What a difference an off-season can make. In 2013 the San Francisco Giants were picked to win the National West title with maybe a little push from the Dodgers and Arizona. Colorado and San Diego were projected to sit at the little kids table.
The history books now tell us that the Giants finished in a tie for 3rd place with the San Diego Padres, and the Dodgers and D-Backs "pushed" their way into 1st and 2nd place finishes, respectively.
Colorado had two choices: quietly take last place or join Houston in the AL West.
Let's grab a cold Trumer Pils and take a look at the fascinating chess games that will define the race for the 2014 National League West.
We will break each team down into its various molecular parts. Then put them back together. As always, we hope there are no molecules left over (like all the screws and clamps left on the floor after you put Ikea furniture together).
Los Angeles Dodgers
Where they're headed: Straight up. For the long term.
Here's what's going on: The Dodger brand was neglected and floating belly up in the Los Angeles River after former General Manager Fred Claire became an owner and got into an epic end-of-times divorce with his wife. As part of the final settlement I understand she was asking for many bags of money, custody of Ted Lilly, and a permanent parking place in Row 1, Lot A at Chavez.
In 2012, the new Dodger ownership group began to rebuild the team's historic legacy and they've brought the Dodgers back to respectability and long-term postseason contention.
Even though the LA's minor league organization is rated at about 20th best in the Majors, team President, CEO and co-owner Stan Kasten has made it clear that developing the Dodger farm system will be a top priority. The Dodgers have already demonstrated they are in the mix for international players with Yasiel Puig's 2012 signing.
Still, LA has several minor league prospects that could make a difference in the next several years.
Shortstop Corey Seager looks to be a candidate for third base as early as 2016; center fielder Joc Pederson is ready to play in the big leagues now, but the line for openings in the Dodger outfield is a bit long. LHP Julio Urias was signed at the age of 16 in 2012 and is already showing a +95 MPH arm. Urias is probably four or five years away.
If everything goes right in 2014: Three things have to happen.
First, the starting pitching does exactly what it should do– that means starters Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke, Hyun-Jin Ryu, and Dan Haren perform (and they will). LA's bullpen simply needs to build on what they did in 2013: 10th best in the Majors with a .240 BAA (opponents' batting average), 9th best with 8.61 SO per nine innings.
Second, Matt Kemp moves beyond his injuries and resumes his ascendency as a National League offensive monster.
Third, Cuban free agent Alexander Guerrero takes over at second base by at least mid-season and starts to generate the run production and power he demonstrated in the Cuban leagues.
If everything goes wrong in 2014: Carl Crawford and Matt Kemp collapse, the Dodgers need to find another quality starter, and there's one major failure in the infield. This team will pitch like there's no tomorrow, but scoring enough runs will be on every Dodger fan's radar through the All Star break.
Prediction: 1st place NL West (breaking news…)
Where they're headed: Looking competitive for the next several years.
Here's what's going on: Ownership has settled on a long-term strategy with recent extensions for GM Kevin Towers and Manager Kirk Gibson. This follows an active off-season with aggressive trades for slugging left fielder Mark Trumbo from the LA Angels and closer Addison Reed from the White Sox.
In the Zona farm system, a number of superior pitching prospects are stewing and brewing, including RHP Archie Bradley who is probably the best prospect in all of baseball. Expect to see Bradley mowing down NL West batters by at least September.
If everything goes right in 2014: The Diamondbacks' starting five (Patrick Corbin, Wade Miley, Randall Delgado, Bronson Arroyo, and Trevor Cahill) step up, with Brandon McCarthy and Archie Bradley ready in the wings if someone fails. The bullpen has been seriously improved over last season.
And this is critical: Arizona has an everyday line-up that can produce runs from top to bottom, and their excellent bench, led by Eric Chavez, Cody Ross, and Cliff Pennington, provides seamless back-up.
The starting shortstop competition between Chris Owings and Didi Gregorius should be fascinating to watch this Spring. Owings was the Pacific Coast League MVP last season and his bat will find a place in the Snakes infield sooner than later.
If everything goes wrong in 2014: Brandon McCarthy and Wade Miley continue to stall in the fast lane and the restless arms in the minors aren't quite ready to step up. Mark Trumbo has a down year with poor defense in left field. That's not a lot.
Prediction: 2nd place in the NL West (but they'd better keep an eye in their rear view mirror).
San Francisco Giants
Where they're headed: Sad to say, the Giants need to improve by 5 games over last season just to get to .500, by 14 games to get to 90 wins, and probably by 18 games to make the postseason.
