NL West- snakes fly high, Giants not so big

 

And now a short look at the division in baseball least familiar to me or to people looking for talent- the NL West. Those who think that an exaggeration should consider for example, who’s the third best position player in each division. In the AL East, for example, one might pick Robinson Cano. Perhaps Adrian Gonzalez or Evan Longoria. In the AL West, probably the likes of Nelson Cruz or an aging but still remarkable Ichiro suzuki. Even the supposedly lacklustre NL Central could boast the likes of , let’s say, Ryan “Not Guilty” Braun or Matt Holliday as the #3 star. In this division, after Matt Kemp and (if healthy) Carlos Gonzalez, one would be looking at the likes of Andre Ethier or “Not good enough for Toronto” Hill as the third most talented player- the type of player just good enough to be a utility player in a place like the Bronx or Arlington. Which, given the unbalanced schedule is why I don’t pay a lot of heed to the rash of Cy Young winners arising from the Pacific Coast and why, if the schedule becomes more balanced next season, I don’t expect to see any more Cy’s from here even if San Fran pony up Giant money to keep their twin aces on the mound for years. Tossing a quality 6 innings against San Diego or San Francisco isn’t quite on a par with holding the Cards or Brew crew at bay.

 

That said, the division is an interesting one, having possibly more parity than most and , after all , at least one of these relatively sadsack 25’s will have a chance to win it all in 2012.

 

Arizona: the surprise team of 2011, would have been a Disney movie in the making had they fared better in the playoffs. Depending on your take on the story, either the most fun , or most hated team for us Canadian fans to follow and cheer for given the D’s preponderance of former Blue Jay talent. Given that they won the division by a healthy 8 games last season and have gotten marginally better in the off-season whereas the rest of their competition have either maintained the status quo or gotten worse, one would have to see them as the odds-on favourites to repeat. While far from great, the Diamondbacks have few gaping holes in the lineup. Justin Upton is arguably the most over-rated player in the National League, but nevertheless utilizes his talent better than his AL brother B.J. and at only 25 could still develop beyond his highly respectable ’11 numbers (.369 on base, over 100 runs scored, 88 RBI). Miguel Montero is developing into one of the most durable and best hitting catchers in the game , Aaron Hill regained his 2009-era All Star form in his brief stint last season after being traded from Toronto and his friend John McDonald will bring a passion and maturity to the field and clubhouse. Not a powerhouse, but good enough to win a fair number of games, especially against divisional rivals and backed with decent pitching, which they also boast. Ian Kennedy while not as good as his 21 wins indicate, is becoming the type of pitcher the Yankees had envisioned him to be before letting him go and Daniel Hudson quickly rose to the ranks of one of the best number two starters in the league last year; adding Trevor Cahill from Oakland (over 200 innings last year for first time in his career despite his ERA rising by about half a run)only solidifies the rotation. Which is a good thing since the bullpen, while wildly improved from the 2010 version (one of the worst in the game’s history with an ERA pushing six) is still shaky. JJ Putz was adequate last season as closer, but expect to see younger, harder-throwing David Hernandez take over as closer by May.

Ace: Justin Upton- I dont agree with Mike Dodd and Steve Gardner of USAToday who pick him as the league MVP, you can’t argue with a lad who topped 30 homers and 20 SB in a season before turning 25.

Wild Card: Aaron Hill – before he got enamored with the long ball and had his swing altered a dozen times, those of us in Ontario saw what a good fielder and great contact hitter he was. Can hitting coach Don Baylor have hm build on last August/September’s success and regain that form?

Joker:Lyle Overbay- another former Blue Jay, has seen his average drop from .265 to .243 to .234 and doubles drop from one per 12 at bats to one per 19 in past three seasons; at age 35 that trend is unlikely to reverse itself which will be a problem should they require him to do more than be a bench warmer for young Paul Goldschmidt.

 

2012 Prediction: 86 wins, 1st place. A solid fourth place team in most divisions should have little difficulty winning again here.

 

Colorado: one of the most active teams over the winter, the Rockies fans really will need a who’s who to learn the players in April. Losing Jason Hammel, ty Wiggington and Huston Street among others will hurt, but the addition of Jeremy Guthrie, Marco Scutaro (new slogan for NL West: where old Blue Jays are put out to pasture?) and especially Michael Cuddyer should soften the blow. Cuddyer was criminally under-rated in the American League and out of the shadow of Morneau and Mauer and into a hitter-friendly park, Cuddyer should hit close to .300 and at least 30 dingers. However, the biggest addition for the Rockies’ may be not a new player at all, but rather a healthy Carlos Gonzalez back in the clean-up spot. Gonzo’s only 26 and still managed to hit .295 with 26 home runs last season despite battling a wrist injury half the year. If he has healed completely, as early indications suggest, he should have a shot of matching his MVP calibre 2010 numbers (.336, .598 slugging, 40 home runs) or even better them. If Colorado top 85 wins this year, Carlos will be league MVP. End of story. Add in budding superstar Troy Tulowitzki at short and you have the best hitting lineup west of the Great Plains in either league.

