Posted: Wednesday March 30, 2011 12:27PM ; Updated: Wednesday March 30, 2011 12:27PM
Cliff Corcoran
Cliff Corcoran>INSIDE BASEBALL

NL West preview (cont.)

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X-FACTOR:

Matt Kemp
The Dodgers are hoping this is finally the year when Matt Kemp harnesses his considerable talent and becomes more reliable.
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Matt Kemp, OF

The Dodgers' relationship with Kemp has been dysfunctional almost from the moment Kemp arrived in the majors. Despite Kemp's tremendous talent, the Dodgers blocked him with the likes of Juan Pierre and Andruw Jones and constantly threatened to trade him. In 2009, Kemp announced himself as one of the most exciting young players in the game with a breakout season that saw him win the Gold Glove and Silver Slugger and pick up several mid-ballot MVP votes. Last year, however, Kemp fed the Dodgers' doubts with occasionally sloppy and indifferent play, butted heads with Torre and saw his value drop by three-and-a-half wins according to Baseball Prospectus' Wins Above Replacement Player metric. Kemp seems rededicated this spring, however, and looking at his batted-ball types it seems some of his lost production last year may simply have been bad luck on balls in play. The Dodgers did well to restock their rotation, but they need a big rebound from Kemp to have any real hope of contending.

SCOUT'S TAKE:

"They're putting a lot of faith in their starting pitching to carry them. Clayton kershaw is an ace for years to come but Ted Lilly's curveball is very hittable. Matt Kemp has played his butt off this spring. You'd never know he was in Joe Torre's doghouse. A realistic goal for this team is to finish .500."

SI VideoVERDUCCI: Kershaw a Cy Young candidate and a difference-maker

SAN DIEGO PADRES

WINTER GRADE: A-

The Padres' 2010 season was fun while it lasted, but it was a fluke. The team was smart to regard it as such by cashing in Adrian Gonzalez before his walk year for a solid trio of prospects from the Red Sox. Orlando Hudson and Jason Bartlett are low-cost upgrades in the middle infield. Fading prospect Cameron Maybin is a nice lottery ticket in center, and veterans Brad Hawpe, Aaron Harang and Chad Qualls are affordable stopgaps in their early-30s who likely still have something left to offer.

THREE KEY QUESTIONS:

1. Will Mat Latos suffer a hangover after increasing his innings pitched by 61.1 frames in 2010?

Latos emerged as one of the best pitchers in the NL last year, but he faded down the stretch (0-5, 8.18 ERA over his last five starts). He'll open the season on the disabled list with a sore pitching shoulder after posting a 9.00 ERA and walking nine men in 10 innings this spring.

2. Does Maybin still have star potential?

Maybin ranked among baseball's top 10 prospects three years running, but was rushed to the majors by the Tigers at age 20 and was jerked between the majors and minors by the Marlins thereafter, making five distinct major league stints over the last two years. He's a .306/.393/.478 career hitter in the minors, including a .325/.401/.477 line in Triple-A, but has hit just .246/.313/.380 in 610 major league plate appearances.

3. Can we all be that wrong about the Padres again?

Even though we can reverse-engineer its success, the 2010 team still looks like a fluke that overachieved and was carried by a tremendous performance from its bullpen. That brings to mind the success of the 2007 Diamondbacks, a far more talented team that has been in free-fall ever since.

X-FACTOR:

Kyle Blanks, OF

The massive first baseman had Tommy John surgery last July, but made a few pinch-hitting appearances late in the exhibition schedule and could return to action as early as the end of April. When healthy, Blanks, now 24, is a middle-of-the-order hitter with big-time power, as evidenced by his .303/.393/.501 career line in the minor leagues and .250/.355/.514 performance as a 22-year-old rookie in 2009. He could emerge as Gonzalez's heir at first base.

