10 Things Giants vs. D'Backs Series Will Tell Us About the NL West Race

Gil Imber@RefereeOrganistAnalyst IIApril 5, 2012

10 Things Giants vs. D'Backs Series Will Tell Us About the NL West Race

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    For the Arizona Diamondbacks and San Francisco Giants, 2012 will be a rematch and a test.

    After last year's NL West battle between the Diamondbacks and Giants was cut short by San Francisco's untimely loss of catcher Buster Posey and some further offensive woes—such as a last place finish in the NL in on-base percentage—Arizona ran away with the division title, flirting with a double-digit Western lead before finishing the 2011 season eight games ahead of the Giants.

    Both clubs are favorites to win the division, which translates to a great deal of pressure as the Diamondbacks play host to the Giants Friday night.

    Not only does Game 1 feature aces Tim Lincecum (SF) and Ian Kennedy (ARI), the entire series will also be packed with questions waiting to be answered, a glimpse at what the future may hold as MLB begins its annual 162-game trek through spring, summer and fall.

    Amongst many other of the most dramatic questions waiting to be answered this season—such as which 23 fans will find the Kirk Gibson cutouts scattered throughout Phoenix and Tempe, thus solidifying their status as "#RedAlert" fanatics—these are 10 questions the Giants and D-Backs hope to answer during their MLB opening series, Friday through Sunday.

Battle of the Aces: Lincecum vs Kennedy

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    When Tim Lincecum and Ian Kennedy face off to start the 2012 season, both benches will be eagerly watching to see who blinks first.

    The first time Lincecum and Kennedy matched up in 2011, the D-Backs lost to the Giants at AT&T Park by the grand sum of 1-0.

    Lincecum and Kennedy both pitched 8.0 innings and had nearly identical lines: both gave up four hits and Kennedy struck out eight to Lincecum's nine.

    At face value, the result was a draw and the 2011 final stats confirm that conundrum: Lincecum was a 2.74 ERA pitcher with a losing 13-14 record (bad offense) and 220 strikeouts. The opposition batted .222 against him and his WHIP was 1.21.

    Kennedy's 2011 ended with a 2.88 ERA, a winning 21-4 record but just 198 strikeouts. His opponents hit .227, but his WHIP was a fair amount lower at 1.09.

    How does one choose? Surely one game is just one game, though keep in mind that one game can always lead to two, three and four.

    Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw beat Lincecum on Opening Day at Dodger Stadium, going on to defeat Lincecum all four times the two squared off in 2011. Kershaw, of course, won the NL Cy Young.

    Though their stats suggest very similar abilities in their respective worlds of pitching dominance, the Baseball Writers' Association of America overwhelmingly lent their support to Ian Kennedy last season, bestowing Kennedy with 76 points and a fourth-place finish in the NL Cy Young race to Lincecum's seven points.

San Francisco's Pitching Prominence

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    After a 2011 season in which the Giants placed second in the National League to the Philadelphia Phillies in ERA, third in WHIP, second in strikeouts and first in batting average against, San Francisco must consider whether sirs Lincecum, Cain, Bumgarner and Vogelsong have the tools to repeat their 2011 pitching success story in 2012.

    When it comes to strikeouts, average, WHIP and hits allowed, only the Los Angeles Dodgers come close of the NL West teams, often knocking on the Giants' first-, second- or third-place door, indicating that there just may be more to Los Angeles than Clayton Kershaw.

    Still, Los Angeles has its own questions to answer after losing Hiroki Kuroda to the New York Yankees while the Giants must remain concerned with the black-and-orange.

    Though San Francisco might ultimately benefit from other teams' missteps, it is up to the Giants and the Giants alone to chart the team's fate.

Arizona's Repeat Potential

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    Everything seemed to go right for Arizona in 2011: From Ryan Roberts' inspiring 19 home runs and 65 RBI (not to mention 18 stolen bases) to rookie Paul Goldschmidt's surprise surge to D-Backs prominence, the 2011 team was full of pleasant surprises. 

    Along with questions concerning Goldschmidt and Roberts' abilities to repeat, Kennedy himself will once again be forced to prove himself: Observers (and Giants fans) remain very skeptical over Kennedy's repeat potential, which would translate to more bullpen taxation.

    Can the D-Backs handle it?

Offense: A Tale of Two Teams

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    The Arizona Diamondbacks have hit a grand slam in four consecutive games at Chase Field, two in the final few days of the 2011 regular season and two in Games 3 and 4 of the NLDS versus Milwaukee.

    The Giants—simply put—have not come close.

    It's not just the big three, go-to stats of MLB broadcasting—average, home runs and RBI—where the Diamondbacks held the upper hand in 2011.

    From OPS (Arizona was ninth in MLB, San Francisco was 27th) to extra-base hits (502 for the NL-leading Diamondbacks, 427 for the NL's 13th-place Giants team) and even in the disciplined stat of walks (531 for Arizona, 448 for San Francisco), the Diamondbacks held the upper hand in most every single offensive statistic last season.

    The Giants have much to prove on offense while the Diamondbacks have everything to lose early on in the 2012 MLB season.

