NL West:  Magic lonely at the top

For 80 per cent of the National League West Division so far in 2012, the season has not been a good one. For one of its five franchises, the first two months of 2012 have been a carpet ride far exceeding expectations.

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Settled in the basement

Few observers predicted the San Diego Padres would be a good ball club in 2012. They were, of course, the division’s cellar-dwellers in 2011, and the offseason moves undertaken by general manager Josh Byrnes (taking over for the departed Jed Hoyer in late October) appeared to follow the same biding-our-time-as-we-rebuild pattern the team had displayed since the surprising second-place finish in 2010. For the second straight year, the Padres traded away their centerpiece star (this time, ace starter Mat Latos) in exchange for a prospect/project package.

Yet there was reason to believe the 2012 Padres wouldn’t be all that bad. For one thing, their 2011 won-lost record of 71-91 was dramatically below their decent Pythagorean performance of 79-83, and for another, Byrnes’ transactions did include the acquisition of a pair of established mid-career prominent talents in outfielder Carlos Quentin and closer Huston Street.

Thus, San Diego’s bringing up the rear of the NL West so far in 2012 hasn’t been a disappointment per se, but what has been disappointing is the degree to which the ball club has looked like that’s exactly where it belongs. These Padres haven’t looked like a middle-of-the-pack club weathering some Pythagorean misfortune, but instead like a crew settling in for an extended basement residence. They haven’t pitched well, they haven’t fielded well, and in particular they haven’t hit well.

To be sure, injuries sidelining both Quentin and Street have been a big part of the problem. And there have been some positive developments, including solid performances from the two key talents acquired in exchange for Latos: first baseman Yonder Alonso and starting pitcher Edinson Volquez. But overall, San Diego is presenting a roster devoid of stars and also riddled with holes, and attendance is down to 14th among the 16 National League competitors. It looks like it’s going to be another long summer alongside San Diego Bay.

Rockies not rolling

Nor did many predict a contender this year in Colorado. Coming off a 73-89, fourth-place performance in 2011, GM Dan O’Dowd largely exchanged experience for youth in the offseason maneuvering, signaling another wait-‘til-next-year posture in 2012. Still, any ball club with Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez at its core has the nucleus to succeed.

But thus far in 2012, little in Denver has been demonstrated beyond the fact that Tulowitzki and Gonzalez still lack for company. Particularly with veteran first baseman Todd Helton looking every bit of his 38 years of age, the Rockies’ offense—their key shortcoming in 2011—still scares nobody.

And particularly with 24-year-old right-hander Jhoulys Chacin—looking poised to break out as a star coming into 2012—pitching ineffectively and then landing on the Disabled List with a sore shoulder, the Colorado club doesn’t have the sort of pitching that can pull the load without substantial offensive support. Though even with Street departed, the Rockies’ bullpen hasn’t been bad, the starting rotation has been a leaderless muddle. Sure, it’s been great fun to watch forty-freaking-nine-year-old Jamie Moyer gamely take his turn every fifth day, but at this point in his endless career Moyer should be cast in the role of supporting player from the back end of the rotation, or as a spot starter, not a co-anchor.

They’ve performed better than the Padres, but not by much, and that’s not saying much anyway. There just isn’t whole lot to get excited about in the Mile-High City this year.

Toothless Snakes

The serious disappointment in the NL West of 2012 has taken place in the Sonoran Desert. The defending division champions had finished strongly in 2011, returned to competition in 2012 with all of their primary assets still in place (and their burgeoning young talent one year more experienced), and moreover having added a significant asset in starting pitcher Trevor Cahill. All signs pointed toward a formidable Arizona contender for this season.

Opening 2012 with a three-game sweep over 2011’s second-place San Francisco Giants en route to a 7-3 start, the Diamondbacks appeared deadly indeed. But a five-game losing streak then ensued, and the D-backs haven’t gotten their rattle back since.

