Monday, March 10, 2008

NL West Preview

Major League Baseball opens regular-season play March 25 in Japan as Boston takes on Oakland. Over the next two weeks, I am going to preview the respective divisions, taking a team-by-team look. In between, I'll be analyzing the NCAA Tournament as well. Today, I'll be starting off with the National League West.

2007 was a highly competitive year in the NL West, as the top 3 teams were separated by just 1.5 games. In fact, both Colorado and Arizona made the playoffs, with the Rockies advancing to the World Series. Third-place San Diego lost to Colorado in Game 163 on a dramatic late-game run by Matt Holliday. 2008 will likely be just as tight. San Francisco seems to be the only team without a chance at the division crown.

Predicted Order of Finish:
Los Angeles
San Diego
San Francisco

Best Positional Player: Matt Holliday, Colorado
Best Pitcher: Jake Peavy, San Diego
Best Rookie: Chase Headley, San Diego

Divisional All-Star Team:
C- Russell Martin, Los Angeles
1B- Adrian Gonzalez, San Diego
2B- Jeff Kent, Los Angeles
SS- Troy Tulowitzki, Colorado
3B- Kevin Kouzmanoff, San Diego
LF- Eric Byrnes, Arizona
CF- Andruw Jones, Los Angeles
RF- Matt Holliday, Colorado
SP- Brandon Webb, Arizona
SP- Jake Peavy, San Diego
SP- Chris Young, San Diego
SP- Matt Cain, San Francisco
SP- Brad Penny, Los Angeles
RP- Jonathan Broxton, Los Angeles
RP- Heath Bell, San Diego
CP- Takashi Saito, Los Angeles
CP- Manny Corpas, Colorado

1. Arizona Diamondbacks

C- Miguel Montero
1B- Conor Jackson
2B- Orlando Hudson
SS- Stephen Drew
3B- Chad Tracy
LF- Eric Byrnes
CF- Chris Young
RF- Justin Upton
Bench- C- Chris Snyder; INF- Augie Ojeda, Mark Reynolds, Chris Burke; OF- Jeff Salazar

SP- Brandon Webb
SP- Dan Haren
SP- Randy Johnson
SP- Doug Davis
SP- Micah Owings
CP- Tony Pena
RP- Brandon Lyon
RP- Doug Slaten
RP- Juan Cruz
RP- Chad Qualls
RP- Brandon Medders
RP- Yusmeiro Petit

In 2007, Arizona was actually outscored by its opponents. Yet, it still won 90 games and made the playoffs. Most times, I would call for a setback the next year as the team's luck will inevitably run out. Historically, teams that are outscored typically have losing records. Those that don't experience a regression to the mean in the next year. However, these D'Backs are a different story. They were a very young team last year, regularly starting five players 25 and younger. Those players experienced the usual setbacks and slumps that young players go through. With guys like Upton, Drew, Young, and Montero having gone through a major league campaign, I expect big improvements in their games. Young has already shown a 30-30 skill set, but he needs to improve his plate discipline. Drew may never be the all-around talent that is brother J.D. is (when healthy), but if he can hit 20 HRs a year at SS and improve his shaky defense, he and Gold Glover Hudson will be a force up the middle. That development will allow the D'Backs to improve their run-scoring.

I do worry where their power will come from. The only player with 30-homer potential seems to be Young. Everyone else is stuck in the 15-25 range. The major power positions of 3B, 1B, LF, and RF are weak compared to other teams. Jackson and Tracy are decent players who hit for a good average and double power, but their HR totals leave something to be desired. Last year, manager Bob Melvin could call on Tony Clark off the bench for that power. This year, Clark is in San Diego, and Melvin only has a couple utility infielder-types on the pine. The X-factor could be Upton. Debuting at 19 in 2007, Upton did about as well as could be expected. With a full season to play in 2008, Upton could very well do what his brother B.J. did in Tampa and showcase an all-around power/speed game.

Their pitching is easily the team's strength. Haren and Webb are one of the game's top 1-2 combos. Davis is a solid innings-eater, consistently producing 4.00 ERAs and 10-15 wins. Owings is their best young pitcher, who is also the game's best hitting pitcher. So much so that Melvin will likely bat him 7th or 8th when he pitches. Of course, Johnson is also back at age 44. His health will be carefully monitored throughout the year. How many starts he gives the D'Backs could be the key to where they finish in the standings.

In the pen, the D'Backs lost closer Jose Valverde to the Astros, but it shouldn't affect them much. They had one of the most talented relief cores in baseball in 2007, featuring quality middle relief from Cruz, Pena, and Slaten. Pena will likely be the closer this season, but he'll get plenty of help from Lyon and Qualls. Frankly, if this team doesn't lead, or at least finish in the top 5, in the NL in ERA, I'll be surprised.

