixth. Blake nearly became a Twin for the second time prior to last year. I wouldn't want to have to pay the contract he got from the Dodgers, but boy would he fill that hole nicely for Minnesota. 2B Ronnie Belliard and C Russell Martin round out manager Joe Torre's line-up.
The Dodgers rotation lost Randy Wolf - who led the team in starts and innings-pitched in 2009 - to Milwaukee, and they weren't that deep to begin with. Vicente Padilla came over as a free agent last season, and has earned the Opening Day start for the Dodgers this season. Padilla went 4-0 with a 3.20 ERA in seven starts for L.A. last year, but those numbers don't reflect his career history. His career ERA is 4.33, and I expect him to be much closer to that than to that 3.20 this year. He's annoyed his way out of 3 previous stops. We'll see if he sticks and stays in Dodger blue. Clayton Kershaw is young and very talented. His 8-8 record in 2009 doesn't knock you out, but his 2.72 ERA definitely catches your attention. The key for any young pitcher is figuring things out mentally. How Kershaw does in that department will be huge for L.A. this year. Chad Billingsley pitches third after making his first All-Star game last season. Chad's only in his fifth season, so he's also “young with potential”, but set a career high in ERA in 2009. Hiroki Kuroda and Charlie Haeger round-out the rotation.
Jonathan Broxton collected 37 saves in his first full season as the Dodger closer. He's a solid finisher for L.A., but the bridge between him and the starters is a bit rickety. George Sherrill came over in a trade with Baltimore last year and pitched well for the Dodgers, but after him, it gets thin. Ramon Troncoso, Hong-Chih Kuo, James McDonald and Jeff Weaver will fill out the pen in some fashion, but shouldn't inspire much confidence in Dodger fans.
Bottom Line: I won't be floored if the Dodgers exceed my expectations and repeat, but to do it, they'll need to make some moves as the season goes along. As I indicated, if a few breaks go against them, I won't be shocked if they slip to third. San Francisco will be dangerous. Speaking of which...
3. San Francisco Giants: Last year the Giants went 88-74 and finished third in the NL West.
I think they're going to end up right back there again this year. There's no doubting the quality of San Francisco's pitching. But like the Mariners, they're going to struggle to score runs. Adding LF Mark DeRosa and 1B Aubrey Huff will help, but unless 3B Pablo Sandoval makes a huge leap, or rookie C Buster Posey does something special, the Giants won't have enough to win the division.
CF Aaron Rowand should hit lead-off for San Francisco this season. Ideally, Rowand would hit lower in the line-up. His .339 career on-base percentage doesn't mark him as an obvious lead-off hitter. Neither do his 60 stolen bases in his 9-year career. But when you look at their other options, he's about all they've got. 2B Juan Uribe hits second. He has a little bit of pop, but strikes out way to much to be considered for the lead-off spot. 3B Pablo Sandoval hits third. Though his body-type may remind some of Kirby Puckett (and he appears to have some of Puckett's power), he isn't the defensive player that Kirby was. The aforementioned 1B Aubrey Huff hits clean-up. Huff's a nice defensive player, but has limited experience in the NL - meaning he's going to have to learn the pitchers as he goes - and is more ideally suited to be a 5- or 6-hitter. LF Mark DeRosa hits 5th. He's a wonderful player to have because he can play nearly any position, and gives you some reliable power from the plate. But, like Huff, he's being asked to fill a spot in the line-up that he's not really suited for. C Bengie Molina hits sixth. Molina was a free agent this past off-season and only returned to the Giants when it was clear that there wasn't much of a market for him elsewhere. On the Giants part, they were hoping to move on as well, but they needed a veteran presence to bridge the gap til their young phenom, Buster Posey, was ready to take the job full-time. This doesn't strike me as a clubhouse-friendly situation. SS Edgar Renteria is nearing the end of his career. RF Nate Schierholtz rounds out the line-up.
