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NL West Hot Stove Preview: Giants look poised to reclaim the top spot

This week, SI.com will analyze the offseason plans for each team in a division-by-division format. Wednesday will preview the National League and Thursday the American League. Teams are listed in order of finish in 2011.

2010 Results: 94-68, first place in NL West, lost in NLDS

Runs Scored/Runs Allowed: 731/662

Pythagorean Record: 88-74

Free Agents: 2B Aaron Hill, SP Jason Marquis, SP Zack Duke, 1B Lyle Overbay, 1B/OF Xavier Nady, IF John McDonald, IF/OF Willie Bloomquist

Prospects on the Verge: SP Trevor Bauer, SP Jarrod Parker, SP Tyler Skaggs, OF David Winfree, OF Adam Eaton, 3B Ryan Wheeler

Building For: A modest improvement on last season's NLDS run, which was a major improvement on the result of the previous three years.

Strengths: Young rotational depth, team defense, bullpen, Justin Upton

Biggest Holes: Second base, left field, veteran leadership

Targets: Hill, OF Johnny Damon

The Plan: First-year general manager Kevin Towers did well in 2011 by taking the assets he inherited and making his own tweaks to design a club that made a 29-win improvement from the 97-loss season of 2010 and reached the playoffs for the first time since 2007. The Diamondbacks' bullpen was one of history's worst in '10 -- its ERA was 5.74 -- but it was at least average this season, with an ERA of 3.71, due in large measure to Towers' signing of free-agent closer J.J. Putz (45 of 49 in save chances), trade for setup man David Hernandez (3.38 ERA) and selection in the Rule 5 draft of lefty Joe Paterson (2.91). The rotation was, and will continue to be, effective, due largely to the work of his predecessors, who traded for Ian Kennedy, Daniel Hudson and Joe Saunders, and who drafted Parker and Skaggs. Both Parker and Skaggs, along with 2011 No. 3 overall pick Bauer, have some chance of starting the 2011 season in the majors.

The offense, too, is fairly set, built around Upton, the right fielder. Upton bounced back from a somewhat disappointing 2010 (it was ridiculous, in retrospect, that anyone was disappointed with a 22-year-old with a .799 OPS) to make his second All-Star Game, and ended up batting .289 with 31 home runs, 88 RBIs and 21 steals. That means that Towers' off-season will again require more gentle tweaking than overhauling. He might start by re-signing Hill, who hit .315 after Towers acquired him from Toronto in August, but did not quite do enough to induce the GM to pick up his $8 million options for both 2012 and 2013. Hill could well be back, but at a lesser salary.

Towers may also want to bolster left field, at least until Gerardo Parra proves himself more than an average player. He should look at Damon, who thrived in an elder statesman role last season with the Rays -- a team, like the Diamondbacks, that is both very good and very young, and needed some veteran leadership -- and who can still hit.

2010 Results: 86-76, 2nd place

Runs Scored/Runs Allowed: 570/578

Pythagorean Record: 80-82

Free Agents: OF Carlos Beltran, OF Pat Burrell, OF Cody Ross, SS Orlando Cabrera, IF/OF Mark DeRosa, RP Guillermo Mota

Prospects on the Verge: SP Eric Surkamp, RP Heath Hembree, SS Brandon Crawford, OF Gary Brown

Building For: The ability to ride its all but unmatched pitching staff to another championship before free agency starts eating away at it -- a quest that will require the addition of at least some bats.

Strengths: Pitching, in every way.

Biggest Holes: Hitting for average, hitting for power, getting on base, stealing bases, scoring runs.

Targets: SS Jose Reyes, SS Jimmy Rollins, Beltran

The Plan: The Giants' pitching staff, from top to bottom, was even better in 2011 than it was when it led the club to a championship two years ago. It will return all but intact next season, as the re-signing of the excellent lefty specialist Javier Lopez to a two-year, $8.5 million deal and the exercising of the club option of fellow lefty Jeremy Affeldt means that its only free agent will be Mota, a workhorse but probably not one of their half-dozen best relievers. San Francisco's starters will eventually start hitting free agency -- Matt Cain will be first, after 2012 -- and GM Brian Sabean's task will be to give his club the ability to score runs to take advantage of how well it can prevent them.

The loss for the season of catcher Buster Posey after a May collision at home plate seemed to doom the Giants' offense, and it finished last in the NL in runs scored (570) and on-base percentage (.303), even though it received great production from Beltran (seven home runs, 18 RBIs, .920 OPS) after acquiring him from the Mets in late July. Re-signing Beltran should be a top priority, and seems as if it might well happen, but San Francisco will also try to sign a difference-maker to play shortstop, a position that has for them been a black hole for a decade or so. Reyes is the best free agent shortstop available, but it might be too much to sign both him and Beltran in a single off-season -- and would the Giants really try to replicate what the Mets had for the past few years? A better option would be the Phillies' Jimmy Rollins, a Bay Area-native who will be significantly cheaper.

