The best ball in America will be played both by and West of the Rockies this year, as the NL & AL West feature strong teams top-to-bottom. The AL West will be previewed later this week, so today YKI will delve into the youngest, most exciting and most talented division in the Major Leagues. Without further adieu:
Colorado Rockies: A great team. Assuming Jim Tracy doesn’t lose the clubhouse (as he’s been accused of doing in previous stops in Pittsburgh and Los Angeles), this squad will win close to 100 ballgames. No longer the lovable underdogs of Matt Holiday and thin air, they’re now the big bullies of Troy Tulowitzki and the humidor. Their rock-solid pitching will keep the ball in the ballpark (mostly by striking out hordes of opposing hitters), as Jorge de la Rosa and Ubaldo Jiminez are both ready for the next step in their career path. Despite losing Jason Marquis, Aaron Cook and Jeff Francis will provide the veteran leadership to get the ball over to Manny Corpas, Rafael Betancourt and Franklin Morales, one of whom will take over for Jeff Shaw clone (‘closer by default’ due to being labeled ‘closer’ early in his career) Huston Street as soon as he gets injured (again). Offensively, Dexter Fowler and Carlos Gonzalez showed signs of breaking out, and the underrated Brad Hawpe will hit his ho-hum 30 bombs batting behind do-everything shortstop Tulowitzki. Todd Helton is still around and still will hit .300, and the Rockies will be playing far into October. Prediction: 95 wins, 67 losses.
Los Angeles Dodgers: As the world turns. . .in an increasingly distracting offseason laden with McCourt drama, rumors, innuendo, modeling shoots (Matt Kemp), visa/immigration problems (Ronald Belisario), managerial politicking (is Mattingly next in line? Will Tim Wallach be overlooked and become this generation’s Mike Scioscia, leading another organization to greatness?), Manny-bashing, ticket price increases, health scares (Vin Scully) the season can’t begin soon enough at Chavez Ravine. While Joe Torre gave the McCourt Regime the virtual middle finger by giving Vicente Padilla the opening day start, the pitching is not in as dire shape as some columnists (cough, Bill Plaschke, cough) would have you believe. Make no mistake about it; this team will win, but it is clearly built for the regular season. Clayton Kershaw is a bonafied ace, but at 22 years old should not be viewed as a savior. We know Chad Billingsley does not possess the mental acumen necessary to pitch up to his talent, though he will fit nicely as a number two starter. Hiroki Kuroda continues his stay in the U.S. as a strong third starter, and even Charlie Haeger’s knuckleball will prove to be as reliable as can be expected from a fifth starter. With a litany of power arms in the bullpen, Rick Honeycutt & Torre can keep the short leash and march out any number of strong relievers to bridge the gap for Jonathan Broxton (who still may or may not be a true ‘closer,’ eg blown saves in the Playoffs back-to-back years). That said, with the Wade injury, Belisario’s late return to the organization and Hong-Chih Kuo’s perpetual injuries leave the ‘pen a bit lighter than in previous years, and with once-prospect James McDonald falling further off the team’s radar, any injuries may leave an exposed hole in the team’s chances. Offensively, some say they have the best lineup in the division, but until James Loney starts hitting for power and Russell Martin starts hitting in the second half, I’m not sure that Matt Kemp & Andre Ethier can match last year’s output – somebody named Manny will need to step up and provide the real muscle for the team. Above all else, Rafael Furcal is the fuel in the offensive engine. With Raffy healthy and running, the Dodgers will be fine – if his back acts up, the Dodgers could be in for a year of frustration and unrealized potential, and staring at a messy divorce leaving the franchise bereft of integrity, talent and payroll. Prediction: 89 wins, 73 losses.
San Francisco Giants: This is a difficult team to project because their pitching is just so darned solid. When Barry Zito is a team’s fourth best pitcher (behind Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain and Jonathan Sanchez), that is some depth in the rotation. A solid bullpen – anchored by Brian Wilson – will help close the door on the copius 3-2 and 2-1 victories this team is certain to rack up. Eerily similar to the 2004 Dodgers, who actually won the NL West with a lineup featuring Alex Cora, Cesar Izturis and Jason Grabowski. I remember as a fan that year thinking this team really can’t hit – how are they winning games? Giants fans may be thinking the same as the competent-yet-much-less-than-stellar lineup will be scratching & clawing for every score. Aaron Rowand, Aubrey Huff, Edgar Renteria, Bengie Molina & Mark DeRosa are all great role players. . .and a bit past their respective primes. It might not be long before wunderkind catcher Buster Posey is called up to add at least a marginal homerun threat to this otherwise unintimadating lineup. Prediction: 84 wins, 78 losses.
Arizona Diamondbacks: The Diamondbacks collapsed under the weight of tremendous expectations last year. The young nucleus of Chris Young, Justin Upton, Stephen Drew, Conor Jackson and Chris Snyder was supposed to rival the Dodgers in terms of homegrown talent, setting the stage for a Wild West battle for years to come. That said, the pitching fell flat, their previous year’s success was both undermined and exploited (their playoff run in 2008 occurred despite being outscored by opposition), and the Dbacks ended the 2009 season in unfulfilled fashion. Hoping to get Brandon Webb back healthy, Arizona is counting on the re-assertion of the young guns. . .but alas, Webb is still not cleared to pitch and Dan Haren is assuming the mantle of Ace. Haren is solid, and number two starter Edwin Jackson is a nice pitcher, but the staff falls off quite a bit after that, forcing the Diamondbacks to turn to USC product Ian Kennedy and Billy Bucker. The bullpen is even more devoid of talent, as Chad Qualls will inherit the closer role, I’m assuming by either default or drawing straws. Offensively, there’s no question the talent is there, but how will the kids rebound? Inconsistently. Prediction: 82 wins, 80 losses
San Diego Padres: Unquestionably the weakest team in the division, the Padres will be playing out the season from about June 15th on. Valley native Jon Garland is a nice pitcher, but when he’s the ‘Ace’ of a staff, that team is in trouble. Kevin Correia and Chris Young are serviceable starters, but they’ll be hard-pressed to match up with the 2’s and 3’s in this division. Offensively, it’s Adrian Gonzalez and seven Triple-A players, led by (son of) Tony Gwynn. If David Eckstein batting 2nd for your team in 2010, you’re in trouble. Honestly – Kyle Blanks, Everth Cabrera, Chase Headley, Nick Hundley and Will Veneble are all starting for this team. Ouch. Prediction: 64 wins, 98 losses.