Two on Two: NL West Preview
A tradition of sorts has developed here at Baseball Analysts. Each season, two outsiders and two of our own preview the six divisions. We kick off this season with what may be the very finest division in all of baseball, the National League West. We are thrilled to have Jon Weisman of Dodger Thoughts joining us once again this year. In the minds of baseball blog readers, Jon is as closely associated to the Dodgers as any blogger is to any other team.
Also joining us this season is Russ Oates of Purple Row, one of the more popular Colorado Rockies blogs out there.
Sully: This division is one of the very best in baseball. San Francisco is more or less irrelevant at this point. As I heard someone say (I can't remember who), the Giants biggest problem this season is that they have 162 games to play. That leaves the other four teams and really, it's anyone's division.
Rich: The young players in the NL West have finally come of age. The division is arguably the strongest in the league and one of the best in the majors. As you said, a strong case could be made for as many as four teams to win the West. Arizona, Colorado, and San Diego were three of the four most efficient teams in baseball last season in terms of wins vs. payroll. San Francisco, on the other hand, was one of the least efficient. Los Angeles was more like the Giants in 2007 but figures to be more like the other three in 2008.
Russ: It might be hard for this year's NL West to outdo the 2007 version, certainly not the way it concluded. Still, as has been mentioned, the division will have four teams with a chance to capture the NL West crown. Also, I think Sully is being a bit unfair to the Giants. They won't compete for the division but won't be a complete black hole either. A couple of young pitchers there should make fans occasionally forget the long summer it'll be for the team.
Jon: The NL West had three teams play past the 162-game mark last season, and a fourth, Los Angeles, is a legitimate contender to do the same this year. I can't remember a year when four NL West teams were legitimate picks to win the NL pennant. It's gonna be like the climax from John Wayne's last movie, "The Shootist" - shots coming from everywhere.
Rich: Although Colorado was in the middle of the pack in terms of runs allowed, the Rockies ranked third in the NL in ERA+. The club had outstanding defense and a surprisingly strong bullpen. Troy Tulowitzki led shortstops in traditional and non-traditional fielding stats and Manny Corpas had a 2.08 ERA, including a 1.54 mark with 18 saves in the second half. Moreover, the starting rotation should be even better this year with Jeff Francis (16-6, 3.86 excluding April) now comfortable in the role of an ace, along with a healthy Aaron Cook and full seasons from youngsters Ubaldo Jimenez and Franklin Morales.
Russ: Coming off a season in which they set a major league record for fielding percentage and tied the NL record for fewest errors committed by a team, the Rockies enter 2008 with a defense that is largely unchanged. The only change will be at second base for the departed Kazuo Matsui. Jayson Nix offers the best defense among the candidates for the job, and Tulowitzki is known to be a fan of his.
The Rockies' rotation is one filled with potential but also uncertainty. Francis established himself as the team's ace last season, fulfilling the expectations given to him in the extension he signed during the '06-'07 off-season. Cook, though, will carry heavy expectations after signing a four-year contract in December. Cook has yet to put back-to-back complete seasons together since becoming a member of the rotation. The potential and excitement comes in youngsters Jimenez, slated to be the third pitcher, and Morales, competing for the fifth spot. Both are hard throwers, though Morales is less refined than Jimenez. If they catch on, this rotation won't be forgotten among the rest of the talented NL West rotations. Jason Hirsh gets lost among the rest of the starters, but should he rediscover his use of the fastball, he'll be a decent fourth starter.
Jon: Elmer Dessens made five starts for Colorado last season, lasting a total of 19 innings. In the other 158 games, Colorado's worst starting pitcher was Josh Fogg, who finished with an ERA+ of 97. Despite numerous injuries in their rotation, Colorado had average-or-better starting pitching for 97 percent of 2007. And other than Dessens, no starter was above the age of 31. That won't change much this year, even with Fogg departing and the battered Kip Wells coming in to fight for a spot. There's some question, I suppose, over whether the youngsters Morales and Jimenez can work some magic over their first full seasons, but this figures to be an effective group in 2008.
