N.L. West Rundown: Very early season shows West will be tough

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The Los Angeles Dodgers (8-10) snapped a six game losing streak yesterday, taking one of three games over the weekend against the Baltimore Orioles.

So far it’s been a frustrating start for the Dodgers to say the least. First, Hanley Ramirez starts the season on the DL, then, Zack Greinke breaks his collarbone in a bench-clearing brawl with the San Diego Padres, and now Chad Billingsley got placed on the 15-day DL yesterday with discomfort in his throwing elbow.

It doesn’t help that the rest of the National League West division has been playing great baseball during the Dodgers’ struggles. The Dodgers will begin a three-game series with the New York Mets tomorrow, and then travel back to Los Angeles to face the Milwaukee Brewers over the weekend.

Colorado Rockies (13-5)

It’s been somewhat of a shock around the baseball world to see the Rockies at the top of the National League West division, at least for the time being. This team can flat-out hit the baseball, with Carlos Gonzalez, Troy Tulowitzki and Dexter Fowler leading the way.

Opposite of the Dodgers, the Rockies snapped a seven-game winning streak yesterday against the Arizona Diamondbacks. Unfortunately, Colorado was hit by the injury bug this week as well, when starting pitcher Jhoulys Chacin got placed on the 15-day DL with a back strain.

The Rockies will begin a three-game series tonight with the Atlanta Braves at home, and will follow that up with a four-game series on the road against the Diamondbacks starting Thursday.

Reason to be worried (as a Dodger fan): The Rockies offense ranks first in baseball with a .282 team batting average.

Reason to be optimistic (as a Dodger fan): This Rockies offense will eventually fall off a bit during the long season.

Biggest contributor: Troy Tulowitzki, hitting .328 with six home runs and a team-leading 17 RBIs.

Biggest disappointment: Jeff Francis, with a 1-1 record and 8.25 ERA in three starts.

Biggest surprise: Jhoulys Chacin, with a 3-0 record and 1.46 ERA in four starts.

San Francisco Giants (12-7)

The defending World Series champs are coming off a three-game sweep against the Padres. It was much-needed after the Giants got swept in a three game series against the Brewers.

They will be in the race for the long haul once again, with a legit starting five and timely hitting. The bullpen has been one of the brightest spots for this team, making it difficult to beat them if they have a lead after seven innings.

Believe it or not, Barry Zito has been their most reliable starter so far this season, posting a 3-1 record with a 3.42 ERA in four starts.

The Giants will start a three-game series tonight against the Diamondbacks at home, and then will begin a three-game series over the weekend with the Padres in San Diego.

Reason to be worried (as a Dodger fan): Matt Cain (7.15 ERA) and Ryan Vogelsong (5.89 ERA) will eventually come back to earth.

Reason to be optimistic (as a Dodger fan): The Giants’ offense ranks 24th in baseball with just 11 home runs this season, so they won’t usually beat you with the long ball. However, the Dodgers rank even lower than that with 10 home runs so far this season.

Biggest contributor: Pablo Sandoval, hitting .290 with three home runs and team leading 17 RBIs.

Biggest disappointment: Buster Posey, hitting .232 with one home run and eight RBIs.

Biggest surprise: Brandon Crawford, hitting .317 with three home runs and seven RBIs.

Arizona Diamondbacks (10-8)

The Diamondbacks have surprised some people to start the 2013 season. After trading away all-star Justin Upton in the offseason, they have taken on a new approach of grinding out wins.

They lost two of three games over the weekend in Colorado against the hot-hitting Rockies.

Their pitching staff currently ranks eighth in baseball with a 3.44 team ERA, while their offense ranks ninth in baseball with 84 runs scored through the first 18 games of this season.

Without Upton, the Diamondbacks are finding ways to win and sit just three games out of the National League West division. However, they lost one of their key contributors last week due to an injury — starting second baseman Aaron Hill, who got placed on the 15-day DL with a broken left hand.

They will start a three game series tonight in San Francisco, and then will return home to play four games against the Rockies starting on Thursday.

