20 Questions For The NL West (www.mlb.com)

We come to you bearing excellent news. Even though it is still freezing outside, the baseball season is close — closer than you think — and we can prove it. Our season preview series, division by division every week, has already begun, and when we are done, the season will be here. That’s soon.

Last week, we looked at the

. Today, we tackle the National League West. Our previews will look at four pressing questions for each club heading into the 2021 season. At the end, we’ll make some actual predictions on the final standings — predictions that are unassailable and so obviously ironclad that we’re a little worried you won’t even bother to watch the actual games once we read them. We are willing to assume such a risk.

Let’s take a team-by-team look at the biggest questions in the NL West this season. Teams are listed in alphabetical order here, and my predictions are at the bottom.

This is one of the biggest questions in all of baseball, regardless of how invested you are in Arizona’s success. Madison Bumgarner is one of the greatest baseball postseason heroes of the past 50 years, and he was clearly brought in to push the D-backs over the top. Instead, he fell apart — he had a 6.48 ERA last year! Madison Bumgarner! — losing velocity and giving up homers at a terrifying rate, and the team imploded around him. Now he has four more years left on his deal for a team that doesn’t seem to know what it’s going to be in one year, let alone four. This has been as rough a start for both parties as could have been fathomed by anybody. There’s nowhere to go but up.

2. Who’s the real Marte?

One of the reasons the D-backs were so hopeful heading into 2020 was that it looked like Ketel Marte had blossomed into a superstar. He was fourth in the NL MVP vote in 2019, and that might have even sold him short; he has to be the first guy to transfer his triples into homers. But 2020 was as disappointing to him (.732 OPS) as it was for the rest of the team, and he actually had a worse year than he did when he played for Seattle and was thought of as a slap-hitting utility infielder five years ago. He’s heading back to center field after the signing of Asdrúbal Cabrera, but he has a long way back to be the young MVP candidate the D-backs thought they would build around.

3. What did the offseason quiet indicate?

It is to the credit of D-backs brass that it realized, quickly, that 2020 was going to be difficult and pivoted, trading away Starling Marte, Robbie Ray, Archie Bradley and Andrew Chafin for young players. But the club stayed put after that, with Cabrera and Joakim Soria as the only additions to a roster that finished last in 2020. Does that mean they’re treading water? Ready to ramp up again in a year? Waiting on Bumgarner? It’s a little unclear what the D-backs’ plan is for 2021, which leads to …

4. What is the plan here, exactly?

As we’ve mentioned, this is an absolutely brutal division to be in right now. You’ve got to have a clear plan, one way or the other. But what’s the D-backs’ clear plan? They’re not even close to the Dodgers or Padres; they’re probably behind the Giants and maybe (though probably not) even the Rockies. And while there’s some hope in the farm system, the climb here is insanely steep. This also isn’t a young team. The D-backs, after surprising in 2019 and loading up for a ’20 that fell apart, are stuck without a clear plan in both the short and long term. And that is an extremely dangerous place to be in the NL West.

1. Who even fits in the rotation?

The Dodgers have long valued the notion of having as many pitchers available to cobble together all the innings required of the long slog of a season, even sometimes getting chided for bending the rules a bit to pull it off. It’s just smart, basic team management: You can never have enough pitching. But still: This is ridiculous. The Dodgers’ rotation, with the addition of Trevor Bauer, has three Cy Young Award winners in it (Bauer, Clayton Kershaw and David Price), and you can argue that none of them are the actual ace. All seven Dodgers starters would be in the top three in any other rotation in baseball, no? Kershaw, Bauer, Walker Buehler, Julio Urías, Price, Dustin May, Tony Gonsolin … yeah, there are a lot of aces there. How do they keep everybody fed? Put it this way: If it is physically possible to have too much starting pitching, the Dodgers have done it.