Sully: I think Jon makes good points in talking about how the starting pitching was really just solid over a long stretch but rarely spectacular. That was enough to get it done with the run support of their potent offense. But really, we are talking about a club with aspirations to get back to and win the World Series. Francis to me seems to be the only guy on the team you can depend on for reliable performance in 2008. The bullpen, on the other hand, once again looks formidable.
Russ: Brian Fuentes will be an expensive setup guy, but he'll also be necessary insurance should closer Manny Corpas struggle. The Rockies and Yankees swapped relievers through free agency when LaTroy Hawkins signed with the Yankees and Luis Vizcaino moved out west to Denver. Vizcaino will take over Hawkins' role as the right-handed reliever during late-inning situations.
Jon: The most significant offensive change for the defending NL champion Rockies is at second base, where Matsui is being replaced. But Matsui was hardly the straw that stirred this drink. There's a core - Matt Holliday, Garret Atkins, Brad Hawpe, Troy Tulowitzki - that's productive and under 30, and Todd Helton walked 116 times last year en route to a VORP of 51.9. The main problem with Colorado's lineup is that it doesn't scare you from the top to the bottom ... but oh, that middle.
Rich: The Rockies can hit. Sure, with Coors Field as its home ballpark, part of the team's offensive success is illusory. But the club still finished fifth in runs scored on the road. Atkins, Hawpe and Holliday are all 28 and at their peaks while the 34-year-old Helton should still be good for another .300/.400/.500-type season and the 23-year-old Tulowitzki may be the best-hitting shortstop in the league whose last name doesn't start with an "R".
Russ: Tulowitzki will move into the second hole this season. He split most of his time in 2007 between the second and seventh spots, hitting 14 of his 24 homers in the second spot, so this move has some history behind it. Along with leadoff hitter Willy Taveras, Tulowitzki will be asked to steal more (though Taveras will need to stay healthy if he wants to reach his stated goal of 60 stolen bases). Holliday, Helton, Atkins, and Hawpe offer the rest of the punch to the lineup, though it really is apparent that Helton is no longer the masher he once was.
Hawpe has struggled with lefties his entire career and will sit often in favor of a player such as Ryan Spilborghs when a southpaw opposes the Rockies. Yorvit Torrealba is a below-average offensive catcher, but with Clint Hurdle unlikely to give Chris Iannetta a chance to unseat Torrealba for the starting position there won't be much change from 2007's offensive output there.
Sully: As good as the core is, it seems as though they will have four holes in their lineup. That's a lot of dead weight to lug around. Jon alluded to the great core but lacking depth and I suppose I see this as a potential Achilles heel for this team. Helton figures to come back a bit and even if Holliday, Atkins, Tulo and Hawpe replicate their 2007 output, I think Torrealba, Nix and Taveras figure to offset a lot of the productivity. The Rox are a nice team, but there's a little too much hamburg on this roster for me to be convinced they will win 90 games once again. The Diamondbacks, on the other hand, look awfully tough to me.
Jon: I won't be provocative here: Thanks to the pickup of Danny Haren, Arizona gave itself arguably the best rotation in the division, at least in April. The presence of Haren and Brandon Webb up front will grab the headlines, but Doug Davis (111 ERA+) and Micah Owings (109 ERA+) also pitched passably last year. A comeback season from Randy Johnson would give them a game pitcher every day of the week, but even if Johnson's health gives way, the Diamondbacks have some prospects who could step in.
Rich: Arizona, which was second in the league in ERA+ last year, figures to be equally good this season. With respect to the starting rotation, it's a combination of addition and subtraction. Haren (3.07 ERA, third best in the AL) joins Webb to give the Diamondbacks arguably the best 1-2 punch in the league while Livan Hernandez takes his nearly 5.00 ERA to Minnesota. The bullpen, however, is a somewhat different story. I'm skeptical as to whether Brandon Lyon can step up and replace Jose Valverde as the club's closer, and it will be interesting to see if Tony Pena and Juan Cruz can repeat their fine performances in their set-up roles.
