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NL West preview: The Dodgers are still kings, but there are challengers to the throne

Manny Machado’s arrival and Nolan Arenado’s extension have given other teams hope out west.

San Diego Padres Introduce Manny Machado Photo by Jennifer Stewart/Getty Images

It took 163 games to decide the NL West in 2018, but in the end, the Los Angeles Dodgers came out on top for a sixth consecutive season. This is the longest streak since the New York Yankees won nine straight AL East crowns from 1998 to 2006. And, if statistical projections are any indication, the Dodgers will be spraying champagne for the seventh year in a row this September.

But as we saw last year, those projections don’t always come true. The Dodgers ended up on top, but they were heavily challenged by both the Diamondbacks (who faded away late) and the Rockies. Colorado seems primed to make another push for the division crown this year, but they will need more of their homegrown talent to take a step forward. The Padres are also in the hunt after signing Manny Machado to a 10-year deal in February.

And the Giants? Well, they had a good run.

Since the Tigers don’t face the NL West this year, we’ll take a quick look at this division (and the Central on Sunday) before diving into full team previews.

Los Angeles Dodgers

Projected record: 93-69
Key additions: C Russell Martin, OF A.J. Pollock, RHP Joe Kelly
Key subtractions: C Yasmani Grandal, OF Yasiel Puig, OF Matt Kemp, 3B Manny Machado, RHP Ryan Madson, 2B Chase Utley

The Dodgers overcame a number of injuries to win the NL West again in 2018, but once again came up short of the ultimate prize. Now sitting on a 30-year World Series drought, one thinks Dodgers ownership would have pulled out all the stops this offseason to bring a title back to Los Angeles. They made a splash by signing center fielder A.J. Pollock in January... but that was it. They were never a serious contender in the Manny Machado sweepstakes, and only made a late, half-hearted push to get Bryce Harper in Dodger blue. And following cost-cutting moves like the Yasiel Puig trade, it’s no surprise that their fans are a little frustrated.

Don’t feel bad for them, though, because their team is still stacked. The Dodgers are once again projected to be the best team in the National League, with both Baseball Prospectus and FanGraphs predicting them as NL West winners by a wide margin. They still have a top-10 farm system, and enough MLB-caliber starters to fill two rotations. Clayton Kershaw is having arm issues now, but that’s OK, because there’s so much depth here. Top-100 prospects like Keibert Ruiz and Alex Verdugo will likely arrive this season, joining young, established talents like Cody Bellinger and Walker Buehler. Oh, and Corey Seager — you know, one of the best young shortstops in baseball — will return after missing nearly all of 2018 following Tommy John surgery.

Bryce Harper or not, life is good in L.A.

Colorado Rockies

Projected record: 81-81
Key additions: IF Daniel Murphy
Key subtractions: 2B D.J. LeMahieu, OF Carlos Gonzalez, OF Gerardo Parra, RHP Adam Ottavino

If we’re going to give the Dodgers crap for not shelling out big bucks for Harper or Machado, the Rockies probably deserve a little flak too. Harper especially would have been a great fit for the Rox, who have a few question marks in their outfield. But when it comes to spending actual dollars, the Rockies have stepped up to the plate. They previously inked Charlie Blackmon to an extension last winter, and just locked up all-world third baseman Nolan Arenado for eight more years. Their Opening Day payroll is projected to be nearly $147 million, the highest in franchise history.

But if the Rockies are to return to the postseason for a third year in a row, the young, cost-controlled portion of the payroll will be the reason why. Homegrown starters Kyle Freeland and German Marquez were a lethal one-two punch at the top of Colorado’s rotation last year, and Jon Gray is still talented enough to put it all together. Outfielders David Dahl and Raimel Tapia were once the class of the farm system, but have taken a bit longer to get going than many expected — though Dahl showed signs of life with an .859 OPS last year. Shortstop Trevor Story will have to carry a huge load again, and rookie Garrett Hampson will have to take over for the departed D.J. LeMahieu.

Regression could be an issue for the 2019 Rockies — they out-performed their pythagorean expected record by six wins last year — but further development from their young talent and more contributions from their veterans (especially offseason addition Daniel Murphy) could help offset any steps back from those who were a bit too good to be true last year.

