PHOENIX – The toughest thing about the NL West is predicting the future. How many believed Arizona would win 94 games last year? Or that San Diego would win 90 the year before? Or that San Francisco would ride its strong pitching and Aubrey Huff’s rally thong to the 2010 World Series championship?
Each teams has questions to address this season. The answers will have to wait.
Q: Can the Diamondbacks’ young players continue to maintain their success?
About one-third of the D-backs’ roster had what could be considered a career year in 2011 including right fielder Justin Upton, who finished fourth in the NL MVP balloting, and No. 1 starter Ian Kennedy, who finished fourth in the NL Cy Young race. The D-backs’ 29-game improvement hinged on the added oomph from those guys and veterans such as closer J.J. Putz and third baseman Ryan Roberts. It could be argued that Upton’s 75 extra-base hits and Kennedy’s 21 victories would be difficult to duplicate. At the same time, each player comes with the pedigree of being a No. 1 draft pick – Upton was the 1-1 in the 2005 draft – and it might be just as sound reasoning to believe that each simply reached his expected level.
A: History would say no; a scout would say if you’ve seen it once, you know it is in there.
Q: How will the starting rotation hold up in a division strong in pitching?
The Rockies did of lot of roster sculpting after falling out of contention last summer, and nowhere is it more noticeable than in the starting rotation. Instead of Ubaldo Jimenez and Jorge de la Rosa as the 1-2, Jhoulys Chacin and Jason Hammel will enter spring training there. Chacin won 11 games last season, while Hammel won 10 in 2009-10. Trade acquisitions Guillermo Moscoso, Tyler Chatwood and Alex White are expected to fill out the rotation, although none of the three has a full major league season under his belt. Drew Pomeranz, obtained with White from Cleveland for Jimenez at the 2011 nonwiver trade deadline, has the most promise after being the Indians’ No. 1 pick in the 2010 draft, but he is expected to open the season in the minors. De la Rosa hopes to return in May. Juan Nicasio, who suffered a fractured vertebra when he was struck in the neck by a line drive Aug. 5, will be in the mix if healthy.
A: Look for the expected growing pains.
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Q: Is Dee Gordon ready to lead the offense from the leadoff position?
When Tom Gordon was concluding his major league career, his greatest wish was to be able to play against his son, Dee. (Tom joked that he would show no mercy and throw his famous knee-buckling curveballs.) Tom did not get that chance, but watching his son grow into a solid major leaguer probably will be plenty reward. Gordon, 23, hit .304, stole 24 bases and showed some big-time range in 56 games in two stints as a starter while replacing Rafael Furcal last season. A slap-hitter, Gordon needs to walk a little more to become a prototype top-of-the-order hitter, but at the same time he showed good plate discipline – one strikeout every 8.5 plate appearances in the majors last year. Gordon he could be one of the most disruptive forces in the division, a very nice table setter for Andre Ethier and Matt Kemp.
A: It is in his genes … and in his play at every previous level.
Q: How will the retooled middle of the order handle Petco Park?
New left fielder and cleanup hitter Carlos Quentin averaged nearly 27 homers and 80 RBIs in his four seasons as a regular with the White Sox, even as injuries limited him to about 120 games a year. New first baseman Yonder Alonso, the seventh player taken in the 2008 draft, made a nice first impression in limited time in Cincinnati last year. Now, each faces the adjustment of going from a park that benefits hitters to one where fly balls go to die, especially at night. (See Phil Nevin). At the same time, each newcomer appears suited to the park, a least as well as any hitter can be. Quentin is a severe pull hitter, with 97 of his 121 career homers to left or left-center, and Petco plays fair to straight-away left field. Alonso is a doubles hitter whose strength is using the whole field, and while he probably will not hit a lot of home runs he will find plenty of outfield gaps.
A: The skill sets of Quentin and Alonso make them good fits.
Q: Will the strong pitching staff get enough help?
The Giants had one of the least productive offenses in the majors last year, finishing last in the National League in runs and on-base percentage. They were shut out 19 times. Much of the trouble started when catcher Buster Posey suffered season-ending leg and ankle injuries on May 26, and it did not help that several of the key bats in their 2010 World Series championship run regressed to the mean. Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, Brian Wilson et al were their usual strong selves, but the burden was just too great. Outfielders Melky Cabrera and Angel Pagan should help jump-start the offense. Neither has the power of departed Carlos Beltran, but both can run. Cleanup hitter Posey’s injury was serious, but he should be back sooner rather than later.
A: The offense seems more suited to manufacturing runs this time around.