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Another very tough division to project, the NL West has 4 teams that could very easily win the division. While I don’t put W/L records here, I don’t think that there will be much difference between 1-4, and it could come down to a crazy race at the end.
1. Colorado Rockies (NL Ranks: 2nd best Line-Up, 8th best rotation)
Why I Have Them Here
If everything goes right, they could be the Phillies biggest obstacle to another pennant run. The Rockies (potentially) have everything. Speed at the top with Carlos Gonzalez and Dexter Fowler, run production with Tulo, Helton and Hawpe, and depth at the bottom of their line-up with Ianetta and a full year of Ian Stewart. They have a potential ace in Ubaldo Jimenez, a reliable innings eater in Aaron Cook, and 3 decent enough starters on the back. They have a closer, and a very good RH/LH set-up combo. They have a deep bench. They play great defense. Really they just need to step up and meet their potential.
Biggest Concern: Will it be ’08 all over again?
The previous paragraph could have easily been written prior to the 2008 season when the Rockies were coming off their first pennant in team history. But, the Rockies went 74-88, partially due to injuries to Tulo and Jeff Francis, but partially because a lot of guys they were counting on didn’t come through. Can they make the step to be more consistent this year?
Most Important Player: Ubaldo Jimenez, RHP
The fire-balling Jimenez has improved each year he’s been in the majors, and last season was unquestionably the best season for a starting pitcher in Rockies history (218 IP, 3.47 ERA, 198 K). The way I see it, he’s got 2 options this year. First, he improves once again and become to the Rockies what Hamels was for the Phillies in ’08. Or, his increased workload over the past several years catches up to him and he either gets hurt or regresses.
Best Newcomer: Jeff Francis, LHP
The Rockies didn’t sign anyone exciting, so I’m going with Francis, who missed all of ’09 with injury. Francis looked like he was an up-and-comer in 2006-07, but got hurt in ’08 and missed ’09. If he gets back to form (4.19 ERA in 414 IP in 06-07) it could give the Rockies a formidable 1-2-3 in the playoffs.
2. Arizona Diamondbacks (NL Ranks: 10th Best Line-Up, 3rd best rotation)
Why I Have Them Here
Arguably the best top-of-the-rotation in baseball with Dan Haren and presumably healthy Brandon Webb. Their trade for Edwin Jackson was risky, but gives them a top-3 that rivals anyone in the NL. Haren might not get the press the Lincecum, King Felix, Greinke and other young aces do, but he’s right there with them. Over the past 2 years, Haren had the lowest WHIP of any pitchers with at least 400 innings, 1.06. Last year, his WHIP was 1.00, a mark usually reserved for a dominant closer.
Biggest Concern: Can they hit enough?
The D-Backs have a superstar in the making in Justin Upton and a big-bopper in Mark Reynolds, but after that, they have a whole lot of young guys that haven’t quite reached their potential. They signed Adam LaRoche and Kelly Johnson to try to give the offense a little more depth, but they really need Miguel Montero to repeat his breakout 2009 campaign and at least one of Stephen Drew/Chris Young/Conor Jackson to start living up to their potential.
Most Important Player: Brandon Webb, SP
It probably should be an offensive player, but the fact is that if Brandon Webb isn’t healthy, it won’t matter what their offense does. Webb finished in the top-2 of Cy Young voting (with 1 win) for 3 straight years prior to coming down with injury last year. He’s a sinkerball pitcher, so he has a better chance of regaining his form than a power pitcher, but it’s not a guarantee. Considering the promising reports in spring training and the fact that this a contract-year for Webb, I anticipate a good season from him. If not though, you can forget this 2nd place finish.
Best Newcomer: Edwin Jackson, SP
In 2004, when Jackson was rated the 4th best prospect in all of baseball by Baseball America, and deemed untouchable by the Dodgers, you would never have thought that’d he be pitching for his 4th team by 2010, still just 26 years old. Jackson has a special arm (4th highest FB velocity for a starter in 2009), but wasn’t able to reign it in until last season with the Tigers. He was one of the best pitchers in baseball in the first half of the year with a 2.52 ERA – but some bad luck (.249 BABIP in first half vs. .319 BABIP in 2nd half) and some arm fatigue slowed him down in the 2nd half, where he had a 5.05 ERA. The D-Backs are hoping a switch to the NL and a full season of health will result in big time results for Jackson.