Reason to be worried (as a Dodger fan): The Diamondbacks will be one of those teams that stick around for most of the season and will try to knock you out of playoff contention.

Reason to be optimistic (as a Dodger fan): The Diamondbacks don’t have that one player in their lineup that strikes fear into the opponent.

Biggest contributor: Paul Goldschmidt, hitting .329 with three home runs and a team-leading 13 RBIs.

Biggest disappointment: Brandon McCarthy, with an 0-2 record and a 7.06 ERA in four starts.

Biggest surprise: Gerardo Parra, hitting .289 with one home run and three RBIs.

San Diego Padres (5-13)

Every Dodger fan is now forever rooting against the Padres for obvious reasons, and the team sits in last place in the division. The Padres got swept over the weekend in San Francisco and haven’t had too many bright spots so far this season. Their 4.49 team ERA ranks them in the bottom half of baseball and they have allowed the fourth-most home runs in baseball with 23 this season.

Surprisingly, the Padres’ success this season has come against the Dodgers.

The Padres will begin a six-game home stand tonight with three games against the Brewers, and then three games against the Giants over the weekend.

Reason to be worried (as a Dodger fan): Four of the Padres five wins this season have come against the Dodgers.

Reason to be optimistic (as a Dodger fan): The Padres don’t have the fire power to compete with a healthy Dodgers team.

Biggest contributor: Yonder Alonso, hitting .262 with two home runs and team leading eight RBIs.

Biggest disappointment: Carlos Quentin, hitting .174 with no home runs and three RBIs. (Public Enemy No. 1)

Biggest surprise: Nick Hundley, hitting .320 with one home run and five RBIs.

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The Dodgers may be getting glimpse of real Luis Cruz

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Manager Don Mattingly figured 78 games was a big enough sample size to give Luis Cruz the third base job headed into the 2013 season, without looking at the bigger picture.

The Los Angeles Dodgers are struggling through the early stages of the 2013 season, as they currently sit at .500 (7-7) and in fourth place in the competitive National League West division.

All-Star Matt Kemp has been at the forefront of the teams’ early struggles, hitting just .185 with four RBIs, no home runs, and 17 strikeouts in 54 at-bats. It’s hard to imagine that Kemp stays in this slump for an extended period of time based off of his track record in the big leagues.

The real issue for the Dodgers could be with their everyday third baseman, Luis Cruz. Dodger fans fell in love with Cruz during the 2012 season, when he finally got the opportunity to play in Los Angeles, after numerous injuries occurred on the big league club. Cruz took full advantage of that rare opportunity and never looked back. He started 48 games at third base, 23 games at shortstop, two games at second base and played in 78 games overall.

In those 78 games, Cruz got 283 at bats and finished the season hitting .297 with six home runs, 34 RBIs and a .431 slugging percentage.

The bigger picture is that Cruz might not be an everyday player at the big league level, especially if you look back at his track record. The 29-year-old only had 56 major league games under his belt before last season, which should be a red flag right there. Most everyday players in the big leagues don’t usually play 10-plus years of minor league ball before earning that label.

Before last season, Cruz had just 154 major league at bats in his career and never got more than 70 at bats in a season.

Now, 36 at-bats into Cruz’s 2013 campaign, he is hitting just .103. This should be a concern for the Dodgers going forward because they’ve been playing musical chairs on the right side of the infield with Hanley Ramirez on the DL and Juan Uribe, Nick Punto and Jerry Hairston Jr. getting opportunities off of the bench.

Cruz’s track record doesn’t show the consistency of your ideal everyday player, so if he doesn’t come out of this slump than this might actually be who he really is. He has shown his pop to the left and right center gaps, while flashing the leather at multiple infield positions, so Cruz might not be consistent enough as an everyday player in the major leagues, but he could still be a valuable asset off of the Dodgers bench.

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Andre Ethier Finding His Way against Lefties

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The reoccurring issue with Andre Ethier over the past few seasons has been his inability to hit left-handed pitching. It’s an issue that has put the Dodgers in frustrating situations when opposing teams happily bring in a left-hander out of the bullpen to put away Ethier in key moments late in a game.

