Two on Two: NL West Preview
After previewing the AL Central, NL Central, and the AL West, the Two on Two series tackles the NL West. Jon Weisman of Dodger Thoughts and John Perricone of Only Baseball Matters join us this week to discuss (in order of finish last year) the Dodgers, Giants, Padres, Rockies, and Diamondbacks.
Rich Lederer: Arizona and Colorado play home games in ballparks that are two of the three most favorable to hitters in the major leagues. Los Angeles and San Diego, on the other hand, play home games in ballparks that are two of the three most favorable to pitchers. Even San Francisco plays in a pitcher friendly stadium.
Jon Weisman: Well, to the extent that you believe that the Rockies may never figure out a way to become a consistent winner where they play, it's not a coincidence. But obviously, Arizona has been successful and became so in a very short time, so yeah, I figure that it is a matter of biorhythms and pixie dust that the three pitcher-park teams are favored.
Bryan Smith: I'm not sure it's just magic for the pitcher-park favoritism, especially considering Colorado. This is simply a club that can't figure out its ballpark and needs a change of scenery. Arizona got by while they were succeeding by using starters that would dominate in Little League stadiums. It seems that the Dodgers, Giants and Padres are better built for their stadiums.
Jon: I don't expect a significant jump in runs per game because of the shrunken foul territory in Dodger Stadium. This is very oversimplified reasoning, but...I would guess that a given Dodger Stadium game will lose no more than three outs per game on average because of the foul territory. I haven't checked how many foul popouts per game have been recorded at Dodger Stadium, but I can't imagine it's much more than this. The percentage of those outs becoming baserunners should be what, maybe 30 percent (keeping in mind that the batter will have at least one strike on him when he returns to the plate). So one extra baserunner a game? Even if it's sometimes a home run, what impact is that really going to have over the long haul?
John Perricone: PacBell has a small, treacherous foul territory. Both bullpens occupy the outfield foul ground, meaning there are mounds and usually players in the way. I mean, past first base, there's just about nowhere to go. I doubt that it's as few as one baserunner per game, but it's certainly not five. I think the impact is more along the lines of the added loads on the pitchers and added pressure on the defense.
The pitcher feels like he never gets an easy out via the foul pop. More foul balls out of play mean longer at-bats, and the defense (especially the ancient mariners in the outfield) -- already playing more towards center as it is -- must feel like they can never get to balls along the lines, let alone in foul territory.
Bryan: I'm not sure the extra baserunners are as important as the additional pitches. I'm guessing that games in Dodger Stadium last year had (on average) about 5-10 fewer pitches than PacBell or Wrigley. And with more pitches, as John has mentioned, comes added stress.
John: I guess if you're used to it, there must be some advantage. For visiting clubs, though, I'd bet it's no fun at all.
Rich: I've been to Petco and it's a big ballpark in terms of distance from home plate to the fences as well as the amount of foul territory. I can't help but think the fact that the California ballparks are at or near sea level is another plus for the pitchers.
Jon: Well then, all things being equal, how do you like these teams' pitchers?
Rich: Jason Schmidt is, by far, the best pitcher in the division. He also has two teammates in Noah Lowry and Jerome Williams who could also contribute mightily to the Giants if they can throw 200 innings.
Rich: I wouldn't put too much stock in Rueter's spring, John.
Jon: Kirk Rueter's days of defying gravity are over, I think. The sooner the Giants can get him out of their rotation, the better for them.
Rich: Unlike the Giants and Padres, I don't think the Dodgers have an ace. What they do have though are four quality starters. If Derek Lowe comes up as big as his contract and Brad Penny stays healthy all year, then the Dodgers' staff is every bit as good -- if not better -- than the other teams in the division.
Bryan: I am positive on Lowe and think that he is going to have a very, very good season. If I'm wrong, will someone blame Studes for me? Also, I should mention if injuries attack, having Edwin Jackson and Chad Billingsley will prove to be a good thing. But I'll admit that it is good to have an ace.
Rich: Jake Peavy is, in my opinion, the second best pitcher. He won the ERA title last year while dramatically lowering his walk and home run rates and increasing his strikeout rate. Granted, Petco helped him but he was almost as effective on the road as he was at home.
Jon: The Padre rotation is good, although I think the Padres are kidding themselves if they think Darrell May will solve their problems at number 5. The thing with the Dodger staff is that they should only get better as the season goes on, as the older guys heal and young prospects start to mature.
Rich: Should Javier Vazquez return to his pre-second half 2004 form, he would easily rank as no worse than the third-best pitcher in the division. Going from Yankee Stadium to the BOB sure isn't going to help him though. Same thing with Russ Ortiz. Shawn Estes actually should benefit, but what does that mean -- going from a nearly 6.00 ERA to closer to 5.00?