Newcomers: Trevor Cahill, Angel Pagan

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    In response to their offensive struggles, the Giants have added pieces expected to contribute and revive the sluggish lumber by the bay. Angel Pagan and Melky Cabrera are just two inbound pieces of the puzzle the Giants are hoping will cure the jinx of the broken bat.

    Meanwhile, the Diamondbacks are hoping to up their pitching game with former Athletics pitcher Trevor Cahill. Cahill will fall into the Arizona rotation behind Ian Kennedy and Daniel Hudson, bolstering a staff that appeared to be very top-heavy with Josh Collmenter and Joe Saunders waiting in the wings at Nos. 4 and 5.

    While the Giants will display their new-found offense—or lack thereof—over the course of the entire weekend, the Diamondbacks will wait until Cahill takes the hill to see just what kind of an advantage they can expect from the former North Californian.

A Changing Outfield

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    The San Francisco Giants booked Melky Cabrera and Angel Pagan this offseason, while the Arizona Diamondbacks scored Jason Kubel to work alongside—and compete with—Gerardo Parra.

    Cabrera is coming off a .305, 18-home run season with Kansas City, earning marks equal to or better than those he experienced with New York in 2009. His career OPS is .729, though he recorded an .809 mark as a Royal.

    Pagan, meanwhile, hit .262 with the Mets in 2011, belting just seven homers and logging an OPS of .694.

    For Arizona, newcomer Kubel hit .273 with 12 home runs last year with the Minnesota Twins. With a career OPS of .794, it would appear that Cabrera may be more valuable to San Francisco than Kubel is to Arizona.

    Still, with Aubrey Huff, Pagan and Cabrera in the outfield for San Francisco, the Diamondbacks appear to hold the upper hand with Chris Young and Justin Upton in center and right, respectively.

Battle of the Catchers: Buster Posey

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    For San Francisco, the 2012 season might as well begin and end on the name, "Buster Posey."

    Poised for greatness prior to his 2011 season-ending injury, San Francisco's 2010 Rookie of the Year spent the better part of March 2012 finding his way back into playing form, slugging a .917 OPS in 40 spring training at-bats, featuring a home run as his first hit of the spring.

    If Posey puts on a strong display in regular season games one, two and three, Giants fans will rest easy, reassured that their star catcher is finally back to lead his team to the postseason.

    If not, it could breed turmoil in San Francisco.

    Meanwhile, Diamondbacks catcher Miguel Montero is no slouch. A 2011 NL All-Star, Montero was the NL's ninth-leading doubles producer with a 32-of-80 caught stealing record last year.

    With 18 home runs and an .820 OPS, Montero—like Posey—has that desired ability, as a catcher, to make contact, hit for power and provide offense to match his defense.

    Both teams have much to look forward to with Posey and Montero in 2012.

Brandon Belt

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    After powerful performances over the course of his two years of professional baseball in the minor leagues, the Giants appear convinced youngster Brandon Belt will be a star in the major leagues this season.

    Even though Belt hit just .225 with a .718 OPS—drops from his minor league 1.075 OPS in 2010 and .989 OPS in 2011—the club and its fans are optimistic Belt will soon establishing himself as a rising star in his MLB infancy.

    As the Giants name Belt their No. 1 first baseman, his performance in 2012 will determine whether or not those hopes will pan out.

Managers: Kirk Gibson vs. Bruce Bochy

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    Arizona Diamondbacks manager Kirk Gibson won the 2011 NL Manager of the Year Award, his first such honor which matches Bruce Bochy's total. Bochy won his Manager of the Year Award in 1996 with the San Diego Padres.

    In that regard, the two men are strikingly similar, both having won the prize early on in their first managing gigs. Both times, analysts had predicted the teams would finish in third place or worse, and both times the teams won the division.

    Two years after Bochy's win, his Padres appeared in—and lost—the World Series. Thirteen years after that, his Giants won it all.

    Gibson is still in his infancy as a major league skipper, though his popularity in Phoenix has sparked bobblehead and promotional campaigns—he will even appear as a bobblehead at Dodger Stadium this season as part of that club's 50th Anniversary celebration.

    The two might be at different stages of their respective careers, but they are both on the same path to managerial greatness. The only question is whether 2012 will be the year of the contemporary or that of the traditional.

Close It Out: J.J. Putz vs. Brian Wilson

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    The Diamondbacks clinched the 2011 NL West championship after a win against San Francisco and closer J.J. Putz was on the mound to wrap up the division crown.

    With 45 saves and a sizzling 0.91 WHIP and .195 average against, Putz was one of the most dominant closers in all of baseball last season, much less the division.

    Giants closer Brian Wilson held his own in 2011, though his .240 average against and 1.47 WHIP were far cries from his .188 average against and 0.97 WHIP from his first All-Star season in 2008.

    With 10-of-15 games between the D-Backs and Giants decided by three or fewer runs last season—including six-of-six before the Giants fell apart in mid-2011—the role of the closer will be vital in 2012, especially if Tim Lincecum and Ian Kennedy revive their sub-1.00 ERA-style pitchers' duel.

    Putz held the upper hand in 2011 while Wilson experienced setbacks, as did his entire Giants squad.

    As the 2012 season begins, the Diamondbacks will hope to stay the course and solidify their position atop the NL West standings while the Giants hope to rebuild, trusting that closer Brian Wilson will be there in the end to send San Francisco back to the playoffs.