The National League’s most ever-changing division lived up to its usual standard once again. It was the host to all sorts of arrays of breakout performances and competitive finishes that made it the most closely competed division in the league. The drama kicked off early when the previously cellar dwelling Arizona Diamondacks went on a tear through May, eclipsing the defending World Champion San Francisco Giants for the division lead. This was a lead they would hold on to for the long run, aided by a gruesome season-ending injury to Buster Posey, which kept the Giants from pulling back into the race. Propelled by Justin Upton coming into his own as one of the game’s all-around great talents and Ian Kennedy’s rise to leading the NL in wins, D’Backs became the most unlikely division champions in all of baseball.
- Arizona Diamondbacks (94-68)
- San Francisco Giants (86-76)
- Los Angeles Dodgers (82-79)
- Colorado Rockies (73-89)
- San Diego Padres (71-91)
All the while, the Los Angeles Dodgers off-field ownership wars nearly took the headlines from two timeless performances on it. Clayton Kershaw won the NL’s pitching Triple Crown and brought a third Cy Young winner in four years to the West and Matt Kemp had one of the great performances in recent history. So what happens this time around in the NL’s grab bag division? Can the D’Backs play with the same urge and intensity they did last summer and still hold down the division crown? Or will the once again full-strength Giants regain their grasp on the division. Can the top heavy Dodgers or Rockies get some stronger efforts from their supporting casts to help their superstars efforts pay off? Or can the Padres young ensemble follow the lead of last year’s D’Backs and pull off this year’s heist of the summer? Time will tell, but you’ll never see it coming out West, that’s for sure.
Catcher: Buster Posey, Giants
First Base: Yonder Alonso, Padres
Second Base: Aaron Hill, Diamondbacks
Third Base: Pablo Sandoval, Giants
Shortstop: Troy Tulowitzki, Rockies
Left Field: Carlos Gonzalez, Rockies
Center Field: Matt Kemp, Dodgers
Right Field: Justin Upton, Diamondbacks
Starting Pitcher: Clayton Kershaw, Dodgers
Starting Pitcher: Tim Lincecum, Giants
Starting Pitcher: Matt Cain, Giants
Starting Pitcher: Ian Kennedy, Diamondbacks
Bullpen Righty: Sergio Romo, Giants
Bullpen Lefty: Rex Brothers, Rockies
Closer: Brian Wilson, Giants
Top 10 Players
- Matt Kemp, Dodgers
- Troy Tulowitzki, Rockies
- Clayton Kershaw, Dodgers
- Tim Lincecum, Giants
- Carlos Gonzalez, Rockies
- Justin Upton, Diamondbacks
- Matt Cain, Giants
- Buster Posey, Giants
- Brian Wilson, Giants
- Ian Kennedy, Diamondbacks
Top to bottom, the D’Backs have a unique mixture of speed, power and both rebound and growth potential. Jason Kubel and Paul Goldschmidt will provide a power axis behind Justin Upton & Chris Young’s balanced attack. The Giants receive a major boost in Posey’s return, which has served as a constant catalyst the to the SF attack. Cargo and Tulo is the NL’s best back-to-back tandem.
Lincecum and Cain get the big headlines, but Madison Bumgartner and Ryan Vogelsong both tied for the team lead in wins last year with 13 a piece. The Giants provided the least run support to any staff in baseball, but their top four starters each sported ERA’s fewer than 3.20. Trevor Cahill adds a former 18-game winner to the growing Arizona staff.
- Giants (Lincecum & Cain)
- Diamondbacks (Kennedy & Hudson)
- Dodgers (Kershaw & Billingsley)
- Padres (Stauffer & Richard)
- Rockies (Chacin & Guthrie)
Lincecum and Cain combined for only 25 wins a year ago, but it wasn’t for lack of effort on their part: the duo combined for a .219 average against last year. Ian Kennedy broke through last year, with a 21 win performance. Speaking of breaking through, anybody paired with Kershaw is bound to look pretty good, but Billingsley has won in double digits for the last five years, with over 150 strikeouts the last four.
The Frisco pen is the game’s best. Headlined by Wilson, Sergio Romo, Santiago Casilla and Javier Lopez among others are an extension of the dominance started at the beginning of the game. JJ Putz took a hold of his opportunity as an undisputed closer in Arizona a year ago and turned in a 45 save shutdown performance. Huston Street changes Western addresses for closing down games, taking over for Heath Bell in San Diego.
Heart of the Lineup
- Rockies (Tulowitzki/Gonzalez/Helton)
- Giants (Sandoval/Posey/Huff)
- Diamondbacks (Upton/Montero/Young)
- Dodgers (Kemp/Ethier/Loney)
- Padres (Maybin/Quentin/Alonso)
Tulowitzki and Gonzalez provide nearly all of the punch for the Rockies offering, but their combined effort is nearly enough still. Helton is far from out to the pasture, as he still topped .300 last year. Pablo Sandoval had a strong comeback effort last year, hitting .315, and is over .300 for his career. Upton and Young give the D’Backs two potential 30/30 threat. Kemp has set 50/50 as a goal; don’t laugh at that either.
