Heading into the 2010 season, perhaps no division is as pleasingly muddled as the National League West.
True, the West likely won't play home to the best team in baseball, but if you survey the division you won't find much in the way of safe assumptions. Indeed, it's possible to imagine any of four teams -- the Dodgers, Rockies, Giants, and Diamondbacks (sorry Padres) -- taking the flag. So how to make sense of this mess? Let's give each team the once-over and lay some odds:
Consider the twice-reigning champs the favorites. Last season, they clinched the one seed in the NL bracket and won the division by three games over wild-card entrant Colorado. However, this season they'll be without lefty Randy Wolf (214.1 innings, 3.23 ERA in 2009) and second baseman Orlando Hudson (.283 AVG/.357 OBP/.417 SLG in 631 plate appearances). In the rotation, Vicente Padilla and (most likely) James McDonald will be fixtures in 2010. However, in reality Padilla is more like the guy who posted a 4.92 ERA in Texas than the guy who posted a 3.20 ERA in L.A. As for McDonald, his age and minor-league numbers all suggest an ERA in the mid-4.00s. And Ronnie Belliard, Hudson's likely replacement, is Hudson's inferior, both at the plate and with the glove.
As for the good news, the Dodgers will presumably get a full season out of Manny Ramirez; young stars Clayton Kershaw, Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier will once again perform at a high level; and Chad Billingsley is a good bet to take the next step. And while the bullpen is almost bound to come back to earth a bit it should still be one of baseball's best.
Overall, the concerns are rotation depth and offensive production from the infield. The Dodgers -- while still the sensible favorites -- figure to come back to the pack just a bit. That means things could, and probably will, get interesting.
Chance of winning division: 40 percent
The Rockies surged to the wild card last season, and going into 2010 they boast one of the most balanced rosters in baseball. Impact hitters in the lineup include Troy Tulowitzki, Todd Helton, Brad Hawpe, and -- depending on playing time -- Seth Smith. Carlos Gonzalez and Chris Iannetta both have breakout potential, and speaking of Iannetta, the Rockies will be better off now that he's the regular catcher. As well, a full season of Ian Stewart means more production from third, and the bench figures to be a strength.
The rotation boasts a potential frontline ace in Ubaldo Jimenez, and Jason Hammel, Jorge De La Rosa and Aaron Cook all project as above-average starters. On the downside, Jason Marquis is now a National, and Jeff Francis is no guarantee to be both healthy and effective. So depth could be a concern, particularly if Jhoulys Chacin isn't yet ready to succeed at the highest level.
Elsewhere in the debits column, Colorado has a bullpen that's thin from the left side. Overall, though, the Rockies have no glaring weaknesses and are the team best poised to challenge Los Angeles.
Chance of winning division: 30 percent
In 2009, the Snakes finished in last place. By any standard, it was a disaster of a season. However, they've got a puncher's chance in 2010. Much depends on the health and effectiveness of Brandon Webb. When in vintage form, Webb is among the very best pitchers in the game today, but after major shoulder surgery he carries no guarantees.
Arizona, though, is more than just its hopes for Webb. Justin Upton is a future MVP, Mark Reynolds has tremendous raw power, Miguel Montero has the potential to be one of the best hitting catchers in the NL, Adam LaRoche is an improvement at first base, and the middle infield should be highly productive by positional standards. In the rotation, Dan Haren is another Cy Young-caliber arm.
As for weaknesses, the team defense will be sub-optimal, the rotation is thin, and there's little upside in the setup corps. Potentially, Arizona will have one of the stronger offenses in the NL, but the pitching staff -- particularly behind a porous defense and especially if Webb is something less than his old self -- is a liability.
Chance of winning division: 20 percent
San Fran boasts perhaps the best one-two punch in baseball in Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain. Elsewhere in the rotation Jonathan Sanchez has sub-4.00 potential, and Madison Bumgarner has a high ceiling and should contribute right away. On offense, they've also got an elite-level hitter in Pablo Sandoval, and, unlike last season, they should be at least adequate at every position.
With that said, they're not likely to hang many runs on the board. That's mostly because Sandoval is the only standout hitter in the lineup. Last season, the Giants ranked 13th in the NL in runs scored, and while they've made some upgrades this winter, those improvements have been at the margins. In other words, don't expect them to get to 700 runs this season. Throw in a thin bullpen, and the Giants aren't likely to prevail in the West. Roughly speaking, this team is Sandoval and the rotation.
Chance of winning division: 8 percent
Let's be frank: there's almost no chance the Padres will win the West. This won't be an awful team, but it's hard to muster a case that they'll finish somewhere other than last place. The bullpen -- fronted by Heath Bell -- is solid, Adrian Gonzalez is a star, the only gaping hole in the lineup figures to be right field, and the rotation is balanced (if unspectacular). Another impediment (other than the limited talent in place and the strong remainder of the West) is that the Padres will likely be in sell mode this season. As a consequence, Gonzalez and Bell, among others, may be traded by July 31. That's wise given the ongoing rebuilding effort, but it means contention in 2010 is an impossibility.
Chance of winning division: 2 percent