Home Featured NL West Preview: Three key questions for each team

NL West Preview: Three key questions for each team

by Chris Brown

While there are no guarantees in the current environment, if all goes according to plan, there will once again be regular season MLB games in this country in under two weeks. The shortened schedule figures to make the 2020 season more of a sprint than a marathon, with each game taking on a higher importance than in normal circumstances, and nearly every team could be capable of a remarkable 60-game run.

With that in mind, 110 Sports is getting you set for the action by previewing each division with three key questions for each team in the shortened season. We continue our series with the National League West.

Arizona Diamondbacks

Can Ketel Marte, Eduardo Escobar and Christian Walker back up their breakout 2019 seasons?

In 2018, this trio combined to hit 40 home runs at the major league level. Last year, that number was 96, a total which made up nearly 45% of the team’s total homers. Marte, whose previous career high in longballs was 14, smacked 32 home runs while stealing 10 bases and slashing .329/.389/.592 in his age 25 season. Escobar experienced his own power breakout at the age of 30, hitting 35 home runs with an MLB-leading 10 triples. And Walker launched 29 home runs at age 28 after receiving only limited major league action before 2019. While they may not be able to exactly repeat last year’s performance, if this group can come even somewhat close, that Diamondbacks lineup could certainly be a force to reckon with, particularly when you consider the additions of veterans Starling Marte and Kole Calhoun in the outfield.

How will Madison Bumgarner fare away from San Francisco?

After 12 seasons pitching in the Giants organization, MadBum will don a new uniform in 2020 as a member of the rival Diamondbacks. The three-time World Series champion and incredible postseason pitcher will lead a pitching staff now without Zack Greinke, who was dealt to Houston at last year’s trade deadline. While there’s no doubting Bumgarner’s track record as one of the best pitchers in baseball over the last decade, there are plenty of questions about his performance moving forward. His numbers — and durability — have dropped off in recent years, and he holds a 5.16 ERA away from the pitcher-friendly confines of Oracle Park over the last two seasons.

Who will benefit most from the DH spot?

For several National League teams, the addition of the DH helps to make room in the lineup for a player who otherwise would have virtually no chance of starting, barring injury. That’s certainly the case for the Diamondbacks with Jake Lamb. With Escobar and Walker set as the starters in the corner infield, Lamb seems the most likely to benefit from the open lineup spot. The 29-year-old has missed significant time in recent years due to injury, but is just a few seasons removed from hitting 29 and 30 homers in 2016 and 2017, respectively. Another option for the D-backs at DH: First baseman Kevin Cron, who hit a minor league-leading 39 home runs in 2019.

Colorado Rockies

How well will the team and Nolan Areando coexist?

It may seem like a lifetime ago, but it was really just six months ago that the star third baseman, 11 months after signing an eight-year, $260 million contract with the Rockies, expressed frustration with the team, saying he felt “a lot of disrespect” from the front office.  ESPN’s Jeff Passan reported that Arenado’s frustration was rooted in the team’s inactivity this past offseason, and his comments led many to believe he may be traded before the season began. But that didn’t happen, and given the current situation, it seems unlikely to occur during the 2020 season, meaning the two sides will need to continue to coexist for the time being. For what it’s worth, Arenado expressed optimism toward the season when asked about his relationship with the front office recently. And though they’re no favorite, the Rockies certainly have the potential to compete in 2020.

Does Matt Kemp have anything left in the tank?

Just one day after Ian Desmond announced he will opt out of the season in a powerful Instagram post, the Rockies inked veteran outfielder and three-time All-Star Matt Kemp to a minor league contract. The 35-year-old hit just .200/.210/.283 with one home run in 62 plate appearances last year while battling an injury, but is just two years removed from tallying 21 homers with 85 RBI and a .290 batting average with the Dodgers in 2018. Particularly with the DH in the NL this season, Kemp could have the opportunity to make an impact and benefit greatly from playing half his games at Coors Field. 

Who wins the battle at second base?

The most likely impact of the DH for the Rockies is that it allows Daniel Murphy to shift into that spot, with Ryan McMahon sliding from second base to first and leaving a spot at the keystone up for grabs. The team has a number of intriguing options capable of manning the position, including the club’s No. 1 prospect, Brendan Rodgers, who hit .350 with nine home runs and 21 RBI in 160 plate appearances at AAA last year before struggling in the majors, in part due to a right labrum injury. Also in the mix is 25-year-old Garrett Hampson, who struggled greatly most of the year but hit .343 with five homers and seven steals in the Rockies’ final 16 games in 2019. The team also has non-roster invitee Chris Owings, the longtime Diamondback, as an option as well. Whoever wins the job could be an exciting player to watch in 2020.

Los Angeles Dodgers

Can the addition of Mookie Betts help this team get over the hump in October?

There’s always been pressure on the Dodgers in recent years, but it may be even higher than usual in a 60-game season. The World Series favorites paid a high price to add Betts (and David Price) this past offseason in the hopes that the four-time All-Star would help them capture their first title since 1988 after falling in the Fall Classic in two of the last three years. Betts is set to be a free agent after the 2020 season, and with the schedule cut down to 60-games, all eyes will be on the Dodgers this year. The expectations are as high as they could be.

In the absence of David Price, how will the team’s young starters perform?

