Wednesday March 30th, 2011

The National League West was baseball's most fascinating division in 2010. The Padres, a team most had ticketed for 90-plus wins and last place, sat in first place for most of the season before a 10-game losing streak as August turned to September and an ensuing swoon allowed the eventual world champion Giants to catch and surpass them, clinching the division via a head-to-head win on the final day of the season. This year, expect the Giants to have a smoother ride to the playoffs in what should actually be one of baseball's least contentious divisions.

WINTER GRADE: D-

The Diamondbacks made their big moves at last year's trade deadline, dealing starters Dan Haren and Edwin Jackson to the Angels and White Sox, respectively. They got solid starting pitching prospects in return in Dan Hudson and teenage lefty Tyler Skaggs, but they didn't get enough for Haren and now don't have a single starter as good as Max Scherzer, the team-controlled potential ace they dealt away the year before. They then spent the winter collecting veterans who might not even qualify as stopgaps (see: Melvin Mora), lining up aging players in front of first base prospect Brandon Allen, and traded away flawed-but-valuable third baseman Mark Reynolds for a pair of undistinguished righthanded relievers.

THREE KEY QUESTIONS:

1. How good is Dan Hudson?

He was dominant after coming over for Jackson at the deadline, but a .216 opponent average on balls in play helped considerably. Still, the 24-year-old is a legitimate prospect who saw his velocity jump up to the mid-90s in 2009 and has held onto that gain ever since.

2. Can Justin Upton make the Leap?

Upton is actually six months younger than Hudson and has superstar talent, but his performance has fluctuated greatly during his first three full major league seasons because of too many strikeouts and a problematic loss of power last year. Upton has a ton of potential, but most of it has gone unrealized, something that can also be said of big brother B.J.

3. How far away is 2007 first-round pick Jarrod Parker, a righthanded starter with star potential who is coming off a season lost to Tommy John surgery?

Despite elbow surgery, Parker is a candidate to break into the major leagues toward the end of the coming season. If Parker can join Hudson in the rotation and Upton can anchor the offense, the Diamondbacks might have something to build around heading forward.

X-FACTOR:

Manager Kirk Gibson

Former Padres general manager Kevin Towers signed a two-year deal to be Arizona's GM at the end of last season and arrived with big talk about a quick turnaround, but nothing he did this winter seems likely to divert the Snakes from a third-straight last-place finish. Given the team's dismal outlook, Gibson's hard-nosed approach could wear out its welcome quickly, turning the Diamondbacks from a bad team to a dysfunctional one. Though given ownership's decision to throw out highly-regarded baby GM Josh Byrnes (and the five years left on his contract) with the managerial bathwater when Byrnes refused to fire A.J. Hinch last year, perhaps they already are one.

SCOUT'S TAKE:

"How Kirk Gibson's fiery personality plays with this team will be the key. They've definitely improved the bullpen and that's by design. J.J. Putz hasn't been a closer in two years but he's still got the stuff to do it. I'd be surprised if they finished in the top half of the division."

WINTER GRADE: C+

Colorado's offseason was largely about keeping the team together. The Rockies re-signed free agent lefty starter Jorge De La Rosa and inked shortstop Troy Tulowitzki and outfielder Carlos Gonzalez to massive extensions that lock up the pair through their expected primes. The investment is admirable, but the length and cost of the Tulowitzki and Gonzalez commitments could prove problematic down the road and did nothing to move the needle for the coming season. The team's lesser moves don't rate a mention.

THREE KEY QUESTIONS:

1. Can Troy Tulowitzki stay healthy?

Tulowitzki is an absolute stud, a 26-year-old shortstop who hits like a corner outfielder, plays legitimate Gold Glove-quality defense, and can even steal a few bags. The only catch is that he's been a bit injury prone in his young career, surpassing 125 games played just once in the last three seasons. His injuries have been largely flukey -- he cut his hand on a shattered bat in 2008 and missed 16 days and had his left wrist broken by a pitch last year, costing him more than a month. Still, keeping Tulo on the field is a concern, and the Rockies can't win without thim.

2. Can Gonzalez do it again?

Few have ever doubted Carlos Gonzalez's talent, but serious doubts about his ability to turn that talent into on-field production saw him passed through two organizations before he landed with the Rockies via the Matt Holliday trade with Oakland after the 2008 season. He finally delivered on that talent last year, but there were still some red flags. He hit a very pedestrian .289/.322/.453 on the road and drew just 32 unintentional walks, a rate of one every 20 plate appearances. There are always concerns about players becoming complacent in the wake of signing a massive new contract, and Gonzalez not only just signed for seven years and $80 million, but it was largely concerns about his attitude and dedication that wore out his welcome with the Diamondbacks and A's. Combine that with his hacktastic approach and lowly performance at sea level and Gonzalez still has a lot to prove.

