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National League West Preview: Playing It Safe With The Rockies

Ubaldo Jimenez will be coming right at the league this year with Cy Young-caliber filth

I’m not sure why, but this spring training season has gotten out of the way pretty quickly. Last year, it seemed to linger forever. But we’re just one day away from the first regular-season game, two days away from “opening day” and four days away from the first 30-team schedule date. In anticipation of a new dawn for the greatest sport around — no arguments — I’ll be touching on each division with a not-so-thorough preview.

This is the toughest division to decipher. It could go so many different ways, so jumping right into it …

1. Colorado Rockies

Yeah, I’m going to play it safe and go with the team that may not have the biggest upside, but has the fewest amount of concerns in this division. With the Rockies, you have to start with Ubaldo Jimenez. If not for Roy Halladay and Tim Lincecum, I would feel very comfortable picking Ubaldo to win the Cy Young. He just needs to keep lowering that walk rate. Same goes for Jorge De La Rosa, who can be this team’s No. 2 if he can consistently locate the strike zone.

The rest of the rotation is decent with Aaron Cook and Jason Hammel. The Rocks would really be helped with the return of Jeff Francis. The 17-game winner from 2007 missed all of last season due to a torn labrum. All reports were positive until Thursday when Francis was put back on the DL with shoulder stiffness. The Rockies made the postseason without him in 2009, but Francis’ return to effectiveness would give this division-winning prediction a lot more belief.

Closer Huston Street is also being affected by shoulder stiffness and it sounds like he will miss the first month of the year. Franklin Morales is going to get the first shot to close in his absence, but the bullpen has got some depth with Rafael Betancourt and Manny Corpas, if he can regain his 2007 ability.

The Rockies’ lineup has youth on its side — only Todd Helton is over the age of 31. But I just don’t feel great about it. Probably because youth means the lack of a track record. So while Carlos Gonzalez looks like the real deal, we just don’t know how he or Dexter Fowler will respond in year two. Troy Tulowitzki is fantastic and Brad Hawpe is solid, even if he still can’t hit lefties. The home runs from Ian Stewart and Clint Barmes were nice, but they can’t have their batting averages continue to be such a drain. It’s also hard to believe that Helton, for as good a hitter as he is, will hit .325 again at 36 years old.

I know this doesn’t sound optimistic, but with all of the negatives I listed, the Rockies are still the most well-rounded club in the NL West with one legitimate ace, two or three very good starters, an acceptable bullpen and a lineup with a lot of potential power.

2. Los Angeles Dodgers

Blame it on the divorce if you want — because who can really live on just $1 million per month? — but the Dodgers were close to mute this offseason. Their biggest splurge this winter was handing over two years and nearly $4 million dollars to 36-year-old backup infielder Jamey Carroll. Of course, there are other areas the team needed to address, but the McCourts must first figure out who owns how much of the team.

Dodgers to Manny Ramirez: Kick the female fertility drugs and rake again

Vicente Padilla will be the team’s starter on Monday, but the two best starting pitchers are Chad Billingsley and Clayton Kershaw. Billingsley was a chic Cy Young pick before last season, but after a sterling first half, Billingsley put up a 5.20 ERA post All-Star break. He reportedly has all of his mechanics back in order and has pitched great this spring (Well, until today. Not that it matters much). But there is reason for concern. And if Kershaw wants to join the Lincecum’s and the Jimenez’s of this division, he must be more economical with his pitches and throw deeper into games. The rest of the staff includes Hiroki Kuroda and knuckleballer Charlie Haeger.

The bullpen will certainly help out this starting staff. It’s one of the best relief groups in the majors, headed by the best closer in the National League, Jonathan Broxton. It also holds George Sherrill, Ronald Belisario, Ramon Troncoso and Hong-Chih Kou, all of whom are pretty damn good last year.

The lineup possesses a potential MVP in Matt Kemp and some nice young hitters in Andre Eithier and James Loney. But a few critical Dodgers need to have rebound seasons, Manny Ramirez none less than anyone else. The team can’t afford for him to be the Manny who hit just .255 in the second half. Rafael Furcal and Russell Martin also had underwhelming seasons. Martin was expected to miss the first few weeks of the new year due to a strained groin, but he will be in the opening day lineup after all.

If the Dodgers play like we know they can, this team can win the division going away. But with questions in the lineup and starting rotation, and the lack of overall depth, there are too many “ifs” about them for me to predict anything more than a second-place finish.

