Two on Two: NL West Preview
We conclude 2007's Two on Two Preview series with the NL West. With us for this one is Jon Weisman of Dodger Thoughts, who also has published a collection of his best postings over there. Geoff Young of the popular Padres blog, Ducksnorts, has also joined us to preview things out west. Geoff's book, Ducksnorts 2007 Baseball Annual, is a thorough review of recent Padres history and would make an excellent addition to any Padres (or baseball for that matter) fan's library.
Previous Two on Two's are listed below:
Sully: In 2006 the NL West was a two-tiered division. San Diego and Los Angeles each finished with 88 wins, while San Francisco, Arizona and Colorado all finished with 76. It seems like Colorado and Arizona may be looking to break into that upper tier - if not this year, then soon. I think anything goes in this division in 2007. The standings could look exactly the same or the Snakes and Rox could make some real noise and tip the balance of power. What do you guys look forward to from the West this season?
Geoff: The division figures to be extremely competitive. The Dodgers and Padres each won 88 games in 2006, and neither should slip much this year. Arizona and Colorado both have some dynamic young players, with the Diamondbacks being more well rounded and ready to contend. Even the Giants, about whom I'm not terribly enthusiastic, could be tough if Barry Bonds can stay healthy and a few other things go their way.
Jon: I think the NL West is an interesting division, top to bottom. And I am with Geoff on the Giants, perhaps the last-place consensus pick. But they have a starting rotation you can't dismiss, plus Bonds in his drive for history. I'm not sure there's an elite team in the division, but I think it could be the best overall division in the league.
Geoff: One of the more interesting stories to me this year is player/manager movement within the division. Bruce Bochy, Jose Cruz Jr., Steve Finley, Luis Gonzalez, Ryan Klesko, Greg Maddux, Dave Roberts, and Jason Schmidt all moved to rival teams in the NL West this past off-season. Congratulations to Finley for becoming the first player to complete the NL West circuit in its current configuration.
Rich: This is our sixth and final preview and what I find interesting is that each division in the NL seems to have three teams that have a legitimate chance of winning. The Phillies, Mets, and Braves should dominate the NL East; the Cardinals, Brewers, and Cubs appear to have separated themselves from the others in the NL Central; and the Dodgers, Padres, and Diamondbacks are the cream of the crop in the NL West. San Diego won the West last year. Is the pitching as good as advertised?
Geoff: Chris Young looks legitimate; he doesn't throw particularly hard, but his pitches are very difficult to pick up and he's pitching in the right park for an extreme flyball pitcher. Jake Peavy's production dipped in 2006, but his peripheral numbers remained strong and he's a good bet to rebound. Both of those guys need to increase their efficiency, though, to avoid putting unnecessary strain on the bullpen. Clay Hensley finished 10th in the league in ERA and nobody knows who he is. Strike throwers Maddux and David Wells anchor the back end of the rotation, and should provide an upgrade over Woody Williams and Chan Ho Park. This is probably the best starting five in the division, if not the league.
Jon: I agree with Geoff. Putting aside the fact that the ballpark itself suppresses offense, they have a lovely pitching staff in my opinion. This team won't get routed.
Geoff: The San Diego bullpen also figures to be strong, as the big three of Trevor Hoffman, Scott Linebrink, and Cla Meredith return, while Kevin Towers generally manages to string together cheap and effective arms for the lower-leverage roles. Heath Bell is the intriguing name this season.
Sully: It's a very solid rotation, and that Peavy was in fact very good last season cannot be stressed enough. He struck out more than a batter an inning and was by no means liberal with the free pass. That will translate into better traditional stats like W-L and ERA in 2007. As for the bullpen, I think it remains strong but I wouldn't be holding my breath expecting similar output from Meredith in 2007.
Rich: San Diego led the NL in ERA last year and, as Geoff notes, the pitching staff should be even better in 2007. Sure, they benefited from Petco but the Padres were second in the league in ERA+ (which adjusts for ballpark effects). One of the hallmarks of a Kevin Towers team is throwing strikes. The Padres do that as well as any team in the majors. In the meantime, San Diego's defense was the best in the NL. Having Mike Cameron in center means the outfield will do just fine in chasing down flyballs. If Kevin Kouzmanoff and Marcus Giles can hold their own at third and second, respectively, this team will likely lead the league in run prevention this year, too.
