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NL West: Division figures to be wild again

NL West: Division figures to be wild again

NL West: Division figures to be wild again
With its third champion in three years, the National League West proved again to be one of baseball's wildest divisions in 2011. So why would 2012 be any different?

The NL West has been baseball's wide-open land of opportunity -- sending each of its five members to the postseason at least once over the past six seasons -- so what's another mystery journey to October?

The defending champions made themselves better, the 2010 World Series champions are healthier and hungrier, and the 2008-09 champions, well, they boast the most individual hardware of any of them, at least.

Sure, it'll be wild again. It's the NL West.

With the D-backs picking up a couple of key pieces to help them defend their surprise title of last season, the club bearing Kirk Gibson's signature all over it should not be discounted as a leading candidate to repeat -- even if Gibson himself would like to deflect the favorite tag, saying last week that his club would continue to be an underdog and "carry the lunch bucket every day."

Well, notice was served buffet-style last year with Arizona's all-around improvement, and this dog isn't going to sneak by anyone in 2012. Still, it can be tough to rekindle magic (see: 2011 Giants). With a young and talented rotation bolstered by the acquisition of Trevor Cahill from Oakland, a lineup rich in youthful experience that added a veteran bat in Jason Kubel this offseason and a general sense of purpose, the D-backs are slight favorites to win the NL West again.

That's according to a survey of the reporters who cover the NL West for MLB.com, a poll that ranked the five teams in key categories, including the most important -- the predicted winner once 162 games shakes it all out. By one voting point, it's the D-backs.

Of course, there was ample support for the Giants, a team that rolled through October 2010 but saw its 2011 season virtually go down the drain in May. But catcher Buster Posey is back after his harrowing leg injury, and closer Brian Wilson and second baseman Freddy Sanchez are healthier, so the Giants are hoping for a rebound.

The Dodgers, third a year ago, have the defending Cy Young Award winner in lefty legend-in-the-making Clayton Kershaw and a multi-tool star who narrowly missed winning Most Valuable Player honors in Matt Kemp. Throw in a Gold Glove for Andre Ethier, hoping to get his offense back in gear, and new ownership that includes former basketball superstar Magic Johnson and longtime sports executive Stan Kasten -- which should settle the uncertainty that has hovered over the team -- and the Dodgers have a lot of potential for bling. But do they have enough to reach for the ring?

After a precipitous fall in the standings a year ago, the Rockies remain high on talent, with Michael Cuddyer among the veterans brought in this winter. He should help shortstop Troy Tulowitzki and outfielder Carlos Gonzalez, whose numbers dropped from his 2010 MVP-caliber year, carry the load. Their question, less pertinent in recent years but back in the conversation, is the old one: How will their pitching hold up?

And in San Diego, let's not forget we're only a season removed from the Padres being one victory from reaching the postseason themselves. They haven't been there since 2006, the longest so-called drought in the division, and it's hard to say that 2012 looks like the year. But with good pitching and defense -- the hallmarks in their 2010 run -- you never know, especially in the NL West.

Here's a look at how it breaks down, with rankings based on our survey of MLB.com reporters covering the NL West:

Best lineup

The wide-open pasture of an outfield at Coors Field doesn't hurt, but Tulo and CarGo and their buddies can bash the ball anywhere. With the additions of veterans Cuddyer, Marco Scutaro and Ramon Hernandez to a lineup that still has a cornerstone in Todd Helton, wins will come from scoring runs more than preventing them for the Rockies.

The D-backs' offense is a close second, having added Cuddyer's former Twins teammate Kubel after finishing barely behind the Rockies in runs per game a year ago, 4.54 (tied for second in the NL) to 4.51 (fourth in the league).

Offense is not the division's strong suit. Even with Kemp chasing the Triple Crown a year ago, the Dodgers were in the middle of the NL pack in runs scored. And while the Giants hope to improve on their Major League-low 3.52 runs per game of a year ago with healthy returns and the additions of Melky Cabrera and Angel Pagan, neither they nor the Padres figure to rely on a ton of offense in 2012. Our selection: Rockies

Best rotation

The Giants rode their rotation to the World Series two seasons ago, and that group is looking like the horse it'll need to be again if the Giants want to get back on top. Tim Lincecum remains one of the most dynamic performers in the game today, but it's the steady and strong performance over time delivered by Matt Cain that makes him every bit as valuable to the Giants -- and perhaps to other teams next winter if he hits free agency.

Again, the D-backs are right there. With a pair of bona fide ace right-handers in Ian Kennedy and Daniel Hudson, their addition of Cahill could be a big lift if he's able to erase 2011 and return to the form that in 2010 had him in the All-Star Game.

Beyond Kershaw's excellence, the Dodgers could use a bounce-back season from Chad Billinglsey. The Padres and Rockies both traded their aces within the past year, and neither has made a big move to replenish the Major League rotation. Our selection: Giants

Best bullpen

The D-backs underwent a major transformation in their relief corps before 2011, and it paid off in the standings. But the Giants bullpen, as long as Wilson remains healthy and effective, remains difficult to top, not only in the division but in all of baseball. The difference is very fine, though.

Both teams have veterans at the end, with Wilson setting the tone in San Francisco and J.J. Putz adding elements of leadership and consistency for Arizona. Both have ample setup help and both bullpens are deep. By a nose and perhaps for being more of a sure thing health-wise, the D-backs get the edge. Our selection: D-backs

Best defense

Three Gold Glove Awards later, it's impossible to look past the Dodgers for their glove work. With Kershaw, Kemp and Ethier each collecting defensive hardware last year, the Dodgers have some important spots covered in leather. If veteran Mark Ellis and exciting shortstop Dee Gordon can provide solid work up the middle, the Dodgers have a chance to prevent runs with their gloves.

The D-backs also deserve some respect for their defense, although it's worth noting that their Gold Glove winner of a year ago, Gerardo Parra, is now their fourth outfielder. In Colorado, Tulo won a Gold Glove in each of the past two seasons and CarGo is one year removed from his first Gold Glove. Both the Rockies and San Francisco have strong veterans at key defensive positions, and San Diego's been one of the better defensive teams in the league the past couple of years, so there really isn't a slouch in the bunch. Our selection: Giants

Predicted order of finish

  1. 1st
  2. 2nd
  3. 3rd
  4. 4th
  5. 5th

John Schlegel is a national reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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