Of Major League Baseball's six divisions, only the NL West has sent each of its clubs to the playoffs at least once since 2006. "There's no clear favorite from year to year," says Giants GM Brian Sabean, "which makes it interesting."
Sabean's Giants enter 2012 as the division's technical favorite due to a pitching staff that last season ranked second in baseball in both ERA by starters (3.28) and relievers (3.04) and to the return from injury their lineup's centerpiece, catcher Buster Posey. But the Diamondbacks, last season's surprise division champion, are close behind (one Vegas bookie has San Francisco at 7-5 to win the division, Arizona at 8-5), and appear to have the depth to withstand injury or disappointing performances in a way that the Giants do not.
Even the Dodgers and the Rockies, coming off of down years, have things to recommend them: Mostly, the fact that both have a duo of players who rank among the game's very best at their positions, centerfielder Matt Kemp and starter Clayton Kershaw for Los Angeles and leftfielder Carlos Gonzalez and shortstop Troy Tulowitzki for Colorado. In fact, only the Padres appear to have no chance at all to win the West -- but then again, San Diego, after a few years of disciplined strategy as far as player acquisitions, have the division's best and deepest farm system.
In other words, the NL West in 2012 will once again prove to be what it always has been, and should continue to be: wide open.
Kevin Towers had less to do than many general managers, as he returned most of a surprisingly successful roster, but he still managed to have one of the best off-seasons around, thanks to a few smart tweaks. He traded for a No. 2-caliber starter, Trevor Cahill, who can be under club control through 2017. He further fortified a bullpen that was significantly improved from 2010, when it was the worst in NL history, by acquiring lefty Craig Breslow from Oakland in the Cahill deal, and signing Takashi Saito. And he signed outfielder Jason Kubel -- a slugger whose power numbers might have been down the past few seasons (he hit 33 homers combined) in part because he played in Minnesota's capacious Target Field -- to a reasonable two-year, $16 million contract. If the Diamondbacks don't again contend, it will be difficult to too harshly criticize their general manager.
Last season, Ryan Roberts was a 30-year-old journeyman best known for his considerable number of tattoos and a resume that included consecutive seasons with the batting average .077. Then, out of nowhere, he became one of the league's most productive third basemen, hitting 19 homers with 65 RBI's and 18 stolen bases. Roberts was not the only Diamondback to have his best-ever season in 2011, as Arizona added 29 wins to its 2010 total and came one win away from the NLCS. Others include starters Ian Kennedy and Daniel Hudson, catcher Miguel Montero and, to some degree, young slugger Justin Upton. The only thing harder than having a career year is having another one, and the D-backs must hope that last season's performances can be replicated.
At baseball's general managers' meetings in Milwaukee last November, A's GM Billy Beane informed Towers that most everyone on his roster, save second baseman Jemile Weeks, would be available in a potential trade. After determining that Gio Gonzalez would require too steep a price, Towers happily settled for Cahill, although it meant he had to part with top pitching prospect Jarrod Parker, among others. "An arm that was young, coming into his premier years as a pitcher, cost-controlled -- it was really a no-brainer," says Towers. The 24-year-old Cahill's goal is to rediscover the command he had two years ago, when he went 18-8 with a 2.97 ERA. If he does that, he'll be the linchpin of what might be the National League's deepest (if not most talented) rotation. It will feature four starters who have won 16 or more games in at least one of the past three years.
"You shouldn't put a lot of stock in spring training results -- they were terrible out here last year as well -- but they're just 13-17. Some of their guys don't look ready, their pitching hasn't been real sharp. They've got questions all over the infield, for different reasons. They think Roberts is going to be their everyday guy at third, but I think he's better suited to a superutility role. And that's not as big a concern as their shortstop situation, Willie Bloomquist and John McDonald. Their pitching, I feel like, will keep them at least in the hunt, but I don't like them to repeat."
"We talked about our culture a lot," says GM Dan O'Dowd of his club's pre-winter strategy sessions. "I don't want to wear this thing to death. But we need to have a team that plays for one heartbeat, and not a group playing for their own heartbeats. We worked really hard to get that right." The Rockies were probably the majors' most disappointing team in 2011, finishing 73-89, and O'Dowd sought players who could not only produce but lead. To that end, he acquired veterans, including innings-eating former Orioles starter Jeremy Guthrie, outfielder Michael Cuddyer, second baseman Marco Scutaro, catcher Ramon Hernandez and even 49-year-old southpaw Jamie Moyer, a non-roster invitee whose 2.77 spring ERA won him a gig in the rotation. There might not be an All-Star among them -- his stars remain Tulowitzki and Gonzalez -- but O'Dowd did succeed in importing a solid core, where there was none.