Over the past three seasons, Ethier is hitting just .225 against lefties, with a .276 on base percentage and a .324 slugging percentage.

Those aren’t the type of numbers that the Dodgers have in my mind for their starting right fielder, who is due $13 million dollars this season.

The Dodgers are just four games into the 2013 season, but Ethier’s early success against lefties has been a bright spot so far.

It started on Tuesday night, when San Francisco Giants left-hander Madison Bumgarner was shutting down the Dodgers offense at a rapid pace for eight shutout innings.

The Dodgers came out of the 3-0 loss with just two hits off of Bumgarner. However, Ethier had one of those two hits, when he doubled in the bottom of the second off of the 23-year-old. He ended up striking out in his last two at bats against the lefty, but that double down the right field line was a good sign.

On the very next night, Ethier continued to show signs of improvement.

The Giants decided to bring their lefty specialist Javier Lopez into the game to face Adrian Gonzalez in bottom of the sixth, and a strikeout was the end result. Lopez’s night would usually be over after that, but manager Bruce Bochy kept his guy in the game, daring Ethier to get a hit against the lefty specialist.

Once again, Ethier roped a double down the right field line, forcing Bochy to use another arm out of his bullpen.

Last night, Ethier was at it again.

Jonathan Sanchez of the Pirates was on the mound, and it didn’t take Ethier long to keep this early success against lefties going.

In the bottom of the second, Ethier sent a high fastball by Sanchez into the right field pavilion for a solo home run and his first long ball of the 2013 season.

The Dodgers need Ethier in the lineup every day and if he can hit left-handed pitching consistently that’s where he’ll be.

All of the talk of minor league super-prospect Yasiel Puig getting his shot this season with the Dodgers relies on Ethier’s ability to hit left-handers, and right now he’s getting the job done. It’s a pretty small sample size to get excited about, but this early success could be a sign of good things to come.

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NL West Rundown: Who will push the Dodgers this year?

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Opening day is here. Considered by many as just another day on the calendar, it’s far from it around the baseball world.

All 30 MLB teams, 750 players and thousands of fans of their respective teams are never more optimistic than today, with the same goal of playing deep into October and winning the World Series.

The National League West division of course has more than a few storylines entering this season.

It’s a division headlined by the defending world champion San Francisco Giants and one of wealthiest teams in sports history, the Los Angeles Dodgers.

The Giants and Dodgers should be the two ball clubs battling it out at the top of the division for most of the 2013 season, while the other three teams try to stay competitive and in striking distance during the dog days of summer.

San Francisco Giants
The defending World Series champs are basically going to battle with the same team as last season. After an offseason that included resigning Marco Scutaro, Angel Pagan and giving 2012 National League MVP Buster Posey a nine-year/$167 million contract extension.

The Giants success over the last few seasons has been because of their starting rotation, and that won’t be any different going into this season either.

Matt Cain, Madison Bumgarner and Ryan Vogelsong will hold down the front end of the rotation once again, with former Cy Young Award winners Barry Zito and Tim Lincecum at the back end.

For whatever reason this team will probably be overlooked entering the 2013 season, but after winning two World Series Championships in the last three years overlooking this team again would be a travesty.

Reason to be worried (as a Dodger fan): They won the 2012 World Series and nearly everyone from that team is returning in 2013. Do I really need to say anymore?

Reason to be optimistic (as a Dodger fan): It’s tough to say if the Giants are improved going into the 2013 season, while the Dodgers offseason moves make them a lot better than last year on paper.

2012 Biggest contributor: Buster Posey, .336 BA, 24 HRs, 103 RBIs.

2012 Biggest disappointment: Tim Lincecum, 10-15, 5.18 ERA, 186.0 innings pitched.

2012 Biggest surprise: Marco Scutaro, .362 BA, 61 games, 44 RBIs.

Arizona Diamondbacks
The 2013 Diamondbacks look a lot different from last year’s team that finished exactly at .500 (81-81). They decided to trade away 2011 Silver Slugger Award winner Justin Upton to the Atlanta Braves for Martin Prado and a couple of prospects. The trade was reportedly made to change the clubhouse mentality of the Diamondbacks, where manager Kirk Gibson wants to win with hard-nosed ball players that he can relate to.