Bryan: I'm a big fan of Jeff Francis and think Colorado will have the best home ERA they have had in awhile. Francis and Jason Jennings are good pitchers, and Joe Kennedy and Jamey Wright have shown sample sizes of success in the high altitude. Throw in a decent bullpen with the solid Chin-Hui Tsao closing, and I look for them to improve on last year's 6.27 home ERA. But, similar to what Rich said, mid-six to mid-five still leaves a lot to be desired.
John: Well, Bryan, I think it's time to accept the fact that baseball cannot be played at Coors. The park effects are so extreme they are going to send a pretty decent hitter into the Hall of Fame (Todd Helton), while simultaneously destroying just about anybody who pitches there.
Rich: Turning to the bullpen, as long as Eric Gagne is Eric Gagne, the Dodgers should have the best one in the division. Wouldn't you agree, Jon?
Jon: The Padres had a very nice bullpen last season with Trevor Hoffman, Akinori Otsuka and Scott Linebrink. I think the Dodgers overrate Giovanni Carrara, but yes, I do like the bullpen. They would love to have the luxury of Wilson Alvarez in there full time.
Rich: Manager Jim Tracy uses Gagne the same every year. Literally. Get this, he has pitched 82 1/3 innings in each of the past three years.
Bryan: Interesting for sure, though I think that's coincidence more than anything else. Reminds me of Billy Packer on CBS talking about how odd it was that a college basketball team had two starters with the same points per game totals. What wows me the most is that in those three years, hitters are managing a .473 OPS against him. Insane.
John: As for the Giants bullpen, the Armando Benitez signing -- albeit pricey for my tastes -- was exactly what was needed. He allows all of the other relievers to operate in their comfort zones. Jim Brower can start the fifth or sixth inning and give Alou up to three innings if he needs it. Scott Eyre can concentrate on the opposition's one tough lefty. All of the spot guys can relax. Heck, even Matt Herges might be useful again. Benitez, or at least last season's Benitez, turns a weakness into a strength.
Rich: Yeah, Benitez was flat out nasty last year. Hitters, if you can call them that, put up a .152/.220/.257 batting line against him. However, you have to expect that his batting average allowed on balls in play of .169 will regress toward the mean in 2005. I think he will end up closer to his DIPS ERA (3.26) than his actual ERA (1.29), but I have no doubt that he will give the Giants 70 or so quality innings in highly leveraged situations this year.
Bryan: Regression to the mean is a good comment, because I look for that to happen in a lot of the bullpens. Benitez, Hoffman/Otsuka/Linebrink, and Yhency Brazoban all may have pitched over their heads last year. But even regression makes them better than Colorado and Arizona, who have a lot of inexperience coming in the game during key situations.
Jon: So after all this discussion of ballparks and pitching, here's a question for you. If the Rockies' starting lineup played 81 games a year in Los Angeles, San Diego or San Francisco, what would the expectation be?
John: Colorado was 14th in runs scored on the road last season (.246/.315/.403/.718 OPS) and first in runs scored at home (.303/.375/.506/.881 OPS). I have a hard time imagining them winning any more games if they played somewhere else because the team has been put together in an effort to utilize the effects of Coors. In fact, looking at their team doesn't inspire me at all. Playing at sea level would reduce their offense, by 10 or 15%. Their pitchers would obviously benefit, but again, it's still not much of a team.
Rich: I think the biggest difference is that Colorado's pitchers wouldn't get beat up so quickly and lose their confidence at such an early stage in their development or tenure with the team.
John: The positive benefits for their pitchers could never make up for the fall-off of their hitters. Most of their best guys are washouts at sea level (again, with the exception of Helton, who isn't the superstar on the road that he is at Coors ). Let's face it, they are a terrible, terrible offensive team. To succeed in a pitcher's park, their pitchers would need to drop their ERA from the 6 and change at home last season to something like 3 and change. Is that even remotely possible? No. They have a couple of decent pitchers and about 10 unknown commodities.
Jon: The Rockies look down and out. So, to me, does Arizona. Take this with a grain of desert sand from someone who was as wrong about the 2004 Diamondbacks as one could be, but I think rumors in certain parts of their rebirth are erroneous. Talk all you want about potential holes in the Dodger lineup, but here are the Diamondbacks with Royce Clayton, Craig Counsell and Koyie Hill/Chris Snyder/Kelly Stinnett in three lineup slots. Jose Cruz Jr. brings a league-average OPS+ to the outfield, and the best days of Luis Gonzalez and Shawn Green, if not Troy Glaus, are behind them.
Rich: I agree, Jon. The D-Backs might win the "We Try Harder" Avis award for what's taken place this offseason, but I'm not sure they are materially better. It's hard to believe but those G-Men you mentioned averaged 49 home runs just four years ago. I'd be surprised if they averaged much more than half that total this year.
