The football season has been over for two days now, the Super Bowl has been rehashed and discussed to the point of nausea. Meanwhile, the baseball teams are checking the oil and tire pressure on the team buses and getting set to head out to Florida and Arizona. That's right, pitchers and catchers report one week from today. So how will this year play out? Will it be the usual suspects contending for the World Series? Probably. But recently there have been a few dark horses that have found themselves in the mix. Who will be this years Rays or Rockies, which team with a sub $100 million dollar payroll will find themselves toe to toe with the big boys?
Below are snapshots of the 2010 versions of the five NL West teams, the much underrated division that has produced the NL wild card 3 of the past 4 years. And looking at the make ups of these teams it looks like it will be another close division race and not surprising if the wild card team was again one of the five.
So here is the tylenol for your football hangover, the NL West preview.
The Dodgers lost a few key players this off season including 2B Orlando Hudson, OF Juan Pierre, and LHP Randy Wolf, while remaining relatively inactive in acquiring new players. This could be in part that a number of their younger players were arbitration eligible and received huge pay raises. While losing Juan Pierre shouldn’t be too much of an issue for the Dodgers crowded outfield the loss of Hudson and Wolf leaves them thin at 2B and in their starting rotation.
The infield of the Dodgers features James Loney, Blake DeWitt, Rafael Furcal, Casey Blake, and Russell Martin at catcher. In 2009 Loney had the highest average of the five with .281; Casey Blake had the most home runs with 18. They should see improved production from Blake DeWitt, who will put up decent power numbers but not a great batting average, and both Rafael Furcal and Russell Martin will probably increase their batting averages around 10-20 points.
The outfield is made up of Manny Ramirez, Matt Kemp, and Andre Ethier, three players who could all realistically hit 30 plus home runs. Matt Kemp is an emerging star who hits for average, has 30 home run 30 stolen base potential, and is solid defensively. Andre Ethier put up a respectable .272 batting average and equally respectable 31 home runs last year, and while he might not be the natural talent that Kemp is he is a very solid player and will probably improve his average slightly while retaining the same power numbers.
Manny Ramirez was one of the leagues most feared hitters as recently as last April, but after serving a 50 game suspension for a banned substance he struggled to find his old form. He began the season strong, hitting .372 in April, but in the following months he saw his average drop considerably, hitting only .255 with 10 home runs after the All Star break. It remains to be seen if Manny will return to his old form or if last season was the beginning of the end.
The starting rotation will consist of Clayton Kershaw, Chad Billingsley, and Hiroki Kuroda. All three had decent ERAs but none had more than 12 wins last season. Chad Billingsley will probably improve his numbers some this season, most likely reaching 15 wins and lowering his ERA slightly.
Relievers George Sherrill, Ronald Belisario, Jonathan Broxton, Ramon Troncoso all played a part in the Dodgers having one of the strongest bullpens in the league last season. They will be hurt, however, by the loss of Guillermo Mota who pitched the fourth most innings in relief for the Dodgers in 2009 and posted a 3.44 ERA.
The under the radar Rockies have been the NL Wild Card team two of the past three years and will look to finally grab the division title in 2010. The team lost 3B Garret Atkins and starter Jason Marquis while remaining relatively quite on both the trade and free agent fronts.
Tulowitzki is proving himself as an elite SS. In 2009 he hit for a .297 average and 32 home runs, the most of any SS in baseball. On top of his offensive prowess he also remains one of the better defense players at his position. Stewart, a high end prospect, should have a better batting average this season with similar power numbers. Chris Iannetta has the potential to be a strong offensive catcher but hit only .228 last season.
Brad Hawpe, Carlos Gonzales, and Dexter Fowler will be chasing the balls in the rarified air of the Rockies outfield. In 2009 Hawpe hit .285 with 23 home runs, Fowler hit .266 with 27 stolen bases, and highly touted prospect Carlos Gonzales appeared to be finding his pro form, hitting .284 with 13 home runs and 16 stolen bases in 278 at bats. The Rockies also have Seth Smith to fill the outfield, who is capable of posting respectable numbers. Look for similar production from the Rockies outfield, with possibly some increased production from “CarGo.”
The Rockies starting rotation is probably the most consistent 1-5 in the division and will have most of the same faces returning with Ubaldo Jimenez, Aaron Cook, Jorge De La Rosa, Jeff Francis, and Jason Hammel. The team will miss 15 game winner Jason Marquis, who followed the money to Washington, but it does have Jeff Francis returning from injury. While the staff may not have any household names they do get the job done, with De La Rosa, Jimenez, Cook, and Hammel all posting sub 4.50 ERAs in 2009, and De La Rosa and Jimenez both winning 15 games.
The Rockies bullpen saw almost no movement this off season, which is an area they could have improved on as they finished the 2009 season with the fourth worst ERA of all NL teams. They will again rely on closer Huston Street to come up big in the final inning while Manny Corpas, Rafael Betancourt, Matt Daley, and Franklin Morales will be used in middle relief.