It is a luxury that the Giants' pitching is so set. Usually, off-season objectives aren't so simplified, nor so clear-cut. But if Sabean can sign a pair of big bats, his club should have little trouble returning to the postseason. If first baseman Aubrey Huff can rebound from what was a career-worst season, if Posey and second baseman Freddy Sanchez can get healthy, if second-year man Brandon Belt can continue his development -- and if, say, the Giants can get a late-season boost from a prospect like the 23-year-old Brown (.336, 14 HRs, 80 RBIs, 53 SBs at High-A San Jose last season) -- the Giants could be the NL's best club.

2010 Results: 82-79

Runs Scored/Runs Allowed: 644/612

Pythagorean Record: 84-77

Free Agents: SP Hiroki Kuroda, SP Jon Garland, RP Jonathan Broxton, C Rod Barajas, 1B/OF Juan Rivera, 3B Casey Blake, IF Jamey Carroll, IF Aaron Miles, RP Mike MacDougal, SP/RP Vicente Padilla

Prospects on the Verge: 2B Ivan DeJesus, C Tim Federowicz, IF Justin Sellers, SP Nathan Eovaldi, RP Steve Ames, RP Shawn Tolleson

Building For: A chance to take advantage of their possession of two of the game's great young stars in Matt Kemp and Clayton Kershaw, even as their proud franchise is dragged through the muck.

Strengths: Kemp, Kershaw, tradition.

Biggest Holes: Second base, third base, a stable ownership.

Targets: Kuroda, 3B Wilson Betemit, 1B Prince Fielder, 2B Kelly Johnson

The Plan: The Dodgers lead the league with 10 pending free agents, and that is a very good thing, as it will allow them to discard a lot of the waste they've acquired over the years and focus on building around the best young two-player nucleus in the game, center fielder Kemp and starter Kershaw -- who rightfully should be named the 2011 NL MVP and Cy Young award winner, respectively. The only one of his own free agents that GM Ned Colletti should definitely re-sign (aside, perhaps, from beloved utilityman Carroll) should be Kuroda, who at 36 is coming off the best of his four strong seasons in L.A. (13-16, 3.07 ERA). The 21-year-old Eovaldi last season showed that he can be a competent fifth starter (in six starts he was 1-2 with a 3.09 ERA), meaning that the rotation should look very similar to the one that trailed only the Phillies and Giants in ERA. The Dodgers' bullpen, too, will have a lot of strong options -- even more of them if the fast-rising righties Ames and Tolleson can reach the majors.

Colletti's off-season efforts, then, will be focused on improving his offense, and manager Don Mattingly has begged him for a bat. Colletti has suggested his club will be "in" on all the big names, one of them, perhaps, being the Brewers' Fielder. The big first baseman's demands, however, will likely be too much for a franchise whose ownership faces both an uncertain present and future. More realistic boosts could come from productive, if mid-range, veterans such as Tigers third baseman Wilson Betemit or Blue Jays second baseman Kelly Johnson, the spots around whom Colletti could fill with in-house options such as Juan Uribe, De Jesus or Sellers. (Dee Gordon, the exquisitely fast young shortstop, seems to have that position locked down).

Colletti should also avoid devoting too much to a superstar free agent in order to make sure he has a reserve to re-sign Kemp and Kershaw. Kemp will be eligible for free agency after this season, Kershaw after 2014. Those are the two players who made what could have been a completely disastrous 2011 season a respectable one for the Dodgers, and who could make them wild-card contenders in 2012. They are the two players around which any future championship-caliber club should be oriented.

2010 Results: 73-89

Runs Scored/Runs Allowed: 735/774

Pythagorean Record: 77-85

Free Agents: 2B Mark Ellis, SP Aaron Cook, SP Kevin Millwood, RP J.C. Romero

Prospects on the Verge: SP Drew Pomeranz, C Wilin Rosario, LF Charlie Blackmon, CF Tim Wheeler

Building For: A rebound after the underachievement of 2011.

Strengths: A pair of everyday superstars, bullpen depth.

Biggest Holes: Starting pitching, a third genuine power bat, the play of Ian Stewart

Targets: OF Josh Willingham, a place-holding starting pitcher.