Living in the past might work for Jethro Tull but not when it comes to building a baseball team.
John: I don't know if I am as down on the D-Backs as you guys seem. Their pitching staff will be better than it was. Glaus will be the most productive third baseman in the NL West. Cruz is an excellent defensive outfielder. Not to suggest that they will contend, but the moves they made put them well above the Rockies, in my book. They spent a lot, but they did pick up some decent talent, Ortiz, Glaus, Vazquez, Green. This team will probably fight with San Diego for second this season.
Bryan: I'm with John here. I think while they overpaid a lot this season, they improved a ton. No team in the West (even the Giants) will get that kind of production from the four corners. The rotation, while without Randy, is deep this season. They won't be fantastic, but it's possible they will make some noise.
Jon: I don't think we were saying that the Diamondbacks wouldn't finish ahead of the Rockies. Certainly, Arizona is not without talent. But...saying that their pitching staff will be better than it was is a) dubious because of Randy Johnson's departure and b) not much of a statement, even if it's true.
As far as the Diamondback offseason goes, I have mixed reviews. Some good moves, but I don't think Russ Ortiz really passes as decent talent anymore. And Jose Cruz may be a good defensive outfielder, but that's not going to make much of a difference.
Rich: Beating out the Rockies is one thing but finishing ahead of the Dodgers, Giants, and Padres is a whole 'nother matter. I'm sorry, but I just don't see that happening.
John: Well, I didn't like the Dodgers offseason at all.
Jon: Since you say that Arizona will fight San Diego for second place and you don't like the Dodger offseason, do I gather that you think that their respective offseasons will eliminate the 40-odd win gap in 2004 between the Diamondbacks and the Dodgers?
John: I think the Dodgers will be way off from the 90-win plateau and, yes, I think the D-Backs will come up quite a bit from their 100-plus loss season. It's hard for a team that bad not to improve from just plain old regression. The Dodgers lost a lot of pitchers and a tremendous amount of offense in Adrian Beltre and Green. That said, 40 games is a lot. I will stand corrected. The Dodgers will be in the race, their pitching should be strong, top to bottom. The question is, do they have the offense to battle the Padres and the Giants?
Jon: I don't know if they will have enough offense, John. I do think that most people are assuming mediocre-to-worst case scenarios for Los Angeles. Even supporters of Paul DePodesta seem to think that mere adequacy is the best they can get from third base, catcher and first base, among other positions. But some of those folks are young and do have upside potential. On the other hand, few seem to have factored in that aging might hit the Giants anywhere but in outfield defense. Basically, I see three or four teams in the NL West with the potential to win as many as 95 games or as few as 75.
Bryan: Rich, you have Arizona at a zero delta? C'mon, after seeing the Royals in 2003 and the Rangers in 2004, you should know better. If Arizona was an option, I'd buy them from you all day.
Rich: I'd sell you an option at 81 games, if that is what you'd like. Remember, they only won 51 last year. Even the Tigers only improved 29 games from 2003 to 2004. Add the same number of wins to the Diamondbacks and you come up with 80. What I'm saying is that there is no way they can win half their games this year.
Jon: I'd be willing to predict that one of the three favorites you mentioned will finish below .500. I just don't know which one.
Rich: Moving on, San Francisco outscored Los Angeles and San Diego by about a half of one run per game while allowing about a half of one run more per game than both teams. Is there any reason to think those differentials will narrow or widen this year?
John: The Giants are a good bet to both lower the runs allowed and score more runs. I think the Giants pitchers are going to be a lot better this year. Benitez alone will eliminate probably 10 or more losses. The Giants relievers had 29 losses and 46 saves against 28 blown saves last year, converting just 62% of their chances. By comparison, Florida with Benitez had 53 saves, 22 blown saves and converted 71% of their chances, behind only LA and the Cardinals. Alou will be an upgrade, shortstop will be better in every way, Feliz seems to be on his way to an everyday job, and of course, there's Barry Bonds.
Rich: I like Benitez, John, but eliminating 10 or more losses? That seems like way too much to me. He only had 16 Win Shares last year when he put up a career-best ERA. I can see Benitez accounting for, maybe, five or six wins, but I wouldn't attribute his presence to much more than that.
Jon: I can certainly see the Giants being the favorite in the division. Bonds, like the Atlanta Braves, is going to have to show me he can't do it anymore before I'll predict it. San Francisco should have pitching as good or better than last year (despite a regression from Brett Tomko, I suspect). But I'll go along with most of the crowd and say that San Francisco better do it in '05, because they don't look well-positioned for the coming years.
