Monday, March 24, 2014

MLB 2014: National League West

The N.L. version of the "Wild West" has been ceded to the Los Angeles Dodgers and their deep-pocketed ownership group that appears willing to spend what it takes to keep the team on top.

But the Dodgers have enough problems when you put them under a microscope, and there is enough talent on a couple of their rivals, that a repeat as division champs is not the slam dunk that some appear willing to call it at this point.

LA has two potentially big problems that could derail any celebrations as the season moves along. First and foremost are injuries, which continue to plague a number of key players such as MVP-caliber outfielder Matt Kemp, speedy outfielder Carl Crawford, and starting pitchers Josh Beckett and Chad Billingsley.

The second problem is defense: the Dodgers just are not very good at it, and if they cannot stay fully healthy and keep their high-priced talent on the field most of the season, the defensive lapses and holes will take their toll over a long regular season.

Not a problem for LA, at least right now, and the reason to pick them to win this division again? The top of the rotation and the multi-faceted, experienced bullpen. Strong pitching can cover a lot of woes, including some bad defense and some injury troubles, and the Dodgers have that pitching, at least going in, led by the current best pitcher on the planet, lefty starter Clayton Kershaw.

Here are my predictions for the National League West in 2014:

1) Los Angeles Dodgers
One of the oldest franchises in Major League Baseball history, the Dodgers were founded in 1883 and joined the National League in 1890, winning the NL pennant that very first season. They have since added 20 more pennants and 6 World Series, the most recent back in 1988. The club has also won a dozen NL West crowns in the divisional era, four in the last ten years, including last season. Playing for over six decades in the New York borough of Brooklyn, the franchise moved west to Los Angeles for the 1958 season. If you were listening to Brooklyn Dodgers games on the radio in the 1950 season, a dozen seasons before I was even born, you heard the voice of Vin Scully calling their games. If you listen to the club today, you will still hear his distinctive voice, as the now 86-year old Scully is the dean of baseball broadcasters and a cherished icon to not only the Dodgers but the entire sport. A new ownership group took over the club in 2012, and with NBA legend Magic Johnson as it's public face, has injected new financial life into the franchise. On the field, the team's success begins with a trio of starting pitchers and back-end bullpen arms. Lefty Clayton Kershaw is simply the current best starting pitcher in baseball, winning the NL Cy Young Award in 2 of the last 3 seasons. Their 2-3 starters, righty Zack Greinke and lefty Hyun-Jin Ryu, give LA a trio of Ace-quality pitchers at the front of the rotation. At the back of the bullpen, a pair of experienced closers in Chris Perez and Brian Wilson act as setup men for filthy closer Kenley Jansen. That pen also includes tough lefties in Paco Rodriguez and J.P. Howell, and another former closer in righty Brandon League. The starting rotation has depth with veterans Dan Haren, Josh Beckett, Chad Billingsley, and Paul Maholm when each is healthy. In the starting lineup, 1st baseman Adrian Gonzalez is one of the best hitters in baseball, and shortstop Hanley Ramirez gives the club rare MVP-caliber offensive production from the position. 3rd base is handled by veteran clutch hitter Juan Uribe, and the catching by the steady A.J. Elllis. 2nd base is a question mark, with speedy Dee Gordon the preferred option. He has never been able to win a full-time job, however, and will be supported by veteran Chone Figgins and utility man Justin Turner. The outfield can be one of the most talented, deepest in baseball. I say "can be", because centerfielder Matt Kemp and leftfielder Carl Crawford, two of baseball's best players, have been frequently injured over the last couple of seasons. Last year's rookie sensation, Cuban-import rightfielder Yasiel Puig, has breathtaking talent. He also makes enough mistakes in the field and on the bases, and has shown to be somewhat of a clubhouse and off-field problem, that it is reasonable to question whether he may ultimately prove more trouble than he is worth. Andre Ethier was believed to possibly be trade bait, but with the others troubles, he has become pivotal to their success. Scott Van Slyke and Mike Baxter provide depth. Their is every chance that off-field and injury problems could derail this club. But the overall talent, especially the pitching, is just too good to ignore and to not pick them to successfully defend their division crown. Their health entering the post-season should tell the story of how far they eventually go, which could be an early exit or a World Series title.

2) San Francisco Giants
The GMen won the World Series in 2010 and 2012, so here in 2014 they should be continuing that "every other year" contending status, right? Well something tells me to watch out for them again, so in what I think will be a dogfight for 2nd place with Arizona, I'll take the Giants by a nose, with both teams in the Wildcard mix. The main reason to like San Fran is the usual reason to like them when things are going well, their pitching. Veteran Tim Hudson was signed to add another quality arm to the trio of Matt Cain, Madison Bumgarner, and Tim Lincecum. Toss in Ryan Vogelsong and Yusmeiro Petit for depth, and if all are healthy this rotation can compete with any in the league. The bullpen is solid as well, with Sergio Romo closing and arms such as Jeremy Affeldt, Santiago Casilla, and Javier Lopez setting him up. When at their best, the Giants always seem to come up with an eclectic group of hitters to give them just enough offense, and that appears to again be the case. The biggest key is that catcher Buster Posey is healthy, giving them one of the 2-3 best all-around backstops in the game. 3rd baseman Pablo 'the Panda' Sandoval, 1st baseman Brandon Belt, and the outfield of Hunter Pence, Angel Pagan, and Michael Morse are all solid, professional hitters. The middle infield will be manned by the underrated pair of shortstop Brandon Crawford and 2nd baseman Marco Scutaro, with Joaquin Arias possibly spelling each when needed. Gregor Blanco and Tyler Colvin head a somewhat thin bench right now that may prove the team's biggest weakness. The Giants can win the division too, but I think they are more likely to fall short while fighting for a Wildcard.