You might have heard that Moyer is getting up there in years, but so too, relatively, are Cuddyer (33), Guthrie (32), Hernandez (35), and Scutaro (36). Incumbents Rafael Betancourt, Todd Helton and Jason Giambi are each 36 or older, too. It is usually not a positive, particularly in this day and age, when players who comprise one-third of your roster are past their primes, in some cases definitively so. The central question for the Rockies is whether O'Dowd has tapped into a new market inefficiency -- an overvaluing of youth -- or whether his roster is, simply, old, which might force him to push top prospects like catcher Wilin Rosario and third baseman Nolan Arenado into everyday jobs for which they don't quite seem ready.
Moyer will not be the only lefty in the Rockies' rotation. The other will be Pomeranz, the 23-year-old acquired last August in the trade that sent Ubaldo Jimenez to Cleveland, and whose father is just seven years older than his new locker neighbor, whose wisdom Pomeranz has been soaking up. "First day, we're stretching, and I was like, 'Hey, Jamie, will you be my throwing partner?'" recalls Pomeranz. "He knows more than probably anybody out here." Whether due to Moyer's influence or not, Pomeranz had a stellar spring -- a 0.53 ERA in 17 innings -- and his precocity should be a key to a somewhat patchwork rotation from which, says O'Dowd, "We will need to have some surprises."
"I think the Rockies can surprise people. For them, it's going to be all about the starting pitching. Guthrie is going to really stabilize that rotation, give them the innings they're looking for, and he has solid stuff. I think they're going to have enough offense to at least be a force. I kind of like them to challenge the Giants."
GM Ned Colletti's main target this off-season was Prince Fielder. After coming in second to the Tigers in the pursuit of the free agent slugger, it was on to Plan B: adding veteran depth, and a lot of it, in an attempt to give manager Don Mattingly some options that he did not have in 2011. That meant surrounding superstars Matt Kemp and Clayton Kershaw with players like bottom-of-the-rotation starters Chris Capuano and Aaron Harang; backup catcher Matt Treanor; and utilitymen Adam Kennedy and Jerry Hairston, Jr. An uninspiring list, to be sure, and their winter grade reflects that. But even as they enter the season, the Dodgers are very much a work in progress.
The Dodgers have finally been ripped from owner Frank McCourt's clutches, thanks to their remarkable $2 billion sale, and Colletti should have the wherewithal to add some major pieces as the year progresses, if he finds himself with a team in contention. Which, seemingly against all odds, he very well might.
Although most everyone considers 2011 to have been an annus horribilis for the Dodgers, they actually finished above .500, at 82-79. That was due largely to the heroics of Kemp and Kershaw, who according to Baseball-Reference.com had a combined WAR of 17.0.
L.A., however, got little from its second level stars -- No. 2 starter Chad Billingsley (11-11, 4.21 ERA), outfielder Andre Ethier (.292, 11 HR, 62 RBIs) and first baseman James Loney (.288, 12 HR, 65 RBIs). If those three players can simply return to their career norms, then the Dodgers might be closer to a return to their glory days than is commonly believed.
The sprightly, leadoff-hitting shortstop, 23, continued where he left off as a rookie last September, hitting .390 with 11 stolen bases in 21 games during spring training.
"Dee's off the charts in a lot of ways," says Mattingly, who knows something about being off the charts in a lot of ways. "Athleticism, speed, quickness. You just don't see it, and you can't teach it, and you don't find it very often."
"He doesn't just want to be a good player," adds Colletti. "He wants to be a great player."
If Gordon can be some semblance of that this season, his dynamic presence will add only another reason for the Dodgers and the fans to have a positive outlook not just on 2012, but on the seasons to come.
"I saw a lot of their games last year. They could have gone right in the toilet, let all the distractions ruin them. Kemp had a great year, Kershaw had a great year and Mattingly came a long way as a manager -- baseball players find stuff to complain about, and it's easy to fold the tent, but they sure as heck didn't. I think Colletti was very limited in what he could do this off-season, kind of licking his chops to get this ownership thing straightened out. The guys he added are just guys. Now he can go about making the Dodgers into what they used to be, and it could happen faster than you think."
