Mar. 16, 2012; Phoenix, AZ, USA; Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder Matt Kemp flies out in the first inning against the Texas Rangers at The Ballpark at Camelback Ranch. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-US PRESSWIRE

MLB Division Preview: National League West

The Arizona Diamondbacks surprised everyone and took a wide open NL West away from those who were favored in 2011, like the Dodgers and Rockies. Once again in 2012, this is going to be anyone’s division, will make for yet another exciting race in the dog days of August. Will the Giants return to form and get back to the postseason? Will the Dodgers and their new owners keep the momentum going with a great 2012? Will the Rockies bring back their patented second-half run and bring it all the way into “Rock-tober?” That’s why they play the game. Let’s see how each team will fare this season.

Arizona Diamondbacks

Best Case Scenario:

The Diamondbacks were the latest “worst to first” story to hit Major League Baseball last year, with Kurt Gibson and his star-studded coaching staff leading a group of very young ballplayers to take the NL West crown in 2011. According to the manager, his team hasn’t peaked yet, and he’s right. The acquisition of Jason Kubel further solidified their lineup and gives Justin Upton some more protection,

Jun. 4, 2011; Phoenix, AZ, USA; Arizona Diamondbacks outfielder Justin Upton against the Washington Nationals at Chase Field. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-US PRESSWIRE

and the trade that brought in Trevor Cahill allowed their starting rotation to have some more depth. The emergence of Ian Kennedy gives the staff a true ace, making defending their division title an easy one as they cruise through a mediocre NL West with 95 wins.

Worst Case Scenario:

Being a young team that has experienced a quick success can be a curse. With Stephen Drew out for Opening Day and Aaron Hill at second base, who has struggled to get back to his All-Star form of two years ago, the middle of the field is unsettled. Chris Young strikes out way too much in the leadoff spot; if he struggles to get on base, there will be no one for Justin Upton to drive in. On the mound, Ian Kennedy broke out last year and did what everyone has been expecting him to do, but he will take two steps back now that expectations are back up through the roof. With a division as wide open as the NL West, teams like the Giants, Dodgers, or even the Rockies can leapfrog the D-Backs due to their lack of experience.

Storyline to watch for:

Watching Stephen Drew and how quickly he returns to the field is something to keep an eye on. His free agency is looming after the 2013 season, and gasp, Scott Boras is his agent. So, it’s fair to assume that Boras will be asking for top dollar, like he normally does for his clients. Drew has been a great player for the Diamondbacks when he’s been on the field, but he has a problem doing that. In order for Arizona to commit to him long-term, he needs to stay healthy. Once he comes back from his latest injury, that time starts right now.

Justin Hunter takes a look back at the magical season that was in Arizona last year and looks ahead to see what the Diamondbacks can do in 2012.

San Francisco Giants

Best Case Scenario:

The return of Buster Posey to the Giants lineup will be a huge boost for the offense, as it struggled mightily last year after his season was

Mar. 28, 2012; Scottsdale, AZ, USA; San Francisco Giants first baseman Buster Posey bats in the first inning against the Los Angeles Dodgers at Scottsdale Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-US PRESSWIRE

cut short by that gruesome injury at the end of May. Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain will continue to carry the ballclub, and show that they have the best overall pitching staff in the division, from their number one starter all the way down to Brian Wilson in the 9th inning. The additions of Angel Pagan and Melky Cabrera will ignite the offense and set the table for Kung Fu Panda and Posey to do drive the runs home and bring some wins to San Francisco. Getting Freddy Sanchez back from injury gives some depth to the lineup towards the bottom, which includes Brandon Belt and Brandon Crawford.

Worst Case Scenario:

Even though the offense will enjoy having Buster Posey back in the lineup hitting behind Pablo Sandoval, Brandon Belt will not give enough protection for the Giants’ catcher. Angel Pagan will continue to struggle in the outfield, especially at a stadium like AT&T park. Freddy Sanchez is continuing his usual time on the DL with a shoulder injury, leaving the bottom of the lineup to include Brandon Belt and Brandon Crawford, who are not Major League ready at the plate, and Nate Schierholtz; he is a fan favorite and has a great glove, but he can’t produce at the plate like a corner outfielder is expected to. The reason why the Giants won’t contend this year is similar as to why they faded in 2011, due to their lack of offense.

