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Most crucial questions for each NL West club

@williamfleitch
February 19, 2020

If you’re just joining us, we’ve been previewing the 2020 baseball season, division by division, for over a month now. Here’s what you’ve missed so far: Previously: AL Central | AL West | NL East So, today: The National League West! Our previews will be extended games of 25 Questions,

If you’re just joining us, we’ve been previewing the 2020 baseball season, division by division, for over a month now. Here’s what you’ve missed so far:

Previously: AL Central | AL West | NL East

So, today: The National League West! Our previews will be extended games of 25 Questions, in which we look at five pressing questions for each team heading into the 2020 season. At the end, we will make some actual predictions on the final standings -- predictions that are unassailable and so obviously iron-clad correct that we're a little worried you won't even bother to watch the actual games once you read them. We are willing to assume such a risk.

Let's take a team-by-team look at the biggest questions this season.

Dodgers

1. Where do you fit everybody?
Talk about your first-world problems. After the trade for Mookie Betts -- and after the trade of Joc Pederson and Ross Stripling fell through -- the Dodgers need an extra couple of lineup spots and pitchers mounds to fit everybody in. Pederson, right now, looks like he might platoon with A.J. Pollock, but then again, you have to fit in Enrique Hernández and Chris Taylor and Matt Beaty and Gavin Lux and seriously, the Dodgers need to petition the Commissioner’s Office for a softball-esque mid-outfielder or something. One wonders if the Dodgers will end up trying to find a home for one or two of these guys, because with Betts and Cody Bellinger ensconced in the outfield, there aren’t nearly enough at-bats to go around.

2. Is David Price back?
Betts understandably was the focus of the big offseason transaction, but the Dodgers have real use for David Price too. Because of his contract, there is this widespread sense that Price has been some massive disappointment, but he hasn’t had an ERA+ under 100 since his rookie year in 2009, and was very much an above-average pitcher during his four years in Boston. He wasn’t the overpowering ace there they wanted him to be, but the Dodgers won’t be requiring that; they just want him to be healthy enough to hold down the No. 3 spot in the rotation. He threw 230 innings in 2016, but the Dodgers don’t need that many; the 176 he threw in 2018 will suffice just fine.

3. Have they thrown enough at the bullpen problem?
No team that wins 106 games has that many issues, but no question the biggest one for the Dodgers in 2019 was the bullpen. Kenley Jansen had the worst year of his career, Joe Kelly continued to frustrate and the club was desperately mixing and matching all year. The Dodgers tend to take a throw-a-bunch-of-relief-arms-at-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks approach to bullpen issues, and it’s not the worst strategy. But it can lead to uncertainty and inconsistency. Bringing in Blake Treinen speaks perhaps to more concern with Jansen, but the Dodgers could also filter out some of their starters who don’t make the rotation to the bullpen. There is no shortage of options. But there also might be too many.

4. What does Clayton Kershaw have left?
Clayton Kershaw threw more innings in 2019 than he had since 2015, when he tossed an MLB-leading 232 2/3. (He reached 178.) But that health also came with arguably the least effectiveness of his entire career. His ERA was the highest since his rookie season, his walk rate was the highest in a decade and his FIP was a perilously high 3.86, the largest of his career. (It was roughly the same as Eduardo Rodriguez’s.) Now, Kershaw doesn’t have to be the ace anymore, but he’s still Clayton Kershaw. With the strongest team of his entire career behind him, this could be the pivot year for Kershaw, the one where we all finally leave him alone about the postseason and accept him for the genius he has been. But it’d be nice to see the real Kershaw while all this happens. Though this could be the real Kershaw now.

5. Can they win the World Series?
This is kind of a silly question: This is the question every team asks itself! But more than any other team in the sport, even the Yankees, the Dodgers are constructed to win the World Series right now. Betts is here, if only for one year. Every position is stacked. You have Bellinger right in his prime. The team is clearly still fired up and angry about the Astros' scandal and the 2017 World Series. The Dodgers build themselves up to win the World Series every year. But they’re really trying to win it this year. So they best get to it.

D-backs

1. How weird is Madison Bumgarner going to look in that new uniform?
Very weird, right? I can’t imagine how strange it will be for Giants fans. But it’s probably best to keep in mind that Arizona Madison Bumgarner will be a different pitcher than San Francisco Bumgarner. This Bumgarner was healthy for a full season last year for the first time since 2016, but he wasn’t a Cy Young contender like he was back then. He was a perfectly respectable, above-average, take-the-ball-and-give-you-a-chance-to-win starter in 2019, which is valuable, but not top-shelf ace material. The good news is that Arizona isn’t really paying him top-shelf money. The bad news is that everyone’s still going to expect him to be an ace. He’s Madison Bumgarner! The D-backs have some rotation depth. But they’d love Bumgarner to be a vintage Giants stud atop that rotation.

