Going for the Bronze: The other race in the NL West

Matt Kartozian-US PRESSWIRE

With the Giants and the Dodgers expected to fill the top two spots in the NL West this season, the most interesting race will be for third place. Which team is most likely to take away this inauspicious honor? Will the Rockies be able to compete or will they be playing the role of spoilers?

There are less than three weeks left until Opening Day. The status of each team is becoming a little clearer. Minor league players and NRIs are being cut from the rosters, while rising stars and surprise breakout performers hold on. Early spring struggles and injuries highlight the holes and weaknesses of each team.

The NL West title is largely expected to become a two-man race between the Giants and the Dodgers, though the Diamondbacks could become surprise contenders for the division. Arizona's team is solid all around and the front office provides clear vision and leadership. Chances are much greater, however, that they are merely the front runners for the other team in the NL West - the race for third place.

The Padres have far less of an argument for claiming the third spot. However, if they are able to build upon their success in the second half of 2012 and take advantage of strong offensive performances, especially from Chase Headley and Carlos Quentin, the race for third place could be the most interesting storyline out of the NL West this year.

The Rockies have little hope in this race, especially without upgrading their starting rotation However there are opportunities for the Rockies to capitalize upon the weaknesses of each of these teams.

Arizona Diamondbacks

As was covered here, the Diamondbacks made plenty of headlines this offseason They have filled a hole at third base and acquired a quality player in Martin Prado. Arizona's front office has certainly been able to build a strong, unified vision and strategy. They have redefined the character of the team, and intend to win games with a fast pace and gritty style of play.

Where Justin Upton did not fit nicely into this mold, CF Adam Eaton seems to have been conjured right out of it . His performance this spring could earn him a spot as the team's leadoff hitter:

"You could see the kind of element that he could bring to a team," Arizona manager Kirk Gibson said. "We've never really had a leadoff hitter since I've been here, that's exciting. That changes the way our lineup goes, if you get a guy that's disruptive at the top of the lineup that can get on base, that can chop the ball, put pressure on the infielders, is very aggressive on the bases We look at him and hope he can be that type of player."

Spring training has provided plenty of reasons why Arizona's season could go either way. The team is leaning on the consistency and success of Wade Miley. Miley is coming off of an outstanding year where he finished second in NL ROY voting. However, his health and performance has been a concern so far this spring. He left earlier than expected from his previous outing, and was scratched from pitching in today's game. If this is a lingering problem, then the team's starting rotation depth could certainly become an issue.

Cody Ross' injury is also a problem that the Diamondbacks will have to contend with at the beginning of the year. While it is a concern for the team, it likely won't dramatically hurt the performance of the team.

Lastly, there is a glimpse of hope for the Rockies. Last year, Arizona was less successful in close games; for example, they owned a grim record of 15-27 in one run games. Though they owned a respectable 81-81 record, they underperformed their Pythagorean record of 86-76. If the Rockies are able to keep the score close, they could capitalize on this weakness. Or maybe Arizona will regress upward toward the mean in that category.

San Diego Padres

The San Diego Padres owned a 42-33 record after the all-star break last season. Over the course of the season, this would have been good for 90-91 wins. Of course, that is a pretty meaningless statistic, but the second half success speaks a lot to the development of young players and the solidification of their offensive core. It could bode well for the team this year.

With the alteration of Petco Park to move the fences in, offensive performances could be key for the Padres this year. Chase Headley and Carlos Quentin, the duo at the heart of San Diego's lineup, have been muffled by Petco; adjusted for park factors, these were two of the top players in the game last season.

Despite the fact that his name has been mired in trade rumors, Headley states that he is not letting this affect him. This is without a doubt something that could affect the Padres' performance this year. If Headley is traded, I am skeptical that the team will be able to maintain the solid level of play that they have reached since July of last year.

The team has worked with rising prospect Jedd Gyorko on making the transition to second base so that he is not blocked by Headley. This signifies that the team is interested in retaining both players, at least for now. With Logan Forsythe (who was projected as the team's second baseman) out for the next few days, Gyorko can take advantage of the opportunity of more playing time in his bid to win the job.

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