Sully: I agree on Lyon, Rich, but it is not like they didn't get bullpen help back from Houston. Chad Qualls figures to be a nice addition to a bullpen already teeming with live arms.
Russ: As Rich said, the D'Backs will have a great 1-2 combo with Webb and Haren, and if Randy Johnson, 44, returns healthy it could be lights out for the rest of the NL West. Beware the Unit's back, though. Given his experience in the role, I happen to think Lyon will transition back into closer duties with few problems. Add in Qualls, acquired in the deal that sent Valverde to the Astros during the offseason, and Pena, late innings against the D'Backs will be tough for opposing hitters.
Hudson, Chris Snyder, and Eric Byrnes form the basis of an above-average defense. Will Stephen Drew make any strides on defense?
Sully: I am sure Drew is a major priority for Bob Melvin this season.
Jon: Speaking of Melvin, the Diamondbacks rather famously won the division despite allowing more runs than they scored. The analyst consensus pointed to effective bullpen management as the cause: Melvin didn't waste his good pitchers in blowouts. If this is a true skill of the Arizona manager, what a nice one to have. And don't forget how nice it would be for Arizona to have Hudson healthy down the stretch, unlike in 2007.
Sully: We know Josh Byrnes is excited about his young offense, but what's the consensus around these parts about the Snakes' bats?
Rich: The D-Backs had the worst offense in the league in 2007. Despite playing in a hitter's ballpark, the team was last in batting average and on-base percentage. In addition, Arizona ranked at the bottom of the NL in OPS+ and runs on the road. That said, there is some upside to this lineup. Stephen Drew came alive in the postseason and should put up better numbers this season. Conor Jackson, Mark Reynolds, Justin Upton, and Chris Young are all going up the escalator and should be sure to wave to the 32-year-old Eric Byrnes (.258/.340/.412 in the second half) as he passes them counting his money on the way down.
Jon: Seven returning Diamondback starters, plus Miguel Montero, homered in double-figures last season. Chris Young, now 24, led the way with 32 homers, despite a .295 on-base percentage. In a sense, just like Los Angeles with Andruw Jones, Arizona is hoping that their top power hitter can be even more productive. Arizona's is not a dominant lineup, but it is a mostly young and capable one - especially when Owings is batting ninth.
Russ: Will the D'Backs be able to avoid the criticism they received last year for having a negative run differential? Stephen Drew will need to hit a few more home runs and improve his OBP to help the offense out. A quick start for Conor Jackson will also go a long way for this team, since April '07 (.217/.351/..267) was his worst month. Young could cut down on the strikeouts and reach base a bit more often, as could Upton. It's not a question of if the D'Backs offense will improve, it's how much.
Sully: With that last statement, it sounds like you agree with Byrnes here, Russ. I think I do too. The Snakes will make strides this season, with the potential to put together a very good offense should they be fortunate to have a number of their youngsters blossom simultaneously. It could well happen.
Rich: Moving along, San Diego, helped in large part by a big ballpark, was the only team in the league that sported an ERA under 4.00 last year. However, the Padres were fifth in ERA+ and eighth in runs allowed on the road. If the pitching staff has a signature, it's throwing strikes. Greg Maddux, 42, does that better than anybody, allowing slightly more than one walk per nine innings. Cy Young Award winner Jake Peavy led the NL in ERA, wins, and strikeouts, becoming only the eighth pitcher since WWII to win the Triple Crown of pitching. The big question marks are the back of the rotation and the front of the bullpen where health and age loom large.
Russ: One of the major questions facing the Padres is what they'll get out of Mark Prior and Randy Wolf. It's a big if, but if Prior can come back and perform anywhere close to his 2003 season, the Padres will have the rotation to beat in the West. If he doesn't, it's not a big loss for the Padres since Prior signed a cheap contract and the team wasn't pinning their season's hopes on him. Wolf, coming off shoulder surgery, will benefit pitching at Petco. Maddux keeps chugging along, but you have to wonder how much longer he'll be able to do that. Peavy is one of the best and Chris Young is a great counterpart for him at the top of the rotation.