Just two years ago, Gavin Lux was MLB Pipeline’s No. 2 prospect in all of baseball. That ranking would make most franchises build their entire future around the guy; Adley Rutschman is currently at that spot for the Orioles, and that fanbase is already debating how his statue outside Camden Yards is going to look. But Lux seems to have been … forgotten? Some beat writers aren’t even sure he’ll make the Opening Day roster, and with Justin Turner back, there’s no obvious spot for him. Lux is already 23 years old, and he hasn’t shown much of anything in the Majors so far. And with the Dodgers as good and deep as they are, he won’t get a shot to just stay in the lineup and work through his struggles. This is the most Dodgers thing ever: a No. 2 prospect in all of baseball that they just can’t seem to find a place for.

So Kershaw, at last, got his World Series ring, putting that last line on his eventual Hall of Fame plaque. (Which is a weird thing to be talking about for a guy who’s only 32.) But he is still a free agent after this season, and as you may have just read, the Dodgers have a lot of rotation depth. Could he really leave? He certainly sounds willing, and Los Angeles certainly has replacements. But are the Dodgers really the Dodgers if they wave goodbye to Kershaw? Clayton Kershaw? How he does in 2021 after a resurgent ’20 could go a long way to answering that question.

4. Can this be an all-timer?

Had last year’s Dodgers played the full season at the pace they played the shortened 60-game season, they would have won 116 games, which would have tied the 2001 Mariners and the 1906 Cubs for the most wins in baseball history. Well, now they have essentially that same team back, except they added the defending NL Cy Young Award winner. That’s to say that everything is set up for the Dodgers to have an absolutely historic season. They’re deep everywhere, they have superstars just about at every position and they have a smart, well-funded front office that will do whatever it takes to improve the team. They’ve won the World Series, finally. Now, are they shooting for something even bigger?

1. What will they get from Buster?

It has been so long since Buster Posey, who elected not to play last season due to the pandemic, has played that it might be instructive to go back and look at his production the last time we saw him. It wasn’t great. Posey had the worst season of his career in 2019, hitting just .257 with little power. Posey is a legend in San Francisco, for good reason, but this is a different regime with different priorities, including a top catching prospect in Joey Bart who should be ready to go soon. Assuming the Giants don’t pick up Posey’s option for next year, this could be Posey’s last year in San Francisco. You’d like to see him go out in vintage fashion … particularly for a guy who might still have a bit of a Hall of Fame case to make.

2. Is this the oldest rebuilding team ever?

Giants president Farhan Zaidi has been impressively resistant to the tear-it-down strategy many of his fellow whiz-kid front-office sorts have embraced in recent years, and it has resulted in Giants teams that are a little better, and a little more exciting, than you might think. But then you take a step back from it, and you notice: Wow, this team is old. The team’s Opening Day roster may have 10 different hitters over the age of 30 on it, and the rotation is 80% thirtysomething. That can give you veteran presence and that experience can help, but how are you competing with the young turks of Los Angeles and San Diego with these guys? Where’s the room to grow?

3. Is there enough in the rotation?

Anthony DeSclafani and Alex Wood are handy little additions to the rotation, innings-eaters with (this word again) experience. And Kevin Gausman might not be an ace, but you can squint a little and pretend he is. But the rotation feels much like the rest of the Giants: sturdy, but not particularly inspiring and with a foundation that might be a little wobbly. It’s not clear this is a rotation that will get you anywhere other than .500.

4. Is there a path for them this year? Next year? Ever?

The Giants were this close to a playoff berth last season, and that would have been a legitimate feather in the cap of a leadership team that’s just getting started. But without the expanded playoffs, and the two monsters above them in this division, what are the odds they pull one off this year? Or next year? The Giants seem like a .500 team in the exact wrong division for such a thing. They could maybe fool around and win the NL Central. Here? You don’t get a playoff berth for being a ton better than Colorado and Arizona. But that might be all San Francisco is this year.

This is certainly a nice problem to have after they ran out of starters in the postseason, perhaps spurring them to make their big push on starters this offseason. But for a team that clearly is acting like it expects to have some postseason games to play, it’s worth asking who is the ace of this staff. Blake Snell? Yu Darvish? Dinelson Lamet? MacKenzie Gore? This might not be an academic question. There’s a real possibility — maybe even a likelihood — that the Padres could be the second-best team in baseball this year and still have their season come down to one single Wild Card Game. The postseason taught the Padres they needed an ace. So who is it?

