National League West
The National League West I think was by far the most competitive and exciting division in baseball last year. The two teams that made the playoffs [Rockies and Diamondbacks] weren't even early season picks to go to the playoffs. The one thing I love about this division is the depth in pitching. There is a great balance in this division. Last year the Padres led the National League is just about every pitching category, the Rockies lead in just about every hitting category, and the Diamondbacks were in in the top six in almost every pitching and some hitting category. The storylines in this division will be very interesting to watch as well. Can Joe Torre win in the National League? Will the addition of Dan Haren give the D-Backs the top rotation in the league? Can the Rockies repeat the magic of last year? And can the Padres gain just enough offense to win the division? No matter what I would look for this to be the tightest division in possibly baseball with every team [except for the Giants] having a reasonable shot at making the playoffs.
1 Arizona Diamondbacks (88-74)
The Diamondbacks made the most overlooked trade in the postseason by trading for ace Dan Haren. Haren's trade got lost in the Johan Santana sweepstakes, but if you look at Haren's career numbers you can see why they got lost. Haren has a career 3.82 ERA with only five more wins then losses. So what's the big deal with Haren? The big deal is he played for a team with no offense and virtually no bullpen, and every year he has been getting better. The rotation with Haren, Brandon Webb, and a potentially healthy Big Unit is scary. Doug Davis and Micah Owings are above average starters for the back end of a rotation. Where this team's potential weakness could be is the bullpen. They traded away their All-Star closer and now Brandon Lyon will be the stopper. Lyon is an unproven closer with only 25 career saves, whereas Valverde led the league with 47 last year. The rest of the bullpen with Pena, Qualls, and Cruz are strong, and can eat up some innings. The D-Backs' line-up was one of the worst when it came to teams to make the playoffs in MLB history. But now these young players have a year and playoff experience under their belts and can only go out. Upton, Drew, Young, and Jackson should put up much better numbers this year, and the "Vets"-I guess you can call them on this young team [Byrnes, O-Dog, and Chad Tracy] should provide the leadership and numbers to get this team back into the playoffs.
Key Addition: Dan Haren
2 San Diego Padres (85-77)
The Padres looked like the team to beat at the beginning of the season last year. They were going along the first half of the season as they were 49-38 going into the All-Star break. Then some key injuries and the bats quieting down opened up the door for the Diamondbacks and eventually the Rockies to climb in and go to the playoffs. This year they are being overlooked behind the D-Backs and the Rockies, but I think they have enough to make a run at the D-Backs and the Wild Card. Their rotation might be a bit underrated. Jake Peavy is one of the best in the game and Chris Young was the NL starter in the All-Star game last year. After that there might be some questions. Greg Maddox's age might start to become a question - but when hasn't it been in the best couple years? Randy Wolf should be able to put up average numbers, but the real wild card of this team-and maybe the division-is Mark Prior. If Prior can get healthy and get back to the form that we remember when he first came up with the Cubs, then this rotation will contend with the D-Backs. Their bullpen is solid, with one of the best closers ever in Trevor Hoffman. Trevor will have to shake off his last game of the season, when he blew the save to put Colorado in the playoffs. The Padres' line-up has a good mix of speed and power, with new second basemen Tadahito Iguchi and Khalil Greene. The power should come from Kouzmanoff, Gonzalez, and-if he's healthy-new outfielder Jim Edmonds. I think that the Padres will leave everything on the field, but they just miss getting the D-Backs in the end.
Key Addition: Jim Edmonds
3 Colorado Rockies (84-78)
The Rockies were, I think, the best story of the 2007 season. The way they ended the year-winning 20 some games in a row-was incredible. Then they carried that momentum into the playoffs, sweeping the Phillies and with a great series against the D-Backs. As unbelieveable as their line-up is, they lack in pitching. Their bats are some of the best in the NL. Matt Holiday had a MVP type season and was just as deserving as J-Role. Todd Helton is one of the best pure hitters in the game and Brad Hawpe, Garrett Atkins, and Troy Tulowitzki make this line-up hard to get through top to bottom. But when they ran into the powerhouse Red Sox in last year's World Series, their one weakness was exposed-their starting pitching. This, I think, will keep Colorado out of the playoffs. Even with the addition with above average pitcher Josh Towers, I just don't think Francis, Cook, Jimenez, Morales, and Hirsh can get them back there. Now, they do have a lot of young arms with Jimenez and Morales, I think they are one year away, and maybe another pitcher, from putting the pieces together in the rotation. The Rockies' bullpen is solid with Corpas closing, and Fuentes, Taylor Buchholz, and Herges setting up. I think this team will put of a fight and this should be the most exciting races in the most exciting division in baseball, but I think that they are still one front-line starter from being back into the playoffs.
Key Addition: Josh Towers
4 Los Angeles Dodgers (82-80)
The Dodgers are the best team in the Majors that is going to finish in the bottom half of their division. If they were in the NL Central they might be considered the favorite, but behind the D-Backs, Padres, and Rockies they aren't getting any attention [aside from Joe Torre]. The L.A. line-up has a lot of speed with Pierre and Furcal at the top and some power with Kent, Kemp, Martin, and Loney. Kemp and Loney will be starting their first full season in the starting line-ups so we will see if they will be capable of contributing in the future and for a full season. Their rotation is only average compared to the other two top staffs in their division. Penny is a good number-one, and Lowe is a solid number-two starter. Chad Billingsley is still very young and Hiroki Kuroda is unproven as a starter in the MLB. Their bullpen-with Saito, Broxton, Beimel, and Proctoris up there in the West. I think this team may be one more front-line starter and one more big bat in the line-up away from moving up. This will be the year we find out if Joe Torre can manage a N.L. club. All in all, this team will be in the thick of the Wild Card race, but will fall short of the rest of good teams in the NL.
Key Addition: Joe Torre
5 San Francisco Giants (68-94)
The Giants had a bad record last season, but they finally got rid of all the baggage that the Home Run King Barry Bonds brought with him. This is definitely a rebuilding year for the Giants. They went out and got Aaron Rowand, but I don't think he will have anywhere close to the year he had last year. They have the potential to have a good starting rotation, with all their young arms and [overpaid] pitcher Barry Zito. Defensively, this team is very good with Vizquel, Roberts, Rowand, Winn, and Durham, who is moving back to second. The bullpen in a work in progress, with Brian Wilson as the closer, and Vinnie Chulk, Randy Messenger, and Tyler Walker setting him up. I think this could be a team that most of the contenders will look to for that added player that could help them make the playoffs. The Giants have the youth, and maybe it's time to start playing them and look towards the future.
Key Addition: Aaron Rowand
The West will be the most competitive Division in the NL, and maybe even the Majors. It will be a very exciting race, and I can't wait for the season to start to watch it unfold.
On Deck: American League East. Will the Yankees return to their old ways? Will the Red Sox dominate again? Can the Blue Jays make a push? Will the Rays finally get over .500 and out of the basement? All that to come and more in my next edition.