We are 35 days away from the beginning of the 2016 MLB season, which means it's time to start getting serious. Every Wednesday until the beginning of the season, I'll be previewing a division and making predictions. This week: The National League West
It doesn't feel this way, but you realize the Los Angeles Dodgers have won this division four consecutive years, right? In fact, the Dodgers have won six of the last nine titles in this division and hold the longest current division winning streak in baseball. They have owned the NL West.
But we're a postseason-obsessed baseball culture, and those four straight division titles mean a lot less than the postseason defeats to Cardinals, Mets and Cubs. Ask the old '90s Braves: Those division title banner-hanging ceremonies start to feel a little hollow when you can't ever put up a league-championship one. The Dodgers are the heavy favorites to win the division again this year, and maybe for the next few years to come. But all a division title gives them at this point is another ticket to the real show.
NL West predicted order of finish
5. San Diego Padres, 62-100
You can tell how ingrained the notion of tanking -- or, "competitive restructuring" -- has become in baseball by comments Padres executive chairman Ron Fowler made last September. When asked his thoughts about the Padres' future now that they had fully embraced a rebuild after a disastrous attempt at a one-year build-the-plane-while-it's-in-the-air job in 2015, Fowler said the goal was to get back to .500 "hopefully in two years." It is one thing to say your team is going to take a step back to take a larger step forward. It is quite another to say, "if we catch a break, in a couple of years, we have a slight possibility of being average."
This year, it's full-throttle to awful. The Wil Myers extension seemed to exist solely to remind fans that the team will still be playing when his contract ends, and he's almost the only thing they've got going on. The rotation is nightmarish, and that's not even counting Jered Weaver. This is the year the Padres will get a look at prospects Manny Margot and Hunter Renfroe. They are promising, but someone should let them know that the Majors aren't usually as bad as the Padres are going to make it look this year. It is possible that the record above is too bullish, to be honest.
4. Arizona Diamondbacks, 75-87
It couldn't possibly have gone worse for the D-backs last season, but that's all relative: There's an argument to be made that it had to go so badly to get the previous management team out of there and a more, well, let's say modern group at the reins. The D-backs are no longer playing with both arms tied behind their back, and if it took a horrific 2016 to make that happen, well, maybe that's just the price that had to be paid.
They should be better this year, if just because they have A.J. Pollock the whole season. His March injury is what started everything off spinning out of control, and now he's back atop the order and, tellingly, Arizona ignored any trade offers for him. If you've got Pollock and Paul Goldschmidt 1-2, you're starting in a good place. After that, the team is hoping that Jake Lamb and David Peralta are over their injuries and Yasmany Tomas can take another step forward. The lineup, if healthy, isn't terrible.
The rotation is the question. Zack Greinke was actually fine last year, but "fine" isn't going to cut it: They need him to be a top-shelf ace, and that might be beyond his capabilities at this point. Taijuan Walker is the new addition, but there are question marks with him as well, and Robbie Ray is a stathead fave who has yet to transfer his FIP to on-field results. And Shelby Miller, no matter how motivated he may be, might as well have "SWANSON" on the back of his jersey.
There's upside here. If the lineup stays afloat and some of those rotation pieces overperform, this could be a .500 team. But it's worth asking if that's a worthwhile goal here. The Diamondbacks need to stabilize after the Stewart-La Russa regime, and a .500 season would do that. But … so? If .500 is your upside, why not truly start over? Hanging around .500 is an excellent way to get passed on both sides. The Diamondbacks are not a terrible team, and there are now grownups in charge. But that doesn't make the need to start over any less urgent.
3. San Francisco Giants, 85-77
Yeah, I'm probably the low man on the Giants. I think I'm stuck on all the veterans. There are a lot of veterans on this team, which is fine: Many of them have won some World Series titles. But the Giants don't have that infusion of exciting young talent that you like to see on the way up, and that frankly you see among some of the more serious contenders. This is a team that's just going to go out and try to do what they did last year again. But that's not how age works.