The Padres approached the winter with a healthy sense of realism. They did not want to completely punt the present -- hence the acquisitions, via trade, of White Sox slugger Carlos Quentin, Rockies closer Huston Street and Reds starter Edinson Volquez -- but they steadfastly refused to do anything that might compromise what appears to be an increasingly bright future. That meant sending current ace Mat Latos to the Reds for not only Volquez but also -- more importantly -- a trio of promising prospects in first baseman Yonder Alonso, catcher Yasmani Grandal and reliever Brad Boxberger. It also meant trading prospect Anthony Rizzo to the Cubs for fireballing 25-year-old Andrew Cashner. The goal was to be selectively aggressive, and GM Josh Byrnes succeeded at that.
Some of the players who will be central to the Padres' future will start the season in San Diego, like Alonso, Cashner, lefty starter Cory Luebke and five-tool centerfielder Cameron Maybin. But several others will at least begin down on the farm. They include Grandal, but also a trio of highly regarded young arms: Robbie Erlin, Casey Kelly and Joe Wieland, each of whom was acquired by trade in the past 16 months. Those three could combine with Cashner and Luebke to form a rotation that might soon rival the Giants' in its quality and depth. The question: how soon?
"Those guys are really good, and they've already done well in Double-A," says Byrnes. "We're excited about it, but don't want to rush them."
Expect Wieland to be the first to arrive -- perhaps as soon as the first current member of the big league rotation grabs his elbow and grimaces -- and the other two to have their first tastes of the majors late in the summer.
Despite suffering ongoing injury problems, from 2008 to 2011 Quentin slugged 107 home runs -- more than all but 19 other players, and only four fewer than Alex Rodriguez. Quentin will begin the season on the DL, due to arthroscopic surgery to address inflammation in his right knee. He does not figure to be a long-term fixture in San Diego, but if the Padres surprisingly find themselves in the hunt in 2012, Quentin's underrated power bat is a factor that could put them over the top.
"I'm afraid it's going to be more like 2011, when they finished last, then 2010, when they almost won the division. They traded away their No. 1 starter, Latos, so they're going to take a step back there. I really think in 2010, they overachieved. The guys they got for Latos are going to turn out to be good, solid major league players, but they won't reap the benefits this year. To sum things up: the future looks a lot brighter than the present."
Many believed that GM Brian Sabean would make a play for one of the free agent market's leadoff-hitting shortstops, Jose Reyes or Jimmy Rollins, but Sabean declined to do so in favor of keeping together what might be, top-to-bottom, the league's best pitching staff.
"There was a great budget consideration to keeping the staff together, and moreso trying to be in a position to be able to sign Timmy and Cainer," says Sabean, in reference to top starters Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain. Lincecum can become a free agent after 2013 while on Monday, Cain agreed to a six-year, $127.5 million deal with the Giants.
Sabean focused on smaller, less headline-generating moves, like trading for outfielders Melky Cabrera and Angel Pagan and re-signing lefty specialist Javier Lopez. If the team fails to extend Cain -- negotiations are ongoing -- that strategy could have negative implications both in the present and in the future.
The Giants' pitching was even better in 2011 than it was when they won the World Series in '10 -- the club allowed five fewer runs, all told. The difference, rather starkly, came on offense. They fell from ninth in the 16-team NL in runs scored (697) to dead last (570). Cabrera could help turn things around -- he had an excellent spring, hitting .333 with three homers and 10 RBIs.
An even bigger boost could come from Brandon Belt. Belt's first exposure to major league pitching was disappointing -- the preseason Rookie of the Year candidate finished 2011 hitting .225 with nine home runs and 18 RBIs -- but he hit .379, with an OPS 1.046, during the exhibition season. If Aubrey Huff again struggles, Belt could quickly become the Giants' everyday first baseman. Of course, there is another reason to think their offense might improve.
Less surprising than the fact that a 25-year-old with less than a full season's worth of games under his belt is a playoff-caliber club's most important player is that the club's members freely admit that he is the team's most important player.
"He established himself as that unspoken leader from the minute he first came up," says Lincecum of Posey.
The impossibility of replacing Posey became obvious last season, as the Giants eventually fell apart after his leg was broken in a home plate collision last May 25. All the pitching in the world won't take the Giants anywhere unless Posey returns to his pre-injury form. A spring in which he hit .306, with an OPS of .853, must be considered an auspicious sign.
"I'd be a little concerned about their depth if some things go wrong. I could see some prolonged losing skids in there. Their pitching is no secret, but the offense is a concern, particularly at the top of their order. Cabrera's going to be solid -- I don't think he's that big impact bat, but I certainly think he'll help. Still, the big key, obviously, is Posey."