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NL West burning questions to ponder this spring

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USA Today Sports

The National League West is a uniquely intriguing division. Four of the five teams are legitimate playoff teams, now that the San Francisco Giants have recovered and re-tooled. At the top are the defending NL champion Los Angeles Dodgers. At the bottom are the perennially poor San Diego Padres. Somewhere in the middle, San Francisco hopes to redeem itself after an unexpected last-place finish in 2017.

Two teams that met in last year’s wild card game round out the October-sniffing crowd. The Arizona Diamondbacks and Colorado Rockies both lost and gained significant pieces over the winter, but will return with playoff expectations.

The NL West is in a good place. Will it send another representative to the World Series in 2018? Can anyone knock off the five-time defending division champion Dodgers? Which of those teams will be left out of the playoff picture altogether?

  • Los Angeles Dodgers: Do they have enough to return to — and win — the World Series?

What a luxury: to be a team whose ceiling is so high, we’re asking about the likelihood of a World Series title on March 2. Yet, the Dodgers did almost nothing of significance this offseason. They let a couple pieces of their vaunted bullpen sign with rivals (Brandon Morrow went to Chicago, Tony Watson to San Francisco), and lost Yu Darvish to the Cubs.

Expensive veterans Adrian Gonzalez, Andre Ethier, Scott Kazmir and Brandon McCarthy are gone. Former Dodger favorite Matt Kemp is back in blue, and a ton of new guys with two first names (Scott Alexander, Jake Peter and Dylan Baker, to name a few) are at spring training. All told, the Dodgers mostly slashed payroll, retained arbitration-eligible players, and made a slew of minor moves that barely moved the needle for the richest organization in baseball.

Still, for the losses they suffered in the bullpen and rotation, the Dodgers come into 2018 loaded at every level. They return a lineup featuring Corey Seager, Justin Turner, and Cody Bellinger. The rotation is anchored by Clayton Kershaw, Rich Hill and Alex Wood. Kenley Jansen looms. If they get expected rebounds from Joc Pederson and Logan Forsythe, or if any of their MLB-ready top prospects make an impact (as has become an annual tradition in L.A.), or they turn Tom Koehler into the next Morrow… the Dodgers may end up being even better than last year’s 104-win team.

That’s a lot of “ifs,” though, and they’ll have to run the suddenly terrifying NL West gauntlet for one-third of their games. The Dodgers are still the best team in the league on paper, and are favorites to take another division title, but they have their eyes set on winning the Game 7 they lost last year, and nothing less will satisfy. Do they have enough to pull it off? A long, trying season will tell.

  • San Francisco Giants: Will this unique plan actually work?

The Giants should be a very good team. They have a lineup featuring Buster Posey, Andrew McCutchen and Evan Longoria. Brandon Crawford, Brandon Belt and Joe Panik complete an inconsistent but talented infield. Watson has been added to the bullpen to complement closer Mark Melancon. Madison Bumgarner, Johnny Cueto and Jeff Samardzija are a powerful trio in the rotation.

So how did they manage to lose 98 games in 2017, tied for the worst record in baseball, a 40-game gap between them and the rival Dodgers? First, McCutchen, Longoria and Watson weren’t there. Belt, Bumgarner, Cueto and Melancon dealt with serious injuries. The bullpen fell apart, and the offense underperformed. Basically, everything that could go wrong did. If even some of those things had gone right, the Giants could have been wild card contenders last year.

At the expense of adding payroll, jettisoning the last promising remnants of a depleted farm system, and adding significant age to the roster, the Giants gave themselves an extreme makeover over the last four months. Gone are Matt Moore, Denard Span and Christian Arroyo. In their places are Watson, McCutchen (who had a down year, but was actually worse by many measures than Span in 2017), and Longoria (who has declined over the last few years).

The Giants needed something. They were too good to do a full rebuild, and half-baking one would have been a disaster. So, they addressed their power problems (McCutchen and Longoria combined for 48 homers in 2017), improved their defense, added a good piece to the bullpen, and let the long winter heal their broken stars. Are they a playoff team in 2018 because of it? Maybe not, but they will win more than 64 games and have given themselves a real shot to rebound.

  • Arizona Diamondbacks: Will they finally get over the hump?

The Diamondbacks have been almost good enough for a couple years. They have the ace (Zack Greinke), the star hitter (Paul Goldschmidt), and the supporting cast to make a real playoff run. Last year’s thrilling 93-win season ended in a sweep at the hands of the rival Dodgers in the NLDS. They proved that, while some of the right pieces are in place, they are still not at the level of the team they’ve been chasing.

Bringing in Steven Souza, Jr. to replace mid-season rental J.D. Martinez was a savvy move, as was signing free-agent outfielder Jarrod Dyson. They can afford the loss of closer Fernando Rodney with Archie Bradley ready to step into that role. They have good reason to believe Yasmany Tomas, A.J. Pollock, Jake Lamb and David Peralta will bounce back to add potency to their lineup. Robbie Ray is a rising star behind Greinke, and Taijuan Walker, Zack Godley and Patrick Corbin form an exceptionally talented, if inconsistent, back end of the rotation.

