With less than a week to go until the Astros open the regular season, it’s time to size up the competition. I’ve already dedicated a post to each of the teams that reside in the N.L. Central thanks to some much needed help from a few of our FanSided writers. Today I’ll be going it alone as I preview the N.L. West, starting with the Astros Opening Day opponents, the Colorado Rockies.
Jim Tracy’s squad is trying to bounce back from a disappointing 73-89 record and fourth place finish. The Rockies are led by two of the best young players in the game, leftfielder Carlos Gonzalez and shortstop Troy Tulowitzki. Gonzalez had a bit of a down year (for him) in 2011 after finishing third in the N.L. MVP voting in 2010. Tulowitzki has finished in the top ten in the MVP voting in each of the last two seasons. The Rockies have always been built around their offense and added Ramon Hernandez, Michael Cuddyer, and Marco Scutaro to the fold during the offseason. Free agent Casey Blake was signed to play 3B but has since been released, leaving Chris Nelson and Jordan Pacheco as options at the hot corner.
The feel good story for the Rockies this spring has been 49 year-old lefty Jamie Moyer. The oldest player in big league camp is trying to make the Rockies starting rotation after missing last season due to arm troubles. Moyer has fared well this spring and is still in the mix for a spot on the roster. Jim Tracy says he may put the soft-tossing lefty in between two hard-throwing righthanders in the rotation. That means Moyer is likely to start the second game of the season against the Astros. Jeremy Guthrie gets the Opening Day start and Juan Nicasio is on track to secure the number three spot in the rotation. Nicasio missed most of last season with a neck injury but has rebounded nicely this spring. Jhoulys Chacin and Drew Pomeranz round out the rotation.
The offense will be the Rockies strength, as usual. But I don’t think the team has enough pitching to stay in the playoff hunt this season.
The Arizona Diamondbacks shocked everyone except Kirk Gibson last year when they finished with a 94-68 record and claimed the division title. Justin Upton paced the offense and starting pitcher Ian Kennedy had a career year, recording a league best 21 victories. But will the two youngsters be able to duplicate last year’s success? Arizona will need someone to step up if they intend to repeat as division champs.
Kennedy and Daniel Hudson anchor a young pitching staff that includes Joe Saunders, Josh Collmenter, and former Oakland Athletic Trevor Cahill. The Diamondbacks also have blue-chip prospects Trevor Bauer and Archie Bradley on the horizon. J.J. Putz and David Hernandez are a solid bullpen combination late in games. Takashi Saito and lefty Craig Breslow were also added during the offseason to further upgrade the pen.
Shortstop Stephen Drew is still on the mend from last season’s ankle injury and won’t be ready for Opening Day. Willie Bloomquist and John McDonald will fill in. The addition of Jason Kubel sends gold-glover Gerardo Parra to the bench. Catcher Miguel Montero and 1B Paul Goldschmidt can mash. Montero will be in a contract year and Goldschmidt is entering his sophomore season. Houston native Chris Young roams centerfield and our old pal Geoff Blum will be along for the ride as well.
Everyone will be gunning for the D-Backs this year and a repeat performance will be difficult. But it looks like Arizona has enough talent to stay in the hunt once again.
Los Angeles Dodgers fans are giddy over the recent sale of the team to a group of investors that includes NBA legend Magic Johnson. What effect the new ownership group has on the team remains to be seen. The Dodgers can now start moving forward and attempt to improve a club that is close to becoming a contender.
The team is built around pitching and Cy Young Award winner Clayton Kershaw. Aaron Harang and Chris Capuano have been added to the rotation to compliment Ted Lilly and Chad Billingsley. Lilly has been slowed by a stiff neck and is questionable for Opening Day. Josh Lindblom could make a spot-start or two if Lilly is unable to go. The bullpen is pretty solid with a couple of youngsters, (Kenley Jansen and Javy Guerra) at the back end and a cast of veterans to set them up.
Matt Kemp had a breakout season in 2011 and finished second in the MVP voting. Kemp has struck out at an alarming rate this spring and Dodgers fans might need to be a little concerned. Outside of Andre Ethier the rest of the offense leaves much to be desired. James Loney and Juan Uribe aren’t your prototypical corner infielders in that they don’t provide much power. Retread Juan Rivera will start in leftfield and backstop A.J. Ellis and SS Dee Gordon are still unproven commodities. Without upgrading the offense I don’t see the Dodgers going very far.
The San Diego Padres are a team in transition. General Manager Josh Byrnes traded staff ace Mat Latos to Cincinnati but received quite a haul in return. Byrnes also acquired closer Huston Street and LF Carlos Quentin in hot stove deals. Quentin (knee) and his backup Kyle Blanks (shoulder) are both on the mend, leaving a void in LF. Rookie James Darnell may get a chance to start in their absence. Super-sub Jose Guzman and Yonder Alonso, who came over in the Latos deal, could also see time in left when not manning the 1B position. Centerfielder Cameron Maybin has a new contract and hopes to take his game to the next level. Maybin stole 40 bags last year but the Padres need him to cut down on the strikeouts. Catcher Nick Hundley appeared in only 82 games last year and the Padres need a healthy season from their backstop in 2012. Hundley has already suffered a strained oblique this spring but looks like he will be ready for Opening Day.
Cory Luebke put up some nice numbers as a rookie in 2011. The lefty struck out more than a batter per inning and had a 1.09 WHIP in 140 innings. Clayton Richard is coming back from shoulder surgery and hopes to rebound. Edinson Volquez came over from the Reds and will join Tim Stauffer and Dustin Moseley in the rotation. Andrew Cashner helps bolster a decent bullpen and could eventually become a closer. The Padres also have plenty of arms in the minors including Brad Boxberger, Robbie Erlin, and Casey Kelly.
Last but not least comes the San Francisco Giants. The Giants stumbled down the stretch last season in an attempt to defend their World Series title. The pitching staff is deep but the Giants will continue to struggle to put runs on the board. The rotation is a little banged up to start the season and Barry Zito will probably get another chance to earn his big contract. Ryan Vogelsong (back) and Eric Surkamp (elbow) will start the year on the disabled list. Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, and Madison Bumgarner could be the best trio of starters in the division. The bullpen is stacked as well. Bruce Bochy says closer Brian Wilson is healthy and last year’s pen remains mostly intact.
Melky Cabrera and Angel Pagan join Nate Schierholtz in a revamped outfield. First base is a toss-up between veteran Aubrey Huff and prospects Brandon Belt and Brett Pill. The Giants will need a big year from Pablo Sandoval at the hot corner. Second-baseman Freddy Sanchez starts the year on the D.L. Emmanuel Burriss and Ryan Theriot provide depth in the middle infield and Brandon Crawford gets the nod at SS. Playoff hero Mike Fontenot was released on Friday. Giants’ fans can’t wait to see Buster Posey back in the lineup after last season’s gruesome injury. In an effort to get him more playing time and save his legs Posey will also be in the mix at 1B.
Even though the offense will struggle the pitching should be enough to get the Giants back into the playoffs. If one of the young first-basemen can have a breakout year it could help put the Giants over the top.
Pitching is strong throughout the division and the D-Backs and Giants lead the way. The West should provide plenty of thrilling baseball this season for those who are willing to stay up into the wee hours of the morning.