Sully: These guys aren't so bad offensively either. I am really excited to see Kouzmanoff with the bat and I also want to see what the Pads offense can do with full seasons from Cameron and Josh Bard. Marcus Giles coming over and staying healthy could also be a nice boost.
Geoff: Scoring runs was a problem for the Padres in 2006, especially at home. Now entering their fourth season at Petco Park, Padres batters really need to figure out ways to make it work to their advantage. A fully healthy Terrmel Sledge should represent a slight upgrade in left field from the popular but aging Dave Roberts. I also expect Brian Giles to rebound somewhat (nothing spectacular, maybe .280/.390/.450) from a career-worst season; he's in the decline phase of his career, but his batting eye hasn't deteriorated at all and he actually could be a pretty decent #2 hitter. If Khalil Greene can stay off the disabled list, he's still got a little upside.
Jon: It's not a dynamic offense, but I really like the look of Adrian Gonzalez, whom San Diego recently rewarded with a contract extension. And I need to make a special mention of Rob Bowen, whose plus/minus rating - based on purely anecdotal recollection on my part - must be sky high!
Rich: San Diego's offense is a bit underrated in my mind. Not great by any means but not all that bad either. I don't think Kouzmanoff will be a superstar, yet I salute management for recognizing the glut of second basemen on the market and getting someone who can hit to play third base because the Padres haven't gotten much production out of that spot in years. Whatever the team lost in going from Josh Barfield to Marcus Giles will be more than overcome by inserting Kouz in the lineup rather than Vinny Castilla and friends.
Sully: The Dodgers are a tough team to handicap. On the one hand, they have all of this young talent and yet they seem a little clumsy in melding their free agent strategy with their efforts to promote from within their own system. Offensively they look solid if they can get the right guys in there. But Luis Gonzalez and Juan Pierre have the ability to quickly submarine even the most potent offense.
Jon: No 1.000 OPSers here, but they have enough options that if they're reactive, they should at least be middle-of-the-road for the league and near the top in the division. Memo to Ned Colletti: Change can be good.
Geoff: The Dodgers have some very nice young hitters, and I'm not sure why they're not using more of them. Russell Martin looks like he could be one of the better catchers in baseball before long. I'm not as excited about Andre Ethier as some are -- too much of his value is tied into batting average for my taste -- but he's a decent young player in the Garret Anderson mold. James Loney and Matt Kemp showed flashes of brilliance last year but are blocked by veterans Nomar Garciaparra and Gonzalez. And of course, the Dodgers didn't do themselves any favors by overpaying for the services of Pierre. If he hits .320 or better, as in 2004, then he'll have value; but if he's down in the .290s, like last year, then not so much.
Rich: We've mentioned everyone but the team's best player: Rafael Furcal. Although the 29-year-old shortstop and lead-off hitter starts the season on the DL, I think he may be the best everyday player in the division. Furcal hit .300 with 73 BB and 15 HR while stealing 37 bases at a 74% clip. He is supposed to miss the first week with an ankle sprain but should be good to go soon.
Geoff: Honestly, this is a tough offense to figure. If Garciaparra and Jeff Kent stay healthy, if Ethier and Martin avoid a sophomore slump, and if Wilson Betemit develops into the hitter some folks think he can become, then the Dodgers should score some runs. That's a lot of if's, though.
Jon: On the pitching side, I've had nagging concerns about the health of the Dodgers' otherwise deep starting rotation, and I'm certainly not alone in my reservations about the defense. I think the Dodger bullpen is underrated, though. They have a lot of live arms.
Geoff: The Dodgers have a fascinating rotation. Their signing of Jason Schmidt, in light of other deals being thrown around for pitchers this winter, could be one of the steals of the off-season. Derek Lowe and Brad Penny remain talented but erratic. Penny completely disappeared after the All-Star break last year, and the Dodgers can't afford to have that happen again. Randy Wolf doesn't do much for me, but if he's healthy, there are worse guys to stash at the back of your rotation. Takashi Saito and Jonathan Broxton return to anchor the 'pen. Bringing Saito over from Japan was a brilliant move, and Broxton is one of my favorite pitchers to watch -- he's the NL version of Bobby Jenks. Actually, he's probably got a little better command than Jenks.
