The Los Angeles Dodgers had no problem locking up the National League West once everything clicked in 2013.
The Dodgers rode a major hot streak, won the NL West by 11 games and looked like World Series contenders last season until the St. Louis Cardinals knocked them off in the NLCS. The big question this season is whether the Dodgers can take the next step, although Don Mattingly’s bunch first will need to take care of business in its division.
The NL West wasn’t anything special last season, outside of L.A. The second-place Arizona Diamondbacks finished with a .500 record but really weren’t legitimate playoff threats. Everyone else stunk.
Will this season be different? Will we have an actual race out West? Let’s tackle those topics and more.
Los Angeles Dodgers
Strengths: The Dodgers are strong in all areas. They’ve got a dynamic offense and a potentially lights-out pitching staff headlined by the best pitcher on the planet (Clayton Kershaw).
The rotation — featuring a Big Three of Kershaw, Zack Greinke and Hyun-Jin Ryu — perhaps is the scariest aspect of the star-studded Dodgers, but Yasiel Puig and Co. are more than capable of shouldering the load when the pitching isn’t there.
Don’t sleep on the bullpen. It was one of the biggest keys to the Dodgers’ turnaround last season, and it’s primed for success again this season with several late-inning arms working alongside closer Kenley Jansen.
Weaknesses: Break out the magnifying glass.
If anything, the back end of the rotation could become an issue.
Mattingly will need to do some outfield finagling if Puig, Carl Crawford, Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier all are healthy, but that’s a good problem to have.
Projected finish: 99-63, first place
San Francisco Giants
Strengths: The Giants have a strong rotation that got stronger when San Francisco signed veteran Tim Hudson to a two-year contract.
The unit — comprised of Matt Cain, Madison Bumgarner, Tim Lincecum, Ryan Vogelsong and Hudson — should be among the National League’s best, although last year proved things can fall apart at the seams rather quickly.
There’s reason to be encouraged about the offense, too. Slimmed-down Pablo Sandoval is entering a contract year, and Brandon Belt looks primed for another year of improvement.
Weaknesses: The Giants’ bullpen will be the team’s Achilles’ heel.
Closer Sergio Romo has shown regression, and there are questions beyond him. FanGraphs’ Jeff Sullivan over the offseason called the Giants’ bullpen the worst position on a contending team.
Projected finish: 85-77, second place
Strengths: The Diamondbacks’ lineup isn’t too shabby, especially with Mark Trumbo joining the fray. Trumbo won’t help in the on-base department, but he’ll provide power, which Arizona lacked last season.
The bullpen should improve with the addition of Addison Reed, and Bronson Arroyo should help eat innings, which the club desperately needs after losing Patrick Corbin to Tommy John surgery.
Weaknesses: The rotation took a huge hit when Corbin went down. There’s potential there, especially if stud prospect Archie Bradley joins the mix, but there are too many questions to feel overly confident about the unit.
Trumbo’s immense power comes with defensive shortcomings. There could be some adventures in the Diamondbacks’ outfield this season.
Projected finish: 79-83, third place
San Diego Padres
Strengths: The Padres have some interesting pieces that simply haven’t been able to stay on the field for one reason or another. Everth Cabrera (27), Yonder Alonso (26) and Yasmani Grandal (25) all are intriguing players.
Andrew Cashner has nasty stuff atop San Diego’s rotation. Josh Johnson is a wild card, although he’s already dealing with an injury.
Weaknesses: Injuries have been an issue, and that trend doesn’t appear to be changing. The Padres already are dealing with various ailments.
The Padres’ offense isn’t a sure bet. Chase Headley and Carlos Quentin need to be stable, middle-of-the-order presences while everyone stays on the field.
Projected finish: 76-86, fourth place
Strengths: The Rockies have a superb left side of the infield in Troy Tulowitzki and Nolan Arenado, plus one of baseball’s most dynamic outfielders in Carlos Gonzalez.
Colorado also has two excellent pitching prospects — Jonathan Gray and Eddie Butler — working their way through the system, even if neither reaches the majors in 2014.
Weaknesses: The rotation doesn’t really scare anyone, except maybe fans double-fisting Coors out in the bleachers.
Jhoulys Chacin is dealing with a shoulder issue. Brett Anderson is an accident waiting to happen.
Projected finish: 69-93, fifth place
The Dodgers shouldn’t make any vacation plans for October. They’ll steamroll everyone in the NL West en route to another division title.
Editor’s note: NESN.com will preview each MLB division leading up to Opening Day. Below are the scheduled run dates for each preview.