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Monday, Oct. 20, 10:41 a.m.
Sports

MLB spring training preview: NL West

This is the first of eight articles in the 2011 MLB Offseason in Review series.

We’ll start things off with the National League West, a division that has represented seven World Series champions in its 42-year history, including the league’s most recent champion, the San Francisco Giants.

This division is known for perenially being one of league’s weakest, the top spot is up for grabs.

Here’s a breakdown of how the division will end, in order from first to last:

1. San Francisco Giants — Last Year: 1st place, (92-70)

The Giants aren’t the defending World Series champions for nothing. During this offseason, they stayed contenders by resigning star first baseman Aubrey Huff, who led last year’s team in batting average, home runs, RBIs and hits, while also signing 11-year veteran Pat Burrell, who is expected to get the nod as starting left fielder. Both will lead a mediocre San Francisco offense along with journeyman Andres Torres and shortstop Miguel Tejada.

This offseason also included past-prime infielders Edgar Renteria and Juan Uribe’s departure. Second baseman Freddy Sanchez and utility-man Mark DeRosa are also currently being treated for injury.

Don’t forget about the Giants’ pitching repertoire, which remains one of the league’s best. Closer Brian Wilson, the league-leader in saves last year, will return along with a rotation in front of him that includes 16-game winner Tim Lincecum, 26-year-old hurler Matt Cain, the struggling Barry Zito and strikeout specialist Jonathan Sanchez. Expect the Giants and the Rockies to go down to the line as the season nears October, but keep in mind, the Giants knows what it takes to win, and when healthy, will do some serious damage.

2. Colorado Rockies — Last Year: 3rd Place, 9 GB, (83-79)

The biggest news for this team came Nov. 30 when they re-signed franchise-face shortstop Troy Tulowitzki to a 10-year deal. For a team short of superstars but stacked with young talent, saving your best while paying close attention to potential is usually the right answer. Last season’s breakout outfielder Carlos Gonzalez, who led the club in batting average, home runs, RBIs and hits, is expected to combine once again with Tulowitzki for the team’s 3-4 punch.

One problem last year was the team’s inability to hit, but new hitting coach Carney Lansford should show the Rockies improvement. Ace pitcher Ubaldo Jimenez, 27, posted a 19-8 record last season along with a 2.88 ERA and 214 strikeouts while also pitching a no-hitter on April 27. Jimenez will easily make a run for the NL’s Cy Young Award this season and with that success, try and lead this team to a division title. Also, by bringing in Jorge De La Rosa, the Rockies boast a decent 1-2 combination. There’s still a slight chance Colorado could take the NL Wild Card if they can’t get past the Giants.

3. San Diego Padres — Last Year: 2nd Place, 2 GB, (90-72)

The obvious blow for the Padres this offseason was losing first baseman Adrian Gonzalez, one of the league’s most prominent power hitters, to the Boston Red Sox for four prospects after a Dec. 6 trade deal. Without Gonzalez, San Diego now has one of the worst offensive lineups in the National League, but is still not without hope.

With the two new additions of two-time All Star second baseman Orlando Hudson from Minnesota and California-native shortstop Jason Bartlett from Tampa Bay, the Padres will see a significant improvement in on-base percentage from their first two hitting spots. Also, expect a better contribution from outfielder Ryan Ludwick, who joined the team late in the year last season and only played in 59 games.

Starting pitcher Mat Latos, who went 14-10 in 31 appearances last year, will be the club’s top pitcher with aid from newly-acquired former Reds ace Aaron Harang, who has reportedly struggled with consistency since a relief appearance back in 2008. Closer Heath Bell, who was second only to San Francisco’s Wilson in save totals last year, will provide a reliable closure to contested games. San Diego has some potential if certain players are able to contribute on a consistent basis.

4. Los Angeles Dodgers — Last Year: 4th Place, 12 GB, (80-82)

The Dodgers had the busiest offseason compared to the other four division teams. A total of $85 million was signed away in committed payroll for new and re-signed players. The addition of Uribe from division-rival San Francisco will help bolster an offense led by outfielders Andre Ethier and Matt Kemp, and first baseman James Loney. All four players played poorly last year and need to regain form in order for the Dodgers’ offense to flourish. The loss of All-Star catcher Russell Martin to the Yankees is not catastrophic, but will certainly impair the team’s power hitting. By adding Jon Garland to an already above average rotation, the Dodgers are now a close second behind San Francisco for the division’s best. In the bullpen, the team returns 2010 Jonathon Broxton and his 22 saves and setup man Hong-Chih Kuo.

Also, the team has a new manager in Yankees-great Don Mattingly after Joe Torre stepped down last season upon conclusion of his 2,326th career win. 2011 will be an average year for the Dodgers unless Ethier, Kemp or Loney is able to have a breakout season.

5. Arizona Diamondbacks — Last Year: 5th Place, 27 GB, (65-97)

For two straight seasons now, Arizona has finished dead last in the NL West, and their offseason this year did not show any ambition to move. Among roughly 10 resignings, the Diamondbacks only participated in four minor trades. The only significant deals that took place were the dealing of struggling third baseman Mark Reynolds to the Baltimore Orioles and Brandon Webb’s signing with Texas after injury-lost 2009 and 2010 seasons that cost the Diamondbacks over $16 million due to his contract.

The signing of All-Star closer J.J. Putz was a great steal, but not at all significant for a team that can’t win games. Overall, the 65-win club from last year is back with no major improvements. Twenty-six-year-old Ian Kennedy returns as the club’s top pitcher from last year. Second baseman Kelly Johnson, center fielder Chris Young and shortstop Stephen Drew will carry Arizona’s offense, all while stepping up to replace lost first baseman Adam LaRoche and hoping for a bounce-back season from right fielder Justin Upton.

The Diamondbacks have a lot of work to do and the best thing that could happen to them at this point would be for this upcoming season to be called a transitional year.