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Giants still the NL West team to beat

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Ken Rosenthal

Ken Rosenthal has been the FOXSports.com's Senior MLB Writer since August 2005. He appears weekly on MLB on FOX, FOX Sports Radio and MLB Network. He's a member of the Baseball Writers Association of America. Follow him on Twitter.

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SCOTTSDALE, Ariz.

Someone ought to bottle spring-training optimism, market it as a performance-enhancing drug and peddle it to all of those in need of a stimulant.

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After a week in Arizona, I’m practically addicted.

In the NL West alone, the Los Angeles Dodgers are nominating shortstop Hanley Ramirez for Time’s “Man of the Year.” The Arizona Diamondbacks are celebrating their newfound chemistry by playing “Paintball.” And the San Francisco Giants are proceeding as if their vaunted starting pitchers possess bionic arms.

I love the Giants, I’m picking the Giants, but every one of their starters made 30 or more starts in 2012, then piled on even more innings in the postseason.

Care to guess the last time a team had all five starters make 30 starts in back-to-back seasons?

How about never, according to STATS LLC?

Granted, no team used a five-man rotation before the early 1970s, but you get the idea. And the problem for the Giants is that they are awfully thin behind the big five.

Right-hander Chris Heston, who led the Double-A Eastern League with a 2.24 ERA last season, probably is next in line. Veteran swingman Chad Gaudin also is in play, as is Scott Proctor, the oft-injured reliever who closed in Korea last season but has told the Giants he feels good enough to start. Lefty Eric Surkamp, who underwent Tommy John surgery last July, will not return until at least midseason.

In other words, Matty, Timmy and Co. had better stay healthy and pitch effectively. But other than that — and for the moment, it’s a minor quibble — what’s not to like about the defending World Series champions?

The Giants’ only offseason additions were reliever Sandy Rosario, whom they acquired on waivers, and outfielder Andres Torres, a player whom they had before. Still, complacency is about the last thing you’d expect from this group.

Right-hander Matt Cain, catcher Buster Posey and second baseman Marco Scutaro are as professional as they come. And a number of other Giants — notably right-hander Tim Lincecum, but even closer Sergio Romo — still feel as if they have something to prove.

We know the Giants can win, and their manager, Bruce Bochy, gives them yet another edge.

The Dodgers?

Many suspect that they will be baseball’s version of the Los Angeles Lakers, in which the whole will be considerably less than the sum of their parts. As one former Dodger puts it, “For $200-million plus, shouldn’t you have fewer questions?”

Fair point: Questions surround virtually every Dodgers regular, not to mention the back of the team’s rotation and its bullpen. For Dodgers haters who want to construct a worst-case scenario for the Boys in Blue, here is your red meat:

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• Center fielder Matt Kemp (shoulder) and left fielder Carl Crawford (elbow) are both coming off surgeries (though both took live batting practice against left-hander Clayton Kershaw early in camp, encouraging club officials. And Kemp, in particular, looks great.)

• Right fielder Andre Ethier can’t hit lefties, first baseman Adrian Gonzalez is coming off his worst season as a regular and second baseman Mark Ellis is a below-average offensive player.

• Third baseman Luis Cruz and to a lesser extent catcher A.J. Ellis could turn out to be one-year wonders offensively, and …

• Ramirez must prove that he can A) play shortstop; B) return to elite status offensively and C) be a good teammate and positive force on the club (so far, so good; Ramirez is frequently reporting for early work at short).

The Dodgers’ pitching? Remains to be seen.

The rotation behind Kershaw and Zack Greinke inspires little confidence and the bullpen looks a bit thin — though the Dodgers will choose from numerous options in relief, including some of their leftover starters.

Granted, all of that amounts to a decidedly half-empty view. The Dodgers possess so much talent, none of it might matter — particularly now that their star-studded cast, so hastily assembled in the second half of last season, is spending a full spring together.

So, where does all this leave the Diamondbacks, who essentially remade their roster in the offseason, purging right fielder Justin Upton, center fielder Chris Young and right-hander Trevor Bauer in favor of grittier veterans?

Probably in contention for at least a wild card.

I’m still not convinced the D-Backs’ improved chemistry will compensate for their loss of talent. But as the post-Upton era begins, the buoyant atmosphere around the club is palpable.

“It’s as good as I’ve seen, as far as guys that are willing to put their egos and personal issues aside and just come together,” said one of the newcomers, right fielder Cody Ross.

“It’s obviously early, but you can tell everyone is on the same page and not really fighting to be the leader, the face. We’re a team.”

Another newcomer, infielder Eric Chavez, was even more blunt, saying, “The first thing I told Gibby (manager Kirk Gibson) is that you’re not going to have any problems with this clubhouse — none.”

Yet, for all the talk of the veterans, two younger players — rookie center fielder Adam Eaton and first baseman Paul Goldschmidt — could transform the Diamondbacks’ offense.

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The D-backs dream about Eaton producing an on-base percentage of .370-.380 and stealing 40 to 50 bases in front of the new No. 2 hitter, Martin Prado. Goldschmidt hit 20 homers and produced an .850 OPS in his first full season — and in the words of one rival manager, could become “a monster.”

The best thing about Arizona, though, may be its pitching.

The rotation includes left-hander Wade Miley and righties Ian Kennedy, Trevor Cahill, Brandon McCarthy, backed up by a number of intriguing young options. Two of the D-Backs’ promising lefties, Tyler Skaggs and Patrick Corbin, already have left an impression on several of the new veteran hitters. And the bullpen, a strength last season, looks even better.

As for the rest of the division, I don’t see the San Diego Padres as a potential surprise, even though Bud Black, in the view of several rival GMs, might be the game’s most underrated manager. The Colorado Rockies should hit, but as usual, pitching will be a problem.

Then again, what do I know? Spring-training optimism is powerful stuff. Another few days in Arizona, and I might be ready to anoint the Tucson Toros of the independent Golden League as a legitimate threat.

Tagged: Dodgers, Mets, Giants, Diamondbacks, Chris Young, Hanley Ramirez, Matt Cain, Mark Ellis, Matt Kemp, Tim Lincecum, Ian Kennedy

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