3. Los Angeles Dodgers (NL Ranks: 3rd best Line-Up, 6th best rotation)
Why I Have Them Here
Because they are relying too much on Manny Ramirez, Rafael Furcal, Hiroki Kuroda, Russell Martin and the Floatilla, among others. For the 2nd straight year they went to the NLCS, and for the 2nd straight year, they didn’t do much to improve in the off-season. After Matt Kemp, Andre Ethier, James Loney and Clayton Kershaw, they are relying on too many old guys that could regress in a big way. Ramirez heads that list, as he will have to go for his first full non-PED season in who knows how long. The 0nly reason I still think they can win the division is that Joe Torre has a great history of keeping teams like this together.
Biggest Concern: Ownership discord
In case you haven’t heard, the Dodgers owners are getting divorced and the whole organization is suffering. Recently, in the divorce proceedings, this came out:
The Dodgers could seek to keep their player payroll below last year’s level through 2018 while the average ticket price and club revenue could nearly double, according to confidential financial documents included in a court filing last week.
If the Dodgers had any real fans, they might revolt. It’s hard to bet on a team that is openly trying to downgrade their roster.
Most Important Player: Chad Billingsley, RHP
Big things were expected from Billingsley in 2009, but he came up short, not even making a post-season start. If he can return to 2008 form (200 IP, 3.14 ERA), and Clayton Kershaw can avoid a sophomore slump, the Dodgers might just have enough young guys to take the division for a 3rd straight year.
Best Newcomer: Reed Johnson, OF
That’s it. Reed Johnson. 4 HR, 22 RBI in 2009. Get pumped L.A.
4. San Francisco Giants (AL Ranks: 14th best Line-Up, Best rotation)
Why I Have Them Here
They are trendy pick because they “improved” their offense with Mark DeRosa, Aubrey Huff and a full season of Freddy Sanchez. I’m not buying it. DeRosa is a complimentary player that has been overrated in recent years because of his versatility. He strikes out a ton and doesn’t get on base (.319 OBP in 2009). Huff is a player in name only, with his RBI numbers masking the fact that his OPS was sub-.700 (think Pedro Feliz last year). Youngster Buster Posey could have provided a spark, but they stupidly re-signed the base-clogging Bengie Molina, and I’ve got to see another full season of greatness from Kung-Fu Panda (Pablo Sandoval) before I buy in.
Biggest Concern: Will they waste Tim Lincecum’s prime?
Lincecum has put together the best first 3 years of a career of any pitcher in MLB history, except Dwight Gooden and maybe Tom Seaver. When you have a transcendent player like this, you don’t want to look back on him 20 years later and wonder “what-if.” While I don’t think his delivery means he’s more likely to be injured, some scouts still do, and who knows how many more Cy Young years the Giants will get from Timmy (when you wear your hair like this, I call you Timmy). I believe they will have to make a bold move or two (Ryan Howard? Prince Fielder?) to get some big time offensive firepower on board to try to get him to the playoffs. Once there, they hope he can take them the rest of the way.
Most Important Player: Pablo Sandoval, 3B
Everyone is assuming that Sandoval will be the same player he was last year in his breakout campaign (.330 BA, 25 HR, .943 OPS). But only 8 3B in MLB history have ever put up those kind of numbers, and only 1 has done it twice (Chipper Jones, 2001 and 2007). I would expect a BA down closer to .300 for the Panda this year, with his OPS dropping a little as well.
Best Newcomer: Mark DeRosa
I know I ragged on DeRosa a little bit above, but he still remains their best addition. He replicated his HR and RBI numbers from 2008 in 2009, but his OPS dropped about 100 points in doing so. He’s a solid player, but if the Giants are expecting him to make a huge impact on this team, I think they are expecting too much.
5. San Diego Padres (AL Ranks: 16th best Line-Up, 16th best rotation)
Why I Have Them Here
Because they have the worst rotation and worst line-up in the NL.
Biggest Concern: Will they be the worst team ever?
Which leads to the question – do they have a chance to be one of the worst teams ever? The 2003 Detroit Tigers are the only team since the 1962 Mets to have a winning % under .300. If they trade Adrian Gonzalez, their best offensive player is rookie Kyle Blanks. Their best returning pitcher from last year is Kevin Correia. They have some promising talent in the minors lead by 2009 1st rounder Donovan Tate, but right now they have the worst collection of MLB talent in the league, and have a chance to have a historically bad season.
Most Important Player: Adrian Gonzalez, 1B
They need Gonzalez to tear it up this year so that they can trade him for a boat load of prospects. There is no point in keeping him around as they are not even close to contending. After that, they need to pump money into the draft and international market and wait 3-4 years and let it develop.
Best Newcomer: Jon Garland, SP
Kind of a pointless signing, but I guess you do have to show the fans that you care about winning a little bit. This will be Garland’s 5th team since 2007 despite putting up a decent 4.37 ERA in 609 IP over that time frame.