Jon: The Padres have the Cy Young winner and Young (129 ERA+ in 30 starts), but there is a problematic lack of depth to their rotation. Their No. 3 and No. 4 starters, future Hall of Famer Greg Maddux and comebacking Randy Wolf, will struggle just to be average. There's rarely reason to fear blowout losses in San Diego, but will the Padres be able to hold their opponents to three runs instead of four when they need to, or four runs instead of five? At Petco, that run or two can be a big deal.
Sully: It sounds like folks think the Padres offense will have to pick up some of the slack, and I think it is very much capable of doing so. Kevin Towers added to his young infield of Kevin Kouzmanoff, Khalil Greene and Adrian Gonzalez, the steady bat of Tadahito Iguchi. This may not seem like much but consider what San Diego got out of their second basemen last season; a line of .247/.320/.342. Iguchi does not have to do much to constitute a marked improvement.
Russ: In 2007, Gonzalez clouted 30 homers and had a team-leading OPS of .849. It's likely he'll lead the team again in that category. As Sully mentions, Iguchi also offers better offense at second than Marcus Giles did, who received more at-bats than he should have in 2007. Overall, this is a quiet offense that will need Greene and Kouzmanoff to continue to improve at the plate. And maybe the surgery Brian Giles had on his knee will help him gain back a little more of the power he once had. It might be hard to do at 37, however.
Jon: Continuing a division-wide theme, there are some nice young players manning up for the Padres: Adrian Gonzalez, Khalil Greene and even Kevin Kouzmanoff, who OPSed .890 in the second half of 2007. Chase Headley (24 in May), who OPSed 1.017 in AA ball last year as a third baseman, could be a godsend if he can make the leap while filling a hole in left field. But I wouldn't say it's a knockout offense, even taking Petco Park's environment into account.
Rich: See I believe San Diego's offense is nearly as underrated as the pitching is overrated. The infielders can flat out hit. Adrian Gonzalez is perhaps the most under appreciated hitter in the league. He blistered the ball on the road (.295/.358/.570 with 20 HR) and during the second half (.302/.356/.538). Kevin Kouzmanoff improved his OPS from .673 in the first half to .890 in the second half. While a liability in the field, Kouz should rank as one of the best offensive third basemen in the NL this season. Khalil Greene has been needlessly dissed for far too long. Throughout his career, the four-year veteran has hit .228/.288/.370 at home and .280/.335/.515 on the road. The big question about the Padres is whether the other Giles and the newly acquired Jim Edmonds have much, if anything, left in them.
Sully: Switching gears, what do we make of the Los Angeles Dodgers? The run prevention side does not seem to be a problem given the team's bevy of young, durable arms. The Dodgers had an ERA+ of 109 last season and it is hard to see them falling off too far from there (if not improving).
Jon: Chad Billingsley (138 ERA+) could become a staff ace as early as this season. That would be a huge help to a team that doesn't know exactly who its fifth starter will be if Jason Schmidt or Hong-Chih Kuo aren't up to snuff in April (though quality candidates like James McDonald and Clatyon Kershaw are lurking in the minors). There's a lot of mystery centered on Japanese import Hiroki Kuroda, but another question is whether Brad Penny can maintain his high-flying performance (151 ERA+) despite a tumbling strikeout rate. If the Dodger starters can give quality starts, Takashi Saito and Jonathan Broxton form a great one-two combo in the bullpen. On the downside, Dodger defense can be spotty, depending who's in the lineup.
Rich: The Dodgers have a fab four (Derek Lowe, Brad Penny, Chad Billingsley, and newcomer Hideki Kuroda) at the top of the rotation and a fifth (Jason Schmidt) who could be a pleasant surprise if he can begin to earn a fraction of the more than $15 million per season that he is pulling down. Saito and Broxton, who make about $2.5M between them, have given the McCourts a much better return on their investment, combining to strike out 32% of the batters they faced in 2006 and 2007.
