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NL WEST
BEN REITER
March 26, 2012
Five teams, four elite players: The division is home to the league's best catcher, rightfielder, centerfielder and shortstop. One of them will carry the Giants to the top
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March 26, 2012

Nl West

Five teams, four elite players: The division is home to the league's best catcher, rightfielder, centerfielder and shortstop. One of them will carry the Giants to the top

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As of last July 6, when the embattled Dodgers were 14 games below .500, they seemed headed for a finish similar to that of the Rockies. But the performances of 23-year-old Cy Young winner Clayton Kershaw and Kemp enabled the club to finish in third place, at 82--79. Kemp led the league in home runs (39), RBIs (126), runs (115) and total bases (353), and his 10.0 WAR was the majors' best, according to the website Baseball Reference, since Barry Bonds's 12.4 in 2004. "Kemp, like, he was good," says Lincecum of the centerfielder's pre-2011 career. "Then he just separated himself from the rest of the pack."

General manager Ned Colletti made a creative attempt to give Kemp some hefty lineup protection by pursuing free-agent first baseman Prince Fielder. Despite the Dodgers' financial woes—cash-strapped owner Frank McCourt is in the process of selling the team—Colletti constructed a front-loaded, seven-year, $160 million offer that would have allowed the 27-year-old Fielder to opt out after the third or fourth year, potentially affording him a second opportunity to hit the open market while in his prime. But Fielder chose the security of the Tigers' nine-year, $214 million deal, leading Colletti to pin his hopes on modest contributions from such free agents as starters Chris Capuano and Aaron Harang, and infielders Mark Ellis and Jerry Hairston Jr., not to mention repeat seasons from Kemp and Kershaw. What might further elevate the Dodgers could be a return to form for the players who are arguably their third-, fourth- and fifth-most important—in some order, rightfielder Andre Ethier, first baseman James Loney and No. 2 starter Chad Billingsley—who each had down years in 2011.

The Diamondbacks improved by 29 wins from 2010 and won the division title due to a host of players who exceeded expectations. At age 26 righthander Ian Kennedy, who had never won more than nine games or finished with an ERA below 3.80, had a 2.88 ERA and was baseball's only 20-game winner other than Kershaw and AL Cy Young winner Justin Verlander. But it was Upton, who in his age 23 season set career highs in home runs (31), RBIs (88) and stolen bases (21), who put them over the top and led them to within a game of the NLCS. Still, says Upton, "Just making the first round of the playoffs is not as fun as most people think."

G.M. Kevin Towers attributes Upton's breakout—which came after a 2010 season that many considered disappointing, even though it included a .799 OPS at the age of 22—in part to the depth with which he suddenly found himself surrounded. Towers has further fortified the division's deepest roster by trading for A's righty Trevor Cahill—already, at 24, the winner of 40 games—and signing free-agent outfielder Jason Kubel.) "I think that was kind of the problem before Gibby [third-year manager Kirk Gibson] and I got here," says Towers, who took over as G.M. in September 2010. "[Upton] became at a very young age the face of the organization. Expectations were so high, he put a lot of added pressure on himself. That's why we brought in a lot of veteran players last year, to take that off him. I think we've only seen the tip of the iceberg with him."

For the Padres, the iceberg remains below sea level—but it is there, in the form of a solid young group that includes centerfielder Cameron Maybin and first baseman Yonder Alonso, who both turn 25 in April. "Not sure we can say these players are going to be All-Stars," says G.M. Josh Byrnes, "but we have some guys who have the chance."

In December, Byrnes dealt No. 1 starter Mat Latos to the Reds for a four-player package that included Alonso, who had an OPS of .833 in 117 career at bats for Cincinnati. Byrnes felt Alonso's all-fields hitting style would play better at capacious Petco Park than that of Anthony Rizzo, another top first base prospect whom the Padres dealt to the Cubs the next month. Maybin, who was named a Top 10 prospect by Baseball America in 2007, '08 and '09 but was dumped by the Marlins for a couple of San Diego relievers two Novembers ago, showed what he can do in 2011, stealing 40 bases while hitting nine homers and playing an excellent centerfield. "There's no doubt that Maybin has the skill set to become that guy," says manager Bud Black. "That's what we're hoping for."

The Padres' sights are mostly set on 2013 and beyond, when they will be more capable of competing with division-mates that have their Unexpendables locked up. Kemp, Posey, Tulowitzki and Upton are each under club control until at least 2015. "That is cool," says Tulowitzki, whose contract could extend to 2021. "That's huge for baseball, that all the big-market teams aren't getting some of these premier guys." This season, though, will belong to the Giants, who have a superior pitching staff and a healthy Posey. "It's almost like last year didn't happen," says Lincecum. "It's like, Buster's back to Buster." The Giants will be back too, in first place.

HOW THEY'LL FINISH

[This article contains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]

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