Team: Los Angeles Dodgers
Prediction: 87-75, 1st place
Why they’ll be better: They have young impact players in Russell Martin (the league’s best all-around catcher), Matt Kemp, James Loney and Andre Ethier along with a healthy Rafael Furcal, the always reliable Jeff Kent and FA signing Andruw Jones leading the offense, which should be one of the top 4 or 5 in the league. The top 3 of Brad Penny, Derek Lowe and Chad Billingsley is rock-solid. They have the best 1-2 bullpen combination in the league in Takashi Saito and Jonathan Broxton. They also hired a new manager – perhaps you’ve heard of Joe Torre.
Why they’ll be worse: If Juan Pierre cuts into Ethier or Kemp’s playing time, the offense will suffer. Jones was awful last year and hasn’t looked much better this year thus far. Third base is still a question mark, especially if Torre doesn’t give Andy LaRoche the bulk of the playing time after he heals.
Key Player(s): RHP Hiroki Kuroda – The Dodgers’ other big-ticket free agent pickup, Kuroda put up sick numbers in Japan and all reports were good, but it is always a crapshoot – remember Kaz Ishii? Kuroda’s first start was great and if he lives up to the billing, and if Jason Schmidt comes back healthy in the 2nd half, the Dodgers will have the best rotation in the league.
Outlook: The Dodgers have as much young talent as any team in the league, but their success will largely be determined by how much trust management has in it. The decision to bench Pierre for Ethier is a good sign, and if Torre cannot solve the rifts that developed in the clubhouse last season, no one can. If they play to their potential, they should beat that 87 win projection and win the division going away.
Team: Arizona Diamondbacks
Prediction: 83-79, T-2nd place
Why they’ll be better: As well as the team did last season, their young players still have a lot of untapped potential – Chris Young, Stephen Drew, Justin Upton and even Conor Jackson should all be better this year, and Upton is a future superstar and may have the most talent of any player in baseball. New #2 starter Dan Haren should thrive in the NL and join Brandon Webb as an elite 1-2 combination. The bullpen is lacking a dominant reliever, but it is deep.
Why they’ll be worse: After Webb & Haren, the rotation is very questionable – Doug Davis has cancer, Randy Johnson may not pitch again and Micah Owings and Edgar Gonzalez are both league-average at best. A lot is riding on their young lineup, and if they don’t show any development, they will struggle to score runs without any true impact bats.
Key Player(s): LHP Johnson – If the Big Unit can find his way back and make 15-20 starts and be healthy down the stretch, that will be huge for this team. If he comes back ineffective or doesn’t end up coming back at all, there isn’t much for the team to turn to and there could be massive holes in the rotation.
Outlook: My favorite underrated team of last year, the D-Backs are due for a correction after they won the division and made it to the NLCS despite being outscored. The development of their young talent and the Haren trade should make up for some of it, but in this division, as strange as this may be, they cannot afford to play like they did last year and expect the same results.
Team: Colorado Rockies
Prediction: 83-79, T-2nd place
Why they’ll be better: They have the best outfielder in the league in Matt Holliday, and a pretty solid core around him with Todd Helton, Garrett Atkins, Brad Hawpe and last year’s darling, Troy Tulowitzki. The defense is one of the league’s best and up the middle they could be very strong. The bench is deep and they should be able to deal with injuries to their hitters other than Tulo.
Why they’ll be worse: Past Jeff Francis and Aaron Cook, the rotation could be anywhere between very good and awful. Ubaldo Jimenez and Franklin Morales got a lot of face time in the playoffs, but neither one has proven they can throw strikes in the majors yet. Mark Redman is in the rotation. The back end of the bullpen is a question mark as well.
Key Player(s): 2B Jayson Nix – The rookie replacing Kaz Matsui may not hit that well, but it won’t matter if his defense is as advertised. Matsui’s offensive production last year was a Coors Field mirage, but his defense was not. One of the reasons the Rockies were so successful last year was their defense, and the decision to go with Nix ahead of Jeff Baker reflects that.
Outlook: The Rockies actually had the league’s best run differential last year, and if they can replicate that, they should make the playoffs again. It’s tough to look at a young team that just made the World Series and project them to only win 83 games, but in order to have a season like they did last year, a lot has to go your way. They avoided injuries to their key guys, they got surprising contributions from young guys that no one thought were ready and no one really had an awful year.
Team: San Diego Padres
Prediction: 80-82, 4th place
Why they’ll be better: The pitching staff should be among the league’s best again with reigning Cy Young winner Jake Peavy leading a rotation with the underrated Chris Young as his #2. I also really like Mark Prior’s fill-in, Justin Germano and considering that Prior is always hurt, he’ll probably get 25-30 starts. The bullpen always seems to be a strength and if Trevor Hoffman can continue to fight off Father Time, it should stay that way.
Why they’ll be worse: Petco or not, this team will struggle to score runs – my numbers have them scoring the least amount of runs in the league and while part of that is park effects, part of it is a lack of any elite hitters. They don’t have anyone that is clearly going to be better than average at their position. On the other hand, they don’t have anyone clearly worse, but without any impact bats, they will have a tough time against good pitching.
Key Player(s): OF Scott Hairston – The Arizona cast-off has been handed his first full-time opportunity and while he won’t be an All-Star, if he can hit righties and put up 20-25 HRs, it will shore up one problem area.
Outlook: The Padres are going to have a lot of low scoring games this year, given their roster construction and the park they play in. While they could contend if they stay healthy and their old guys avoid decline, they are clearly a tick below the top 3 teams in the division and have far less upside. I wouldn’t be surprised if they finish higher than 4th, but I would be surprised if they made a serious playoff run.
Team: San Francisco Giants
Prediction: 77-85, 5th place
Why they’ll be better: They won’t be better than 77 wins, they just won’t. Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain are going to be inconsistent but overall very solid and Barry Zito should give them 200+ league average innings. The bullpen is actually pretty good and if Noah Lowry comes back healthy and one of Kevin Correia or Jonathan Sanchez steps up, this will be a decent pitching staff.
Why they’ll be worse: On the other hand, this is a really bad offense. Really, truly, epically bad. They not only have no one who is likely to be a league-average player at their position, they have very few who can even aspire to be league-average. Their corners are Jose Castillo, Rich Aurilia, Dave Roberts and Randy Winn. Combining their production won’t add up to one good corner player. Their defense is below-average pretty much everywhere, and their big FA signing, Aaron Rowand is already a bust.
Key Player(s): Well, I guess Lincecum and Cain – if I was a Giants fan, I would consider the season a success if neither of these guys got hurt.
Outlook: The Giants are a bad team — this may be the projection I disagree with the most, but the numbers have their pitching staff making up partly for the awful offense. How Brian Sabean still has a job is a mystery to me, as essentially every move he’s made the last few seasons (how about Joe Nathan, Francisco Liriano & Boof Bonser for A.J. Pierzynski?) has turned to shit. The Zito contract is a prominent mistake, but the Rowand signing is every bit as bad, as was the Ray Durham resigning, the Bengie Molina and Dave Roberts deals, the Armando Benitez signing, etc. Sabean hasn’t learned to not throw money at league-average or worse players. Why sign Rowand when you have Fred Lewis at 1/20th the price? Why resign Durham when Kevin Frandsen (yes, he’s hurt now, but he wasn’t last year) can give you the same results? This team needs to just play young guys and give the fans a little excitement on their way to 65 wins.