So, like the Giants, the Diamondbacks have all the pieces in place. It’s their move to make. They have the bad fortune of sharing a division with the Dodgers, a juggernaut with no plans of slowing down, but none of that matters if they can defeat their foes in a short postseason series. The D-backs went 11-8 against the Dodgers in the 2017 regular season, built up momentum, and a earned a “dark horse” label from the media… but then got torn apart in the NLDS.

The Diamondbacks are close. They had the second-best run differential in the league last year (Dodgers), scored the fourth-most runs per game, had the second-best ERA (Dodgers) and the top ERA+. The Giants made the flashy moves, but the Diamondbacks are still the biggest challenger to the Dodgers. Another 90-win season may be in their future, but will that be enough to surpass L.A.? Even if not, are they ready to make noise in the postseason?

  • Colorado Rockies: Will finally addressing the pitching staff pay off?

Nobody had a more efficient winter than the Rockies. After years of stubbornness, the Rockies finally ignored the offense and addressed their biggest Achilles heel: pitching. In one fell swoop, they reunited with Jake McGee, signed Bryan Shaw and added Wade Davis. Suddenly, the Rockies have a bullpen that isn’t just noticeably more polished, but should legitimately terrify opposing teams.

It may not be the best bullpen in the league (hell, it isn’t even the best one in the division), but it’s good. It is leaps and bounds better than fans at homer-happy Coors Field are used to seeing. That new-look squad with a seven-man rotation of young, high-upside hurlers means the Rockies’ 2017 wild card run won’t look fluky for long.

Shoring up the bullpen has offered relief — pun intended — to both the starting rotation, which won’t be expected to go as deep into games, and the lineup, which won’t have to score dozens of runs to give the team a chance. That said, the Rockies still play in Denver, and they still have a strong lineup. Anytime you can write in Nolan Arenado, Charlie Blackmon and D.J. LeMahieu, people will take your lineup seriously. The Rockies still have time and flexibility to reunite with Mark Reynolds or fish for someone like Jose Bautista if they want a little more pop in the lineup.

But most importantly, they’ve taken care of a glaring problem that has haunted the team for years. The bullpen is strong, the Jon Gray-led rotation is sneaky good — with multiple arms having the potential to break out in 2018 — and the team knows it can win. The Giants are suddenly star-studded, the Diamondbacks are still a better all-around team, and the Dodgers are out of range, but the Rockies may end up causing the most ruckus in a stacked division this year.

  • San Diego Padres: Eric Hosmer, Franchise Rescuer? Or Eric Hosmer, Expensive PR Stunt?

First off, can we agree to give the Padres a hand? Sure, by the numbers, Eric Hosmer is one of the more overrated players in baseball. He is definitely overpaid. But the Padres never make big splashes in the free-agent market. Even if Hosmer isn’t the star he is made out to be, he makes the Padres better. It has been a gloomy seven years for Padre fans, who haven’t experienced an above-.500 team since 2010’s 90-win squad. Hosmer has to be a welcome sight.

The front office in San Diego has work to do. That job is made doubly difficult by the fact that the rest of their division is either a perennial playoff contender or at the peak of a successful rebuild. Nobody expects the Padres to contend this year — or even next — but if they play their cards right, surpassing a couple NL West teams by 2020 shouldn’t be out of the question.

Hosmer is the piece they will build around, and the window is small. The front office is smart and has a top-tier farm system with which to begin the process. The big league roster itself needs significant work. Besides Hosmer and Wil Myers there isn’t much “star power” out there, but don’t overlook the potential of Austin Hedges (18 homers in 2017) and Hunter Renfroe (26, but fighting for a starting role), or the athleticism of Manuel Margot.

The rotation still counts on Clayton Richard to lead the way, but five of the Padres’ top prospects are high-level arms, a couple of which are nearly ready for promotion. Luis Perdomo and Dinelson Lamet showed promise as rookie hurlers in 2017. Add shortstop Fernando Tatis, Jr. to the mix, and you have one of the strongest minor league systems in baseball, and a good, young core ready to complement Hosmer, Myers, Brad Hand, and the rest. If the Padres do it right, the Hosmer signing will look brilliant. If not, well, at least they sold some jerseys.

Jeremy Dorn is a former million-read Bleacher Report Featured Columnist, two-time MLB Fan Cave finalist, co-creator/host of now-extinct Three Up, Three Down blog and podcast, proud member of the Internet Baseball Writer's Association of America, and published author. He graduated with a Journalism/Creative Writing double major from Washington State University’s prestigious Edward R. Murrow College of Communications in 2011. Born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area, loyal to the Los Angeles Dodgers, San Francisco 49ers, Golden State Warriors and WSU Cougars. Pete Rose apologist, sac bunt connoisseur, relentless tweeter – find me at @Jamblinman.

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