3. Could the Rockies' offense suffer a total collarpse?

Here's the nightmare scenario: Tulowitzki gets hurt. Gonzalez suffers a major correction. Dexter Fowler reverts to his first-half performance from last year (.216/.327/.317 through a May 31 demotion). Todd Helton plays like the 37-year-old with a bad back that he is. No one steps forward to contribute at second base or catcher, and the entire team, save perhaps Ian Stewart, goes into hiding on the road (see below). Maybe none of that happens and the Rockies take the Giants deep into September, but there's a lot of risk on this team.

X-FACTOR:

Road performance

As I detailed in my essay on the Rockies in Baseball Prospectus 2011, the challenge of playing home games at Coors Field is not preventing runs at home, but rather hitting on the road. Last year, the Rockies had a very respectable 4.25 home ERA, but scored just 3.6 runs per game on the road thanks to a .226/.303/.351 team batting line away from Denver's thin air. As a result, the Rockies won just 38 percent of their road games compared to 64 percent of their home games. Had they simply played one game below .500 on the road, they would have tied the Giants for first place in the division. Gonzalez famously did most of his hitting at home last year, but among the nine hitters with the most plate appearances on the 2010 Rockies, Gonzalez's .775 road OPS ranked third on the team behind only those of Tulowitzki (.863) and Ian Stewart (.802). Unless the Rockies and new hitting coach Carney Lansford can figure out what ails the offense on the road, the Rockies aren't likely to unseat the Giants.

SCOUT'S TAKE:

"They're one of the best teams in the league. Tell me a team with a better core than Ubaldo Jimenez, Troy Tulowitzki, and Carlos Gonzalez? Jimenez's mechanics got out of whack in the second half last season [but] he's the next guy they're going to lock up long term. Todd Helton is showing more raw power than last year."

WINTER GRADE: B

The free agent market featured just a handful of worthwhile starting pitching options beyond Cliff Lee, but the Dodgers managed to bring in three from that handful. They re-signed Hiroki Kuroda at a hometown discount, locked up deadline acquisition Ted Lilly and brought back league-average innings eater Jon Garland, resulting in a deep rotation behind young lefty/righty studs Clayton Kershaw and Chad Billingsley. Unfortunately, they neglected their offense in the process.

THREE KEY QUESTIONS:

1. Will Don Mattingly's lack of managerial experience prove problematic?

Outside of a warmup stint in the Arizona Fall League this past autumn and a few random innings here and there in relief of an ejected Joe Torre, Mattingly has no meaningful managerial experience. He did spend five years as Torre's bench coach both in New York and L.A., but that doesn't compare to skippering the ship himself.

2. Will the Dodgers score enough runs to contend?

There's little reason to be optimistic about the L.A. offense, which scored just 4.12 runs per game last year, well below the NL average.

3. When will the Dodgers get the new ownership they so clearly need?

It can't happen soon enough. But it isn't likely to happen soon at all.

X-FACTOR:

Matt Kemp, OF

The Dodgers' relationship with Kemp has been dysfunctional almost from the moment Kemp arrived in the majors. Despite Kemp's tremendous talent, the Dodgers blocked him with the likes of Juan Pierre and Andruw Jones and constantly threatened to trade him. In 2009, Kemp announced himself as one of the most exciting young players in the game with a breakout season that saw him win the Gold Glove and Silver Slugger and pick up several mid-ballot MVP votes. Last year, however, Kemp fed the Dodgers' doubts with occasionally sloppy and indifferent play, butted heads with Torre and saw his value drop by three-and-a-half wins according to Baseball Prospectus' Wins Above Replacement Player metric. Kemp seems rededicated this spring, however, and looking at his batted-ball types it seems some of his lost production last year may simply have been bad luck on balls in play. The Dodgers did well to restock their rotation, but they need a big rebound from Kemp to have any real hope of contending.

SCOUT'S TAKE:

"They're putting a lot of faith in their starting pitching to carry them. Clayton kershaw is an ace for years to come but Ted Lilly's curveball is very hittable. Matt Kemp has played his butt off this spring. You'd never know he was in Joe Torre's doghouse. A realistic goal for this team is to finish .500."

WINTER GRADE: A-

The Padres' 2010 season was fun while it lasted, but it was a fluke. The team was smart to regard it as such by cashing in Adrian Gonzalez before his walk year for a solid trio of prospects from the Red Sox. Orlando Hudson and Jason Bartlett are low-cost upgrades in the middle infield. Fading prospect Cameron Maybin is a nice lottery ticket in center, and veterans Brad Hawpe, Aaron Harang and Chad Qualls are affordable stopgaps in their early-30s who likely still have something left to offer.

THREE KEY QUESTIONS:

1. Will Mat Latos suffer a hangover after increasing his innings pitched by 61.1 frames in 2010?

Latos emerged as one of the best pitchers in the NL last year, but he faded down the stretch (0-5, 8.18 ERA over his last five starts). He'll open the season on the disabled list with a sore pitching shoulder after posting a 9.00 ERA and walking nine men in 10 innings this spring.