3. San Francisco Giants

You know the Giants are all about pitching. Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain get most of the pub, deservedly so. Barry Zito is actually earning his keep in San Fran these days. He allowed three or fewer runs in 14 of his 15 final starts last season. Jonathan Sanchez can miss enough bats to be effective. He’s needs to be more consistent in the strike zone. And while Madison Bumgarner had a tough spring, he’ll be back up in a couple of months to add to this strong and mostly young rotation. The relief corps is good, too, with Brian Wilson as the closer. He improved exceptionally from 2008 to 2009. Brandon Medders and Jeremy Affeldt are a nice righty-lefty combo for those late innings.

Mark DeRosa and Aubrey Huff don't exactly fill the Giants' needs on offense

But offense is going to hold everything else back for another year. The Giants ranked 26th in runs last season and they will be relying on new additions such as Mark DeRosa and Aubrey Huff to somehow improve that stat. But all it does is add to the team’s age. With a lineup this old and slow — six of the starting eight will be at least 32 years old on opening day and none of them can steal 20 bases — it’s hard to imagine how this team is going to supply runs consistently without a true home run threat. Edgar Renteria should no longer be batting second but he will. Huff is also not a cleanup hitter, but that’s just the start of this lineup’s concerns

You know what the Giants are about and, for the good and the bad, nothing much has changed.

4. Arizona Diamondbacks

I’m very attracted to this team on paper. It is stacked with six or seven hitters who can be or already are very good hitters. Mark Reynolds just mashes and Justin Upton can be a MVP candidate soon. Miguel Montero is capable of being a middle-of-the-lineup catcher. Stephen Drew isn’t a typical leadoff hitter, but he’s productive for a shortstop. Conor Jackson, now recovered from the Valley Fever that ruined his 2009 season, is a .300 hitter with some pop.

The Diamondbacks should also be as attractive when it comes to pitching. Dan Haren, Brandon Webb and Edwin Jackson could make up an extremely strong top three for any team. But … Arizona is putting too much weight on Jackson’s 2009 first half. He did have the best full season of his career, but he collapsed in the second half and now he is moving to a very friendly hitters park. Haren can obviously be ace, but he struggled after the All-Star break yet again. It’s amazing to think how good his numbers would look if he could just hold it together for a full year. But he has become a notoriously bad second-half pitcher.

Those early positives on Webb have disappeared. He’s back on the DL and the news is sounding worse by the week. Ian Kennedy is penciled in as the No. 4 starter, but the best thing you can say about him right now is that he has potential. He hasn’t shown much of it at the ML level.

Chad Qualls was sufficient as a closer last season, but nothing outstanding. The rest of the bullpen, with Bob Howry, Aaron Heilman and Juan Gutierrez, isn’t impressive.

This team has the names to contend, but it falls behind with its pitching. Haren is the best of the bunch, but he only pitches like an ace for three months in a six-month season. The rest of the staff is plagued by injuries and inconsistency. The D-Backs will win its share of offensive showdowns, but the pitching is too weak to keep up with the rest of the division.

As soon as Adrian Gonzalez leaves, Kyle Blanks will assume the role as the Padres' lead big bopper. He's got the right build for the job

5. San Diego Padres

Be patient, San Diegans (Diego-ites? (San Diego-ins? San Diego-uns. San Dieg-ons. No, San Diegans. OK). Your team is under deep construction. It’s going to look worse before it looks better as Adrian Gonzalez and Heath Bell will undoubtedly leave soon. But there are some young players to watch.

Kyle Blanks looks like a legit 40-homer guy, if only because he is built like a defensive end. Tony Gwynn Jr. and Everth Cabrera bring a lot of speed and Chase Headley can be a high-average batter who will continue to develop his power. But all these guys are very young and again, it’s going to take some time.

The rotation is headed by Jon Garland, but I want to see if Chris Young can regain his 2006-2007 form. He hasn’t been able to stay healthy since and has struggled with control when he’s made it to the mound. He can be a solid second arm in the rotation if he stays off the DL. Clayton Richard and Mat Latos are inexperienced at this level and will be up and down this season, but the team has very high hopes for both of them.

While Bell is still around, it’s worth nothing that the Padres have three near-outstanding pieces they can use late in games. Luke Gregerson can burn bats with his stuff and Mike Adams was simply dominant last season. They set the table for Bell, who locked down 42 games in 48 chances last year.

But general success is somewhere on the horizon. Somewhere out there.

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