Rising Arizona

Even the ferocious and loyal fans of the San Francisco Giants have to be tired of the “it’s an even year, so…” talk about their team’s chances for a fourth World Series championship since 2010. One thing that does seem possible in 2016, however, is that the Giants will do something that they did not accomplish three times in those five years. They have a good shot at winning their National League West division title. Long gone are the days when the best team in each league went straight to the World Series at the end of the regular schedule and , of course, in the last two decades you need not even have won your division to have a chance at all of the marbles. Five teams in each league make the playoffs, so to pick a World Champion in April based on the fact that it is year 2016 is ludicrous, although still kind of fun. The Giants do look like the best in the N.L. West at the moment, but it definitely can be expected to be an interesting ride.

The most interesting news in the winter was that one member of the division, the Arizona Diamondbacks, plucked a Cy Young award candidate starting pitcher, Zack Greinke, away from last year’s division winner, the Los Angeles Dodgers. The Snakes were already credible contenders, finishing four games under .500 in third place last season, which was a 15 game improvement over 2014. Arizona also added starting pitcher Shelby Miller, acquired in a trade with Atlanta that cost them quality outfielder Ender Inciarte and shortstop prospect Danby Swanson. With Patrick Corbin back and Robbie Ray and Jorge DeLaRosa ready and steady, the Diamondbacks look much better on the mound. Greinke has struggled in the early going, but I would not count on that continuing. The loss of premier center fielder A. J. Pollock hurts badly, but youngster Socrates Brito might shine with more playing time, and they have moved infielder Chris Owings to the outfield, at least occasionally. Paul Goldschmidt leads a stellar defensive infield with newly acquired Jean Segura at second and developing Nick Ahmed at shortstop. The Diamondbacks went with defensive whiz Tuffy Gosewich behind the plate last year until injury cut short his season and he was one of the better catchers in the league, but they are going more for offense this season with Wellington Castillo. In addition to his defensive skills, Goldschmidt powers a tough offensive lineup that includes outfielders David Peralta, who hit .312 with 78 RBI last year, and Yasmany Tomas, whose more modest production was somewhat offset by a walks to strikeouts ratio of 17 to 110.

Brad Ziegler, who doesn’t strike a lot of batters out but allows few base runners and very few home runs, is the best out of the bullpen for Arizona and Tyler Clippard is there to help out now. So the Dodgers and Giants will not be alone in contention this season.

As for those Dodgers, who knows? The baseball gods work in mysterious ways, so perhaps now that Los Angeles is not the odds on pick to click they will fool everybody and run away from the pack. There is a large contingent of Dodgers on the disabled list as the season begins, including outfielders Andre Ethier and Carl Crawford and starting pitchers Brandon Mc Carthy, Hyun-Jin Ryu, Brett Anderson, and Mike Bolsinger. Thus, if they hold their heads above water for a couple of months, that help is on the way and we already know that they have replaced the Yankees as the holders of the fattest wallet in the sport.

What is already available for the Dodgers is pretty good, with Howie Kendrick and Corey Seager strong offensively and defensively at second and short, Adrian Gonzalez still capable at first and a big run producer, newcomer Trayce Thompson a rising star in the outfield, and Yasiel Puig apparently ready to fulfill his considerable potential. The current pitching rotation still features the best lefty in ball, Clayton Kershaw, but there is no one close to Greinke’s quality after that. Similarly, the bullpen has an ace in Kenley Jansen but then just a bunch of other guys.

Several teams were hit hard by injuries in 2015, most notably Texas and St. Louis, and the Giants certainly had their share. Starting pitchers Matt Cain, Jake Peavy, and Tim Lincecum were limited to 45 starts among them due to various ailments. Second baseman Joe Panik played in 100 games and was having an All Star season before he succumbed to a lower back injury, and veteran star outfielder and motivational speaker Hunter Pence played just 52 games while center fielder Angel Pagan did not miss too many games but was obviously sub par physically as his defense and offense both suffered. The Giants addressed these issues fairly well during the winter. Denard Span was signed as a free agent. Span was also hurt in 2015, but if he can be more like the Span of 2014 the center field problem is solved. If he is like the Span of 2015, then the Giants have two Pagans.

For a 30 year old pitcher with good career results, Johnny Cueto remains a bit of a mystery. His 2012 and 2014 seasons for Cincinnati were great, but the rest of the time he has been mediocre. His short stint in Kansas City last year was less than the Royals expected, but the Giants are hoping that he will be a rock solid number two starter behind ace Madison Bumgarner. We’ll see. The now well traveled  righty Jeff Samardzija is pegged at number three, and the Giants expect that their fabled infield defense and pitcher friendly yard will help him improve on his record for the White Sox last season, one of the worst in either league. Peavy, Cain, and last year’s capable fill in , Chris Heston all return and how they will perform is open to speculation at the moment. Lincecum remains unemployed after hip surgery. The bullpen looks  about average and is showing age in spots, but relative youngsters Hunter Strickland and Josh Osich might help.

It’s impossible to say a bad thing about Buster Posey, who batted .318 with 95 RBI last year while challenging Yadier Molina as the best defensive catcher in the league. One could point out that it may be time for the 29 year old All Star to increase his power production as the big legs begin to slow down.

The home grown infield of Brandon Belt at first, Panik at second, Brandon Crawford at short, and Matt Duffy at third provides superb defense and good run production all around the horn. A good if thin bench (13 pitchers on any roster is ridiculous) includes trusty Gregor Blanco and new guys Ehire Adrianza and Kelby Tomlinson. This is a very solid, probably division winning team.

The Colorado Rockies have a very scary lineup and a very solid defense, both personified by third baseman Nolan Arenado and outfielder Carlos Gonzalez. They will have to clone Walter Johnson, Sandy Koufax, and Goose Gossage in order to contend, however.

The weather in San Diego is very nice most of the time. We wish the Padres a lot of luck. They now employ Jon Jay.

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