Winning 85 might be a challenge though and any team relying on Jeremy Guthrie as the top starter isn’t going to shine on the mound. Granted, jeremy was better than his 9-17 record would suggest last year – Baltimore was bad enough to make a resurrected Cy Young himself seem bush league- but is far from a legit #1. Drew Pomeranz is reportedly starting the year in the minors. Curiouser and curiouser. The young guy’s spot in the rotation will be taken by ageless (well, 49 to be exact) Jamie Moyer, the current career wins leader among active pitchers.

 

Ace: Carlos Gonzalez- NL voters have picked the wrong guy for MVP last two years, probably will again this year despite a potential banner year by him. Athlon Sports ranks him as second best outfielder in game.

Wild Card: Drew Pomeranz- the gem in the Cleveland trade for Jimenez, Pomeranz was an Indian first round draft pick only two years ago but pitched in the bigs last fall. No one doubts he may well be a top flight pitcher – eventually. However, this year he may be a non-factor; last year he started the year at A-level and hurled only 119 innings.

Joker: Casey Blake- yet another former blue Jay, once great, now an injury-riddled 38 year old with limited range and power.

 

2012 Prediction: 81 wins, 2nd place tie

 

L.A. – Hopes are high in the City of Angels that the city might actually become, uh, the City of Dodgers again. After all , the more historic franchise finally has new owners after a couple of years of courtroom drama between the feuding and divorcing McCourts, have the reigning Cy Young and the player most people feel should have been the league MVP, if not on the first ballot at least after Ryan Braun failed his drug tests in October.

Matt kemp likely is the best outfielder in the game, as long as he can stay focussed as he did last year (compared to ’10 when he was alledgedly pre-occupied by celebrity lifestyle and dates)…can he actually improve on last year’s .324 average, 39 home runs,and .986 total OPS? Who knows. At 27 and coming off signing the biggest contract in franchise history he should be coming into his real prime, meaning the sky’s the limit. However, he wouldn’t be the first player ever to sign a hundred million dollar + deal and see his numbers and fan popularity drop like stones (exhibit A- his crosstown counterpart , one Vernon Wells). Even if he has a dip though, he’ll still be a force to reckon with as will his fellow outfielder Andre Ethier, who excited fans last season with a 30 game hitting streak and has hit .292 for the past two years in a row. The likes of mark Ellis, Juan Uribe and Juan Rivera in the every day lineup though would have made for a worrying presence for pitchers. If it was still 2006.

The Dodgers live and die by their pitching as has almost always been the case since the days of Sutton and Singer. Their rotation looks even better this year than last with the addition of Aaron harang and Chris Capuano (his 11-12 , 4.55 in Mets land translates to about 13-10, 3.90 in most other cities and about 15-8, 3.40 in this division) to counter the loss of Hiroki Kuroda and non-factor Jon Garland. Kershaw’s good. I’m just not sold on him as being Cy Young good, and at 24 and only three full seasons in the majors, a slight drop off might not be unexpected. However, even if opposition batters start to get better at reading him (opponent’s avg last year , .207) he’ll still be able to K a lot of free-swingers and win 14 or so. Which is about what Chad Billingsley and Harang could each win too ; but who is Javy Guerra? Answer: a non-factor at start of last season and at the start of this season- the closer. Of a team not hoping of any October baseball.

 

Ace: Matt Kemp – may well be the best all-round player in the game.

Wild Card: Aaron Harang- is the 2012 edition closer to the 14 game winner , respectable Padre of last year or 6 game winning, 5+ ERA Red of 2010?

joker: Juan Uribe- aging, portly and with only Jerry Hairston jr looking over his shoulder, he has$21 million reasons to not really care that much about improving his terrible .204 , 4 homers of last year.

