The National League West may not be the best division in baseball, but it is certainly among the most competitive. Any of four teams in this division — excluding the youthful San Diego Padres — can win. In fact, four of the five teams have won division titles in the last decade. The lone outcast in that group is Colorado, which won a wild-card berth in 2007 and went all the way to the World Series before losing to the Red Sox.
Typical of the possibilities this division presents is the rise of the Arizona Diamondbacks from also-ran to division champs in 2011. Under manager Kirk Gibson, the D-Backs went from dead last and 97 losses in 2010 to first place and 94 wins in 2011.
After a typical 15-22 start, Arizona caught fire in the third week of May and went 33 games over .500 the rest of the way. They flirted with the lead until the second week of August when they took command and never looked back, winning by a comfortable eight-game margin.
The Giants and their fearsome pitching staff (Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, Madison Bumgarner, Matt Vogelsong and Barry Zito) stand to be the D-backs’ biggest obstacle to a repeat, but it’s folly to dismiss both the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Rockies.
In the second half of the 2011 season, the Dodgers, amid all the uncertainty and turmoil of an ownership crisis, were just about as hot as the Diamondbacks. Los Angeles went from 13 games under .500 (42-55) on July 19 to finish with 40 wins in their final 64 games.
And then there are the Rockies, who have added Michael Cuddyer to an already potent offensive team that features shortstop Troy Tulowitzki, first baseman Todd Helton and outfielder Carlos Gonzalez.
San Diego remains the also-ran in the division after a year of transition in which they traded away Adrian Gonzalez to Boston and followed that with a deal of Mat Latos to Cincinnati. The rebuild is far from complete, but there are pieces in place, especially in the bullpen (Huston Street, Andrew Cashner) who can help improve substantially on 2011’s 71 victories.
2011 Finish: First, 94-68
Balance is the key for the Diamondbacks as they attempt to build on last season’s surprise success. They have added a key piece in Trevor Cahill to a starting staff that was second only to the Giants last season and has prospects Trevor Bauer and Tyler Skaggs waiting in the wings. Where the Giants’ offensive prospects rest on hope and luck, Arizona has a solid everyday lineup that matches up well against any in the division.
Justin Upton and Miguel Montero are the offensive keys, but they are surrounded by veterans Willie Blomquist (a placeholder for Stephen Drew), Aaron Hill, Chris Young and Jason Kubel. If Paul Goldschmidt can bring his 30-plus HR minor-league power into the big time, he could be a huge contributor in the desert.
One thing is certain: Kirk Gibson, who manages with the same raw intensity he brought as a player, will not let this team get complacent.
2012 Prediction: First, 89-73
San Francisco Giants
2011 Finish: Second, 86-76
Unless the Giants are ready to back up the Brinks truck for Matt Cain, the window may be closing for this elite pitching staff to win another championship. Cain is a potential free agent and, if he goes, the thinking is that Tim Lincecum will test the free-agent waters after the 2013 season.
Many things have to go right for the Giants to contend. Buster Posey must pick up where he left off after that devastating knee injury; Aubrey Huff must rebound from a substandard 2011 season; Melky Cabrera (.305, 18 HR, 87 RBI, 20 SB last year in KC) must duplicate those numbers to pump up an anemic offence; Brandon Belt must transition from prospect to player.
2012 Prediction: Second, 87-74
Los Angeles Dodgers
2011 Finish: Third, 82-79
The new owners of the Dodgers — fronted by Stan Kasten and Magic Johnson — are going to want to quickly restore the team’s aura after an era of Frank McCourt drama. They have plenty to work with in reigning Cy Young winner Clayton Kershaw and Matt Kemp, who many feel should have won the NL MVP last year.
“Nothing good happens without a scouting and player development foundation,” said Kasten Thursday. “We understand that is Job 1 for any team — and particularly for us.
“But we also recognize it is Los Angeles. We recognize the history. We recognize the expectations. We recognize what our fans deserve. We don’t plan to wait for 25 players to grow into our uniform.”
2012 Prediction: Third, 85-77
2011 Finish: Fourth, 73-89
The Rockies’ offence will very likely lead the division in runs scored for the sixth consecutive season in 2012, an achievement offset once again by a defence that will likely be among the league leaders in runs allowed.
Colorado gave up 774 runs last year, second only to the pathetic Houston Astros. They have added innings-eater Jeremy Guthrie to go with Jhoulys Chacin and 2010 first-rounder Drew Pomeranz. So bare is the Colorado pitching cupboard that they are counting on 49-year-old Jamie Moyer, coming off Tommy John surgery, as their fifth starter. Yikes.
Troy Tulowitzki, Carlos Gonzalez and Todd Helton are going to have to deliver a powerful number of runs to offset their lack of pitching.
2012 Prediction: Fourth, 79-83
San Diego Padres
2011 Finish: Fifth, 71-91
Before he left to rejoin Theo Epstein in Chicago, Jed Hoyer spent a couple of seasons wringing some value out of the Padres’ major-league roster and mining the entry draft in hopes of building a base of young players that would form the nucleus of a rebuilt Padres’ roster. The result is a farm system ranked by ESPN’s Keith Law as the best in baseball.
All that high-ceilinged talent isn’t going to translate into a lot of victories this season, but players such as Cameron Maybin, Chase Headley and Yonder Alonso will soon enough be joined by a cast of youngsters such as Yasmani Grandal, Casey Kelly, Robbie Erlin and Joe Wieland, to name a few.
The Pads bottomed out last season. It’s all uphill from here.
2012 Prediction: Fifth, 75-87