2. Is Pham available and productive?

Tommy Pham was a smart, stealth addition a couple of years ago. He has always been underappreciated, and when he’s healthy, he’s an impact player. But he wasn’t right in 2020 (.624 OPS in 125 plate appearances), which was particularly painful because everything else in San Diego was right. If the Padres are going to improve on last year, which they’ll need to do to even compete with the Dodgers, Pham can be the player who takes a big jump forward. It might be tough, though. Surprisingly enough, Pham, who still feels like he’s just getting started, is the oldest player in this lineup. He turns 33 in March.

3. Can Tatis make the leap over a full season?

For the first half of the 2020 season, Fernando Tatis Jr. looked like the runaway NL MVP. But it is worth remembering, before his postseason heroics came around, that he really struggled down the stretch, hitting only .208 with four homers in September. If he faded in a two-month season, will he fade in a six-month one? He’s still so young (turned 22 in January), which obviously gives him room to grow … but it also gives him room to wear down. The Padres don’t seem particularly concerned about that, though, agreeing to a 14-year, $340 million deal with their star on Wednesday night, according to sources. Tatis Jr. is the most exciting player in baseball. But he is not yet the best.

4. Are they just in the wrong division?

There’s no division in baseball that the Padres wouldn’t be favored to win but this one, right? Heck, they’d win the AL West by 10 games. Unfortunately for them, they’re in the NL West, with the ridiculously stacked Dodgers, which means they could win 105 games and still end up facing, say, Jacob deGrom in the NL Wild Card Game. It is to the Padres’ eternal credit that they have been eager and willing to go after the Dodgers juggernaut, and it has resulted with one of the best teams in baseball. But it still might not be as good as the Dodgers. This might be the most exciting Padres team ever. And it still is likely going to end up in second place.

1. What to do with Story?

Maybe the better question is: How do you convince Trevor Story to stay? The All-Star shortstop is a free agent after the season, and if Rockies brass is wanting to give him the money they just saved after trading Nolan Arenado, well, Story does end up having to say something about that. Story, quite reasonably, might not trust the Rockies to build a contender around him — they sure aren’t doing so this year — and the best move for everyone might be to trade him. But if they do that … well, Rockies fans are upset enough already.

2. Can McMahon step forward?

Remember when Ryan McMahon was the ultimate fantasy sleeper? After his 2019 season, when he hit 24 homers, he looked like he was about to be that stealth guy who wins you your league by being the secret hitter at Coors Field no one else knows about. But he was mediocre last year (.714 OPS), never getting it going and rarely looking like much of a big league hitter at all. And now, well, now he gets to take over for franchise legend Arenado at third base. That’s a tough act to follow.

3. Can the pitching carry them?

When the Rockies have had success, no matter what their lineup has looked like, it has been because of their pitching staff. And their staff this year does feature many guys who have had success at Coors Field, albeit not at the same time. It’s always a crapshoot for the Rockies, but stranger things have happened than Jon Gray, Germán Márquez, Kyle Freeland and Antonio Senzatela being at least league average, all at once. Now, the bullpen is likely a problem, and we’ve all seen how things can go sideways fast for Coors pitchers, but there is talent here. Probably not enough of it, but there is some.

4. How do you pick up the pieces?

Let’s face it: Rockies fans are in a pretty dark place right now. It’s difficult to blame them. But this is still a beautiful place to play baseball, with a dedicated fanbase, and this team has some talent, at least on the mound. The real question is when Rockies fans, in the wake of the Arenado trade, feel comfortable believing in their team again. Even some modest success would go a long way toward that this year. But it’s going to be an uphill climb just to get out of last. And if they finish last, and then lose Story, the year after losing Arenado … well, what is there, exactly, to root for after that?

One man’s prediction (subject to roster changes):

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