The NL West was simply outmatched in 2016. With the weird San Francisco Giants’ “even-year streak” finally broken, it appears as though West was caught in a bit of a dry spell. By that I mean there is a huge gap between the Giants and Los Angeles Dodgers, and the rest of the division. The Arizona Diamondbacks suffered without AJ Pollock and the Colorado Rockies could never keep opponents from scoring. Meanwhile the San Diego Padres was in a serious funk all around. Let’s take a look at who I believe will shake up the NL West picture…
San Diego Padres (2016: 68-94, 5th Place)
Lineup: After a dismal 2016 in which one setback snowballed into another and another, the Padres fired president Mike Dee. Embroiled in controversy due to withholding medical information during the Drew Pomeranz trade, along with other questionable decisions, San Diego had to let him go before his contract expired. The Padres desperately need a change of pace as they’ve only finished in the top 2 in the division once since winning it way back in 2006. With a complete overhaul of both the roster and the front office in the works, no one can be sure of what to expect in San Diego. I will say that signing Wil Myers to a long-term deal was an excellent move. After an explosive season in which he was quietly one of the best first basemen in the NL, he has positioned himself to be an All-star for many years to come. However, he may have a big load of run support on his shoulders. Surrounded by relative unknowns on the roster besides mediocre infielders Yangervis Solarte and Erick Aybar, it’s going to be nearly impossible to gain any kind of momentum barring some serious breakout seasons by the younger players.
Pitching: After the loss of Tyson Ross to injury for what seemed to be for just a couple of starts but turned out to be season-ending, San Diego was behind the 8-ball from the start. Once Pomeranz inexplicably posted one of the best ERAs in the league throughout the first half of the season, the Padres sold him at a high price to the Red Sox in exchange for some younger talent. Upon releasing Ross over the offseason, it’s apparent that the Padres are ready for a fresh start. With the loss of their two best pitchers, San Diego is left with Jhoulys Chacin and Jered Weaver as their top gunners. This is troublesome because Chacin has only posted a winning record during 1 of his 8 seasons in the MLB. The story with Weaver is that back when he was a Cy Young candidate in 2012, his claim to fame was the strikeout. Now, his S09 has dipped sharply and he must rely on getting hitters to make contact on poor pitches. In other words, because he can’t get strikeouts, he pitches to contact and lets his fielders do the work. With a completely new dynamic, it’ll be very difficult to pitch as well as he did 5 years ago.
2017 Goals: Like I said, the Padres just want a fresh start. They don’t need to shoot for the moon, but gaining valuable experience for the rookies and experimenting with different lineups can set a foundation for their future. They’re a long way off, but you have to start somewhere.
My Expectations: Already tied for the second worst record in the MLB last year, things probably won’t get much better. The good news is that they’re in the same boat as a number of other teams, but the bad news is that they literally don’t have a president as the season gets underway. No other team has as much uncertainty on and off the field as the Padres. Until they get that mess sorted out, San Diego won’t be going anywhere.
Arizona Diamondbacks (2016: 69-93, 4th Place)
Lineup: Bold prediction of 2017? The Dbacks will make the playoffs… and here’s why. They’re loaded at the top of the order with the likes of Paul Goldschmidt, Jake Lamb, and AJ Pollock. Arizona had plans last year to utilize these men to take control of the heart of lineup and lead them to the top. However, when Pollock broke his elbow just a game before opening day, these plans were derailed and the Diamondbacks never found their rhythm. Now, refreshed and recharged, look for them to make a huge run. It won’t be easy, as it’s a competitive league and teams like the Cardinals and Mets desperately want to be back in the postseason, but the Dbacks are a definite dark horse. With the extra year added to the grand plan, Arizona was able to strengthen Chris Owings and Yasmany Tomas to make the roster even more formidable. I know a lot of experts are sleeping on these guys, but with a new uniform and a new attitude, we might just see a new World Series contender.
Pitching: Here’s what’s going to make or break the surprise run… Zack Greinke. While in LA, the veteran was one of the best pitchers in baseball. So much so that the Diamondbacks scooped him up on a six-year deal worth $206.5 million. Unfortunately, not only did Greinke not live up to the expectations last year, he had by far the worst season of his entire career. Career highs in ERA, H9, and WHIP coupled with career lows in strikeouts and wins led to a dismal year that left Arizona looking for answers. As the sole ace on this squad, he could very well be the difference in a playoff spot or a high draft pick next June. It’s a lot of pressure, but he’s capable of handling it. Hopefully he can get accustomed to his new home in Chase Field, settle down, and get back to doing what he does best. The future of the Diamondbacks depends on it.
