Philadelphia, PA – The Arizona Diamondbacks surprised the baseball world last season by going from worst to first to win the National League West.
This year, they will try to take it even further and reach the World Series for the first time since winning the franchise's lone title in a memorable seven-game set with the New York Yankees in 2001.
Armed with perhaps as good a pitching staff as anyone in baseball (yes, even Philadelphia), the Diamondbacks also boast a legitimate MVP candidate in Justin Upton, making them my pick to come out of the NL this season.
Led by 21-game winner Ian Kennedy, the Diamondbacks came out of nowhere last season to capture their first division title since 2007, winning 94 games one year after finishing 27 games out of last place in the cellar of the NL West.
This year, they could be even better.
Kennedy emerged as one of the game's top young pitchers last season and will be joined atop the rotation by another former All-Star in 24-year-old righty Trevor Cahill, who comes over from Oakland two years removed from an 18-win campaign. Those two combine with righties Daniel Hudson and Josh Collmenter and lefty Joe Saunders to give the D'Backs one of the more underrated rotations in the league.
And if someone does struggle, remember this name. Trevor Bauer. He's going to start the year at Double-A, but most people think he'll be pitching meaningful innings for the D'Backs at some point this season.
Arizona's pitching staff as a whole was rock solid, as J.J. Putz re- established himself as one of the best closers in baseball last season, totaling a career-high 45 saves, while converting his last 23 successfully. His biggest contribution, though, may have been in the clubhouse for a very young Diamondbacks team.
But the reason to really jump on the D'Backs bandwagon? Upton.
Last season was Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder Matt Kemp's coming-out party. This year it could be Upton's. The 24-year-old outfielder, who is already a two-time All-Star, is on the cusp of all-out stardom after a year that saw him slug 31 home runs to go along with 88 RBIs - both career-highs - and a .289 average.
If this kid played in New York or Boston, expectations would be off the charts.
Upton is just now starting to come into his own and is a legitimate 40-home run, 40-stolen base threat. Kemp has said he wants to join the 50-50 club. Upton may beat him to it, as he isn't even close to entering his prime.
Manager Kirk Gibson's young club seemed happy to just be invited to the postseason party last season. This year, they will use that experience from and take it even further in an NL that is as wide open as any in recent memory.
For an insight into the season, here's a brief synopsis and a look at some of the teams which will try to stop the D'Backs from unseating the St. Louis Cardinals as this year's NL champion. For a look at the AL Outlook, go to http://bit.ly/GX1EYD.
PHILADELPHIA: The Phillies still have Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels at the top of their rotation. But as one scout asked last week, "What else do they have?" As good as those pitchers may be, where exactly is the offense coming from? For a second straight year, Chase Utley is going to start the season on the disabled list because of a knee issue and many think he is never going to be the player he once was. Ryan Howard is still recovering from an Achilles' tear suffered at the end of Game 5 of the NLCS and will likely miss the first two months. Keep in mind this is a team that struggled to score runs last season with a healthy Howard. Not to mention they now play in what may be the best division in the NL.
MIAMI: The team that may benefit the most from the Phils' offensive woes? The new-look Miami Marlins. Armed with a new name, a new building, a new manager and a few new stars, this is a team that could very well unseat the Phils at the top of the NL East. Then again, they could be a potential powder keg and it all could go very wrong. The always volatile Ozzie Guillen has taken the reins as manager and will have some new toys in Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle, Carlos Zambrano and Heath Bell to work with. The key will be getting them all to play together and keeping Hanley Ramirez happy. Ramirez had grumbled a bit about moving to third base to accommodate Reyes, but it was happy sailing in spring training. Plus Ramirez has been mashing the ball this spring and could be an under-the-radar MVP pick.
ATLANTA: The Braves probably have fallen from contender status, but they have been too good lately to be a surprise and they will certainly not be a doormat. So, they are kind of left in limbo here. Most of the Braves' season will likely center around the pending retirement of Chipper Jones, who announced a few weeks back that this will indeed be his final season. This is a team, though, that if certain things break its way, it could make some noise in the division. Keep in mind the Braves return basically the same team that last year seemingly had a firm grasp on the NL wild card spot late in August. Then again, it's also the same team that blew that said lead. But, if you are looking for a bounce-back season candidate, look no further than Jason Heyward, who was saw his average dip 50 points last season after his phenomenal rookie year.
ST. LOUIS: For the first time since 1995, the St. Louis Cardinals will go into a season without either manager Tony La Russa or Albert Pujols in their dugout. But even without the services of a three-time former NL MVP, expectations are high for the defending world champions. The offense should still be able to put up plenty of runs, and as long as Chris Carpenter can return quickly from his shoulder injury and Adam Wainwright can remain healthy, the rotation has the potential to be very good. Closer Jason Motte at the end is always shaky, but he was a horse for the team in the postseason last year, so the hope is that maybe he has turned a corner. Luckily for the Cards, no team really stands out in the NL Central, meaning they probably have the luxury of letting the season play out and identifying their needs before the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline. Either way, this is a team that should contend for a division title and at the very least the wild card.
