By Marc Normandin
The National League West is home to the richest team in baseball -- or at least the one who acts the richest -- as well as a collection of geographically influenced squads the likes of which are found nowhere else in the game. It's a unique division, and while the expected dominant club is an obvious answer, how the rest will shake out, and whether they'll be able to compete, is the question of 2014.
First Place: Los Angeles Dodgers
Come on, you knew it was going to be like this. The Dodgers won the National League West a year ago despite the fact that 2011's second-place MVP finisher Matt Kemp played all of 73 games. Chris Capuano wasn't any good in a rotation he was never supposed to be a major part of, Ricky Nolasco made the fifth-most starts on the roster despite being a mid-season acquisition, and the team got almost nothing out of Josh Beckett, Edinson Volquez, Ted Lilly and Chad Billingsley. Those last few statements are all very related.
That's not all, as both Ellises (Ellisi?) were disappointing, with A.J. and Mark both producing below their respective positions' expectations. Hanley Ramirez only played half of the season, leading to utility man Nick Punto playing in 116 games. That's rarely a recipe for success, and that's coming from someone who actually enjoys Nick Punto.
Here's the thing, though: the Dodgers still won 92 games and were arguably as good as the club that defeated them in October, the Cardinals. Having Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke, Adrian Gonzalez, Yasiel Puig and even just 86 games of Hanley is an amazing start to a playoff team, and they supplemented that with a robust performance from Juan Uribe, a typically strong Andre Ethier campaign, 116 games of the enigmatic Carl Crawford, and a wonderful debut for international signing and starting pitcher Hyun-jin Ryu. They had a strong rotation and lineup even without being at full strength, and they've now added Dan Haren (3.29 ERA with nearly five times as many strikeouts as walks in his final 15 2013 starts) to a rotation that will feature Kershaw, Greinke, Ryu, and, at least in theory, a healthy Beckett.
The lineup should have Kemp back, and the improvements he is bound to make after a disappointing 2013 should more than offset any dip in performance from Puig in his sophomore campaign -- assuming there will even be a dip from the highly talented outfielder. If one of the outfielders does end up hurt, we're still talking about the three slots being taken up by one of Kemp, Ethier, Puig and Crawford: whomever their fourth outfielder ends up being is a starter for almost anyone else. The Dodgers have the top lineup in the National League, and if Haren can maintain his second-half form, they might have the top rotation, too. The Dodgers might not just be the class of the West: there is an easy argument to make that they're the team to beat in the Senior Circuit.
Second Place: San Francisco Giants
The Giants had a rough 2013, finishing at 76-86 and in fourth place in the West, but there are plenty of reasons to believe they can rebound in this new year. The lineup is better than their home park makes it look, and if free agent acquisition Mike Morse can regain some of his pre-2013 form, it'll be even better. The same goes for a pitching staff that subbed out Barry Zito and added in his former Athletics teammate, Tim Hudson. The rest depends on rebounds.
There's little reason to worry about mainstays like Buster Posey, Pablo Sandoval and the finally freed Brandon Belt. Similarly, at this point, we know what Angel Pagan and Hunter Pence are capable of, and though Brandon Crawford isn't a star at the plate, he hits more than enough for a shortstop and has the glove to make up for the seasons when he doesn't. At some point, the now 38-year-old Marco Scutaro might run out of productive seasons, and as said, Morse is no sure thing, even if he has a past with plenty of production in it. These are smaller issues, though, compared to what could go awry in the rotation, and what might mean they either are finishing in second place by default because the rest of the division is even worse, or a strong second that's pushing for a wild card or making the Dodgers' life hell.
In said rotation, there is ace Madison Bumgarner and the 38-year-old Hudson, who is coming off of both an ankle injury and his worst season since 2006, which also happens to be the worst campaign of his 15-year career. There is also Matt Cain, who, while brutal to begin the year, recovered to post a 3.03 ERA over his final 18 starts and 110 innings, regaining the lower batting average on balls in play that is his trademark. Between at least Bumgarner and Cain, there are two high-quality pitchers here, and Hudson has the possibility to make it three, or, at the least, be a useful mid-rotation arm nearing the end of his career. The real questions come after this trio, as Tim Lincecum and Ryan Vogelsong are far more mysterious.
From 2007 through 2011, Lincecum was one of the game's top pitchers, but he's been nearly 30 percent worse than your average pitcher over the last two years. His strikeouts and velocity have slipped without any similar dip in his walk rate, and homers have gone up despite his pitcher-friendly home environment. The Giants handed him a large check this winter, but their optimism will only bring them so far. As for Vogelsong, he doesn't have Lincecum's track record, but does own a similar trend reversal of late. He was a revelation in 2012 when he returned to the majors, but struggled in 2013 when he was essentially Zito with fewer innings. Turnarounds from these two could make the Giants' season.
Third Place: Arizona Diamondbacks
A week ago, the Diamondbacks might have been the projected second place club. Losing your ace pitcher to Tommy John surgery can change things, however, even if a top prospect like Archie Bradley is there to attempt to pick up the slack. Patrick Corbin put together a 112 ERA+ in his second season in the majors, and it wouldn't have been a shock to see the now 24-year-old take another jump in his performance. Replacing that potential will be difficult, unless Bradley makes it to the rotation and hits the ground running before too much of 2014 gets by the D'backs.