2. Does Maybin still have star potential?

Maybin ranked among baseball's top 10 prospects three years running, but was rushed to the majors by the Tigers at age 20 and was jerked between the majors and minors by the Marlins thereafter, making five distinct major league stints over the last two years. He's a .306/.393/.478 career hitter in the minors, including a .325/.401/.477 line in Triple-A, but has hit just .246/.313/.380 in 610 major league plate appearances.

3. Can we all be that wrong about the Padres again?

Even though we can reverse-engineer its success, the 2010 team still looks like a fluke that overachieved and was carried by a tremendous performance from its bullpen. That brings to mind the success of the 2007 Diamondbacks, a far more talented team that has been in free-fall ever since.

X-FACTOR:

Kyle Blanks, OF

The massive first baseman had Tommy John surgery last July, but made a few pinch-hitting appearances late in the exhibition schedule and could return to action as early as the end of April. When healthy, Blanks, now 24, is a middle-of-the-order hitter with big-time power, as evidenced by his .303/.393/.501 career line in the minor leagues and .250/.355/.514 performance as a 22-year-old rookie in 2009. He could emerge as Gonzalez's heir at first base.

SCOUT'S TAKE:

"No one thought they could do what they did last year, and they're going to use the same blueprint with pitching and defense. It's clear that with a limited budget their going to tailor the team to the ballpark, which is a smart thing. If they're ahead of you after six you're going to have problems beating them with that great bullpen."

VERDUCCI: Padres will follow similar formula in 2011

WINTER GRADE: C

Thanks to the albatross contracts of Barry Zito and Aaron Rowand, the Giants didn't have the financial flexibility to make any high-profile additions in the wake of their first world championship as a West Coast club. Instead they re-signed Aubrey Huff and replaced Juan Uribe with Miguel Tejada at shortstop, a fairly even exchange. They're content to rely on full seasons from sophomores Buster Posey and Madison Bumgarner, the promise of first-base prospect Brandon Belt and the return of injured utility man Mark DeRosa to get them back to the playoffs.

THREE KEY QUESTIONS:

1. Can the rotation avoid a hangover?

Though they did a good job patching their offense, the Giants won last year on the strength of their pitching. At the tender age of 20, top prospect Bumgarner threw 73 more innings than in 2009, while Jonathan Sanchez and Matt Cain enjoyed unusually good luck, posting opponent batting averages on balls in play of .255 and .252, respectively. That raises three red flags for this year's rotation. But Sanchez and Cain also did well on balls in play in 2009, and while Bumgarner has been hit hard this spring, his 5:1 K/BB ratio and 25 strikeouts in 21.1 innings tell a different story about how well he's been throwing the ball.

2. When will first base prospect Belt arrive?

Belt, a fifth-round pick in 2009, was the breakout star of the minor leagues last year, hitting .352/.455/.620 with 23 homers, 122 RBIs and 22 stolen bases across three levels and finishing with a .956 OPS in Triple-A. He impressed in camp and nearly made the Opening Day roster, but was instead farmed out to delay his free agency clock. He seems sure to make an impact at the major league level at some point this season, with Huff moving into an outfield corner to make room. The Giants could bring Belt up in May or wait until June to avoid super-two arbitration status -- a designation that may be stripped away in the next collective bargaining agreement anyway.

3. Could they wind up giving up too much on defense?

Miguel Tejada had a sort of miraculous rebirth as a shortstop with the Padres late last year, but expecting him to man the position for a full season at age 36 could be a disastrous decision for a team so heavily dependent on pitching. Having Pat Burrell in leftfield is another major concern, and even if Brandon Belt pushes Aubrey Huff to the outfield, it may not be long before it's clear that Cody Ross is no better than a fourth outfielder, leaving Burrell and Huff in the corners and creating a ton of work for admittedly game centerfielder Andres Torres. There are always concerns about Pablo Sandoval's viability at third as well, though thus far his play in the field has dismissed them. If the Rockies are a team that could suffer an offensive collapse, the Giants are a team that could suffer a defensive one.

X-FACTOR:

Pablo Sandoval, 3B

In 2009, Sandoval hit .330/.387/.556 and was more valuable at the plate than the next four men on his team combined. Last year, after a strenuous conditioning program, he hit .268/.323/.409 and was worth nearly four wins less according to WARP. There are ways to break down the latter performance and attribute it to bad luck on balls in play on the road (he hit .330/.382/.520 at home and just .234 on balls in play on the road), but Sandoval's rotund physique (he comes by his nickname fairly, as he's roughly the size of a typical Giant Panda) and free-swinging ways tend to fan the flames of doubt. If Kung Fu Panda can bounce back, the Giants just might run away with the division.

SCOUT'S TAKE:

"If they can get to the playoffs they can wit it again with their pitching. If you told me I could have Tim Lincecum or Matt Cain, I'd take Cain. He's a legit No. 1. You wouldn't recognize Pablo Sandoval. He's thinner than he was in the minors and he's got his bat speed back."

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