Sunday, March 30, 2008

MLB Preview: NL West

(Teams listed in order of projected finish)

Los Angeles Dodgers
Hitting: There aren't many holes in this Dodgers lineup. Russell Martin is the best catcher in the NL, Matt Kemp hit .342 last year, Andruw Jones hit 26 HRs in a "down year," and Jeff Kent is still one of the better hitting second basemen in the league. Grade: B+
Pitching: This will also be a strong point. Brad Penny is coming off a 16 win season, Derek Lowe is a solid #2, Chad Billingsley won 12 games and posted a 3.31 ERA, and the team signed highly-touted Hiroki Kuroda from Japan. Takashi Saito and Jonathan Broxton should give the Dodgers a strong bullpen as well. Grade: B+
Fantasy Sleeper: Andruw Jones - Even if he replicates last season's supposed disappointment, he'll still be better than most outfielders, and would it shock anyone if he cranked out another 35 HR season?
X-Factor: Joe Torre - He'll be in a very different situation from his Yankee days, as he'll be dealing with a fairly young team. Whether he can mesh with his new club could be the difference between a 1st place and 4th place finish.
Overview: It'll be a dogfight, but the Dodgers have the talent both at the plate and on the mound to win the division. They might be the most well-rounded team in the NL West and the hiring of Joe Torre could be enough to make the difference and elevate them to the top of the standings.

Colorado Rockies

Hitting: This was the Rockies forte last year, as they were able to get production from almost the entire lineup. Matt Holliday, Garrett Atkins, Todd Helton, Brad Hawpe, and Troy Tulowitski give the Rockies as much offensive firepower as any team in the National League. Grade: A+
Pitching: While it was not a particular strength, the pitching was very good by Rockies standards. Jeff Francis returns as the staff ace and the Rockies will look to get some more quality outings from second-year starters Ubaldo Jimenez and Franklin Morales. Another second-year player, Manny Corpas, will close, and he'll have former closer Brian Fuentes in a set-up role. Grade: C
Fantasy Sleeper: Willy Taveras - He stole 33 bases, despite playing in only 97 games due to injury. If he's healthy he should get at least 40 steals and plenty of runs.
X-Factor: Ubaldo Jimenez and Franklin Morales - These two pitched extremely well down the stretch and helped propel the Rockies into the playoffs with their incredible September run. They'll need to have similar success for the entire season for the Rockies to repeat as division champs.
Overview: It's hard to know how their young pitching staff will hold up, but the Rockies offense is still one of the best in baseball. That should be enough to keep them in the running even with mediocre pitching. However, if the pitching is comparable to last year, or better, the Rockies could run away with the division.

Arizona Diamondbacks
Hitting: Arizona has an interesting balance of power and speed. Eric Byrnes and Chris Young should each go 20-20, at least. Conor Jackson and Mark Reynolds provide some power, though Jackson is coming off a disappointing season. Stephen Drew will also look to improve after a lackluster rookie year. Grade: B-
Pitching: Brandon Webb was already arguably the best pitcher in the National League and he'll now be joined by Dan Haren, the AL starter at the 2007 All-Star Game. There is a major drop-off after Webb and Haren, but still enough talent that starting pitching won't be a liability. Jose Valverde was traded, so Brandon Lyon moves into the closer role, which could prove problematic as he has very little experience closing games. Grade: B
Fantasy Sleeper: Conor Jackson - He wasn't particularly impressive last season, as he battled injuries, but he's a lock for the first base job now that Tony Clark is gone and he's got good potential.
X-Factor: Brandon Lyon - Can he replace Valverde? The D-Backs won a lot of close games last year and they'll need their bullpen to be at its best.
Overview: While the addition of Haren will help quite a bit, Arizona was lucky to win 90 games last year. They were actually outscored overall, so one has to think a great deal of luck came into play. Also, the bullpen was essential to winning so many close games, and they traded their closer in the off-season. Ultimately, adding Haren should be enough to off-set the "luck" factor and the D-Backs should win almost as many games as they did last season.

San Diego Padres
Hitting: Adrian Gonzalez leads the way, fresh off a 30 HR, 100 RBI season and Khalil Greene had 27 HRs, but they won't have too much help. Kevin Kouzmanoff, Brian Giles, and Tadahito Iguchi will all chip in, but none of them will scare opposing pitchers. Grade: C-
Pitching: Reigning Cy Young Award winner Jake Peavy, Chris Young, and Greg Maddux will get all the hype, but don't forget Randy Wolf and Justin Germano, who are very good for 4th and 5th starters. Trevor Hoffman leads the bullpen yet again, which, even at 40, is still a good thing. Grade: A
Fantasy Sleeper: Randy Wolf - He's an injury risk, but if he stays healthy he could be in for a great year. He'll benefit from pitcher-friendly Petco Park and he's shown the ability to rack up Ks in the past.
X-Factor: Mark Prior - He could be a tremendous asset if he can stay on the field, but that's been extremely rare for him in recent years. Still, if he can return to his old form, the Padres pitching will be flat out dominant.
Overview: The Padres boast an outstanding pitching staff, but the offense will not consistently score enough for them to keep up with the Rockies and Diamondbacks. If the pitching is even better than expected, or they get some unexpected offensive contributions, they could take the division or wildcard, but more likely they'll fall short of the playoffs.

San Francisco Giants
Hitting: Where will the offense come from now that Barry Bonds is gone? Good question. Aaron Rowand will help make up for the loss of Bonds, but one has to wonder whether last season's career year was a result of his playing in a hitter's park and batting behind Ryan Howard. Grade: F
Pitching: Barry Zito had an unimpressive first season in San Francisco and there's little reason to believe he'll do much better this year. At least there won't be any pressure. Matt Cain and Tim Lincecum are two of the best young arms in the NL and both could be in line for breakout seasons. There's no telling what the bullpen will bring, with Brian Wilson stepping in as the closer. Grade: C-
Fantasy Sleeper: Matt Cain - He lost 16 games last year, but that had more to do with terrible run support than anything else, as he had a 3.65 ERA and 173 Ks. He still won't win many games, but his ERA and strikeouts should be a boon.
X-Factor: Ray Durham - He hit only .218 last year, but in 2006 he batted .293 with 26 HRs and 93 RBIs. If he can put up those numbers again, the Giants offense might have a little life after all.
Overview: The Giants were a bad team with Bonds last year, but he was still hitting very well. Without him it will be a long season. Aaron Rowand is their best hitter, and as good as Rowand was last year, that's not a good sign for the Giants. The pitching has some potential, but not enough for the Giants to be in the race. This year is about developing Cain, Lincecum, and any other talented prospects.

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