SCOUT'S TAKE:

"No one thought they could do what they did last year, and they're going to use the same blueprint with pitching and defense. It's clear that with a limited budget their going to tailor the team to the ballpark, which is a smart thing. If they're ahead of you after six you're going to have problems beating them with that great bullpen."

SI VideoVERDUCCI: Padres will follow similar formula in 2011

SAN FRANCISCO GIANTS

WINTER GRADE: C

Thanks to the albatross contracts of Barry Zito and Aaron Rowand, the Giants didn't have the financial flexibility to make any high-profile additions in the wake of their first world championship as a West Coast club. Instead they re-signed Aubrey Huff and replaced Juan Uribe with Miguel Tejada at shortstop, a fairly even exchange. They're content to rely on full seasons from sophomores Buster Posey and Madison Bumgarner, the promise of first-base prospect Brandon Belt and the return of injured utility man Mark DeRosa to get them back to the playoffs.

THREE KEY QUESTIONS:

1. Can the rotation avoid a hangover?

Though they did a good job patching their offense, the Giants won last year on the strength of their pitching. At the tender age of 20, top prospect Bumgarner threw 73 more innings than in 2009, while Jonathan Sanchez and Matt Cain enjoyed unusually good luck, posting opponent batting averages on balls in play of .255 and .252, respectively. That raises three red flags for this year's rotation. But Sanchez and Cain also did well on balls in play in 2009, and while Bumgarner has been hit hard this spring, his 5:1 K/BB ratio and 25 strikeouts in 21.1 innings tell a different story about how well he's been throwing the ball.

2. When will first base prospect Belt arrive?

Belt, a fifth-round pick in 2009, was the breakout star of the minor leagues last year, hitting .352/.455/.620 with 23 homers, 122 RBIs and 22 stolen bases across three levels and finishing with a .956 OPS in Triple-A. He impressed in camp and nearly made the Opening Day roster, but was instead farmed out to delay his free agency clock. He seems sure to make an impact at the major league level at some point this season, with Huff moving into an outfield corner to make room. The Giants could bring Belt up in May or wait until June to avoid super-two arbitration status -- a designation that may be stripped away in the next collective bargaining agreement anyway.

3. Could they wind up giving up too much on defense?

Miguel Tejada had a sort of miraculous rebirth as a shortstop with the Padres late last year, but expecting him to man the position for a full season at age 36 could be a disastrous decision for a team so heavily dependent on pitching. Having Pat Burrell in leftfield is another major concern, and even if Brandon Belt pushes Aubrey Huff to the outfield, it may not be long before it's clear that Cody Ross is no better than a fourth outfielder, leaving Burrell and Huff in the corners and creating a ton of work for admittedly game centerfielder Andres Torres. There are always concerns about Pablo Sandoval's viability at third as well, though thus far his play in the field has dismissed them. If the Rockies are a team that could suffer an offensive collapse, the Giants are a team that could suffer a defensive one.

X-FACTOR:

Pablo Sandoval, 3B

In 2009, Sandoval hit .330/.387/.556 and was more valuable at the plate than the next four men on his team combined. Last year, after a strenuous conditioning program, he hit .268/.323/.409 and was worth nearly four wins less according to WARP. There are ways to break down the latter performance and attribute it to bad luck on balls in play on the road (he hit .330/.382/.520 at home and just .234 on balls in play on the road), but Sandoval's rotund physique (he comes by his nickname fairly, as he's roughly the size of a typical Giant Panda) and free-swinging ways tend to fan the flames of doubt. If Kung Fu Panda can bounce back, the Giants just might run away with the division.

SCOUT'S TAKE:

"If they can get to the playoffs they can wit it again with their pitching. If you told me I could have Tim Lincecum or Matt Cain, I'd take Cain. He's a legit No. 1. You wouldn't recognize Pablo Sandoval. He's thinner than he was in the minors and he's got his bat speed back."

SI VideoVERDUCCI: Giants are better than last year's champs

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