NL West foes will seek to challenge Dodgers
Los Angeles favorite to defend flag but rebound by Giants, D-backs could pose hurdles
The National League West saw its favorite come from behind to turn the division race into a one-horse sprint to the finish a year ago, the Dodgers going on a summer spree for the ages, winning seemingly every game for about a month following the All-Star break.
Heading into 2014, there's no reason the team from Chavez Ravine should be considered anything but the favorite in the NL West race. That said, the division has a history of surprises and multiple teams jockeying for the coveted spot at the top.
W: Kershaw L: Miley SV: Jensen
To review, the Dodgers were 12 games under .500 and 9 1/2 games out of first place three weeks into June last year before they flipped the script. Energized by the arrival of Yasiel Puig and seeing some results from a whopping payroll, the Dodgers went 42-8 for the greatest 50-game stretch in the franchise's long history. By the end of that run, the Dodgers were 7 1/2 games up and on their way to the division title.
Duplicating that kind of season is a script that would get laughed out of a Hollywood studio, although the cast of characters that made that historic sprint up the standings remains in place.
The Giants, winners of the World Series in each of the past two even-numbered years, are looking to come back from an injury-plagued season that included the first slump in a long time by one of their most prized assets -- their rotation. It turned out to be the D-backs who at least kept the Dodgers within shouting distance until mid-September while finishing at .500, with the Padres and Giants finishing 10 games under and the Rockies 14 under.
All five teams are hoping to improve in 2014. Yes, that includes the Dodgers, who put on a show last summer that wasn't held over long into October.
Here's a closer look at the teams in the NL West as they head into the regular season:
LOS ANGELES DODGERS
Strengths: The rotation ranks among the best in the game, led by Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke as a dynamic 1-2 -- although Kershaw being scratched from his first U.S. start on Sunday isn't a good way to start the season. Hyun-Jin Ryu isn't far behind -- he looks even better than he did last year. Dan Haren is solid and there are proven options -- Josh Beckett, Paul Maholm and Chad Billingsley -- for the No. 5 spot. The bullpen, anchored by Brian Wilson and Kenley Jansen, is deep and talented. A return to form by Matt Kemp, coming off shoulder and ankle surgeries, would make a good offense lethal. Hanley Ramirez is an MVP candidate, and Puig's superlative talent is unquestioned.
Weaknesses: The bench might not be as deep as last year with Justin Turner, Chone Figgins and Mike Baxter filling the voids left by the departures of Nick Punto, Skip Schumaker and Jerry Hairston. Juan Uribe might not replicate his excellent 2013 season. There could be a morale issue if Puig, Kemp, Carl Crawford and Andre Ethier all stay healthy and there's room for only three of them in the outfield. Truth is, this team is so deep and has such huge financial resources, it's difficult to find any serious deficiencies.
Spot to watch: Second base has been the most apparent concern with the exit of Mark Ellis and the need for Cuban native Alex Guerrero, a natural shortstop, to get more experience at a position that's new to him. Dee Gordon, with his blazing speed and impressive skills, could be the answer. If he puts the ball on the ground and uses his wheels, he can drive pitchers and catchers crazy. Turner and Figgins offer veteran support.
Sign of trouble: Puig's immaturity remains a bright red flag. It was hoped that he'd calm down and settle in after his astonishing rookie season, but the impulsive sophomore continues to make internal waves. His buddies, Ramirez and Uribe, can help straighten him out, but it's up to Puig to listen, learn and act professionally. Also, an injury to rock-solid catcher A.J. Ellis could be disruptive to the pitching staff.
They'll be rolling if ... Puig settles down, respects teammates and the game, and lets his talent speak for him. The pitching staff remaining relatively healthy and Kemp coming back with power and swagger would go a long way, too.
SAN FRANCISCO GIANTS
Strengths: Assuming a return to form and the pushing aside of some spring struggles by a couple of its members, the Giants' rotation was, is and will be the most important aspect in how they fare. With Madison Bumgarner becoming the man on the mound envisioned when he arrived in the Majors four years ago at age 20, it's up to Matt Cain to become Matt Cain again, after his first truly disappointing season. Tim Lincecum and Ryan Vogelsong look to get back on track -- but both have some struggles in Arizona to put behind them. Catcher Buster Posey seems to be the only rock-solid certainty, having established an amazing level of consistency so early in his career.
Weaknesses: Until the offense proves otherwise, it's always going to be the aspect that stands out as an area of concern for the Giants. The lineup could be better than in years past with Angel Pagan at the top and healthy again, Posey and Hunter Pence in the middle, and a lighter Pablo Sandoval lighting up baseballs again. Adding Michael Morse could boost the power at the bottom of the lineup, and the infield Brandons -- Belt and Crawford -- both are due to take their offense to the next level. Also, the bullpen, which has been huge in the team's October success in the past, could be the team's soft underbelly.
Spot to watch: The top of the lineup should be manned by two veterans coming off down years, but both Pagan and second baseman Marco Scutaro dealt with back issues this spring. With Pagan's leadoff qualities and Scutaro's never-miss swing, their ability to stay healthy and provide the kind of 1-2 catalyst to the best of their capabilities, the rest of the offense could start motoring, taking some pressure off the pitching staff. But it appears Scutaro is headed for the disabled list to start the season, so that table-setting twosome will need to wait to get things going.
