ARIZONA DIAMONDBACKS – (Last Year: 94-68) – What a difference a year makes. Last March, informed opinion had Arizona slated for a third successive trip to the cellar in the NL West. Informed opinion proved wildly wrong, as the Diamondbacks won the division by a comfortable eight games over the reigning World Series champion Giants. Now, there’s no flying under the radar, and the team is trying to repeat, a difficult task in the NL West, which has only seen back-to-back wins by the same team three times since 1993. Most of the Arizona play-off roster is back, but they added another pitcher in Trever Cahill and signed outfielder Jason Kubel as a free-agent, so on balance, the team would seem a little stronger than last year, particularly in a rotation which, 1-5, is likely as good as any in the NL.
There are still some question-marks. SS Stephen Drew seems likely to miss the start of the season. and the offensive production drop-off from him to Willie Bloomquist is significant. Can players like Ryan Roberts, Gerardo Parra and Miguel Montero repeat the career seasons from 2010? Is Paul Goldschmidt the player Arizona has been missing at first-base? But in their favor, is that none of their rivals have apparently taken any major steps forward either this winter. The team has a lot of pitching depth, with young prospects like Trevor Bauer ready to step up in the event of injury or ineffectiveness, and with Kirk Gibson managing the team, you know they will be giving 100% at all times. They were perhaps somewhat lucky to win 94 games last season – their record in one-run contests was fortunate – but should still be the team to beat in the division. Prediction: 90 wins. ~ Jim McLennan (www.azsnakepit.com)
COLORADO ROCKIES – (Last Year: 73-89) – This offseason, it seems like the Rockies ditched statistical analysis all together. Every single move made – and there were a lot – was driven by a concept of team culture and accountability. Gone is a three win catcher with a .370 OBP. Apparently, Iannetta didn’t “get it” and neither did Seth Smith, Huston Street, Matt Lindstrom, Jason Hammel, or even Ubaldo for that matter. Now, the Rockies have a couple of nice prospects, Drew Pomeranz and Alex White, and a bunch of fly ball pitchers that probably are a bad idea considering Coors, even with the humidor, is still one of the most prodigious hitters’ parks in all of baseball. Oh, and they grossly overpaid for the aging Michael Cuddyer. It’s been a frustrating few months and only the slick deal to get Marco Scutaro has saved the offseason from being a total disaster.
However, even with Dan O’Dowd’s atrocious performance these past few months, the Rockies still have a chance to contend this year. Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez really are that good. Plus, the rest of the NL West didn’t exactly light it on fire this offseason. If Juan Nicasio can build off last year, Jorge De La Rosa can return from Tommy John, and Jhoulys Chacin can replicate what he did right at the beginning of 2011, the Rox could make a run at the division or the wild card. Still, I think too much has to go right. They’ll be competitive and fun to watch at home, but they’re probably going to be weak on the road again. My official prediction is 80 wins, slightly better than last year but not good enough to get in the playoffs. ~ Logan Burdine (www.blakestreetbulletin.com)
LOS ANGELES DODGERS – (Last Year: 82-79) – With a sale of the team scheduled to occur by the end of April, the Dodgers enter the 2012 season hoping to put an era of ownership chaos quickly behind them. Despite playing better than .600 ball for the final two months of 2011, pennant hopes have been kept in check for the time being coming off a treadmill-like offseason in which the most celebrated moves were contract extensions for Matt Kemp and Clayton Kershaw. Hiroki Kuroda has gone to New York, and concerns linger over offense in a number of slots in the lineup.
However, the ifs upon which the Dodgers’ coming season depends aren’t completely implausible. If Dee Gordon, James Loney and Juan Rivera get off to decent starts, if Aaron Harang can essentially replace Kuroda, if the Dodgers can remain in contention until more of their promising young pitchers are ready, if new ownership is ready to attack the midseason trading deadline, it could be the Dodgers in the end hoisting an NL West pennant. And if nothing else, it will be interesting to see what Kemp and Kershaw do following their starmaking seasons of a year ago. ~ Jon Weisman (www.dodgerthoughts.com)
SAN DIEGO PADRES – (Last Year: 71-91) – The Padres revamped their roster with a flurry of activity this winter. Gone are Mat Latos, Aaron Harang, Brad Hawpe, Chad Qualls, and Heath Bell. Here are Mark Kotsay, John Baker, Hutson Street, Carlos Quentin, Yonder Alonso, Edinson Volquez, and Andrew Cashner.
On paper this team is better than the 2011 squad. Still, they have very little margin for error, and in order to compete for the NL West title (or even a wild card) San Diego will need to recapture the formula of 2010 – great pitching, good defense, just enough offense.
