NL West preview: In the land of Giants

BILL LANKHOF, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 6:14 PM ET

TORONTO - The San Francisco Giants were improbable winners of the World Series last season.

That it could happen twice in a row seems about as likely as waking up one morning to find moonmen camping in the back yard.

“We’ve always been underdogs or whatever you want to call it,” Tim Lincecum, who heads perhaps the best pitching staff outside of Philadelphia, said this spring.

“It’s what gives us incentive.”

Perhaps.

But if there is one thing more difficult than winning a World Series, it is to win them back-to-back. In the past 30 years, 26 different teams have played in the World Series. Since 2000, only two teams have returned in consecutive seasons: The Yankees (four consecutive, culminating in 2001) and the Phillies in 2008-2009.

“Often it’s a matter of the players not being as hungry as they were when they won,” says former GM Pat Gillick, who built back-to-back winners in Toronto, in 1992 and 1993.

“There’s also free agency. You can build a winner, but might lose a key player or two when they sign with other teams. It’s difficult to keep a team intact.”

There’s the reality that after winning its first championship since moving from New York in 1952, every team will come gunning for the Giants.

Plus, there’s that extra wear and tear on pitchers — some of whom have to throw an extra 40 or 50 innings, most of them under some duress and intensity.

All these factors play against a Giants encore and directly into the hands of a Dodgers club primed to rise from the ashes.

1. LOS ANGELES DODGERS

(Fourth in 2010, 80-82)

Not only did they improve their offence and pitching, they did it at the expense of their division mates, adding Juan Uribe (24 HR, 85 RBI) from the Giants and pilfering the Padres for Jon Garland (14-12, 3.47 ERA).

The Dodgers were 11th in runs scored in 2010, averaging 4.12 per game, but new manager Don Mattingly is confident of a return to the form of 2009 when the club ranked fourth.

The Dodgers, however, will only go as far as their pitching takes them. And it does look impressive. Even with Garland out until mid-April with an oblique strain, and Vicente Padilla out after forearm surgery, the Dodgers rotation is in significantly better shape than most with Clayton Kershaw, Chad Billingsley, Ted Lilly and Hiroki Kuroda.

Should closer Jonathan Broxton return to the form that included a 2.11 ERA before the break last year, it might be enough to win this three-way rumble with the Giants and Rockies.

2. SAN FRANCISCO GIANTS

(First in 2010, 92-70)

They lost Uribe and Edgar Renteria in the off-season and it’s difficult to see Buster Posey following up with a sophomore season as good as last year.

Giants general manager Brian Sabean said as 2010 evolved, his team “had a refuse-to-lose mentality” and it will be difficult to rediscover that passion.

Lincecum, Matt Cain, Jonathan Sanchez, Madison Bumgarner, and Barry Zito front a formidable rotation.

Brian Wilson (48 saves) spent the off-season doing stuff famous people do: Talk shows, Hollywood parties, promotional gigs. Conclusion: They may have lost just enough offence and desire to let the Dodgers slip on by.

3. COLORADO ROCKIES

(Third in 2010, 83-79)

Colorado should contend for its first division crown in team history as its young talent is starting to develop.

Colorado has two of the top young hitters in the game in Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez. But, after that where the offence comes from gets a bit foggy. Todd Helton’s reputation is bigger than his game at age 37. Big years are expected from centre fielder Dexter Flower and third baseman Ian Stewart — but both are still learning and prone to hit the usual career potholes.

Ubaldo Jimenez had a breakout year, going 19-8 with a 2.88 ERA, and also threw the first no-hitter in team history last year. He and Jorge De La Rosa are a solid one-two, but after that the rotation falls off sharply.

Huston Street is one of the top closers in the game. The problem is keeping him in the game. He has a tendency to make life miserable for everyone — hitters when he’s healthy; himself when he’s plagued by recurring hip, shoulder and elbow injuries.

4. SAN DIEGO PADRES

(Second in 2010, 90-72)

Not the worst team in baseball but they’re trying hard. After a surprisingly strong start last season, management dumped star Adrian Gonzalez and his 161 career homers to the Bosox. Staff ace Garland is gone to the Dodgers. What was the best bullpen in baseball lost Ryan Webb and Edward Mujica.

They’re back doing what the Padres do best: Rebuilding. After a 90-win season in 2010, they may be headed for a 90-loss season in 2011. The staff ace is 23-year old Mat Latos and GM Jed Hoyer signed Aaron Harang as his wingman. Harang hasn’t won more than six games in a season since 2007.

So, yeah, this is going to work.

5. ARIZONA DIAMONDBACKS

(Fifth in 2010, 65-97)

OK, this may be the worst team in Major League Baseball. New GM Kevin Towers has a monumental task rebuilding a club that won just 65 games in 2010. He started by signing closer J.J. Putz to fix a bullpen that ranked last in save percentage (59%). Dan Hudson, 23, flashed to prominence last year going 7-1 with a 1.69 ERA but Kirk Gibson’s staff is headed by veteran Joe Saunders, followed by right-handers Ian Kennedy, Hudson — and maybe Armando Galarraga and Zach Duke.


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