2. Colorado Rockies

C- Chris Iannetta
1B- Todd Helton
2B- Jayson Nix
SS- Troy Tulowitzki
3B- Garrett Atkins
LF- Brad Hawpe
CF- Willy Taveras
RF- Matt Holliday
Bench- C- Yorvit Torrealba; INF- Clint Barmes; OF- Cory Sullivan, Jeff Baker, Ryan Spilborghs

SP- Jeff Francis
SP- Aaron Cook
SP- Ubaldo Jimenez
SP- Jason Hirsh
SP- Franklin Morales
CP- Manny Corpas
RP- Brian Fuentes
RP- Ryan Speier
RP- Matt Herges
RP- Luis Vizcaino
RP- Taylor Buchholz
RP- Kip Wells

To many, the Colorado Rockies seemed to come out of nowhere in 2007. Years of last-place finishes and losing records will do that to a fanbase. However, while no one was watching, GM Dan O'Dowd quietly put together a pretty talented ballclub. They aren't quite as young people assume them to be. Most of their top players, like Holliday, Atkins, and Hawpe are in their late 20s. They just got a late start on their careers, forcing them to debut a little later than normal. Those 3 are all in the primes of their careers and should be counted on for pretty similar production in 2008. I also expect a monster year from Tulowitzki. We just saw the tip of the iceberg last season, when he finished second to Milwaukee's Ryan Braun for Rookie of the Year. Tulowitzki's defense is already All-Star-worthy and his offense is on its way there. While Helton is on the downside of his career, he is still a viable on-base machine in the lineup. His ability to hit doubles in his sleep is perfect for the spacious outfield at Coors.

The big question marks for the Rockies will be at catcher, second, and center. Torrealba started most of 2007 behind the plate, but he really shouldn't be playing that much. His big postseason may give him undue attention, as the rest of his season, and his career, have shown little else. Iannetta struggled to find a rhythm in his rookie campaign, but if he can find his stroke, he's capable of 20-25 HRs. Taveras is the CF, and a worthy one at that on defense. But, his offense is almost nonexistent, especially as the team's leadoff man. I'd like to see better plate discipline out of him, but with the power surrounding him, his defense may be able to carry his bat. The Rockies let Kaz Matsui go in free agency, leaving a hole at second. It was certainly a good decision as Matsui's career year was a fluke, largely driven by Coors' thin air. But, now Colorado will depend on youngster Jayson Nix at the keystone. If he can give them solid defense, that should suffice. Any offensive success would be surprising, but welcomed.

Pitching in Colorado is always a major question mark. But, last year's Rockies staff was the best in its brief history. The Rockies have done a solid job building a staff around their youngsters. Francis, Morales, Corpas, and Jimenez are 27 and younger, each major building blocks for the team. Surrounding those four are a mixture of cheap veterans. Guys like Cook, Fuentes, Speier, and Herges are not exactly household names, but they have gotten the job done in a stadium that is unforgiving to pitchers.

Even though Colorado seems to have more established talent on offense than Arizona, I see the D'Backs pitching and the potential of their younger players outlasting the Rockies in the end. It's also just too hard to count on two consecutive good years out of Rockie pitching.

3. Los Angeles Dodgers

C- Russell Martin
1B- James Loney
2B- Jeff Kent
SS- Rafael Furcal
3B- Nomar Garciaparra
LF- Juan Pierre
CF- Andruw Jones
RF- Matt Kemp
Bench- C- Gary Bennett; INF- Mark Sweeney, Tony Abreu; OF- Andre Ethier, Jason Repko

SP- Brad Penny
SP- Derek Lowe
SP- Chad Billingsley
SP- Jason Schmidt
SP- Hiroki Kuroda
CP- Takashi Saito
RP- Jonathan Broxton
RP- Yhency Brazoban
RP- Scott Proctor
RP- Rudy Seanez
RP- Joe Beimel
RP- Esteban Loaiza

I love the makeup of the Dodgers, except for two players: Juan Pierre and Nomar Garciaparra. Pierre is not a player who should be starting in the major leagues. He offers no power, no on-base ability, and his contract is much too large for his value. The Dodgers should have simply got rid of him after signing Jones. However, they moved him to LF, where he now blocks a much better (and younger and cheaper...) player in Andre Ethier. Garciaparra, after numerous injuries have sapped his strength and range, is a shell of his former self. He'll be starting at 3B, blocking Andy LaRoche. While LaRoche is injured for 8-10 weeks, Nomar was still penciled in as the starter before the injury. The Dodgers have so many other great players like Furcal, Martin, Kent, and Jones that it is odd for them to start two deadweights in Pierre and Nomar. It'd be one thing if they had no other options. But, to have two young players who can do a much better job sitting the bench is just ludicrous.

The top of their pitching staff is solid, but the back end of the rotation and bullpen have injury questions. Schmidt, Brazoban, Seanez, and Proctor all have had injury problems recently and shouldn't be depended on too heavily. Luckily, the Dodgers have multiple starters waiting in the wings in case Schmidt or Japanese import Kuroda falter. Guys like Loaiza, Hong-Chih Kuo, or 20-year-old phenom Clayton Kershaw are more than capable replacements.