Rich: Oh, I like Broxton more than Jenks. He would be the closer on most teams and will one day be asked to pitch nothing but the ninth inning for the Dodgers. In fact, I would take Broxton over any closer in the division and that's not a knock on Hoffman. He's just that good. Chad Billingsley gives the Dodgers another power arm in the bullpen. He should be starting but Ned Colletti and Grady Little haven't shown much confidence in their youngsters, other than as in-season replacements. He'll get a chance to start at some point and will undoubtedly wind up in what could be a very good rotation. More than anyone else, Penny is the key to how well the Dodgers pitching staff performs this year.
Sully: The Giants continued full steam ahead with their organizational philosophy of being as old as possible this off-season. Only this season they just so happen to have some young talent entering into the Big League mix from within. For the money the Barry Zito signing was awful but with the youngsters (Matt Cain and Tim Lincecum) in the mix the rotation looks formidable.
Jon: Like I indicated earlier, a rotation with Cain, Zito, Lowry and, say, Lincecum will keep them in most games. I'm not enamored of the Giants' bullpen or defense.
Sully: The bullpen does leave quite a bit to be desired. Kevin Correia, Steve Kline, Armando Benitez. Blech.
Rich: If we set aside for a minute how much the Giants paid Zito, then I think one can make the case that he's not a bad fit unless, of course, you consider the team's outfield defense. This staff gives up a ton of flyballs, and I just don't think an outfield anchored by Dave Roberts in center is up to the task of chasing down all these balls in that park. And let's not forget Russ Ortiz. He reportedly has lost a bunch of weight and added several MPH to his fastball. But I reserve the right to remain (highly) skeptical until he proves me wrong.
Geoff: The addition of Zito should help take some of the pressure off future ace Cain. Zito is being marketed as a "sure thing" but I have my concerns -- his most comparable pitcher at Baseball-Reference through age 27 is Mike Hampton. Acknowledging that every case is different, this is kind of a terrifying precedent. Cain, meanwhile, is a stud who doesn't turn 23 until October. If there's a guy the Giants should be building around, it's him. Beyond those two, San Francisco really needs Noah Lowry to return to his 2005 form. His drop in strikeouts (7.56 K/9 in 2005 to 4.75 last year) is more than a little disconcerting. Matt Morris is pretty much an innings eater at this point, nothing too exciting, and like Jon and Sully mentioned, the bullpen is very suspect.
Sully: As for the offense, it wasn't very good last year and barring 145 games of 2005'ish Bonds, I don't see it being very good this season. The aging mediocrities added in the off-season will do little to catapult this offense to where it needs to be in order to contend.
Jon: At age 42, Bonds is still perhaps the hugest threat in the division, and Ray Durham is still productive - though, as with the Dodgers' Jeff Kent, you'd rather that your aging, 20-homers-with-a-little-luck second baseman weren't your cleanup hitter. I think basically, you can pitch around Bonds and let the rest of the offense sink itself.
Geoff: This is an unbelievably old lineup. I like the Bengie Molina signing. He's not great, but he'll give the Giants better offense out of the catcher position than they've gotten in recent years. Durham won't repeat his fine 2006 season, and Pedro Feliz still makes way too many outs to be a big-league regular. As for Bonds, he'll be productive if healthy.
Sully: I hate to be glib but it just astounds me how awful Feliz is and that he holds down an everyday MLB job.
Rich: I concur with Geoff. The team was old last year and is even older this year. I mean, what was Brian Sabean thinking when he signed Rich Aurilia, Ryan Klesko, and Roberts during the off-season? I know, I know. The Giants are of the opinion that they have to win now but that's the problem. They abandoned their player development program years and years ago, diverting money that should have gone to draftees in favor of free agents. The gig is finally up. I believe the Giants could be one of the worst teams in the NL, if not the majors, over the next half dozen years.
Sully: What do we think about the Rockies this year? They were a .500 Pythag team in 2006 and now add two exciting youngsters in Troy Tulowitzki and Chris Iannetta. Are they there yet or no?
