Baseball season is almost upon us. Pitchers and catchers have already reported for many teams, and spring training is kicking off which means it is time for us to start taking a look at the upcoming season. Just like we did last year, every weekend leading up to the Major League’s Opening Day GameDaySportsBlog.com will be taking a look at each division, but instead of just looking at the 3 people that will be deciding the division race, we will look at each individual team’s X-Factors. We start off with the NL West, a division that has been a two-team race for nearly the past decade. As for whether or not that trend will continue, these 5 players are the best hope for each team trying to win the division.
Arizona Diamondbacks: Archie Bradley
Archie Bradley is the key to this team’s chance at breaking into the top two, and hopefully into the playoffs. The Diamondbacks finished top ten in runs, hits, and batting average last season, so where the major changes need to occur is in the pitching staff.
Bradley is coming off a season with a losing record and an ERA over 5, which is the 2nd straight such year. Control has been an issue for the former 7th overall draft pick. And now he is being considered a bust until he can prove that he can handle pitching in the Majors without being lit up every outing.
And if the man who has one of the highest strikeout rates in baseball (22.4%) could turn that arm talent into production not only would he shed the bust label, but he would help Zach Greinke and Robbie Ray turn around this rotation and this organization.
Colorado Rockies: Jeff Hoffman
The Rockies have been known for bad pitching ever since their inception in 1993. They have always had good hitting, all the way back to the days of Bichette, Walker, Gallaragas, and Castillo and now with the young bats of Story, Arenado, and Gonzales. But this year it is time for the Rockies to have both, and finally getting a solid 5th pitcher in the rotation will help make that happen.
This year that potential pitcher is Jeff Hoffman, the former 9th overall pick by the Blue Jays. Last year was a struggle for Hoffman who went 0-4 in the 8 games he took the mound in. Still, the 6’5” righty is only 23 and he is sure to improve on his rookie season, especially considering it doesn’t get too much worse than going winless. He gave up too many home runs last season, leading the team in HR/9 but he improved at that, not giving up a single bomb in his last 3 appearances. And he did flash signs of the arm talent that made him such a high draft pick and the centerpiece for the trade that sent Troy Tulowitzki to Toronto.
The good thing for the Rockies is that they do have options behind Hoffman if he doesn’t step up. The problem is German Marquez and Kyle Freeland are both young as well, making them as options not much more reliable than Hoffman. But if Hoffman is able to go from 0-4 to say a 12 win season the Rockies might just be able to close some of the 16-game gap between them and the Dodgers, especially now that the Rockies have made some offseason moves.
Los Angeles Dodgers: Hyun-Jin Ryu
The Dodgers are both a team with the talent to make a run at dethroning the Cubs atop Baseball’s best, and also a team who could miss the playoffs and not do so surprisingly. What that all comes down to is the health of their pitching staff. Last season the Dodgers had 13 different pitchers start at least 3 games on the hill. And of their pitchers, a proven solid starter for the Los Angeles franchise, Hyun-Jin Ryu, only started one game.
Before last season Ryu averaged 28 starts per season for the Dodgers, but last year he was massively limited due to injury which forced the Dodgers to start less effective pitchers like Alex Wood (1-4), Brandon McCarthy (2-3), and Mike Bolsinger (1-4). Heading into 2016 Ryu averaged 14 wins and only 7 losses, and getting the South Korean pitcher back this season could allow the Dodgers not to start such mediocre replacements, and instead go with a proven winner. It could also allow manager Dave Roberts (should have won MOY) to move righty Ross Stripling to the bullpen full-time in favor of a more established starter.
If Ryu can lock up the 4 or 5 spot in the rotation along with future Hall of Famer Clayton Kershaw, fellow lefty’s Scott Kazmir and Julio Urias, and 16 game winner Kenta Maeda, the Dodgers could be serious contenders for much more than a repeat of winning the NL West.
San Diego Padres: Hunter Renfroe
The 2016 Padres posted yet another disappointing season on the field. No team outside of Minnesota had more losses than the Pads last season, and their ass-backward front-office has given manager Andy Green absolutely nothing to work with. However the silver-lining to having a terrible major league roster is that the organization gets to see what they have in their younger players. And one of those younger players is Hunter Renfroe.
The 25-year old outfielder has only played in 11 Major League games so far, making him a true X-Factor for the Padres. But what he did in those 11 games gave San Diego some hope that their mediocrity could be coming to an end. Renfroe hit .371 and nearly a quarter of his hits were dingers. And although that is from an extremely small sample size, there is not much more the Padres could have asked of the outfielder in his short tenure so far.
If Renfroe can continue his play even close to the level that he was at, then the Padres could have a somewhat exciting lineup full of young talented players. Now all they need is 5 starting pitchers, a bullpen, and a shortstop (we miss you Khalil Greene).
San Francisco Giants: Joe Panik
Last season the Giants made the playoffs, but it wasn’t because of their batting. They finished middle of the pack in average, runs, and OPS. And a lot of the struggles of the Giants’ lineup was due to second baseman Joe Panik. In his first two seasons in the Majors Panik hit .309, but in 2016 he was far from great.
Last season Panik hit a poultry .239 and had a lower on-base percentage and slugging percentage too. He went from an all-star second baseman to one of the worst offensive players not suiting up for the Padres. But that could change.
Joe Panik was doing better than that .239 average before his injury half way through the season, and his strikeout rate was the best in the Majors last year. Also, the Giants second baseman was one of only two players last season with more walks than strikeouts. And his 6 hits in 10 at-bats during the NLDS shows that Panik might be on track to get back to his 2015-self.
And if he does get back to hitting the ball like he is capable of, then the Giants have the kind of talent throughout their roster to compete not just for the NL West, but for the World Series Crown.