Two on Two: 2006 NL West Preview
Our Two on Two 2006 season previews move West this week, following the AL Central and NL Central. In the ring with Rich and Bryan today are two of the senior writers/bloggers on the Internet: Geoff Young (Ducksnorts - Padres) and Jon Weisman (Dodger Thoughts). Enjoy...
Bryan: Well guys, we have gotten to the point where criticizing the NL West's futility in 2005 has become cliche. Still, it's worth noting that after years of the AL Central being the worst in baseball, the NL West passed right by them last year. What I want to know is, was this simply a one-year aberration or is this a problem that isn't going away?
Jon: Can it be a two-year aberration? The coveted prospects in Arizona and Los Angeles will just be beginning to transition to the majors in 2006. San Francisco and San Diego should struggle with growing old despite having a hot pitcher here and there, while Colorado will continue to struggle with being Colorado. The law of averages could certainly help the NL West this season, but odds are that at most, one team will pass the 85-victory mark. Division-wide respect could be another year away.
Geoff: I think Jon nailed it. The California teams are too old, and the non-California teams are too young. The Dodgers and Giants brought in some name guys, and the Padres moved a lot of bodies, but for the most part we're looking at the same bunch of mediocrity that we saw in 2005. Although the positions may change, I don't see a 90-win team in the division. The good news is that I do think the problem will go away in 2007, when some of the good young talent in Arizona starts to make an impact and the Padres no longer have to pay the likes of Ryan Klesko and Chan Ho Park.
Rich: The NL West isn't dead. It's just taking a nap. That said, the division figures to be slightly better this year, if for no other reason than improved health. Looking out a year or two, the Dodgers and Diamondbacks could be among the elite teams in the league if their farm systems are as good as advertised. So I don't think we are talking about a Rip Van Winkle snooze here.
Bryan: Good point regarding the farm systems, Rich. While the Dodgers and Diamondbacks have the opportunity at plenty of implementation in the coming years, the Giants and, to a lesser degree, the Padres are aging and aging fast. Are the next two seasons going to be the last stands for these organizations, after which Arizona and Los Angeles start trading division titles? Or, is this thought simply too assuming?
Jon: Well, some teams rise from the dead quicker than expected, and some teams stay dead for a century or so. So who knows? It is hard for me to imagine a world where Arizona and Los Angeles alone play division-title keepaway. But getting back to this year ...
Rich: The Diamondback and Dodger farm systems aren't going to pay big dividends this year. Oh, we might see a few players get a chance to show their stuff, but I wouldn't expect much, if any, impact from these youngsters in the here and now.
Bryan: Yeah, it's funny, the two rookies that might be best in the West this year are Matt Cain (Giants) and Josh Barfield or Ben Johnson (Padres). Barfield has been one of Arizona's best hitters so far, so you'd have to think he will get the majority of 2B at-bats. The offense around him is pretty solely dependent upon aging, with Mike Piazza, Ryan Klesko, Brian Giles and Vinny Castilla all paramount to the defending champs' success.
Geoff: Beyond Barfield (if he wins the job) and Khalil Greene, the Padres do have a pretty old offense. Of course, that changes next winter when all the contracts run out. From there it's a question of how quickly Grady Fuson is able to revitalize the farm system. It's funny: all the teams in this division are on the cusp of rebuilding. The only thing really holding anyone back from committing to a complete overhaul is the fact that everyone else is in the same boat, so why not hedge your bets and try to do something right now? After all, as we were reminded last year, someone has to win the NL West.
Rich: Yes, indeed. Let's take a look at each team, starting with last year's NL West champs--the 82-80 San Diego Padres. Is the team better or worse this year?
Jon: At best, they're not much better. Many of the folks they brought in are aging, declining players. Mike Cameron is a good player, but not an acquisition to pin your hopes on. There probably isn't any pitcher in the division I'd rather throw out there in a single game than Jake Peavy, but I don't know that San Diego has a complete starting rotation. I think the Padres will need some pleasant surprises.
Geoff: The team is certainly different. Better or worse remains an open question. As Jon notes, the Padres aren't young and the pitching staff has holes. I agree that San Diego will need some pleasant surprises. Unfortunately that's a lot to ask when you're talking about a group that for the most part is on the wrong side of 30 (by quite a bit, in many cases). I look at this team and see 75-85 wins. Sadly, that might be enough.
Rich: Well, 85 may be enough to take the division. But 75 certainly won't, no matter how bad the West might be this year. What needs to go right for the Padres to win 85?
