Opening day of the 2011 baseball season is exactly 23 days away. As Kramer might say, giiiiddy up. Today marks the beginning of our division previews, which will be posted on Tuesday and Thursday for the next three weeks to cover all six divisions. What better way to kick things off than with the National League West, home of the World Champion San Francisco Giants? Still sounds a little strange. And remember those championship dong hats? Neither do I.
1. San Francisco Giants (2010 record: 92-70, 1st place) — Tim Lincecum, Jonathan Sanchez, Matt Cain, and Madison Bumgarner. These four names, along with good old Barry Zito as their fifth starter, are reason enough to believe the Giants will repeat as division champs. When your key “losses” are Juan Uribe, Edgar Renteria, Jose Guillen, and Chris Ray, you’ve got to like your chances. And without using the words “sizzle” or “needle,” the photograph at right is one of many colorful reasons that I hope I’m right. If you have concerns with the bats, remind yourself of the presence of Buster Posey, who will only get better, a trimmer Pablo Sandoval destined for redemption, and Will Clark’s mancrush Brandon Belt, who will be up at some point to play the role of magical rookie. As usual, things can change in a hurry, as evidenced by Timmy’s atrocious August and commanding September last year. You just never know. However, in this division, I think it’s safe to say we know. Prediction: 91 wins should do the deed
2. Colorado Rockies (2010 record: 83-79, 3rd place) — It’s no secret that the Colorado offense comes primarily from two players in Carlos “Gaga” Gonzalez and Troy Tulowitzki. The explosive, obscenely rich duo accumulated a WAR of 10.1 last year. The rest of the lineup combined for a paltry 3.7 WAR. Don’t expect that to change a whole lot. Todd Helton is now 37, Dexter Fowler will always take a backseat to Chris, Jason Giambi looks like a wolf, and while Ty Wigginton plays his ass off, he’s still Ty Wigginton. As for their pitching, which clearly begins with ace Ubaldo Jimenez — though he eventually came back to earth after a torrid start last year — there’s plenty of promise in 23-year-old Jhoulys Chacin. Jorge De La Rosa is serviceable but he’s never pitched more than 185 innings and his name is far too similar to Jorge De Paula’s, a pitching prospect who never panned out for the Yanks (that reverse jinx oughta do the trick). In the four and five spots are Aaron Cook’s shaky shoulder and Jason Hammel. Although this team is screaming third place to me, it’s the depressing NL West. Second place it is. Prediction: 87 wins, even with a pitcher named Billy Buckner
3. Los Angeles Dodgers (2010 record: 82-80, 4th place) — 2011 will mark Don Mattingly’s first full year as manager in the bigs, though sadly he’ll begin said mission sans mustache. Saying goodbye along with Joe Torre are Brad Ausmus, Reed Johnson, Russell Martin, George Sherrill and a few other players of equal “shoulder shrug” significance. A rather large question looming in the heads of Dodger fans is if Matt Kemp’s bat will remain in a poon funk or if he’s opted to settle for a piece of ass less famous than himself. Let’s hope for the latter or we’re looking at another hilarious OPS that hovers around .760. Owner Frank McCourt’s divorce continued to handcuff the team from acquiring any big names or adding to the current payroll — unless Jon Garland and Juan Uribe inspire you to tap dance — which means much of the weight will sit on the shoulders of their young pitching. The expectation is that Clayton Kershaw, who threw 200-plus innings (a 33.1 inning increase from ’09), will continue to improve. Then again, the same could have been said for Chad Billingsley after the 2008 season, but he’s more or less been stuck in neutral. Jonathan Broxton finished 2010 allowing 10 runs in his last 14 appearances. He’s two cheesesteaks, a few blown saves and a Funyuns addiction from becoming Gagne Part Deux. Prediction: Right down the middle with 81 wins
4. San Diego Padres (2010 record: 90-72, 2nd place) — The good news? San Diego pitching ranked second in the majors in WHIP and strikeouts. The bad news? The offense ranked 22nd in scoring, 27th in OPS, and they no longer have the services of Adrian Gonzalez. What’s even scarier is that they hope to replace some of his offensive output with Brad Hawpe. Cue thunderous laugh track. This is going to be one awful team to watch. Their shining star both on and off the field will be Mat Latos. His straight forward shtick has already delivered: “I could care less about people in San Francisco, what they think and what they say. Everybody is entitled to their opinion on everything. I could talk until I’m blue in the face about it. I’m sure Philly thinks the same thing. Florida probably thinks the same thing. People have their own opinions. Let them tweet about it.” Fantastic tone setter. A losing season should inspire some equally pissy quotes along the way. Prediction: 73 wins, with each home win accompanied by fireworks!
5. Arizona Diamondbacks (2010 record: 65-97, almost 1st place) — Whenever an article like “Seeking Better Team Through a Better Culture” is published, you know the team not only sucks, but is in a state where the impact players needed to truly turn things around aren’t arriving any time soon. It’s like making the best of the Road Beef offerings when playing in Pittsburgh. Nice to think positively, but you know you’re at death’s door. This is a team that last year set a record for strikeouts in a season but, to be fair, Mark Reynolds has taken his 1991 Detroit Tigers show to Baltimore. To be even fairer, Kevin Towers is running the show now so at the very least, respectability is expected but will take some time. Young Daniel Hudson should provide some optimism for the starting rotation. In 11 starts for the D-Backs, he went seven or more innings nine times. So there’s that, along with a crafty veteran or two like Melvin Mora. Prediction: 71 wins
The song for this division, in obvious honor of Tim Lincecum, is “High Enough” by the Damn Yankees.
[Clark photo via Getty]