MLB National League West Preview and Predictions
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The Arizona Diamondbacks are the reigning champions of the National League West. They received some outstanding contributions last year and also stayed relatively healthy.
The Giants' chances were destroyed by the injury bug, but they now appear healthy and ready to challenge again in 2012.
There are several new faces in the division this year, as hot stove league acquisitions look to make a big impact for their new teams. There were more quality additions to the NL West heading into this year, than there were departures.
The team that wins the division this season will have earned it, as the talent level has increased.
Let's take a look at each team and my predictions for the season.
5. Colorado Rockies
Troy Tulowitzki is one of the top shortstops in the game
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The Colorado Rockies finished the 2011 season in fourth place in the NL West with a record of 73-89. They still have their top two offensive threats Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez in the fold, who will be counted on to carry the team.
Tulowitzki, who is only 27 years old, hit .302 with 30 home runs and 105 RBI. His OPS was a whopping .916. Tulowitzki was an All-Star and also won the Gold Glove in 2011.
Gonzalez, who is one year younger than Tulowitzki, had an off year in 2011. After coming in third in the NL MVP balloting in 2010, Gonzalez batted .295 with 26 home runs and 92 RBI last year. For the Rockies to contend, Gonzalez needs to return to his form of 2010, when he hit .336 with 34 home runs and 117 RBI.
The Rockies made three important acquisitions this offseason, which should help their offense. They added outfielder Michael Cuddyer, catcher Ramon Hernandez and second baseman Marco Scutaro.
Cuddyer, one of the more sought-after free agents, should flourish in Colorado. Last season, while with the Minnesota Twins, Cuddyer hit .284 with 20 home runs and 70 RBI. I look for a solid increase in the power numbers for Cuddyer, playing half of his games at Coors Field.
Hernandez gives the Rockies a veteran catcher who is a good hitter and solid defensively. The concern with Hernandez, however, is the fact that he will be 36 years old in May and has not caught more than 91 games since 2008.
With Chris Iannetta now with the Angels, the Rockies must count on either Wilin Rosario or Jordan Pacheco to handle the backup catching duties. Rosario and Pacheco are unproven, but one of them will need to step up. The backup likely will catch at least 60 games this year.
The remainder of the Rockies' offense has some question marks, and thus far, I do not like the answers I'm seeing.
Dexter Fowler in center field has been inconsistent throughout his career. He has never hit above .266, although his OBP of .363 is decent. Fowler has tremendous speed although he only stole 12 bases last year. He was thrown out nine times and needs to improve on getting a better jump on the pitcher.
Fowler is a tremendous defensive player. If he can hit closer to .285, raise his OBP to .385 and improve on his stolen base percentage, he can create havoc at the top of the Rockies' lineup.
The main concerns for the Rockies' offense are at the corner infield spots. Todd Helton had a good year in 2011, hitting .302 with 14 home runs and 69 RBI. That was a lot better than 2010, when Helton hit only .256 with eight home runs and 37 RBI.
Helton, who will be 39 this summer, has been a great player for the Rockies, but his best days are definitely behind him. I do not look for Helton to duplicate last year, and even if he does, his power and RBI numbers are below par for a first baseman.
Casey Blake was signed as a free agent, and the idea was that he could hold down the third base spot until top prospect Nolan Arenado is ready for the big leagues. The Rockies would like to give Arenado, who is just 20 years old, more seasoning.
Blake, like Helton, will be 39 years old this summer. He had injury problems in 2011 and only played in 63 games. His production was poor, as he hit only .252 with four home runs and 26 RBI. He has already had some nagging injury issues in spring training, and the Rockies should not count on him.
If Blake cannot play regularly and the Rockies want Arenado to start the season in the minors, the third base job may go to Brandon Wood. He has played parts of five seasons with the Angels and Pirates and has a career batting average of .186.
The biggest weakness for Colorado is their pitching. The Rockies traded ace pitcher Ubaldo Jimenez to Cleveland last year and new acquisitions Drew Pomeranz and Alex White do not appear ready to become reliable starters.
The Rockies have two solid starters in Jhoulys Chacin and Jeremy Guthrie, who was acquired in a trade with the Orioles. After these two, however, there are major questions.
