This is the fourth installment of a five-part series leading up to Friday's home opener for against the San Francisco Giants. Check back with SB Nation Arizona daily for more Arizona Diamondbacks' analysis and predictions.
While 33 of the 50 MLB experts polled by ESPN predicted the Arizona Diamondbacks to repeat as NL West champions, here's an alarming stat that may have those analysts reassessing their confidence: over the past three seasons, three different teams have won the division (Diamondbacks, Giants and Dodgers).
You read that right San Diego and Colorado fans; that means you're next!
Joking aside, I expect the NL West to be the most competitive division from top to bottom in all of baseball next to the NL East. The D-backs, Giants, Rockies and Padres all made significant improvements to their rosters this past off season. And as for the Dodgers? Well, they still have those Matt Kemp and Clayton Kershaw fellows.
Long story short, this will be no walk in the park for the Diamondbacks if they're to raise their sixth division banner in their fifteenth year of existence. But who poses the biggest challenge? Let's take a look at the opposition starting alphabetically with those pesky Rockies:
Colorado Rockies - Fourth in 2011 (73-89): This squad is my sleeper in the division. If you've watched the NL West closely over the past half decade, then you know that the Rockies always seem to ruin everyone's day when they least expect it (hence the word pesky). This year could be when they do it again.
Colorado had a quietly prosperous offseason, bolstering their young offensive nucleus by acquiring veterans like 2B Marco Scutaro, C Ramon Hernandez and OF Michael Cuddyer (the most underrated free agent signing in the division IMO). The Rocks also addressed their rotation issues by adding SPs Jeremy Guthrie and Jamie Moyer (yes, you read that right, he isn't dead). I know, most of you think of something like this when you hear Moyer's name but old man Moyer still has it as evident by his 2.50 ERA and 16 Ks across 18 innings this spring.
Colorado will also be getting Jorge De La Rosa back from Tommy John sometime in July which will provide a huge in-season boost. But even then, the Rockies will still be without a true ace in a division full of perennial Cy Young contenders. Furthermore, there's no doubt in my mind that the runs will be there, but if the injury bug strikes Colorado's new (and considerably older) lineup, they're left looking for answers from one of the worst benches in the National League.
2012 Prognosis: The most versatile middle of the lineup in the league (Carlos Gonzalez and Troy Tulowitzki) will allow the Rockies to give any team in this division a run for the money. Colorado is going to turn some heads this season but they're going to need Drew Pomeranz to develop if they're ever to become legit.
Los Angeles Dodgers - Third in 2011 (82-79): The best offseason move for the Dodgers wasn't an marquee acquisition but rather the purging of a crippling burden known as Frank McCourt. With the ownership drama past them, it looks like GM Ned Colletti is hoping the team will finally blossom around LA's two extraordinary building blocks (Kershaw and Kemp). But he should be praying (or perhaps Tebowing after whiffing on Prince Fielder) with the underwhelming winter the Dodgers had (when your best offseason addition is Aaron Harang, you know you did something wrong).
I know, I'm being harsh. Colletti deserves brownie points for locking up Kemp and allowing the Dodgers to build around one of the MLB's brightest players for the next eight years. But this team isn't ready to play with big boys despite owning the best pitcher and best hitter in baseball (yeah, I said it). Even if Billingsley regains his 2008 form (and please take this moment to give laugh at this notion), LA's rotation is still over the hill and their bullpen is too inconsistent and shallow to give a low-scoring offense any favors.
2012 Prognosis: I'd guess McCourt wins executive of the year before predicted the Dodgers to finish above .500 again. The most they'll have to celebrate this season is another possible Cy Young for Kershaw.
San Diego Padres - Last in 2011 (71-91) It's hard not to like the moves the Padres have made this offseason even if they're destined for another year of mediocrity. Some analysts were very critical of the Mat Latos and Anthony Rizzo trades but I firmly believe that with the returns they got for each, the Padres will be better off in the long run. Andrew Cashner will be a top of the rotation starter as soon as 2013 and 1B Anthony Rizzo and C Yasmani Grandal will be integral pieces in San Diego's lineup when the Padres' loaded farm (number one in baseball according to Keith Law) finally starts hitting the majors.
As for now though, there's not a lot to get excited about. Carlos Quentin should provide some much needed pop when he returns from his knee surgery, but San Diego fans can still expect a lot of two to three run affairs. They might win a couple of those though as the Padres pitching ain't too shabby.
Looking at the top of the rotation, Cory Luebke is set to make a name for himself this season (3.29 ERA to go along with 154 Ks across 139.2 innings in 2011) and Edison Volquez looking like he could have a career year in spacious Petco Park. And just like always, their bullpen is more than solid with Huston Street picking up right where Heath Bell left off.
But just similar to Colorado, they still are without an ace. And their best offensive threat (Chase Headley) would be the third best on a team like the Giants or the Diamondbacks.
2012 Prognosis: Don't count out them leaping the Dodgers but odds are a rebuilding roster like this ends up in the cellar.
San Francisco Giants - Second in 2011 (86-76): Ahh, and here's what you all have been waiting for. If it's not the D-backs, the baseball world tends to lean towards San Fran as the most likely contender to come out of the NL West. And rightfully so. I don't know if you've heard, but that Big Time Timmy Jim gentleman has quite the arm on him.
And so does Matt Cain...and Madison Bumgarner...and Ryan Vogelsong...and Sergio Romo...and Brian Wilson...and Barry Zito (lol jk Zito's the biggest waste of money since the shake weight). But do you see where I'm going here? The Giants have a top three staff in baseball (yes, even better than the Diamondbacks) that could keep even the worst of offenses in any game.
And that also is exactly what the Giants own. Ahead of only the dreadful Seattle Mariners last year in runs and OBP, San Francisco is hoping to get a boost from the acquisitions of Angel Pagan (80 runs in 2010) and Melky Cabrera (102 runs in 2011) plus the return of catching phenom Buster Posey. While that's sure to help, five through eight in the Giants lineup might as well be that giant sand pit that eats Boba Fett in "Return of the Jedi". At least manager Bruce Bochy finally came to his senses and realized 2010 Aubrey Huff is never coming back by including Brandon Belt on the 25-man roster. If Belt finally shows what he proved in the minors, Huff could finally be forced into a part-time utility role which is something San Fran fans should be elated about.
Other than that, it will be key for 2B Freddy Sanchez to stay healthy for a good majority of the 162 games if they're to overtake the Diamondbacks on top of the division. People tend to forget how much of an impact he can make when playing and he's my X-factor heading into Opening Day.
2012 Prognosis: On paper, this team is better than the 2011 version that was in the race until mid-September. Unfortunately for San Francisco, runs aren't scored on paper and the exceptionally well-timed hitting they showed in 2010 is hard to replicate, even for the most stacked of lineups. Still, with their pitching, I'm fairly confident I could hit cleanup for the Giants and they'd still be in the hunt for a wild card. Expect them to be neck-and-neck with the Diamondbacks right down to the season finale.
Check back Friday before Opening Day for the last edition of the series in which I share my final outlook on the Diamondbacks for the 2012 season.