Russ: Penny finished an honorable third in the NL Cy Young voting last year and there's as good a chance as any that he'll repeat that finish for another year. Lowe was the victim of poor run support in many games last season, so an improvement in his W-L record isn't out of the question. Hiroki Kuroda isn't on the level of Daisuke Matsuzaka, but he should fit in nicely behind the previous two pitchers and Chad Billingsley. If Jason Schmidt bounces back from his shoulder injury and subsequent surgery, it could be a good season for the Dodgers.
How Joe Torre uses his bullpen will be interesting since he was questioned numerous times in New York for how he managed it there. As Jon and Rich said, Broxton and closer Takashi Saito are a lights-out combination.
Sully: Jon is our Dodgers guy here, so I am interested in his take. What do we think about this offense? It seems like there is talent all over the place on this roster. Can they make it work in 2008?
Jon: Don't laugh, but this is potentially the most dangerous group in the division. If Andy LaRoche and Andre Ethier win starting positions, one of them could easily be the No. 8 hitter in a lineup that could have everyone with an on-base percentage of .350 or more. (Last year, James Loney, Jeff Kent, Matt Kemp, Russell Martin and Ethier all reached that plateau; ex-Braves Andruw Jones and Rafael Furcal need comeback seasons to make it). Los Angeles won't have the most power in the NL West, but the pitching in this division is so strong that a team that can consistently battle offensively might have the best weapon.
Rich: If Joe Torre puts his best eight on the field everyday, the Dodgers should have one of the best offenses in the division and maybe the league. I'm less concerned with the youngsters like Martin, Loney, LaRoche, Ethier and Matt Kemp as I am with the veterans such as Kent, Nomar Garciaparra, Jones, and Juan Pierre. How goes the 40-year-old Kent and Jones, coming off his worst season ever, will go a long way in determining how goes the offense.
Russ: Signing Jones could be a huge boon for the Dodgers, but is it likely for him to rediscover his power with the Dodgers? Having a competition between Ethier and Pierre should hopefully improve the Dodgers. Russell Martin offers the best offense out of all the starting catchers in the division, but Joe Torre could give him a few more games off after catching 145 games last season. The competition at third between LaRoche and Garciaparra will be good for the younger LaRoche.
Sully: This seems like the team in Major League Baseball whose Manager could make the biggest impact. The personnel is there. The question is whether Joe Torre can optimally deploy the resources at hand. What about LA's rivals to the north?
Rich: Too bad pitching isn't 75% or more of the game as some people think. If it were, the Giants would be in fine shape. As is, San Fran stands to lose a lot of low-scoring games. By season's end, Matt Cain, Tim Lincecum, Noah Lowry, and Barry Zito will be awfully frustrated.
Russ: Cain and Lincecum carry the future of the Giants on their shoulders, but for now they'll need to wait until management makes a few more smart decisions. Though they'll both only be 24 at some point in 2008, Cain and Lincecum will be one of the top 1-2 punches in the majors. Zito has already been named the Opening Day starter, whatever that's worth, but Cain would have a better claim if it wasn't for Zito's contract.
Omar Vizquel is, as usual, still a good defender, and Dave Roberts, Aaron Rowand, and Randy Winn in the outfield will be a great help to the pitchers.
Jon: Gosh, you could hardly ask for much more than a rotation whose worst pitcher might be Barry Zito. For a team that's perhaps universally picked to finish last, they're gonna keep the score close all too often.
Sully: At the risk of sounding hyperbolic or even snarky, I have to say that I cannot remember an offense that looked as inept as this Giants one does heading into a season. You guys are right; the pitching is there. But this offense is going to be atrocious.
Rich: Do the Giants have an offense? Sully, you covered this one about as well as possible in a Giant Mess three weeks ago.
Russ: Is there any hope here? With Barry Bonds gone, this team will need to find a new face for the offense. Rowand is hardly a world-beater, and he'll be hitting fifth behind Bengie Molina. That's not a situation any team should have. Rich Aurilia, Ray Durham, and Vizquel are still with the team; maybe Kevin Frandsen will successfully supplant Durham at second. The Giants could probably do worse than Dave Roberts and Randy Winn, but they also could do better.