Look at the lineup. You've got a lot of guys on the wrong side of 30, from Brandon Crawford to Hunter Pence to Denard Span. Even Brandon Belt and Buster Posey, their two best hitters, are getting there. That outfield looks particularly creaky, not particularly ideal at that park. And the rotation looks excellent at first glance, but you wonder how healthy and effective all those guys can stay too. Matt Moore has struggled with injuries his whole career; Jeff Samardzija and Johnny Cueto had solid seasons but are now well into their 30s, and hey, look, Matt Cain is still here! Even Madison Bumgarner threw a career high in innings last season, and of course has thrown an extra 100 postseason innings in his career as well. He can't stay this healthy forever, can he? Sure, Bumgarner seems inhuman, but he's not: He's a human pitcher, and human pitchers eventually break down.
The bullpen should be better with the addition of Mark Melancon, but he is but just one man, and even he doesn't have the shutdown stuff you often associate with the top-shelf closers. (Though he has certainly had the results.) This looks like last year's team, but just a little older and with a little more risk of falling off. It's not like I have them collapsing: They're just two games worse in my projections than they were last year. But that two games might not just keep them out of the postseason, it might keep them out of second place.
2. Colorado Rockies, 87-75
For a stretch there, it was becoming downright trendy to get excited about the Rockies. Increasingly deep lineup, a legit superstar in Nolan Arenado and a pitching staff that's sneakily approaching moderately acceptable, which, in Colorado, is essentially Maddux/Glavine/Smoltz. The bandwagon was rolling: Hop aboard! And then the Rockies, still sort of inexplicably, signed Ian Desmond (who is not a first baseman) to play first base, for roughly similar money to what it would have cost to sign Edwin Encarnacion (who is a first baseman). Suddenly, everybody jumped off: Same old Rockies.
But I dunno: This team still looks pretty fun to me. For all the trade rumors around Charlie Blackmon and Carlos Gonzalez, keeping them around makes that lineup rather terrifying 1-8. When your eighth hitter is power-hitting catcher Tom Murphy, you can put some runs on the board, and not just because you're playing at Coors. That lineup is a chore to deal with anywhere. And the rotation might be good enough? Jon Gray could be the best starter they've had in a half-decade, and the other starters are at least average. There's not much depth behind them, which is an issue, but the rotation doesn't make you wince, and in Colorado, that's an improvement.
The bullpen was a mess, but they brought in Mike Dunn to help, a move that was mocked but made a lot of sense for a team that thinks it's a little closer to contending than most pundits believe. Well, I believe: I legitimately do. Sure, they'd be more fun if they had Encarnacion rather than Desmond, but this team is going to do some damage. This is an NL Wild Card contender and a tough out every night. Seriously: Get back on board, everybody.
1. Los Angeles Dodgers, 95-67
The Dodgers are renowned at this point for overpowering problems: Develop a modicum of options at every position, platoon, mix and match, just be better than average everywhere and let that add up to something far, far above average. And it has worked. Well, it has worked until October, anyway.
That's the plan again this year: overwhelm. The infield appears set -- the addition of Logan Forsythe solidified the Dodgers about as much as it depressed Evan Longoria -- and the outfield has an embarrassment of options: They could play a different outfield every day of the week. The bullpen has the same throw-bodies-in-the-water-and-see-which-ones-float approach after Kenley Jansen, and for all the talk that the rotation has the same strategy, there's top-tier talent here, and not just Clayton Kershaw. Kenta Maeda should take a step forward, and this could be a breakout year for Julio Urias. And of course there's a ton of other guys, both veteran and in the system, waiting if anybody falls short.
The Dodgers look like an unstoppable machine in this division, once again. They just need to catch those October breaks. If any other team wins the NL West, it'll be a riotous celebration. If the Dodgers do it, it will just simply be relief, and a fortification for the greater battle ahead.
Next week: The American League East.
So far: AL Central