The Plan: The Rockies were, quite simply, the most disappointing club in the majors in 2011. The superstars at their lineup's center -- shortstop Troy Tulowitzki, who posted his third straight .900+ OPS, and center fielder Carlos Gonzalez, who missed 35 games but still hit .295 with 26 homers, 92 RBIs and 20 steals -- tried their best, but still they could not prevent the team, which was tabbed as the NL West's favorite by many experts, from losing 10 more games than it had in 2010. A lot of the Rockies' problems stemmed from misfortune, such as that which befell pitchers Jorge De La Rosa and Juan Nicasio, who started a combined 23 games due to a torn UCL (De La Rosa's) and a broken neck (Nicasio's). But it also came from surprisingly poor performances, such as that of ace Ubaldo Jimenez, who had an ERA of 4.46 before being traded to the Indians, and of 26-year-old third baseman Ian Stewart, who slugged 53 homers between 2008 and '10 but hit not one in 136 plate appearances in '11, contributing to a putrid OPS of .464.

While they hope for a rebound for Stewart, the Rockies should look to sign A's slugger Willingham, who has over the past six seasons averaged 22 home runs while never calling a ballpark anywhere near as friendly to hitters as is Coors Field home. Willingham could split his time between first base and left field, leaving Seth Smith and Todd Helton to share the rest of the at-bats available to those positions. The bullpen should be fine, led by Rafael Betancourt, Huston Street and 23-year-old lefty Rex Brothers. The real problem for GM Dan O'Dowd will be the rotation -- at least until De La Rosa and Nicasio return, which should be sometime this season.

This, however, is not a good winter to be in need of a starting pitcher, especially one who might be lured to Coors Field. There simply aren't many quality options out there, and those that are, such as C.J. Wilson, will be snapped up at salaries that far exceed their quality. O'Dowd, then, will hope that his "ace," Jhoulys Chacin, will continue to improve (he was 11-14 with a 3.62 ERA); that Pomeranz, 22, and Alex White, 23, acquired from the Indians for Jimenez, will perform beyond their years; and that he can get lucky with a low-cost veteran fill-in -- maybe someone like the sinkerballing former Angel Joel Pineiro. The Rockies' offense, then, should be improved, but the chances that their rotation will be made good enough to turn them a winner seem as thin as their ballpark's atmosphere.

2010 Results: 71-91

Runs Scored/Runs Allowed: 593/611

Pythagorean Record: 79-83

Free Agents: CL Heath Bell, SP Aaron Harang, RP Chad Qualls, 1B/OF Brad Hawpe

Prospects on the Verge: 1B Anthony Rizzo, OF James Darnell, SP Robert Erlin, SP Casey Kelly, SP Joe Wieland, 3B Jedd Gyorko

Building For: Probably 2013 and beyond, though there is some immediate sleeper potential here.

Strengths: Farm system, outfield depth, the element of surprise

Biggest Holes: Closer, veteran starter, middle infield

Targets: Bell, SP Jon Garland, SS Rafael Furcal, 2B Mark Ellis

The Plan: The Padres crashed back to earth after winning 90 games and falling one win short of the NL wild card in 2010, but their relatively slim run differential -- and Pythagorean record -- suggests that they were not quite as bad as they appeared. Their post-Adrian Gonzalez lineup produced the third-fewest runs of any big league club, but did feature some bright spots, such as 24-year-old center fielder Cameron Maybin, who did enough (.264, nine homers, 40 RBIs, 40 SBs) to suggest that the Marlins prematurely cut bait on the former top prospect. Maybin's fellow outfielders, Kyle Blanks and Will Venable, also intermittently showed promise, although Venable is already 29. The offense could be immediately buoyed by the full-time promotion of Rizzo, acquired from the Red Sox for Gonzalez. The 22-year-old Rizzo last season struggled in 128 at-bats with the Padres (he hit .141 with one home run and nine RBIs), but he had an OPS of 1.056 with Triple-A Tucson -- the second-highest in the Pacific Coast League.

All of this is to say that new GM Josh Byrnes -- promoted after Jed Hoyer left to work for former Sox boss Theo Epstein with the Cubs -- likely won't do much to address his lineup this winter. He might seek a low-cost, short-term veteran middle infielder as an upgrade on incumbents Orlando Hudson and Jason Bartlett -- both of whom bombed in their first seasons in San Diego (they combined to hit .246 with nine home runs and 83 RBIs, and neither played particularly good defense) -- but it won't be a priority. Byrnes's focus, instead, will be on re-signing Bell for the long-term, and then on moderately improving a rotation that returns only two locks in Mat Latos and Cory Luebke and loses the steady Harang.

A low-cost veteran such as Garland -- who missed most of last season with the Dodgers due to injury, but who excelled as a Padre two years ago -- could help stabilize things until the organization's trio of terrific Double-A arms, Erlin, Kelly (another player in the Gonzalez trade) and Wieland, is ready. While that could happen this season, and those players could make the Padres a darkhorse contender once more, the commencement of a real, long-term resurgence is likely a year away.

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