Saturday, February 25, 2012

NL West Preview

1st Place-San Francisco Giants
2011 Record: 86-76
2011 Pythagorean: 80-82
2012 Projected: 91-71
San Francisco had one of the best pitching staffs in baseball last year, and it's not hard to see why.  The rotation is stacked with Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, Madison Bumgarner and Ryan Vogelsong (likely to regress, but Bumgarner could break out), and four of their six most used relievers kept their ERAs under 2.75 (surprisingly Brian Wilson wasn't one of them).  What betrayed San Fran's quest to defend their World Series title was an impotent lineup that suffered a devastating season-ending injury to Buster Posey in May, lost Pablo Sandoval for 45 games and saw Aubrey Huff scuffle after the front office handed him a two year/$22 million deal the previous winter.  Even if Huff doesn't bounce back, getting an extra 130-140 games combined from their star catcher and Kung Fu Panda should give the Giants just enough offense to get back over the hump.  Free agent addition Melky Cabrera could also help, too, even if he falls back to earth after his career year last season.  All this team needed was an extra bat or two last season, so I believe they can get back to the top of their division rather easily.
2nd Place-Los Angeles Dodgers
2011 Record: 82-79
2011 Pythagorean: 84-77
2012 Projected: 89-73
Their strong finish got lost in the PR firestorm created by the McCourts; LA went 41-28 in the second half and seemed to be gathering momentum just as the season was winding down.  James Loney, Juan Rivera and Ted Lilly all regrouped from dreadful starts to finish the year strong, providing hope that they can pick up where they left off in 2012.  Manager Don Mattingly has arguably the best player--Matt Kemp--and best pitcher--Clayton Kershaw--in baseball at his disposal, but both have to sustain their success.  Unfortnately, GM Ned Colletti's didn't do much to upgrade the roster this offseason (he made a flurry of moves, all for replacement level players) so there's a lot riding on big comebacks from Andre Ethier and Chad Billingsley, the latter of whom needs to step up and fill the void left by Hiroki Kuroda.  The bullpen endured a lot of turmoil last season after Jonathan Broxton blew up, so hopefully Javy Guerra is the answer and can provide stability in the ninth inning.  This roster is definitely top-heavy, and injuries to any of its key players will likely doom the team to another .500 season.  But I'm confident the Dodgers will play better with the McCourt thing behind them; the talent is there, they just need to put it together.

3rd Place-Arizona Diamondbacks
2011 Record: 94-68
2011 Pythagorean: 88-74
2012 Projected: 86-76
Three things helped turn the D-Backs from a 97 loss team in 2010 to a 94 win team in 2011; an MVP caliber season from B.J. Upton, the emergence of Daniel Hudson and Ian Kennedy as aces, and a renovated bullpen headlined by the resurgence of stud closer J.J. Putz.  Arizona has a balanced lineup and solid pitching, but neither rated as spectacular last year.  Overall the offense was just slightly above average and relied too much on Upton (if he gets hurt this year they're screwed), and the pitching rated below average in many categories despite sterling seasons from Kennedy, Hudson, Putz, and pleasant surprises from starters Joe Saunders and Josh Collmenter.  I think Kirk Gibson's Snakes overachieved last year and benefitted from disappointing seasons by the Dodgers and Giants.  With both teams expected to be better this year, I'm guessing Arizona slips into the middle of the pack.  Kennedy is a surefire bet to regress, Putz isn't the most durable closer, and I think Trevor Cahill will struggle outside of the Coliseum in Oakland (Chase Field is much more favorable to hitters).  Arizona is still a dangerous team and could just as easily surpass 90 wins again, but I'm betting they won't.

4th Place-San Diego Padres
2011 Record: 71-91
2011 Pythagorean: 79-83
2012 Projected: 74-88
Offense will always be at a premium for the Pads as long as they call Petco home, but the organization does itself no favors by filling out the roster with light-hitting names like Orlando Hudson, Jason Bartlett, Chase Headley, Cameron Maybin, and Will Venable, all of whome slugged below .400 last year.  It's no surprised San Diego finished dead last in most of the offensive categories, and this pauctiy of scoring submarined what was actually a solid starting rotation--their 1-5 starters (Mat Latos, Tim Stauffer, Aaron Harang, Dustin Moseley, and Clayton Richard all posted ERAs under 3.90.  So it was nice to see them bolster the lineup with Carlos Quentin, who has enough power to smack 30 home runs if he can stay healthy for a whole season.  But one man can only do so much, especially when nobody's getting on base in front of him and he lacks protection behind him.  He will probably be a major disappointment out west, as the move from the homer-friendly U.S. Cellular Field to Petco, perhaps the most pitching friendly park in the majors, should sap some of his power.  On the bright side, many of his teammates are still young and have growth potential.  As for their pitching, Latos was an ace in the making and the rotation will miss him, especially since he was the only real strikeout pitcher on the staff last year.  They received Edinson Volquez, a true wild card, in return.  Volquez enjoyed a great season in 2008, when he made the All-Star team, went 17-6, struck out 206 batters and compiled a 3.21 ERA, but that breakout is sandwiched between six seasons of ineffectiveness, DL stints, and streaks of wildness.  If he can keep his walks down and stay healthy, he's exactly the kind of pitcher who could thrive in Petco, but those are two big "if"s.  San Diego is expecting him to be their ace, but I think it's safe to say that Latos will have a more productive season in Cincy than Volquez will in Cali.  It will be interesting to see if both can take advantage of their new digs and boost their games to new heights.  Lastly, the bullpen enters 2012 sans its two top relievers--Heath Bell (free agency) and Mike Adams (traded to Texas last July).  Huston Street isn't as consistent as Bell, but when healthy he's one of the better closers in the league and should come in handy during all those 3-2 games. 

5th Place-Colorado Rockies
2011 Record: 73-89
2011 Pythagorean: 77-85
2012 Projected: 72-90
The Rockies are polar opposites of the Padres; they play in a hitter's haven, have plenty of offense, and can't find decent pitching to save their lives.  Colorado bucked the trend this winter by acquiring many older players such as Jamie Moyer, Michael Cuddyer, Marco Scutaro, Casey Blake, and Ramon Hernandez.  Among them, only Cuddyer figures to provide much value.  On paper their lineup looks formidable on paper, with MVP candidates Carlos Gonzalez and Troy Tulowitzki anchoring the heart of it, but their pitching looks worse than Mickey Rourke in "The Wrestler."  Former ace Ubaldo Jimenez was traded to Cleveland last summer, and Jorge De La Rosa won't return from Tommy John surgery until midseason.  That leaves Jhoulys Chacin as the only "capable" starter (he led the league in walks allowed last year) on a team that finished second to last in the Senior Circuit with a 4.43 ERA last season.  It's a bad sign when Jeremy Guthrie, who's led the majors in losses during two out of the past three seasons, might be the best hurler in the rotation.  Oh, and the bullpen is just as discouraging.  This team will still put up enough runs to win some games, but in a division loaded with quality pitching they are the clear outliers.

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