Geoff: Well I'm pretty excited about the Rockies' offense. Todd Helton appears to be following the Brian Giles decline path, but he still gets on base and can do occasional damage. Helton, though, is no longer the focus of this lineup. Garrett Atkins, Brad Hawpe, and Matt Holliday all made their mark in 2006, and all are just entering their prime. Even acknowledging that Helton is on his way down, the Rockies have assembled a nice little collection of offensive talent that only figures to improve. Overall, this is probably a more well-rounded group than the heralded Blake Street Bombers from a decade ago.
Rich: I'm pretty sure that Kaz Matsui won't hit .345 again but he and Taveras give the team some speed to go along with the big bats that Geoff pointed out. It's probably too much to ask but this lineup could be really dangerous if Matsui and Taveras would learn to take a walk now and then. Atkins, Helton, Holliday, and Hawpe form a terrific three though six. Tulo and Iannetta are the future of the Rockies and should be at least league average in their first full seasons.
Jon: As I wrote this week at SI.com, it's the best heart of the order in the NL West. If Colorado can get production out of Tulowitzki and Iannetta, they will be a lot harder to beat than people may be expecting.
Sully: Colorado's starting pitching is very suspect. Nobody strikes anyone out on this staff, which is not a good thing when you are playing home games at altitude. I hold out some hope for Rodrigo Lopez, Jeff Francis and Aaron Cook but it's not a very good 1-5. The relief corps, on the other hand, is a different story. Brian Fuentes, Ramon Ramirez, Taylor Buchholz and Byung-Hyun Kim all miss bats with regularity. As long as they are not too taxed, the bullpen should help the Rox win a lot of games.
Geoff: Humidor or not, preventing runs at Coors Field will always be a challenge. Losing Jason Jennings hurts, and I have concerns about his replacement, Jason Hirsh, who gave up a ton of home runs in limited big-league innings with the Astros. Who else is in the rotation -- Josh Fogg? Kim? Lopez? Not a lot to get excited about here. The bullpen has potenial. Fuentes deserves a medal for consistently getting the job done for the Rockies. Outside of Steve Reed, I can't think of another reliever who's enjoyed so much success with Colorado. Manny Corpas and Ramirez give the Rockies a couple nice young right-handers with some upside. The guy I can't figure out is Jeremy Affeldt. Whenever I see him pitch, he looks like he should be pretty good, but the numbers just aren't there.
Rich: I like Lopez more than Geoff. He had decent strikeout, walk, and groundball rates last year while pitching for Baltimore in the much tougher AL East. The NL West should look like Triple-A to him except, of course, when he has to pitch at home. But, hey, somebody has to start those 81 games. Cook and Francis are solid. Although Hirsh might be a year away, I think O'Dowd made a great move trading Jennings for him. Colorado was bound to lose the free agent-to-be so turning him into a prized prospect and a center fielder (Willy Taveras) who can flag down balls at Coors Field seemed like a brilliant move to me.
Sully: And now onto the most compelling team in the division (in my opinion), the Arizona Diamondbacks. The projection systems love these guys, far more so than the mainstream press. I think the Snakes are ready to contend for the division. Their starting pitching is phenomenal, with the reigning Cy Young Award winner, Randy Johnson, a workhorse in Livan Hernandez, Doug Davis and any number of capable youngsters in the fifth spot. Jose Valverde, Brandon Medders, Tony Pena and Juan Cruz should all be excellent relievers. These guys are going to be tough.
Jon: After Brandon Webb, I'm not in love with the combined durability or talent of the others. Johnson, Hernandez and Davis will have their fair share of moments, perhaps more than their fair share, but I'm not intimidated by this staff. I feel this is a team that you can wear down.
Rich: I'm more with Jon than Sully with respect to Arizona's starting pitching. Webb was great last year but is unlikely to get much better. Johnson is more of a name than not at this point in his career. Hernandez should eat innings among other things and Davis is another guy who should give the club 200+ innings. But I wouldn't call this group "phenomenal" by any means.
Geoff: Arizona's biggest weakness last year was its starting pitching. The Diamondbacks moved aggressively this winter to address that problem, and now they're in surprisingly good shape. However, I disagree with Sully and think the bullpen is a little dicey. Valverde is capable of much better than what he did last year, and the Brandons (Lyon and Medders) are decent support guys if healthy. Cruz is one of those perennial breakout candidates. His stuff is electric, and he's still just 28 years old. Basically there's potential with this bullpen, but very little margin for error. If Valverde doesn't rebound or Lyon gets hurt again, the Snakes could have trouble late in games.
