What sorts of surprises does the division that's home to the surprise world champs and the equally surprising Padres hold for us this time around?
San Francisco Giants 90-72 (projected 2011 record)
Why They Might Win: A rotation everyone but the Phillies would envy is a place to start, with Madison Bumgarner's first full campaign sure to help, but this time around the hitters should provide even better offensive support, as the Giants should benefit from full seasons of Buster Posey, Pat Burrell, post-season hero Cody Ross, plus a recuperating Mark DeRosa and the anticipated in-season arrival of sweet-swinging rookie Brandon Belt. Add it up, and the Giants are projected to score 30 more runs.
Why They Might Not Win: Will Tim Lincecum's slow transition from pure power to purely overpowering continue to generate happy results? Losing fastball velocity is one thing, but what if the Freak finally breaks? The bullpen cast in front of Brian Wilson is experienced, but Sergio Romo might be the only one of the lot who can be relied on; the lineup is sort of the same way, in that there are reasons why Ross, Burrell, Andres Torres, and Aubrey Huff were available.
Player Who Could Surprise: The news is always concerned with the fickle ways of the panda, but is Pablo Sandoval ready to shake off last season's doldrums and deliver a campaign more like his rookie season? PECOTA may not know nuthin' about off-season conditioning programs (or why this year's program is supposed to have been more effective than last year’s), but it's still confident that the Kung-Fu Panda has bounce-back potential in his bat, forecasting a .298/.347/.467 season.
Player Who Could Disappoint: Huff was a down-ballot MVP choice after last year's huge comeback, but he's projected to go back to the adequacy from whence he came at .263/.338/.434—very pedestrian production for a first baseman.
Los Angeles Dodgers 87-75 (projected 2011 record)
Why They Might Win: Relatively quietly, the Dodgers assembled a rotation to contend with by re-upping Ted Lilly and Hiroki Kuroda and adding reliable innings-eater Jon Garland. Their bullpen is deeper, younger, and better than the Giants', which contributes to an initial projection for the league's best run prevention.
Why They Might Not Win: Just three teams in the league are projected to post lower OBPs than the Dodgers' .322. Signing or re-signing all that pitching left few dollars for the lineup, and most of those were invested in Juan Uribe—another low-OBP regular. If the Dodgers suffer yet another injury-plagued season from leadoff man Rafael Furcal, this bad situation could go cancerous overnight.
Player Who Could Surprise: Closer Jonathan Broxton had an awful season in 2010, protecting the leads he was handed just 78 percent of the time, but thank Joe Torre for some of that: after a 48-pitch blown ballgame against the Yankees on June 27, Broxton gave up almost two baserunners per inning and seven runs per nine for the remainder to the year. PECOTA is projecting a comeback with a 2.70 ERA, but we'll see how rookie skipper Don Mattingly handles his young closer's first setback.
Player Who Could Disappoint: Depending on how you look at it, Matt Kemp could, at least relative to expectations of superstardom, by slugging .449 and belting 21 homers. James Loney will, but that's because he'll continue to be one of the worst-hitting regulars at first base, projected to hit just .276/.340/.399.
Colorado Rockies 83-79 (projected 2011 record)
Why They Might Win: If they could find a way to keep from losing Troy Tulowitzki for long stretches, he might crank out an MVP-caliber season, joining Carlos Gonzalez to give the team two of the best all-around players on this or any diamond. Jhoulys Chacin could establish himself as the third man behind Ubaldo Jimenez and Jorge De La Rosa to form a power trio in the rotation.
Why They Might Not Win: In total, the lineup is still very much an artifice of altitude—the Rockies' road rates of .226/.303/.351 suggest that they were taking the humidor with them wherever they went. As a result, it's no wonder they won just 31 road games, a tally that bested only those of the last-place trio of Nats, Snakes, and Pirates. The staff doesn't have the depth to contend if Aaron Cook and Huston Street keep breaking down.
Player Who Could Surprise: Chris Iannetta is a trendy choice, because the job behind the plate really should be his for keeps. PECOTA is suitably optimistic, suggesting he can deliver a .255/.363/.473 season with 19 homers.
Player Who Could Disappoint: Dexter Fowler, because the long-delayed explosion folks have been anticipating from the center-field speedster might have to want another season. He's projected to hit just .277/.359/.427 spending half his season in Coors Field, while swiping 20 bags. That's decent enough work, but just that, and would go over better if it was accompanied by excellent fielding—sadly, Colin Wyers' new Fielding Runs suggest he's merely adequate.
San Diego Padres 80-82 (projected 2011 record)
Why They Might Win: Despite trading Adrian Gonzalez and losing a few veterans to free agency, they've been made over up the middle by adding Jason Bartlett, Orlando Hudson, and Cameron Maybin. Some of the other fundamentals that propelled last season's success are still in place: a talented young rotation fronted by Mat Latos, a deep pen to hand Heath Bell leads, and a multi-faceted outfield crew for Bud Black to deploy perfectly.
Why They Might Not Win: Brad Hawpe is no Adrian Gonzalez, and turning to him illustrates the problem—Black's mixing and matching and platooning has to work, because the lineup lacks an above-average regular at any position. Aaron Harang is more likely to bounce back and be the new Kevin Correia rather than a perfect replacement for Garland.
Player Who Could Surprise: Hawpe's climb down from Coors Field, plus the need to find at-bats for Jorge Cantu and Kyle Blanks, might lead to extremely low expectations for the former Rockie, but PECOTA's sanguine that he can slug in San Diego, projecting him to produce a team-leading .285 TAv, solidly average production for a first baseman.
Player Who Could Disappoint: If you think Chase Headley is due for a big age-27 breakout, Petco Park is here to swallow those ambitions. Projected to hit a merely nice .252/.330/.383 with a .261 True Average, he's reached the age where that top comp to Hank Blalock long since stopped being a compliment
Arizona Diamondbacks 74-88 (projected 2011 record)
Why They Might Win: Maybe Bud Selig orders a massive mid-season realignment and puts them in a division with the Pirates, Nationals, Astros, and Royals. C'mon, as long as they're talking about changing the playoffs, why settle for half-measures?
Why They Might Not Win: Winning 74 games will be a major moral victory for a team projected to give the Rockies a run for their mile-high money in leading the league in runs allowed with 830 to Colorado's 833. The pity is that tally is almost identical to last year's ugly 836 runs allowed. The Snakes might shed their skin and turn over the roster, but the wrong kind of consistency means they still wear the same old scales.
Player Who Could Surprise: Brandon Allen, if the decision to sign Russell Branyan pushes the big youngster out to left field, where he'll contend with Xavier Nady and Gerardo Parra. PECOTA projects him to deliver 24 homers as a regular if he gets the at-bats, and compared to Parra's punchlessness and the post-injury stall on Nady's career, that looks pretty tasty.
Player Who Could Disappoint: We've banged on the D'backs enough, so let's pay them a compliment by noting that it isn't everybody who could see his ERA double from one year to the next and be seen as a tremendous asset. If you missed Dan Hudson's 11-start cameo and 1.70 ERA as the payoff from last summer's Edwin Jackson dump, have no fear—PECOTA thinks he'll be able to deliver much of the same, delivering 8.5 K/9, a 3.80 ERA despite a tough park, and the staff's highest Breakout Rate (24 percent), an indicator of how likely he is to produce a season 20 percent better than his baseline performance.