San Diego Padres

Projected record: 78-84
Key additions: 3B Manny Machado, 2B Ian Kinsler, RHP Garrett Richards
Key subtractions: LHP Clayton Richard, SS Freddy Galvis, 3B Christian Villanueva, IF Cory Spangenberg, C A.J. Ellis

The Padres didn’t make a lot of moves this offseason, but they opted for quality over quantity. The Pads jumped at the opportunity to add an in-his-prime superstar in Manny Machado, one who will be an excellent fit at third base next to top prospect Fernando Tatis Jr. at short. Second baseman Luis Urias is another promising talent, and they have roughly 12 young-ish outfielders to choose from this spring.

Oh, and they have the best farm system in baseball.

The Padres probably won’t compete for playoff glory in 2019. Tatis won’t arrive until late April at the earliest, and Urias was overmatched by big league pitching in a cup of coffee last September. The pitching is also a major question mark after allowing the third-highest ERA in the National League last season. Prospects like MacKenzie Gore and Chris Paddack will help eventually, but most of the pitching is mired in the lower half of their minor league system right now. They could always surprise — Machado, Eric Hosmer, and Wil Myers is a nice veteran core if the latter two bounce back — but their fans might have to wait until 2020 for the fireworks to really begin.

Arizona Diamondbacks

Projected record: 78-84
Key additions: RHP Luke Weaver, C Carson Kelly, RHP Greg Holland, IF Wilmer Flores
Key subtractions: 1B Paul Goldschmidt, LHP Patrick Corbin, OF A.J. Pollock, RHP Shelby Miller, IF Daniel Descalso, OF Chris Owings, RHP Clay Buchholz

I’m going to give Arizona some credit here. If the Diamondbacks were truly trying to bottom out and rebuild, I think they would have aimed for a little more upside when they traded Paul Goldschmidt to the St. Louis Cardinals. Weaver is an interesting young pitcher, but recently drafted Nolan Gorman and righthander Dakota Hudson might have made a more intriguing return for “America’s First Baseman.” Instead, Arizona seems to be trying to thread the needle, bolstering their roster with major league ready talent while avoiding paying Goldschmidt for his decline years. I don’t know that I agree with this tactic — I’d rather see a team retain their best player in franchise history, personally — but the D’Backs’ intentions seem pure(ish).

That said, they haven’t reinvested the money saved on Goldschmidt, Patrick Corbin, and A.J. Pollock, and are probably in for a rough season. They don’t have a single position player projected for 3.0 WAR or more, per ZiPS, and that’s before injuries or regression start to take their toll. Their hitters also have a humidor to worry about now.

It would appear that the humidor worked a little too well. Mike Petriello of MLB.com wrote that offense was way down early into the season...Last season, there were 215 home runs hit at Chase Field or 2.65 home runs per game. In 2018, that number fell to 171 or 2.11 home runs per game. That’s a reduction of 20 percent.

Their pitching staff benefitted from this, of course, and finished third in the NL with a 3.73 ERA. However, Corbin was their best starter by a wide margin, and they now need to replace his 200 innings and 6.3 fWAR from within. Part of that could come from the bullpen, which is hoping for bounce-back years from Archie Bradley and Greg Holland, but that’s still a lot to ask for when one player was responsible for nearly one-third of the entire pitching staff’s WAR.

San Francisco Giants

Projected record: 74-88
Key additions: LHP Drew Pomeranz, C Cameron Rupp, OF Cameron Maybin, IF Yangervis Solarte
Key subtractions: OF Hunter Pence, C Nick Hundley, RHP Hunter Strickland, OF Gregor Blanco

If there is a team that benefitted from missing out on the Bryce Harper sweepstakes, it’s probably the Giants. They improved by nine wins on the field last season, but still finished miles out of first place, and are now a year older and slower. Buster Posey regressed in a big way in his age-31 season, and Madison Bumgarner struggled through another injury-riddled season. Derek Holland led them in innings pitched, while Johnny Cueto and Jeff Samardzija — still owed a combined $110 million in guaranteed salary over the next few years — only managed 19 combined starts. The lineup struggled too, with Posey, Brandon Belt, and the now-departed Andrew McCutchen the only three above-average hitters (minimum 20 games played), per OPS+.

Is there a silver lining here? No, not really. The Giants are headed for a rebuild. But they have won three titles since 2010. I don’t think we need to feel bad for them.