Storyline to watch for:

Now that Tim Lincecum got paid handsomely for what he does on the mound, it will be interesting to see what the Giants plan to do with Matt Cain, who is coming off a career year in 2011 and will be entering free agency after this fall. San Francisco only gave The Freak a two-year deal, but throwing $20/year his way show they are dedicated to him. Contract talks have stalled as of right now with their other right-hander, and now that the Dodgers sale is close to completion, they’re going to have some competition if they don’t sign him before the year is done.

Make sure you check out what Doug Wachter has to say about the Giants in his season preview, detailing their off season moves and projection for 2012.

Los Angeles Dodgers

Best Case Scenario:

Now that the ownership issue with the Dodgers is finally settled with the sale of the team, second-year manager Don Mattingly is able to have his full focus on what’s happening on the field.. After extending Matt Kemp and signing Clayton Kershaw, each will have impressive years once again. Aaron Harang and Chris Capuano will be able to stabilize the starting staff behind the 2011 Cy Young

March 25, 2012; Phoenix, AZ, USA; Los Angeles Dodgers starting pitcher Clayton Kershaw (22) throws against the Milwaukee Brewers in the first inning at Maryvale Baseball Park. Mandatory Credit: Rick Scuteri-US PRESSWIRE

award winner, and for Todd Coffey will do the same in the bullpen. Offensively, it starts with Dee Gordon, literally. In 56 games in 2011, Gordon showcased what he could do for Los Angeles, and he’ll do the same in 2012, giving hitters like Kemp, Andre Ethier, and James Loney someone to drive in and build upon their strong finish last season en route to contending for the division title.

Worst Case Scenario:

The Dodger starting rotation is questionable at best, after Kershaw, that is. Chad Billingsley has had his ups and downs, Ted Lilly is not a hard thrower in his late 30s and is already on the DL, Aaron Harang has had some great years during his career, but he’s had more bad years than good recently, and Chris Capuano is injury prone. Offensively, Kemp and Ethier are the only sure things they have; James Loney has been productive, but won’t be giving them the protection like Prince Fielder would have if they signed him. Mark Ellis and Juan Uribe are on the downside of their careers, yet they’re expected to be every day players. This is the year that the Dodgers have a chance to surprise people and win the division, but the ownership issue prevented them from getting the players they needed to contend.

Storyline to watch for:

Entering his contract year with the Dodgers, it will be interesting to follow Andre Ethier and see how he bounces back from his worst power output since his rookie season in 2006. His fellow outfielder got a monster eight-year deal, and I’m sure Ethier feels that he’s worth a good chunk of that. With new ownership and a solid season, more in the line of what he did in 2009 and 2010, he could see some years and dollar signs thrown his way by the Dodgers, as well as some other teams. If he gets off to a quick start, there is the potential for mid-season negotiations to kick into high gear before he gets into the open market.

Justin Hunter dug deeper with his analysis of where Los Angeles was in 2011 and where they could potentially be headed in 2012, so be sure to check out his season preview of the Dodgers.

Colorado Rockies

Best Case Scenario:

Even though the Rockies were one of the best offensive teams in the National League last year, their pitching was atrocious. The additions of Michael Cuddyer and Marco Scutaro is proof their offense will most likely be the shining spot for this team. However, the

March 11, 2012; Scottsdale AZ, USA; Colorado Rockies catcher

additions of Jamie Moyer and Jeremy Guthrie will help stabilize the pitching staff with their veteran presence and stellar performance. Rafael Betancourt was brought in to replace Huston Street in the 9th inning as well. Moyer and Guthrie will lead a rotation that lacked leadership last year, helping the staff overachieve, allowing their already scary offense that includes Troy Tulowitzki, Carlos Gonzalez, and Todd Helton.