Geoff: No, 75 probably won't - the '94 Rangers were an aberration. What needs to go right for the Padres to win 85? How much time have you got? Chris Young needs to prove that last year's fade down the stretch was a fluke, and at least one of Shawn Estes, Chan Ho Park, or Woody Williams needs to provide league average production or better. The aging vets on offense need to stay healthy and reasonably productive. Khalil Greene needs to step up his offensive game a bit. And then - you know, I liked this question better before I'd really stopped to think about it. The biggest problem facing the Padres this year is that they didn't address their deficiencies in the starting rotation. I think for the Padres to succeed this year, their pitching needs to be better than it looks on paper, and not just by a little.
Jon: Park was doing well has a reliever in the World Baseball Classic - I don't know if that's a good sign or a bad one.
Rich: As long as the Padres aren't footing the bill this year, it seems to me that Park is more likely to surprise to the upside than the downside, especially as a middle reliever. I also think Young has some upside, if for no other reason than going from a hitter's park in Texas to a pitcher's park in San Diego.
Bryan: Peavy and Young at the top of the rotation. Williams and Estes in the middle. Let's just hope that Dewon Brazelton isn't the fifth starter. But does any team in the division have a quality fifth starter?
Jon: If you ignore the fact that Brett Tomko is a questionable No. 4, I think the Dodgers have potential in the back of the rotation with Jae Seo and, perhaps later this season, Chad Billingsley. With Derek Lowe, Brad Penny, Odalis Perez, the Dodgers make a mockery of the whole No. 1 - No. 5 designations. Every day is No. 3 or No. 4 day!
Rich: Yeah, I don't understand why Tomko has been handed a spot in the rotation and Seo has to beat back D.J. Houlton and
Jon: Not in the rotation, because Seo held his own in the increasingly respected (at least outside of Dodgertown) WBC. But the last spots in the Dodger bullpen are up in the air. The Dodgers would probably prefer Sele go to Las Vegas, but he might ask for his release rather than face the slot machine bats down there. Geoff - maybe San Diego would like to trade Brian Giles for him???
Geoff: Hmmm, Sele was pretty good in 1998, which seems to be the theme of the current Padres rotation. As for Park in the bullpen, why not? If that happens, I'd expect Clay Hensley rather than Brazelton to get the #5 spot. Or Andy Benes. Or Tim Lollar.
Rich: Nomar Garciaparra was pretty good back then, too. In fact, Ned Colletti and Grady Little have put together a Dodgers team that is a cross dresser between the Red Sox and Giants of old.
Jon: Yeah, what are you gonna do? It's also got a lineup that's about as vulnerable to injury as last year's was. But this Dodger team should take at least a small step forward - it starts the season without the holes of Jose Valentin and Scott Erickson, and with a more mature group of prospects to back everyone up. Still, the Dodgers' fortunes may depend most on whether Lowe, Penny and Perez can be more effective.
Bryan: And, certainly, how much they can get out of their veterans. This team is extraordinarily dependent upon veterans like Garciaparra, Jeff Kent, Bill Mueller, Kenny Lofton and (his body older than his actual age) J.D. Drew. In my eyes the Dodgers chances are as dependent upon (trainer) Stan Johnston as anyone else.
Rich: True. In the investment world, we would tab the Dodgers as a "high beta" team. If things go awry, I wouldn't be surprised if LA only won 70-75 games. Conversely, if everything goes as planned, LA could win 85-90 games. I know you could drive a couple of big trucks through that range, but it suggests to me that the Dodgers are perhaps the most difficult team in the league to gauge.
Jon: Amen to that. Last year, I went out on the short, sturdy limb that the Dodgers would win between 80 and 100 games - and I still crashed.
Rich: Some folks got hurt (so to speak) more than others. Mixing trees and walls here, do you think Humpty Dumpty has been put back together again?
Bryan: My vote is that in this division, the answer is yes. As dependent as this team is on health, there are a lot of pieces for a winning ballclub. I think the Rafael Furcal acquisition, if a few too million per year, is going to be fantastic. With a little help from the farm system, a la Jeff Francoeur, I see little reason the Dodgers can't be the Braves of 2006.
Rich: We'll see, Bryan. I know Little and Cox are buddies, but who's going to impersonate Schuerholz and Mazzone? Oh well, let's talk about that other team in the West with all those rookies. The Diamondbacks. Are their youngsters ready for prime time yet?
Geoff: I like a lot of the young position players Arizona has assembled but as with the Padres, I wonder about the rotation. Beyond Webb I'm not seeing a whole lot unless Russ Ortiz somehow rebounds.