The counter-balance to the Giants inability to score is the quality of their starting pitching, i.e. they won't have to score as many to win as some teams will. The 2-time defending NL Cy Young winner, Tim Lincecum is clearly this team's ace. Pundits can point out his unconventional delivery all they like, the results speak for themselves. The kid's spent three seasons in the big leagues, and he's won the Cy Young twice. That's simply astounding when you think about it. Barry Zito is the ostensible second-starter if only to break up Lincecum's and Matt Cain's right-handedness with a lefty. Zito is still best known for his absurdly-large contract. But he did win 10 games for the Giants last year, and kept his ERA at 4. Those certainly aren't the numbers you'd expect from someone with his salary, but he does add depth to this rotation. And when his curveball's right, it's still one of the best in the league. On any other club, Matt Cain's 14-8/2.89 2009 season would stand out, especially considering he's only 24. But when you share a locker-room with Lincecum, it can get overlooked. Cain's the real deal though, and forms the second-best part of a solid top-3 starters. Jonathan Sanchez pitched a no-hitter last season. That was a singular highlight amongst an otherwise unremarkable 8-12/4.24 season. And it goes to show how flukey no-hitters can sometimes be. Todd Wellemeyer will be the 5th starter.
In the bullpen, San Francisco's anchored by Brian Wilson. Unfortunate mohawk-ish hairdo aside, Wilson's proven to be a reliable stopper. Averaging 39.5 saves per year over the last two seasons is evidence enough of that. And given the quality of the Giants starting-staff, he'll have plenty of opportunities again in 2010. Jeremy Affeldt has finally found a niche as a late-inning reliever after bouncing between “starter” and “long-reliever” for years. Brandon Medders is another quality arm in this pen.
Bottom Line: The quality of San Francisco's pitching will keep them in a lot of games. But I think they'll need to make another move or two for some offense before I can consider them a true contender for the NL West crown.
4. Arizona Diamondbacks: Last year the Diamondbacks went 70-92 and finished fifth in the NL West.
I certainly hope they'll improve on that this season. I doubt, however, that they'll improve enough to get back into contention in the the NL West.
There's no question the D'backs will score runs. SS Stephen Drew leads off. He was dinged up a bit last year, and his stats suffered for it. But he seems to be healthy again, and should bring a solid stick to the top of the order. LF Connor Jackson hits second. Speaking of guys beset by injury, Jackson contracted a case of Valley Fever last year and played in only 30 games. His offense was greatly missed. He's back in 2010 and fully recovered. Along with Drew, he forms a potent 1-2 punch. RF Justin Upton hits third. Last year he hit .300 with 26 home runs and 86 RBI, and he was subsequently rewarded with a new 6-year contract. Is he ready to take his place amongst the game's elite? If he is, he could spear-head a resurgence for Arizona. 1B Adam LaRoche was a free-agent acquisition this past off-season. LaRoche is a career .273-hitter, but had a nice second-half for the Braves last year, and the Diamondbacks hope he'll continue to flourish hitting between Upton and their 5-hitter, 3B Mark Reynolds. We all know that Reynolds has led the league in strikeouts the last two years. But I'm really not sure I care. The guy hit 44 home runs and produced 102 RBI last season. I can forgive the strikeouts if he maintains that kind of production. Reynolds was also rewarded with a new contract this Spring. And like Upton, the Diamondbacks will be counting on him to continue earning it. C Miguel Montero will platoon with Chris Snyder. CF Chris Young is trying to rebound from an awful 2009. And 2B Kelly Johnson rounds out the line-up.
The Arizona rotation is very much in flux. The only returning starter from last season is Dan Haren. Haren is a legit ace, and piece the D'backs very much want to build around. Edwin Jackson joins Haren after being traded to Arizona in the off-season. Jackson had an All-Star first-half of 2009, and a very mediocre second-half. Which Jackson Arizona's getting will go a long way in influencing their season. Ian Kennedy joins the Diamondbacks as part of the same trade which brought them Jackson. Kennedy doesn't have near the bona fides that Jackson has however. He's had a few cups of coffee with the Yankees, but hasn't been able to establish himself as a legit big leaguer. Arizona's wagering that getting out of the New York media glare will allow him to do that. Billy Buckner, Rodrigo Lopez and former Twin Kevin Mulvey are all vying to join those first three in the rotation. And the truth is, they'll all likely get a shot at some point. Because revolving around this staff is the question that is Brandon Webb. Webb missed nearly all of 2009 with arm-troubles, and Arizona's being very cautious about bringing him back in 2010. There was a lot of friction between Webb and club management over the way his injury was handled, so it'll be interesting to see how that all works out this year.
