Change-UpDecember 15, 2008
By Patrick Sullivan

With the NL Central and NL East in the books, it is now time to turn our attention to the NL West. It only took 84 wins to take the division last season, so a shrewd tweak here or there (read: not Edgar Renteria) could catapult just about anyone into contention.

Los Angeles Dodgers

Strengths: Jonathan Broxton, Hong-Chih Kuo and Cory Wade, who combined contributed over 220 innings of top-notch relief, all return to anchor what was one of the very best bullpens in the National League. Los Angeles is taking on free agent losses all over their roster this off-season but one area Ned Colletti can feel comfortable leaving alone is his relief pitching.

Weaknesses: Manny Ramirez posted a 219 OPS+ with the Dodgers and was the chief reason their offense went from atrocious to one of the very best. There is a chance he may be back but his departure would leave a gaping hole int their offensive attack. Similarly on the pitching side, Derek Lowe's imminent signing with someone other than Los Angeles is going to be a real blow to their staff. Over the length of his contract with the Dodgers, Lowe averaged 212 innings and in his worst ERA+ year, he still managed 114. Despite his reputation as a solid innings eater, Lowe is much, much more. Last year's 211 innings of 131 ERA+ pitching will not be easy to replace.

Opportunities: The 2006 Jason Schmidt would do the trick in replacing Lowe and even though that may seem like an unlikely proposition, it also could be the Dodgers best hope.

Threats: As of today, Juan Pierre or Andruw Jones will start in the outfield for Los Angeles. It cannot be overstated just how much these two devastated their offensive attack in 2008. Pierre hit .283/.327/.328 last year, with 79% of his plate appearances coming before August 1. Jones hit .158/.256/.249 with all but 14 of his plate appearances taking place before the trade deadline. While Manny's arrival was doubtless the catalyst for the Dodgers late-season offensive improvement, replacing Pierre and Jones helped a whole lot as well.

APR    .769
MAY    .668
JUN    .644
JUL    .704
AUG    .783
SEP    .815

Arizona Diamondbacks

Strengths: Anchored by Brandon Webb and Dan Haren, the Snakes should once again feature terrific starting pitching. Despite throwing half their games in one of baseball's most hitter-friendly environments, Diamondbacks starters ended the season with the NL's third best starting pitching ERA. While Max Scherzer and Yusmeiro Petit are unproven at the Big League level, they should have no problem replicating the combined output of Randy Johnson and Micah Owings in 2008.

Weaknesses: A lineup that was supposed to all rise up as one and become Major League standouts in 2008 decided to put it off a year. Stephen Drew, Chris Young, Conor Jackson and Justin Upton - potential superstars all - did not hit the way the D-Backs needed them to in 2008 in order for them to repeat as division champs. Until a couple of them step up and show they can anchor a championship caliber offense, the offense will remain a weak spot.

Opportunities: I have already mentioned them. Scherzer, Petit and the young offensive core all have the ability to develop into terrific Major League contributors. Should a handful of these guys get there in 2009, Arizona will be contenders again.

Threats: Signing Felipe Lopez to take over for free agent Orlando Hudson was a savvy enough, under-the-radar move. Still, Lopez has put up some dud seasons (.245/.308/.352 in 2007) and asking him to fill in for one of baseball's most consistent second basemen in Hudson may be too tall an order.

Colorado Rockies

Strengths: Guess who is the same age as, plays the same position as, and had better rate statistics than 2008's National League Rookie of the Year? Chris Iannetta of the Rockies, a 25-year old who seems like he might be one of the better catchers in baseball for years to come. A solid defender with great command at the plate, here is how he stacked up in 2008 amongst NL Catchers with at least 300 plate appearances.

McCann     134
Doumit     128
Iannetta   127
Soto       120
Martin     106
Snyder     103

Weaknesses: Colorado ranked 14th in National League Defensive Efficiency in 2008.

Opportunities: Bounce back from Troy Tulowitzki and Garrett Atkins, combined with more playing time for Ian Stewart, should make the infield offense (ex Todd Helton) much more productive. On the pitching side, Jeff Francis should be better, Greg Smith should add some depth and with a tick or two more command, Jorge de la Rosa (128 K's in 130 IP) should emerge.

Threats: Carlos Gonzalez replacing Matt Holliday could kill this offense, and I am afraid that Todd Helton will not be posting another 144 OPS+ season.

San Francisco Giants

Strengths: Tim Lincecum won the CYA in just his second MLB season. Matt Cain, who is even younger than Lincecum, also had a very nice 2008 campaign. Any hope the Giants have for 2008 rests with these two. Not Edgar Renteria; their hopes don't rest with him.

Weaknesses: Their offense was the weakest in the division and help does not appear to be imminent. Starters not named Cain or Lincecum took to the hill 95 times for the Giants in 2008 and posted a 5.32 ERA while playing home games in one of the most pitcher-friendly parks around.

Opportunities: If Aaron Rowand can return to form, with Fred Lewis and Randy Winn flanking him, the outfield offense might not be too bad.

Threats: If Lincecum or Cain falter at all, San Francisco's season is finished. To their credit they hung in there for much of 2008 but that was in large part due to their won-loss in games started by Lincecum.