CINCINNATI: A lot of people liked the Reds a whole lot more before they learned Ryan Madson would miss the season thanks to the dreaded Tommy John surgery. But he's gone before ever throwing a pitch for them and the Reds are now left with Sean Marshall as their closer. That's not a bad thing, either. Marshall pitched to a 2.26 ERA last season and could be even more of a breakout star in a higher profile role this season. Mat Latos also gives the Reds a pretty solid 1-2 punch atop the rotation with Johnny Cueto. It also will be interesting to see how star first baseman Joey Votto responds after agreeing to a 10-year extension, worth a reported $225 million.
MILWAUKEE: The Brewers are coming off their first division crown in 29 years, and the goal is to go back-to-back for the first time since 1981-82. But there are some question marks. Losing Prince Fielder is definitely going to hurt, and who knows what kind of effect that will have on reigning MVP Ryan Braun, who was already going to be facing his most difficult year as a pro after performance enhancing drug allegations this offseason. Aramis Ramirez won't put up Fielder's gaudy numbers, but he should serve as a nice Robin to Braun's Batman. Yovani Gallardo is the best pitcher people still aren't aware of, as he heads a pretty underrated staff that also includes a former Cy Young Award winner in Zack Greinke. Despite the loss of Fielder, the Brewers should still be right in the thick of a very-competitive NL Central.
GIANTS: Even with catcher Buster Posey returning, the problem with the Giants remains the same as it was two years ago when they won a World Series. There is just not a whole lot of offense. But, like the Phillies, they do get by with their pitching, as Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain can go toe-to-toe with any team's top two. But, also like Philadelphia, they play in a division that has seemingly gotten a whole lot better, while they've basically stood pat. When your big offseason offensive upgrades are Melky Cabrera and Angel Pagan, you may be in a bit of trouble.
WASHINGTON: The Nationals are coming. It may not be this year, but they are coming. Stephen Strasburg will still be on an innings-limit this season, but he should have plenty of help in a rotation that now also includes Gio Gonzalez and Edwin Jackson, along with Jordan Zimmerman and John Lannan. Ryan Zimmerman signed a long-term deal this offseason, but has still yet to prove he can stay healthy. But help is on the way in the form of phenom Bryce Harper, who will likely be up with the big club sooner rather than later. And once he gets going, watch out. But this is a team built more for next season.
LOS ANGELES DODGERS: It's almost amazing that the Dodgers were able to finish over .500 (82-79) last season despite the financial mess the team was in. But, then again, it's also amazing they finished like that and had not only the NL Cy Young Award winner in Clayton Kershaw but the runner-up to the league's MVP in Matt Kemp. With the ownership situation hopefully now settled with Magic Johnson's group about to run the show, manager Don Mattingly hopes his team continues their strong finish from last season and surprise some people in the process.
COLORADO: The Rockies may have been the biggest disappointment in the NL last season. Injuries reared their ugly head and not a whole lot went right, as the team went out and dealt their ace Ubaldo Jimenez to Cleveland at the trade deadline. I like them a bit this year. Forget the fact that Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez are as lethal a combo as any in the league, but Jeremy Guthrie could be a guy to watch out for. How much do I think of him? Mark my words, he will have a bigger impact over the next five years than Jimenez will at any time in Cleveland. Oh yes, in case you haven't noticed, I think an awful lot of the NL West this season.
NEW YORK METS: Expectations are at an all-time low for the Mets, but it may not be all that bad. Johan Santana is back and will pitch on Opening Day. David Wright also should be ready for Game 1. And there's no way Jason Bay can be as bad as he's been, right? Either way, the Mets need a whole lot to go right if they want to compete this season.
PITTSBURGH: No team has suffered more the last 20 years than the Pittsburgh Pirates. There does appear to be a light at the end of the tunnel though, as the team occupied first place last season as late as July 19. Just getting to .500 would be an accomplishment, but something the team hasn't seen since 1992.
HOUSTON: Go ahead and take a look at the Houston Astros roster and give me one reason why they won't finish last in the NL Central.
CHICAGO CUBS: The only answer you could give me to the previous question, is that they play in the same division as the Cubs. Theo Epstein was brought in to bring this tortured franchise their first World Series title since 1908. It may happen at some point, but it won't be this year.
SAN DIEGO: Every team in the NL West has the ability to win that division this season. Well, that is everyone except the Padres, a team that was right in the thick of the division race two years ago. That seems like a long time ago, though. After dealing away Adrian Gonzalez last winter, this offseason saw the Padres trade Latos, their ace, away. They may have recouped a ton of prospects in both deals, but it's still too early to start seeing any returns. Expect another long year in San Diego.