BY J.A. SCHWARTZ
The Dodgers had the best record in the Majors last season but only played four games in October after getting knocked off by San Diego in the opening round of the playoffs. Change is in the air in the NL West as the two Southern California rivals are expected to stand head and shoulders above the rest of their divisional opponents in 2023.
This is the last of six division previews in the lead-up to opening day on Thursday March 30th
San Diego Padres
Petco Park in San Diego is adorned with three statues, immortalizing arguably the best hitter, pitcher and broadcaster in Padres history: Tony Gwynn, Trevor Hoffman and Jerry Coleman respectively. If the current fan base were to have their say, there will soon be a fourth: owner and chairman of the franchise Peter Seidler. Since taking over in November of 2020, Seidler has overseen a massive investment in the product on the field. In the truncated 2020 campaign, the San Diego total payroll (as calculated for luxury tax accounting purposes) was 15th in baseball, at $169 million. As they enter the 2023 season, the Padres payroll estimate is at $275 million, in the top 3 in baseball, sharing the company of the Yankees and Mets as the biggest spenders in the sport. This offseason alone, Seidler gave GM AJ Preller free reign to improve a roster that made the NLCS in 2022, and they’ve added Xander Bogaerts, Michael Wacha, Matt Carpenter and Nelson Cruz to their strong core. The Padres have five players with at least $100 million in future guarantees, and seven who will make at least $14 million in 2023 alone. There are a total of nine low budget teams with a total of six such players combined on their rosters entering the 2023 campaign. The fans know that ownership will invest in the team, and that they are hell-bent on bringing the city its first championship by adding (and paying to keep) the very best players in the game. For the first time in their history, the club capped season ticket sales after 19,000 packages were sold by January. Fernando Tatis Jr. missed all of last season with injuries and a PED suspension, and he is targeting April 20th to return to a lineup that will already feature Manny Machado, Xander Bogaerts and Juan Soto. The Padres finally slew the dragon to the north by ousting the hated Dodgers in the NLDS last year, and they aspire to wrest the division title from them in 2023 en route to what they hope is the first World Series title in franchise history.
Los Angeles Dodgers
Los Angeles won the NL West in 2022 for the ninth time in 10 years. The franchise won 111 games, easily the best record in the game. Since 2010, the Dodgers have won 34 more games than any other franchise, easily eclipsing the Yankees who are a distant second. Los Angeles has led the National League in both runs scored and fewest runs allowed for five consecutive seasons (2018-2022), a streak of dominance that has never happened in the history of the sport. Despite their unparalleled success, they’ve only earned a single World Series title in that period, during the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, and the the 2022 juggernauts were humbled by the Padres in the NLDS, losing to a team they’d beaten in nine straight series, having gone 23-5 in their last 28 matchups. None of that mattered in October, and Los Angeles fans spent the offseason watching as the roster was slowly disasembled, while the front office was uncharacteristically dormant. They did manage to retain franchise icon Clayton Kershaw, but his return hardly seemed to balance the mass exodus that included Trea Turner, Justin Turner, Clay Ballinger, Tyler Anderson, Craig Kimbrel, Joey Gallo and Andrew Heaney. JD Martinez and Noah Syndergaard did arrive via free agency, but their luxury tax budget has dropped from $293 last year to a projected $245 this season. They still have stars Mookie Betts, Freddie Freeman and Will Smith, but with Gavin Lux out for the season with a torn ACL, the lineup isn’t nearly as formidable. For the first time in a decade, projection systems have someone other than Los Angeles atop the NL West (San Diego), though it will take more than computer simulations to end the dynastic run of dominance the Dodgers have unleashed on their foes in the National League.
San Francisco Giants
At various stages of the offseason, San Francisco was the center of the baseball world. In early December, numerous reports from well placed sources indicated that the Giants had signed Aaron Judge to a contract worth $360 million. 48 hours later, Judge would re-sign with the Yankees. A month later, the Giants agreed to a 13-year, $350 million dollar deal with Carlos Correa, but on the morning of the press conference to introduce him, team executives cancelled the gathering. Within hours, reports surfaced that the Giants medical team had issues with Correa’s physical. 48 hours later, Correa had signed with the Mets instead, though his wild offseason journey would ultimately take another turn, leading him back to the Twins. Having lost out on two superstar free agent acquisitions, San Francisco’s offseason looked bleak. The team watched ace Carlos Rodon join Judge in New York, and long time club veterans Brandon Belt (Toronto) and Evan Longoria (Arizona) also departed. The franchise did add outfielders Mitch Haniger and Michael Conforto, and will pair free agent lefty Taylor Rogers with his twin brother, righty Tyler in the Giants pen. Starters Sean Manaea and Ross Stripling will work to replace Rodon’s brilliance, but San Francisco, which set a franchise record with 107 wins in 2021, dropped to 81 last year. In 2023, oddsmakers peg the Giants as a third place team, with a range of 81-86 wins depending on the source. Three months ago, team executives likely envisioned a very different offseason outcome than the reality that exists mere days from the start of the 2023 season.
Things are looking up in the desert. The Diamondbacks last made the playoffs in 2017, but have not finished better than fourth in the division over the past three seasons. The strength of the team is in their young talent, most of which has already reached the majors or will by midseason 2023. Baseball America ranks their farm system as the best in the National League, and second only to Baltimore in the Majors. Arizona has five of the top 26 players on that website’s ranking of prospects, and four of those players (#2 overall Corbin Carroll, #12 Gabriel Moreno, #13 Jordan Lawlor, and #26 Brandon Pfaadt) all project to make an impact in the big leagues this season. The Snakes outfield of Carroll, Alek Thomas and Jake McCarthy might be the most dynamic in the sport, and none are older than 25. By measured sprint speed, Carroll is the fastest player in the game (30.7 feet/second, according to Statcast), and his wheels might wreak havoc on the rest of the league. If ace Zac Gallen gets help from young starters Ryne Nelson, Drey Jameson and Pfaadt, Arizona may well improve dramatically on the 74 wins they achieved in 2022. With so much promising talent in their system, the Diamondbacks should be poised to strike very soon.
The Rockies were in the playoffs as recently as 2018, but they’ve been an afterthought in the division since then. After finishing last in 2022, the owners of the worst pitching staff in baseball (5.06 ERA) don’t figure to improve much in that area after adding only relievers Brad Hand, Pierce Johnson and journeyman Jose Urena as free agents. German Marquez and Kyle Freeland are the top two returning starters, neither of whom had an ERA better than 4.53 in 2022. Daniel Bard, 37, is the incumbent closer, and his 34 saves and 1.79 ERA were arguably the brightest aspect of the pitching staff last year. Colorado hopes to get a healthy season from Kris Bryant, who played only 42 games in his first year in Denver after signing a 7-year, $182 million dollar contract last offseason. Shortstop prospect Ezequiel Tovar debuted last season, and his defensive wizardry may well be worth the price of admission to Coors Field in 2023. Colorado is not likely to factor into the pennant race this season, and given the strength of the rest of the division, may struggle to climb out of the cellar anytime soon.
NL East: Atlanta
NL Central: St. Louis
NL West: San Diego
Wild Cards: New York, Los Angeles, Philadelphia
NL Pennant: San Diego over Atlanta
World Series: San Diego over Seattle.