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MLB Spring Training Preview 2018: NL West

Welcome to the wild, wild, west. “Wild” could aptly describe the NL West this upcoming season as I see four teams with a realistic shot at the division. The favorites will be the Dodgers and Diamondbacks — rightfully so given they made the playoffs — but don’t discount the Rockies and Giants. They will make things interesting and could set the stage for an exciting last month.

This rounds out the National League preview, so let’s not waste any more time and get into it!

Los Angeles Dodgers (104–58)

Free Agents
  • Andre Ethier
  • Tony Watson
  • Chase Utley (re-signed: two years, $2 million)
Key Losses
  • Brandon Morrow
  • Curtis Granderson
  • Yu Darvish
Notable Additions
  • None

Baby steps? The 2016 Dodgers advanced to the NLCS. The 2017 Dodgers advanced to the World Series. Can the 2018 Dodgers take that next step and win the World Series? They return a potentially dynamic offense, but on the flip side, potentially suffer a couple big losses in Yu Darvish and Brandon Morrow (both now Chicago Cubs).

Let’s start with that offense. The infield is anchored by the trio of Justin Turner, Corey Seager, and Cody Bellinger. Bellinger posted a slash line of .267/39/97 in his rookie year in only 480 at-bats! Truly impressive stuff. Seager’s back and elbow issues late last season should cause some early concern, but the budding superstar is adamant they are behind him, so we shall see. The outfield will be an interesting situation. Can Yasiel Puig put together a complete season and live up to his massive potential? Can Chris Taylor duplicate his vastly underrated 2017 season (.288/21/72) into an All-Star 2018?

Just a couple early season questions the early part of the season should yield. I would bet more on the “yes” side and figure these Dodgers put out quite an effective offense. Don’t sleep on top prospect Alex Verdugo playing his way into the starting lineup on occasion as well. The former second-round pick can play and will garner some ROY votes if given enough playing time.

Regarding the pitching, Clayton Kershaw is still a Dodger. That’s all that matters right? Well, not exactly. While he is otherworldly and the second coming of Sandy Koufax (strictly speaking regular season), the rest of the rotation will have to absorb the loss of Darvish. It is a potentially very good rotation, but putting Maeda back into the rotation is a step in the wrong direction. He was so good in the bullpen in October — 0.84 ERA with only five hits allowed in 10.2 innings to go along with 10 strikeout — that Darvish signing in Chicago has a negative effect in both the rotation and the bullpen. Which Alex Wood is ready for 2018? Pre-All-Star Wood who posted a 1.67 ERA and a 10–0 record or post-All-Star Wood who posted a 3.89 ERA and a 6–3 record?

I think the Dodgers would be ecstatic to get somewhere in the middle. Keep an eye on top prospect Walker Buehler. The former first-round pick (24th overall) out of pitching factory Vanderbilt just completed his first full season post-Tommy-John surgery and still throws a heavy ball and could be a big factor in replacing Darvish.

Los Angeles’ bullpen is in pretty good shape despite the loss of Morrow. Kenley Jansen returns as the closer and the rest is comprised of Josh Fields, Tony Cingrani, Ross Stripling, and others. I hesitate and say “pretty good shape” because I think they will feel the loss of Morrow and will need to find someone who can bridge the gap to Jansen. It’s a lot easier said than done sometimes.

When the season finishes, I expect the Dodgers to make the playoffs… but barely. I firmly believe the losses they’ve suffered will be hard to offset and last seasons cruise control into the playoffs was an extreme anomaly and they will regress into a crowded NL West. Duplicating an absurd 43–7 stretch is going to be near impossible.

Arizona Diamondbacks (93–69)

Free Agents
  • None
Key Losses
  • Chris Iannetta
  • Fernando Rodney
  • J.D. Martinez
  • Brandon Drury
Notable Additions
  • Alex Avila (two years, $8.25 million)
  • Steven Souza Jr. (acquired via trade from Tampa Bay)
  • Jarrod Dyson (two years, $7.5 million)

The past couple weeks have seen a flurry of changes for the Arizona Diamondbacks. Gone is designated hitter disguised as an outfielder J.D. Martinez and second baseman Brandon Drury. New snakes in the desert are outfielders Steven Souza Jr. and Jarrod Dyson. The team overall looks to once again challenge the Dodgers as Arizona is a pretty well-balanced team overall.