Jon: I've gone wrong a good part of the past several years underestimating Arizona, so I'm loath to belittle them when they've got prospects percolating. I'll also question their starting rotation - as well as their overall home run power - but they've got enough of an X factor that I can't count them out.
Rich: To the extent that anyone likes Arizona, I believe they are either premature in their thinking or guilty of looking at the D-Backs with their heart. This is not a very good ball club right now. Heck, they weren't a very good team last year. They just happened to outplay their Pythagorean record by 12 games. I mean, these guys gave up 853 runs last year. Only the Rockies and Reds allowed more. In fact, Arizona was more than a half a run behind the 13th-worst team in run prevention. And what do they do? Replace Javier Vazquez with Orlando Hernandez? I'm sorry guys but even in as weak a division as the NL West, I don't see where the Diamondbacks stand a chance--at least not this year.
Geoff: Put me in the "not going to underestimate them again" camp with Jon. Yes, the team has a lot of holes, but they had those holes last season and finished second in the division. And I'm pretty sure, Rich, that I would have been at the front of the "I don't see where they stand a chance" line this time last year. Fool me once...
Bryan: It's hard for me to not think the Diamondbacks pitching staff will not improve this year. Yes, they lost Javier Vazquez, but he had a down year in the desert anyway. It's quite possible that Dustin Nippert could jump in the rotation and provide equal or improved production. Factor in a better season from Brad Halsey, a better than 6.89 ERA from Russ Ortiz and more of the same for Brandon Webb, and it isn't quite so horrendous. Still, it also isn't enough to win this division.
Rich: OK, I guess I'm the bear in this group with respect to the Diamondbacks. One other point, they traded Troy Glaus and certainly aren't going to get the same level of production out of Tony Clark (.304/.355/.636) they got last year. Who's going to take up the slack? Eric Byrnes? Jeff Davanon?
Geoff: Well, they've upgraded at catcher and second base, and I think if Jackson and Drew get material time, they could help fill the gap left by the departure of Glaus. I also don't believe Chad Tracy's season was a fluke. Not that any of this guarantees success for Arizona, just that in March, it's too soon to count them out just yet. On the other hand, there is still the matter of pitching. Which I guess brings us to the Giants.
Jon: Guess so. And in contrast to the Diamondbacks, I think the Giants have some starting pitching potential, led by Jason Schmidt, Matt Cain and Noah Lowry, and I'll take Matt Morris as a No. 4 over the Dodgers' Tomko.
Bryan: It's a good rotation if, and only if, Jason Schmidt is healthy and himself, neither of which he was last year. Lowry is as quiet an All-Star as there is on the West Coast, but he is no ace. Cain has all the potential in the world, but it's hard to imagine too much in 2006. Schmidt needs to eat innings and take on the best that other teams have to offer.
Jon: But with Barry Bonds unlikely to play maybe even 120 games and other aging players speckling the roster, don't you think there will be some low-scoring days at the park north of Candlestick?
Rich: As long as "guess" is the watchword here, I guess it depends on how many balls end up in the McCovey Cove. And only one player is capable of depositing home run balls into as many kayaks as -- dare I say his name? -- Barry Bonds.
Bryan: There is no question that Bonds is going to have to bear a lot this season in the way of heckling, and if history repeats itself, even threats. There are two directions he could go -- proving everyone wrong, or folding under the pressure.
Geoff: Assuming Bonds is able to do anything this year, has there ever been an older starting outfield in baseball? The biggest offensive threats on this club will be 40+ by the end of the season. Honestly, I have a tough time gauging the Giants. Schmidt pitched last year like he was back in Pittsburgh. Morris is good for innings but he hasn't been much better than league average in a few years. Seems to me they need a lot go right to make an impact.
Rich: The Giants have a lot in common with the Dodgers. Both teams are pretty old. However, if healthy, Schmidt is better than any Dodger starter and Bonds is better than any Dodger regular. But those are two big IFs, let me tell you.
Geoff: Agreed on both points. So, no love for the Rockies?
Jon: Honestly, I'd like to see them do well. I'd like to see baseball thrive in that ballpark, in that state, in that time zone. I'd like not to think that baseball is being played somewhere you just can't win. But they just can't seem to get a collection of impact players going. The team isn't talentless, so if injury demons take out the division's other four teams, stranger things have happened than Cinderella wearing ski boots. But the bigger issue is that Colorado has just got to figure out how to get true quality players there - not phantoms.
Rich: And to think that Clint Hurdle is the manager with the second-longest tenure in the division! I doubt if Hurdle is to blame for Colorado's woes, but it's definitely unusual--especially nowadays--for a skipper to finish fourth three straight years, then last and still have a job. But here's what I find so interesting: the Rockies are 171-143 (.545) at home and 105-207 (.337) on the road under Hurdle. Until the Rockies find a way to win away from Coors Field, they will never 'mount to anything.
