With an interesting offseason thus far for many of the teams, I'll take a team-by-team look at the NL West. Each preview will feature whether each team has gotten better or worse, who to watch for, and my prediction as to where each team will end up.
We'll start off with the defending champion Los Angeles Dodgers.
A big question all of last season was whether the Dodger pitching staff could continue to exceed expectations week after week, which they actually ended up doing.
With the departure of veteran and solid lefty Randy Wolf to the Brewers and veteran righty Jon Garland to division rival San Diego, the Dodgers starting rotation is again a question mark. Chad Billingsley has the tools and potential to become a rotation ace, but two things will have to be seen before he can assume "Ace" status.
Can Billingsley stay healthy enough to give the Dodgers the amount of innings needed from a front-of-the rotation guy? And can he harness the potential that is there?
Two other pitchers will be interesting to watch in 2010. I look for the young southpaw Clayton Kershaw to finally be ready to start living up to the buzz he developed as a minor leaguer.
The one knock on Kershaw last season was his lack of control. I look for Kershaw to work with pitching coach Rick Honeycutt to find any flaws in his mechanics. Kershaw needs to work on limiting his number of walks per 9 innings (4.79 in '09). If he can do that, I expect big things from the 21-year old.
I also expect to see James McDonald compete for the 5th spot in the rotation. The 25-year old righty was solid out of the bullpen for the Dodgers last season, compiling a 4.00 ERA while making 45 appearances, four of which were starts. With a lively fastball (mid-90's) and a solid changeup, curveball, and slider, McDonald averaged almost eight strikeouts per inning pitched. I expect him to win the final spot and succeed.
The two hitters that I'm watching are center fielder Matt Kemp and second baseman Ronnie Belliard. Although he had a stellar year, we haven't seen the best of Matt Kemp yet. Only 25 years old, Kemp hit .297, with 26 homers, 101 RBI's, 97 runs, and 34 stolen bases. Somehow even with this type of production, Kemp found himself hitting in the bottom half of the order for most of the year, a shame really.
Getting by on raw talent alone, I expect Kemp to become more of a 'baseball player' and harness his freakish athleticism. I predict a 30/30/100/100 season for the stud, as he will be higher in the order, where he deserves to be.
Ronnie Belliard, last season's playoff darling for the Dodgers, will head into Spring Training with the starting job. With Orlando Hudson agreeing to terms with the Minnesota Twins, Belliard—who was clutch down the stretch—will likely compete with utility-man Blake Dewitt for the second base job.
We know that Belliard can hit—with his longer than average length bat—but the question is can he flash the leather well enough to keep the job?
I think he will keep the job. Belliard was able to supplant Hudson as the starting second baseman last season because he was hitting and Hudson wasn't. We'll see what Mini-Manny can do for an entire season with the Dodgers.
With all of this said, I believe the pitching staff, especially the bullpen, where they lack experience, will not pitch as well as last year's staff, and this will knock the Dodgers out of first place. I predict a 88-74 season and a second place finish in the NL West.
Up next, the San Francisco Giants. Stay Tuned