- Giants (Pagan & Cabrera)
- Dodgers (Gordon & Ellis)
- Rockies (Fowler & Scutaro)
- Padres (Venable & Headley)
- Diamondbacks (Bloomquist & Hill)
Pagan and Cabrera could prove to be one of the best hit and run duos in the game, for a team that really needs to emphasize small ball. Dee Gordon is poised to be the breakthrough leadoff hitter in the game, and stole 24 bases after debuting last June.
2011 Gold Glove winner Geraldo Parra will lead the way for a tough D’Backs bench, and Willie Bloomquist will be another boost once Stephen Drew reclaims shortstop. Tyler Colvin and Jason Giambi give the Rockies two real threats to change games late.
The San Francisco pitching staff is backed by a solid defensive offering that keeps them intact. Sandoval is a surprisingly able third bagger and Posey’s presence will better the entire team as well. Tulowitzki and Scutaro will form a potent middle infield combo, while Gonzalez and Fowler can cover acres in the outfield. Kemp and Ethier have lived on reputation over results some in recent years.
Cameron Maybin had a breakout season last year, and finished with 40 steals, while Will Venerable, Orlando Hudson, Jason Barlett and Chase Headley are all plus runners too. Kemp and Gordon will both surpass 30 steals easily in LA, while Pagan and Cabrera will move around the bases in a way the low power Giants desperately need.
- Bruce Bochy, Giants
- Kirk Gibson, Diamondbacks
- Bud Black, Padres
- Jim Tracy, Rockies
- Don Mattingly, Dodgers
Bochy has gotten a ton from some limited resources on his team over the past few years, even in their World Series season. Same goes for Gibson, who took a talented, but directionless club from the cellar to a Division title last year, winning the NL Manager of the Year as a result. Year two for Mattingly should give him a better chance to operate, has the stresses of the sale of the team should subside.
No team in the division has a ton of assets currently, and the Giants have to make a big decision on how to approach the forthcoming free agency of Cain. The Dodgers could potentially be big spenders soon, with whoever ends up buying the club most likely looking to make a big splash once taking control of the team. If they are in the race late, they could be in full on “buy it all” mode at the trade deadline.
- Trevor Cahill (Diamondbacks from A’s)
- Melky Cabrera (Giants from Royals)
- Angel Pagan (Giants from Mets)
- Michael Cuddyer (Rockies from Twins)
- Jason Kubel (Diamondbacks from Twins)
Cahill was 6-0 out the gates of 2011 before slowing down. With the switch to the lighter hitting NL (and heavier hitting D’Backs), a return to his 2010 form should be expected. Cuddyer is the game’s most effective utility man, and will provide a huge bonus in Colorado as a right and left fielder, as well as a first, second and third baseman.
Leap Forward Candidates
- Buster Posey, Giants
- Dee Gordon, Dodgers
- Brandon Belt, Giants
- Cory Luebke, Padres
- Paul Goldschmidt, Diamondbacks
Kind of odd to see Posey at the top of the list of break out candidates right? Well remember, we still haven’t seen a full year of him from start to finish in his two professional years. If he can work the magic he’s waved over the Giants’ lineup for a full year, in addition to Belt coming of age, runs will no longer be at a premium for Frisco. Paul Goldschmidt shows the potential to be an outright masher in the desert.
Rookies/Prospects* to Watch
- Yonder Alonso (First Base, Padres)
- Trevor Bauer (Pitcher, Diamondbacks)
- Drew Pomaranz (Pitcher, Rockies)
- Nolan Arenado (Third Base, Rockies)
- Wilin Rosario (Catcher, Rockies)
Alonso was the key piece of the Padres decision to move ace Mat Latos to Cincinnati this winter, and for good reason. He’ll fit in as the everyday first baseman this year, and should be the team’s premier power hitter as well. Bauer was the third pick in last year’s draft, but already is forcing his way onto the Major League staff, and could have the best stuff of them all.
It comes down to depth and details that separates the best from the rest out West. The Giants were the most talented team in the division last year until their offense sputtered out once Posey went on the DL in June. With Posey in or out of the lineup in his career, they have played either eight games better or eight games worst than the competition; a pretty remarkable difference. How his surgically repaired lower leg holds up over the summer will be important, but overall, this is a team that has few flaws. Cabrera and Pagan can reshape the energy for the team, and an ever improving Big Panda Sandoval could be up for an even bigger year with more support around him. Add this to a rotation that, with just two to three more runs a night, could have a pair of 20 game winners, and this is the hardest team to match up with night to night in the West.
Is this a slight against what the Diamondbacks did last year? No, not at all, and actually they should be about as good as they were a year ago this season. Aaron Hill turned the corner once he reached Phoenix last year and if Stephen Drew returns in good condition from the torn ACL that ended his summer early; this team could push the division race to its final days and snag a Wild Card for its efforts. The Rockies always have potential, and should score a good amount of runs, but they have a bad pitching staff in a division where that just won’t work. The Dodgers couldn’t do much to improve their club from where it was last summer, and lost some key pieces in Hiroki Kuroda, Casey Blake and Jonathan Broxton. It’s going to be tough to get better unless a sale goes through soon enough to impact their moves this year. The Padres have re-entered another rebuilding phase, and while they will be the best last place club in the league, it’s still last place all the same.
But buckle up for what will shape up to be the most exciting race for a division crown in all of baseball…with recent king taking the first step to reclaim its throne.
For more on where the National League will go this year, check back here in the upcoming days, and also follow me on Twitter at @CheapSeatFan.