NL West Preview: Respecting the Reigning Champs, Beyond All Reasonable Logic

The reigning World Series champion San Francisco Giants should be the unquestioned favorites for the division. But looking at their opening day line-up, they’re not bulletproof. Not even close.
 
The roster that brought them two titles and perhaps a Scott Cousins rampage away from a third is still intact, but maybe that’s not the best thing. SS Marco Scutaro played out of his skull for the last three months of the season (.859 OPS, .362 batting average), but he’s a 37 year-old shortstop, and those age about as gracefully as whatever that’s currently replacing Meg Ryan’s face. OF Hunter Pence will be 30 in a few weeks and just came off his worst offensive season ever. The former Phillie is in a contract year, which bodes well for an improvement in performance, but he also did almost nothing to contribute to the Giants’ 2012 title. The 6-7-8 slots in the line-up are inhabited by the bodies of 1B Brandon Belt, OF Gregor Blanco and SS Brandon Crawford, who are better suited for late-game defensive replacement duty rather than everyday hitters. I would be shocked if between them they hit 15 home runs this year. Buster Posey–arguably one of the top-5 players in the entire league–is of course in the middle of the order, but he’s the only sure thing there. 3B Pablo Sandoval and OF Angel Pagan have All-Star potential, but are extremely unsteady performers.
 
On paper, with a line-up with so many questions and so much dead weight, how could MAMBINO possibly pick them to win the division?
 
Because we have to.

The 2010 San Francisco Giants’s offense didn’t look like a title-worthy, and they still don’t now. The 2012 San Francisco Giants deserved to win that title, but did so improbably on the bats of Scutaro and Sandoval. But the biggest reason both teams won?  Because their starting pitching was indomitable, with a bullpen to match. Madison Baumgarner, Matt Cain and Ryan Vogelsong are all back in 2013, with Sergio Romo, Javier Lopez and Jeremy Affeldt ready to continue the damage they did on October.

The logical reason to pick the Giants is because they’ve illogically bypassed all of their shortcomings to win two titles. They’re an extremely flawed offensive team, but their defense and pitching–barring any injuries, of course–are beyond reproach. The Dodgers and Diamondbacks both are more complete teams, albeit ones with multiple questions, but ultimately, respect has to be paid to the kings.

Top Dog: San Francisco Giants

This all being said, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the Giants finished as low as third. GM Brian Sabean has been able to make very good, but also very lucky pick-ups at the trade deadline. Takings flyers on Ramon Ramirez, Cody Ross and Scutaro have returned the highest possible value in both their championship runs–is the fact that the Giants have done this twice extreme luck, or is it actually that the organization has harnessed a market inefficiency? At this point, we have to think it’s the latter. San Francisco has been very good at plucking players that they know will thrive under their coaches ad in their stadiums, better than anyone else, in fact. Until they stop doing it, there’s no reason to pick against them–not the largest payroll in the league or not a very good, young team down in Arizona.

First loser (runner-up): Los Angeles Dodgers

The Boys in Blue have a lot of questions, even after a full year of using the GDP of Bolivia trying to improve the team. There’s injury questions attached to the names of key contributors like SP Carl Crawford, SP Chad Billinglsey, OF Matt Kemp, SP Zack Greinke, RP Kenley Jansen and SS Hanley Ramirez, as well as performance questions about 1B Adrian Gonzalez, 3B Luis Cruz, SP Hyun-Jin Ryu and closer Brandon League. Wow. That’s a lot of issues to address before the first inning on April 1st.

We’ll touch on this in a few days with a full Dodgers preview, but even as LA has numerous questions going into the year, there’s simply too much talent to consider them less than an 85-win team. They’ve got the best pitcher on the planet in Clayton Kershaw and as Jayson Stark pointed out last week on Buster Olney’s superb podcast, there’s simply no outrageous contract that could stop the Dodgers from plugging any holes they have before the trade deadline.

The Diamondbacks could very well finish second, seeing as they have the best bullpen in the league, but beyond that, they have, at best, a very good team. Ian Kennedy, Trevor Cahill, Wade Miley and Brandon McCarthy is a nice front four, but their upward potential still doesn’t match a fully functional Kershaw-Greinke-Beckett-Billingsley combo or the defending champs. Their line-up is solid, but could be rather soft in the middle if 3B Martin Prado can’t stay healthy and OF Gerardo Parra, 1B Paul Goldschmidt and OF Adam Eaton can’t develop. The Dodgers have a lot of questions, but then again, so do the Diamondbacks, with a lower upside and a much lower cost.

Cellar Dweller: Colorado Rockies

If not for the Miami Marlins, this label might not just be for the NL West–it could be for the entire National League. Rockies fans can’t be looking forward to this season, with an extremely shaky pitching corps that returns most of the same hurlers that registered a 5.22 team ERA last year. Jhoulys Chachin is a nice pitcher at the front of the rotation, but there’s health or performance questions with all of their other starters.

The Rockies might be able to win some games based on the power of their offense, with Dexter Fowler, Carlos Gonzalez and Troy Tulowitzki giving the team some nice power and speed at the top of the order. However, any bright spots on Colorado probably won’t be there for long; this is a rebuilding club that recognizes they have a long way to go before they can think about the postseason again. If guys like Michael Cuddyer, De La Rosa, Jon Garland or Rafael Betancourt start the season strong, they’re a good bet to be gone by July.

NL West Division Finish: 

1. San Francisco Giants
2. Los Angeles Dodgers
3. Arizona Diamondbacks
4. San Diego Padres
5. Colorado Rockies

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