Watch Out For Climbing Rockies

Has the rest of the National League conceded it all to the Chicago Cubs before we even really get started? Well, certainly not the Dodgers, who are spending almost as much on ballplayers as the Secret Service does on the president’s children, er, advisers. The La La Land organization should breeze to another Western Division crown even though the health and safety of their pitching staff remains as a cause for manager Dave Roberts to fear the sandman. The team that will likely leapfrog the seemingly content San Francisco Giants and become the sharpest thorn in the Dodgers’ side is the Colorado Rockies.

The Dodgers finished six games ahead of the Giants in 2016 despite the fact that all-world left handed pitcher Clayton Kershaw was limited to 21 starts and Zack Greinke went to the Arizona desert to become mediocre. It doesn’t figure that Kershaw will be ailing again and he was fine when healthy with a 12-4 record and an earned run average of 1.69. However, the one vulnerability that Los Angeles has is the fact that so many pitchers have not pitched very many innings in recent years. Veteran righthander Rich Hill , who was plucked from Oakland mid season, pitched well when he pitched, with an overall record of 12-5 and a 2.12 ERA, but he missed several starts with blister issues. Hyun-Jin Ryu has been a quality lefty hurler in recent times but pitched in just one game last year. Brandon McCarthy made just 9 starts with varying success last year and relievers Yimi Garcia, Josh Ravin, and Brock Stewart will all begin 2017 on the disabled list. So will lefty starter Scott Kazmir, who was 10-6 with a 4.56 ERA last season. The Dodgers will draw strength from Kenta Maeda, who made 32 starts and was 16-11 and great reliever Kenley Jansen, who is back in the fold for more late game success. Ross Stripling, who made 14 starts last year, starts this one in the pen. Perhaps the most intriguing addition to the Dodgers roster is Sergio Romo, the reliever with a 2.57 career ERA after 10 seasons with the rival Giants
The outfield is young and capable with Andrew Toles in left. Joc Pedersen in center, and the always interesting Yasiel Puig in right. Scott Van Slyke is a good man to have around to back each of those up while also occasionally spelling the soon to be 35 year old Adrian Gonzalez at first base. Gonzalez still had it last season, driving in 90 runs while remaining an elite defender.
Yasmani Grandal became the everyday catcher in ’16 with improved defensive work and good power numbers. Logan Forsythe comes west from Tampa Bay and adds sturdy defense and steady hitting at second base. Chase Utley got a lot of work there last season but both his offensive and defensive work , while still useful, are below his previous high standards. Cory Seager is a very good hitting shortstop and Justin Turner, who could hit even back in his Mets days, has worked himself into being a better than average third baseman. Kike Hernandez backs up infielders and outfielders and has occasional pop in his bat.
San Francisco was one of the worst teams in the majors for the second half of 2016 but managed to sneak into the wild card game with a strong final week thanks to a surprisingly good first half. Many folks blame their bullpen, which did, indeed, allow many late inning comebacks, but there was a lot of blame to share. So the Giants had a bit of a relief corps purge as Javier Lopez and Jeremy Affeldt retired and Sergio Romo and Santiago Casilla were set loose on the bay with little dinghies. Mark Melancon is going to be paid big bucks to fix all that but there may not be a lot to “save” this season.
They still have that incredibly good infield with Brandon Belt at first, Joe Panik at second, and Brandon Crawford at shortstop. Last year’s mid season acquisition, Eduardo Nunez, is no Jimmy Davenport at third but brings needed speed and adequate hitting. Of course, even as he nears the ripe old age of 30, Buster Posey is as good as it gets at catcher. However, the outfield is in general decline. Hunter Pence hasn’t slowed down much, but he’s not on the field every day anymore and, when he’s not, the Giants are not the same. Denard Span was signed a year ago to be what he’d been in 2014 in center field but it didn’t happen. His numbers were not awful but rather ordinary and he showed hesitance to go full speed after his hip surgery. Veterans Gregor Blanco and Angel Pagan went floating on the same little boats that Romo and Casilla took, and that may have been appropriate if young stars were ready to take their place, but Mac Williamson and Jarrett Parker are not that young nor apparently that good.
Madison Bumgarner won 15 games and left 8 other games with a lead in another stellar season for the big lefty. Johnny Cueto was better than many number one starters with an 18-5 record and a 2.79 ERA. After that, the starting pitching gets rather iffy with Jeff Samardzija, Matt Moore, and the seemingly finished Matt Cain. In the bullpen, the still very good Melancon joins a stable of largely inconsistent and untested young arms.