4. San Diego Padres

C- Josh Bard
1B- Adrian Gonzalez
2B- Tadahito Iguchi
SS- Khalil Greene
3B- Kevin Kouzmanoff
LF- Scott Hairston
CF- Jim Edmonds
RF- Brian Giles
Bench- C- Michael Barrett; INF- Tony Clark, Oscar Robles; OF- Chase Headley

SP- Jake Peavy
SP- Chris Young
SP- Greg Maddux
SP- Randy Wolf
SP- Mark Prior
CP- Trevor Hoffman
RP- Heath Bell
RP- Cla Meredith
RP- Kevin Cameron
RP- Joe Thatcher
RP- Clay Hensley
RP- Justin Germano

The Padres probably have the worst outfield of any playoff contender this year. Edmonds and Giles are past their primes and Hairston has never been a full-time starter in his five seasons. Their bench consists of Chase Headley, who has posted terrific minor league numbers at third base, but has yet to play in the majors, let alone a major league OF. In fact, Edmonds is already hurt, and the team may be forced to play Jody Gerut or Jeff DaVanon, two men who haven't played full-time in three years. It's sad that this team can't find a decent OF because it's pitching is so strong. Peavy, Young, and Maddux don't need many runs to allow them to win, but if the Padre offense doesn't contribute anything, those great pitching performances will go to waste. Right now, Gonzalez and Kouzmanoff are the only legitimate power sources in the lineup. Greene can get hot for a bit, and Iguchi is a solid on-base guy, but they don't strike fear in any pitchers. There's not that one hitter who needs to be pitched around. When it comes down to a clutch situation, it'd be nice to have a hitter that can go deep.

The Padres pitching will be asked to carry a heavy load in 2008. We all know what Peavy, Young, and Maddux are capable of. Maddux has 4 Cy Youngs and just continues to throw strikes at age 42. Young, the 6'10" former basketball player from Princeton, uses his height well as he's blossomed the past two years. Peavy may very well win another two or three CYs before it's all said and done. The bullpen is led by career saves leader Hoffman, who is also over 40. Surrounding him are a cast of no-namers, but they got the job done in 2007. Most times, that's how you build a good pen. The expensive big names are usually overrated and not worth the cost. The Padres picked up Cameron, Bell, and Meredith off the Rule 5 Draft and a minor trade, respectively. If the Padres are to contend in 2008, the pitching will have to continue to be lights-out. Especially with Petco Park being a pitchers' haven, San Diego has to take advantage. Unless the Padres pull off a major trade, their offense will be weak.

5. San Francisco Giants

C- Bengie Molina
1B- Dan Ortmeier
2B- Ray Durham
SS- Omar Vizquel
3B- Rich Aurilia
LF- Dave Roberts
CF- Aaron Rowand
RF- Randy Winn
Bench- C- Guillermo Rodriguez; INF- Kevin Frandsen, Eugenio Velez; OF- Fred Lewis, Rajai Davis

SP- Matt Cain
SP- Tim Lincecum
SP- Barry Zito
SP- Noah Lowry
SP- Jonathan Sanchez
CP- Brian Wilson
RP- Brad Hennessey
RP- Kevin Correia
RP- Vinnie Chulk
RP- Tyler Walker
RP- Steve Kline
RP- Jack Taschner

Ladies and gentlemen, the worst team in baseball in 2008. Look again at that offense. It's absolutely dreadful. This team was last place WITH Barry Bonds. Take away one of the best players in the game, and what's left? Yes, they added Aaron Rowand, but he's 31 and unlikely to match his career year from last season. They continue to employ Vizquel, Durham, and Aurilia as starting infielders even though they've proven over the last two years that none of them are worthy of that much playing time. Winn and Roberts are two light-hitting, aging CFs masking as corner outfielders. As bad as San Fran is, they really need to give up on the older players and play the rookies. Their push to get Bonds into the playoffs one more time is over, so why continue to play the washed-up veterans? Sadly, the rookies on the bench aren't exactly overflowing with potential. But, still, why not play them at 1/10 of the cost and see what you have? You got nothing to lose because you're going to be last anyway in this competitive division.

The lone bright spot is the Giants' young pitching. Cain and Lincecum are already better than pricey signee Zito. The two young starters could win 20 games each, but with the Giants' wretched offense, they'll have to settle for a 8-13 record and a 3.00 ERA. The Big Z is no better than a #3 starter, yet he's being paid as a #1. Still, he's good for a ERA in the high 3's, low 4's. The Giants are also deep with young arms in the pen. Wilson and Correia are a solid bullpen duo, while Correia can also spot start when needed. If pitching was the entire game, the Giants could win the division. Unfortunately, you have to play offense, too.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

reading all that just made me sick
bring on the AL central prospectus