Bryan: Yes, if the Giants "Wait 'Til Next Year" they are finished. But pardon me for being contrary, not sure about the Giant pitching staff improving. Benitez should do some work on helping the bullpen, but I think the starters' ERA will move up from 4.18. Tomko and Noah Lowry both pitched over their heads last year, though I do expect Jerome Williams to improve this year. Schmidt and Kirk Rueter should be at about 4.30 combined, leaving the ERA slightly worse in my mind. And when you factor in that bad defense, even Barry Bonds might not be able to offset all that.
Rich: OK, let's talk a little bit more about the man who can't get rid of that "S" word. Settle down now, John. I was referring to Superman. I say Barry hits .340 with 40 home runs and 200 walks. What do you say?
Bryan: I'm kind of with Jon here, I think, age and health should force him to regress at some point. I'll say 350 at-bats, .330 average, and 35 home runs. And for every at-bat, there will be at least five annoying hecklers mentioning BALCO.
John: I think Rich's predictions are right on, unless he gets hurt. I'm beginning to worry about the steroids thing more and more. The hype is just overwhelming any dialogue or reason. Bonds' exclusion from the hearings seems to indicate that he is in the BALCO's prosecutors sights for perjury. Going for the record and everything that entails will be enough, but oh my God, what a circus it will be if somebody comes forth with evidence against Barry.
Health, however, remains the 2005 Giants biggest worry. If Head Trainer Stan Conte can work his magic, I think the Giants will emerge from the NL West with an eye on the team's first San Francisco ring.
Rich: Speaking of health, I think J.D. Drew needs to play 140 games or so and put up something along the lines of a .300/.400/.500 season for the Dodgers to feel as if they got their money's worth this year.
Bryan: To get their money's worth, the Dodgers must get a lot from Drew, Jeff Kent and Milton Bradley. Los Angeles got about an .855 OPS from lineup spots 3-5 last year, and will need that again in 2005.
Jon: I doubt that the Dodgers honestly expect Drew to play more than 145 games. They may well treat him like Barry Bonds, or a catcher, and schedule days off for him to keep him fresh and productive. The Dodgers may compensate for the days he (or Kent, or any big starter) sits by using quite a few guys as super-utility players, trying to find good batter-pitcher matchups. Jim Tracy has a history of getting guys like Paul Lo Duca or Jose Hernandez in the outfield to bridge some injury gaps.
John: Watching San Diego last season, they looked like a team with a lot of upside. A lot of their top talent is young, and some of it is very impressive, like Khalil Greene.
Jon: I agree, the Padres will be in almost every game they play with their pitching. Their lineup, on the other hand, does not intimidate at all.
Rich: Brian Giles, Ryan Klesko, and Phil Nevin are all 34 years old. At their peaks, they were outstanding. Giles is still one heckuva player, but his numbers were held back by Petco. I like Greene, but I'm beginning to wonder if Sean Burroughs is ever going to fulfill his promise?
Bryan: No, just think of him as Jerry Royster, without Royster's strengths: speed and versatility. I do love Greene, who has every tool, and should explode this year.
Rich: Well, I think we have covered the division from California to Colorado and Arizona, if you will, in between. It's time to go on record with your picks. One through five. Bring 'em on.
John: OK, here goes...
San Francisco 95-67
Jon: It's tough, man. I can't remember having this much trouble choosing among three teams in this division. But I'm going to give Bonds and Schmidt's team the benefit of the doubt, with the Dodgers and Padres close behind, Diamondbacks fourth and Rockies fifth. Then the Dodgers in a runaway in 2006.
Bryan: I think the Dodgers are going to get it this year. Derek Lowe is going to make DePo look smart, and they have room to fill holes midseason. I'll say the Giants second again, with the Diamondbacks my surprise pick for third. Look for the Padres to fall off a bit and be right around .500. Also, the Rockies should be the worst team in the NL, and battle with the Royals for worst in baseball.
Rich: I agree with Jon. This is a tough division to call. In the so-called winner's bracket, I'm going with the Giants, Padres, and Dodgers, in that order, with the range between first and third no more than six games. In the loser's bracket, I think it's a coin flip. I'll be different and go with the Rockies fourth and the Diamondbacks fifth with both teams right around 70 wins.
There you have it, folks. The San Francisco Giants are the consensus choice among the Baseball Analysts panelists to win the NL West. Bryan is the only one of the four not to pick the Giants. In fact, he is fast becoming known as the Lone Ranger as he has differed from his fellow participants in three of the four previews thus far. Interestingly, Rich was the one standing on the ledge all by his lonesome last week when he selected the A's over the Angels.
Our guests, on the other hand, have always agreed on which team is going to win the division. Will that streak continue? Be sure to check back next Wednesday for the fifth installment of our Two on Two series when we cover the much-ballyhooed AL East.