In addition to Pomeranz and White, Juan Nicasio, Guillermo Moscoso, Josh Outman and Tyler Chatwood will battle it out for three open spots in the starting rotation. None of these six pitchers have won more than eight total games in the majors.
The Rockies also traded closer Huston Street to the Padres for a minor league pitcher. The are handing the closer job to veteran Rafael Betancourt. He will be 37 years of age early in the 2012 season.
Betancourt has never been a full-time closer, and it will be interesting to see how he handles the role on an everyday basis.
The Rockies will score runs, and their offense is historically strong. The issue for them will be consistency and their pitching, which I believe will be the downfall of this team. The NL West is rich with pitching, but the Rockies have, by far, the weakest pitching staff of the bunch.
Due to the weakness of the Rockies' pitching staff and the question marks at first and third base, I believe the Rockies will struggle in 2012.
Forecast: 69-93, 5th Place
4. San Diego Padres
The Padres rewarded Cameron Maybin with a lucrative contract
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The San Diego Padres finished in fifth place in 2011 but have made several improvements to their roster. The Padres are a young team with a lot of up-and-coming players.
Petco Park in San Diego is one of the most difficult hitters' parks, if not the most difficult, in the National League. Wisely, the Padres focused on building a strong pitching staff as their first order of business.
The Padres have some good young talent in their starting rotation, but good health will be a key factor. Although there are no superstars, the rotation of Clayton Richard, Edinson Volquez, Cory Luebke, Tim Stauffer and Dustin Moseley is solid from top to bottom.
A starter will typically have between 30-35 starts, if he stays healthy all year. Three of the Padres' pitchers did not come close to that mark in 2011. Volquez and Moseley each had 20 starts and Richard only 18.
Volquez came to the Padres, along with first baseman Yonder Alonso, in exchange for starter Mat Latos. The loss of Latos is a big one, although if Volquez stays healthy, the deal will be a good one because Alonso is a fine hitter.
The Padres' bullpen is the strength of their team. Manager Bud Black uses his bullpen a lot and is blessed with some excellent arms.
Newly-acquired Huston Street replaces Heath Bell as the Padres' closer. Street had 29 saves last year with an ERA of 3.86 and WHIP of 1.217. He is being counted on to do a lot better in 2012.
The main setup men, Ernesto Frieri, Luke Gregerson and Andrew Cashner give the Padres three outstanding late-inning relievers. The winning formula for the Padres is if the starters can hand the ball to the bullpen after six innings with the lead, it will be tough to beat them.
Offensively, the Padres improved themselves dramatically with the acquisition of Alonso. He is a line drive, gap-to-gap hitter, so the spacious dimensions of Petco could actually help him.
Although it was a small sample size with only 88 at-bats, Alonso hit .330 with five home runs and 15 RBI. I am confident that this guy can flat out hit.
The Padres are also counting on a big year from center fielder Cameron Maybin. They signed him to a five-year, $25 million contract this winter.
Maybin, who will be 25 years old at the start of the season, hit .264 with nine home runs, 40 RBI and 40 steals in 2011. The Padres are hoping this will be a breakout year for Maybin.
In an effort to boost their offense, the Padres also acquired outfielder Carlos Quentin in a trade with the Chicago White Sox. The Padres are hoping Quentin can drive in runs, as he hit 25 home runs and had 77 RBI in 2011. Quentin played only 118 games last year, and the Padres need him to play a lot more in 2012.
The rest of the Padres offense is filled with adequate players but no real offensive stars. Orlando Hudson, Jason Bartlett and Chase Headley make up the rest of the infield, and Will Venable holds down the right field job.
The Padres have the steady Nick Hundley behind the plate. The Padres are very high on young catcher Yasmani Grandal, who was the 12th overall pick in the 2010 draft. He may not make the roster out of spring training, but expect him to be in San Diego at some point this year.
The Padres are improved, but there's still the question of health in the starting rotation and a lack of punch in the offense.
Projection: 74-88, 4th Place
3. Los Angeles Dodgers
Matt Kemp had an MVP caliber year in 2011
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The Los Angeles Dodgers are the sleeper team of the division. They have two of the best players in the National League in Matt Kemp and Clayton Kershaw. The supporting cast is also improved, and the Dodgers to be right in the thick of the race this year.
