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The 5 key players of the NL West

The Dodgers are the favorite. The Giants are the defending champs. The Padres are the upstarts. The Rockies and the Diamondbacks have some exciting promotions lined up. Which players will make or break their seasons?

Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome back to our search of the key player for every team in baseball. If these players do well, their teams will do well. If these players flop, their teams will flop. Unless there's some random dude like Corey Kluber to arise out of primordial foam and unexpectedly fill a need. Pretend that's not going to happen, though.

We turn to the Senior Circuit this time, starting with the NL West. Usually these things move from East to West, which I've never understood. We read from left to right, so it's only natural to start on the west side of the country, then move right. We're supposed to change that because you live on the East Coast? I used to think that East Coast Bias was a myth, but here's the most egregious example, staring me in the face.

The five key players of the NL West, then. As these players go, so do their respective teams.

Los Angeles Dodgers - Jimmy Rollins

The Dodgers are set up well, in most respects. They have extra outfielders they have extra starting pitchers, they have extra infielders, last year's starting catcher is on the bench, just in case. In a lot of ways, they were the hardest team to pick for, mostly because of their depth, and partially because I didn't feel like writing about their bullpen.


Indeed. So the pick is Rollins, who will be 36. It was a smart, cagey move to get him, as he's been healthy and productive for 13 out of his 14 full seasons, and he was one of the most valuable shortstops in baseball just last year, once defense and baserunning are taken into account. He's at the age, though, when you have to be a little skeptical about him if his overall value is being buoyed by defense and baserunning. The hole in front of every player, especially shortstops, is covered with twigs and leaves, and it's dark outside. They're bounding through the forest, like they always have, and fooooomp. Down in the hole. There's no warning before a steady defender suddenly becomes a liability.

The Dodgers would play Erisbel Arruebarrena, or maybe rush Corey Seager if the timing were right, in the event of an unexpected decline, but how long would it take to get to that point? The idea of Rollins at the top of the Dodgers' lineup makes so much sense, that if he starts slow at the plate and in the field, they would give him months and months to figure it out.

Rollins has had a brilliant career, and he'll probably have another solid season, at least. But he's at that complicated age where every red flag might be a sign of imminent doom ... unless they're just sample-size gremlins, nagging injuries that will heal soon, or baseball just being weird. The Dodgers will have to dance around that possibility lightly.

SB Nation presents: Two teams who have no shot this season

San Diego Padres - Matt Kemp

Like most baseball writers, I spent the last season enamored with the Padres' offseason. They were Janeane Garofalo and Joe Lo Truglio looking for a phone, and all we could do was sit there and watch. It was outstanding.

Then everything calmed down, which means it's time to look up and mumble, "Wait ... wasn't Kemp really, really, reallllllllly bad on defense last year?"

He was! Historically bad. By the advanced metrics, he had one of the worst offensive seasons of his generation, and the eyeball test agreed. He has bum knees, a bum hip, and a wonky shoulder. We're a long way from his Gold Glove, even if we're just three seasons removed. His defense was so bad, that Baseball-Reference's WAR ranks his 140 OPS+, 25-dinger season last year as the ninth-most valuable season of any hitter, just above Miguel Rojas, Darwin Barney, and Zack Greinke (as a hitter). He was closer to Chone Figgins in total value than he was to Scott Van Slyke or Carl Crawford.

It took that historically bad season to get there, though. If he's merely awful, or even garden variety bad, Kemp's bat is a huge asset. Still, the Padres aren't bothering to hide Kemp in left field for whatever reason, and Wil Myers is likely to be a project in a spacious center field. If Kemp doesn't hit as well as he did last season -- and it took an otherworldly second half to get there -- the frenetic offseason of the Padres suddenly won't look as impressive as it did in the cold winter months.

Colorado Rockies - Troy Tulowitzki

Picking a star player for this exercise seems like a cop out.

Los Angeles Dodgers - Clayton Kershaw
The Dodgers are supposed to be good, and Clayton Kershaw is their best player. If Kershaw isn't as good as expected, the Dodgers won't be as good as expected. Therefore, it is my belief that Kershaw is the key player for the Dodgers this year.

There's nowhere else to go with the Rockies, though. Tulowitzki means so much to every facet of their current and future direction. The Rockies' lineup is surprisingly deep and powerful ... if their best hitters are all healthy. I'm not going to pretend that Kyle Kendrick in Coors is the path to regular season success, but the offense will threaten 800 runs or more ... if their best hitters are all healthy.

Carlos Gonzalez and Tulowitzki are both easing into spring training with limited at-bats, but the Rockies grow outfielders in very moist soil underneath Coors Field. They can survive another partial season from Gonzalez. Tulowitzki, when healthy, is one of the 10 best players in baseball, and there isn't a reasonable backup plan because no one should have a reasonable backup plan for one of the 10 best players in baseball. All the Rockies can do is hope, and wait, and hope. Maybe get him some of those titanium bracelets. Can't hurt.

