In order to win the NL West, a team must have good pitching and lots of it. From the San Francisco Giants’ dynamic duo of Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain to the Arizona Diamondbacks’ Ian Kennedy and Daniel Hudson to the Los Angeles Dodgers’ reigning Cy Young winner Clayton Kershaw, the favorites for this division all enjoy the luxury of having an ace (or two) on their pitching staff.

Compare that to what’s going on with the Colorado Rockies (who have no ace) and the San Diego Padres (who traded their ace in the offseason), it becomes pretty clear that there are only three teams truly vying for a 2012 playoff spot.

Arizona Diamondbacks

Last season the D-backs were one of the biggest surprises in the league, winning 94 games and taking home the division crown. That campaign was a 29-win improvement over the prior year and has made the team a top pick to win the NL West and possibly even go to the World Series.

Potential MVP Justin Upton is back to lead the team’s offense along with Jason Kubel, who was signed from Minnesota to give the outfield depth and subsequently pushed 2011 Gold Glove winner Gerardo Parra out of the starting lineup.

However the team’s true breakout star will be first baseman Paul Goldschmidt, who showed flashes of power in the playoffs last year after his midseason call-up from the minors.

The pitching staff will once again be led by 20-game winner Ian Kennedy but it is the addition of starter Trevor Cahill and reliever Takashi Saito that the national media has praised as the final pieces to another pennant-winning run.

For the Diamondbacks and manager Kirk Gibson, 2012 will be all about maintaining focus and not believing in the headlines. If they do that, a deep postseason run is certainly within reach.

Colorado Rockies

Perhaps it is too harsh to disregard the Rockies and their potential in the 2012 season.  With enough talent on their squad and the organization’s reputation for crazy late-season runs, the Rockies could be in competition for the division crown.

Venezuelan Carlos González, Troy Tulowitzki and Todd Helton form a potent lineup that will still keep pitchers up at night while the additions of Ramón Hernández, Marco Scutaro and Michael Cuddyer give the squad even greater offensive potential.

The Rockies’ fortunes, though, will rely on their pitching. Jeremy Guthrie was brought in from Baltimore to lead a rotation that is full of fresh faces as well as 49-year-old Jamie Moyer. While this group may not be a safe bet, if the pitching staff can breakthrough then the Rockies might have another postseason run in them.

Los Angeles Dodgers

For $2.15 billion you could own a decent baseball team, a storied stadium in need of repairs and some rowdy fans.

That is exactly what the business acumen of Guggenheim Partners, Magic Johnson and the rest of the new ownership group got in the record sale price of the Los Angeles Dodgers.

While the stadium may be in disarray, at least the team isn’t.

With some out-of-this-world talent in Kershaw and outfielders Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier, the Dodgers are a good team. Their pitching staff has gained depth in the offseason as well thanks to veteran newcomers Aaron Harang and Chris Capuano, along with Adam Kennedy coming off the bench.

Even so the team’s postseason chances are slim to none.  With the 2012 season likely seeing Kershaw repeat as Cy Young winner and Kemp likely to have another 40/40 season, individual performances still will not be enough for the Dodgers to get a glimpse of a division crown or a Wild Card slot.

San Diego Padres

One thing is clear: the Padres will not be competing for the NL West crown this year unless a historic run occurs.

Though, it’s not for a lack of trying.

General Manager Josh Byrnes has brought in a slew of new faces, including outfielder Carlos Quentin and Dominican pitcher Edinson Volquez in an attempt to get the organization back on the right track for the future. In addition to Quentin, the offense will be led by center fielder Cameron Maybin, third baseman Chase Headley and Cuban first baseman Yonder Alonso.

In terms of pitching, aside from Volquez, the team really only has Tim Stauffer, who is currently on the DL with a strained tricep. After the departure of Heath Bell, the bullpen is looking to recently acquired Huston Street as their main closer.

While fans can’t expect many wins this season, the Padres have some interesting long-term potential.

San Francisco Giants

For the Giants, 2012 couldn’t get here soon enough after a year when the team was decimated by injuries to some of their biggest stars, most notably catcher Buster Posey.

Even with these difficulties, the squad won 86 games and took second place in the division.

In other words, now that they’re healthy, the Giants are a serious threat to not only win the NL West but make another World Series run.

It all starts with pitching in the Bay Area, and with Lincecum, Cain, Madison Bumgarner and Ryan Vogelsong, this staff ranks among the best in the game.

Brian “The Machine” Wilson will be back in the closer role after deciding against surgery on the elbow that ended his season early last year. If Wilson can stay healthy he will be one of the team’s greatest strengths.

As for the offense, Posey and Venezuelan Pablo Sandoval are also healthy to start the year, which means good things for a squad who struggled badly to score runs in 2011. Beyond those two, the Giants are hoping for a breakout year from youngster Brandon Belt, and big contributions from veteran newcomers Puerto Rican Ángel Pagán (who will be the team’s leadoff batter) and Dominican Melky Cabrera.

If their pitching staff dominates to its potential and their offense actually scores runs, then the Giants should be among the best teams in the National League for 2012.

D.B. Mitchell is a freelance writer who covers sports, politics and pop culture (in no particular order). Follow him at @DB_Mitchell.

MLB Preview : AL East

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MLB Preview: NL East

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