MLB 2012 Season Preview: NL West

Jonathan IrwinContributor IIMarch 17, 2012

MLB 2012 Season Preview: NL West

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    The National League West is not seen as the most competitive division in baseball.

    Sure the San Francisco Giants won the 2010 World Series, but they also skipped into the playoffs on a 92-70 record. In fact, over the last five years the division winner has an average record of 91-71.

    And so, fans like to deem it a weaker division.

    I see it as a division with three closely-matched teams that provide great competition and entertainment. In those same five years, second-place teams in the West have finished an average of three games back, while third-place teams have averaged 10 games back.

    If you're as entertained by the West as I am, look at these slides for an idea of how the West will pan out in 2012.

5. Los Angeles Dodgers

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    It's been a rough couple of seasons for the Los Angeles Dodgers.

    Things aren't getting any better.

    If your name isn't Matt Kemp, Andre Ethier or Dee Gordon, you're not an offensive threat for the Dodgers. A case can be made for James Loney, but he seems destined to live out his MLB career in mediocrity.

    The pitching is okay, but lackluster by NL West standards. Clayton Kershaw—last season's Cy Young winner—will dominate. After him, though.... well, things get ugly. Chad Billingsley continues to struggle, while Ted Lilly, Aaron Harang and Chris Capuano continue to age.

    The Dodgers have two of the game's best players in Kemp and Kershaw, but there are too many holes for them to compete.

4. Colorado Rockies

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    The Rockies were a hard team to place.

    Their pitching has holes, but potential. Jhoulys Chacin returns from a 2011 breakout campaign to lead the staff. Behind him is a slew of mediocre pitchers with moderate upside.

    Most of the guys in this rotation are stopgaps until the Rockies' prospects are ready to go. Drew Pomeranz, Alex White and Tyler Matzek are three high-ceiling pitchers who could each make an impact in the 2012 rotation.

    The Rockies hold their competitive clout in the bats, and they posses the best lineup in the NL West.

    Anchoring the lineup are studs Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez. Colorado spent the offseason solidifying their lineup with veterans Marco Scutaro, Ramon Hernandez and Michael Cuddyer.

    Vying to make a huge impact are high-ceiling youngsters Dexter Fowler, Nolan Arenado and Wilin Rosario.

    The Rockies have some young prospects that could make huge impacts in 2012. Their competitive chances are dependent on the size of that impact.

3. San Diego Padres

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    Despite losing GM Jed Hoyer to the Cubs, the San Diego Padres managed to put together one of the best, and most underrated, offseasons of any team in baseball.

    The Mat Latos trade was good for everyone involved, but without a doubt the Padres won that trade.

    First, it allowed them to add two huge offensive prospects. Yonder Alonso has a huge power ceiling and could be A-Gon 2.0. Yasmani Grandal has a lot of power and patience, though with Nick Hundley behind the dish, it remains to be seen how the team will manage the depth chart.

    San Diego also managed to add powerhouse Carlos Quentin. Injuries have caused Quentin struggles, but when healthy he can drive the ball really well.

    One last player worth mentioning is Chase Headley. Headley enters his fifth season at the hot corner, and it seems he's constantly improving his game. At 27, he's a player worth watching all season long.

    The other thing the Latos trade did was actually improve their pitching. Yes, they did acquire Edinson Volquez, but despite his wildness in 2011, he's still got a huge ceiling.

    But, the bigger ripple is how the acquisition of Alonso made Anthony Rizzo expendable. That allowed San Diego to flip Rizzo to the Cubs for pitching prospect Andrew Cashner. Cashner joins Casey Kelly as two prospects who could pay huge 2012 dividends.

    The biggest concern for the Padres pitching is innings. None of their current rotation arms pitched 200 innings last season. Petco Park allows pitchers to shine, but they have to put in the innings.

    All-in-all, San Diego is an improved club that makes the NL West that much better.

2. San Francisco Giants

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    The San Francisco Giants are really lucky.

    They're lucky because if they had traded Matt Cain or Tim Lincecum, no way would I have put them in the second spot. Even now, I'm not sure how I feel about it.

    Offensively, this team will struggle. Entering 2012, Pablo Sandoval is the only reliable bat. Buster Posey has huge upside, but he's coming back from a tough injury—especially for a catcher. Brandon Belt deserves some consideration, but he had an enigmatic 2011.

    The biggest eyesore has to be the outfield. Angel Pagan isn't much of an upgrade over Andres Torres. Nate Schierholtz is nothing more than a fourth outfielder. Then there's the big offseason prize of Melky Cabrera, who had a Cinderella 2011 which will not transfer to AT&T Park.

    Now we turn our heads to the rotation, which is, of course, good. Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain and Madison Bumgarner. It's hard to get better than that.

    The back end is suspect. Can Ryan Vogelsong retain his 2011 magic? Can Barry Zito post an ERA under five? Those are the questions the Giants have to answer in 2012.

    San Francisco is a pitch-first, hit eventually team. If Posey and Belt struggle in 2012, they could easily be overtaken by San Diego.

1. Arizona Diamondbacks

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    The Arizona Diamondbacks were a big surprise in 2011, but they're the obvious favorite in 2012.

    This club has a high offensive ceiling. Justin Upton is one of the best five-tool players in the game. At 24, he's got the upside to put together a 30-30, dare I say 40-30, season.

    Joining him in anchoring the lineup is Miguel Montero. Montero is one of the most underrated catchers in baseball, and he could easily touch the 20-homer plateau.

    Rounding out the lineup are new addition Jason Kubel, returning veterans Chris Young and Ryan Roberts, and power prospect Paul Goldschmidt.

    Young and Roberts are two players who won't hit for high averages, but pose as 20-20 threats. Goldschmidt has a huge power ceiling—he could be Ryan Howard-esque in 2012.

    If that doesn't have you in awe, let's look at the D-Backs pitching.

    Leading the rotation is returning ace Ian Kennedy. After struggling with the New York Yankees, Kennedy has finally carved out his niche in Arizona.

    Behind Kennedy is the two-three punch of Daniel Hudson and Trevor Cahill. Hudson is coming off another strong season, and Cahill has the stuff to thrive in the National League.

    Rounding everything out are Joe Saunders and top prospect Trevor Bauer. Saunders is a great back-end starter who eats innings, while Bauer has a wicked ceiling.

    Arizona is in a great position and has all the pieces to dominate in 2012.

Final Breakdown

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    1. Arizona Diamondbacks: The most well-rounded team in the division; they can easily dominate in 2012.

    2. San Francisco Giants: The pitching is good, but it's hard to find an uglier offense.

    3. San Diego Padres: Made huge improvements over the offseason; could be a surprise contender.

    4. Colorado Rockies: Have the pieces to build a dynasty, but not for 2012.

    5. Los Angeles Dodgers: If only every player was named Kershaw or Kemp.