Sizing up the National League West

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The last three years, the Padres had the misfortune of facing Clayton Kershaw and the Dodgers on Opening Day, losing 6-0, 15-0, and 14-3.

This year, the home team will face the Milwaukee Brewers, a welcome change. After that series against the Brewers, however, the Padres will face their National League West rivals a whopping 20 games out of 26.

The division had an MLB-high winning percentage of .517 in 2017, and promises to be strong again. In fact, some evaluators like Tracy Ringolsby and Richard Justice of MLB.com, predict the NLW will again be the toughest division in all of baseball. Prognosticators all agree that the Dodgers should win the division yet again, with between 94 and 99 wins, and that the Padres will end up in last place, but disagree about the other three teams in the division.

Aside from the addition of Matt Kemp, the Dodgers have made few changes to the roster thanks to their desire to stay under the luxury tax threshold. But why mess with success? In 2017, the Dodgers won 104 games. This year, L.A. will have the same solid pitching staff led by Kershaw and a nucleus of position players like veteran outfielder Yasiel Puig, 2016 National League Rookie of the Year Corey Seager at shortstop, and last year’s winner at first, Cody Bellinger. Justin Turner is hurt presently, but could return in 2018 and provide a spark. They also have pitcher Walker Buehler, ranked 13th on Baseball America’s prospect list, waiting in the wings.

USA Today’s Gabe Lacques and FanGraphs predict that the Arizona Diamondbacks (93-69 last year) will take second place with 84 or 81 wins respectively. The D-Backs have a true ace in Zack Greinke, who went 17-7 last year with a 6.0 WAR, as well as Robbie Ray (15-5, .289 ERA). They have lost J.D. Martinez and his 29 home runs (in 62 games) to free agency, but still have first baseman Paul Goldschmidt, a better all-around player. Last year, he batted .297/.404/.563 with 36 homers and 120 RBI. He has won the NL Gold Glove and Silver Slugger awards three times and finished second in NL Most Valuable Player vote twice.

Despite playing half their games in the Coors Field pitcher torture chamber, the young staff led the Rockies to a Wild Card spot in 2017. Coors still ranks as the most hitter-friendly park in baseball, and the Rockies have tried everything from storing baseballs in a humidor to a four-man rotation to signing high priced free agents like Mike Hampton.

When Jeff Bridich took over as general manager at the end of the 2014 season, he decided to look for good pitchers period, mainly through the draft. Led by former pitcher Bud Black (who was fired by the Padres mid-season in 2015) the young staff went 63-56. Rookies Kyle Freeland, Jeff Hoffman, German Marquez, and Antonio Senzatela had a 53-40 record in 93 starts.

Hitting has never been a problem for the Rockies, especially at home, but third baseman Nolan Arenado has won the Wilson Defensive Player of the year the past three years, as well as his third Silver Slugger with 37 home runs and 130 RBI. Center fielder Charlie Blackmon hit .331/.399/.601 and won the NL batting title.

Last year, the San Francisco Giants had a very uncharacteristic last-place finish with a 64-98 record. If team ace Madison Bumgarner stays away from dirt bikes, he should lead the team’s rebound. Johnny Cueto and his 26-13 record with the Giants will return, as will catcher Buster Posey and shortstop Brandon Crawford. FanGraphs actually predicts that the Giants will come in second in the division with an 82-80 record, a huge leap from the team’s 64 wins in 2017.

However, thanks to the additions of outfielders Andrew McCutchen and Austin Jackson, as well as third baseman Evan Longoria, the Giants now have the second oldest team in MLB at 29.0 years with the Angels coming in last at 29.2. Thanks to a farm system ranked 28th by Bleacher Report’s Reuter, help may not be on the way anytime soon.

The baseball gods have not done the Padres any favors by placing the team in such a competitive division and by beginning 2018 with 19 games against teams that made it to the playoffs, including three in Houston against the World Series champion Astros. How the young Padres handle this daunting task will tell us more about the team than the record itself.

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Diane Calkins
Baseball has always been part of my life, as my dad played minor league ball and went on to coach at the college level. Although I've written for a number of publications (mostly about companion animal welfare), I love having the chance to write about a lifelong passion: baseball.

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