Offensively, this team goes as far as the duo of Paul Goldschmidt and Jake Lamb take them. The infield sluggers combined to slash of .273/66/225. While not quite in the Stanton–Judge spectrum of teammate combined stats, those are pretty good. The real question heading into spring training will be how the outfield shakes out. With the acquisitions of Souza Jr. and Dyson, a logjam has formed with incumbents David Peralta, A.J. Pollock, and Yasmani Tomas. I could see Peralta in left field, a platoon of some sorts in center field (Pollock and Dyson) and Souza Jr. in right field. Notice that I’ve left someone out? I think the days of Tomas are numbered in the desert with these new moves. I’m sure Arizona is looking to move on from that failed expensive experiment.

On the mound, the rotation is pretty much set. Zack Greinke will once again be the ace and then followed (in some order) by Robbie Ray, Taijuan Walker, Patrick Corbin and Zack Godley. This quintet of a starting rotation will surely not strike much fear into opponents, but is solid and with promise. Could they use an upgrade? Chris Archer perhaps? Sure. The trade deadline could bring about an interesting dilemma as top prospect Pavin Smith could be dangled in some sort of way as he’s seemingly blocked at the MLB level right now at first base by Goldschmidt.

Archie Bradley steps into the closer’s role after losing Fernando Rodney in free agency. This will sting a bit for the snakes as Bradley looked almost unhittable in the setup role and really made the end of the game a very easy decision most of the time for manager Torey Lovullo. I’m sure he can make the transition pretty seamless, but then who takes over his role? I’ll be looking at Braden Shipley this spring and seeing if the former first-round pick and starter can find a niche in the setup role just like Bradley. It will be an interesting summer in the desert.

In the end, the snakes miss the playoffs, finishing behind the Dodgers and this next team, my sleeper pick in the NL West…

Colorado Rockies (87–75)

Free Agents
  • Mark Reynolds
  • Jonathan Lucroy
  • Greg Holland
  • Carlos Gonzalez
Key Losses
  • Tyler Chatwood
  • Pat Neshek
Notable Additions
  • Wade Davis (three years, $52 million)
  • Jake McGee (three years, $27 million)
  • Bryan Shaw (three years, $27 million)
  • Chris Iannetta (two years, $8.25 million)

Rocky Mountain High! The Colorado Rockies definitely made their presence known this offseason when it comes to free agent contracts for relief pitchers, even setting an MLB record for AAV with the Wade Davis signing. This team is going to surprise some people and will challenge in the NL West.

The offense is still led by center fielder Charlie Blackmon and third baseman Nolan Arenado. There might not be a better offensive duo in baseball as they combined to hit a slash of .320/74/234. That’s a ton of production out of two hitters. The rest of the lineup still includes former batting champion D.J. LeMahieu, top prospect Ryan McMahon (2013 second-round pick) and the underrated Gerardo Parra (.309/10/71). Colorado finished the 2017 season third in MLB in runs scored (824) with this lineup.

Now, this is where it’ll get exciting for Rockies fans. Sometime during the season, Brendan Rodgers (2015 3rd overall pick) will make his debut and it will all smiles at Coors Field. All the guy did last season at A+ Lancaster (High A ball) is hit .387/12/47 in 222 at-bats with an OPS of 1.078. This. Guy. Can. Flat. Out. Rake. Oh, and he did this at 20 years old. That’s 2.7 years younger than the average player at that level. Get excited.

The starting rotation is where this team will have questions. Is there talent? Absolutely; however, losing Tyler Chatwood will hurt. Out of around seven that are vying for spots, three are former first-round top 10 picks: Jon Gray 3rd overall 2013, Kyle Freeland 8th overall 2014, and Jeff Hoffman 9th overall 2014. Gray looks to be the ace of the bunch and has showed the most promise. Behind him though is some sort of combination of Hoffman, Freeland, German Marquez, Antonio Senzatela, Chad Bettis, and Tyler Anderson. Not exactly the most dominant hurlers but can they be good enough to get the game to the bullpen?