They also traded away last years starting center fielder Chris Young to the Oakland A’s for new starting shortstop Cliff Pennington.

Arizona still made a few moves this offseason that could keep them in the division race this season. They signed veteran third baseman Eric Chavez, veteran right-hander Brandon McCarthy, outfielder Cody Ross and traded for veteran reliever Heath Bell.

Despite an injury that will keep him out for the first couple of weeks to start the season, Arizona fans should be excited about their new center fielder, Adam Eaton. Even after losing a player of Upton’s caliber, it wouldn’t be a surprise if the 2013 version of the Diamondbacks sneaks up on teams and makes some noise in the NL West.

Reason to be worried (as a Dodger fan): The new-look Diamondbacks could be a lot better than people think, especially with this new group of hard-nosed ball players.

Reason to be optimistic (as a Dodger fan): The Dodgers can match up with this team from position-to-position on paper, but first need to put it all together on the diamond.

2012 Biggest contributor: Miguel Montero, .286 BA, 15 HRs, 88 RBIs.

2012 Biggest disappointment: Justin Upton, .280, 17 HRs, 67 RBIs.

2012 Biggest surprise: Wade Miley, 16-11, 3.33 ERA, 194-2/3 innings pitched.

Colorado Rockies
The Rockies were one of the most disappointing teams in baseball last season due to numerous injuries and one of the worst pitching rotations in baseball history. They ended last season with a four-man starting rotation and a league-worst 5.22 team ERA.

In 2012, Rockies starters went a combined 29-68 with an atrocious 5.81 ERA. That was only one of the problems, though. It didn’t help that one of the game’s top players, shortstop Troy Tulowitzki, was injured for most of the season.

Colorado looks to completely turn the page on last season’s disaster, hiring first-year manager Walt Weiss to run the show.

It definitely doesn’t lack star power, with Tulowitzki, Carlos Gonzalez and a veteran Todd Helton featured in the middle of its lineup.

If the Rockies can fix up that pitching staff from last season, meaning fix up by leaps and bounds, then this Rockies team could be a threat in the NL West.

Reason to be worried (as a Dodger fan): A healthy Rockies lineup could give any team a headache.

Reason to be optimistic (as a Dodger fan): If the pitching staff is anything close to what it was last season then the 2013 Dodgers lineup will be feasting every time they take on Colorado, especially at Coors Field.

2012 Biggest contributor: Carlos Gonzalez, .303 BA, 22 HRs, 85 RBIs.

2012 Biggest disappointment: Todd Helton, .238 BA, seven HRs, 37 RBIs.
(It would have been an understatement to put the entire pitching staff right here.)

2012 Biggest surprise: Tyler Colvin, .290 BA, 18 HRs, 72 RBIs.

San Diego Padres
The Padres have new ownership entering this season. However, that’s probably not going to help them on the field right away. They finished in fourth place in the NL West with a 76-86 record last season, despite playing much better after the all-star break.

The one bright spot was Gold Glove winning third baseman Chase Headley, who hit .286 with 31 home runs and led the National League with 115 runs batted in.

Unfortunately, Headley will start the 2013 season on the disabled list after fracturing his thumb in a spring training game. The Padres will also be without starting catcher Yasmani Grandal to start the season because of a suspension for the first 50 games for testing positive for testosterone.

From the looks of it, it’s going to be an uphill climb for the Padres in the NL West in 2013.

Reason to be worried (as a Dodger fan): Injuries can happen to any team at any time, so the Dodgers just need to worry about staying healthy.

Reason to be optimistic (as a Dodger fan): Once again, the Dodgers could match up with almost every position with this team on paper, but you don’t win games on paper.

2012 Biggest contributor: Chase Headley, .286 BA, 31 HRs, 115 RBIs.

2012 Biggest disappointment: Cameron Maybin, .243 BA, eight HRs, 45 RBIs.

2012 Biggest surprise: Huston Street, 2-1, 1.85 ERA, 23 saves, 39.0 innings pitched.

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