San Diego Padres

Strengths: When you don't adjust for park, you might think that San Diego's offense is a big problem for them. This is just not the case. They are about average at the plate, thanks to standouts Adrian Gonzalez and Brian Giles, and some nice supporting parts as well.

Weaknesses: The starting pitching, especially if they end up dealing Jake Peavy, is scary bad. Chris Young would assume the number one role and after that, it is hard to see how they can cobble together anything even resembling a Big League staff. The rebuilding process for the Padres, especially given the confusing way their front office seems to operate, figures to be a long and painful one.

Opportunities: If Kevin Kouzmanoff can fulfill his potential and Young can toss 200 innings, that should help bump the Padres up from their 63-win total in 2008. Chase Headley starting from the outset should help, too.

Threats: I have a hard time seeing how Luis Rodriguez, a career .257/.316/.343 hitter, is a viable Major League option as an everyday shortstop, but maybe I am missing something. It's nice to help the bullpen and all, and however frustrating he may have been at times because he was not living up to expectations, the fact remains Khalil Greene was a pretty good player.


You might want to re-think the Schmidt hopes: according to a lawsuit between the Dodgers and their insurer, they signed Schmidt even though they knew he had a rotator cuff injury, but then had a torn labrum that kept him out the past couple of years. I think that's what ended Robb Nen's career.

Here's some info on that:

Their rotation is missing Lowe, Maddux,and Penny, plus Billingsley had his injury, and while he should recover, you never know when there are complications.

That's an old impression: AT&T has not been a pitcher friendly park overall the past few years. While it does help in terms of limiting HRs, according to Bill James Handbook, the run environment has been pretty much neutral the past few years (2005-2007). Also, lists the park as basically 100 since 2003. It was only a severe pitcher's park in the early years as it apparently took hitters a while to figure out how to hit there. I know that hitters were talking about that often, particularly the new players after World Series, Durham, Grissom, Alfonzo.

Under Opportunities for the Giants, I would also include Sanchez pitching like he did for the first half or so (just under 4.00 ERA) for an entire season (hopefully just stamina problems, he was particularly bad in September) and Zito pitching like he did at the end of the season, his velocity was back, somehow, to a level he hadn't seen in a long while, which resulted in him striking out batters at a rate he hasn't in years as well.

I would also add Pablo Sandoval and Travis Ishikawa continuing to hit major league pitching as another opportunity, because if either of them can hit well for power, that could solve the power problem the Giants have.

Yes, Lincecum was a huge key for the 2008 season, without him the record would have been a lot worse, excellent point.

But it should also be noted that the Giants were around .500 for much of the season, they had two bad months, May and July, but were .500 in the other months and was one game over .500 after Pablo Sandoval and Travis Ishikawa joined the lineup, and that's basically the roster they have today, except minus some poor performers and adding two set-up men and huge improvement in offense at SS.

Their offense might not be even league average, but as studies by Baseball Prospectus and The Hardball Times showed, offense, good or bad, was pretty much a non-factor in the success of teams in the playoffs, it is pitching and defense that wins in the playoffs.

As long as the offense is enough to score for the plus pitching staff, they should do well in W/L. Using the lineup calculator that Baseball Musing supplies and the projections on Fangraphs, the Giants should be at .500 or higher, which could be enough to win the NL Worst again.

And I guess that is the last opportunity I would mention, that the Giants could win the division by default, the Padres, D-backs, and Rockies have all retrenched, losing/trading key players from their 2008 teams (and 2008 wasn't that good for any of the NL West teams) and the Dodgers have lost much of their starting rotation, plus Manny and Furcal for now, so while they might retain those two, I don't see them replacing Lowe easily, plus I don't see Andruw being a good force in the clubhouse on the bench, he's a poison pill waiting to poison the 2009 season.

What was wrong with Stephen Drew's season? That's pretty darn good season for a shortstop.

There is nothing "wrong" with his season at all. It's just that in order for Arizona's offense to function, I think he needs to be better than that. He was fourth in the NL among shortstops in OPS+.

I think two of Jackson, Upton, Drew or Young need to be up closer to 120-130 OPS+.

Drew's season was good but not necessarily up to the level of what the D-Backs need out of him. Fairly or not, they count on him to be one of their very best hitters and in a decent offense, one of your team's best hitter should be better than Drew was last year.

You're not missing any thing with Luis Rodriguez. Even the Padres know that he's not a good option at SS. Towers has been quoted several times saying such.

Yes, LA's offense sucked hard from May through July with Pierre/Jones in the outfield instead of Manny. That's also because Angel Berroa was playing shortstop instead of Rafael Furcal and the corpse formerly known as Jeff Kent was playing the infield instead of Casey Blake. Even if Pierre starts the 2009 season in left field instead of Manny, the Dodger offense should be at least passable as long as Furcal stays healthy and the young guys (Kemp, Loney, probably Martin) see predictable jumps in production due to experience.

I guess you missed the part where Stephen Drew was the second-best hitting shortstop in all of baseball, Conor Jackson batted .300, Upton had the best OPS of any 20-year old since A-Rod [and before him, Ken Griffey Jr], and the team as a whole scored more runs than they did in their division-winning year of 2007. No: whatever the team's problems were, blaming those four is wildly incorrect.