Look up the word ‘mediocre’ in the dictionary and you’ll find a set of standings for the National League West. Over the course of the past five seasons, the Los Angeles Dodgers are the only team in the division with a winning record, averaging 84 wins a year. That may be changing, however, with a resurgence underway in Colorado and San Francisco.
1. Colorado Rockies
Why They’ll Finish First: After an ugly 18-28 start cost manager Clint Hurdle his job, the Rockies were the hottest team in the division under Jim Tracy. Tracy’s team was 32 games over .500 during the final 116 games and would seem positioned to be even better this year with the return of Jeff Francis to the rotation after missing all of last season. With 804 runs, the Rockies outscored every NL team except the Phillies and all of the key position players are back in place. Shortstop Troy Tulowitzki (.297, 32 HRs, 92 RBIs) and first baseman Todd Helton (.325, 15 HRs, 86 RBIs) anchor the potent offence for a team that doesn’t have any glaring weaknesses. Ubaldo Jimenez, Francis, Aaron Cook, Jason Hammel and Jorge De La Rosa provide a solid starting rotation.
Could Go South If: Closer Huston Street’s sore shoulder doesn’t respond to treatment. He converted 35 of 37 save chances last year but will open on the disabled list. Versatile Franklin Morales will close on an interim basis.
2. San Francisco Giants
Why They’ll Finish Second: In Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain, the Giants may have the best 1-2 rotation punch in the league. In 2009, the Giants pitching staff had a 3.55 ERA, second only to the Dodgers and they’ll need to be that good again because their offence, which produced just 657 runs, has not been markedly improved. Aubrey Huff needs to bounce back from his worst year (.241, 15 HRs) to provide some for Pablo Sandoval who has emerged as one of the league’s top hitters. Freddie Sanchez will also need to help out. Madison Bumgarner could be an impact pitcher as a rookie.
Could Climb Higher If: Barry Zito’s strong second half in 2009 is more than a mirage. The lefty, who still has four years and $76 million US remaining on his albatross of a contract has averaged 10 wins and a 4.50 ERA with the Giants but had a 2.83 ERA in his last 15 starts of ’09. It would also help if some of the Giants hitters take a walk once in a while. The Giants had the worst OBA (.309) and worst OPS (.699) in the majors in ’09.
3. Los Angeles Dodgers
Why They’ll Finish Third: The nasty divorce of team owners Frank and Jamie McCourt already has affected the makeup of the team and will be a distraction. The Dodgers made no significant personnel moves over the off-season. Manny Ramirez, who injected new life into the lineup while apparently injecting himself in other ways after being traded from Boston, started looking his age last year after returning from his drug suspension.
Could Climb Higher If: The young corps of hitters — Matt Kemp, Andre Ethier and James Loney — continues to improve. That trio combined for 70 home runs and 297 RBIs last season. On the pitching side, if Clayton Kershaw becomes the rotation stud he’s expected to be and, if Chad Billingsley can put last season’s horrible second half behind him, they could again challenge.
4. Arizona Diamondbacks
Why They’ll Finish Fourth: Even if Brandon Webb returns to form — and that is still very much in doubt — the Diamondbacks may not have enough starting pitching. After you get past Dan Haren and newcomer Edwin Jackson, there is not a lot to talk about on this staff. Webb’s arm is a real concern, especially after surgery revealed no injury. On the offensive side, the Diamondbacks is an all-or-nothing lineup, since they led the majors in strikeouts (1,298) while finishing fourth in the NL in home runs with 173. New arrival Adam LaRoche (142 Ks last year) will fit right into that culture.
Could Climb Higher If: Left fielder Conor Jackson is fully recovered from the illness that sapped his strength and prevented him from playing all but 30 games last year. Also, if centre fielder Chris Young can get back to being the kind of player he was in his rookie season of 2007.
5. San Diego Padres
Why They’ll Finish Last: Once you get past Adrian Gonzalez, there is no one else in this lineup who strikes any fear into opposing pitchers. Without any protection, teams will just pitch around Gonzalez, who will probably be traded by the Aug. 1 non-waiver deadline. The Pods have ordinary pitchers and two of them — Jon Garland and closer Heath Bell — will likely be dealt as well.
Could Climb Higher If: David Eckstein hits 40 homers, drives in 130 and ... well, you get the picture.