Jon: Well, there's a reason the team is perhaps universally picked to finish last. Randy Winn is the Giants only returning starter with an EQA over .280 in 2007. Aaron Rowand was signed to mitigate this (his VORP was almost even with that of Barry Bonds last season), and Dan Ortmeier will try to bring some power to first base.
Sully: Very diplomatically handled, Russ and Jon. What about surprises from the NL West in 2008? Mine? I think Colorado is going to disappoint. I think injuries and unfulfilled promise from Jimenez and Morales in the rotation combined with some real holes in their offense will drop the Rockies a few games below .500.
Jon: I'm sincerely not trying to make any enemies down south, but I certainly won't make any friends with my inkling that San Diego is going to have a rougher time than most people expect this year. Even with Peavy, the Padres might have the division's weakest overall starting pitching. I know they won 89 games with much the same staff last year, but I see some signs that things could get worse before they get better. Certainly, I don't think any team in the NL West is more dependent on a single player than San Diego is on Peavy.
Russ: Despite all the gloom surrounding them, the Giants will actually finish closer to .500 than most projections have them.
Rich: The surprise will be that Brian Sabean doesn't lose his job until after the season ends.
What about awards candidates in this division? After a huge season in 2007, I doubt whether Holliday can improve upon his AVG/OBP/SLG as he has every year since he broke into the big leagues in 2004. If Holliday does, he will run away with the MVP award in 2008, especially if the Rockies win the division as I suspect. I don't see any other viable candidates outside of perhaps Russell Martin or a couple of starting pitchers like Peavy and Webb, both of whom should be the co-favorites along with Johan Santana to win the Cy Young award. As for Rookie of the Year, I would offer up LaRoche and Morales, since neither Jimenez nor Upton qualify. Oh, and I guess I shouldn't forget Kuroda even if he is 33 years old.
Jon: As a catcher, Martin probably can't get the numbers needed to win an MVP, but with the Dodgers fielding a contending team on the 20th anniversary of Kirk Gibson winning the award, I think he could be a strong candidate. More likely, look to Matt Holliday as the leading position player candidate - and don't rule out Webb or Peavy, the leading Cy candidates, for the MVP award either. But with the tough pitching in this division, an offensive MVP seems unlikely to come from it. As for Rookie of the Year, Kuroda could win it. But even more than him, or his teammate LaRoche, I'll agree with Rich and offer Colorado's Morales, who is still a rookie despite a 140 ERA+ down the stretch for the Rockies last year and despite pitching 10 innings in the 2007 playoffs.
Russ: Jake Peavy and Brandon Webb should compete for the Cy Young award again this season. Don't discount Matt Cain or Brad Penny, either. Matt Holliday's about the only real candidate for MVP. Some candidates for ROY would include Jayson Nix, Franklin Morales, Chase Headley (if he winds up as more than a backup), and Hiroki Kuroda.
Sully: If the voters can understand park effects, then Kouzmanoff and Greene could well merit MVP consideration. I am not sure I have others to offer over and above those already mentioned. As for my predicted order of finish, I am going with the D-Backs (their offense comes alive this season), then LA, San Diego, Colorado and (big, big gap) San Francisco.
Rich: I like Colorado, followed by Los Angeles, San Diego, Arizona, and San Francisco. The Diamondbacks will be closer to first place than last although that says as much about the Giants as anything else.
Jon: I don't think Colorado or Arizona got lucky last year. despite what others might say. There's no reason either of the two couldn't win. But thanks to their addition of Haren to a rising young team, I think the Diamondbacks deserved to be slotted first right now. And given what full seasons from Kemp, Loney, Jones, Billingsley (in the rotation) and maybe Ethier and LaRoche could mean for the Dodgers, I'm gonna put them close behind in second. (Maybe this year, Martin blocks the plate against Holliday in a one-game playoff with the Rockies.) San Diego follows in fourth place, with San Francisco fifth.
Russ: Same as 2007: 1. Arizona 2. Colorado 3. San Diego 4. Los Angeles 5. San Francisco
Sully: Thanks, everyone. This was good fun.