1. Arizona Diamondbacks: Arizona won the West last year by bizarrely outpacing their Pythagorean record by 11 games, but they shouldn't need to do that again this year. Dan Haren should give a huge boost to an already-good rotation, and several of their young hitters should take steps forward (I'm betting on Chris Young and Stephen Drew to do so). If they can get anything from Justin Upton or Randy Johnson, they could run away with the division. Even if not, their pitching staff should get them to the playoffs. The D'backs should have one of the more interesting bullpens in the league, by the way: Juan Cruz is one of my favorite relievers to watch, and Tony Pena isn't far behind. After watching one fireballing Diamondbacks reliever after another pitch in last year's NLCS, I can understand why Neal Huntington thinks it's so important to grab relievers with great stuff.
2. Colorado Rockies: The Rockies are a very interesting team whose flaws were exposed in their World Series wipeout against the Red Sox, and they did little this offseason to conclusively address their problems. For example, the Rockies have Ubaldo Jimenez locked in as their third starter. Jimenez is an interesting prospect, but he actually spent most of 2007 getting hit hard in Class AAA. There's an open competition for the last two rotation spots, and the competitors include Franklin Morales (extremely talented, but unripe), Jason Hirsh (sore shoulder), and Josh Towers, Mark Redman and Kip Wells ("ugh" cubed). The Rockies likewise have problems at second, catcher and centerfield (whether or not the Rockies would care to admit that Wily Taveras and Yorvit Torrealba are not good players). The offensive core of Matt Holliday, Troy Tulowitzki, Brad Hawpe, Todd Helton and Garrett Atkins is formidable, and Jeff Francis and Aaron Cook are both underrated starters, but I don't think there's enough here to knock off the Diamondbacks.
3. Los Angeles Dodgers: They've got young talent out the wazoo, much of it major-league ready. Unfortunately, neither their GM (Ned Coletti) nor their manager (Joe Torre) inspire much confidence that the Dodgers will handle that young talent well. They're still talking about playing Juan Pierre in an outfield corner instead of Andre Ethier, which tells you most of what you need to know. And rather than just giving the third base job to prospect Andy LaRoche, the Dodgers were showing interest in veteran third baseman Brandon Inge. (LaRoche subsequently injured his thumb and will be out for another month or so.) If the Dodgers do win the division, it may look something like this: they lose 18 games in April, with Pierre and Nomar Garciaparra hitting .100 and Esteban Loaiza posting a 7.50 ERA. The Dodgers replace those guys with Ethier, LaRoche and Clayton Kershaw, and end up winning 90 games on the backs of those guys, Russell Martin, Matt Kemp, Chad Billingsley and James Loney. The Dodgers' talent is better than good enough to win the division, but I have no faith that the team's management will allow that to happen.
4. San Diego Padres: This isn't a bad team, and GM Kevin Towers makes plenty of moves and doesn't fear bold trades, so it could improve suddenly. But the outfield (currently Scott Hairston, Jim Edmonds and Brian Giles) is dubious, and so are the last two spots in the rotation. Adrian Gonzalez is one of the more underrated players in baseball right now (he does almost everything well, and his offensive numbers are tremendous considering his home park), and Jake Peavy is a perennial Cy Young candidate. But the rest of the team is a mishmash. For example: the Padres are taking a close look at third base prospect Chase Headley for a starting job this year, but not to displace incumbent third baseman Kevin Kouzmanoff, a good hitter who negates almost all his offensive value with terrible defense. Instead, they're trying to make Headley an outfielder, even though Headley can play third, because they feel they have more pressing needs there. The NL West is too good this year for the Padres to win the division with this many spare parts.
5. San Francisco Giants: Pick an adjective: Awful. Offensive. Geriatric. Boring. Slow. Overpaid. Fans of the Giants have every right to be furious with the team's management, which coasted far too long on Barry Bonds and little else. Now Bonds is gone and the Giants have two interesting players, starting pitchers Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain. Everyone knows how incredibly old their lineup is - it's been that way for years, and they've taken few steps to fix it - but you can really tell what's going on with the Giants when they run out of old players and they absolutely have to use a young one. In the past few seasons, the Giants have given at least 150 plate appearances to Kevin Frandsen, Dan Ortmeier, Rajai Davis, Fred Lewis, Elizier Alfonzo, Lance Niekro, Jason Ellison and Todd Linden. The length of this list makes it seem that the Giants are actually open-minded about youngsters, but they're not; most of these guys got 200 or so at bats only, because they weren't prospects, and there aren't many teams in baseball who would have given any of these guys (except maybe Linden, at one point) much of a chance in the first place. The Giants, who haven't developed a real hitter in years, probably figure that if this is what young guys are like, they're better off with veterans anyway. Well, Omar Vizquel got hurt, and now their starting shortstop is supposed to be some anonymous minor leaguer named Brian Bocock, so it seems likely that the pattern will continue. Bocock will hit .158/.203/.216 until Vizquel returns, and the Giants will have learned nothing.