The rotation still has potential, but it's lost a step with Corbin's exit. Wade Miley, who is good but not overpowering, is likely the club's top starter now, and they're relying on a trio of disappointing 2013 arms to recover and make this rotation relevant again: Brandon McCarthy (84 ERA+ in 22 starts), Trevor Cahill (96 ERA+ and 146 innings after a superior and promising 2012) and Randall Delgado, who wouldn't even be in the rotation if not for Corbin's season-ending surgery. They also need free agent acquisition Bronson Arroyo, who was signed almost entirely because of his durability, to overcome the back woes that have limited him this spring.
The lineup will likely be better now that Mark Trumbo's power bat is in the mix, especially since he moved from a pitcher-friendly park to one that helps hitters. If Aaron Hill can replicate his recent success, Paul Goldschmidt can once more be one of the NL's top bats, and the rest of the lineup can avoid holes like last year's Jason Kubel, Miguel Montero and Cody Ross debacles, the Diamondbacks' lineup will be in a good place.
The bullpen is without Heath Bell this time around, and that is addition by subtraction. Bringing on Addison Reed should help as well -- while he's not elite, he's a quality back-end reliever who fits well into a closer role, leaving more important innings for J.J. Putz and company. The bullpen might need to toss quite a few frames, if the rotation can't keep things together once more.
Fourth Place: San Diego Padres
It seems like we've been waiting for the Padres to break out for the last few years, and the same thing gets in their way every time: injuries. The 2014 season hasn't even started yet and it's no different, with starting pitcher Cory Luebke going in for his second Tommy John surgery after the first didn't take, and fellow TJ recipient Joe Wieland recently undergoing an MRI to check out his own procedure when he felt discomfort in the area. Casey Kelly missed 2013 with Tommy John as well, so he won't be ready to join the big-league club immediately. Chase Headley is dealing with a strained calf, Yasmani Grandal is still recovering from August ACL surgery and Cameron Maybin ruptured his biceps early in spring training. On the plus side, at least Edinson Volquez and Jason Marquis are gone this time around.
The Padres can hit, even if Petco Park doesn't want anyone to know that. Everth Cabrera has developed into one of the game's better shortstops, Will Venable has quietly been a San Diego treasure for years now, Carlos Quentin can mash in the 100 games he's healthy each year, Jedd Gyorko had a productive rookie season and Yonder Alonso is a solid first baseman. Once Grandal is back, the offense behind the plate will improve as well, and bench bats like Chris Denorfia, Kyle Blanks and Alexi Amarista all have something to offer.
The rotation, as it is with almost the entire NL West, is what will determine the Padres' 2014. Andrew Cashner had a breakthrough 2013, especially as the season wore on, and could be a legitimate number two starter type going forward. Ian Kennedy had an abysmal 2013, but he's not so far removed from being a well above-average starter, and is in a pitching environment conducive to success. Josh Johnson, similarly, has been a mess of late, but a new organization, new coaches and a healthier arm could make all the difference. Once Wieland, Kelly and maybe prospect Robbie Erlin are ready to join the big league squad, the rotation will go deeper than its current setup, which involves praying Eric Stults can keep it together and Tyson Ross can be more 2013 than 2012 for at least a few more months.
The Padres, like the Giants and Diamondbacks, could push up to second place -- all three of these clubs are basically interchangeable today, and likely throughout 2014. It's tough to see them unseating the Dodgers, though, unless (for once) everything goes right in San Diego, while Los Angeles sees their share of mishaps.
Fifth Place: Colorado Rockies
The Rockies finished in last place in 2013 with just 74 wins, and it's hard to see them doing much better this time around. The offense has its bright spots in Carlos Gonzalez, Troy Tulowitzki and Michael Cuddyer, but the majors' most ridiculous hitter's park overstates the progress of their younger players, while simultaneously making it very difficult to watch even their talented young arms pitch.
The rotation could be surprisingly good, but you have to stretch the imagination to get there. (There is a reason I described its potential goodness as "surprising", you know.) Jhoulys Chacin, assuming his shoulder strain turns out to be a minor incident, is likely the team's top starter, and he's a good one. Jorge De La Rosa has issues staying on the mound, but when he's on it, he's a high-quality arm. Tyler Chatwood's 2013 was lucky given his peripherals combined with Coors Field, but he's also an extreme ground ball pitcher who doesn't need to miss a ton of bats for success. If Brett Anderson can stay healthy -- and let's be real, that's probably more realistic than "Tim Lincecum finds all that lost velocity" -- and Franklin Morales' curve works in the thin air of Colorado this time around, then the Rockies have themselves a rotation. There is so much potential for disappointment in those five arms, however, and the lineup isn't good enough to erase the doubts that causes.
Much like it was for the Pirates' turnaround, the key to the Rockies' success will be improving their defense. They were the worst in the league at converting balls in play into outs in 2013, even after adjusting for their admittedly expansive home park. The pitchers desperately need better fielders behind them, and until that happens, it's going to be difficult for them to rise above expectations.
Marc Normandin writes and edits for Over the Monster, a Boston Red Sox blog, as well as SB Nation's baseball hub. He's one of many behind the e-book "The Hall of Nearly Great," and has written forBaseballProspectus, ESPN, and others. You can follow him on Twitter at @Marc_Normandin.