3) Arizona Diamondbacks
I can envision a scenario in which the DBacks win this division. I can also see them finishing right here, in 3rd place. I don't see them slipping any further, at least not without some major injuries derailing them. At the plate, 1st baseman Paul Goldschmidt became an MVP contender a year ago. 2nd baseman Aaron Hill has developed into one of the more reliable producers at the position, as has catcher Miguel Montero at his. 3rd baseman Martin Prado and outfielder Gerardo Parra are underrated performers. Mark Trumbo's power bat was brought in to bolster the offense, and it would be nice if he can at least prove passable in leftfield. A.J. Pollock has to show that he is ready-for-prime-time in center for this team to really click on all cylinders. Eric Chavez, Cliff Pennington, and Tony Campana give the infield nice depth. A real key will be figuring out who starts at shortstop between homegrown Chris Owings and elite defender Didi Gregorius, who arrived in a trade last season. Both appear ready to play in MLB, and one or the other is likely to become trade bait. On the mound, Arizona has a number of decent options, but no real Aces among the group of Wade Miley, Trevor Cahill, Bronson Arroyo, Randall Delgado, and Josh Collmenter. The bullpen is strong and has plenty of options as well. New closer Addison Reed will be setup by J.J. Putz, David Hernandez, Will Harris, and Brad Ziegler. If the rotation overachieves, they can contend at the top. I think they are more likely to battle for 2nd in the division, and for a Wildcard playoff berth.

4) San Diego Padres
The Padres, one of only two MLB teams to actually originate in California (the Angels are the other) were formed in 1969. They are also one of the 8 clubs to never have won a World Series, though they have won 5 division crowns and a pair of National League pennants. They were in contention as recently as 2010 when they won 90 games and finished in 2nd place. But aside from that one season, 5 of the last 6 have been losing campaigns. The club has some talent, but it is anyone's guess as to how or if it will all come together. The infield of Yonder Alonso, Jedd Gyorko, Everth Cabrera, and Chase Headley may be one of the most underrated in the game. Sticking with that underrated theme in the outfield, Will Venable fits that description perfectly. The others getting time will be Carlos Quentin, Chris Denorfia, Seth Smith, and Kyle Blanks. Alexi Amarista provides infield depth, with the catching done by Nick Hundley and Yamani Grandal. On the mound, San Diego could surprise some people. Andrew Cashner has the stuff to become a front line starter, if he can stay healthy. Tyson Ross may be ready to emerge as a legitimate solid option, and Ian Kennedy should benefit greatly from his new home ballpark. Josh Johnson was signed to give them depth, has as much talent as any pitcher in baseball, but just cannot stay healthy. He has had injury issues again this spring. A group of kids that includes Robbie Erlin, Donn Roach, and Matt Wisler should battle Tim Stauffer for any opportunities there. Huston Street remains the closer for one more year, with Joaquin Benoit bought in to set him up. Dale Thayer and Alex Torres are good bullpen arms as well. If manager Bud Black pushes enough of the right buttons, he could surprise one of the top three, moving them into that position.

5) Colorado Rockies
I am extremely prejudiced against Coors Field, and it's hard for me to envision a scenario where any Colorado team ever gets enough elite pitching to truly become a World Series contender. Formed in 1993, they have been to the playoffs three times, and even advanced to the World Series once in 2007 before being swept by Boston. But 2/3 of their seasons have been losing ones, including the last three, and I can't envision 2014 improving that recent history. They have a pair of legitimate NL MVP candidates when shortstop Troy Tulowitzki and outfielder Carlos Gonzalez are healthy. Rightfielder Michael Cuddyer and catcher Wilin Rosario are outstanding players, and they also have former AL MVP Justin Morneau now at 1st base. Big keys to lengthening their offense will be new centerfielder Drew Stubbs and kid 3rd baseman Nolan Arenado. If both perform to their capabilities, and the Cargo/Tulo/Morneau trio stay largely healthy, the Rox will give every pitching staff fits. 2nd base should be manned by some combo of D.J. Lemaheiu and Josh Rutledge, and the bench will be Charles Blackmon, Corey Dickerson, and Jordan Pacheco. The starting rotation has some talent, but not enough to overcome the Mile High conditions at Coors. The starters will come from the grouping of Joge De La Rosa, Jhoulys Chacin, Brett Anderson, Tyler Chatwood, Juan Nicasio, Franklin Morales, and Jordan Lyles. Veteran LaTroy Hawkins is likely to close, setup by Rex Brothers, Boone Logan, Matt Belisle, and Wilton Lopez. The hope in Colorado is that they get all the right answers in health, production, and emergence from the offense, and that the starting pitching overachieves.

There appears to be not only too much talent in LA for the rest of the division to keep up, but also the resources and competitiveness from ownership to fill in any holes that may develop as the season unfolds. Both Arizona and San Francisco are solid teams and playoff contenders behind them. San Diego is still building, but getting better, while Colorado has talent, but still has to subject it's pitching staff to half their games at altitude. Anyone but the Dodgers winning this division would surprise me. Having no teams, one, or even two teams reach the Wildcard behind them? None of those scenarios would surprise me.

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