The Giants are probably built more on pitching than any other team in the division. In 2009 they had the second best ERA among relievers in the NL and tied for the second best ERA among starters. Conversely on the offensive side they were fourth worst runs scored. They did see some movement to try and bolster their offense with the signing of INF/OF Mark DeRosa and 1B Aubrey Huff.
The Infield sees the return of Pablo Sandoval, who had a great 2009 season, batting .330 with 25 HR. Joining Sandoval will be SS Edgar Renteria, newly acquired Aubrey Huff at 1B, 2B Freddy Sanchez, who was acquired at last seasons trade deadline, and C Bengie Molina. Huff and Renteria will look to bounce back this season and could potentially improve their averages between 20-30 points.
The outfield will also look to improve offensively, with Mark DeRosa, Aaron Rowand, and Nate Schierholtz all producing very mediocre numbers in 2009. DeRosa does give them versatility however, as he is capable of playing 1B, 2B, and 3B in addition to the OF.
Regardless of any improvements seen offensively the Giants will be heavily leaning on their pitching staff, which includes Cy Young winner Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, Barry Zito, and Jonathan Sanchez. Lincecum and Cain were fantastic last season, posting a 2.48 and 2.89 ERA respectively. Zito and Sanchez also contributed with sub 4.30 ERAs.
The dominant bullpen of the Giants suffered some losses with the departures of Justin Miller and Bob Howry. Howry pitched the third most innings by a Giants reliever in 2009 and had a 3.39 ERA. The bullpen retained notable pitchers Jeremy Affeldt, Brandon Medders and closer Brian Wilson.
Somewhat expectedly the Padres had a very quiet off season. They traded Kevin Kouzmanoff and signed Jerry Hairston Jr, but other than that no notable moves. The Padres are a team of players little known outside the San Diego area.
The infield will be made of 1B Adrian Gonzalez, 2B David Eckstein, SS Everth Cabrera, 3B Chase Headley, and C Nick Hundley. Adrian Gonzalez led the team in every major offensive category last year, including batting average with .277. No other infielder hit over .270 or more than 12 HR. Although no one outside of Gonzalez has any power potential, Cabrera will look to have between 30-40 stolen bases.
The outfield has Kyle Blanks, Tony Gwynn Jr, and Will Venable. None of the young players played a full season last year. There is little power to speak of, but Kyle Blanks has the potential to hit 20 homers.
The Padres bullpen is most likely the strength of the team. Closer Heath Bell had 42 saves in 2009 and Mike Adams, Luke Gregerson, Edward Mujica, and Joe Thatcher all had very respectable ERAs. The bullpen, which ranked sixth in the NL for ERA last season, is returning for the 2010 almost completely in tact.
The Diamondbacks were probably the busiest team in the NL West, and with good cause, they finished dead last in the division last year. They made the biggest splash being part of a three team trade during the winter meetings and later signed a few notable free agents, resulting in one time fan favorite Eric Byrnes being designated for assignment.
The Diamondbacks infield will welcome new acquisitions 1B Adam LaRoche and 2B Kelly Johnson as they join 3B Mark Reynolds, SS Stephen Drew, and C Miguel Montero. This is a much improved infield from last season, both offensively and defensively, as LaRoche provides a solid glove and consistent bat at a position that has been a long time liability for the team. Kelly Johnson is coming off a forgettable season in 2009 and the Diamondbacks will look for him to return to his 2008 form.
The outfield will remain somewhat similar to 2009, with Chris Young and Justin Upton returning to their spots. Conor Jackson, who missed most of the 2009 season with illness, will return to LF where he played much of the time in 2008. Jackson is a consistent .280 hitter when healthy and the team will need his reliable bat if they are to compete for the NL West title. Filling in when the need arises will be Gerardo Parra, who is coming off a very nice rookie season where he hit .290. If Chris Young continues to struggle like he has the past two seasons look for Parra to get a large chunk of the playing time.
Their pitching staff will look considerably different after losing middle of the rotation man Doug Davis to free agency and trading former first round draft pick Max Scherzer. Meanwhile, they acquired Edwin Jackson and Ian Kennedy to fill in the rotation and will have Brandon Webb back from a season long injury. If Brandon Webb can pitch like he has for most of his career the Diamondbacks will have one of the strongest front ends of the rotation of any team with the one two battery of Dan Haren and Webb.
The Diamondbacks bullpen is an area of concern for the team and one that cost them many games in 2009. The bullpen’s collective ERA last season was 4.61, third worst in the National League behind only the Pirates and Nationals. It may not be a coincidence that those teams, along with the Diamondbacks, made up the three last place teams in the three NL divisions. The bullpen did add Bob Howry and Aaron Heilman to try and cure some of its woes, but if they get the same inconsistent performances from the rest of the pen as they did last year it will be of little help.