The National League West has everything a baseball fan could want. The Dodgers, Giants and Diamondbacks will make this about as fun a race to watch all season. I have the Dodgers coming out on top in the division, but I can’t say that without also adding that the Diamondbacks and defending champion Giants are just as capable. It will come down to two things: which manager guides their team the best and which staff keeps them in it the longest.
- Division’s Best Player: Matt Kemp (23 HR, 69 RBI, .303/.367/.538, .905 OPS)- How can a guy who missed 56 games last season be the divison’s best? This isn’t a slight to reigning NL MVP Buster Posey, but if Kemp plays, I think he wins the MVP going away. He’s that good. Don’t believe me? In April (before the injury) Kemp was hitting .417, with 12 HR’s and 25 RBI’s. That was a record pace that he predicted after he was robbed (yep, I said it: ROBBED) of the MVP in 2011. I predict a healthy Matt Kemp to go right back to being the player we say in April and then some.
- Division’s Best Pitcher: Clayton Kershaw (14-9, 2.53 ERA, 227.2 IP, 229 K’s)- Can we all just agree that he is the best left-hander in baseball? I’m sure I’ll offend some people in Tampa Bay, but what Kershaw is doing probably shouldn’t be legal on many levels. He’s definitely the best in the NL West, and, to put it simply, he’s 25-years old, has already won a Cy Young, and we haven’t seen his best yet. An argument can be made for Price (one I’ll probably step back from), but my vote goes to Kershaw.
- Division’s Best Manager: Bruce Bochy- He was woefully unappreciated in San Diego, so it was good to see Bruce Bochy land in San Francisco and solidify what will be a Hall of Fame managerial career. The guy just flat-out gets baseball, and if the two World Series titles in three years with the Giants don’t prove that, I don’t know what will. And don’t let his record fool you, many a season was spent by Bochy in San Diego where he made due with what he had the best any manager could.
- Division’s “X” Factor: Tim Lincecum- When I say the San Francisco Giants desperately need Tim Lincecum to figure it out and regain a semblance of his former self it is an understatement. Listen, I know the first reaction will be “well, they seemed to be okay last year when he struggled.” Fair enough, but you really want to bank on Barry Zito going 15-8 again? Ryan Vogelsong was a nice find, but you confident enough to say the 35-year old will keep it up at his current level? Confident enough to match him up with the Dodgers top three of Kershaw/Greinke/Billingsley? With Lincecum pitching well, it makes this rotation as good as any in the majors. If he keeps going the other way, it puts pitchers in a spot they might not be suited for.
- Los Angeles Dodgers (2012 Finish -2nd (86-76))- I won’t be doing anything groundbreaking here (although I came dang close), the Dodgers are primed to win this division. They got new ownership, a newly renovated Dodger Stadium, a free spending mentality, and a new season to prove they aren’t to be reckoned with. I know the defending champs reside up in Northern California; but a healthy Matt Kemp, Andre Ethier, Carl Crawford, and Adrian Gonzalez will prove difficult for just about any team to manage to get through. And that doesn’t even take into account Hanley Ramirez, who is injured from the WBC but once he returns should make things even more explosive. Their staff is just as loaded, as Kershaw is followed by Greinke, Josh Beckett, Hyun-Jin Ryu, and Chad Billingsley. I came close to putting them second again, but this is a train I’m willing to gamble on.
- San Francisco Giants (2012 Finish- 1st (94-68))- I should know better than to doubt the Giants. They have pitching (although, as stated earlier, they need Lincecum to turn it around), they have offense as well. I just don’t think they match up as well against their rivals in Southern California. Does that mean all is lost? Absolutely not. Buster Posey is a star, and continues to prove that with each passing season. Matt Cain is finally the beneficiary of an offense that was turning his quality starts into losses. Pablo Sandoval is still underrated as a hitter in the National League, and Hunter Pence seems to have found his happy place outside of Houston. The question in the West between them and the Dodgers (and possibly the Diamondbacks??) is who can navigate their way through the marathon the best. Bochy gives them an edge, but in the it will come down to starters. That, surprisingly, is where the Dodgers seemed to have finally caught the Giants.
- Arizona Diamondbacks (2012 Finish- 3rd (81-81))- I like the Diamondbacks thinking. Build a team that fits the personality of the manager (Kirk Gibson) and they’ll play hard for you every game. I’m a fan of baseball teams like that, and can appreciate the talent on this team. The acquisition of Martin Prado (from the Braves for Justin Upton) , gives them the best utility man/third basemen in baseball. His versatility will allow him give newly signed Paul Goldschmidt, a break at first, and you can also plug him into left field when Jason Kubel needs a break. Ian Kennedy, Trevor Cahill, and Brandon McCarthy form a solid top three in their rotation, and they still have Heath Bell (although I don’t know just how comforting that is anymore) to close out games. The Diamondbacks are a sleeper pick in the West and for a Wild Card spot.
- San Diego Padres ( 2012 Finish- 4th (76-86))- The Padres new ownership group is a definite positive step in the right direction (especially when the last name of the group is led by anyone named O’Malley). I like the decision to retain Bud Black as manager because I think he’s one of the best in the game. The Rizzo trade was a bit confusing, but Yonder Alonso will eventually pay dividends. They’re hoping to get Chase Headley back sooner than later, but this team is definitely building.
- Colorado Rockies (2012 Finish- 5th (64-98))- You have the best shortstop in baseball (Troy Tulowitzki), one of the best outfielders (Carlos Gonzalez), and budding leadoff man in centerfielder Dexter Fowler. So what is it about the Rockies that makes this season hopeless? Pitching. Always a staple problem in Denver, and I don’t care about the altitude. I won’t even bother going into the fact that your new manager (former shortstop Walt Weiss) isn’t even convincing enough to be given a long-term deal (by long-term, I mean at minimum two years). The issue isn’t the offense; and while it is atrocious, the pitching isn’t even my main problem. It is the front-office and their inability to really put together a plan on both sides of the ball. Until then, this spot will be consistently occupied by the Rockies with no hint of changing.