Here's what's going on: Ownership and management obviously decided to tread water after the 2012 World Series Championship (all of a sudden, that seems like a long time ago). San Francisco's mediocre farm system does have four or five promising pitching prospects who look to be ready in 2015-16, but everything the team has done points to stalling for time and waiting for those players to come around.
Despite having the financial resources to do much more, the Giants were content in the offseason to extend Tim Lincecum and Hunter Pence, and exchange Andres Torres for veteran Michael Morse, and Barry Zito for veteran Tim Hudson.
The franchise is spending most of its efforts on various fan PR distractions, hoping to rest on its 2010 and 2012 laurels (which, by the way, are pretty awesome laurels).
If everything goes right in 2014: Don't get me wrong, San Francisco has a legitimate playoff scenario in 2014.
Any franchise that can start Madison Bumgarner and Matt Cain in 60+ games each season has a head start few teams can match. If Tim Hudson and Tim Lincecum can step up to their potential and San Francisco finds a stable 5th starter, the Giants could be on their way.
Hitting and plating runs is the chronic backache that plagues this team's forward motion. The #1 key in 2014 is first baseman Brandon Belt, who will start the season batting 3rd in the order ahead of star catcher Buster Posey. Belt's continuing development at the plate, specifically with more power, means just about everything to this team in 2014.
The bullpen is good but static, and so far the bench looks too thin again this year. No team looking to make the playoffs can start a season without legitimate offensive and defensive back-ups on the bench and the Giants have opted to once again cross their fingers in that particular area.
If everything goes wrong in 2014: The Giants are like a big double-semi crossing a frozen lake just about the time Spring is starting. You can see how they just might make it across, but if the ice starts cracking it could get real ugly real fast.
Matt Cain's wonderful 2013 season is the poster child for what can happen to a quality starter without run support or defense. Tim Lincecum's two year $35 million contract looks bad now, but it could look Stephen King-scary by September.
By the All Star break Tim Hudson's mind may be wandering to the potent offensives that played behind him in Atlanta. Hudson averaged 155 innings the past two seasons meaning the Giants will likely need another starter at some point.
San Francisco's defense was terrible in 2013, and the everyday line-up will be another year older and another step slower in 2014.
Prediction: 3rd place with a chance to break through to a Wild Card slot.
San Diego Padres
Where they're headed: No limit.
Here's what's going on: Over the past four years, the Padres have slowly traded for a number of the best prospects from several MLB teams' minor league systems. These include first baseman Yonder Alonso (Reds), catcher Yasmani Grandal (Reds), SS Everth Cabrera (Rockies), OF Carlos Quentin (Arizona), SP Eric Stults (Dodgers), SP Andrew Cashner (Cubs), and SP Tyson Ross (Oakland).
The Pads have a top 10 rated farm system featuring LHP Max Fried and one of the best catching prospects in the game, Austin Hedges. Expect Fried to be facing NL West batters by September. San Diego's minor league system will be contributing solid prospects to the big league team for the next several years with an emphasis on outstanding pitching.
If everything goes right in 2014: The pitching gels and the young hitters finally step up. In 2013, a combination of injuries and suspensions probably cost the Padres a second place finish. Don't expect that to happen again in 2014. The return of injured catcher Yasmani Grandal could be the catalyst that drives this team to a Wild Card birth in October.
If everything goes wrong in 2014: In a sense, things won't go "wrong" for the San Diego Padres. Their current crop of young players may need more time to find themselves (see Royals, Kansas City) and they might flame out in 2014. But the combination of talented big leaguers and talented prospects will catch up to the NL West sooner or later.
And since the Padres likely have the best young pitching of any minor league system in the game their resurgence will have depth.
Prediction: 3rd place, with a chance to be the surprise of the National League.
Here's what's going on: The ghosts of their hitters' ballpark continue to haunt the Rockies. At various times the franchise has gone for hitting and given up on pitching; then gone for pitching and hoped the hitting would still be there. Then they tried to pretend Coors Field is just another ballpark.
So far no one's biting.
Last season the Colorado Rockies scored the second most runs in the National League (706) behind St. Louis (783). The previous three years they finished third in runs scored. In 2014 the Rockies led all NL teams with a whopping .418 slugging percentage.
Unfortunately all those runs will not get them tickets on the 2014 speeding express train known as the National League West.
If everything goes right in 2014: It's all about finding, 1) one additional good starter and, 2) two additional League average starters to go with this team's two very good starters, Jorge De La Rosa (1.384 WHIP, 16-6) and Jhoulys Chacin (1.262 WHIP, 14-10).
If everything goes wrong in 2014: Meaning no disrespect to a proud franchise, I believe it already has.
Prediction: The Denver Suicide Hotline triples its night shift by August and Colorado's legal marijuana sales skyrocket.