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