Another key piece the Dodgers received in the Betts deal was the former Cy Young winner and five-time All-Star, who announced on July 4 that he has opted out of the 2020 season. Fortunately, the Dodgers have been known for their starting pitching depth — and roster manipulation — in recent years, and 2020 is no exception. But given the loss of Hyun-Jin Ryu to the Blue Jays in free agency and trade of Kenta Maeda to the Twins, the team will be leaning more on young pitchers this season behind Clayton Kershaw. Walker Buehler (age 26), Julio Urias (23), Dustin May (22), and Tony Gonsolin (26) all figure to play significant roles for the team in the shortened season, whether in the rotation or out of the bullpen. The team will need several of them to perform to get over the hump this year.

Can Cody Bellinger back up his breakout year?

The reigning NL MVP is coming off an all-around incredible season in which he hit .305/.406/.629 with 47 home runs, 15 steals, 121 runs, 115 RBI and won a Gold Glove. Bellinger got off to an truly sensational start to the 2019 campaign, hitting .336/.432/.692 in the first half before regressing to a .263/.371/.546 batting line the second half of the season. Some regression was certainly to be expected, but it is fair to wonder if he’ll be able to repeat the same level of success moving forward. But particularly with the addition of Betts, and all the other big bats in that lineup (Turner, Muncy, Seager, etc.), Bellinger really doesn’t have to repeat that batting line to deliver what the Dodgers need from him.

San Diego Padres

Can this team surprise in a shortened season?

The Padres are projected by FanGraphs to finish just over .500, but the team has also been one of the more common picks to surprise in 2020 by baseball analysts, who’ve pointed out how the shortened season could play into their hands. With a bevy of young talent reaching or close to reaching the major league level and key offensive pieces like Manny Machado and Eric Hosmer still in their late 20s or early 30s, the team could be primed for contention soon, and the shortened season means a strong run from an expected .500 team could put them in the playoff picture quickly. Machado and Hosmer will be joined by Fernando Tatis, the 21-year-old shortstop who hit .317 with 22 homers and 16 steals in 84 games before injury last year, and Tommy Pham, who was acquired from the Rays last offseason following a 21-homer, 25-steal season. That’s a highly formidable top four in the lineup, no doubt.

Will Chris Paddack take the next step without workload restrictions?

The emerging young starter impressed in his rookie season, throwing 140 ⅔ innings with a 3.33 ERA and striking out 153 batters. The Padres have been monitoring his workload carefully over the last few years, and that may have still occurred to some degree in 2020. But with the shortened season, the 24-year-old will be turned loose for the first time in his professional career, something that could empower him to emerge as one of the top pitchers in the game. While there are other promising arms in San Diego’s rotation — such as Garrett Richards and Dinelson Lamet — the Padres will need a lot from Paddack in 2020 if they’re to make a surprise run.

Will the team’s bullpen depth be particularly beneficial in a 60-game season?

Back in March, MLB.com’s Anthony Castrovince ranked the Padres as having the second-best bullpen in baseball, behind only the Yankees. San Diego already boasts perhaps the game’s best closer, Kirby Yates, who tallied 41 saves with an incredible 1.19 ERA last season. To put that performance in context, Yates’ FIP (Field Independent Pitching metric, which attempts to estimate the results a pitcher would expect in average circumstances) of 1.30 was the fifth-best of the live-ball era. And in the offseason, the team added relievers Emilio Pagan (2.31 ERA, 12.3 K/9 in 2019) and Drew Pomeranz (1.88 ERA as a reliever in 2019). Many believe that a strong bullpen will be more important than ever in a shortened season as teams treat their pitching staffs more like in the postseason. Few teams are in as strong a position in that area as the Padres.

San Francisco Giants

How will the team handle the catcher position without Buster Posey?

On July 10, the face of the Giants franchise announced he will opt out of the 2020 season, telling reporters that he and his wife are adopting twins who were born prematurely and will remain in the hospital for a while to come. In his absence, the team could turn to its top prospect, Joey Bart, the No. 2 overall pick in the 2018 draft. But the 23-year-old has yet to play a game above AA, meaning a starting role in the majors still seems unlikely in 2020, at least from the get-go. The team’s depth chart behind Posey is extremely limited, with non-roster invitees Rob Brantly and Tyler Heineman on top. Don’t be surprised to see the team add a vetern backstop like Russell Martin in the coming days.

Can Mike Yastrzemski prove his 2019 campaign was no fluke?

The grandson of Hall-of-Famer Carl Yastrzemski, Mike spent seven seasons and over 700 games in the minors before making his major league debut last season. The expectations weren’t high, but the outfielder quickly became the Giants’ best hitter, leading the club with an .852 OPS and smacking 21 home runs and 22 doubles with a .272 average in 107 games. The Giants don’t figure to be a contender in the immediate future, even in the shortened 2020 campaign, but if Yastrzemski can back up his 2019 numbers, he could be a key piece of the next contending San Francisco team.

Will Gabe Kapler make the most of his second big league managing opportunity?

Gabe Kapler’s managerial tenure in Philadelphia was rocky to say the least. There were positive ways to look at it: the Phillies’ 80-82 record in 2018 was 14 wins better than 2017, and their 81-81 mark last year was the franchise’s first non-losing season since 2012. But with teams that included the likes of Aaron Nola, Jake Arrieta, J.T. Realmuto, Jean Segura, Andrew McCutchen and Bryce Harper, the expectations were much higher than that. Kapler, who was hired with the promise of a more analytical approach, frustrated many with outside-box-choices that seemed to backfire often. Just one month after he was fired by the Phillies, the Giants signed Kapler to a three-year deal to replace future Hall-of-Famer Bruce Bochy. Kapler’s approach seems more in line with the Giants than the Phillies, but he’ll need to show signs of improvement, something that could begin in 2020, to avoid the same fate. 

Click here to see our other 2020 division previews.

Photo by Ian D’Andrea / Flickr.

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