1) Los Angeles Dodgers
Even though there’s been plenty of turnover with this group – and the fact that the rival Giants are the defending world champions, it’s hard not to pick the Dodgers to take this division in 2015. Clayton Kershaw, when he’s not facing Matt Carpenter (or Matt Adams), is one of the game’s most dominant pitchers and anchors a rotation featuring Zack Greinke and Hyun-Jin Ryu. There is an injury history with both Brandon McCarthy and lefty Brett Anderson, but the addition of those starters still makes this a difficult team to beat. The lineup has changed, as well. Jimmy Rollins and Howie Kendrick have replaced Hanley Ramirez and Dee Gordon at shortstop and second base, respectively. Rollins now sits at the top of the order as the new leadoff hitter. Kendrick and new catcher Yasmani Grandal (A.J. Ellis takes a back seat) follow a productive 2-3-4 in the lineup with Carl Crawford, Yasiel Puig and Adrian Gonzalez. Will that group be consistent enough to carry this offense. And how good is rookie CF Joc Pederson? Will he flourish as the can’t-miss prospect he’s been touted to be?
2) San Francisco Giants
The Giants won it all in 2010, 2012 and 2014. That means they’re going to miss this season, right? Not if Madison Bumgarner has anything to do with it. Bumgarner, the 6-5 lefty from Hickory, NC put on an amazing performance in the World Series last season and appears primed to go after his first Cy Young award in 2015. Will the rest of the rotation be good enough? Matt Cain is coming off elbow surgery. Tim Hudson will be 40 in July. Jake Peavy went from 1-9 in Boston to 6-4 (with a 2.17 ERA) in 12 starts in San Francisco. Can he keep it going? And whatever happened to Tim Lincecum? The Giants do have the best catcher in the game not named Yadier Molina, and that’s Buster Posey. He’ll likely move over to first base from time to time, a space occupied by Brandon Belt. Casey McGehee moves into the 3B position previously held by the dangerous Pablo Sandoval, who now plays in Boston. Hunter Pence, who plays the game with reckless abandon, remains one of the features of the lineup. It’s clearly not the same team, but somehow the Giants always seem to find a way to do enough.
3) San Diego Padres
New Padres RF Matt Kemp called it the best outfield in baseball: Kemp, CF Wil Myers and LF Justin Upton. Hold on there, big fella. While the trio is impressive, it’s going to have to a) stay healthy; and b) pull the ball, as Petco Park’s LF wall (357 ft.) is closer than RF (382 ft.). Kemp has the ability to carry a team with his superstar qualities, Upton has significant power (although he tends to strike out) and Myers, when healthy, is capable of providing quality at-bats in the No. 2 spot in the order. Beyond those three, the energized Padres are banking on players either reaching their potential, rediscovering their old form or just simply staying off the disabled list. Pitching-wise, a questionable rotation was eased a bit by the arrival of James Shields. Fireballer Andrew Cashner and All-Star Tyson Ross could make this an interesting mix, along with the venerable Ian Kennedy, who is the only returning Padres pitcher to have eclipsed 200 innings last season (201.0).
4) Colorado Rockies
While it’s going to be difficult for this group to get to .500 this season, there are some players worth the price of admission: Troy Tulowitski and Carlos Gonzalez can absolutely rake and make it tough on opposing pitchers in the high altitude. Tulowitski is one of the game’s great stars at shortstop, or any position for that matter. Justin Morneau can still hammer away at righthanders and Nolan Arenado was a Gold Glover at third base (as well as owning a 28-game hitting streak last season, the longest in MLB). But as is usually the case, pitching is the Rockies’ downfall. Beyond Jorge De La Rosa (10-2, 3.08 at home), it’s hard to find anyone in this rotation who projects as a winner at Coors Field, a hitter’s paradise. Well, at least Rockies fans can sit back and enjoy the scenery – and the bats.
5) Arizona Diamondbacks
Tony La Russa wouldn’t enter a project without thinking he can see it all the way through. But the Hall of Fame manager, now the Diamondbacks’ chief baseball officer, has a ways to go in rebuilding in the desert. He has employed Dave Duncan, his former pitching coach, to consult. He’s brought in Dave Stewart, one of his all-time favorite pitchers, to serve as general manager. Getting the Oakland gang back together will rejuvenate La Russa, who thrives on competition. Leading the way for the D-Backs is one of the game’s most respected hitters, Paul Goldschmidt, who returns from a broken hand. The same injury downed CF A.J. Pollock, who emerged as a future All-Star. Yasmany Tomas, a 3B Cuban prospect, has intriguing power. Chris Owings (SS) and David Peralta (LF) were also rookies to watch last season in the NL. The rotation is led by Josh Collmenter, who went from reliever to starter. Whatever you do, don’t doubt the Diamondbacks when it comes to pitching (and catching) knowledge, especially with the aforementioned leadership group. They’ll get things turned around in Arizona, eventually.