Major League Baseball’s eastern divisions in both the American and National leagues get the bulk of the media coverage because they are on the east coast. The NL Central got a lot of attention during the offseason with the losses of Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder, and the addition of Theo Epstein to the hapless Cubs. The AL Central made a splash when Prince signed with his father’s old Detroit Tigers team, and the AL West landed Pujols and Cuban sensation Yeonis Cespedes (Oakland).
It’s the NL West that is going to steal the headlines as soon as a winning bid is announced for the Los Angeles Dodgers and they start spending to their capacity. I think the Dodgers will fully revitalize the mystique that is Dodger Blue. But it’s not going to happen in full until next year, when I think they will be back like a mutated strain of Fernando-mania!
But this is 2012. And here’s what’s going to happen this year. The San Diego Padres will bring up the rear because that’s what the Padres almost always do. Trading away Mat Latos was questionable, but the haul they received from the Reds was impressive, and should keep the Padres dealing stars and potential stars for years to come.
Yonder Alonso was the top prospect the Padres acquired. He will be batting fourth or fifth in the lineup depending on the performance of hometown acquisition Carlos Quentin, who fell out of favor n Chicago with the White Sox. Will Venable leads off for the Friars and will likely do so badly. His career .250 batting average and .321 on-base percentage have me seeing his 29-year-old stripes not changing. Chase Headley isn’t a great third baseman, but he’s 27 and should be rounding into his prime if he can stay healthy. They loved this guy so much they traded away Kevin Kouzmanoff so he could move from left field to third base. Frankly, it seems to have been a decent decision because Kouzmanoff has fallen off most people’s radars. Headley is merely a disappointment. That is hardly the win I’d be playing for, but in San Diego they take wins any way they can.
Cameron Maybin is the number three hitter and a lot of “experts” have him projected to be a superstar, which leads me to wonder: has Vegas started the odds on where he will be traded yet?
If your team’s starting middle infield gets hurt in 2012, Jason Bartlett will likely be your shortstop and Orlando Hudson could be an option at second base. But for the time being they are back in San Diego taking up space at the bottom of the lineup along with catcher Nick Hundley.
Tim Stauffer is the number one starter now that Latos is gone, and Clayton Richard continues his revitalized career as a mediocre pitcher as the number two guy. Newly acquired Edinson Volquez is projected to be the number three starter, but may be the best pitcher in the rotation, at least talent-wise. Pitching half of his games in the best pitchers’ park in baseball should make him look even better.
Cory Luebke and Dustin Moseley finish off the rotation. Huston Street was brought in to be the closer. Pinch hitter and long reliever extraordinaire Micah Owings is the long reliever with Luke Gregerson and Andrew Cashner as the 8th-inning guys. Lefties Joe Thatcher, strikeout machine Josh Spence and righty Ernesto Frieri are filling out a pen that will be used a lot.
My prediction is 73-89 simply because the pitching staff is good enough to keep the opponents from scoring more than four runs a game at home. Unfortunately the offense isn’t likely to average three runs a game.
The Colorado Rockies won’t be getting Jorge De La Rosa until midseason at the earliest, and a rotation anchored by Jeremy Guthrie, who has led the American League in losses two of the last three seasons and has a tendency to give up a lot of homeruns, is simply going to be terrible. So get that humidor firing on all cylinders, and bring in former Denver Bronco Tim Tebow for luck because neither has any talent.
Jhoulys Chacin is the best pitcher on the staff, but he’s only 24, and is six games under .500 in his short career. Juan Nicasio is a name you probably recall from his horrible injury last season, but he throws 97 miles per hour and he doesn’t walk many. If his command is with him, and his legs don’t tremble like mine would after that, I believe his strikeouts will jump. I’m pulling for this kid for Comeback Player of the Year.
Alex White is the leading candidate for a back-end of the rotation job. He is the top prospect they received in the Ubaldo Jimenez trade last summer. Guillermo Moscoso isn’t going to strike fear into many (maybe the Astros), but he had a very solid 21 starts with the A’s last year, and at 28 should be prepared to take the fifth spot this season. Jamie Moyer is attempting his comeback this year at age 47, but is a long shot to make the team.
Jason Giambi loved his anonymity in the steroids relocation program with Colorado so much he’s back as their top pinch hitter and backup first baseman behind probable hall of famer Todd Helton. Newly acquired Marco Scutaro will play at second and improve their middle infield defense immensely. Troy Tulowitzki is arguably the best shortstop in the NL and veteran Casey Blake will play at third.
Dexter Fowler is the leadoff hitter in centerfield. Superstar Carlos Gonzalez is in left, and is going to be the next member of the 30-30 club. Ultra professional humanitarian and all around wonderful human being Michael Cuddyer will cash his paychecks in Colorado this year and start in right. I expect Gonzalez to bounce back to numbers closer to his 2010 season. Cuddyer will be a strong team leader and, in the rare air of Coors country, he may top 30 homers out of the sixth or seventh spot in the lineup. Maybe the best signing the team made in the offseason, Ramon Hernandez, is going to bat eighth and stabilize this young pitching staff. Or try. He is very familiar with Jeremy Guthrie and if he couldn’t fix him in Baltimore…
I don’t see this as more than a .500 team. My heart says 82-80, but I’m going to stick to my brain and say they finish 79-83.
