How Will the West Be Won?

There are at least four good teams in the National League West division this season and there is consequently very little doubt that the Los Angeles Dodgers will not waltz to another title.

The Dodgers had an incredible run in 2017, winning 104 games to finish 11 games in front of the Arizona Diamondbacks and make it to the seventh game of the World Series. This year, in addition to enhanced competition, they will face a few dents in the armor that never seemed to appear last season. Early on there is the broken left wrist of Justin Turner, who burst through at age 33 to hit .322 with 53 extra base hits and to establish himself as a fine defensive third base man after a previous career of many ups and downs. They don’t know when he’ll be back. Center fielder Chris Taylor came from out of nowhere to put up similar offensive numbers to Turner’s while taking over that position from the erratic Joc Pederson. It will be uncomfortable for manager Dave Roberts if that proves to be a one year surprise. The most reliable Dodgers asset has been the pitching, but now Rich Hill is at least temporarily on the shelf and Kenley Jansen, the best “closer” in baseball, has been ineffective early. The calm, stoic presence of Adrian Gonzalez has moved strangely to Atlanta and then New York.

Nevertheless, the Dodgers remain the strongest team in the division, and we can expect to see them in the playoffs again. Switch hitting catcher Yasmani Grandal is a potent offensive weapon while Austin Barnes is the superior receiver, so L.A. is in good shape at that critical position. Cody Bellinger plays first base nearly as well as Gonzalez did and is the best current advertisement for the launch angle trendiness. Corey Seager at 24 years of age looks like a star for years to come at shortstop and when Logan Forsythe returns the infield defense will improve. Chase Utley is 88 years old now but he continues to provide winning baseball whenever he plays. Yasiel Puig continues to piss off the opposition but he has become a first class outfielder with ferocious power. It seems weird to say it but Matt Kemp is a Dodger again and, for now at least, he is looking good again. Clayton Kershaw remains the rock solid leader of the pitching staff. Beyond that strong lefthander, everything is iffy unless Jansen regains his form.

The team that could give the Dodgers the most trouble in this division is the Colorado Rockies. There are three very good managers in the N.L. West. Dave Roberts showed his stuff last year, Bruce Bochy has become legendary, and Bud Black might be the best. Everyone knows that the Rockies have a devastating lineup, with Charlie Blackmon  as one of the most absurd leadoff batters in baseball, accomplishing a .331 batting average with 37 home runs and 104 runs batted in with 14 steals at that position in 2017. Then there is Nolan Arenado, who mimics Mike Schmidt in Denver. Add D.J. LeMahieu, Trevor Story, and Ian Desmond and you have a group of bashers who also happen to play very good defense. Where Black’s magic comes into play is with a group of young pitchers who have been dealing with pitching in Denver. Jon Gray, Chad Bettis, Tyler Anderson, German Marquez, and Kyle Freeland are not nearly as well publicized as the starting pitchers in New York or Washington, but if they continue to get the job done we will all know about them. Plus, the bullpen is well stocked with guys like Mike Dunn, Bryan Shaw, and Wade Davis.

 

Arizona  slithered into contention last season, winning 93 games to instill hope into Diamondbacks followers. The secret was the Big Three of starting pitchers in Zack Greinke (17-7, 3.20 ERA), lefty Robbie Ray (15-5,2.89) and Patrick Corbin (14-13, 4.03). Young righty Taijuan Walker made it a fourth but he is out for the season in 2018 facing Tommy John surgery. Remember Shelby Miller? He is due back in mid season and will be welcomed . Fortunately for the Diamondbacks, they have assembled a pretty good crew of relievers who will no doubt be getting lots of work. Archie Bradley and Brad Boxberger have been impressive in late relief but we’ll see how that goes as the season progresses. Paul Goldschmidt anchors the offense and plays a great first base. If shortstop Nick Ahmed, second baseman Ketel Marte, and center fielder A. J. Pollock all play 150 games the pitchers will be glad. Third baseman Jake Lamb is out on the disabled list at the moment and will provide powerful offensive support when he returns, especially against left handed pitchers. Alex Avila and Jeff Mathis are a solid combo behind the plate.

As much as the Diamondbacks improved in 2017, the San Francisco Giants plummeted. Whereas many teams in that position would have been tempted to clean house and start over, the Giants were in a bit of a fix. A solid core of performers were under contract and still potentially capable of winning lots of games: Buster Posey, Joe Panik, and Brandon Crawford at catcher, second base, and shortstop. Hunter Pence, Denard Span and a vast contingent of third basemen and left fielders were not, however. The Giants were seemingly flummoxed at the managerial level last year. Auditions for journeymen took place for a good part of the season as Aaron Hill, Tim Federowicz, Ryder Jones, Drew Stubbs, and Justin Ruggiano among others all wore Giants uniforms during that process. Next thing they knew, they were 64-98. In addition to the core named above, the Giants also still had Madison Bumgarner, Johnny Cueto, and Jeff Samardzija as starting pitchers. They  rolled the dice and came up with Andrew McCutchen and Evan Longoria for right field  and third base. Those are very good players who have established fine credentials over the past decade. So it looks like one last shot at greatness, but it is bound to fall short. It’s a much more interesting team though.

San Diego became a team that was cleaning house a couple of years ago. and they might be getting somewhere. A youth movement brought them  catcher Austin Hedges, second baseman Carlos Asuaje, third baseman Christian Villanueva, and outfielder Jose Pirela. They each show good potential. To this they have added All Star first baseman Eric Hosmer and former Padre Chase Headley as a spare corner infielder. Will Myers, who played first but is now scheduled for right field, provides veteran leadership once he returns from the disabled list. Where the Padres still look weak is in the starting rotation of pitchers. Tyson Ross is back after a stint in Texas and could be the best. Joey Lucchesi is a rookie lefty who has been outstanding in the minors. However, Clayton Richard, Bryan Mitchell, and Matt Strahm have been erratic at best so far in their careers. Therefore, more patience will be needed in San Diego.

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