 

2012 Prediction: 74 wins, 4th place (and for Kershaw– random guess: 16-10, 3.10, 210 K’s)

 

San Diego– SD fans have lots of reasons to look forward to coming out to Petco Park this year. For instance, even now in early April, the average daytime temperature there is a comfy 70 degrees and come the dog days of July, the average evening temperature is an equally comfortable 72 with almost zero chance of rain! A trip to the old ballpark offers southern Californians a great chance to sit outside, have a beer, catch up on reading… and maybe see teams like the Giants or Cardinals win routinely! True , they added Edison Volquez, but they lost mat Latos. They added Carlos Quentin from Comiskey but lost Brad Hawpe and Jeremy hermida; they added highly respectable reliever huston Street but only at the expense of the disappearance of all-star Heath Bell. In short, with little young let alone rookie talent on board (Yonder Alonso , their new 1B, a former first round draft pick being maybe the best , but although a good contact hitter, lacking power you’d like to see in a first baseman) the team is a little worse than last season’s …and last year’s edition was last place.

Ace: Carlos Quentin- and that’s not saying much; a supposed one trick pony with the trick being hitting for power; he’s hit 50 home runs. Over the past two years combined. May hit 20 this year in pitcher’s paradise Petco.

Wild Card: Clayton Richard – good upside to this young southpaw but having shoulder surgery last summer, will he be ready to return to form?

Joker: orlando Hudson- hey, he is supposed to be one of the funniest, most upbeat guys in the game. This endeared him to fans in Toronto where he was wildly over-rated years ago, now it grates on Californians who see him as a player with limited range, limited concentration powers and an anemic bat.

 

2012 prediction: 69 wins, 5th place. Would struggle to win 60 if on the atlantic (hence in the East) rather than pacific.

 

San Francisco: The Giants do have a couple of big things going for them that theylacked last year. First, they have shed the big target on their backs now that they are no longer the reigning World Champions. Second they have WS year Rookie of the year catcher Buster Posey back after missing most of last year with his broken ankle; his two year tallies are an impressive 22 home runs and .297 average after playing 160 games. He handles the pitchers well for a young guy, however given that the team ERA dropped last season without him behind the plate, one might think that its early to consider him a Gold Glove calibre player. His presence alone will be hard-pressed to do much to really vitalize an offense that last year could best be described as “atrocious”. Their .242 team average was embarassing but topped the Padres, their 570 runs and .303 on base percentage were better only than Seattle’s in all of baseball. Taking Carlos Beltran out of the equation and adding Melky Cabrera in isn’t likely to do much to reverse that and expecting Aubrey Huff to rebound from last year’s .246 and 12 home runs just because he’s historically alternated between reasonably good and reasonably bad years is a bit of a stretch.

The Giants strength of course, is pitching. Today SF seemed to recognize what I’d been suggesting for over a year, namely that matt Cain is at least as good as Tim Lincecum. So anybody who really follows baseball won’t be too surprised to hear of his new 6 year , $120M+ contract given his steady , star performance over that past three years… in total, 99 starts (to Lincecum’s 98), 663 innings (to 654), only 197 walks issued (better than the Freaks 230), a respectable 527 K’s (Lincecum has 712) and a very very good 2.96 ERA (almost as good as the 2.88 of Lincecum). Given those numbers, one would wonder how he’s only managed 39 wins in that time, but then again, see above about the team’s pathetic inability to score runs. A three run outpouring from the teammates is a rarity for either ace. Anyway you look at it, the steady duo gives SF a one-two combo on top of their rotation that rivals any in baseball. Madison Bumgarner is certainly no bum, with his 200+ innings and neat 3.21 ERA last season at age22. Barry Zito though has managed to perform an optical illusion by making it seem that Oakland is a world away from San Francisco, not just a bridge across a bay. His mediocrity at the bottom of the rotation isn’t the problem, but his huge salary is for a team which isn’t the richest around. My guess is that they won’t be able to afford three uber-rich pitchers and if they get off to a slow start, Tim Lincecum might be the odd man out, traded for prospects and perhaps a bat not made out of whiffle. Brian Wilson is still decent out of the bullpen but his 31 walks in only 55 innings last year should be of concern to anyone hoping to see more baseball at ATT park in October.

 

Ace: Matt Cain. I said so last year after his lights-out performance in the playoffs the previous fall. The team says so now in $127 million ways.

Wild card:Pablo Sandoval. Good season last year for fan fave Panda but still listed at 5’11, 240 pounds which won’t help already slowish speed and marginal defence at third.

Joker: Brian Wilson- and not just because his beard makes people laugh. I may be wrong, but his rising ERA and walk tally coupled despite being called on less makes me wonder how much more he has left in the tank. Curiously, I also have little confidence that the guy in the video game commercial with him last season – joe Mauer- will ever rebound to star form either.

 

2012 Prediction: 81 wins, 2nd place tie.

 

In the next few days, I’ll try to squeak in a look at the league we really care about … and how our Blue Jays might fare.

 

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