The only challenge in pointing the finger of blame is to have enough hands. None among the key Arizona stars—right fielder Justin Upton, catcher Miguel Montero, and starters Ian Kennedy and Daniel Hudson—has performed like a star; indeed Hudson has spent most of the season on the DL, as has center fielder Chris Young.

Veteran closer J.J. Putz has been downright bad. Neither among the pair of nobodies who came up big for the D-backs in 2011—third baseman Ryan Roberts and pitcher Josh Collmenter—has been remotely as helpful in 2012. Sophomore first baseman Paul Goldschmidt, who displayed rare power in the final two months of 2011, has shown little of it in the first couple of months in 2012.

The necessary components remain in place for the Diamondbacks to get untracked and make a race of it in 2012, and there is time. But there isn’t unlimited time. Every successive week that Arizona fails to get its act together is a week it won’t get back.

Clumsy Giants

In San Francisco, the 2012 season has so far been an exercise in one-step-forward, one-step-back frustration. There has been good news aplenty: the Giants’ key offseason trade acquisitions, outfielders Melky Cabrera and Angel Pagan, have both been wonderful (especially Cabrera), star catcher Buster Posey has returned from his serious ankle injury and picked up right where he left off, starting pitchers Matt Cain, Madison Bumgarner and Ryan Vogelsong have been as fine a trio as any in the business, and the Giants’ ever-deep bullpen has been first-rate, even with the season-ending Tommy John-surgery loss of closer Brian Wilson.

But bad news has been equally abundant. Erstwhile ace Tim Lincecum has performed disastrously, mired in a slump unlike anything he’s ever known. For the second straight year, slugging third baseman Pablo Sandoval has broken a bone in his hand while swinging a bat (!). In the absence of still-injured (what a shock) veteran Freddy Sanchez, second base has been a black hole. Sophomore first baseman Brandon Belt, presented with a golden opportunity when veteran Aubrey Huff went on the DL battling anxiety, has failed to get his power stroke going.

And perhaps worst of all, the San Francisco team defense has been horrible. Not only are the Giants leading the major leagues in errors by a wide margin, the Giants have regularly committed mental miscues as well, botching base coverages and relay throws far too frequently.

As with Arizona, there’s more than enough raw talent on board for San Francisco to get it together and make a serious run, particularly once Sandoval returns. But that won’t happen unless the Giants figure out the answers to a few glaringly perplexing questions.

Soaring away in L.A.

Many observers, including this one, didn’t take the late charge the Los Angeles Dodgers exhibited in 2011 as likely to have much carryover into this season. The formula of 2011, with young superstars Matt Kemp and Clayton Kershaw being required to pull a hefty load due to numerous unfilled holes, seemed all too much still in evidence.

Yet through the early weeks of 2012, that formula brewed up continued success. Mostly that was because of just a single player, Kemp, who wasn’t just hot, he was at a raging boil, hitting .406 with 12 homers through May 7. So when Kemp was slowed and then shelved by a pulled hamstring, the moment seemed at hand for the Dodgers’ magical start—they were 19-10 as of May 7—to go up in a puff of smoke, and for mundane, mediocre reality to reappear.

Yet since that seventh of May, with the entire contribution from Kemp consisting of a single and two intentional walks in 18 plate appearances, the Dodgers have gone 13-6. Right fielder Andre Ethier stepped into the slugging breach, getting red hot at the moment Kemp went down. Kershaw has been as brilliant as ever, journeyman starting pitcher Chris Capuano has been mysteriously excellent as well, and 31-year-old erstwhile scrubeenie A.J. Ellis (who?!?) has been delivering like an elite-level offensive catcher.

Numerous question marks continue to dot the L.A. roster. But the league has yet to figure out an answer to the 2012 Dodgers overall. There are many chapters in this story yet to be completed, but the new ownership led by none other than Magic Johnson may be presenting a fairy-tale season as its opening number.

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Comments

  1. bucdaddy said...

    bullpen has been first-rate, even with the season-ending Tommy John-surgery loss of closer Brian Wilson.
    —-
    Man, that closer-mentality myth is going to be tough to demolish.

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