Major League Baseball - NL West Preview
In the final part of our season preview, we take a look at what is shaping up to be this year’s most exciting division, where a genuine case for winning could be made for four of the five teams – the National League West.
1. Colorado Rockies
In a division this tight, it’s difficult to pick a winner, but the Rockies certainly seem to have been overlooked as a threat by many. There’s every chance they will silence their critics. Just six months removed from winning 92 games, and clinching the Wild Card, the Rox return a solid mix of young stars (and stars-to-be) and experienced veterans.
Shortstop Troy Tulowitzki is the leader of that young guard, and will be hoping he can maintain the heights he reached last year, where he showed signs that he may be the most complete all round shortstop in baseball. Coming off an injury-shortened 2008 season, he slugged 32 home runs and stole 20 bases, whilst fielding the game’s most challenging position more than adequately.
Tulowitzki will be vital to any success in Denver this year, but the other pieces must come together too. Despite slight injury concerns, Jeff Francis should return from surgery to form a solid 1-2 at the top of the rotation with ace Ubaldo Jiminez. Todd Helton is likely to carry on as he seems to every year, and if there is one place Jason Giambi might be able to put up decent numbers, it will be at hitters-dream Coors Field.
By the end of May last year, the Rockies had an 18-28 record, leading to the departure of manager Clint Hurdle. Jim Tracy came in as his replacement, and from that point onwards, they were the best team in the NL.
With a full season of Tracy, the sky is the limit for them, and they will be hoping for a repeat of the 2007 season which saw them reach the World Series for the first time in their history. Ã¢â‚¬ËœRocktober’ here they come.
2. Los Angeles Dodgers
Last season’s division champs have spent almost nothing on strengthening the team over the winter, largely thanks to the on-going legal battle between owner Frank McCourt and his ex-wife. That doesn’t bode well for another season of success in the hills above Los Angeles.
That isn’t to say the Dodgers don’t have a chance at the division, because they certainly do, but adding some pitching over the winter would have strengthened their chances.
Clayton Kershaw is certainly going to be a star in the future, but whether he is ready to be the staff ace at the age of 22 is another story. Vicente Padilla, Chad Billingsley and Hiroki Kuroda form the top four in the rotation alongside him. The problem the Dodgers have is that if two of them struggle, they are in bad shape. There are a number of guys they could bring up to fill the fifth spot (which will be occupied by Charlie Haeger to start with) but they are very thin to fill the top of that rotation.
The bullpen is impressive on paper and shouldn’t have been a concern, but a combination of poor form and injuries has brought it under the spotlight. Closer Jonathan Broxton looks solid as ever, but they have to leave games in a position for him to get saves if he’s going to be valuable.
Manny Ramirez has made it clear this will be his last season in Los Angeles, presumably angling for a DH job with an American League club in 2011. Ramirez missed 50 games through suspension last year after failing a drugs test, and having his presence in the line-up for a full season will be a big boost for the Boys In Blue. Manny, of course, is famed for his performance in years where he is looking for a big contract, so if it really is his swansong in LA, the Dodgers may feel the benefit of that.
The Dodgers are capable of winning this division, but much of that may rest on whether they have the financial power to add pieces they will undoubtedly need, and unless the off-field issues get sorted out, that is far from clear. This may well end up being a battle between them and the Giants for that Wild Card berth.
3. San Francisco Giants
If the Giants manage to put some decent numbers up with the bat in their hands, they will more than likely win this division. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to see where those numbers might come from.
The Giants had a very good spring training, and in particular, Aaron Rowand. A big season from him will certainly help their cause. Pablo “Kung-Fu Panda” Sandoval had a real breakout year in 2009, and will be a key part of this offense in 2010. Star prospect Buster Posey should make an appearance sooner rather than later, after starting the season at AAA.
Of course, any team with a starting rotation as good as the Giants have will always be in with a chance of success. Between them, they can boast three Cy Young awards, and a no-hitter. Tim Lincecum will have to stay healthy – as good as this rotation is, no team could overcome losing a player as good as him, arguably the best in the game at just 25.
Behind him is fellow 25-year-old Matt Cain, who at many clubs would be considered an ace too. Barry Zito and Jonathan Sanchez provide able back-up too, with a fluid situation for the fifth spot.
If a proven big hitter had come in over the winter, it’d be easier to suggest the Giants will win the division. They are still in it though, and should be battling for that Wild Card, at the very least, come September.
4. Arizona Diamondbacks
There are any number of words you could use to describe the D’Backs 2009 season; almost all of them synonyms of Ã¢â‚¬Ëœbad’. 2010 looks much brighter for the boys from the desert.
They’d have been hoping to have Brandon Webb back for Opening Day, so the news that he won’t be ready until May is a blow. Edwin Jackson is a welcome addition to the rotation, and once Webb is healthy, a 1-2-3 of Webb-Haren-Jackson is certainly formidable.
Mark Reynolds should continue to hit a lot of home runs, but the D’Backs would love it if he could cut down on his strikeouts – he set a Major League record with 223 last year. Justin Upton is shaping up for a very good season, as is Stephen Drew if he can remain injury free this time around.
The Snakes are being touted by a number of people as an outside shot at the division. It remains to see whether they will be strong enough for that, but they will certainly be a lot, lot better than last year.
5. San Diego Padres
The most that Padres fans will be hoping for this year is that they can hold on to hometown hero Adrian Gonzalez. The former first overall pick had the best season of his career in 2009, and has been the subject of intense trade speculation over the winter.
So far, he’s still with them. However if the season shapes up to be another, as expected, poor one, the temptation to trade him for prospects is going to become greater and greater, as it did with Jake Peavy last year.
The Pads put up a reasonably good Cactus League performance during spring training, surprising many. Whether that translates to the regular season is a completely different story.
They’ve got a couple of young guys coming through in Kyle Blanks and shortstop Everth Cabrera who should provide some interest for fans as they develop, but it’s looking like a return to the NL West basement this year for San Diego.