2017 Goals: Honestly, I don’t even think the Dbacks are worried about the postseason yet. Based on their record, it appears they’re very far off. That is not so, as they have a talented roster that rivals those of the Toronto Blue Jays or Texas Rangers. All of these teams have a talented heart, little support, and a couple of great pitchers. As the Dbacks already fit the playoff formula, they just need some wins.
My Expectations: While my bold prediction is that Arizona will be in the playoffs, I still wouldn’t bet on it. Greinke’s 2016 season was too scary to bank on a return to form. But like I said, the talent is there, and they’re capable of making a run, I’m just not sure they’re ready to surpass the Cardinals, Mets or even their own division. But if they do make the playoffs- you heard it here first.
Colorado Rockies (2016: 75-87, 3rd Place)
Lineup: This is another team with a top-heavy roster. In this case, you look at bombers Nolan Arenado, Carlos Gonzalez, and Trevor Story. While Arenado and Gonzalez have been Rockies greats who have taken advantage of the mile-high atmosphere for a few years, the organization stumbled upon rookie sensation Story last year. He lead all rookies in home runs, and placed in the top 3 in OPS, SLG, and runs. With the surprising production, Colorado exceeded all expectations last year and looks to build off that momentum. With speedster Charlie Blackmon leading off, they bring a little more balance to the roster than other top-heavy teams, and ironically that could be their downfall. While Arenado and Gonzalez are well-known superstars, the rest cannot be relied on in clutch situations as much. It’s a great thing to have balance, but when the team formula is set up for a core of strength, it can be a little dysfunctional. Nonetheless, this is an above average lineup…
Pitching: … with a well below average pitching staff. “Ace” Jon Gray starts first of the mediocre pack. Behind him in the rotation is Tyler Anderson, Tyler Chatwood, and a couple of no-namers. This is especially worrisome due to the fact that the ball flies in Coors Field like no other place in America. While this is an advantage for the Colorado hitting, it’s an extreme disadvantage for the subpar pitching staff. It’s even harder to gain confidence when you’re being rocked in your own ballpark, let alone hope to gain some momentum as the season wears on. Luckily, the Rockies were able to pick up World Series champion and two-time All-star Greg Holland during the offseason. With proven reliever Adam Ottavino setting him up, it’s nice to have stability in the bullpen. However, Holland is a bit shaky after an injury-riddled 2015 season, and a subsequent absence in 2016. Manager Bud Black is said to have him on a short leash to start the season, so even if Ottavino takes over, the Rockies should be in good shape for the 8th and 9th innings at least.
2017 Goals: Like so many other teams, the Rockies are stuck in the middle. Oddly, they’ve been reluctant to make any moves with regard to trades. In order to move up the ladder, they’ll need big acquisitions, and in order to rebuild they’d need to sell their stars for prospects. With the front office not doing either, it’s impossible to break the streak of being average. Look for big changes one way or another before long.
My Expectations: Unless the front office does something to help their ball club, the Rockies are going to drop a bit. They simply don’t have the pitching to go with their core hitting prowess. Meanwhile, Arizona does have the support they need to make their way toward the top of the division. Colorado either needs to give their guys some help, or let them go and start over.
San Fransisco Giants (2016: 87-75, 2nd Place)
Lineup: After winning the World Series in 2010, 2012, and 2014, the Giants’ “odd” even-year streak was finally snapped in the NLDS. It was their first playoff series loss since 2003. In fact, in all but two seasons in the history of the MLB, they’ve either won the World Series or lost to the team that went on to claim the title. With so much postseason success, it’s strange that San Francisco is often the underdog. As such, they return with the majority of the lineup that took them to the Final Four in the NL last year. They bring a well-balanced roster that can get on base, but rarely goes deep. This is evidenced by being top 5 in OBP, but bottom 5 in SLG in the National League. Brandon Belt and Buster Posey led the team in home runs, but neither hit more than 20. Posey in particular is capable of more pop, but tends to hit on top of the ball and drive it in gaps for extra base hits instead. Other notables on the roster are Joe Panik and Jarrett Parker who are homegrown youngsters that look to make an immediate impact. The left side of the infield houses Eduardo Nuñez and Brandon Crawford, two of the most reliable gloves in baseball. The Giants have a little bit of everything, and they’re more than eligible to be contenders in the wide-open NL Wild Card race.
