Last season, the battle for the National League came down to two teams from the NL West. The same thing could happen this year. Thing is, it could be two different teams. While the Arizona Diamondbacks led the NL in wins, and the Colorado Rockies (THE COLORADO ROCKIES, if you're Dane Cook) went on a historic run to the World Series, it could be the Los Angeles Dodgers and the San Diego Padres vying for the right to represent their league in the Fall Classic. Besides the San Francisco Giants, who seem deadly with Rich Aurilia batting clean-up, this division is strong.
The arguement can still be made of course that the D-Backs aren't going anywhere. Besides the Mets basically stealing Johan Santana, Arizona made arguably the biggest splash of the off-season by getting Danny Haren, the starter for the American League in the All-Star game last year. Last season, Haren threw 222 2/3 innings in 34 starts and went 15-9 with a 3.07 ERA. If Haren stays healthy, he should at the very least repeat that ERA with a better win-loss total being that he's on a better team. Best case scenario, Haren fits in perfectly behind Webb in the rotation and the D-Backs have two starters with sub-3.00 earned run averages. Their lineup is also a year older and more experienced. Look for Orlando Hudson to have an absolutely monster season in his contract year. The D-Backs possible achilles' heel is their bullpen. Brandon Lyon won't have another ERA in the 2's, and they traded away their All-Star closer Jose Valverde. Lyon will go into the season as the closer, but look for Tony Pena to take over by mid-June.
Joe Torre had a great 12 year run as manager of the New York Yankees. Winning 10 division titles, 6 pennants, and 4 World Championships, Torre's legacy as one of the greatest Yankees managers of all time is safe. Torre will not be with the Dodgers for 12 years, but the front office that just hired him expects him to instill the winning attitude and confidence Torre showed with the Bombers. Torre inherits a talented Dodgers team, including off-season acquisitions Andruw Jones and Hiroki Kuroda. Jones is coming off a decent season production wise, but his .222 batting average prevented even mastercrook Scott Boras from getting him a long term deal. However the Dodgers made a move similiar to the one they made in signing Jason Schmidt last winter to a 3 year, $47 million deal. While Schmidt was hurt most of last year, he still has two years to make the deal look good. If he doesn't produce, 2 more years and its done. The Dodgers signed Jones to a two year, $36.2 million deal. Jones gets superstar money, and a chance to make himself look good for a long term deal when he hits the market again in two years at age 32. If Torre can get a .260/.365/.550 line out of Jones along with about 35-40 home runs and 120 RBI's, this deal completely works. Jones will want a 5 or 6 year deal after this one is up, so my bet is that he will in fact perform at a high level. The Dodgers wild card in their rotation is Japanese import Hiroki Kuroda. Kuroda is 33, and coming off his worst season since 2004. Kuroda's ERA last season was 3.56, and if he repeats that, it would be a great debut season for Hiroki. Kuroda is debuting in the NL however, unlike past imports Daisuke Matuszaka and Kei Igawa who both had to deal with the DH. On a team with a good lineup, expect Kuroda to finish somewhere around 13-10 with a 4.30 ERA. On a staff that includes Jason Schmidt, Brad Penny, and Derek Lowe, these numbers will be more than acceptable in a debut season.
I can't see the Padres finishing worse than 3rd due to their pitching rotation. A rotation of Jake Peavy, Chris Young, a healthy Mark Prior, Greg Maddux, and Randy Wolf is arguably the best in the game if everyone does indeed stay healthy. The lineup is another story. First baseman Adrian Gonzalez is their only true power threat, and their outfield isn't getting any younger. Brian Giles might be serviceable for another year or two, and Jim Edmonds can still play a good center-field when healthy, but that is the extent of the Padres outfield. They are still searching for a left fielder, and if the season started today Scott Hairston would probably be there. Their lineup is weaker than the Diamondbacks and the Dodgers, which is why I see them finishing in 3rd place in this division. If their lineup plays above their averages, they could finish 2nd or possibly first in a close race.
The Rockies had an unbelieveable run to close the regular season, played an amazing game against the Padres to determine the Wild Card winner, and blew through the Phillies and Diamondbacks to win the NL pennant. While I don't believe the Rockies will regress too much this season, they won't be making the playoffs. The Rox are built for the future, with Jeff Francis atop the rotation, and home grown talent Matt Holliday, Troy Tulowitzki, Brad Hawpe, and Garret Atkins all in the lineup. Their lineup is better than the Padres, but their pitching is not. In my opinion, Holliday should've won NL MVP last season and was vastly over looked and under appreciated. Holliday should continue his ascent to one of the game's top hitters this season, and Troy Tulowitzki should assert himself as one of the best young shortstops in the game along with Hanley Ramirez and Jose Reyes. Tulo recently signed a 6 year, $30 million extension, the largest ever for someone with less than two years of service time.
The Giants are a mess. If it wasn't for Matt Cain and Tim Linecum, they would be in even worse trouble. The Giants made the decision not to bring back All-Time Home Run King Barry Bonds, and it seems the 29 other clubs have done the same. However, doing this means the Giants will have a cleanup hitter named Bengie Molina or Rich Aurilia. Besides the two young potential aces at the top of the rotation, this team will be battling the Orioles for the futility award.
1. Arizona Diamondbacks- 93-69 (Dan Haren should be good for an extra three wins)
2. Los Angeles Dodgers- 88-74 (Torre will be in the top three for NL Manager of the Year)
3. San Diego Padres- 85-76 (Their pitching will keep them in the race until the bitter end)
4. Colorado Rockies- 84-77 (One tiny step back before becoming a real threat in 2009)
5. San Francisco Giants- 72-90 (Rich Aurilia. Bengie Molina. Omar Vizquel. Yikes)