If you’re just waking from a long baseball hibernation, the NL West will make you do a double take: Madison Bumgarner wears an Arizona Diamondbacks uniform now. Mookie Betts and David Price are Los Angeles Dodgers. Gabe Kapler, who is most certainly not Bruce Bochy, is leading the San Francisco Giants.
As different as the West is in some ways, the main question is the same as it’s been since 2013: Can anybody beat the Dodgers?
The answer is probably the same, too: Nope.
Before they even pulled off the offseason’s biggest trade, the Dodgers were the prohibitive favorite. With Betts and Price on the roster, an eighth straight NL West title seems more like a formality than a goal. They’re more interested in what happens after that. Ending their three-decade championship drought is the only objective that matters in L.A. this year.
Beyond that, the NL West ought to look a lot like last year. The D-backs — with Bumgarner, plus outfield additions Starling Marte and Kole Calhoun — have playoff aspirations. The Padres are trying to make their Manny Machado and Eric Hosmer investments look worthwhile.
The Rockies can’t be as bad as last year, can they? The Giants can’t be any better, can they?
Due up …
Three people who could make the difference in the division this year.
1. Clayton Kershaw, Dodgers LHP: Throughout his certain-to-be Hall of Fame career, Clayton Kershaw's brilliance has only been matched by his resilience. Will that continue to be true in 2020?
We've all seen the images of the three-time Cy Young Award winner with his head down following another gut-wrenching postseason disappointment in Game 5 of the NLDS. That outcome left a mark on Kershaw. There's no way around that. There's also no denying that Kershaw's durability isn't what it once was. Back, neck and biceps injuries have prevented him from reaching 30 starts in each of the last four seasons. While he still remains one of the game's best pitchers, his effectiveness has slipped enough that it warrants attention. By FanGraphs’ model, Kershaw's WAR has declined to 3.3 and 3.4 the past two seasons, respectively, after peaking at 8.6 in 2015.
Now entering his age-32 season, Kershaw has a lot to prove. He’s bounced back before. How he responds this time could set the tone for L.A. in what will be another championship or bust season.
2. Alyssa Nakken, Giants coach: The Giants made history in January by hiring Alyssa Nakken as the first full-time female coach in MLB history. Having originally joined the organization as a baseball operations intern in 2014, Nakken earned her opportunity after being credited with developing several effective health and wellness initiatives. She will look to build on that role while blazing an important trail for other women seeking opportunities in MLB’s coaching ranks.
Nakken is one of 13 new coaches brought on to the Giants staff by new manager Gabe Kapler. She's already hard at work, throwing batting practice and assisting during baserunning and outfield drills. During the season, Nakken will be in uniform but not in the dugout during games. Her role will be to work with players in the cages to keep them ready when called upon.
It's a new challenge, but one Nakken says she's ready to take on. It's also one Kapler and the Giants are confident she'll succeed at.
3. Nolan Arenado, Rockies 3B: Nolan Arenado will start the season with the Colorado Rockies. Whether he finishes it there is a question we could be asking until the trade deadline. Clearly, the relationship between the Rockies front office and the five-time All-Star third baseman has deteriorated to the point of complete disconnection. With an opt-out opportunity coming after the 2021 season, the relationship also has a clear expatriation date.
Now what happens?
Rockies general manager Jeff Bridich hasn't been eager to address the matter publicly. Bridich also doesn't seem eager to mend fences with Arenado privately. That creates an awkward dynamic that threatens to overshadow everything surrounding the Rockies. Arenado, for his part, has shown up and is clearly focused on producing another All-Star caliber season despite his dissatisfaction with the team's direction. Now it will be fascinating to see how both sides play their cards moving forward and how awkward it gets in the Mile High City. Especially if the Rockies’ on-field struggles continue.
How 2020 could go so right ... or so wrong ... for each team. Listed in order of projected standings via Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA system.
Los Angeles Dodgers
Best-case: Instead of focusing on the best outcome, we should wonder what could go wrong? This team is stacked, and threatens to have one of the best lineups in baseball. While the rotation is weaker than it has been in previous seasons, most teams would kill to have Julio Urías as a No. 5 starter. It would be nice if Clayton Kershaw tossed 200 innings, David Price didn’t suffer from age-related decline and Kenley Jansen found a way to turn in one more vintage season. But even in the scenario where all those guys take steps backward, this Dodgers team is far too dominant to let it knock them off track. The scenario: 117 wins and a long-awaited World Series win.
Worst-case: It’s hard for a team this deep to truly experience disaster, but let’s try. Moving from Fenway Park to Dodger Stadium leads to a badly timed down year for Mookie Betts, while Cody Bellinger never quite hits the highs of his 2019 first half. Kershaw continues his slow slide from best pitcher in baseball to merely good. The rest of the Dodgers’ legion of arms fails to produce consistent innings, and a bullpen filled with misfit toys like Joe Kelly, Blake Treinen and Pedro Báez can’t quite pick up the slack. Alex Verdugo, meanwhile, wins AL MVP. The scenario: 94 wins while the Padres and D-backs’ rebuilds take full steps forward (but probably not enough to win the division).