The Arizona Diamondbacks picked up an ace and two stud relievers during the offseason and, in theory, could challenge for the division title. Teaming up with a 20-game winner in Ian Kennedy is Trevor Cahill. Daniel Hudson is no slouch as the third starter. Joe Saunders is a consummate professional in the fourth spot, and Josh Collmenter could be a perfect fifth starter, as he doesn’t walk a lot of guys and he throws a lot of quality innings.
JJ Putz is the closer, but Takashi Saito could fill in for him if he falters. David Hernandez is the other setup man. Lefty Craig Breslow is dominating against left-handed batters, and Bryan Shaw, Joe Paterson and Brad Ziegler make up the rest of the pen.
The number one reason I don’t have the snakes winning the division is their projected lineup. Willie Bloomquist is projected to be the starting shortstop and leadoff batter, even though his career high in games played was 125 in 2009, and he has only hit 100 games one other time (2006) in his pedestrian career. Aaron Hill played lights out for the Diamondbacks last year after arriving in a trade from Toronto, but has only had two above average seasons in his seven-year career. Third baseman Ryan Roberts will probably lead the league in steals for a third baseman, and hit 15-plus homers, but he’s 30 going on 31, and last year was his first time as an every day starter.
Paul Goldschmidt is going to be the starting first baseman, and the team brought in Lyle Overbay to back him up. Miguel Montero will be the catcher. In a move I thought made little sense, they signed often-injured power-hitting designated hitter Jason Kubel to replace Gerardo Parra, who is a gold glove caliber outfielder at all three spots. Justin Upton is the big gun batting in the middle of the lineup. Justin was an MVP candidate last year, and he could be a 30 homer/30 steal guy this year, but he’ll almost assuredly not drive in 100 runs batting third in front of Hill and Bloomquist.
Chris Young and has some power, some speed, and some serious problems putting the ball in play. He walks a lot, which helps, but he strikes out a ton, and his average is poor to terrible.
I could see this team with a top five ERA in the NL but still finishing around 80-82 because of the poor offense. But Kirk Gibson won manager of the year last year, and I’ve seen what he did to water coolers when I was a kid. If anyone can scare Bloomquist and company into an all-star caliber season he’d be my guy.
The Los Angeles Dodgers should be sold soon for upwards of $2.5 billion, which would make them the highest priced sports team in American sports history. It would be easy to then assume that the team is going to spend money and be amazing. But I’m not going to assume that 2012 is going to be anything more than a status quo year – I think 2013 will be the focus.
Therefore there could be a lot of trades. I expect Clayton Kershaw (the reincarnation of Sandy Koufax) to wear Dodger Blue until he retires. At age 23 that could be another 20 years, which could make him a folk hero in modern times, because that’s what Dodgers fans can and will do if he continues his meteoric rise to the top in the pitching pantheon. He was 21-5 last year for a team that was only three games over .500 for the season, so you can see how important he was to his team.
Kershaw doesn’t give up hits. He pitched over 200 innings and he struck out more than a batter per inning. He even pitched five complete games last year to rest the bullpen. Some may argue, but, in my opinion, he’s the best lefty in baseball. His dominance makes me think he’s going to come close to repeating these kinds of numbers as long as he’s healthy for the next eight or nine years, and it wouldn’t shock me if he still further improves.
Chad Billingsley would be the ace for a lot of teams, and veteran Ted Lilly is back with Aaron Harang and veteran Chris Capuano as the projected guys at the back of the rotation. If either of them falter, Nathan Eovaldi could be on the team by June if his slider and changeup can catch up with the quality of his fastball. Heck, he might break camp with the team with just his fastball.
The Dodgers’ bullpen is led by setup man and former catcher Kenley Jansen who strikes people out for a living. He has 137 Ks in 80.2 innings pitched in his two year career including a ridiculous and astronomical 16.1 strikeouts per 9 innings last year. He doesn’t give up many homers, and while he walks a batter every other inning, he’s striking out four guys for every batter he walks which are numbers that are unheard of. I’m kind of shocked they haven’t moved him into the closer role yet, but he is only 24.
Closer Javy Guerra saved 21 games last year and finished with a 2.31 ERA, so he’s not a slouch, but compared to Jansen?
Matt Guerrier is the veteran leader of this pen and he is as dependable a middle reliever or setup man as you can find. Todd Coffey is a good strikeout pitcher in long relief along with Mike MacDougal and lefty Scott Elbert. Ramon Troncoso is projected to be the long reliever, but after a horrible 2011, and a mediocre career I wouldn’t be surprised to see John Grabow, who is a lefty and a career starter, take his spot.