/Tulowitzki tears ligaments in teeth and lips while putting on bracelet

NO. That's not what I meant. You aren't even supposed to have ligam ... how ...

Even if the Rockies don't have the pitching to do much more than threaten .500, Tulowitzki is the one instant-rebuild card they have -- the player they can deal for one of those magical Sizemore/Phillips/Lee packages teams dream of. So not only are the current plans dashed if he's hurt (or ineffective), but so are any pie-in-the-sky future plans rebuilding aficionados might have. As Tulo goes, so go the Rockies. He's tethered to the fortune of his team as much as any player in baseball.

Arizona Diamondbacks - Yasmany Tomas

The Diamondbacks need to hit a "grand slam" with this signing, and they're swinging with both cheeks behind it. If it works, they have a cleanup hitter for the next half-decade to pair with Paul Goldschmidt. If dingers are a rare, desirable commodity in this pitching-friendly era, the Diamondbacks will have an advantage over most of the teams in baseball.

Tomas is not a polished hitter, though. Where Jose Abreu consistently exhibited desirable strikeout-to-walk ratios in Serie Nacional, Tomas is something of a free-swinger. Jeff Sullivan ran down the Tomas spectrum here:

If things go well, Tomas as a hitter might resemble Justin Upton. Upton hasn't built on his peak, but he's been a consistent offensive threat. Yoenis Cespedes sets a more attainable level, and there are also interesting players like Corey Hart, Nelson Cruz, and Khris Davis. Yet, it's also not hard to envision the downside; if we don't grant Tomas his home runs, he might go the way of Dayan Viciedo. There's a difference between raw power and game power, and Viciedo hasn't consistently been able to tap into his strength because his discipline isn't good enough.

Cruz might be the best comp, but don't forget that it took him a while to stick in the majors. The Diamondbacks are going to pay Tomas $68.5 million over the next six years, but only if he's awful-to-okay. If he's anything better, he'll likely opt out of the contract after the third year, so the Diamondbacks are taking a risk that he'll provide immediate value. Even though the contract is backloaded, a Viciedo-like start to his career at $5 million per year would be a mini-disaster.

Like the Rockies, the Diamondbacks will need dingers, dingers, and more dingers if they're going to be relevant in the NL West. Their pitching is just too dodgy to come up with any other reasonable blueprint. If Tomas can't provide those dingers -- or if he can't without hitting like a blindfolded Mark Reynolds -- the entire organization will make a comically exaggerated GUNNNNK sounds every time they swallow. Tomas was instant foundation, just add money. All the Diamondbacks can do is wait and see it the new foundation sets.

San Francisco Giants - Brandon Belt

Psssssst. The Giants' starting pitching could be completely abysmal. Pass it on.

Since the 2009 season, when Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain were at their peak, the Giants have had a reputation as a pitching-first organization. It was deserved at one point, but park effects obscured the real strength of the 2014 team in the regular season, which was the lineup. Then Madison Bumgarner got a chance to pitch two out of every five games in the postseason, and that's the unintentional recipe for success, apparently. The rotation after him is still questionable, and that's being generous, so this spot could go to Matt Cain (elbow surgery, feelin' fine), Tim Hudson (ankle surgery, feelin' fine), Jake Peavy (no surgery, feelin' fine, but sort of erratic), or Tim Lincecum (no surgery, feelin' fine, but very, very erratic).

The Giants have quantity, though. They have seven potential starters who could be somewhere close to average, if not better. If Lincecum struggles, they have options. If Hudson can't stay healthy, they have options. They'll just need an above-average lineup to make it all work, and Hunter Pence's spring injury has already made that job much harder. The Giants already lost the power of Pablo Sandoval and Michael Morse, and they replaced them both with hitters who couldn't out-homer Bumgarner last year as full-time players.

Here are the homers that ZiPS projects for each Giants player likely to start on Opening Day:

Norichika Aoki - 2
Joe Panik - 5
Angel Pagan - 6
Buster Posey - 19
Brandon Belt - 14
Casey McGehee - 7
Gregor Blanco - 4
Brandon Crawford - 9

That doesn't include Hunter Pence's 15 or 20 that should be back by May, but you get the idea. The entire Giants lineup is a threat to finish with fewer homers than Barry Bonds in 2002. Of the above players, the only one you can reasonably project to break out and do something he's never done in the majors before is Belt. If he can't build on his pre-injury power surge from last year, the Giants will be a station-to-station team without blazing speed. Not ideal.

My solution if Belt can't do it: bunts. Lots of bunts. In every count, in every situation. But there will be time to write about that if the need arises. Until then, Belt is the quiet key for the Giants' season.