The Dodgers will also be under new ownership sometime later this year. Look out for them in 2013, as the new regime will be aggressive in making moves.
Matt Kemp was my pick for the NL MVP award, as he had a tremendous season. Kemp hit .324 and led the league with 39 home runs and 126 RBI. His 40 steals and Gold Glove award showed his value as an outstanding five-tool player.
The Dodgers are also blessed with great speed at the shortstop position with Dee Gordon. In his first big league season, Gordon displayed some of the great athleticism he possesses.
Gordon had 224 at-bats last season and finished with a .304 batting average. The Dodgers would like him to work the count more, be more selective and draw more walks. His OBP of .325 should be improved. Gordon is not a power guy, but he has the potential to steal 40 bases this year.
Left fielder Juan Rivera was a pleasant surprise for the Dodgers in 2011. Traded from the Blue Jays in July, Rivera became a solid run producer in Los Angeles. In only 219 at-bats with the Dodgers, Rivera had five home runs and a very impressive 46 RBI.
Mark Ellis is the Dodgers' new second baseman and is a steady player, both offensively and defensively.
A.J. Ellis will start the season as the Dodgers' catcher. He is solid defensively, and if he can provide any offense, that will be a welcome boost. Ellis, who will be 31 years old in April, has been a career backup, so this is his shot.
The Dodgers got sub-par seasons in 2011 from James Loney, Andre Ethier and Juan Uribe. If these three have bounce-back seasons, LA will be right in the hunt.
The Dodgers' starting pitching is one of their strengths. Ace pitcher Clayton Kershaw will be 24 years old when the season starts. He won the Cy Young award last year as he compiled a record of 21-5, ERA of 2.28 and WHIP of 0.977.
Kershaw threw a career-high 233 innings and struck out 248 hitters, which also led the league. He will anchor a solid Dodger rotation.
Behind Kershaw are veterans Chad Billingsley, Ted Lilly, Aaron Harang and Chris Capuano. A big key to the Dodgers' resurgence will be Billingsley.
In 2011, Billingsley went 11-11 and had a career-worst 4.21 ERA. His WHIP of 1.452 was also very high because he allowed 88 walks in 188 innings. If Billingsley has a good year, the Dodgers will be right in the thick of things in 2012.
Javy Guerra emerged as the closer in 2011 when Jonathan Broxton was unable to get the job done. Guerra earned 21 saves and finished the year with an ERA of 2.31 and a 1.179 WHIP. Guerra is not overpowering and does not have any dominant pitches, but he did get batters out when he needed to.
If Guerra struggles, Kenley Jansen should be ready to step in. He has a dominant fastball and closer's stuff. In 53.2 innings last year, Jansen struck out an incredible 96 batters.
The Dodgers will be much improved in 2012, but with their ownership situation still not resolved, their biggest jump will be in 2013.
Projection: 85-77, 3rd Place
2. Arizona Diamondbacks
Ian Kennedy had a breakout season in 2011
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The Arizona Diamondbacks finished the 2011 season with a 94-68 record. They were the NL West champion and have improved themselves coming into the 2012 campaign.
Everything fell into place last year for the D-Backs under first-year manager Kirk Gibson. Some players had career years, and the team stayed relatively healthy throughout the entire year. Only shortstop Stephen Drew missed any significant amount of time.
The odds of players coming back and having another career year or that the core group will remain healthy for another complete season is very unlikely. On paper, the Diamondbacks are the team to beat in the NL West. However, as we all know, the game is not played on paper.
Arizona enters the season with strength at every position. First baseman Paul Goldschmidt is a young slugger who impressed after being called up in the middle of the season. He blasted eight home runs in only 156 at-bats. It will be exciting to see what the 24-year-old Goldschmidt can do over an entire year.
The rest of the Arizona infield is solid, though unspectacular. Ryan Roberts at third base had his best year as a pro, with 19 home runs and 65 RBI. Although he hit only .249, his OBP was .341, as Roberts became a regular starter for the first time in his career.
