Tuesday, March 1, 2011

NL West Preview

Last year, the Giants came from behind to beat out the Padres for the NL West title.  This year could be another close race, with more teams in the hunt for a division championship.  Here's a look at each team.

The Diamondbacks only won 65 games last season and fans in Phoenix shouldn't be expecting much more from the D-backs this season.  The highest batting average on the team last season was only .284 (2B Kelly Johnson) and as a team the Diamondbacks only batted .250.  Their team ERA of 4.81 was also pitiful, ranking third worst in all of baseball in 2010.  Based on the rotation that the D-backs should use during the season, don't expect a substantial drop in ERA in 2011.  Two potential bright spots, however, could be starter Daniel Hudson and emerging star Justin Upton.  Last season as a rookie, Hudson compiled an 8-2 record with a 2.45 ERA.  Was his success a fluke, or can he sustain it into his sophomore campaign, when more is expected of him.  Upton had a breakout season in 2009, but struggled last season and saw his average decrease by 27 points, his homers decrease by nine, and his RBI decrease by 17.  If he can bounce back, he can establish himself as one of the best young outfielders in the game.

The Dodgers struggled to an 80-82 record last season and a fourth place finish, but they could be a surprise contender this season.  Don Mattingly is the new manager, and if the battle between owner Frank McCourt and ex-wife Jamie McCourt isn't too much of a distraction, Chavez Ravine could once again be home to a team with playoff aspirations.  The rotation should be strong, with Clayton Kershaw anchoring a group that should also include Chad Billingsley, Jon Garland, Ted Lilly, and Hiroki Kuroda.  None of those starters had an ERA above 3.62 last season.  The Dodgers are hoping to see closer Jonathan Broxton rebound from his disappointing year in 2010 and return to the elite status he held in 2009.  The key factor for a Dodgers turn around, however, is centerfielder Matt Kemp.  Expect him to be one of the best outfielders in the game this season, after he struggled to live up to the hype last year.

The 2010 World Series Champions did not make many changes to last year's roster, and we'll see if that is a good thing or a bad thing.  The Giants obviously have one the best rotations in baseball, led by Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain.  In 2010, they finished first in the majors with a 3.36 team ERA.  If Jonathan Sanchez and Madison Bumgarner can continue their success from last season, the Giants could be well on the way to repeating as ERA champs in 2011 (it also helps that they have crazy, yet spectacular closer Brian Wilson at the back end of the bullpen).  The big question for the Giants will be their offense.  They only hit .257 as a team last year, but they got hot at the right time.  They have almost the same lineup back this season, the only difference being that Miguel Tejada is the new shortstop.  Obviously, catcher Buster Posey needs to hit the way he did last year (when he won the NL Rookie of the Year) for the Giants offense to click, but if third baseman Pablo Sandoval returns to his 2009 form, the Giants may not need their pitching to carry them quite as much.

The Padres are a tough team to predict.  Nobody thought they would be good last season, and they almost won the division.  They finished right behind the Giants in team ERA at 3.39, but they only compiled a .246 team batting average.  This year, they've lost their best hitter in Adrian Gonzalez, but they upgraded at shortstop (Jason Bartlett), second base (Orlando Hudson), and have the potential for good production in center field (longtime prospect Cameron Maybin).  They still have budding ace Mat Latos and their bullpen is still anchored by closer Heath Bell.  So can they repeat last year's magic?  I think it's highly unlikely.  They shouldn't be anywhere close to as bad as the D-backs, but don't expect a run at the division.

The Rockies should give the Giants the most competition for the division title.  However, that will involve a few factors.  Besides Ubaldo Jimenez, the rest of the Rockies' pitching staff needs to pitch better than they did last season when they finished with a 4.18 team ERA (placing in the lower half of that category among MLB teams).  Shortstop Troy Tulowitzki and left fielder Carlos Gonzalez have to live up to the expectations that come with their new long term contracts and continue to come up big in the middle of the lineup.  If they can do that, then the offense should continue to hit around the .263 average they posted last year (ninth in the bigs), when they also hit .270 with runners in scoring position (tied for 5th in the majors).

1. Giants
2. Rockies
3. Dodgers
4. Padres
5. Diamondbacks

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