Thursday, March 28, 2013

NL West Up For Grabs

It was with a team concept beyond compare that the Giants took the National League West title and ran with it in 2012, staving off elimination at every turn all the way to a second World Series title in three years.
With that team intact almost to a man, it's hard to wrest the favorite's role away from the Giants in the NL West, a division that historically has been difficult to predict. Two years ago, for instance, defending the NL West and World Series titles didn't go so well for the Giants, who didn't make the playoffs in 2011.

This time around, the Dodgers are putting their vast resources to work to try and topple their rivals, first with their blockbuster trades of last summer and then by signing the top free-agent pitcher on the market over the winter.
Yes, it appears the Giants-Dodgers rivalry, which dates back decades and extends from coast to coast, will decide the fate of the NL West this season. But if the mercurial and somewhat unappreciated division has taught us anything over the past several years, it's that you never quite know how things will shake out.
"I think sometimes this division doesn't get quite the credit it should, because there's tremendous pitching in this division, and a lot of great athletes," said Giants manager Bruce Bochy, who has managed in the NL West since 1995, first with the Padres for 12 seasons and now with the Giants. "It's a division where there are pretty big ballparks -- ours, L.A., San Diego -- where you've got to play the game of baseball. I think it's a balanced division all the way around."
Indeed, it's a division that has seen all five of its members reach the postseason in the past seven season, something no other division can come close to matching. From the Dodgers' back-to-back titles in 2008-09 and the Rockies' Wild Card run in '09 to the Padres' narrowly missing the playoffs in '10 and the Diamondbacks' surprising title in '11, everyone has been in on the action in recent years.
Obviously, there are variables in play, such as injuries -- the Dodgers will start the season without third baseman Hanley Ramirez (thumb), the Giants are concerned about Pablo Sandoval's throwing elbow and the Padres have lost star third baseman Chase Headley (thumb) for the start of the season. The Giants don't have to be reminded about how much health can affect one's chances, having seen Buster Posey's leg injury in 2011 foil their playoff hopes and then a healthy Posey winning NL Most Valuable Player honors in 2012.
All things considered, the staff of reporters who cover the NL West -- Corey Brock (Padres), Steve Gilbert (D-backs), Ken Gurnick (Dodgers), Chris Haft (Giants) and Thomas Harding (Rockies) -- give the Giants a slight edge over the Dodgers as the 2013 season begins.
Here's a breakdown of the division based on their input on four categories and the overall outlook:

After what the Dodgers did last summer in adding Ramirez, Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford, they vaulted to the top of the division on the offensive side -- especially if Crawford regains his health. Ramirez being out obviously hurts, but the Dodgers remain the class of the division, beating out the Rockies, who are a potentially explosive club if the Carlos Gonzalez-Troy Tulowitzki duo gets cranking again after some struggles in 2012. The Giants have a much better offensive club than they did after their first World Series title, at least.
Our selection: Dodgers

While the Dodgers have done well to create one of the top 1-2 punches in the game with Zack Greinke joining lefty stud Clayton Kershaw, the Giants have arguably one of the best five-man outfits in the game. It starts at the top with the steady and strong Matt Cain, who has gone at least 217 innings while going no higher than a 3.14 ERA in the past four seasons but has yet to crack the top five in Cy Young voting. If two-time Cy Young winner Tim Lincecum can get back on track after a plummet in 2012, he'd help make up a fantastic fivesome. Arizona's rotation, with Brandon McCarthy added to a veteran core and Rookie of the Year runner-up Wade Miley looking for an encore, deserves mention as well among the division's best rotations.
Our selection: Giants

To understand the veteran depth of the Giants' bullpen, all one needs to do is consider how last season unfolded. Brian Wilson pitched in only two games, but Sergio Romo and Co. delivered clutch outing after clutch outing, particularly down the stretch and into what was a practically flawless postseason. The Diamondbacks added Heath Bell to give J.J. Putz three former closers setting him up, so they figure to have the late innings in good hands as well.
Our selection: Giants

The adage of building a defense from the middle is part of what makes the Giants solid with the gloves. Shortstop Brandon Crawford looked in the second half of 2012 like a Gold Glove waiting to happen, and he was bolstered by the veteran presence of second baseman Marco Scutaro beside him. With an MVP behind the plate in Posey and a guy called "Crazy Horse" in center field in Angel Pagan, the Giants are strong up the middle. Arizona is banking on pitching and defense to make a run, but the spring injury to young center fielder Adam Eaton gets them off to a rough start in that department.
Our selection: Giants

Duplicating the blueprint of a World Series team was not the right formula in 2011, but there's reason to believe this World Series encore has a better chance of success, as long as injuries are avoided. This time, it's Pagan and Scutaro along with right fielder Hunter Pence who must prove they can deliver the goods around the homegrown core of talent the Giants possess. After its amazing ride in October, it's difficult to imagine this team losing all that momentum and fading away.

From the time the Dodgers made their blockbuster moves last summer, concerns about all the stars fitting into a team concept could be heard all around baseball. True, things didn't come together well for the Dodgers down the stretch, but entering a full season with Greinke (health permitting) added to the mix, the Dodgers will be a force to be reckoned with not only in the division, but beyond it -- giving the NL West two very viable contenders for playoff spots.

A lot is riding on Arizona's season after the club dispatched star outfielders Justin Upton and Chris Young to build a team that will look to keep the line moving rather than relying on the homer. Martin Prado's presence figures to be a key element of that. The pitching is there, but this is a team that could be very good or could have trouble finding its way.

The Padres couldn't have had a more devastating injury than the one to Headley that will cause him to be out for probably the first month of the season after a breakout 2012, but this was a team that was on the rise as last season concluded. The Rockies should get more out of their core players but the old dearth of pitching has returned, so it'll have to be with offense that the Rockies make their way up the NL West standings.

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