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Chicken Bones and Tea Leaves: Predicting the NL West

By Chris Jacobson

Spring training is starting to get into full swing and it seems as good a time as any to get out some predictions for the upcoming season and how it relates to the National League West. The nice thing about making predictions in March is that there is enough time between now and September to forget how far off these predictions have been. Unlike every other division in baseball the NL West seems to be pretty happy with how last year turned out as each of the teams appears to have stood pat with last year’s rosters with exception to a few situational additions.

My NL West guesses are as follows

5. San Diego Padres (74-88)

Let’s get this out of the way; Adrian Gonzalez is a stud. He is the real deal. He led the Padres in every meaningful offensive category. That being said he will most likely be playing east of the Mississippi by late June. Unfortunately the Padres have a lot more Scott Hairstons and David Ecksteins than Adrian Gonzalezes. A reoccurring theme in the NL West is lack of offensive depth and San Diego is the poster child. Gonzalez led the team in batting hitting .277. Sure he had forty home runs to back his average up, but .277 leading a team is a problem. Incidentally, there were two teams (Yankees, Angels) that hit better than Gonzalez as a team. San Diego was dead last in the majors in 2009 with a .242 team average.

The Padres pitching isn’t much better with exception to a few bright spots. Chris Young is a very good pitcher, but was plagued by a series of injuries in 2009 including a hot shot to the face off the bat of Albert Pujols, ouch. Kevin Correia had a solid 09 posting a sub four run ERA and twelve wins for a bad Padres team.
Unfortunately for Young and Correia, tandem would have to win 45 games between them for the Padres to be relevant this year.

4. Arizona Diamondbacks (81-81)

This team is going to live and die on potential. Dan Haren is phenomenal but he is surrounded by questions. Can Brandon Webb return to a form similar to his 2008 eight campaign? Maybe. Is Edwin Jackson more the pitcher he was in Detroit last year than the pitcher he was the six years before that? Maybe not. There are questions concerning Justin Upton’s potential, Chad Qualls ability to close and what version of Adam LaRoche the Diamond backs have. What isn’t really in question is how pedestrian this team is on offense. What may be a breakout year for Upton and a surprisingly good year for LaRoche will most likely be marred by the mediocre performances of Stephen Drew, Connor Jackson and the like. The Diamondbacks are a collection of solid but not spectacular ball players and their near .500 record should reflect that.

3) San Francisco Giants (87-75)

This team is hard to pin down. They have more offense than last year and offense was their problem. The addition of Mark DeRosa doesn’t seem like a big signing, but DeRosa will be out to prove he isn’t a journeyman and that he is deserving of a starting job. Freddy Sanchez and Bengie Molina can also swing the bat a little bit and the lineup is beginning to appear to have some depth. The real stick in the lineup, however, is Pablo Sandoval. Setting Manny Ramirez aside, Pablo may be the best hitter in the NL West. His twenty five home runs look incredible when set next to his .330 batting average, and he may actually be better than those numbers show. In 2009, teams could pitch around him.

The Giants are beginning to be able to hit, but they are built on pitching. Everyone who has turned on Sports Center in the last two years knows about long haired Tim Lincecum. The two time Cy Young winner is as dominant as you get, winning forty games in his first three seasons in the majors. Without hyperbole, he is the best pitcher in the National League right now. Immediately behind him is Matt Cain. His career win/loss record does not reflect the talent Cain has. He has been limited in his career by a soft hitting offense to protect him. He has a legitimate shot of a Cy Young himself in 2010. The problem for the Giants is the pitchers behind these two. The tirfecta of Barry Zito/ Jonathan Sanchez/ Madison Bumgarner rounds off an inexperienced and inconsistent starting line up. In all honesty, the Giants are close, but it is their less than average outfield that will cost them this season.

2) Colorado Rockies (91-71)

This team was good last year and healthier this year. They are probably closer to the Dodgers this year than last, but there is still a gap between the two. They are a slick fielding group with a lot of team speed. Troy Tulowitzki is on the threshold of being one of the games elite players and a supporting cast that involves Todd Helton, Carlos Gonzalez, Brad Hawpe and company means the Rockies can score runs. Better still for the Rocks is the teams age. They are young and may still be a year away from being a legitimate contender for the West title.

The pitching for the club is deep but need to have a few things break their way if they intend to eclipse their club record 92 wins they posted on 2009. Jeff Francis and Aaron Cook need to stay healthy and Ubaldo Jimenez needs to live up to the potential of his live arm. Huston Street needs to prove that 2009 was not a fluke and that he is ready to be a major league closer for the duration. It is not impossible to think that the Rockies aren’t already where they want to be, but it is more realistic to think that they will most likely be challenging the Mets, Cubs and Giants for the wildcard spot.

1) Los Angeles Dodgers (96-66)

There is one thing that can bring this team back to Earth, chemistry. Owners Frank and Jamie McCourt‘s messy divorce may become a bit of a distraction as will Manny Ramirez’ statement that 2010 will be his last in Dodger blue.

The Dodger’s offense is loaded. James Loney can hit, as can Rafael Furcal, and Russell Martin. Andre Ethier looks to be on the cusp of another fantastic season. Matt Kemp can crush the ball but his primary detail will be protecting the Dodgers best player, Manny Ramirez. While “Manny being Manny” can be a distraction, he is also one of the best hitter in MLB and should help the Dodgers to the top of the NL West.

If the Dodgers can be beat, it’s on the mound. They, more than most teams, see a fast decline as they go down the depth chart. Clayton Kershaw is a very capable pitcher, but the drop off to Chad Billingsley and his slightly above four ERA is substantial, as is the drop to Hiroki Kuroda, to Vicente Padilla and to James McDonald. McDonald is young and raw but does have potential, unlike Padilla.

Whoever wins this division will have to contend with the Phillies and the Cardinals for the right to play the representative from the American League. The Yankees will most likely win the East, joining the Twins, Angels and a surprising wildcard Mariners team in the playoffs. In the end, the Yankees have finally broken through and Alex Rodriguez will prove that he is the best player in baseball when the Evil Empire wins its second ring in as many years.

1 comment:

  1. Some nice thoughts here. This division is perhaps the most balanced division in baseball. I think the D-backs will be better than people think. The Rocks did not make any major moves; they are relying on the continual development of their young players. Sometimes it is nice to shake up the roster - trade Brad Hawpe with the excess of outfielders the Rocks have, for example