The middle infield will feature Aaron Hill at second base and either Drew or Willie Bloomquist at shortstop. It appears as though Drew won't be ready to start the season, so Bloomquist will get the starting job. He handled the job in 2011, and there's no reason to believe he can't do it again in 2012.
The D-Backs' outfield is strong with Justin Upton emerging as a legitimate five-tool player. In 2011, he hit .289 with 31 home runs, 88 RBI and also stole 21 bases. At age 24, Upton is on the verge of becoming a superstar.
Chris Young in center field provides good power and speed and is an excellent defensive player. The only flaw in Young's game is his batting average, which was only .236 last year. Young did hit 20 home runs, drove in 71 runs and stole 22 bases, however.
The Diamondbacks signed Jason Kubel to play left field, which moves Gerardo Parra to a reserve role. Kubel agreed to a two-year, $15 million deal to come to Arizona. Parra gives the D-Backs excellent versatility off the bench.
Catcher Miguel Montero is one of the top catchers in the National League. In 2011, he hit .282 with 18 home runs and 86 RBI. He also led the league in throwing out 40 percent of would-be steal attempts. Montero made his first All-Star team last year.
The Arizona pitching staff was a pleasant surprise last year. Ian Kennedy had a career year with a 21-4 record, 2.88 ERA and 1.086 WHIP. Including the playoffs, he pitched a career high of 236.2 innings, and it's unlikely Kennedy will be able to duplicate his 2011 season.
Prior to the 2011 season, Kennedy had a career record of 10-14 and an ERA in the 4.00 range. For him to have this type of breakout year was very unexpected. If he can come close to his 2011 performance, the Diamondbacks will be thrilled. I just don't see it happening.
Daniel Hudson also had a career year. Prior to last season, Hudson had never thrown more than 96 innings in the major leagues. In 2011, Hudson threw 227.1 innings, including the postseason. He was 16-12 with a 3.49 ERA and 1.203 WHIP.
The D-Backs also acquired starting pitcher Trevor Cahill from Oakland. He will give the D-Backs another solid arm in their rotation. He has averaged 32 starts per year over the past three years.
The back-end of the rotation will be held down by Josh Collmenter and Joe Saunders. Collmenter came through for the D-Backs in 2011, his first year in the big leagues. He went 10-10 with an ERA of 3.38 and WHIP of 1.069.
Closer J.J. Putz had a resurgence in 2011, as he saved a career high of 45 games. At the age of 35, however, we'll see if he can duplicate his outstanding season.
David Hernandez will handle the set-up role for the D-Backs and be there in case Putz falters. Hernandez is a good one, as he held opposing hitters to a .196 average against him.
Brad Ziegler, Craig Breslow, Joe Paterson and Takashi Saito provide depth in the bullpen, but if anything happens to Putz or Hernandez, the Diamondbacks could be in trouble.
Virtually everything went right for Arizona in 2011. The odds of that happening again are slim, and I do expect to see some injuries and a potential drop off from some of the players who had career years.
Projection: 93-69, 2nd Place, NL Wild Card
1. San Francisco Giants
Tim Lincecum heads an impressive Giants' pitching staff
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The San Francisco Giants were riding high after their 2010 World Series title. Then it all went south in 2011, as a long list of injuries decimated the team. The Giants look to be healthy to start the 2012 season, and they seem armed with a steely resolve to recapture the NL West.
It all starts with pitching in San Francisco, as the Giants are led by two-time Cy Young award winner Tim Lincecum and their second ace, Matt Cain.
Madison Bumgarner and last year's surprise pitcher Ryan Vogelsong hold down the third and fourth spots in the rotation. Bumgarner, who is only 22 years old, looks poised to become a third ace on this pitching-rich team.
These top four starters were all at the top of the NL for best ERA. Vogelsong led the way with an ERA of 2.71, then Lincecum at 2.74, Cain at 2.88 and Bumgarner at 3.21. Playing in pitcher-friendly AT&T Park will also help this vaunted rotation in 2012.
Barry Zito is the fifth starter only because the Giants still owe him $46 million. However, if he again falters, look for Eric Surkamp to replace him by the All-Star break.