The bullpen should be up to the task. Street anchors the back. Cashner, Ernesto Frieri, and Luke Gregerson will work as set-up men. LOOGY Joe Thatcher is healthy, and Anthony Bass should return as the long man. The starting rotation, however, is full of question marks. Tim Stauffer and Cory Luebke should be as good or better than they were in 2011, but the rest of the rotation is recovering from off-season surgery. Heck Volquez had his 2 years ago and is still recovering. Clayton Richard’s and Dustin Moseley’s ability to throw six good innings per start will drive this season.
The defense has a chance to be great. San Diego desperately needs bounce-back years from SS Jason Bartlett and 2B Orlando Hudson. Both ranked at or near the bottom of the league defensively by Dewan plus/minus, after consistently being in the top third of the league for years. A league average effort from them is key for a team so reliant on shut-down pitching. Cameron Maybin (CF) and Will Venable (RF) can go get it as well as anyone in the league. Corner men Chase Headley (3B) and Alonso (1B) are solid, and Quentin should be fine in LF assuming he fully recovers from recent arthroscopic surgery on his right meniscus.
On offense, Quentin’s power will give them the thumper they lacked last season. The biggest question in the lineup is how will manager Bud Black get Jesus Guzman’s bat in on a regular basis. Guzman was the best Padre hitter (by OPS+) last year, and does not have a full-time position in 2012. The good news is he’ll be playing LF for 2 weeks until Quentin returns; the bad – where does he play after that?
Headley (who should hit leadoff and probably won’t), Maybin, and catcher Nick Hundley will key the attack. Personally I’m excited to see how Alonso’s gap-to-gap power plays at Petco; he could have a huge year.
It’s a better roster than last year’s, but it’s still 2 years away from really contenting. San Diego will need to catch lightning in a bottle to climb out of the NL West basement. ~ Mike Metzger (www.padrestrail.blogspot.com)
SAN FRANCISCO GIANTS – (Last Year: 86-76) – The bulk of the Giants’ offseason activity consisted of the acquisitions of a pair of outfielders, Melky Cabrera and Angel Pagan, who are essentially solid everyday players with reasonable upside. They won’t be offensive saviors for a team that could use some serious offensive reconstruction, but their bats will certainly add something to the lineup. Cabrera, after all, hit .305/.339/.470 (121 OPS+) last year; a lot of that performance has been attributed to improved conditioning, and if that is in fact the case — to some extent — then the Giants have reason to be hopeful about the kind of contributions he’ll make in 2012 (as he’s in good shape this year as well). And as for Angel Pagan: his 2011 season certainly looked lackluster on the surface, but he was ultimately a touch below league average with the bat (93 OPS+), and he did happen to set career bests in BB% and K%. With the addition of these two, improved health, some better luck with runners in scoring positions, and a few hundred extra plate appearances for Brandon Belt, San Francisco’s lineup could certainly make the leap from “terrible” to “bearable.” If it does all work out with the lineup — and, of course, this is an “if”-laden team — they’re in okay shape.
The rotation, headed by Tim Lincecum, is still magnificent. He’s now compiled 200+ strikeouts in four consecutive seasons, recording a 144 ERA+ over that span. Matt Cain, meanwhile, is coming off what is arguably the best season of his career: 222 innings, an almost-career-high 2.84 K/BB, and just nine homers in total. That was good for a 2.91 FIP, which is by far the lowest mark he’s posted to date. Then we get to Madison Bumgarner, who finished fourth in the majors in FIP at age 21. As of now, he looks like a pretty solid candidate for the 2012 NL Cy Young Award, which says a lot for such a young guy. There’s a steep dropoff from here to the back of the rotation, where the Giants will probably hand most of their starts to Ryan Vogelsong, Barry Zito, and Eric Surkamp. Vogelsong is a longshot to repeat his 2011 success, but there’s little reason to believe he can’t be a solid #4 starter. Neither Zito nor Surkamp are safe bets to perform well, but the Giants should ultimately be able to get enough out of the fifth spot.
The bullpen is another strong point, and the Giants made sure to keep it that way this offseason, bringing back lefties Javier Lopez and Jeremy Affeldt. Brian Wilson impressed during the Giants’ championship run (1.81 ERA in 75 innings in 2010), but he struggled last year while pitching through injuries (most notably, his K/BB dipped from 3.58 to 1.74). Needless to say, if he can regain some of that 2010 dominance, the Giants’ bullpen is in good shape. It’s impossible to discuss their ‘pen without mentioning the most talented of the bunch, however: Sergio Romo. He did a bajillion amazing things last year (seriously, I suggest you peruse his stats), but the simplest way to illustrate his performance is simply by noting the basics: 48 innings, 70 strikeouts, four unintentional walks.
There’s a lot of uncertainty throughout the roster, but the Giants (especially with the advent of a second wild card) have a pretty good shot at another postseason berth. ~ Julian Levine (www.sfgiantsnirvana.com)