Ah, the bullpen. And what a glorious bullpen it could be. There’s no secret that the game is changing. The bullpen is becoming longer and more involved. Gone are the days of complete games and throwing 130 pitches (for the most part). It’s all about using your bullpen more and keeping your starters fresh throughout the long season. The Rockies may have lost Greg Holland (who as of writing this is still a FA and it’s two weeks into spring training) but they have invested three years and $106 million on Wade Davis, Bryan Shaw, and Jake McGee. This is where the Rockies could have a nice advantage over other NL contenders this season. While Davis is closing out games with McGee and Shaw as the primary set up men, the game could turn into a short one with the starters only needing to go six innings. A key stat to remember with those three with Coors Field as their home park is this: 15 in 192. That’s 15 HR allowed in 192 innings. That’s really good and a reason why I’m thinking Rockies fans are going to be “Rocky Mountain High” just a bit longer this season.

October baseball for the Colorado Rockies. I’m calling it now.

San Diego Padres (71–91)

Free Agents
  • Travis Wood
  • Erick Aybar
  • Jarred Cosart
Key Losses
  • Jhoulys Chacin
Notable Additions
  • Eric Hosmer (eight years, $144 million)

The weather is really nice in San Diego I hear. The baseball team might provide the beginnings of a sunny outlook as well. Armed with a young nucleus and (I think) a brilliant FA signing of Eric Hosmer, the Padres may surprise some people over the next couple seasons. Will they contend this season? No. Will they give fans a reason to ditch the beach and Gaslamp Quarter? On occasion, yes.

Giving Eric Hosmer eight years and $144 million was the right move. A lot of my fellow colleagues around baseball will disagree with me, thinking that’s too much money for someone who doesn’t excel in a category. He’s just above average in most categories last season, posting a .318/25/94 slash line. I’m not basing my stance purely on stats. If I was, then yes, I would agree with them. The one thing you cannot measure is leadership, a veteran presence (at a young 28), and someone who just wins. These are non-statistical areas in which he does excel. With a young team full of promising positional players, Hosmer’s intangibles will be immeasurable. During Team USA’s championship run through the World Baseball Classic last year, who do you think manager Jim Leyland chose as starting first base, Eric Hosmer or Paul Goldschmidt? Leyland trusted Hosmer. He’s a winner and will more than justify that contract.

The lineup this season will go through growing pains for sure as right fielder Hunter Renfroe, center fielder Manuel Margot, and catcher Austin Hedges are looking to fulfill their potential as top prospects. If one or two of them take a step forward, the offense could look respectable with veterans such as Hosmer and Chase Headley adding support. The upper minors is where two of the Padres top prospects reside in shortstop Fernando Tatis Jr. and shortstop/second baseman Luis Urias. Both are considered elite and will join the MLB club most likely sometime after this season. Keep an eye out on them.

On the mound is where this team will need some bigger leaps of improvement. The rotation will be led by Clayton Richard. Yes, Clayton Richard will be their ace. Mind you, I have nothing against him, he just isn’t a number one… or a number two… or a number three. At best, he’s a number four in a contending rotation. The rest will shake out with some form of Luis Perdomo, Dinelson Lamet and a handful of others. The farm system, however, is littered with quality pitching. Most pundits estimate eight of their top 10 are pitchers, led by  Mackenzie Gore — 1.27 ERA in 21 innings in rookie ball last year with a 34:7 strikeout-to-walk ratio — who possesses a plus curveball, plus change-up, plus slider and command of his fastball. That’s a lot of plusses. The next wave after Gore include Cal Quantrill (8th pick in the 2016 draft), Logan Allen, Eric Lauer, Joey Lucchesi and Jacob Nix. All are expected to begin the season in either AA or AAA, but don’t be surprised to see someone make that leap to the big league club this season.