Pitching: Where the Giants really excel is with perhaps the best complete rotation in the entire National League besides the Chicago Cubs. As a whole, they are top 5 in the NL in ERA and quality starts, and allowed the fewest walks in the MLB. Four-time All-star and perennial Cy Young candidate Madison Bumgarner leads the stellar group. Johnny Cueto is an ace too, after he had one of the best seasons of his career since coming to San Fran. The two averaged an amazing 2.77 ERA and 1.06 WHIP. Cueto actually tallied 3 more wins than Bumgarner at the season’s end, but had him beat in strikeouts with 251 in total. Behind these league giants (get it?) are workhorses Jeff Samardzija, Matt Moore, and Matt Cain. You’ll notice that there isn’t a bad name in the bunch. As for the bullpen, Santiago Casilla had a rough end to 2016, and was released over the offseason. The Giants replaced him with veteran Mark Melancon. A long-time Pittsburgh Pirate, Melancon has found success as a closer at any ballpark. San Francisco is known for having a lockdown bullpen, but after a game 4 NLDS collapse, it’s a good move to make amends and strengthen one of their biggest assets.
2017 Goals: You know the Giants have established themselves enough to be disappointed with anything besides a playoff berth. However, as previously mentioned, they have not made the postseason in an odd year since 2003. So in 2017, San Francisco will hope to break the weird trend and use their strengths to the fullest to outlast the other Wild Card contenders. Actually, the Dodgers aren’t impenetrable; they could wind up with the NL West pennant.
My Expectations: As great as the Giants are, there is something eerie about their even-year trend. There always seems to be a surplus of contenders during the odd years, and 2017 is no different. They face strong opposition within the NL West and indirectly with the Mets and Cardinals. The good news is, while the Dodgers have won the NL West four straight years, they don’t have a firm hold on the division. 2017 will play out with a wild West that will come down to game 162, and the Giants could easily come out on top.
Los Angeles Dodgers (2016: 91-71, 1st Place)
Lineup: As historic and dominant as the Dodgers seem, it might be surprising that their last World Series appearance was when they won it back in 1988. I believe this is due to the fact of poor match-ups. While they have won the division each of the last four years, they haven’t earned the #1 seed in the playoffs. This forces them to play a tough NLDS team early, and if they survived that, they weren’t as rested as the better team in the NLCS. So consider it crucial for L.A. to not just when the division… but win the NL. Now, it’s a tall task to unseat the defending World Champions, but the Dodgers possess an extremely explosive lineup. Young stars like Joc Pederson, Corey Seager, and rookie Andrew Toles are being groomed by veterans Adrian Gonzalez and Logan Forsythe. You’ll notice I love the balance of both age and strengths. Seager can do just about anything as captain of the infield. He rarely makes errors and seems to always make the right play with high baseball IQ. Gonzalez has been around the block a few times, but he’s hardly slowing down. If he keeps up the pace, L.A. is extremely tough to beat. That said, while Los Angeles is explosive, they’re often inconsistent and streaky. With every confident win streak comes a debilitating losing streak. It’ll be important for the Dodgers to ride the high of their success and break out of slumps before anything gets out of control.
Pitching: L.A. has perhaps the greatest pitcher on the planet in Clayton Kershaw. His accolades stretch for miles and include 3 Cy Youngs, an NL MVP Award, and 6 All-Star appearances. Despite last year’s injury-plagued season, he was still invited to San Diego for the All Star Game, and was slated to be a starter before not being cleared to play. So, despite an already-legendary career that gets better with each game he throws, he has never started the Midsummer Classic. A bevy of young arms learn from Kershaw including Kenta Maeda and Juilo Urias. These men both have stellar careers ahead of them as long as they’re learning from one of the best to ever play the game. As for the bullpen, veteran closer Kenley Jansen has 9th inning duties. Already one of the best closers in the league, the 29-year-old has ranked in the top 10 in saves over the last 3 years. L.A. also owns Sergio Romo, the former closer of the World Champion Giants. Now, he’s a key setup man to ease the pressure of the Dodgers’ starters. With so much young talent across the board, Los Angeles is a tough series for any opponent.
2017 Goals: Without a World Series appearance since 1988, the Dodgers are more than anxious to get back. It seems that they are always the class of the National League, but falter in October. It’ll be the Dodgers’ main goal to be healthy and focused as the season ends. As such, it’s a good idea to follow through in limiting Urias early so that he’ll be ready for the big games down the stretch.
My Expectations: I don’t see the Dodgers missing the playoffs, but I do see them dropping a few wins. The NL West is probably the most improved division in baseball, and it won’t be easy for L.A. to win their 5th straight pennant. Whether or not they do, I think they’ll be a 3 or 4 seed in the playoffs… and that’s not good considering how they’ve fared in the past at those spots.