Things are looking up, meanwhile, for the Colorado Rockies.Can the team that won 75 games a year ago improve enough to head the pack? The lineup is solid, offensively and defensively, and the relief pitching should be more than adequate. The big question to be answered is: can new manager Bud Black, who did so well with pitchers in San Diego, get enough good starting pitching to pass those California teams in the standings for a change? What you generally want to do is, because of Lousy Beer Stadium, deduct about a run from a pitcher’s ERA to compare it with guys who pitch in saner yards.If you do that, Jon Gray (10-10, 4.61), Tyler Anderson (5-6, 3.54), and Tyler Chatwood (12-9,3.87)all had more than decent seasons last year. So did Chad Bettis, but he is out battling cancer now.
What helps those pitchers a lot is the defensive work of Nolan Arenado at third base and D.J. LeMahieu at second. They both hit a little as well, Arenado banging 82 extra base hits in 2016 and LeMahieu hitting .348 including 32 doubles. They are joined in the infield by Trevor Story, who is no Crawford at shortstop but hits with power, although he tailed off in that department as the season wore on. That brings us to Ian Desmond,who once played short and probably could again. The Rockies want Desmond at first base after his injury heals, but Mark Reynolds is capable there in the meantime. Charlie Blackmun provides speed and power at the top of the lineup and is a good center fielder, which you need at Lousy Beer Field. Carlos Gonzalez, still in his prime at 31, is a skilled right fielder who hit .298 with 100 RBI last year, and Manny Parra will help a lot in left field if he can play more than the 102 games that he did in 2016 because he can hit, run, and chase down fly balls well. Alexi Amarista, who does everything but pitch and catch, will be a good bench addition. David Dahl did a good job replacing Parra when he was injured last year and may eventually displace him.

The Arizona Diamondbacks may not look a lot better than they did last year because they still earn first prize in the ugly uniform contest. They should, however, play a lot better just because A. J. Pollock, who only appeared in 12 games last season, is looking like his old self again. That means severe danger at the top of the lineup along with superb coverage of center field. David Peralta also missed a lot of games in 2016 and he is also very good. Plus, Zack Greinke had, for him, an off year (13-7, 4.37), and Shelby Miller, a starting pitcher acquired from Atlanta to help the Snakes overtake the Dodgers,had a disastrous season instead. So can it get much worse? No, the Diamondbacks and new manager Torey Lovullo should improve but not contend. They improved the catching with Jeff Mathis, the bench with Jeremy Hazelbaker, and the starting pitching with Taijuan Walker from Seattle but that last move cost them Jean Segura, the excellent second baseman/shortstop who hit .319 for them last year. After Greinke the starting pitching gets a bit shaky and adding the inconsistent Fernando Rodney will not stabilize a bullpen that has to contend with a park that heavily favors hitters. Paul Goldschmidt is a great all around ballplayer at first, Jake Lamb hits the long ball but gives up runs at third, and the middle guys, Chris Owings and Brandon Drury, are journeyman types. Daniel Descalso will fill in adequately just about everywhere.

The San Diego Padres are currently a pretty good AAA team but, with their youth movement, may be considerably better by August. Wil Myers will represent them at the All Star game. Christian Bethancourt is both a catcher and a relief pitcher but he is not fast enough to catch himself. Hunter Renfroe is a possible star of the future.

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