The ball at the end of the game still goes to Brad Hand. I’m honestly shocked he wasn’t traded last season at the trade deadline with the Padres looking to replace him with an interim low cost option, but here is 2018 and the job is still his. No splashy moves otherwise in the bullpen as he’ll be set up by a combination of Phil Maton, Jose Torres, Buddy Baumann and Kyle McGrath.

The pieces to succeed are there Padres fans. Just be patient and let it unfold.

San Francisco Giants (64–98)

Free Agents
  • None
Key Losses
  • None
Notable Additions
  • Andrew McCutchen (acquired via trade with Pittsburgh Pirates)
  • Evan Longoria (acquired via trade with Tampa Bay Rays)
  • Austin Jackson (two years, $6 million)
  • Tony Watson (three years, $9 million)

While most teams are going the younger route in terms of building a winner, the Giants are doing the opposite in signing older players to make a push now. The newly acquired Andrew McCutchen and Evan Longoria signal that San Francisco wants to win and see the window closing soon. It’s not exactly the route I would take, but hey, who am I to argue with a front office that’s won three World Series in the last eight years.

It’s no secret that a vast majority last season’s offense regressed, scoring a paltry 639 runs, which ranked 29th out of 30 MLB teams. The front office is betting on a turn to norm for most of the positional players plus a boost with the acquisitions of McCutchen and Longoria. This is a pretty good gamble. The lineup (sans McCutchen and Longoria) still includes the likes of established players like Hunter Pence, Brandon Crawford, Joe Panik, Brandon Belt, and Buster Posey. If I were to forget about all the down seasons the majority of these players had (Posey really had the only good season) and blindly guessed where this team would finish? I would say they could make a run at the NL West because I know the pedigree all these players, plus they added former All-Stars McCutchen and Longoria. That would form a pretty formidable offensive threat against their rival, the Dodgers. Again, that’s if I’m ignoring age and last season regression.

But don’t worry too much Giants fans, the odds are ever in your favor and look for your team to score more than 639 runs this season and give the Dodgers (and Rockies and Diamondbacks) something to sweat about. How much sweat? Well, maybe not a lot, but enough to say, “Hey, I’m kind of sweaty, but I’ll just change my shirt and be fine.”

The same question can be applied to the pitching side as the offense:“What will we get out of our pitching staff?” Madison Bumgarner will pitch more than 111 innings this season, won’t he? I would bet the over on that. While he missed a good portion of last season due to injury, it’s a good bet he’ll make his usual 30 or so starts with over 200 innings pitched. The guy has the track record. Johnny Cueto had a fantastic 2016 (18–5/2.79/198) and a not so fantastic 2017 (8–8/4.52/136). After having a career year with Cincinnati in 2014, setting highs in wins (20), GS (34), innings pitched (243.2) and strikeouts (242), Cueto’s had a rough go of it besides that outlying 2016 season. I wouldn’t put too much stock into Cueto having a bounceback season and most likely end up somewhere in the middle (13–8/3.90/165). Not bad numbers for a back of the rotation guy, but not ideal for a guy currently slotted as your number two.

Jeff Samardzija is an interesting guy. The former Notre Dame Fighting Irishman receiver (Go Irish!) has all the tools to succeed — he stays healthy, live arm, great control — but seemingly lacks that extra gear or drive to become a better pitcher. It baffles me because this is not who he is as a person, but that same drive doesn’t see to translate to the mound career wise (68–87/4.10/1.25 WHIP). While he does have a fiery nature, he just seemingly lacks a mental desire/focus on the mound. Youngsters Ty Blach and Chris Stratton look to be the current choices to back up the rotation.

The bullpen, an area of weakness last season due in most part to injuries to Mark Melancon and Will Smith, might turn out to be a position on strength this season. Melancon and Smith are back, and will be joined by Sam Dyson, Hunter Strickland, and newly acquired former Dodger, Tony Watson. Looks like the Giants improved by weakening Los Angeles, so to speak. The collection of these bullpen arms shouldn’t be overlooked as they may play a vital role on whether the Giants can win 84 games or 88 games and in the NL, that could mean playing in October or watching someone else play in October.

This year’s San Francisco Giants will be watching someone else play.

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