20 Days of Thinking Blue: The toughest competition in the NL West?

The countdown has begun, kids. Opening Night (well, American Opening Night) is fast approaching as the Dodgers take on the Padres down in San Diego on March 30th. Leading up until then, MAMBINO will tackle 20 of the most important–and some not so important–questions that will get you set up for a season of almost unparalleled expectations. Let’s get it going:
 
Who is the Dodgers’ toughest competition in the NL West?
 
Can the answer be no one?
 
No, it can’t. This isn’t soccer. There are no ties.
 
Let’s get this out of the way: barring a string of injuries, the Dodgers will win the NL West. And it could be by a wide margin. Let’s take a look at the field:
 
Colorado Rockies: The Rox finished last in the NL West last season, and with good cause–they were pretty horrible. The team is obviously in the midst of a rebuilding movement, with Todd Helton retiring and young guys like Nolan Arenado, D.J. LeMahieu and Willin Rosario taking over key positions around the diamond. Michael Cuddyer and Justin Morneau should add a little more pop behind All-Stars Carlos Gonzalez and Troy Tulowitzki, but the problem with the Rockies is, and is usually never the offense.

The team still doesn’t have great pitching, with Jorge de la Rosa, Jhoulys Chachin, Brett Anderson, Tyler Chatwood and Juan Nicasio forming a decent rotation at best. If everything breaks right for Colorado, they could be a .500 team. But in terms of contending with the Dodgers? I don’t see it. They’re just not ready.

San Diego Padres: Some writers, including Buster Olney, likes the Pads as a sort of dark horse candidate to challenge the Dodgers this season. In many ways, they’re the inverse of the Rockies–solid pitching and a so-so offense.

They’ll start former first round pick Andrew Cashner at the top of their rotation, with Ian Kennedy, Tyson Ross and Eric Stults forming a decent back end. Their bullpen is solid as well, with Huston Street, Joaquin Benoit, Dale Thayer and Alex Torres being potentially unhittable if they’re standing upright. The wild card is starter Josh Johnson, who, if healthy, is one of the league’s best players.

Well, the bad news for San Diego is that Johnson is already a shoe-in for the disabled list, taking out a key component that would actually put them into contention with the Dodgers for the West’s crown. Offensively, this team should be easily dominated by LA pitching, though Chase Headley, Jedd Gyorko, Everth Cabrera, Carlos Quentin and Yonder Alonso could be potentially better than average. The Padres should be better than last season, but I can’t see them being much better than .500 without significant contributions from Johnson and career years from most of their batters.

Arizona Diamondbacks: With ace Patrick Corbin last season, the D-Backs finished .500. Without him? I’m not sure how good they are.

Arizona made several changes this offseason, importing closer Addison Reed, slugger Mark Trumbo and promoting center fielder A.J. Pollock. Offensively, the team should be better last season, including an ongoing superstar performance from first baseman Paul Goldschmidt. However, the team now has serious questions regarding their starting rotation. Essentially, losing him is like the Dodgers losing Clayton Kershaw, except LA would then have Zack Greinke and Hyun-Jin Ryu to rely on. The D-Back instead will now hope that Wade Miley, Trevor Cahill, Bronson Arroyo or Brandon McCarthy can step up. Super-prospect Archie Bradley would have to dominate, and this team would have to get super lucky in close games, which isn’t a guarantee with set-up man David Hernandez done for the season with Tommy John surgery.

Any hope for the Diamondbacks to compete with the Dodgers began and ended with Patrick Corbin. I hate to be that simplistic, but that’s really what it comes down to.

San Francisco Giants: Two seasons ago, the Giants won 93 games en route to another World Series title. Last year, they regressed to just 74 wins and a fourth place finish. The 2014 team is more of less the very same as the last two seasons. So which San Francisco Giants squad is this?

Probably somewhere in between. The offense, as has been the case for a half decade now, looks a bit lacking. Pablo Sandoval is primed for a great season, as this is a contract year for him, with Hunter Pence, Brandon Belt and Buster Posey supporting him. However, the rest of the roster is replacement level or below, including all their hitters up the middle. But what does it matter, really? The Giants won their two titles on pitching, both from the rotation and the bullpen.

But those components might not be the same as they were in 2010 and 2012. Madison Bumgarner has made himself into an elite pitcher, coming fresh off of a ninth place finish in the NL Cy Young voting that should have been higher. Sergio Romo, Jeremy Affeldt, Santiago Casilla and Javier Lopez will probably effective once again at the back end of games. But everyone else? Major questions.

Matt Cain is coming off of a year with a relatively pedestrian 4.00 ERA and less strikeouts than his usual fare. Tim Lincecum continued to regress into an even further cry from his two-time Cy Young winning self. Ryan Vogelsong has turned back into the scrap-heap pick-up the Giants found him as three seasons ago. Free agent pick-up Tim Hudson is coming back from a gruesome broken ankle at age 38.

The Giants won because they’re offense was good enough and their pitching was elite. One half of that equation may not be true any longer.

It’s hard to think that any of these teams will truly challenge the Dodgers, especially given all their flaws. If everything was to break right for every one of them, which I assure you, could not possibly happen in this league, we would be looking at four squads that could top out at around 90 wins. None of them are a sleeping giant in waiting, like the Dodgers.

The Padres feel like a great story waiting to happen, but they’d have to continue getting unexpectedly solid performances from Tyson Ross and Eric Stults, which I’m not betting on. With Hernandez and Corbin done, I feel like Arizona has lost too many key players to truly contend with the Dodgers. The Rockies aren’t ready all around.

I suspect the toughest competition will come from the Giants, as usual, seeing as their offense may be better than last year’s and the pitching should somewhat improve. The division looks like they could have four teams with a ceiling around 90 wins, but should probably revolve around 81. If everything breaks right, the Dodgers should be able to win this division by 5 to 10 games.

 

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