Sully: This should be a strong offense. It was just average last year (99 OPS+) but with additional development and improvement from Stephen Drew, Carlos Quentin and Connor Jackson, and the addition of Chris Young should all make this offense formidable.
Jon: It's exciting to think of what the kids can do. There's always the risk of a collective slump from unproven hitters, but it's a risk I'd be willing to take. With their talent, they don't need to feel intimidated by any division rival's pitching.
Geoff: You know what kills me about the Diamondbacks? They traded away a pretty good catcher in Johnny Estrada and don't figure to lose any ground at that position with rookie Miguel Montero. Oh, and they picked up a pretty decent starting pitcher in the process. That's making use of your resources. Anyway, I love this offense. The Diamondbacks have good, young hitters at almost every position.
Rich: Yes, I would concur with that assessment, yet there is some risk that Quentin's torn labrum zaps him of his power this season. I really like the talent the Diamondbacks have assembled but am inclined to think that players are still a year away from doing their thing.
Geoff: Seriously, this has the potential to be a real sick lineup for many years to come. The danger with guys like Montero, Drew, Quentin, and Young is that they haven't done it yet, so you never know if they're ready; that said, I don't see anything in their statistical records to indicate that they aren't. Maybe they'll just tread water in the short term, as Jackson did last year, but this is a tremendous foundation around which to build.
Rich: Let's talk about some potential surprises that may develop in the NL West in 2007.
Sully: I'll jump in and say that Rich's call for best player in the division, Rafael Furcal, will be surpassed by Stephen Drew. Drew will outplay Furcal in 2007 and be the best SS in the division.
Jon: Colorado's competitiveness. My surprise hunches, I'm sorry to say for the Rockies, rarely pan out, but I just feel there's a chance for things to break right for them.
On another level, I think the Padres have the potential to win and allow Bud Black to bust the stigma against pitchers becoming managers.
Geoff: A couple months ago, I would've said the Diamondbacks, but everyone seems to be jumping on their bandwagon, so I'll say the Colorado pitching staff. Jeff Francis will finish in the top 10 in the NL in ERA.
Rich: My surprise is that Lincecum will be forced into the closer's role for the Giants before the All-Star break and will strike out more than one-and-a-half batters per inning.
Sully: How about the three major awards? Who do we like as MVP, Cy Young and Rookie of the Year candidates? I don't think I see any real MVP potentials coming out of the division. Maybe one of those guys in the middle of Colorado's offense. As for Cy Young candidates, I like Peavy and Webb, with Matt Cain having an outside shot as well. Chris Young is my guy, and I am sure others' as well, for ROY.
Jon: MVP: How about a little Garrett Atkins? Cy Young: Brandon Webb, of course. ROY: I'll follow others in picking Chris Young.
Geoff: I'm not sure there are any serious MVP candidates in the NL West. Maybe Matt Holliday or a healthy Barry Bonds, but both of those are a stretch. In alphabetical order, the main Cy Young candidates are Cain, Peavy, Schmidt, Webb and Young. Rookie of the Year? I'll go with Iannetta, Kouzmanoff, Montero, Tulowitzki and Chris B. Young.
Rich: Rather than rattling off a bunch of names, I am going to cut to the chase and say if the MVP, Cy Young and Rookie of the Year come from the West, players attached to those awards will be Holliday, Peavy, and Lincecum.
Sully: And finally, please predict the order of finish in the division. I will take San Diego to repeat, and then I have Arizona, Los Angeles, Colorado, a big gap, then the Giants.
Rich: I'm on record going with the Dodgers, Padres, Diamondbacks, Rockies, and Giants. That's my story and I'm sticking to it.
Jon: I don't know if I'd make this pick if I didn't live in Los Angeles, but I think the Dodgers will get their act together in time to win the division, narrowly over the Padres. I think the Rockies will be a factor and edge out a disappointing Arizona team for third, with the Giants coming in last. But my dissing Arizona is probably the best thing that could happen to them.
Geoff: 1. Arizona 2. San Diego 3. Los Angeles 4. Colorado 5. San Francisco
I'll qualify this somewhat by saying that the battle for those top three spots will be fierce. I expect the wild card to come out of the NL West again this year.
Sully: Thanks for participating, guys.