The bearded one, Brian Wilson, looks to be healthy after missing much of the second half of 2011 due to elbow problems. If he's healthy, he is one of the top closers in the National League. This also sets up the bullpen with very comfortable roles.
From the right side the Giants will feature Sergio Romo and Santiago Casilla. They are complemented by left handed relievers Javier Lopez and Jeremy Affeldt. This gives the Giants one of the best bullpens in all of baseball.
Last year the problem for the Giants was on offense. They had the worst offense in the National League, actually scoring 23 runs fewer than the next lowest team. The Giants averaged only 3.52 runs per game, yet they were still able to finish 10 games above .500.
The Giants have made some valuable additions to their offense in 2012. Outfielders Melky Cabrera and Angel Pagan arrived via the trade route. The Giants hope that Cabrera will be able to duplicate, or perhaps even improve on his 2011 season, when he hit .305 with 18 home runs, 87 RBI and 20 steals.
Pagan gives the Giants excellent speed at the top of the order, and I look for him to rebound from a sub-par year in 2011.
Pablo Sandoval missed five weeks of the season last year due to a broken bone in his hand. At the tail end of the year, the switch-hitting Panda also couldn't hit right handed, due to a bad left shoulder. Even with these injuries, Sandoval hit .315 with 23 home runs and 70 RBI.
Sandoval appears fully healthy, and I expect him to have a big year, especially with his RBI total. As long as he keeps his weight under control, the Panda is also a very good defensive player. He reported to camp a little heavier than the Giants wanted, but he has been working hard and should be fine.
The Giants have given the shortstop job to defensive whiz Brandon Crawford. He will definitely help the pitching staff with his glove and strong throwing arm.
If Crawford hits at all, it will be a bonus for the Giants. Crawford hit only .204 with an OBP of .288 in 2011, so clearly his bat needs a lot of work. He has looked good with the bat thus far in spring training, and if he can hit even .240, with an OBP in the .320 range, the Giants would take that.
At second base, Freddy Sanchez is still slowed by offseason shoulder surgery. He has yet to play in the field and may not be ready by Opening Day. The Giants signed Ryan Theriot as a utility infielder during the offseason, and if Sanchez can't go, expect Theriot to contribute at second base.
Aubrey Huff and Brandon Belt are competing for the first base job. It appears that Huff will open the season as the starter, and Belt will play some at first base and also in the outfield. Huff had a down year in 2011, but look for him to return to his 2010 form when he hit .290 with 26 home runs and 86 RBI.
Huff was embarrassed by his 2011 performance and is also in a contract year, so look for him to have a solid season. His track record of every other year being good also points to an upswing in 2012.
The most important player for the Giants' offense is catcher Buster Posey. His 2011 season came to an end on May 25th when he was badly injured in a collision at home plate. He has started catching games in spring training and barring any set backs, should open the season as the starting catcher.
Posey will return to the No. 4 spot in the batting order, which will put the entire lineup in much more comfortable spots. The Giants will be careful with Posey, and he will not catch every day. Look for him to get a fair share of time at first base, probably starting 30-40 games there.
The backup catcher will be very important for the Giants, as he will probably start 50-55 games. Chris Stewart and Eli Whiteside are defensive-minded catchers, but neither can hit. Hector Sanchez is by far the best hitter and is improving defensively.
The Giants may opt to keep Sanchez in the minors to get more seasoning, but he may be ready now. I would like to see the Giants give him a chance because we know what Stewart and Whiteside can do and it's not enough.
The Giants will have a much more balanced lineup this year, from top to bottom. With their stellar pitching staff, they will again make a run at the division title. If they can stay relatively healthy, they are my pick to win it in 2012.
Projection: 94-78, 1st Place, NL West Division Champions
The NL West Will Be Much Improved in 2012
This reminds me of Sandy Koufax
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The National League West is much improved in 2012. From top to bottom, any of the teams can hurt you on any given day, but the cream will rise to the top over the long, 162-game season.
I expect the top three teams—the Giants, Diamondbacks and Dodgers—to stay closely bunched. In the end, the Dodgers will come up a little short, but the Giants and D-Backs could battle it out to the last game of the year.
2012 will be an exciting year in the NL West. I expect to see playoff baseball in both San Francisco and Arizona this season. Play Ball!!!