NL West preview: Defending champ Giants poised for a repeat run
If Pablo Sandoval bounces back, the Giants could run away with the division
The Rockies must improve their road hitting in order to really be a contender
San Diego's run last season was fun while it lasted, but it was also a fluke
The National League West was baseball's most fascinating division in 2010. The Padres, a team most had ticketed for 90-plus wins and last place, sat in first place for most of the season before a 10-game losing streak as August turned to September and an ensuing swoon allowed the eventual world champion Giants to catch and surpass them, clinching the division via a head-to-head win on the final day of the season. This year, expect the Giants to have a smoother ride to the playoffs in what should actually be one of baseball's least contentious divisions.
WINTER GRADE: D-
The Diamondbacks made their big moves at last year's trade deadline, dealing starters Dan Haren and Edwin Jackson to the Angels and White Sox, respectively. They got solid starting pitching prospects in return in Dan Hudson and teenage lefty Tyler Skaggs, but they didn't get enough for Haren and now don't have a single starter as good as Max Scherzer, the team-controlled potential ace they dealt away the year before. They then spent the winter collecting veterans who might not even qualify as stopgaps (see: Melvin Mora), lining up aging players in front of first base prospect Brandon Allen, and traded away flawed-but-valuable third baseman Mark Reynolds for a pair of undistinguished righthanded relievers.
THREE KEY QUESTIONS:
1. How good is Dan Hudson?
He was dominant after coming over for Jackson at the deadline, but a .216 opponent average on balls in play helped considerably. Still, the 24-year-old is a legitimate prospect who saw his velocity jump up to the mid-90s in 2009 and has held onto that gain ever since.
2. Can Justin Upton make the Leap?
Upton is actually six months younger than Hudson and has superstar talent, but his performance has fluctuated greatly during his first three full major league seasons because of too many strikeouts and a problematic loss of power last year. Upton has a ton of potential, but most of it has gone unrealized, something that can also be said of big brother B.J.
3. How far away is 2007 first-round pick Jarrod Parker, a righthanded starter with star potential who is coming off a season lost to Tommy John surgery?
Despite elbow surgery, Parker is a candidate to break into the major leagues toward the end of the coming season. If Parker can join Hudson in the rotation and Upton can anchor the offense, the Diamondbacks might have something to build around heading forward.
Manager Kirk Gibson
Former Padres general manager Kevin Towers signed a two-year deal to be Arizona's GM at the end of last season and arrived with big talk about a quick turnaround, but nothing he did this winter seems likely to divert the Snakes from a third-straight last-place finish. Given the team's dismal outlook, Gibson's hard-nosed approach could wear out its welcome quickly, turning the Diamondbacks from a bad team to a dysfunctional one. Though given ownership's decision to throw out highly-regarded baby GM Josh Byrnes (and the five years left on his contract) with the managerial bathwater when Byrnes refused to fire A.J. Hinch last year, perhaps they already are one.
"How Kirk Gibson's fiery personality plays with this team will be the key. They've definitely improved the bullpen and that's by design. J.J. Putz hasn't been a closer in two years but he's still got the stuff to do it. I'd be surprised if they finished in the top half of the division."
WINTER GRADE: C+
Colorado's offseason was largely about keeping the team together. The Rockies re-signed free agent lefty starter Jorge De La Rosa and inked shortstop Troy Tulowitzki and outfielder Carlos Gonzalez to massive extensions that lock up the pair through their expected primes. The investment is admirable, but the length and cost of the Tulowitzki and Gonzalez commitments could prove problematic down the road and did nothing to move the needle for the coming season. The team's lesser moves don't rate a mention.
