Here's the way this will work - I'll spend Monday and Tuesday for the next six weeks previewing the six divisions in Major League Baseball.
If there's too much to write about, we'll spill into Wednesday. Then I'll save the end of the week for anything else going on that I want to comment on.
We'll start this week with the National League West.
If there's one common thread that stands out about the National League West, it's the "absent pitcher'. In some cases, it's a pitcher that was absent for an extended period of time, but is coming back in 2010. For the Colorado Rockies, for example, it's Jeff Francis. For the Arizona Diamondbacks, it's Brandon Webb. Chris Young is back for the San Diego Padres.
In San Francisco and Los Angeles it's about the pitchers who aren't coming back: Randy Johnson for the Giants and Vicente Padilla, Jon Garland, and Randy Wolf for the Dodgers.
Let's start with the Dodgers. Padilla is gone before he had a chance to ruffle any feathers - but he was a big reason why the Dodgers held on to win the division last year. Garland and Wolf signed elsewhere, too. Combined, the three went 18-9 with a 3.16 ERA for the Dodgers in 2009. That's not to say the Dodgers are left with nothing - Clayton Kershaw is particularly exciting - but Chad Billingsley was very unreliable down the stretch.
The Giants won't miss Johnson's numbers as much as they'll miss his clubhouse presence. If you pigeonholed Randy Johnson as someone who just liked to shove New York City photographers, you may be surprised at the type of impact he had on the Giants' young pitching staff. I was. I expect Tim Lincecum, now that the contract distraction is out of the way, to step into that type of leadership role after spending time with Johnson...but it could be a little bit of an adjustment for the team.
The wild card in the West is the pitchers returning from injury. Chris Young's biggest impact, if he returns strong from shoulder problems that shut him down in June, might just be what San Diego gets in return from trading him. The stakes for Arizona and Colorado are much higher. Colorado made it to the World Series with a healthy and effective Jeff Francis in 2007. He missed all of last year's Wild Card run and could be a positive difference for the Rockies this year. The Diamondbacks have gone the wrong way since their NLCS appearance in 2007 (82 wins in 2008, just 70 in 2009), and a healthy Brandon Webb can help them turn that around. He pitched just four innings last year due to injury. He's in a contract year, and with Webb, the D-Backs have a potent 1-2 with he and Dan Haren. Without Webb, it's a less intimidating rotation.
The wild card came from this division in 2009. If it happens again in 2010, it could very well be because of one of these pitchers.
5 Impact Players
(In Alphabetical Order by Team, so as not to ruin the surprise of how I pick them to finish)
1. Brandon Webb, Arizona - I kind of wanted to avoid repeating the above players here, but I don't think any of them is more important to his team's success in 2010 than Webb. If he's effective, the Diamondbacks have a shot. If not, forget it.
2. Troy Tulowitzki, Colorado - It doesn't seem like the Rockies quite know what to do with their lineup. Third base - Ian Stewart or Melvin Mora? Catcher - Chris Iannetta or Miguel Olivo? What to do with Jason Giambi? Tulowitzki will be a constant at short - they need a big season from him.
3. Matt Kemp, Los Angeles - Do you get the feeling Manny Ramirez's most productive days are behind him? Kemp needs to pick up that slack, and he can. He's an impressive player - not just the 26 homers and the 101 RBI, but also the 34 steals.
4. Adrian Gonzalez, San Diego - There might not be much reason to follow the Padres other than to figure out where Gonzalez ends up. It would be a surprise if he stays in San Diego, though it would give credence to the argument that they want to keep him because he's the only draw the team has.
5. Freddy Sanchez, San Francisco - I don't usually like rooting for the Giants, but I've liked rooting for Sanchez since his early days in Boston. The pitching for the Giants is not a worry...it's the offense that needs to support the pitchers that is a worry. If the Giants have a good season, it's because their offense produced. And Sanchez would be a big part of that.