Dodgers: They’ve gone backwards a bit, which is what makes this one of the most evenly matched divisions in baseball. But the Dodgers are still a big threat. Yeah, Manny Rarmirez‘s best days are behind him. And, sure, having Vicente Padilla start on Opening Day doesn’t say much about your rotation. But the Dodgers’ lineup is solid, with a still-very-productive Ramirez and up-and-coming studs in Matt Kemp, James Loney, Russell Martin and Andre Ethier. The rotation has some nice young arms in Clayton Kershaw and Chad Billingsley. And the back end of that bullpen is very good with George Sherrill and Jonathan Broxton. Other clubs in this division are starting to catch up, but you still have to look out for the Dodgers.
Rockies: Last year, Jim Tracy was a miracle worker with the way he turned them into a playoff team after taking over for Clint Hurdle. In his first full season as manager in Colorado, he’ll direct a very formidable bunch once again. First off, that bench is the best in baseball — and it’s not even close. As reserves, the Rockies have established everyday players like Miguel Olivo, Melvin Mora and Jason Giambi, and other solid pieces in Ryan Spilborghs and Seth Smith. Think benches don’t matter much in baseball? They’re crucial throughout the aches and pains of a 162-game season, and this one will be huge in boosting the Rockies. As for the starting lineup, there’s nice pieces in Dexter Fowler, Todd Helton and Troy Tulowitzki, but they won’t hit much for power. The rotation is good, but not great. And I still have doubts about whether Huston Street (who will start the season on the disabled list) can be relied upon as closer for a full season. Still, the Rockies will be in the hunt all year.
Giants: The Giants step into the 2010 season with the same problem — offense. Let’s get the obvious positives out of the way first. With Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain and Barry Zito, their rotation is one of the best in baseball. And Brian Wilson is a solid closer. (The rest of the bullpen doesn’t really matter, since starters will be going seven or eight innings for most of the season, anyway.) But will they hit? I don’t think so. They went into the offseason knowing they needed more punch in the lineup, but all the Giants ended up with was Aubrey Huff and Mark DeRosa. That’s not enough. They’ll need Aaron Rowand, Pablo Sandoval and Freddy Sanchez to do a lot of the heavy lifting, and that’s never a good sign. As was the case last year, pitching will keep them in it. But they’ll need a Trade Deadline move for a big bat if they want to get over the hump.
Padres: They’ll finish last in the division, but the Padres, I believe, are on the upswing. I don’t foresee Adrian Gonzalez — very affordable this season, and with a very affordable club option for 2011 — being traded during the regular season, and Kyle Blanks is a nice counterpart in the middle of the lineup. They also have some nice, young position players in Tony Gwynn Jr. and Everth Cabrera. Heath Bell is a top-tier closer. And the rotation isn’t too bad, with Jon Garland, Chris Young, Matt Latos, Kevin Correia and Clayton Richard. They’re a rebuilding team, and they don’t have nearly enough to compete this year — or even next year. But I think they’re on their way up (with or without A-Gonz).
Diamondbacks: If Brandon Webb is healthy and right, the D-backs — losers of 92 games last season — could end up being the most-improved team in baseball. With Dan Haren and new acquisition Edwin Jackson, they can have a very nice top three in that rotation. But how and when Webb returns from shoulder surgery will be critical, of course. The bullpen isn’t great, but I like their offense. I love Justin Upton. Combine him with Mark Reynolds, newcomer Adam LaRoche, a healthy Conor Jackson and a Stephen Drew who should be better, they’ll be much more improved scoring runs. But even with the Webb of 2008, I felt this team would fall just shy of the postseason. Without him in top form, they’ll struggle to finish at .500.
NL West champion: Dodgers
— Alden Gonzalez