Chad Qualls returns to the closer role in the Arizona bullpen. He won the job last year nearly by default, and collected 24 saves over the course of the season. He's not a prototype closer, but given the questions surrounding the rest of the relievers, he's clearly their best option. Aaron Heilman, Bob Howry and Juan Guttierez will all try and bridge the gap from the starters to Qualls, but none of them inspire a ton of confidence. Clay Zavada continues his quest to rock the Rollie Fingers 'stache. Sadly, that might be the most successful part of this bullpen. Not good for Arizona.
Bottom Line: I hope Diamondbacks fans like high-scoring games, because I have a feeling they're going to see more than their fair share this season. Arizona certainly has a contending offense. I just don't think there's enough pitching there to return them to the top of the division.
And that leaves us with...
5. San Diego Padres: Last year the Padres went 75-87 and finished fourth in the NL West.
San Diego may be one of the most picturesque cities in the country, but their ballclub is bloody awful. Sure there's some talent there, but when your best players are perceived as high-quality trade bait, that doesn't bode well for your prospects.
CF Tony Gwynn, Jr., leads off for the Pads. His father was a hitting legend in his days as a Padre, and is a deserving member of the Hall of Fame. That's probably the nicest thing I can say about Jr. 2B David Eckstein starts his second year in San Diego. None of his numbers blow you away, but he's still a solid player. 1B Adrian Gonzalez hits third. The way the Spring speculation has gone, you'd think a deal to send him to Boston (whom I hate) was already a done-deal. I'm not saying he won't end up there, I'm just sick of hearing about it. 3B Chase Headley hits fourth. Padre fans keep waiting for Headley to realize the potential they've been told he has. Hopefully he realizes it soon. LF Kyle Blanks hits 5th, and hopefully won't be held back by his unfortunate name. RF Will Venable, C Nick Hundley and SS Everth Cabrera round out the order.
There aren't many runs to be found in that line-up.
Sadly, their pitching staff isn't good enough to make up for the lack of offense. Signing Jon Garland was a nice move by San Diego. But he's ideally a 3rd or 4th starter. With the Padres, he'll be their number-one guy. An auspicious beginning to be sure. Kevin Correia pitches third. Correia went 12-11 with a 3.91 ERA last year. Not great numbers, but okay for a 3-pitcher. Clayton Richard and Mat Latos will start out as the 4- and 5-pitchers, but I expect this to be a rotation in flux all season.
Heath Bell is an All-Star closer. How long he remains with the Padres, is an open question. His 42 saves led the league last year. A number that's all the more remarkable considering how few wins the Padres produced. He was part of numerous trade rumors last season, and figures to be part of even more this year. Wouldn't he look swell in a Twins uniform? I'm not sayin, I'm just sayin... I'd run down the rest of the 'pen, but it's easier to just describe them as Pittsburgh/Washington West. 'Nuff said.
Bottom Line: San Diego sucks. Years of mismanagement and poor drafting have left the team without any real core-players to build around. Gonzalez is a nice player, but will likely be traded. Bell is a great closer, but to borrow a phrase, having that kind of closer on a team with this little talent is kind of like hiring a butler for your pup-tent. The Padres have a new GM, so hopefully better days lie ahead. But they're not coming in 2010.
So there you have them. My picks for the NL West. That leaves us with one division yet to look at, plus playoff predictions to make, and then Opening Day will be here!!!
Yes, I'm a little excited.
That'll do it for today. I'm back on Wednesday with my look at the AL Central. Will I play the “homer” again this year? Tune in and find out!
Until then, thanks for reading!