THREE KEY QUESTIONS:
1. Can Troy Tulowitzki stay healthy?
Tulowitzki is an absolute stud, a 26-year-old shortstop who hits like a corner outfielder, plays legitimate Gold Glove-quality defense, and can even steal a few bags. The only catch is that he's been a bit injury prone in his young career, surpassing 125 games played just once in the last three seasons. His injuries have been largely flukey -- he cut his hand on a shattered bat in 2008 and missed 16 days and had his left wrist broken by a pitch last year, costing him more than a month. Still, keeping Tulo on the field is a concern, and the Rockies can't win without thim.
2. Can Gonzalez do it again?
Few have ever doubted Carlos Gonzalez's talent, but serious doubts about his ability to turn that talent into on-field production saw him passed through two organizations before he landed with the Rockies via the Matt Holliday trade with Oakland after the 2008 season. He finally delivered on that talent last year, but there were still some red flags. He hit a very pedestrian .289/.322/.453 on the road and drew just 32 unintentional walks, a rate of one every 20 plate appearances. There are always concerns about players becoming complacent in the wake of signing a massive new contract, and Gonzalez not only just signed for seven years and $80 million, but it was largely concerns about his attitude and dedication that wore out his welcome with the Diamondbacks and A's. Combine that with his hacktastic approach and lowly performance at sea level and Gonzalez still has a lot to prove.
3. Could the Rockies' offense suffer a total collarpse?
Here's the nightmare scenario: Tulowitzki gets hurt. Gonzalez suffers a major correction. Dexter Fowler reverts to his first-half performance from last year (.216/.327/.317 through a May 31 demotion). Todd Helton plays like the 37-year-old with a bad back that he is. No one steps forward to contribute at second base or catcher, and the entire team, save perhaps Ian Stewart, goes into hiding on the road (see below). Maybe none of that happens and the Rockies take the Giants deep into September, but there's a lot of risk on this team.
As I detailed in my essay on the Rockies in Baseball Prospectus 2011, the challenge of playing home games at Coors Field is not preventing runs at home, but rather hitting on the road. Last year, the Rockies had a very respectable 4.25 home ERA, but scored just 3.6 runs per game on the road thanks to a .226/.303/.351 team batting line away from Denver's thin air. As a result, the Rockies won just 38 percent of their road games compared to 64 percent of their home games. Had they simply played one game below .500 on the road, they would have tied the Giants for first place in the division. Gonzalez famously did most of his hitting at home last year, but among the nine hitters with the most plate appearances on the 2010 Rockies, Gonzalez's .775 road OPS ranked third on the team behind only those of Tulowitzki (.863) and Ian Stewart (.802). Unless the Rockies and new hitting coach Carney Lansford can figure out what ails the offense on the road, the Rockies aren't likely to unseat the Giants.
"They're one of the best teams in the league. Tell me a team with a better core than Ubaldo Jimenez, Troy Tulowitzki, and Carlos Gonzalez? Jimenez's mechanics got out of whack in the second half last season [but] he's the next guy they're going to lock up long term. Todd Helton is showing more raw power than last year."
WINTER GRADE: B
The free agent market featured just a handful of worthwhile starting pitching options beyond Cliff Lee, but the Dodgers managed to bring in three from that handful. They re-signed Hiroki Kuroda at a hometown discount, locked up deadline acquisition Ted Lilly and brought back league-average innings eater Jon Garland, resulting in a deep rotation behind young lefty/righty studs Clayton Kershaw and Chad Billingsley. Unfortunately, they neglected their offense in the process.
THREE KEY QUESTIONS:
1. Will Don Mattingly's lack of managerial experience prove problematic?
Outside of a warmup stint in the Arizona Fall League this past autumn and a few random innings here and there in relief of an ejected Joe Torre, Mattingly has no meaningful managerial experience. He did spend five years as Torre's bench coach both in New York and L.A., but that doesn't compare to skippering the ship himself.
2. Will the Dodgers score enough runs to contend?
There's little reason to be optimistic about the L.A. offense, which scored just 4.12 runs per game last year, well below the NL average.
3. When will the Dodgers get the new ownership they so clearly need?
It can't happen soon enough. But it isn't likely to happen soon at all.
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