Best-case: Ketel Marte proves he was not a product of the juiced ball, hits 30+ home runs again and his name comes up even more often in the MVP discussion. Offseason additions Starling Marte and Madison Bumgarner don’t skip a beat with their new team. Zac Gallen pitches like a budding ace and Luke Weaver keeps the gains he made prior to injury last season. Robbie Ray finally discovers his control, and starts pitching into the sixth inning more often. Archie Bradley dominates in the ninth, and doesn’t tell any stories about bathroom-related incidents on the field. The scenario: 90 wins and a wild-card spot.
Worst-case: Turns out Ketel Marte was a product of the juiced ball and a slightly unsustainable .342 BABIP last year, which would still probably leave him an above-average second baseman. However, the D-backs need more from him considering their second-best hitter by FanGraphs’ comprehensive wRC+ stat last year (min. 50 PAs) was Zack Greinke. If no one else takes a step forward in the lineup (though Starling Marte, no relation, should help), landing anywhere close to the Dodgers becomes impossible. Also be wary of a serious rodeo injury to Mason Saunders. The scenario: 76 wins, and the Dodgers celebrate in the pool again as Bumgarner sits in silent rage.
San Diego Padres
Best-case: These young kids are actually pretty good. Fernando Tatis Jr. shows growth with the bat and in the field and blossoms into an MVP candidate. Kid gloves off, Chris Paddack tosses 200 innings and becomes the ace this team desperately needs. He’s joined by elite lefty pitching prospect MacKenzie Gore, who quickly emerges as the team’s No. 2 option in the rotation. Catcher Francisco Mejía finally gets a full-time role, and fulfills all the promise he showed as a prospect a few years ago. Manny Machado discovers he doesn’t need Camden Yards, and rebounds to hit .300 with 30 home runs. The scenario: 89 wins, a wild-card spot and Eric Hosmer finally learning to hit fly balls.
Worst-case: Machado and Hosmer form the most expensive corner infield to ever combine for an empty .250 batting average. A rotation depending on young arms and Garrett Richards to exceed their projections experiences the volatility of a rotation dependent on young arms and Garrett Richards. An outfield giving major playing time to Wil Myers, trade acquisition Trent Grisham and post-post-hype sleeper Franchy Cordero just doesn’t cut it on offense, while the middle infield tandem of Tatis and Jurickson Profar suffers on defense. The scenario: 69 wins, and the timeline to contending gets pushed back another year.
Best-case: The homegrown rotation finds its stride after falling off in 2019. German Márquez lives up to the lofty expectations fantasy players had for him prior to last season. Kyle Freeland figures out what the heck went wrong and finds a level between Cy Young contender and Triple-A punching bag. David Dahl finally stays healthy and slugs 30 home runs. Daniel Murphy does the exact same thing. Nolan Arenado doesn’t glare at GM Jeff Bridich’s luxury box every single time he hits a home run. The scenario: 83 wins, and a version of Arenado who still wants to be in Colorado.
Worst-case: A team that won 71 games last season and added zero (0) free agents on major league contracts doesn’t get any better for some reason. Arenado has a down year, drops a Bridich diss track and goes from, “Hey, he’s our franchise player, we’re getting major talent if we trade him,” to the Robinson Canó Zone. Coors Fields re-asserts its will on the latest generation of pitchers, and multiple young starters experience versions of Freeland’s 2019. The scenario: 67 wins, and looking into salary dumping Arenado.
San Francisco Giants
Best-case: Well, the ballpark is pretty and that has to count for something, right? Johnny Cueto, Evan Longoria and Jeff Samardzija have promising first halves and get traded for prospects at the deadline. Their recent No. 2 overall MLB draft pick Joey Bart comes up, dominates and immediately becomes the face of the rebuild. Buster Posey proves injuries were the only thing that held him back the past couple seasons and re-establishes himself as a dangerous hitter. When things look bad, Giants fans remember Hunter Pence is back and smile to themselves thinking about his herky-jerky ways. The scenario: 80 wins, and a beautiful view to enjoy while eating garlic fries.
Worst-case: A team stocked to the gills with players on the downswing of their careers leaves little room for improvement for last year’s 77-win team. The trade deadline comes and goes without adding significant talent for the future. Bart scuffles in Triple-A and doesn’t make an MLB impact whenever he arrives. Outfield prospect Heliot Ramos’ oblique strain is the precursor to a disappointing year of development. The scenario: 66 wins, and Oracle Park is taken over by seagulls.
How entertaining will this division be as a race and summer-long TV show?
By Mike Oz
The NL West has Mookie Betts, some of the best new uniforms in baseball and Madison Bumgarner in a new uniform — with a secret identity. The Dodgers’ addition of Betts is by far the most important offseason move in this division. But the most fun? Oh, that’s Mason Saunders.
Not only is Bumgarner fun in 2020 because as a Diamondback he could continue his rivalry with the Dodgers, but he has to face the Giants as an opponent and he plays at a stadium with a pool in the outfield. The “go get it out of the pool” jokes write themselves.
The Giants, otherwise, aren’t particularly fun this year, unless Johnny Cueto has a surprise for us as he returns from injury. The Padres have Fernando Tatis Jr., who is very fun, and some great new brown uniforms. The fun potential is there. The Rockies? Beefin’ with your franchise player isn’t fun.
That leaves us with the Dodgers. A dynamic duo of recent MVPs, Bellinger and Betts should be great entertainment. Unless you’re the Padres, Giants, Rockies, D-backs and/or Mason Saunders.
NL West UFR (Ultimate Fun Rating) = 7.7
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