Sign of trouble: Already an issue this spring, health is a big issue among the many veteran players important to the cause. Scutaro, the No. 2 hitter and a veteran presence, is in particular a concern.
They'll be rolling if ... Panda becomes dangerous again. If Sandoval can rekindle the type of dominance he displayed in the 2012 postseason, he can make the lineup a lot more exciting. Posey and Pence will be counted on, but a return to form by Sandoval is key to the Giants returning to a winning place again.
Strengths: With MVP candidate Paul Goldschmidt leading an offense that added Mark Trumbo in a trade with the Angels, the D-backs have a little more pop in their lineup, and they're hoping for an upswing by Miguel Montero and a next step forward by A.J. Pollock at the top. Martin Prado is the type of player who can be a catalyst, so if he can pick up where he left off at the end of last season, he might help drive the D-backs to a more consistent offensive showing.
Weaknesses: The rotation was not the team's greatest strength before Patrick Corbin's elbow injury, and the 24-year-old All-Star underwent Tommy John surgery this week in a turn of events that damaged the rotation right at the top. Free-agent acquisition Bronson Arroyo is hoping for a healthy start and the D-backs are optimistic that Archie Bradley can make his move to the Majors sometime this season -- both would be helpful in turning this weakness into a strength.
Sign of trouble: It already happened when Corbin sustained his devastating elbow injury. It's true for any team, but the D-backs knew they couldn't afford injuries -- it was what got them in trouble last year, and they're not off to a good start in that department this year.
They'll be rolling if ... The starting rotation gets off to a good start, saving a bullpen that is experienced and upgraded with the arrival of Addison Reed from the White Sox. If veterans like Arroyo and Brandon McCarthy can hold things together, and Trevor Cahill can step up to do some of the heavy lifting with Corbin gone for the year, things will look brighter in the desert this summer.
SAN DIEGO PADRES
Strengths: The Padres have several talented core players, led by Chase Headley on the offensive side and Andrew Cashner at the top of a rotation that might be as talented as any during manager Bud Black's tenure. Headley had a remarkably strong finish to the 2012 season but needs to shake off some 2013 struggles in order to reclaim a place among the elite third basemen in the league. If shortstop Everth Cabrera can be back in a productive place after his suspension in relation to the Biogenesis investigation, he can deliver a spark at the top.
Weaknesses: The question with the Padres is always: Can they score enough runs? It's a harsh call to say it's a weakness with Headley and Carlos Quentin in the heart of the lineup, but it's a tall order for any group playing half its games at Petco Park to score a ton of runs. If Jedd Gyorko can continue to deliver the type of power he did in his rookie season, he'd be one reason to believe the Friars will be able to generate enough offense, home and away.
Sign of trouble: The Padres were too acquainted with the disabled list last season, and already they'll be putting it to use as newcomer Josh Johnson will start the season on the disabled list with a flexor strain in his right forearm. That's not a good start for the guy who was going to be their Opening Day starter.
They'll be rolling if ... The rotation holds up long enough to welcome back Johnson, and if they manage to get off to a better start than their 10-16 April of a year ago, that might get them on the right track.
Strengths: The middle of the order, if healthy, has some of the game's top talent in shortstop Troy Tulowitzki and outfielder Carlos Gonzalez, a duo that can do some damage. Last year's addition of Michael Cuddyer proved to be valuable, complete with a batting title. Health is a huge factor, in particular for Tulo, who was plenty productive last season but played in only 126 games, after appearing in only 47 the year before. As long as it doesn't become overworked, the bullpen is another area that is stacked up well, leading to Rex Brothers and LaTroy Hawkins at the end.
Weaknesses: The starting rotation, hoping for good things from newcomer Brett Anderson and a quick return by Jhoulys Chacin, out with shoulder issues, could make a move upward. But there's a great deal of uncertainty regarding the starters, with pretty much all of them having arm issues in recent years. But Jorge De La Rosa is coming off a strong season, and this is a talented group that includes Juan Nicasio, who had an impressive spring. If things go well, starting pitching could flip to being an area of strength. It won't be easy to start that quest with Chacin down, though.
Sign of trouble: As much as Tulo and CarGo and Cuddyer can be a tough row for pitchers to work through, just how productive they will be will depend on the supporting cast, the biggest question mark being at the top -- where leadoff-by-committee is a possibility, though Charlie Blackmon got the most at-bats there this spring.
They'll be rolling if ... They get quality starts coming right out of the gate, especially with Chacin unavailable. Giving the offense its best chance to find an early groove will be key for the run-prevention arm of the ballclub.
It's the Dodgers' division to lose, but if the Giants return to their top form of two years ago, it'll be at least a two-horse race with a possibility of multiple representatives in October. The D-backs' chances of being in the thick of it were hampered severely by Corbin's injury, and the Padres and Rockies both need to have a lot of things go right to push past .500.
Dark horse: D-backs
Never say never: Padres, Rockies
John Schlegel is a national reporter for MLB.com. You can follow him on Twitter at @JohnSchlegelMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.