Leadoff hitter Dee Gordon is the smallest player I’ve ever personally seen. He’s reportedly 5’11 and 150, but he looked 5’5 and 120 when I saw him last year at a Twins game. He looked 9-years-old compared to everyone else, but don’t be fooled by his height or his baby-face. Dee is a con man and a thief, and I mean that in the best of ways. He will con you into thinking he can’t pull the ball or drive the ball and then still bunt and get a hit on you, and he will steal second base. If he can learn to take more walks and cut down on his fly ball outs he could be dangerous. His play at shortstop is okay. Second baseman Mark Ellis will bat second in front of Matt Kemp, who will probably hit 40 homers and steal 50 bases this season – and be ignored again for the Most Valuable Player award.
Andre Ethier is a possible trade candidate, but he’s a heck of a right fielder. His clutch hitting has always been amazing, but last year was off the charts as he had six walk-off hits last year alone. There was a lot of speculation that James Loney wouldn’t be back because he’s not a prototypical power hitting first baseman, but he is an amazing fielder. He could steal 10 bases, hit 15 homers, and drive in 75 runs for the Dodgers again this year, provided he isn’t traded.
Juan Uribe is not going to win a gold glove at third, and he’s not going to win you a batting title, and if the Dodgers are in contention look for third and first base to be the easiest places for them to upgrade. Jerry Sands will be battling Juan Rivera in left, and AJ Ellis is the catcher. I think that Loney and Ethier will have very good years, with Kemp repeating or improving upon his 2011 season. And Billingsley will do his best Don Drysdale impersonation or, at worst, an Orel Hershiser rendition. The Dodgers will finish 2nd with an 85-77 record.
The San Francisco Giants are my team to beat. They’ll get a healthy Buster Posey back behind the plate and in the middle of the lineup along with the again more fit version of Pablo Sandoval. The addition of Melky Cabrera’s 200 hits from last year will bolster an offense that will just need to average around four runs to win most of their games.
Angel Pagan will bat leadoff. He is hoping to have a bounce back season after a disappointing 2011 in New York. Defensively he’s above average. Cabrera revived his career last year in Kansas City and he will hit in the second slot for the Giants.
Pablo “honey” will play third and bat third. Posey is projected as the cleanup hitter. Veteran Aubrey Huff will most-likely play first base, though if Brandon Belt sticks with the major league team, I see him playing first and Huff moving to left field, with Pagan moving to the bench and Cabrera playing center field.
Nate Schierholtz is a solid fielder and a good slap-hitter in right field, though this will be one of the spots the Giants will look to improve on as the season plays out, either from within the organization or via trade. Freddy Sanchez came to the Giants from Pittsburgh, and when he’s healthy he’s as consistent a player as you’ll find. The problem is keeping him healthy. He’s played extremely well at second and, while he’s lost some speed, I’d rather see him batting second and Cabrera batting leadoff. Brandon Crawford is the shortstop. He’ll be asked to play excellent defense and try to find ways to get on base in the eighth hole.
The Giants’ bullpen will remind you of all the times you’ve heard that you have to be insane to be a closer. When you grew up when I did (I’m 39) you’d think of the “Mad Hungarian” Al Hrabosky or The Wild Thing, Mitch Williams, or maybe Turk Wendell and all of his crazy rituals. Possibly even a fool like John Rocker could come to mind. But the most entertaining man in sports today is the bearded Jim Morrison-meets-Denis-Leary-like Brian Wilson.
He’s intelligent, insane and he knows how to mix the two together like most of the crazy guys from the past couldn’t. Sergio Romo has turned into an outstanding setup man. Santiago Casilla is his eighth inning partner. Veteran Jeremy Affeldt will be the anchor of the pen. Javier Lopez hasn’t given up a homer in 72 innings as a Giant and he has only given up 53 hits over that time as well. Clay Hensley was brought in from Florida and Guillermo Mota will finish off the pen.
The starting rotation is led by the forever 12-year-old looking Tim Lincecum, who will battle with Kershaw for the Cy Young Award, provided his team can score him some runs. He’s 27 and on track for a hall of fame career.
His number two, Matt Cain, would be an ace on most of the rotations around Major League Baseball. Cain was eighth in ERA last year, and is consistently great. He doesn’t have the flash of Lincecum, or the off-speed pitches that get noticed. He just comes in, makes you look bad by striking out a ton of batters, and makes you realize he’s just better than you.
Madison Bumgarner is a solid lefty on the verge of becoming great. The former 10th pick overall doesn’t give up many homers (about one every 16 innings) and last year he ramped up his strikeouts. If the offense can pick itself up this year Bum will garner himself 15-plus wins. Ryan Vogelsong and his 2.71 ERA are in the fourth spot in the rotation. The guy who might be the biggest bust in MLB history – Barry Zito – will most likely be the fifth starter, but he keeps finding new ways to get worse.
The Giants have a lot of very good prospects in the minor leagues and I think that if they start out hot this year they will sacrifice the future to try and win another championship. If the Giants get off to a poor start, a lot of the veterans, including possibly even Matt Cain, could be traded away to make room for those kids. I think they have the right people in the right places and they will frustrate a lot of hitters en route toward winning a lot of 3-1 games on their way to a 90-72 record.
The NL West is a pitching-centric division and it would not be out of the realm of possibility for any of these teams to have a monster year if they can get their offense clicking consistently. But despite the potential for a complete crapshoot, I’m sticking with the Giants.