This is the third in a BCB series to give you a preview of the teams the Cubs will face this season.
The NL West could be a surprisingly strong division in 2010 -- or fall flat on its face. At least three teams have a legitimate shot at winning the division. Again, the team profiles after the jump are in no particular order.
San Francisco Giants -- 2009: 3rd place, 88-74
Someday, Tim Lincecum will look older than 16. (For a comparison, it took Greg Maddux years to look older than a teenager.) But it doesn't matter how old he looks; Lincecum is the most dominant pitcher in the game today -- yes, I think more so than Roy Halladay for the way that Lincecum can just shut down a team -- a two-time Cy Young Award winner who won't turn 26 until June.
He may just be coming into his best seasons, and that's saying a lot, given what he's already done. And between Lincecum, a revived Barry Zito, Matt Cain and Brad Penny, they nearly pulled a miracle last September, until the Cubs knocked them out of the NL West (and wild card) race by taking three of four. Penny's gone, but Jonathan Sanchez may step up and take that spot in the rotation. Randy Johnson is also gone; the Giants had hoped that hotshot kid, 20-year-old Madison Bumgarner, would take over, but Bumgarner's had a tough spring so far.
The Giants' problem since the non-retirement retirement of Barry Bonds has been offense. Bengie Molina, for a while, was their cleanup hitter -- he's good, but not that good. The Kung Fu Panda, Pablo Sandoval, has taken over as San Francisco's best hitter, and he hit .330/.387/.556 last year, finishing second in BA and sixth in SLG, and he's only 23. The Giants hope rookie catcher Buster Posey will help Molina remain productive, and of course, our old buddy Mark DeRosa -- who has been in the postseason three straight years without winning a single game -- will add some veteran presence and leadership to the SF lineup.
The Cubs don't play the Giants until August this year -- then they'll have four in San Francisco, and later, three at Wrigley in September. Those could be very important games for both teams.
Los Angeles Dodgers -- 2009: 1st place, 95-67
The Dodgers had the best record in the National League in 2009, even with Manny Ramirez suspended for 50 games for PED's. (Insert Manny/female hormone joke here.) Manny produced well in his 2/3 of a season, but the real stars of the Dodger offense were young OF Andre Ethier (think Billy Beane's kicking himself for trading Ethier for Milton Bradley?) and Matt Kemp. The Dodgers also got good offensive production from 1B James Loney and 3B Casey Blake; those four will anchor the Dodger lineup again this year.
Pitching has been a Dodger strength for many years. This year's team will be no exception, although the starting rotation appears a bit thin after Clayton Kershaw, Chad Billingsley and Hiroki Kuroda. I don't expect Vicente Padilla to be as effective as he was down the stretch. LA has a good closer in Jonathan Broxton, but setup man Ronald Belisario is still in Venezuela with visa problems, and the Dodgers don't have any idea when or whether he'll be able to get to the US.
This will likely be Manny's last year in LA -- if he's back after 2010, it's likely he'll be in the AL somewhere as a DH. This means Dodger fans will see a lot of former Cub fan favorite Reed Johnson as a late-inning defensive replacement, as Manny is generally an adventure in left field.
The Dodgers will be without regular catcher Russell Martin to begin the season as he recovers from a groin injury. The Dodgers will go with 41-year-old Brad Ausmus and rookie A.J. Ellis, a 28-year-old career minor leaguer who has 13 major league at-bats, until Martin recovers.
Colorado Rockies -- 2009: 2nd place, 90-72
Much as they did in their miracle pennant-run year of 2007, the 2009 Rockies started out poorly. This time, it cost manager Clint Hurdle his job. Jim Tracy replaced him and the Rockies went on a four-month tear (74-42) that got them the NL wild card. In some agonizingly close games, they lost the division series to the Phillies.
So, Colorado has made few changes for this season. Third baseman Garrett Atkins, who had a poor year, was non-tendered and signed with the Orioles; Ian Stewart, who hit 25 HR even with a .228 BA, will replace him. Otherwise, it's the same starting eight, including Troy Tulowitzki, who had a big bounceback year in 2009, Todd Helton, who just signed a contract that will allow him to finish his career with the Rox, and Carlos Gonzalez, who proved to be an exciting addition to the lineup after his recall from Triple-A in June. "Car-Go", as Rox fans dubbed him, came from the Athletics along with Huston Street in the Matt Holliday deal, a trade that turned out quite well for Colorado.
This year, Jeff Francis, a 17-game winner in 2007 who missed the entire 2009 season after shoulder surgery, is expected to return. The Rox rotation was a surprising strength in 2009; Colorado pitching has not exactly been the shining star of franchise history, but Ubaldo Jimenez and Jorge de la Rosa both had fine seasons. de la Rosa, in particular, helped that Rockies playoff run by going 12-3, 3.46 after the All-Star break.
The Rockies should be a strong contender in this division again.
San Diego Padres -- 2009: 4th place, 75-87
The Padres, having jettisoned a lot of salary in the months before 2009 due to the divorce of owner John Moores (sound familiar?), were expected to be among the worst, if not the worst, teams in the National League last year.
For 100 games, they played to form -- they were 38-62 after those 100 games, 24.5 games out of first place.
And then, somehow, the young Padres started winning, including taking two of three from the Cubs in San Diego in August and putting the final nail in Kevin Gregg as closer when Kyle Blanks smacked a three-run walkoff on August 17. They went 37-25 the rest of the year -- only the Rockies and Angels had better records from July 27 on (and only by a couple of games).
The Padres have some pretty good young players. Blanks is only 23, and hit .250/.355/.514 with 10 HR in 148 at-bats. He's really not much of an outfielder, but will have to play left field as long as the NL's best player not named "Pujols", Adrian Gonzalez, is a member of the Padres. A-Gon had the best year of his career, hitting .277/.407/.551 with a career-high 40 HR. There are constant rumors that he'll be traded before he reaches free agency, but the Padres aren't really that far from contention. If they can find a way to keep him, they probably should.
The Padres need more offense -- even with A-Gon, they finished second-to-last in the NL in runs in 2009. Their pitching wasn't that great either; they added inning-eater Jon Garland to help take the pressure off their bullpen. If they can get to the ninth, closer Heath Bell is almost lights-out; he led the NL with 42 saves and blew only three save opportunities.
Arizona Diamondbacks -- 2009: 5th place, 70-92
Arizona, expected to contend last year, instead had its first 90-loss season since 2004, the year Bob Brenly was fired midseason (that was a joke; his replacement, Al Pedrique, had a worse record, and the team finished with a franchise-record 111 losses, the most in the NL since the Mets lost 112 in 1965).
So the D'backs made several significant moves; they'll have new starters at 1B (Adam LaRoche) and 2B (Kelly Johnson), and two new members of their rotation (Edwin Jackson and Ian Kennedy, both products of the three-way deal that landed Curtis Granderson in New York).
The key to any Arizona success this year will be the health of Brandon Webb. The constant reports on him out of Arizona are alternately bad and good; right now his target date for returning from shoulder trouble is the end of April.
If the D'backs have a weakness, it's the bullpen. Chad Qualls, who had 24 saves in his first full season as a closer, returns in that role. It's the guys behind him who are shaky. Two of them are former Cubs who were mostly reviled in blue pinstripes: Bob Howry and Aaron Heilman (who the Cubs already raked in a spring training game). The D'backs visit Wrigley for the only time this year in late April, when the wind is more likely to be blowing in; that might be good fortune for Howry and Heilman, favorites of the Wrigley ballhawks (if not other Cubs fans) for the balls they helped park on Waveland Avenue.