NL West SWOT
With the NL Central and NL East in the books, it is now time to turn our attention to the NL West. It only took 84 wins to take the division last season, so a shrewd tweak here or there (read: not Edgar Renteria) could catapult just about anyone into contention.
Los Angeles Dodgers
Strengths: Jonathan Broxton, Hong-Chih Kuo and Cory Wade, who combined contributed over 220 innings of top-notch relief, all return to anchor what was one of the very best bullpens in the National League. Los Angeles is taking on free agent losses all over their roster this off-season but one area Ned Colletti can feel comfortable leaving alone is his relief pitching.
Weaknesses: Manny Ramirez posted a 219 OPS+ with the Dodgers and was the chief reason their offense went from atrocious to one of the very best. There is a chance he may be back but his departure would leave a gaping hole int their offensive attack. Similarly on the pitching side, Derek Lowe's imminent signing with someone other than Los Angeles is going to be a real blow to their staff. Over the length of his contract with the Dodgers, Lowe averaged 212 innings and in his worst ERA+ year, he still managed 114. Despite his reputation as a solid innings eater, Lowe is much, much more. Last year's 211 innings of 131 ERA+ pitching will not be easy to replace.
Opportunities: The 2006 Jason Schmidt would do the trick in replacing Lowe and even though that may seem like an unlikely proposition, it also could be the Dodgers best hope.
Threats: As of today, Juan Pierre or Andruw Jones will start in the outfield for Los Angeles. It cannot be overstated just how much these two devastated their offensive attack in 2008. Pierre hit .283/.327/.328 last year, with 79% of his plate appearances coming before August 1. Jones hit .158/.256/.249 with all but 14 of his plate appearances taking place before the trade deadline. While Manny's arrival was doubtless the catalyst for the Dodgers late-season offensive improvement, replacing Pierre and Jones helped a whole lot as well.
Strengths: Anchored by Brandon Webb and Dan Haren, the Snakes should once again feature terrific starting pitching. Despite throwing half their games in one of baseball's most hitter-friendly environments, Diamondbacks starters ended the season with the NL's third best starting pitching ERA. While Max Scherzer and Yusmeiro Petit are unproven at the Big League level, they should have no problem replicating the combined output of Randy Johnson and Micah Owings in 2008.
Weaknesses: A lineup that was supposed to all rise up as one and become Major League standouts in 2008 decided to put it off a year. Stephen Drew, Chris Young, Conor Jackson and Justin Upton - potential superstars all - did not hit the way the D-Backs needed them to in 2008 in order for them to repeat as division champs. Until a couple of them step up and show they can anchor a championship caliber offense, the offense will remain a weak spot.
Opportunities: I have already mentioned them. Scherzer, Petit and the young offensive core all have the ability to develop into terrific Major League contributors. Should a handful of these guys get there in 2009, Arizona will be contenders again.
Threats: Signing Felipe Lopez to take over for free agent Orlando Hudson was a savvy enough, under-the-radar move. Still, Lopez has put up some dud seasons (.245/.308/.352 in 2007) and asking him to fill in for one of baseball's most consistent second basemen in Hudson may be too tall an order.
Strengths: Guess who is the same age as, plays the same position as, and had better rate statistics than 2008's National League Rookie of the Year? Chris Iannetta of the Rockies, a 25-year old who seems like he might be one of the better catchers in baseball for years to come. A solid defender with great command at the plate, here is how he stacked up in 2008 amongst NL Catchers with at least 300 plate appearances.
Weaknesses: Colorado ranked 14th in National League Defensive Efficiency in 2008.
Opportunities: Bounce back from Troy Tulowitzki and Garrett Atkins, combined with more playing time for Ian Stewart, should make the infield offense (ex Todd Helton) much more productive. On the pitching side, Jeff Francis should be better, Greg Smith should add some depth and with a tick or two more command, Jorge de la Rosa (128 K's in 130 IP) should emerge.
Threats: Carlos Gonzalez replacing Matt Holliday could kill this offense, and I am afraid that Todd Helton will not be posting another 144 OPS+ season.
San Francisco Giants
Strengths: Tim Lincecum won the CYA in just his second MLB season. Matt Cain, who is even younger than Lincecum, also had a very nice 2008 campaign. Any hope the Giants have for 2008 rests with these two. Not Edgar Renteria; their hopes don't rest with him.
Weaknesses: Their offense was the weakest in the division and help does not appear to be imminent. Starters not named Cain or Lincecum took to the hill 95 times for the Giants in 2008 and posted a 5.32 ERA while playing home games in one of the most pitcher-friendly parks around.
Opportunities: If Aaron Rowand can return to form, with Fred Lewis and Randy Winn flanking him, the outfield offense might not be too bad.
Threats: If Lincecum or Cain falter at all, San Francisco's season is finished. To their credit they hung in there for much of 2008 but that was in large part due to their won-loss in games started by Lincecum.
San Diego Padres
Strengths: When you don't adjust for park, you might think that San Diego's offense is a big problem for them. This is just not the case. They are about average at the plate, thanks to standouts Adrian Gonzalez and Brian Giles, and some nice supporting parts as well.
Weaknesses: The starting pitching, especially if they end up dealing Jake Peavy, is scary bad. Chris Young would assume the number one role and after that, it is hard to see how they can cobble together anything even resembling a Big League staff. The rebuilding process for the Padres, especially given the confusing way their front office seems to operate, figures to be a long and painful one.
Opportunities: If Kevin Kouzmanoff can fulfill his potential and Young can toss 200 innings, that should help bump the Padres up from their 63-win total in 2008. Chase Headley starting from the outset should help, too.
Threats: I have a hard time seeing how Luis Rodriguez, a career .257/.316/.343 hitter, is a viable Major League option as an everyday shortstop, but maybe I am missing something. It's nice to help the bullpen and all, and however frustrating he may have been at times because he was not living up to expectations, the fact remains Khalil Greene was a pretty good player.