2. Is Ketel Marte a legitimate superstar now?
Since coming to Arizona in 2017, Ketel Marte had gotten a little better each year, adding some on-base skills his first season and some power his second. But wow did he ever erupt last year, raising his batting average 69 points, his OBP 57 and his SLG 155. Suddenly, Marte went from handy infield piece to five-tool player in his mid-20s … a.k.a., one of the most valuable properties in all of baseball. So now he has to go out and do it again. With the acquisition of Starling Marte, he won’t have to play as much outfield, which makes him something even more valuable: a slugging middle infielder. If Ketel isn’t a one-year fluke, Arizona has a linchpin player they can build around. But he’s going to need to do it two years in a row first.

3. Can Christian Walker do it again?
Of all the preseason wagers you could have imagined, can you fathom what sort of odds you could have gotten on “Christian Walker will outslug Paul Goldschmidt in 2019”? Getting more than 50 at-bats in a season for the very first time, Walker was a revelation, matching Goldschmidt’s production and giving Arizona a reliable lineup presence instead of the gaping hole many had been expecting out of first base. But you only get to be a pleasant surprise once. Now the D-backs, with heightened expectations, are counting on Walker to do it again.

4. Is Archie Bradley the late-inning stud again?
Rafael Marchan, once the D-backs finally gave up on him as a starter, became a fantastic reliever in 2017, before taking a step back in 2018 and for much of 2019. But from July on, he was one of the best relievers in the sport, putting up a 1.47 ERA and blowing only one of 19 save chances. Arizona has a lot of bullpen uncertainty, but then again, so do most teams in baseball. Bradley needs to be the piece they can rely on. Again.

5. How much do they push in 2020?
The D-backs were that team in 2019 that kept hanging around the NL Wild Card race, though no one could quite figure out how or why. They were a happy surprise, an exciting team that no one, perhaps even Arizona itself, saw coming. But with the signing of Bumgarner and the trade for Starling Marte, the D-backs have signaled that they’re ready to win now. But this is still an older team that did seem to overachieve last year. This is an extremely intelligent front office that has found little ways to improve all over. But now, winning is the expectation. That has a tendency to change everything, and not always for the better.

Giants

1. How much can the veteran, still-hanging-around pitchers contribute?
Johnny Cueto and Jeff Samardzija are both relics of a previous Giants administration, signed when this team was still trying to hang onto the aging championship core of the last decade. Their contracts lasted long enough that they’re still here (Cueto has one more year after this one, Samardzija is a free agent at season’s end), which means the Giants might as well just get what they can out of them now and see if they can be flipped at the Deadline. Cueto’s upside is higher, but Samardzija doesn’t have that $21 million due to him next year. Either way: They’re here, they’re getting paid, they might as well pitch well.

2. What does Buster Posey have left?
You always expected some decline from the Giants' legend as he got older, but, you know, he’s not that old. (He’s 32, turning 33 in March.) Buster Posey fell off a cliff in 2019, plummeting to career lows in every offensive category. Somehow, Posey has only 12 homers in two years. The defense still plays -- and he only played four games at first base last year -- so there’s still room for him, but you never want a legend like him to look as feeble at the plate as Posey did at times last year. He’ll hit free agency after the 2021 season. What happens with him the next two seasons should be fascinating.

3. Can Little Yaz keep the happy story going?
Considering the Giants’ struggles last year, particularly down the stretch, the signature moment of the 2019 season will likely end up being when Mike Yastrzemski ran onto the field at Fenway Park, looking just like his grandpa did all those years ago. Little Yaz isn’t the player his grandfather was -- almost no one is -- but he was the best offensive player for the Giants last year and may be leading off this year. The only real issue with him is that he’s already almost 30, and therefore not exactly lining up with what will end up being the Giants' competitive window. If he gets even better this year, does he have more value for the Giants in a trade?

4. Do we see Joey Bart soon?
Age-wise, it’s probably time for the Giants’ top prospect to take the field. But two broken bones because of hit-by-pitches have slowed him down. The Giants have a lot of work to do over the next few years to turn around a franchise that probably tried to hang on a little too long, and the first sign of the future will be when Bart makes his MLB debut. He’ll take over for Posey eventually. Will it happen this year?

5. When does the rebuild start?
Vice president of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi is highly respected and thought among many to be the perfect guy for the Giants' rebuild. But he should probably start soon, right? The Giants traded away a bunch of bullpen pieces last year, but otherwise, it’s tough to see much evidence of the massive excavation project we all thought was happening. The Giants are still very old, and very far from contention. This team is going to look awfully different at some point. But when?

Rockies

1. How to resolve this Arenado situation?
Here is your reminder that it has not even been a year since Nolan Arenado agreed to that eight-year, $260 million extension. More recently, Arenado and his general manager are alternately sniping at each other or not speaking at all. The difficulty of trading Arenado’s contract aside, the only way this situation is getting resolved in a way that keeps Arenado in Denver is by the Rockies getting off to a hot start and him being convinced that his otherwise-idle boss can put the right pieces around him. Does that look like something that’s going to happen?