Bryan: It's interesting you point a finger at Hurdle, but Dan O'Dowd does not get a mention. Coors Field can make ordinary players look like stars, ordinary lineups look impressive. But the reality of the matter is this team hit .232/.299/.359 on the road last year, when we saw the real sides of Garrett Atkins, Matt Holliday, Cory Sullivan and Clint Barmes. It's odd that Hurdle has been here for four years, but far stranger that O'Dowd has lasted more than half-a-decade. Me thinks ownership has, like many fans in Denver, simply fallen asleep.
Geoff: Here's a depressing thought: The Rockies haven't finished higher than fourth in their division since 1997. Not even Kansas City or Pittsburgh can make that claim. I guess the real questions are whether it's even possible to win in Colorado and, if so, how one goes about doing it. Also, where is Marvin Freeman when you need him?
Rich: Well, the Rockies have proved they can win in Colorado. The problem is that they have never shown an ability to win on the road. Todd Helton and Matt Holliday tied for the club lead in home runs on the road with SEVEN. The bottom line is that the Rockies lack talent more than anything else. There appears to be some hope down the road in the form of Ian Stewart and Troy Tulowitzki but neither is likely to make their debuts until 2007.
Geoff: Yeah, those are some bad splits. One thing I've long suspected (without any proof) is that a secondary effect of the Rockies' extreme home environment is that it hurts them when they leave Coors Field because they are constantly having to adjust to different conditions. I wonder, regardless of talent level, to what degree it's even possible to field a consistently winning club that plays half of its games in an extreme environment and the other half in places where it's trying to adapt to more "normal" conditions. My complete space cowboy theory is that they should play in a pressurized dome in Colorado, which unfortunately negates many of the benefits of having a team in such a beautiful location. Honestly, I think that has got to be the most challenging place to try and build a competitive ballclub.
Rich: I agree. I think Denver should stick to football.
Jon: I'm not ready to give up on the Rockies forever. I still think it's mainly a talent problem. How many true stars have come through there in the past few years? Todd Helton and ... (gulp) Mike Hampton? If the Rockies can learn not to get fooled by mountain mirages and actually put together some good people, they might win some games, home and away. Tampa Bay had a home/road split in winning percentage of .160 last year (.493/.333) - not much less than Colorado's - but no one argues that the Devil Rays' playing environment is unwinnable. I'm not convinced a team loses two out of three on the road because of air pressure. I think it's more likely because they aren't that good anywhere.
Of course, for this year, what's done is done. These are your Rockies, and they still face an uphill battle. And the best thing they've got going for them is that the hills of the NL West won't be as high as they are in other divisions.
Bryan: It's more than an uphill battle against a short hill, Jon. This Rockies team has NO chance of success given their starting rotation, much less inadequacies in their lineup. I love Jeff Francis as much as the next guy, but he may not be the breed of pitcher to succeed in Denver. I'm not really sure what that breed is, however. I've always liked the idea of the Rockies using only relievers. Look for another season with Colorado towards the bottom of the MLB in ERA.
Jon: So, predictions? I'll go with the Dodgers in a rough-and-tumble rumble.
Bryan: Jon, I know it's a bad division, but you forgot to mention the other 4 teams! Who do you have in slots 2-5? Personally, I like the Dodgers, too, and see them modestly chased by San Diego and San Fran. Give Arizona a year off to get some pitching, and give Colorado five to leave town.
Jon: I was trying to avoid having to be more specific. With no conviction, I'll say San Francisco, Arizona, San Diego and then Colorado behind Los Angeles.
Rich: Gosh, Jon, I was hoping we wouldn't even have to pick our favorite to win the division, much less rank all five teams. I believe it is a three-horse race among the Dodgers, Giants, and Padres. If everyone is relatively healthy, then I like the Giants. But I don't say that with a lot of conviction either. I feel better about qualifying my prediction to add that whichever one of these three teams has the fewest number of days - or the lowest amount of payroll dollars - on the DL will take the division. How's that?
Jon: I think that's great, but Bryan is going to disown you!
Rich: I know, I know. OK, I'll close my eyes and go with the Giants, Dodgers, Padres, Diamondbacks, and Rockies.
Geoff: Much as I hate to admit it, I think that - if healthy - the Dodgers are the team to beat, followed by the Padres, Giants, Diamondbacks, and Rockies. I could see Colorado finishing ahead of Arizona. I'm crazy that way.