Worst Case Scenario:

The moves that were made by the Rockies were done strategically to sure up their biggest weaknesses in 2011, but there are question marks. Jamie Moyer is 49 years old; even though he’s had a fantastic spring in Arizona, the air is a lot different in Denver and his 80 mph fastball has the potential to be vulnerable. Jeremy Guthrie could struggle at Coors Field as well; even though Camden Yards is not a pitcher’s park, playing in Denver has derailed more than a few careers for pitchers. With a new closer and trading away some of their bullpen to get Guthrie, they will continue their trend of being among the league leaders in blown saves, which could spell their demise in 2012. There are a lot of question marks in Denver that will lead to another sub-par season, and all of these uncertainties are on the pitching mound.

Storyline to watch for:

Manager Jim Tracy is worth keeping an eye on this season. Over the winter, the Colorado front office put all of their eggs in one basket by stating that their skipper has “an indefinite extension.” That’s a bold statement to make coming off a 73-89 season. However, they believe in what he can do as their leader and while they are in this time of transition. It will be interesting to see if Tracy gets complacent or more aggressive with his decisions now that he knows his job is secure.

How much will the Rockies improve from their disappointing 2011 campaign? Justin Hunter puts together another masterpiece with his season preview of Colorado.

San Diego Padres

Best Case Scenario:

If everything falls into place, the Padres could be one of the most improved teams in the National League. After their offense struggled mightily without Adrian Gonzalez in the middle of their lineup in 2011, new GM Josh Byrnes made some great moves to immediately

Mar 29, 2012; Peoria, AZ, USA; San Diego Padres 1st baseman

start rebuilding this team on the small budget that he has. Newly acquired Edinson Volquez will return to his Cy Young form in spacious Petco Park and Yonder Alonso will help fans forget about the loss of Gonzalez in their lineup. Carlos Quentin adds more depth and power to what was an anemic offense, which will finish higher than second-to-the-last in the MLB in runs scored, like they did last year. If all goes to plan, the Padres could make a complete turnaround and become a 90-win team, like they were in 2010.

Worst Case Scenario:

Josh Byrnes has done a great job at making some moves to mix things up in San Diego and bring in some fresh faces. However, Yonder Alonso is a rookie in a huge ballpark with even bigger expectations and will flop this year, making trading away prospect Anthony Rizzo a terrible move; Edinson Volquez doesn’t bounce back from his lackluster season, continue his downward career spiral, and fans will continue to question trading away Mat Latos. The worst thing that can happen is that after making these savvy moves, the team performs exactly the way it did last year.

Storyline to watch for:

As Byrnes was making these deals and getting a mix of Major League ready talent and prospects, the Padres farm system is considered to be the best in the MLB. One of the prospects that could have many eyes watching him is Andrew Cashner, who is the player San Diego received from the Cubs in exchange for Anthony Rizzo. He isn’t projected to be making an impact until 2013, but don’t be surprised if he progresses quickly and is able to help out this rotation sooner rather than later.

Well, the third time is a charm for Justin Hunter, as the diehard Padres fan takes a deeper look at the rebuilding that has been going on and gives San Diego fans a reason to believe that the Padres are heading in the right direction in 2012.

National League West Team Predictions

Most Improved: Colorado Rockies

Least Improved:Los Angeles Dodgers

Most likely to surprise: Colorado Rockies

Most likely to disappoint: San Francisco Giants

Division winner: Arizona Diamondbacks

National League West Player Predictions

Best Hitter:Matt Kemp

Best Pitcher: Tim Lincecum

Top Rookie: Yonder Alonso

Comeback Player: Buster Posey

Top Newcomer: Michael Cuddyer

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Tags: Arizona Diamondbacks Buster Posey Colorado Ockies LA Dodgers Matt Kemp Michael Cuddyer MLB Division Preview National League West San Diego Padres San Francisco Giants Tim Lincecum

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