2. Will the bullpen be nothing but carnage again?
Of all the ill-fated moves in baseball over the last half-decade, the Rockies’ “Let’s get a great bullpen by giving a ton of money to veteran relievers on long-term deals!” plan has to be rather high up the list. Wade Davis, Jake McGee and Bryan Shaw are all still here, but you might want to look away: They were all disasters last year, none more so than Davis, who pitched in 50 games and still somehow ended up with an 8.65 ERA. (You usually aren’t allowed to appear in that many games when you’re that bad.) The Rockies have no choice but to keep those pitchers on the roster, and even just a massive elevation to “average big league pitcher” would be a dramatic improvement.

3. Who is the third-best hitter on this team?
Obviously, Arenado is the best as long as he’s here, and Trevor Story is right there with him. But after them? For all the talk of the Rockies’ pitching woes last year, the offense has been an issue masked by Coors Field for several years now; this lineup is just too thin. David Dahl can’t stay healthy, Ryan McMahon can’t seem to get anything going consistently (for reasons that are not always his fault), Charlie Blackmon is still hanging in (he’s probably the answer here) but aging rapidly and the less said about Ian Desmond, the better. The point is: The Rockies do not have a good offense. The stadium they play in just makes it look like they do.

4. How many starting pitchers will they end up using?
Jon Gray and German Márquez seem to have secure spots atop the rotation. But after that? Yikes. Kyle Freeland and Antonio Senzatela are still penciled in despite both having ERAs over 6 last year. And the Rockies didn’t sign any free agents to come in and help. If you hang around Blake Street long enough this year, the Rockies may ask you to contribute an inning or two.

5. Can this front office and staff survive much longer?
General manager Jeff Bridich has been one of the most lambasted figures in baseball this offseason, and Bud Black’s seat, fairly or not, is as hot as any manager’s in the game. The Rockies had two playoff seasons in a row, spent a bunch of money, and then completely fell apart. Now the superstar may want out, fans are furious and the team is difficult to watch. Front offices have been dismantled for a lot less.

Padres

1. What’s the ceiling on Fernando Tatis Jr.?
Is Fernando Tatis Jr. the most purely exciting player in all of baseball to watch? Not the best, but the most purely joyous to witness? Maybe it’s him, maybe it’s Javier Báez, maybe it’s Ronald Acuña Jr., the point is, Tatis is in the conversation. There are only two issues to get cleaned up. The first is health: Someone like him playing only 84 games feels like a crime against basic human happiness. But the second is probably defense: Despite his obvious athletic abilities, Tatis graded out poorly as a shortstop last year, largely because of struggles with the easy plays. If he can get that cleaned up -- and he is only 21 years old, people -- we’re looking at the sort of superstar that every team lusts after.

2. Is this who Manny Machado is moving forward?
Manny Machado’s first year in San Diego was fine. It was fine! He led the team in homers, he played good defense, he didn’t cause any trouble. But the whole idea of signing Machado for all that money is that you were getting him right as his prime was starting to kick in. And if this is Machado’s prime, well … well, he’s just fine. But not a superstar. Does he have a next gear? The Padres have a lot of seasons to find out.

3. What to do with Hosmer?
In addition to his offensive prowess, Eric Hosmer was supposed to show the young Padres how to win after winning a World Series in Kansas City. How’s that going? Well, he’s had two mediocre seasons at the plate, and they’ve averaged 68 wins a year since his arrival. Not great! It’s looking less and less likely that Hosmer’s ever going to be the swing-angle stud we all thought he might be, but there’s no moving him from first base, not with six more years of him under contract. If the rest of the lineup takes big steps forward (and new acquisition Tommy Pham should help here), Hosmer’s averageness won’t hurt them all that much. But it’d be handy if he’d take a step forward himself.

4. Can the rotation have a culmination season?
The Padres have been very smart about not pushing any of their young pitchers too hard as they were coming up, but with so much on the line this year, it might be time to take off the restrictor plates.
Chris Paddack is the closest thing they have to an ace, but Joey Lucchesi and Dinelson Lamet have a lot of talent that still, sort of, feels they haven’t entirely tapped into. The Padres’ bullpen looked deep even before the team traded for Emilio Pagán. The Friars aren’t relying on their rotation. But they also need all the help they can get.

5. How much is riding on this year?
For all the drama and turnover involving the Padres the last few years, they still haven’t won more games than they did in A.J. Preller’s tumultuous first year in charge. That needs to change, and it needs to change right now. It’s difficult to see how this front office survives another losing season. The Padres will do whatever it takes to make this season count. There’s a boatload of talent here. But it’s time to start seeing results, or soon, it will be someone else’s turn.

Predicted Standings (subject to roster changes):

Los Angeles Dodgers: 108-54
San Diego Padres: 86-76
Arizona Diamondbacks: 81-81
Colorado Rockies: 68-94
San Francisco Giants: 63-99

In two weeks: The American League East.